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                                                                25.9: ACTIONLESSNESS​

In His final winding up, in the  18th chapter, Krishna begins his summing-up with these words:

shreyAn svadharmo viguNaH para-dharmAt svanushhTitAt /

svabhAva-niyataM karma kurvan-nA-pnoti kilbishhaM // XVIII – 47

sahajam karma kaunteya sadoshham-api na tyajet /

sarvArambhA hi doshheNa dhUmen-Agni-rivA-vRtaM // XVIII – 48

Better is one’s own work, though done with fault, than doing other’s work, even excellently. By doing the task set on one by Nature’s hand one does not fall in sin. No one shall abandon his natural duty, though blameful; for every work has blame, just as every flame is wrapped in smoke.


It is precisely this train of argument that is used as the core argument in urging Arjuna to fight and not to retreat. Arjuna is immersed in the disease of false identification with the transient world of 'his' kith and kin, says Krishna. Neither they nor he are permanent everlasting entities and so there is no sense in crying over the possible death of what is destined to die. If he identified himself with his Self (the akshhara-purushha), which is what he ought to do, then neither the heat and cold of the external world nor the alternatives of pleasure and pain of the mental world would affect him. His right is only to the action and not to the results thereof.  Equanimity concerning success or failure is the yoga for him. Not to retreat from a war already declared is the svadharma of the Kshatriya that he is. If he thinks that retreating to solitude, renouncing the world, would give him peace, he is mistaken -- for, the attitude with which he renounces is the deciding factor. If the attitude is not that of a jnAni who has attained enlightenment, but is that of an emotionally charged warrior whose compassion for his kith and kin has got the better of him, then such a meolodramatic withdrawal from the world would not bring peace; for the mind would continue to be in turmoil in the vortex of its worldly attachments. It does not have the maturity of dispassion that should precede renunciation. Doing what is assigned to one as one's duty is far more honourable than running away from action in dislike of that action. If one does one's duty in the spirit of yajna, the actions  do not bind one. This is karma yoga. The doing of this duty has to be accompanied by a philosophical attitude of ‘Actionlessness’.  This is the sum and substance of Krishna’s entire teaching.


If, instead of allowing one’s mind to submit to the normal error that the jIva always makes, namely that of identification with the BMI, if one uses one’s intellect to deliberately remove that identification of the jIva with the BMI, then one is on the right road to spiritual ascent. For, In the akshhara (Imperishable) He is untouched, indifferent, regarding all equally, extended within all, yet above all.   In all these, He is the Lord, the Supreme IShvara in the highest, the presiding and all-pervading impersonality. While being the immanent Will and present active Lord in the kshhara, He is free in the impersonality even while working out the play of his personality. That is why He is able to say: Actions do not fix themselves on me, nor have I any desire for the fruits of action  (IV-14 first line).

na mAm karmANi limpanti  na me karma-phale spRhA /


Works do not bind me, for I am seated as if indifferent, unattached to these actions. (IX - 9).


na ca mAM tAni karmANi  nibadhnanti dhananjaya /

udAsInavad-AsInaM asaktaM teshhu karmasu //


Therefore He declares: Whoever sees that all action is verily   done by prakRti and that the Self is actionless, he sees. (XIII - 29).

prakRtyaiva ca karmANi kriyamANAni sarvashaH /

yaH pashyati tathA-tmAnaM akartAraM sa pashyati //


Thus the Self is actionless. This is what is called Actionlessness.  This is a very important concept in the advaitic interpretation of the Gita.  It is not just a description in terms of the Lord but it is, in the Gita, a goal  (naishhkarmya-siddhi: perfection of actionlessness  -- shloka XVIII-49)) to be aimed at by a spiritual aspirant. That is how it becomes important for us. Though the actual word ‘naishhkarmya’ (actionlessness) occurs only two times in the Gita,  He refers to the concept very often during the whole teaching.  It is in fact the crowning glory of Karma yoga. Let us come to it from the beginning.


In the very beginning of the Lord’s teaching, right in the second chapter (shloka 19) Krishna enunciates the theory :

Ya enaM vetti hantAraM yashcainaM manyate hataM /

ubhau tau na vijAnIto nAyaM hanti na hanyate //

Whoever thinks of this (the Atman) as the slayer  and whoever considers this as slain, both of them do not know; Neither does this slay nor is slain.


