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 authority is for action alone, never to its fruits at any time. Never should the fruits of action be your motive; and never should 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 path of action is difficult to understand.… He who perceives inaction in action and action in inaction–such a man 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
In some translations the expression “right to act” is used, but that 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 correctly. 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 to that action.
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 yourself 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 authority is for 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 from 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 (mental impressions from past action). 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 are 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.
And never should there be attachment to inaction in you
It has to be admitted that a great deal of “detachment,” “indifference,” “uninvolvement,” and “renunciation” is 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 (in good weather) he sat on the front porch so he would be seen 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. 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