Krishna is not at all finished with instruction about action–especially the question of who is the true doer of action.
Every action is really performed by the gunas
“Actions in all cases are performed by the gunas of prakriti; he whose mind is confused by egoism imagines, ‘I am the doer.’” (3:27)
The Atman, the spirit-Self, is pure consciousness, and as such has only one function: witnessing the movements of prakriti, the creative life energies. When Sri Ramakrishna was asked: What is the Self?” he answered: “The witness of the mind.” The mechanics of this situation are virtually as incomprehensible as the Atman itself. In the Bhagavad Gita the energies are spoken of as surrounding or encompassing the Atman which experiences being at the center of them. But they are also declared to be utterly apart from the Atman, which witnesses them as totally outside it.
However that may be, Krishna is saying that all action is merely the movement–the combining, separation, and recombining in ever-changing patterns–of the three modes of energy behavior, the three gunas. Just as there are three primary colors from which all colors originate, in the same way the three gunas are the origin of all activity.
Man, deluded by his egoism, thinks: “I am the doer”
The witnesses of a motion picture, knowing full well that it is only a play of light on the screen, yet respond to it as being real. Each of us is even more enthralled than that within the motion picture of our daily experience, actually believing that we are acting and producing its changing movements.
Sankhya philosophy, the philosophy expounded by Krishna in the Gita, tells us that although we do not literally act within prakriti, the appearance of action caused by the movements of the gunas is produced by us–by our mere proximity to prakriti. We can understand this by the simile of modern gadgetry. There are devices which are activated just by someone approaching them–all the way from talking and moving figures to doors that open at our approach. In the same way prakriti is stimulated into motion by our approaching it in our awareness. It literally is the way we look at it that matters. Those who can look upon prakriti as detached witnesses will find themselves no longer part of the whirling movement that comprises the drama of life. This is really beyond the comprehension of the ordinary intellect, but the yogi who has clarified and stabilized his mind will understand to a great degree, for his outer life is seen to be an extension of his inner life. Meditation is the most viable school of life.
Understanding the gunas
The gunas are not only three modes of material energy behavior, they are also three forms of material (matter-oriented) consciousness. So Krishna continues:
“But he who knows the truth about the two roles of the gunas and action, thinking ‘The gunas work among the gunas,’ is not attached” (3:28).
Krishna is not just giving us interesting facts about phenomenal existence; his intention is to bring us to detachment from that to which we never have been nor ever can be really attached. All attachment is only an illusion of the ignorant heart. He calls us to simple reality, not to some high-flown mystical state.
Guna guneshu vartanta means: “The gunas act in the gunas.” Swami Prabhavananda renders it: “Gunas are merely attaching themselves to gunas.” Swami Swarupananda: “Gunas as senses merely rest on gunas as objects.” Swami Sivananda: “The Gunas as senses move amidst the Gunas as the sense-objects.”
A serious responsibility
“Those deluded by the gunas of prakriti are attached to the actions of the gunas. The perfect knower should not disturb the foolish men of incomplete knowledge” (3:29).
This is almost universally disregarded in India, where the monastics have glorified inaction as wisdom (jnana) and action as ignorance. The result has been a shameful stagnation and idlemindedness in themselves and those they influence. No one can count the number of wandering idlers falsely called sannyasis. The only thing they have renounced is responsibility.
“Those deluded by the gunas of prakriti are attached to the actions of the gunas.” Why, then, would you not wean them from external involvements, from constant action? Because it is a matter of maturity. Just as the fruit should ripen before taken from the tree, in the same way each individual must evolve to the point where he sees for himself the truth of things–not blindly believing in what others tell him about reality. Until then, just as with a child or mentally impaired adult, we have to speak to him on his level in his terms.
The wise must engage in right action so as to teach by example and incite even the ignorant to emulation. At such a stage actions certainly do speak louder than words. The infant must grow and learn to walk, talk, feed himself, and think objectively before we educate him and speak philosophically to him. It is the same way in practical life. Only those who learn the right way to act can learn the right way to withdraw from action.
Read the first article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Our Spiritual Marching Orders
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