“What is action? What is inaction? Even the wise are confused in this matter. This action I shall explain to you, having known which, you shall be released 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 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 in the sense of “bad karma.”
The foundation of understanding
“You must know the nature of action, the nature of wrong action, and also the nature of inaction. The way [path] of action is profound” (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” (4:17).
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:
a) that religions other than theirs are also true–that ultimately there is only one religion: seeking God.
b) that all seekers of God are finders–no one is “damned” because he does not believe in one particular religion, scripture or teacher/prophet.
c) 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.
d) that every human being is meant to know God in a direct and immediate manner.
e) 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–that inaction must be avoided–and 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, is wise among men; he is steadfast in yoga while performing all actions” (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.”
Upon reading these words with the intention of commenting on them, my mind immediately sped back nearly half a century. Sitting in the living room of my parents’ home, having begged off from going to a big family Thanksgiving dinner (a normal family get-together numbered sixty or more), I was reveling in “spurning the noise of the crowd, its fruitless commotion,” as Krishna advised me in the thirteenth chapter of the Gita (at least in Swami Prabhavananda’s translation). My feasting was on the timeless wisdom I was finding in the pages of Paramhansa Yogananda’s fascinating Autobiography of a Yogi. As I drew near the final pages, in the forty-fifth chapter I read the account of Yogananda’s meetings with Anandamayi Ma, “the Bengali ‘Joy-Permeated Mother.’” At one point he asked her to tell him something about herself. And so she did literally–speaking from the standpoint of the Self.
“Please tell me something of your life.”
“Father knows all about it; why repeat it?” She evidently felt that the factual history of one short incarnation was beneath notice.
I laughed, gently repeating my question.
“Father, there is little to tell.” She spread her graceful hands in a deprecatory gesture. “My consciousness has never associated itself with this temporary body. Before I came on this earth, Father, ‘I was the same.’ As a little girl, ‘I was the same.’ I grew into womanhood, but still ‘I was the same.’ When the family in which I had been born made arrangements to have this body married, ‘I was the same.’ And when, passion-drunk, my husband came to me and murmured endearing words, lightly touching my body, he received a violent shock, as if struck by lightning, for even then ‘I was the same.’
“My husband knelt before me, folded his hands, and implored my pardon.
“‘Mother,’ he said, ‘because I have desecrated your bodily temple by touching it with the thought of lust—not knowing that within it dwelt not my wife but the Divine Mother—I take this solemn vow: I shall be your disciple, a celibate follower, ever caring for you in silence as a servant, never speaking to anyone again as long as I live. May I thus atone for the sin I have today committed against you, my guru.’
“Even when I quietly accepted this proposal of my husband’s, ‘I was the same.’ And, Father, in front of you now, ‘I am the same.’ Ever afterward, though the dance of creation change around me in the hall of eternity, ‘I shall be the same.’”
Ananda Moyi Ma sank into a deep meditative state. Her form was statue-still; she had fled to her ever-calling kingdom.…We sat together for an hour in the ecstatic trance. She returned to this world with a gay little laugh.
“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
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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