64. Action and Inaction in Spiritual Life

Divine Action

by Jayaram V

Notes: I have translated the Bhagavadgita twice. The first one was a loose translation. The second one was a word to word translation with a detailed commentary. The commentary is however different from what you will find here. In this section I will share with you my thoughts about the knowledge, philosophy and wisdom of the Bhagavadgita as I understand it from my perspective. Jayaram V


Action and inaction are the two opposite states of liveliness or vitality (chaitanyam), which is also one of the essential and universal characteristics of existence. Everyone knows what they mean. Self-induced actions or movements distinguish living beings from inanimate objects. Beings are either in a state of rest or in a state of activity. According to the Vedas, existence itself alternates between a period rest (Night) and a period of activity (Day).

The same duality exists at the highest level of God (Brahman) and Nature (Prakriti) too, which are variously personified as Saguna and Nirguna and Vyakta and Avyakta. These states are pure in Brahman, but not so in creation. In Creation, the restful state need not be a state of inactivity, because a living being cannot completely be inactive. Complete rest or inertia happens only in death.

From the perspective of the karma doctrine, action and inaction have many connotations, and their meanings are not as simple as they appear to be. Both produce karma under certain conditions. Action can be hidden in inaction, and vice versa. If you are silent, it does not mean you are inactive. These ponts are amply discussed in the Bhagavadgita, which distinguishes the two, and clearly explains what they truly mean and how we should deal with them.

Simply speaking, action means any physical, mental or verbal effort or movement, which may be performed directly or indirectly, by oneself or in association with others. Inaction means the opposite. According to the Bhagavadgita, the path of action is mysterious because even intelligent people have problem understanding it. All actions and inactions have gunas as their basis. When desire is their cause, they produce the fruit of karma and bind the beings.

The scripture also affirms that actions do not bind people. It is the desire for the fruit of actions which bind them. Further, it is impossible to shun actions, since no one can live without being active in some way. For example, even when you are asleep or taking rest, your mind and body still engage in actions such as breathing, thinking or dreaming, and your body will still be performing many autonomous functions such as pumping blood, or digesting the food or repairing the cells.

Here is an important message from the scripture to all those who aspire to lead a spiritual life. By merely renouncing actions or shunning them, one cannot achieve liberation. Sannyasa is not a license to lead a life of inactivity or escape from responsibilities. True renunciation means renunciation of desire, not actions. A Sanyasi who is not free from desires is not a true sanyasi at all. Although, he may outwardly wear an orange robe, he is not yet able to get rid of the orange cloud of impurity (kashayam) in him.

Yogis and renunciants have been following this advice in India for millenniums. Truly speaking, they lead a life of hardship and subject themselves to more rigors and sacrifices than ordinary people, as they engage in transformative actions and spiritual practices to purify themselves. They restrain their minds and senses, shun worldly pleasures and practice austerities to overcome desires and attachments, suppress the modifications of their minds and bodies and experience peace and equanimity.

Thus, we have a clear message in the Bhagavadgita about actions and renunciation. To achieve liberation through karma yoga, one must know how to perform actions correctly, rather than not doing them at all. One must know what action, wrong action and inaction mean, and how they can still bind people to the cycle of births and deaths if they cannot get rid of desires. Action is superior to inaction, but one should not be attached to either. The essence of karma yoga is perceiving action in inaction and inaction in action. However, even intelligent people have confusion about the meaning of action and inaction.

For example, if you perform penance and abstain from eating food out of the desire to overcome a problem or to propitiate a deity, your inaction of not eating food still produces karma. You may still be benefited by it and enjoy favorable consequences, but you will not avoid rebirth. Similarly, if you witness an unjust action or situation and do not try to prevent it or take a stand, you will incur sinful karma just as those who are responsible for it. Just as waves do not stop touching you when you are in water, karma does not stop accumulating when you are prone to desires, irrespective of whether you perform any actions or not. Even if you entertain a simple desire-ridden thought, it produces karma.

Thus, from the perspective of karma doctrine and according to the Bhagavadgita, action and inaction are not different if both are induced by desires, or if some intention is involved. Both produce karma and lead to suffering and rebirth. When they are absent, every action becomes inaction and does not produce any consequences. Hence, if you want to experience peace, do not try to escape from life or from responsibilities, but try to control your desires and lead a virtuous life.

This is the essence of karma sannyasa yoga. Performing actions without desires is equal to not performing any action at all. Those actions may produce results, but do not produce karma or bind people. This is the secret to live your life without being bound by it. You can be a part of the world and still achieve liberation by performing your actions as a sacrifice or offering, renouncing their fruit. In other words, do your job or what is expected of you in life, without becoming involved or taking it personally or seriously. Try to do your job or your tasks to the best of your ability. If you fail, do not oppress yourself with negativity or frustration. Try again, or move on to another task that requires your attention or participation.

By overcoming attachment to your methods and actions and by sincerely performing your duties to the extent possible without any expectations, like a soldier in the battlefield of life, you become a true renunciant (sanyasi) and become free from the pulls and pressures of life. It does not matter what clothes you wear or life style you choose. Desire is the root of all suffering and disturbances. Take that away, and you are at once free. You are truly free, when your mind is completely free and unattached.

These ideas are amply described in the Bhagavadgita. For example, the following verses (4.18-19) explain how true inaction is achieved by performing actions without desires rather than avoiding them, and what constitutes true knowledge as far as knowledge is concerned.

“He whose undertakings are free from desire induced decisions, whose actions are burnt away in the fire of knowledge, the wise call him the learned (panditah).”

"He who perceives inaction in action and action in inaction, he is wise among people. He is engaged in yoga although performs actions.”

Action and in action in Yoga and Spirituality

From a spiritual perspective, action and inaction have their own importance in self-purification. For example, in the Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali, the Niyamas (observances) represent actions, and the Yamas (restraints) represent inaction. The five observances are cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study and devotional practice. To observe them, one has to engage in actions. The five restraints are vows to abstain from certain actions namely violence, falsehood, stealing, sexual pleasure and owning things. To practice them one has to remain inactive.

Now, one may practice them or any of the eight practices of Ashtanga Yoga, with or without desires and expectations. According to the Bhagavadgita, both produce different results. One leads to liberation, and the other to a higher birth in next life. When desires are involved, the mind remains unstable and subject to afflictions and disturbances due to the predominance of rajas and tamas, and the consciousness (chitta) cannot truly reflect the nature of objects due to the absence of sattva (purity).

The Yoga Sutra also emphasizes the importance of shunning desires and practicing detachment and dispassion to suppress the modifications of the mind and experience the highest state of self-absorption. It clearly states in the second chapter (2.3) that desire is one of the impediments to attain samadhi. Ignorance is its breeding ground. In the fourth chapter (4.7) it states that the Karma of a yogi is neither white nor black, but that of everyone else is tainted by desires, induced by the triple gunas.

To overcome desires and attraction and aversion, Patanjali recommends pratyahara, withdrawing the mind and senses from the sense objects, so that the mind can be engaged in the practice of concentration (dharana) and contemplation (Dhyana) upon the Self to experience self-absorption (samadhi). Longing for life is one of the strongest desires, from which even advanced souls are not free.

When the mind is free from desires and other impurities, the yogi attains purity and finds the practices of concentration and contemplation (dharna and Dhyana) easier. In deeper states of Samyama (concentrated meditation), he or she experiences savitarka or nirvitarka samapatti (1.42-43), whereby the mind develops instantaneous insight into the nature of objects. In the former, it reflects the qualities of the object of concentration with physical awareness, and in the latter without it.

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