Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Living Gita 43: In Praise of Karma Yoga


A series of articles on the Bhagavad Gita for people living and working in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times filled with stress and fear. This scripture born in a battlefield teaches us how to face our challenges, live our life fully, achieve excellence in whatever we do and find happiness, peace and contentment.

[Continued from the previous post.]

vyavasaayaatmikaa buddhir ekeha kurunandana

bahushaakhaa hyanantaashcha buddhayo'vyavasaayinaam ll 2.41 ll

yaam imaam pushpitaam vaacham pravadanty avipashchitah

vedavaadarataah paartha naanyad asteeti vaadinah ll 2.42 ll

kaamaatmaanah swargaparaa janmakarma-phalaprdaam

kriyaavishesha-bahulaam bhogaishwarya-gatim prati ll 2.43 ll

bhogaishwarya prasaktaanaam tayaapahrita-chetasaam

vyavasaayaatmika buddhih samaadhau na vidheeyate ll 2.44 ll

On this path, Arjuna, your mind is resolute, with attention on a single-focus. On the other hand, the thoughts of the irresolute are many-branched and endless. The ignorant ones speak flowery words and argue for the Vedas that lead to repeated births and karmas and say heaven is highest and there is nothing higher. They are obsessed with numerous rituals that lead to enjoyment of pleasures. Such people whose interest is only in pleasures, prosperity and power, whose minds have been robbed by them, have no resolute minds and they are not able to attain samadhi.   


Krishna praises Karma yoga further and says on the path of karma yoga your mind is resolute and you have a single focus. What you are doing in karma yoga does not matter, your focus is one: purification of the mind.

Ramana Maharshi says about karma yoga in his classic short work Upadesha Saram ‘eeshwara-arpitam necchayaa kritam chitta-shodhakam muktisadhakam.’ In karma yoga work is done dedicated to God – eeshwara-arpitam – and it is done with the purpose of purification of the mind – chitta-shodhakam. You do whatever life brings to you, or God brings to you, and not works chosen by you – nechchhaya kritam. The choice of the work is not yours but of the samashti, of the cosmos, of Existence. You have already surrendered your will so you do not make any choices but accept whatever comes to you.

Ancient India tells many stories of such acceptance and practicing karma yoga, perhaps the most famous of which is that of Dharmavyadha, the story of the butcher of Kashi that the Mahabharata tells us.  The story begins with an ascetic who is making his morning oblations to the rising sun standing in a river. As he raises water in his palms to offer it to the sun, the droppings of a bird flying overhead fall into his palms. The ascetic looks up in fury and the bird turns to ashes midflight. He is amazed by his own ascetic powers. Power gone to his head, the ascetic goes on his rounds of bhiksha. Stanting in front a house, he addresses the lady of the house, “Bhavati! bhikshaam dehi”, “Oh Lady, give me alms.”

The lady ignores him completely and this time he raises his voice and says again “Bhavati! bhikshaam dehi”. He is ignored again. He remembers he is no ordinary ascetic but has just reduced a bird to ashes midflight. Raising his voice, in arrogance he shouts this time in a commanding voice, “Bhavati! bhikshaam dehi.” This time the lady turns around and says ‘Please wait. I am doing something. As soon as it is over, I shall give you bhiksha.” Then she adds, ‘And don’t think I am a little bird you can turn to ashes with your anger.”

That cools the ascetic down. How did she know about the bird? No one saw it and he has told no one about it.

When the lady comes he is not interested in the bhiksha any more but wants to know how she knew about the bird. She asks him to go to Kashi and meet a man called Dharmavyadha there if he wants to know it.

In Kashi he asks everyone about a sage called Dharmavyadha but no one has heard of him. Eventually someone directs his steps to a butcher called Dharmavyada and it is from him that the ascetic learns the lady’s secret – karma yoga. “Just as I am doing the butcher’s job that has come to me with total acceptance and total dedication, the lady serves her husband unworthy of her with devotion accepting what life has brought her. That is karma yoga and there is nothing you cannot attain through karma yoga,” the butcher tells the ascetic. “The highest yogic powers, and everything else that you desire can be attained through karma yoga,” adds the butcher of Kashi in this strange story in which a butcher teaches yoga to an ascetic.

The Mahabharata has several stories in which roles are reversed like this.

Bindumati is a prostitute whose story ancient India tells. She attains high spiritual powers through the practice of karma yoga as a prostitute.

