[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.]


1. Posing the Problem



Arjuna, if through your egoism you think you will not fight, this resolution of yours will be thwarted. Your nature will make you fight. Never be carried away by the transient ups and downs of everyday life. Who are you? You are not the author of any action. God in the heart of man is running this world as if mounted on a machine. These warriors have died long ago, they will die even if unslain by you. You are just an instrument in the unseen hands of God. You have right only to action, do not hanker for the fruit of it. Do not become inactive leaving your work. “Ego is the enemy at the root of all our actions and thoughts. The thought that `I am the doer' is the Ego. The wise man knows he is not the doer. Nor is he the experiencer. Perform your actions with detachment, by transferring your doership to the divine. Perform actions only to purify your mind. Perfection and purification of mind is a subjective action. Subjective results are not taboo; only objective results are. It is not the experience of events that gives us joy or sorrow; the joys and sorrows are already determined by us by the attitude we keep in doing the action. “The so-called Renunciation (sannyAsa) is not renunciation of work. Action in yoga is renunciation. Therefore poised in yoga, renouncing any addiction to whatever that pertains to your body or mind, making failure and success as one, fight without attachment. Surrender your will to me, become my devotee, you are dear to me. Avowing the truth, I tell you, you will reach me. Leaving all the doership of dharmas take refuge in me. I shall release you from all sins and bondage; do not grieve”.


This is the bottomline message of Krishna in his teaching of the Gita to Arjuna. In all this the most difficult to understand and to abide by is the statement “You are not the doer, nor are you the experiencer”. This happens to be the main concept in the practical operation of Vedanta of non-duality. So we shall go about elaborating it from scratch.


The philosophy of non-duality uses several concepts of Vedanta. In order to understand its full import, one has certainly to get a deep  comprehension of many basic technical concepts like Atman (the Self as an immanent principle), Brahman (the Self as a transcendent principle), mAyA (the confounding factor of all Life), PrakRti (the Nature of everything), NirguNa (that which carries no attributes), adhyAsa (superimposition), etc. While the significance of these concepts is profound, the ordinary words like Karma (meaning ‘action’) and Bhakti (meaning ‘devotion’) are more fundamental not only in Vedanta but in the general understanding of spiritual behaviour that goes with what is known as Hinduism. The fundamental import of these two ordinary words get added significance – nay, added complication – in the theory of advaita. Because Karma and Bhakti impinge on the daily living routine of individuals and because of the fact they both involve the concept of action itself, the questions implicit in the title become indispensable in any explanation of advaita. The purpose of this article is to discuss these questions from the point of view of advaita and attempt to go through the complications that may naturally arise.


Torn of all jargon, the question raised is the following. If the innermost reality of each individual is the supreme spiritual reality – which is what is claimed by advaita – then what prompts us to think and what motivates us to act must be this spiritual reality, namely, the Self. If that is so, then all our bad thoughts and actions have to be traced to this source. And there arises what seems to be a contradiction. How can the Self, which is equated to Godhead, be attributed with anything that is bad or imperfect? On the other hand, if the Self is not the motivator of our bad thoughts and actions then who is responsible for them? So, who is the doer (kartA)? The characteristic statement that occurs very early (3 – 27) in the Gita says: It is (only) the person deluded by his ego, who thinks he is the ‘doer’. So to think that oneself is the doer of one’s actions (or for that matter, the thinker of one’s thoughts) is wrong according to the Gita. But this raises a contradiction in another way. If oneself is not the doer of one’s actions, and not the thinker of one’s thoughts, then why should one be ‘punished’, or considered responsible, for one’s actions or thoughts – which is what is purported to be the central thread in all concepts of merit and demerit, religious or otherwise? Normally, in world parlance, in our everyday life we do many things and also experience much more, physically as well as mentally. When we say “I do it” or “I did it” or when we say “I have had such and such an experience” we have no doubt at all about whom we are referring to. It is the personality which we claim by the pronoun ‘I’. But Vedanta comes in and interjects to tell us to inquire into whom this “I” refers to. From  Yajnavalkya, the Sage of the Upanishads, through Shankara, the Guru of yore, down to Ramana, the Master, of modern times, all of them make a distinction between the personality claimed by the use of the pronoun “I” and what they designate as “the real I” . It does not require great wisdom to accept that the entity claimed by the common use of the pronoun “I” is a temporary one; for, one day, that entity is bound to disappear. The question then is: Is there any remnant of that “I” except the ashes?


Religions generally talk of the soul as the remnant of that personality of “I”. Advaita philosophy refines that and provides a unique answer to the question. Advaita says the answer can be obtained by Guru’s Grace if one starts enquiring into common statements about one’s own behaviour, some of which are :

1. Somebody pinched me and I felt the pain.

2. I had a sumptuous meal and I am happy now.

3. I dreamt I was in a palace, enjoying all the luxuries of life.

4. I was angry then, but I controlled my anger.

5. My mind is restless because of a sad occurrence.

6. I was thinking of something else; I was not aware of your presence.


In #1, the ‘ I’ refers to the body, though we don’t specifically say so. In #2, the first ‘ I’ refers to the body and the second ‘ I’ refers to the mind. In #3, the first ‘ I’ refers to the mind and the second ‘ I’ is a fictitious ‘ I’ – we know it is so, but we don’t specifically say it is fictitious. But we do recognise this fact, because very often when one describes a dream one uses words like “I dreamt as if I was in a palace, …”. The words ‘as if’ mean that the subject of experience in the dream is fictitious. In #4, the first ‘ I’ refers to the mind and the second ‘ I’ refers to the intellect. In #5, it is the mind that is specifically referred; the point to note here is that the mind has been influenced by a totally external factor, namely, the sad occurrence. In #6, the first ‘ I’ refers to the mind and the second ‘ I’ refers to the conglomeration of the mind and the senses. The reader can himself think of many more examples.


Thus all the time, without our knowing it, we are identifying ‘I’ with our body, mind, senses or the intellect. (We shall use hereafter the now-standard abbreviation ‘BMI’ for the conglomeration of body, mind, senses and intellect). Advaita Vedanta asks us to ponder over certain questions in respect of this identification of ourselves : What do we mean by ‘We are identifying ourselves with ….’?  What would it mean not to so identify? What would be the consequence if we do not identify ourselves with BMI? Who is the ‘We’ here in these questions? Who is supposed not to identify? We shall take these up in the next section. We shall see therein how to distinguish between what witnesses all our thoughts and actions and what actually thinks and acts and there we shall tie all this up with the concept of ‘adhyAsa’ (superimposition) with which our education in advaita for the novice rightly began.

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© 2017 by V. Krishnamurthy