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BACK TO 32.5




[A reference, say, to Ch.2, Shloka 7 of the Bhagavad-Gita would simply be given as “(2 – 7)”

without mentioning the Bhagavad-Gita.

You may want to keep a copy ready on hand.]

   6. Perfection of Actionlessness


From our point of view of a daily life, the maxim “I am not the doer or the experiencer” seems to be not only impossible to practice, but impossible to accept even as an ideal possibility. This is probably one of the reasons why Krishna takes several hundreds of verses to elaborate his theory. We shall also take more or less the same route as Krishna in the Gita to arrive at this. And in this process we shall see how all the theory explained in the previous posts gets applied in practice in our journey through life.


Right in the beginning Krishna tells Arjuna that the Atman never dies and so one is not supposed to grieve over whatever that dies. And then in 2 – 19 and 2- 21 He enunciates the theory : ‘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’. ‘Whereas this eternal Atman is never born and is never destroyable, how can any one talk of it as being slayed and how can any one slay it?”. Having got the definition of the Atman now in our very first lesson (Shri Ananda Wood’s Weekly Definition), as ‘the utmost inner knowing within us’, we understand the above statement of Krishna without any 23 further elaboration. The inner knowing is ‘not to be confused with any outward actions’ and so the slaying or being slain are all outward actions connected with the BMI. We understand it, however, only as a theoretical statement about the eternal Atman.


But Krishna is aiming at a Plan of Action for Arjuna. So, He goes along several chapters and finally makes a startling statement in (18 – 17) where he says: “Whoever does not have the ‘I-am-the-doer’ attitude and whose intellect is not sullied, he, having slain this whole world, has neither slain nor is bound” !


This statement is certainly difficult to swallow. The concept built into 18 – 17 is called ‘Actionlessness’. It is a concept deeply ingrained in any elaboration of advaita. Krishna names it as such only in two places in the Gita, but emphasizes it throughout his discourse. And he goes about it in a spiral fashion – that is, makes a mention, gives a little explanation, leaves it there and comes back to it progressively again in greater depth and again, in further depth. The deepest of this spiralling explanation is 18 – 17. Let us take the concept in the order in which he himself unfolds it.


The only change between 2-19 and 18-17 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 2-19 since it is a statement about the Atman, whereas when it comes to 18-17, we seem to have reservations, because it talks about what we ourselves ‘do’. The whole purpose of the Gita is to bring home the point that the person who has no ‘I-am-the-doer’ feeling is none but one who has identified with the IP or the Atman. In other words, it is actually the passage from the actionlessness of the Atman (2-19) to the enlightened attitude of actionlessness of the individual (18 – 17). It is this change in attitude that restores to the individual his own nature of Happiness and Peace within. Throughout his talk Krishna is never tired of repeating this in so many different ways. This is the central thread of the teaching in the Gita. Without a proper understanding of this, one cannot hope to have a full comprehension of the message of the Gita.


To begin with, actionlessness is not non-action. Krishna specifically warns us against this. (3-4) 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: (3-22). “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”. To a beginning reader it may not be very clear how actionlessness is relevant here. 24 It is when He later talks of the creation of the varNa system, that He first mentions His own actionlessness (4-13): 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. (9-9) 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. 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 but profound statement that must be imprinted in gold ( 4 – 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 proper doer of all actions”.


Inaction in action: When a train moves the landscape appears to move in the opposite direction. But really there is no movement of the landscape. Only children 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 imperishable Self or the Atman has no action. The limiting adjuncts of the Atman have such properties of action and these are wrongly superimposed on the Atman as if they were its actions. That is why the Upanishad uses the characteristic statement “it thinks, as it were; it shakes, as it were” (Br.U.IV – 3 – 7). 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 (In action) akarma (inaction). 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 (karma) in apparent inaction (akarmaNi). We are not talking of relative motion here. The concept of relative motion is resorted to here only to bring out the 25 possibility of ‘action in 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. “It shining, everything else shines” says Katha Upanishad 5-15. 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.