As we shall see later, Krishna says in the Gita:

mayi sarvaani karmaani sannyasya adhyaatma-chetasaa

niraasheer nirmamo bhootvaa yuddhyasva vigatajvarah. BG 3.30

Surrender everything to me [God] and with your mind focused on your inner self, expecting nothing, without attachments, fight, free from feverishness.

Though this is not the most famous verse in the Gita that speaks of karma yoga, it is the best summary of karma yoga. Surrender your actions to God and then do whatever you do with the aim of purifying your mind – that is having adhyatma-chetas, focus on your inner self. And do what you have to do with passion and full dedication, while having no goals to gain anything other than inner purity from the act.

This is what Krishna means when he says vyavasayatmika buddhi – mind resolutely focused on a single thing, in this case on inner purity. The butcher is doing butchering and making a profit from killing animals, but his focus is only on inner purity. The prostitute is earning her living by prostitution – but her aim is inner purity. The housewife is serving her husband with the aim of inner purity. What you do does not matter, you have only one aim: inner purity. That is the attitude of karma yoga – karma yoga buddhi, the vyavasayatmika buddhi of karma yoga.

Vyavasayatmika means nishchayatmika – determined, resolute.

You are an executive and as an executive you have many things to do. You do them with dedication and passion, but at the same time your focus is on inner purification, making your mind quiet, still and positive.  You are a sales person, and if you are a karma yogi, above all you keep your aim as making your mind quiet, still and positive. You are a driver, a clerk, a gardener, a shop keeper, a teacher, a newspaper man and you keep your focus on keeping your mind quiet, still and positive – that is karma yoga. So your main focus remains the same – inner purification – whatever you do. That is what Krishna calls vyavasayatmika buddhi and says it is a single one – ekaa.

Whatever you do, you do it for the common good [lokasangraha] dedicated to God [with ishwararpana buddhi] for inner purification [chittta-shodhanam]. And you don’t choose what you want to do – whatever comes to you, you accept and do with this purpose [nechchhaya kritam].


Krishna has much to say about those who are obsessed with the ritualistic section of the Vedas, the karmakanda. He calls speech about ritualism pushpitam vacham, flowery words. Empty words that sound beautiful. So according to him, even when speech about ritualism sounds beautiful, it is all empty. Do this ritual, this will happen to you – empty words.

A great modern master said all religions start with the living experience of great masters. But their disciples do not have the experience the masters have had, so they reduce their teachings to philosophy and the next generation reduces the philosophy into ritualism, by which time the rituals have become meaningless.

I have heard that a cat wandered into a Zen monastery. It was time for the evening worship and the master asked the disciples to tie up the cat since it was creating a lot of nuisance. Next day the cat came at the same time again and was tied up. This continued for a few days when the master died but the disciples continued to tie up the cat. Problem started when the cat died – disciples were running all over looking for a cat to tie up so that the evening worship could begin!

Anthony de Mello in his collections of spiritual stories talks about a desert country and the one fruit rule practiced there.

“In a desert country trees were scarce and fruits were hard to come by. It was said that God wanted to make sure there was enough for everyone, so he appeared to a prophet and said, “This is my commandment to the whole people for now and for future generations: no one shall eat more than one fruit a day. Record this in the holy book. Anyone who transgresses this law will be considered to have sinned against God and against humanity.”

“The law was faithfully observed for centuries until scientists discovered a means for turning the desert into green land. The country became rich in grain and livestock. And the trees bent down with the weight of unplucked fruit. But the fruit law continued to be enforced by the civil and religious authorities of the land.

“Anyone who pointed to the sin against humanity involved in allowing fruit to rot on the ground was dubbed a blasphemer and an enemy of morality. These people, who questioned the wisdom of God’s holy word, were being guided by the proud spirit of reason, it was said, and lacked the spirit of faith and submission whereby alone the truth can be received.

“In churches sermons were frequently delivered in which those who broke the law were shown to have come to a bad end. Never once was mention made of the equal number of those who came to a bad end even though they had faithfully kept the law or of the vast number of those who prospered even though they broke it.

“Nothing could be done to change the law because the prophet who had claimed to have received it from God was long since dead. He might have had the courage and the sense to change the law as circumstances changed for he had taken God’s word not as something to be revered, but as something to be used for the welfare of the people.

“As a result, some people openly scoffed at the law and at God and religion. Others broke it secretly and always with a sense of wrongdoing. The vast majority adhered rigorously to it and came to think of themselves as holy merely because they held on to a senseless and outdated custom they were too frightened to jettison.”