Of course one might say that this is a statement about the inactive Atman and therefore is understandable.  It is interesting to note that the same thing is being said in XVIII-17,  though in an extremely forceful and aggressive way:

Yasya nAhamkRto bhAvo buddhir-yasya na lipyate /

hatvApi sa imAn lokAn na hanti na nibadhyate //

Whoever has the ‘I-am-not-the-doer’ attitude, whoever has his intellect unswayed (by anything that is transient), he, even after slaying the entire world, is neither the slayer nor is bound (by the action.)


The only change between II-19 and XVIII-17 is  that the latter  talks of the person (who has the ‘I-am-not-the-doer’ feeling) and not of The Atman!  But our human weakness is such that we are able to intellectually understand II-19, whereas when it comes to XVIII-17, we seem to have reservations. The whole purpose of the Gita is to bring home the point  that the person  who has no ‘I-am-the-doer’ feeling is nothing but the akshara-purushha or the Atman.

The whole Gita is actually the passage from the Actionlessness of theAtman (II-19) to the enlightened attitude of actionlessness of the individual (XVIII-17). It is this change in attitude that restores to the individual  the Happiness within. Throughout his talk Krishna is never tired of repeating this  in so many different ways.


To begin with, actionlessness is not non-action. Krishna specifically warns us against this. (III-4)

na karmaNAm-anArambhAt naishkarmyam purushho’shnute /

Actionlessness is not achieved by not entering into action.


In fact this is the first time the word is used by Krishna. And He cites his own example for this: (III-22)


na me pArthAsti kartavyaM  trishhu lokeshhu kimcana /

nAnavAptam-avAptavyaM varta eva ca karmaNi //

I have nothing to get done in all the three worlds, nor anything  to achieve that has not been achieved. Still I am involved in action.


It is when he later talks of the creation of the varNa system, that he first  mentions His own  actionlessness (IV-13):


cAturvarNyaM mayA sRshhTaM guNa-karma-vibhAgashaH /

tasya kartAram-api mAM viddhy-akartAram-avyayaM //

By Me was created the four varNas, in accordance with their GuNas and karma. Know Me as its doer and know Me also as the imperishable non-doer.


He repeats this again in respect of His works of Creation and Dissolution, in the ninth chapter. (IX-9)

na ca mAM tAni karmANi nibadhnanti dhananjaya /

udAsInavad-AsInaM asaktaM teshhu karmasu //

Those works do not bind Me. I sit, indifferent as it were, unattached to those actions.


So after the first mention of His actionlessness in the fourth chapter, he recommends it to Arjuna also (“kuru karmaiva tasmAt-tvaM” IV-15). It is at this point that He begins the topic of Action and Inaction. And He begins it with a bang by making a really puzzling profound statement that must be imprinted in gold:


karmaNy-akarma yaH pashyet akarmaNi ca karma yaH /

sa buddhimAn-manushhyeshhu sa yuktaH kRtsna-karma-kRt // IV-18

Whoever sees inaction in action and action in inaction, he is the wisest among men for he is the one in  proper yoga and is the performer  of all actions.


Inaction in action: When a train moves the landscape moves in  the opposite direction. But really there is no movement of the landscape. Only children will delude themselves into believing that the landscape is moving. We would be only children if we believe the movement of the landscape. So also the akshhara-purushha or the Atman has no action. In other words, the real ‘I’ is not the doer. When I do things I must know that the real ‘I’ is not doing anything. This is the seeing of inaction in action. karmaNi akarma.  The action is only apparent. Inaction is real. The wise man knows that the world which one sees to be full of action is actually nothing but brahman, and as the all-pervading entity it cannot have motion, because there is no leeway for movement!. So he sees non-action in all the turmoil around him.


Action in inaction:   When the train moves, the landscape moves in the opposite direction. The child thinks that it is the landscape that is moving and the train is stationary. Even we adults get this mistaken feeling when two trains are in adjacent platforms ready to move in opposite directions. Suddenly we feel that the other train has already moved, but on examination of the changing  landscape between the two trains we understand that it is our train that has started moving and not the other train. This is the understanding of action in apparent inaction.  To attribute non-action to the Self which stands still as it were is only to comprehend it relatively. It is the Self which permeates everyhere, it is the substratum of everything and it is the prime mover par excellence. The Self is therefore the chief agent of action, as it were, though it appears to be only a silent witness. Thus the wise man sees action in non-action.  


Yasya sarve samArambhAH kAma-sankalpa-varjitAH /

jnAnAgni-dagdha-karmANaM tam-AhuH paNDitam budhAH // IV-19

The wise consider him as the learned one, who has all his actions extinguished by the fire of JnAna and all whose endeavours are devoid of desire or will.

