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The Mystery of Action and Inaction

Part 38 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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What is action? What is inaction? Even the poet-sages were bewildered regarding this matter. This action shall I explain to you, which having known you shall be freed from evil (4:16).

When we understand the nature of action (karma) and inaction (akarma) we will become free from all impurity in the form of the conditioning resulting from action/inaction which we commonly call karma. This verse implies that such knowing is purely a spiritual matter and must be approached accordingly. It also implies that all karma, positive and negative, are blockages to spiritual progress. We need to keep this in mind, as we tend to think of karma only as one or the other.

The foundation of understanding

Truly the nature of action, of wrong action and of non-action is to be known. The path of action is difficult to understand (4:17).

Prabhavananda’s translation is interpretive, but all translators agree with his interpretation and his wording is beautifully clear, so I would like to use it as the basis for commentary. “You must learn what kind of work to do, what kind of work to avoid, and how to reach a state of calm detachment from your work. The real nature of action is hard to understand.”

You must learn what kind of work to do, [and] what kind of work to avoid. There is no place here for the moral dilettante’s beloved “situation ethics.” Regarding the rules of right conduct, in the Yoga Sutras Patanjali assures us: “These, not conditioned by class, place, time or occasion, and extending to all stages, constitute the Great Vow” (Yoga Sutra 2:31. See The Foundations of Yoga). They can be neither mitigated nor abrogated. Many religionists attempt to do so, but their failure in spiritual life demonstrates their folly. In contrast, the yogi must carefully study the words of realized men and women–not the words of revelated “messengers of God,” but of true saints, true masters, who proved in their lives that their consciousness was united with God. These great teachers tell us by their living examples and their words what is to done and what is to be avoided.

That is easy to say, but how can we know that a teacher really is genuine? Actually, it is not that hard to figure out: The holy ones of all true religions say the same thing. Those who deviate from the unanimous testimony of the saints are not to be fully trusted, even though they may be sincere and have good qualities. Only those who live in the same vision and inner state are completely trustworthy. That, too is easy to say. What are some traits we should look for in spiritual teachers? Here are a few. They teach:

  1. that religions other than theirs are also true.
  2. that all seekers of God are finders–no one is condemned because he does not believe in one particular religion, scripture, teacher or prophet.
  3. the necessity of personal and public morality, and are unanimous in affirming the moral teachings to be found in the Yama and Niyama of Patanjali, the Ten Commandments of Judaism, the Five Precepts of Buddhism, and the Eight Beatitudes of Christianity.
  4. that every human being is meant to know God in a direct and immediate manner.
  5. that an interior life is indispensable for knowing God.

You must learn… how to reach a state of calm detachment from your work. Such a state of mind is not attained by reading a few pages of convincing philosophy, but we must pursue a path of mental cultivation that will enable us to be established in the witness consciousness that is our essential nature. Our problem is that we identify with the many layers of energy through which we experience relative existence. We not only mistakenly identify with the means of perception, we go a step further and identify with what is perceived. This is known as drowning in the ocean of samsara. The only antidote to this condition is the practice of yoga, as Krishna points out to Arjuna throughout the Gita.

The real nature of action is hard to understand. This is because of our mistaken identities, as just pointed out. Mere intellectual acceptance of “the message of the Gita” is of no value. We must strive for the transmutation of consciousness that is itself liberation–liberation from both action and inaction.
Two common delusions are to assume that action is the way and inaction must be avoided, or that inaction is the way and action is to be avoided. These two delusions dominate just about everybody. In India the action/inaction controversy continues, to absolutely no conclusion or practical value. The Gita gives a completely coherent answer, but still the confusion goes on. This is because it is not a matter of thinking about it, but of experiencing the truth of it. Krishna now brings this fact out.


He who perceives inaction in action and action in inaction–such a man is wise among men, steadfast in yoga and doing all action (4:18).

Prabhavananda fills it out very well: “He who sees the inaction that is in action, and the action that is in inaction, is wise indeed. Even when he is engaged in action he remains poised in the tranquility of the Atman.”

“I am ever the same,” says the Self, for it never at any time acts or undergoes any change. And yet, it is the presence of the Self that causes the dance-drama of the entire chain of evolutionary births which the Self witnesses without ever really taking part. This is impossible for the ordinary intellect, however keen, to penetrate. But the yogi, daily experiencing himself as the eternal witness (the same experience which is intrinsic to God) comes to see that behind all action is the inaction of consciousness. Yet, it is the unmoving presence of consciousness that stimulates Prakriti, the Divine Creative Energy to act. The Actionless causes all Action to take place. Only the yogi can really know this. “Even when he is engaged in action he remains poised in the tranquility of the Atman.”

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Wise in Action

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

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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 Swami Nirmalananda Giri (Abbot George Burke).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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