Rituals are like that. They had meaning at one time but now they have been reduced to ... just rituals. What is most disturbing is the fanaticism with which we cling to outdated, meaningless rituals. One of my relatives refused to talk to me for twenty years because I refused to stick to certain rituals. Most religious quarrels are about religious rituals and not about more important things   In Gulliver’s travels two countries fight for generations about which side of an egg to break – the larger one or the smaller one!

The Upanishads have no respect for rituals nor does Krishna or the Gita.

Ritualism is endless and day by day it becomes more and more narrow and fanatical. Recently when there was a death in my family, since I was away and could not go because of the covid times, my sister did the rituals. The priest was so elaborate that a simple ritual that earlier took half an hour took three full hours. Surprisingly, all were very happy – how systematically he does it all, they said, comparing him to the earlier priest who did a similar ceremony in half an hour!

Religion has nothing much to do with rituals but most people understand religion as rituals. Recently I met a priest of another religion who, when he learned that I am a Hindu, asked me, “What are the rituals of your religion?” He wasn’t very familiar with Hinduism. I wanted to tell him that in my religion rituals did not matter much – you may do them or you need not do them. But he was a young man who did not know much about religion and I did not feel like getting into a detailed discussion with him.

Professional priests make rituals as elaborate as possible. I have a Hindu friend who is a priest and another who is a ritualist. Both of them go into endless details of rituals and the smallest variation in rituals is pure horror for them. This is what Krishna speaks of as abhikrama nasha and pratyavaya, both of which terms we discussed in the previous article. As we saw, Krishna says that there is neither abhikrama nasha nor pratyavaya dosha in karma yoga.

Get into the world of rituals, you get confused. That is what Krishna means when he says the minds of those who follow rituals are many branched and filled with numerous confusing thoughts.

Also, Krishna is not rejecting rituals altogether. Done in the right spirit and with understanding, they can be beautiful. What Krishna is against is confusing them with religion, taking them for religion, thinking religion is nothing but rituals. And of course, he is against fanatical adherence to rituals, saying this is how things could be done, there is no other way of doing them. One should have a free, liberal, enlightened attitude towards rituals. Then they can make religion, and life, richer. Rituals are like ornaments on a woman – they can beautify her but ornaments are not the woman.


The word Krishna uses to describe ritualistic people is avipashchitah - ignorant ones. They speak in flowery words about the pleasures of heaven as though there is nothing higher than them.

One can easily get bored with pleasures unless sorrow too comes every now and then – it is only in comparison with sorrow that a pleasure is a pleasure. And in the heaven ritualists describe too, there are the same problems as here on earth. Some will be more powerful depending on the amount of merit of good acts they have, some will be less, which will lead to jealousy. Nahusha’s story tells us he  became Indra, had power over all the gods, they obeyed him completely, he enjoyed the pleasure of all the drinks, food and music of heaven, all the sights of heaven, had all the apsaras in his bed, and was still unhappy because he did not have Indrani in his bed. Stories tell us of Urvashi becoming angry because she wanted to have Arjuna as her lover but couldn’t because he refused her on ethical grounds saying she was once the wife of an ancestor of his, Pururavas, and hence like his own mother. In her anger, she curses Arjuna to become a eunuch for a year. Which story tells us anger is there in heaven, desire is there, frustration is there, the need for vengeance is there, all that create misery on earth are there. How can heaven then be a happy place?

The highest joy is known as samadhi, which comes when the mind is completely still and there is not a single thought in it.

Indian wisdom says ananda, happiness, is our nature and it is our mind that prevents us from experiencing it. When the mind becomes still, in other words when the mind ceases to be because a still mind is no mind, we experience the happiness that is behind it. To experience happiness all we need is a still mind, just as to see a coin lying at the bottom of a pool all we need is for the water to become clean and still.

The Upanishads also tell us that the ananda we can have through the fulfillment of our desires is limited, not unlimited. The Taittiriya Upanishad in its famous ananda mimamsa asks us to imagine a young man, perfectly healthy, educated and cultured, and to whom the entire earth with all its wealth belongs. Then the Upanishad tells us that the highest happiness he can experience is but an infinitesimal part of the happiness of the man who is free from desires.

Flowery words of the karma kanda of the Vedas mislead people. They believe that through aishwarya – prosperity and power – ananda comes. They are wrong. Ananda has nothing to do with prosperity or power. If your mind is still, you are in ananda. Ananda is stillness of the mind.

