68. Karma, Akarma and Vikarma According to the Bhagavadgita

Human Body

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

Summary: This essay explains the meaning of karma, akarma and vikarma, action, inaction and wrong action according to the Bhagavadgita

I previously discussed action in action and inaction in action in another article in the Wisdom series. Here I will explain the meaning of karma, akarma and vikarma from a purely traditional perspective. Broadly speaking, karma means any action. Akarma means no action. Vikarma means wrong action. In Hinduism, the meaning of these three words also depends upon the context in which they are used. More specifically, their meaning depends upon the person who engages in them and his or her way of life.

From a householder’s perspective, karma means any obligatory action which he is supposed to perform as a part of his householder’s duties towards himself, his family, others, ancestors, gods, needy people who seek alms, and other living beings. Such duties are meant to uphold Dharma and ensure the order and regularity of the world as a service to God, the world or society.

When these duties are not performed families decline, dharma declines, evil ascends and the world falls into chaos. The world depends upon the householders. Hence, they are considered even superior to renouncers. Their duties are exemplified by God himself in his aspects as the creator, preserver and destroyer. The fruit of such actions is meritorious karma (punya), which leads to a place in the ancestral heaven and a good life in the next birth. It does not lead to liberation, but surely progress towards it.

For a householder akarma or inaction means not performing those duties or neglecting them or avoiding them or escaping from them. It means not doing the expected job or keepings one’s obligation to God and others. Inaction of this kind produces sinful consequences, since it affects others as well as the person who engages in it. Bhagavadgita recognizes this condition as action in inaction.

It is vikarma when a householder engages in wrongful actions which are not expected of him, which are inimical to Dharma and God and which produce evil consequences or harm others. They lead to the disruption of the order and regularity of the world and produce pain and suffering to oneself and others. Such actions may be performed either directly or through others. In the latter case, both the person who instigates and the person who is instigated incur sin.

On the path of devotion and renunciation, be it a devotee or a renouncer (sannyasi), these three words assume different connotations. In their case, karma means performing austerities, practicing virtues, observing vows engaging in contemplation and self-purification, renouncing family ties, caste identity, worldly pleasures and attachments, etc. These are obligatory for a renouncer, and without performing them one cannot progress on the path of liberation. For example, in Buddhism, karma constitutes practicing the Eightfold Path and following the monastic discipline.

With regard to the renouncers or monks, inaction means performing actions with an attitude of renunciation, with detachment, sameness and indifference, and without seeking their fruit. It also means performing actions in devotion or as an offering or service to God. By such actions, even if they engage in actions, they are not tainted by karma. It is as if they have not engaged in any action at all, since those actions do not produce karma. This is what the Bhagavadgita means inaction in action. According to the scripture, it is the best way to arrest the formation of karma and initiate the dissolution of samsara.

A renouncer engages in vikarma or wrongful actions when they break their vows, misuse their spiritual powers to control or harm others, indulge in immoral and unethical actions, seek name, fame and wealth to satisfy the ego, keep family ties, pursue worldly pleasures or perform similar desire-ridden actions. It also includes unlawful actions such as practicing austerities and penances to seek boons from gods or to enhance once mystic powers to establish dominance or harm others. The asuras usually engage in vikarma with wicked intentions. Actions of this kind lead to downfall into the lower worlds.

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