The fire of JnAna is the attitude of Actionlessness. So there is no desire to obtain anything nor there is a will (ego)  to claim the action as one’s doing.


tyaktvA karma-phalAsangaM nitya-tRpto nirAshrayaH /

karmaNy-abhipravRtto’pi naiva kimcit-karoti saH // IV – 20

Having abandoned the attachment to the fruits of actions ever content and not having any ephemeral prop, even though he is involved in activities, he is actually not doing anything.


nirAshIr-yata-cittAtmA tyakta-sarva-parigrahaH /

shArIraM kevalaM karma kurvan-nApnoti kilbishhaM // IV-21

He who has no desires to be fulfilled, who has controlled his BMI, who has abandoned all possessive ideas and does work only by his body, incurs no sin.

This is the recipe for ‘How to act’ if one is after happiness. It is explained further in the next shloka:


yaDrcchA-lAbha-santushhTo dvandvAtIto vimatsaraH /

samas-siddhAv-asiddhau ca kRtvApi na nibadhyate // IV – 22

Just content with what one gets in the normal course of things, transcending all pairs of opposites, and without envy and with an equanimous view of both success and failure, though acting, one is not bound.


sarvaM karmAkhilaM pArtha jnAne parisamApyate //(IV-33 -2nd line)

All actions of all kinds culminate in JnAna.

Because, JnAna implies actionlessness. And for the same reason, the following shloka also makes sense:


api ced-asi pApebhyaH sarvebhyaH pApa-kRt-tamaH /

sarvaM jnAna-plaven-aiva vRjinaM santarishhyasi // IV-36

Even if you are the most sinful of all sinners, you will cross  sin by the raft of JnAna (through the attitude of ationlessness).


Yathai-dhAmsi samiddhogniH bhasmasAt-kurte’rjuna /

jnAnAgnis-sarva-karmANi bhasmasAt-kurute tathA //IV – 37

As the blazing fire reduces fuel to ashes so does the fire of JnAna reduce all actions to ashes.


‘All actions’ (sarva-karmANi) here should be meant to include all three kinds of karma – prArabdha, samcita and AgAmi. 

AgAmi karma is consumed because, after the onset of JnAna, there is no more desire. So all action done is desireless and one will not be bound by the results of such action. It is like a dried seed that will not sprout.

Sancita karma on the other hand is the stored reservoir of past actions in all lives, up to the present time (except the prArabdha portion which has already started to give its fruits in this life). All these actions no more bear fruit because the onset of JnAna is nothing but an oneness with the akshhara-purushha. Nothing will affect this akshhara.

Now we come to the prArabdha-karma. It is the set of all past actions which have already begun to bear fruit. It is because of that we are still alive. These fruits (of past actions) have to be exhausted only by experiencing them. But the experience is by the kshhara-purushha only. Since at the onset of jnAna one is identical with the akshhara-purushha(the kshhara-purushha has no separate individuality now), the experience of prArabdha-karma boils down to an experience by the BMI and nothing more. In that sense, they may also be said to have been consumed by the fire of JnAna!


Yoga-sannyasta-karmANaM jnAna-samcinna-samshayaM /

AtmavantaM na karmANi nibadhnanti dhananjaya //IV -41

Actions do not bind him who has laid all his actions at the altar of yoga (by the yajna methodology), whose doubts have all been cleared by right knowledge and who lives ever in unison with the akshhara-purushha.


Yogayukto vishuddh-AtmA vijitAtmA jitendriyaH /

sarva-bhUtAtma-bhUtAtmA kurvan-napi na lipyate //V – 7

He who is yoked to the path of yoga, whose mind is quite pure, who has controlled his outer self and his senses and who realises his own self as the self in all beings – such a one, though acting, is not tainted (by the action).


How he would act is described dramatically in slow motion in the next four shlokas:


naiva kimcit-karomIti yukto manyeta tattvavit /

pashyan-shRNvan-spRshan-jighran-nashnan-gachhan-svapan-shvasan //V -8

pralapan-visRjan-gRhNan-nunmishhan-nimishhan-napi /

indriyAN-Indriy-Artheshhu vartanta-iti dhArayan // V – 9

“I do nothing at all” – thus would the enlightened yogi think – seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, answering nature’s calls, grabbing, opening the eyes and closing the eyes; all the time convinced that it is the senses that move amidst the sense-objects.


brahmaNy-AdhAya karmANi sangaM tyaktvA karoti yaH /

lipyate na sa pApena padma-patram-ivAmbhasA // V-10

He who does actions, offering them to Brahman, abandoning all attachment, is not tainted by sin, as a lotus leaf is untainted by water on it.