It will be very educative to read extracts from Shankara’s Commentary (Swami Gambhirananda’s translation) on this verse (and this will give the reader a small sample of the expository capabilities, though not the dialectics, of Shankara’s pen in his voluminous commentaries). “The absence of action in the Self, well-known from the Vedas, Smrtis and logic, as stated in, '(It is said that) This is unmanifest; This is inconceivable' (2.25), 'Never is this One born, and never does It die' (2.20; Ka. 1.2.18), etc.-has been and will be spoken of. The contrary perception of action in that actionless Self, i.e. in inaction, is very deeprooted, owing to which (4-16) 'even the intelligent are confounded as to what is action and what is inaction.' And as a consequence of the superimposition of action pertaining to the body etc. on the Self, there arises such ideas as, 'I am an agent; this is my action; its result is to be enjoyed by me.' Similarly, with the idea, 'I shall remain quiet, whereby I shall be free from exertion, free from activity, and happy', and superimposing on the Self the cessation of activities pertaining to the body and organs and the resulting happiness, a man imagines, 'I shall not do anything; I shall sit quietly and happily.' That being so, the Lord says, 'he who finds inaction in action,' etc. with a view to removing this contrary understanding of man. And here in this world, though action belonging to the body and organs continues to be action, still it is superimposed by everyone on the actionless, unchanging Self, as a result of which even a learned person thinks, 'I act.' Therefore, in action (karmani), which is universally considered by all people to be inherent in the Self, like the perception of motion in the (stationary) trees on the bank of a river-(in that action) he who contrariwise finds the fact of inaction, like perceiving absence of motion in those trees-. And, in inaction (akarmani) in the cessation of the activities pertaining to the body and organs and ascribed to the Self in the same way that actions are ascribed-, in that action, he who sees action because of egoism being implicit in the idea, 'I am happily seated quietly, without doing anything'- ; he who knows thus the distinction between action and inaction, is wise, is learned among men; he is engaged in yoga, he is a yogi, and a performer of all actions”.


And Krishna continues: (4 – 19) “The wise consider him as the learned one, who has all his actions extinguished by the fire of Knowledge and all whose endeavours are devoid of desire or will”. The  fire of Knowledge 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. (4 – 20) “Having abandoned the attachment to the fruits of actions ever content and not having any ephemeral prop, even though one is involved in activities, one is actually not doing anything”. (4 -21) “One who has no desires to be fulfilled, who has controlled his BMI, who has abandoned all possessive ideas and does work only by one’s body, incurs no sin”. So this is the final directive from the Lord for us to act. This recipe for ‘How to act’ is explained further in the next verse 4-22: “Just content with what one gets in the normal course of things, transcending all pairs of opposites, without envy and with an equanimous view of both success and failure, though acting, one is not bound”.


All actions of all kinds culminate in Knowledge, says Krishna (4 – 33 – second line). Because, Knowledge implies actionlessness. And for the same reason, the following verses also make sense: Even if you are the most sinful of all sinners, you will cross sin by the raft of Knowledge (through the attitude of ationlessness). (4 – 36) As the blazing fire reduces fuel to ashes so does the fire of Knowledge reduce all actions to ashes. (4 – 37)


Then in the fifth chapter He makes a general statement of the whole concept before going to details of the explanation. 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) (5 – 7). How such a one would act is described dramatically in slow motion in the next four verses (5– 8 to 5 – 11): “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.” “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.” “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 – are the words used in Verse 11 above. Here the self is the outer self, the BMI. The real Self, the Atman, needs no purification because it is ever pure. So when Krishna says “Atma-shuddhaye” he means the purification of the BMI which results naturally in the perishable Self shedding off its wrong identification. In this sense one can say we are purifying the perishable Self itself by such actionless action!


Actionless Action! This is the key for identification with the IP and disassociation from the PP. At the beginning of this series we raised the question: “What does it mean to identify ourselves with IP?” Well, here is the answer. Every action that we perform, has to be performed only by the BMI accompanied by a mental renunciation that ‘I am not the doer, nor am I the experiencer’. Since the mind is involved, it satisfies the worldly requirement that it has to be done sincerely, and since the mental renunciation of agency is also there it satisfies the spiritual requirement of the Gita for self-purification. Krishna continues: (5– 13) : Mentally renouncing all actions and remaining self-controlled, the embodied one rests happily in the ninegated city, neither acting nor causing action. And again, (13 – 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, in the beginning, ‘Action’ per se, is analysed: (18 – 14, 15). Whatever action a man performs with his body, speech and mind, whether right or otherwise, there are five causes, namely, the base (body), the doer, the various senses, the different functions of various sorts, and the presiding deity as the fifth. Note that the doer (kartA) here is the PP (that is, the jIva who has identified with the BMI). And that is why Krishna continues (18 – 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.


In fact this is the core of our Ignorance. Shankara in the prose part of UpadeshasAhasrI, raises through the disciple the question of “What is Ignorance?” and answers it in unmistakable terms: “ You are wrongly thinking of Yourself, who are the self-existent non-transmigratory Absolute Self, as one who transmigrates; the one who is the non-doing self as the doer; the one who is the non-experiencing self as experiencer; the one who is existent as non-existing. This is Ignorance”. (UpadeshasAhasrI #50, Prose section). 28


And therefore comes the crucial verse 18-17. So when the “I-amnot-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 IP, so that there is only the BMI who is doing everything, (cf.5-11). Or one can say that PrakRti is doing everything (3- 27 and (13-29). Note that all the five causes listed above for any action are all related to BMI only. In any case the doer is not the “I”. In the final section now we shall have a do-it-yourself summary of all that we have seen, in the form of “Five tenets of practical advaita”.

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