In the science fiction book Dying Inside, Robert Silverberg describes the happiness inside the heart of a simple Austrian farmer.  In the book a man has the ability to feel what others are feeling by entering their hearts and this is what he feels when he enters the heart of the farmer.

“David … slides down through dense layers of unintelligible Deutsch ruminations, and strikes bottom in the basement of the farmer’s soul, the place where his essence lives. Astonishment: old Schiele is a mystic, an ecstatic! No dourness here. No dark Lutheran vindictiveness. This is pure Buddhism: Schiele stands in the rich soil of his fields, leaning on his hoe, feet firmly planted, communing with the universe. God floods his soul. He touches the unity of all things. Sky, trees, earth, sun, plants, brook, insects, birds—everything is one, part of a seamless whole, and Schiele resonates in perfect harmony with it.  How can this be? How can such a bleak, inaccessible man entertain such raptures in his depths?  Feel his joy! Sensations drench him! Birdsong, sunlight, the scent of flowers and clods of upturned earth, the rustling of the sharp-bladed green cornstalks, the trickle of sweat down the reddened deep-channeled neck, the curve of the planet, the fleecy premature outline of the full moon – a thousand delights enfold this man. David shares his pleasure. He kneels in his mind, reverent, awed. The world is a mighty hymn. Schiele breaks from his stasis, raises his hoe, brings it down; heavy muscles go taut and metal digs into earth, and everything is as it should be, all conforms to the divine plan.

“Is this how Schiele goes through his days? Is such happiness possible? David is surprised to find tears bulging in his eyes. This simple man, this narrow man, lives in daily grace.”

In Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, there is a similar description, though not of happiness but of beauty.

“He looked around, as if he was seeing the world for the first time. Beautiful was the world, colourful was the world, strange and mysterious was the world! Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green, the sky and the river flowed, the forest and the mountains were rigid, all of it was beautiful, all of it was mysterious and magical, and in its midst was he, Siddhartha, the awakening one, on the path to himself. All of this, all this yellow and blue, river and forest, entered Siddhartha for the first time through the eyes, was no longer a spell of Mara, was no longer the veil of Maya, was no longer a pointless and coincidental diversity of mere appearances, despicable to the deeply thinking Brahmin, who scorns diversity, who seeks unity. Blue was blue, river was river, and if also in the blue and the river, in Siddhartha, the singular and divine lived hidden, so it was still that very divinity’s way and purpose, to be here yellow, here blue, there sky, there forest, and here Siddhartha. The purpose and the essential properties were not somewhere behind the things, they were in them, in everything.”

Siddhartha is experiencing the world for the first time through a mind that has become still and this is what he experiences!

The Upanishads and the Gita would completely agree with Robert Silverberg and Hermann Hesse and would say such happiness and such beauty are possible, but possible only when our mind is still, when it is not tormented by desires, when we are a-kamahatas, not victims of kama.

Heaven in any case is a myth.

We are all familiar with the world of advertisements. Use this soap, and your skin will glow like the moon. Use this toothpaste and you will feel electrified by freshness. Use this drink and you will have endless energy. Wear this dress, you will look like Miss World. But you know they are advertisements and don’t take them literally. Speech about heaven and its pleasures, in Krishna’s words, is pushpitam vacham, flowery words that mean no more the advertisements do.

The world tells us if you have a bigger car, if you have a bigger house, if you have a more beautiful spouse, if you have a better paid job, you will be happy. These are cosmetic changes, all superficial, they do not touch your insides and hence do not contribute to happiness except momentarily.

It is the asuri man who lives for external goals. The daivi man lies for internal aims. The asuri man does not find joy in life, only kicks, whereas as the daivi man finds lasting happiness. So cultivate the inner world and not the outer world.

Aim at making the mind calm. One way of making the mind calm is meditation. As the mind becomes calm through meditation, in the words of the Gita, you attain the highest joy.

yatroparamate chittam niruddham yogasevayaa

yatra chaivaatmana atmaanam pashyann-aatmani tushyati ll 6.20 ll

sukham aatyantikam yattad buddhi graahyam ateendriyam

vetti yatra na chaivaayam sthitashchalati tattwatah ll 6.21 ll

yam labdhwaa chaaparam laabham manyate naadhikam tatah  ll 6.22 ll

“When the mind mastered by yoga attains quietude you see your own self by yourself and you rejoice in yourself. There is a joy that only the pure intellect can understand, a joy that is beyond the senses, and once established in it, you never move away from the truth. And having attained that, you do not consider any gain higher than that.”