This analogy of “water on a lotus leaf” is a well-understood analogy in the culture of the length and breadth of India, because it is blended into the ethos of the country’s spiritual heritage.  The origin of this analogy is this Gita verse.


kAyena manasA buddhyA kevalair-indriyair-api /

yoginaH karma kurvanti sangaM tyaktv-Atma-shuddhaye // V – 11

Abandoning all attachment, the yogi performs actions only with the body mind intellect and even by the senses --  all this for the purification of his BMI.


“Atma-shuddhaye” – for the purification of the self. Here the self is the outer self, the BMI. The real Self, the Atman, needs no purification because it is pure. So when Krishnasays “Atma-shuddhaye” he means the purification of the BMI which results naturally in the kshhara-purushha shedding off its wrong identification.  So in this sense one can say we are purifying the kshhara-purushha itself by such actionless action!


Sarva-karmANi manasA sannyasy-Aste sukhaM vashI /

navadvAre pure dehI naiva kurvan-na kArayan // V -13

Mentally renouncing all actions and remaining self-controlled, the embodied one rests happily in the nine-gated city, neither acting nor causing action.


anAditvAn-nirguNatvAt paramAtmA-yam-avyayaH /

sharIrastho’pi kaunteya na karoti na lipyate //XIII-31

Being without beginning and devoid of all attributes, the Supreme Self, the Imperishable, though dwelling in the body, neither acts, nor is tainted.


And now we come to the eighteenth chapter, where ‘Action’ per se, is analysed.


kAryam-ityeva yat karma niyataM kriyate’rjuna /

sangam tyaktvA phalaM caiva sa tyAgas-sAtviko mataH //XVIII – 9

When an action is done merely because it ought to be done, abandoning attachment and also the desire for the reward, that renunciation is regarded as the best.

In XVIII – 23 and 26 He talks about the best action and the best doer in  the same strain. (We have already seen XVIII-26 in detail in Wave 9)


panchaitAni mahAbAho kAraNAni nibodha me /

sAnkhye kRtAnte proktAni suddhaye sarva-karmaNAM // XVIII-13

Learn from Me, these five causes that are declared in the Sankhya system for the accomplishment of all actions .


adhishhTAnaM tathA kartA karaNam ca pRthag-vidhaM /

vividhAshca pRthak-ceshhTA daivaM caiv-Atra pancamaM//

sharIra-vAnG-manobhir-yat karma prArabhate naraH /

nyAyyaM va viparItaM vA pancaite tasya hetavaH //XVIII-14,15


The base (body), the doer, the various senses, the different functions of various sorts, and the presiding deity as the fifth. Whatever action a man performs with his body, speech and mind, whether right or otherwise, these five are its causes.


Note that the doer (kartA) here is the kshhara-purushha (that is, the jIva who has identified with the BMI). And that is why Krishna continues:


tatraivaM sati kartAraM AtmAnaM kevalaM to yaH /

pashyaty-akRta-budditvAt na sa pashyati durmatiH //XVIII-16

Such being the case, he who, by mistaken understanding, looks upon his Self,  which is isolated, as the doer, sees not; he is of perverted intelligence.


And now comes the crucial shloka XVIII-17. So when the “I-am-not-the-doer” feeling is there, the action touches only the doer, who is now the BMI only; because the “I-am-not-the-doer” attitude is equivalent to an identification with the akshhara, so that there is only the BMI who is doing everything, (cf.V-11). Or one can say that PrakRti is doing everything (III-27 and (XIII-29). In any case the doer is not the “I”.


Having established who the doer is, Krishna now winds up, first by talking about a kshhatriya’s svadharma and tops the argument by four shlokas 45 to 48 of the 18th chapter of which we already saw #s47,48 In essence He says:

Each and every person can reach God by doing his own duty well. Each person can become perfect by doing his duty. It is better to do one’s own duty instead of someone else’s greater job. No one should give up one’s duty even though one doesn’t like it or one does not agree with it.


And the theory of “Actionlessness” applies not only when one finds it difficult to do his duty (as Arjuna found) but all the time. Krishna sums it up all in that one shloka, the last in the series on Actionlessness:


asakta-buddhis-sarvatra jitAtma vigata-spRhaH /

naishkarmya-siddhiM paramAM sannyAsena-adhigacchati // XVIII-49

He whose intellect is unattached everywhere, who has subdued his self, empty of  desire – he, by renunciation, attains the supreme perfection  of Actionlessness.

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