The next (third) chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is devoted to the subject of Karma Yoga–the yoga of selfless action, including the performance of one’s own duty and the service of humanity. In my opinion, the final and complete word on the subject is Swami Vivekananda’s small book Karma Yoga, and I recommend that you obtain and study it. But for now let us consider Krishna’s anticipation of the subject.
“Your right is to action alone; never to its fruits at any time. Never should the fruits of actions be your motive; never let there be attachment to inaction in you” (2:47).
Karma/work and its fruit
Ordinarily when we speak of karma we mean the law of cause and effect, but it also means action or work. This is the usual meaning in the Bhagavad Gita. Karma includes both physical and mental activity, including both thought and feeling, which is why Jesus said that the mere desire to do evil was a form of committing the act (Matthew 5:21, 22, 28). As Krishna says: “The way of action is profound. He who perceives inaction in action, and action in inaction, is wise among men” (4:17, 18). The fruit of action, karmaphala, is the result or effect of activity, both actual and intended.
Authorization to work
We are bombarded with talk about “rights” to everything imaginable. So if we are not careful we will accept the phrase “right to action” in the “right to work” meaning of politicians and social activists. “Right” is a very poor translation of adhikara, although just about everyone uses it. Adhikara means authority, qualification, jurisdiction, or prerogative; only peripherally does it mean privilege–and never “a right.”
Basically, by taking human birth we have been authorized or enabled to engage in action. In truth, we cannot escape such an engagement, therefore we must learn from Krishna how to do it right. And even before that we have to learn how to view our action and its authorization. Krishna is teaching us the correct perspective we must have on our entire life, which consists of nothing but action–and reaction.
The way in and the way out
Presently we are caught in the net of constant activity, and consequently enmeshed in bondage. Action has put us in this mess and action can free us from it. As Swami Sivananda translates an upcoming verse (2:50):
“Endowed with wisdom (evenness of mind), one casts off in this life both good and evil deeds; therefore, devote thyself to Yoga; Yoga is skill in action.”
We must walk the tightrope of right action, as Buddha has counseled us. Krishna has given us several principles we must understand and assimilate.
Your right is to action alone…
The sole purpose of the universe–and our involvement in it–is evolution. And all growth is movement, either automatic or intentional. For us who have come to the level of conscious self-awareness, action is the answer. Until now we have been carried along by the wave of mechanical, involuntary movement–which was necessary since we did not have the requisite level of development to take charge of our own movement forward. But now we do. During the period in which we were being impelled along by the currents of cosmic life (that are indicated by the movement of the planets), alternately emerging and being submerged in the ocean of samsara, we set many forces in motion by our response to those ups and downs. These forces took the form of both karma and samskara. So now that we are on our own to a significant degree, we have to deal with them, mostly by neutralizing them or using them as ascending steps in our inner growth. Because of all this we are authorized to engage in actions.
It is our desire for objects and our engaging in work meant to result in the fulfillment of those desires that has entangled us and put us in our present state of confusion and bondage. To engage in further action with desire as the moving force would only compound our dilemma. So we act for the sake of action alone–not random action, but action which will free us from the compulsion to act. In other words, we begin to act as free, conscious beings, not as semi-conscious wanderers or compulsives. By acting we bring about freedom from action.
…never to its fruits at any time
Right action is not supposed in and of itself to “bear fruit,” but to free us from all “harvesting.” Usually, when we act we put ourselves under the necessity of reaping the effects of the action, “for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). But there is a way to act in which there is no result except the freedom from further action. Some actions forge chains and other actions break them. The latter is needful for our progress.
Never should the fruits of actions be your motive
Results in the form of external effects is not at all what ultimately matters. What does matter is the effect of action on our state of consciousness. To free our consciousness we must be totally free of desire for results. When we can act in this way all bonds drop away and we are free–not Self-realized as some erroneously think, but free to move on to higher degrees of evolution without any more entanglements. Then Self-realization is possible.
Never let there be attachment to inaction in you
It has to be admitted that a great deal of “detachment,” “indifference,” “uninvolvement,” and “renunciation” are nothing more than classical laziness on the mental and physical levels. In India especially we find a lot of “renouncers” and “non-attachers”–both monastic and non-monastic–that are simply bundles of tamasic ignorance and indolence.
Years ago I heard a minister tell of a man in his home town who was “called by God,” and consequently refused to engage in any “worldly” activity. All day long he sat and read the Bible–or at least turned the pages in a leisurely manner. The pages were gilt-edged, so they flashed and gleamed in the sunlight during good weather when he was sitting outside on the porch. Occasionally his wife would ask him to do a simple task or give her a little help. He would smile, lift his voice so the neighbors could hear, and reply: “Why, wife; do you not know ‘that I must be about my Father’s business’?” And that was that. Much later I saw a television program in which some people announced: “We just want to do our own thing.” When asked: “What is your ‘own thing”?” They answered: “Nothing.” Krishna warns us against this vacuousness of mind and heart.
By the way, Krishna urges us to desireless action, but not to motiveless action. There is a difference. We are to act with a motive: liberation.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: How To Act
Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:
- The Battlefield of the Mind
- On the Field of Dharma
- Taking Stock
- The Smile of Krishna
- Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
- Experiencing the Unreal
- The Unreal and the Real
- The Body and the Spirit
- Know the Atman!
- Practical Self-Knowledge
- Perspective on Birth and Death
- The Wonder of the Atman
- The Indestructible Self
- “Happy the Warrior”
- Buddhi Yoga
- Religiosity Versus Religion
- Perspective on Scriptures
- How Not To Act
- How To Act
- Right Perspective
- Wisdom About the Wise
- Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
- The Way of Peace
- Calming the Storm
- First Steps in Karma Yoga
- From the Beginning to the End
- The Real “Doers”
- Our Spiritual Marching Orders
- Freedom From Karma
- In the Grip of the Monster
- Devotee and Friend
- The Eternal Being
- The Path
- Caste and Karma
- Action–Divine and Human
- The Mystery of Action and Inaction
- The Wise in Action
- Sacrificial Offerings
- The Worship of Brahman
- Action–Renounced and Performed
- Freedom (Moksha)
- The Brahman-Knower
- The Goal of Karma Yoga
- Getting There
- The Yogi’s Retreat
- The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
- Union With Brahman
- The Yogi’s Future
- Success in Yoga
- The Net and Its Weaver
- Those Who Seek God
- Those Who Worship God and the Gods
- The Veil in the Mind
- The Big Picture
- The Sure Way To Realize God
- Day, Night, and the Two Paths
- The Supreme Knowledge
- Universal Being
- Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
- Worshipping the One
- Going To God
- Wisdom and Knowing
- Going To The Source
- From Hearing To Seeing
- The Wisdom of Devotion
- Right Conduct
- The Field and Its Knower
- Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
- Seeing the One Within the All
- The Three Gunas
- The Cosmic Tree
- The All-pervading Reality
- The Divine and the Demonic
- Faith and the Three Gunas
- Food and the Three Gunas
- Religion and the Three Gunas
- Tapasya and the Three Gunas
- Charity and the Three Gunas
- Sannyasa and Tyaga
- Deeper Insights On Action
- Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
- The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
- The Three Kinds of Happiness
- The Great Devotee
- The Final Words
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Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.
Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri).
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary