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:
- that religions other than theirs are also true.
- that all seekers of God are finders–no one is condemned because he does not believe in one particular religion, scripture, teacher or prophet.
- 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.
- that every human being is meant to know God in a direct and immediate manner.
- 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