Another way to reach the same goal is through the practice of karma yoga. Do what you do with ishwararpana-buddhi.  Dedicate your work for the common good. Work not to gain for yourself something from it but to give others.

The secret of happiness is giving, not getting.  An individual who lives to give finds joy. A couple who give each other rather than demanding from each other finds happiness. A family who gives finds happiness. A society that gives is a happy society, not the one who constantly demands from the world, from others.

The giver finds happiness, not the taker.

Trees, rivers and cows do not have free will. But we can learn a lot of things from them. A popular Sanskrit verse says:

Paropakaaraaya phalanti vrikshaah paropakaaraaya vahanti nadyah

Paropakaaraaya duhanti gaavah paropakaaraartham idam shareeeram.

Trees produce fruits for the good of others, rivers flow for the good of others, cows yield milk for the good of others, and this body too is for the good of others.

It is a question of attitude. Those who believe we should live for others find happiness and those who believe we should live for ourselves end up lonely and unhappy. The Gita says it is a sin to cook for oneself alone – we should share whatever we have with others.

That is called the spirit of sacrifice, the yajna spirit.

Live in yajna spirit, teaches the Gita. And it also teaches: yajnaarthaat karmano’nyatra lokoyam karmabandhanah – the world is bound by actions other than those performed in the spirit of sacrifice.


Monday, December 21, 2020

Living Bhagavad Gita 42: Introducing Karma Yoga


A series of articles on the Bhagavad Gita for people living and working in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times filled with stress and fear. This scripture born in a battlefield teaches us how to face our challenges, live our life fully, achieve excellence in whatever we do and find happiness, peace and contentment.

[Continued from the previous post.]

eshaa te'bhihitaa saankhye buddhir yoge twimaam shrinu

buddhyaa yukto yayaa paartha karmabandham prahaasyasi // 2.39 //

nehaabhikrama-naasho'sti pratyavaayo na vidyate

swalpamapyasya dharmasya traayate mahato bhayaat // 2.40 //

What I have talked to you about so far is the wisdom of s­­ankhya. Now listen, Arjuna, to the wisdom of yoga with which you will break through the bonds of Karma. Here there is no abhikrama-nasha, loss due to non-completion of what you began, nor is there any pratyavaya, harm in doing things differently from the prescribed way. Even a little of this dharma can save you from the great fear.


With this verse, a new section in chapter two begins. Krishna himself announces the new beginning by saying what he has spoken about so far is sakhya yoga and what he is now going to talk about is karma yoga for which the word he uses is buddhi yoga. Buddhi yoga is a good name for karma yoga because karma yoga is about certain attitudes – buddhi – towards work, like nishkama buddhi, ishwararpana buddhi, and so on. Along with Krishna, let’s too look back at certain important ideas that we have explored so far in our discussions.

We began the chapter with Arjuna’s vishada, his distress under the emotional hijack he suffered. Emotions hijack us in our weak moments. They are like highway men looking for any weakness in people. Or like a pack of wolves looking for the weak lamb among the herd. Eventually Arjuna surrenders to Krishna calling himself his disciple and asking Krishna to protect him– shishyaste’ham shaadhi  maam tvaam prapannam. Krishna takes over, doing exactly what needs to be done – by lashing out at him with sharp words so that he wakes up from the stupor of tamas that  has over taken him temporarily. It is truly temporary because Arjuna and tamas do not go together. We do not find Arjuna under tamas at any other time in his life – not even in the dice hall when Yuudhishthira sank into deep tamas and intoxicated by the dice game, wagered away all his wealth, his kingdom, his brothers, himself  and his wife Draupadi, when the entire Kuru sabha fell under the pitch darkness of tamas. But now that he is under tamas, he has to be brought out of his indolence and sloth and Krishna does exactly what needs to be done under the circumstances. Krishna here behaves precisely like a brilliant surgeon who puts his scalpel exactly where it needs to be put – at the center of the malignancy within. And he does it with seeming pitilessness.

In an early scene in the movie Chak De India, the coach of the Indian National Women’s Hockey team and the newly selected players are meeting for the first time. Shahrukh Khan, who plays the coach, blows his whistle and introduces himself, “Naam Kabir Khan. Mein coach hoon.” He looks at the players and says, “Hope all of you are here.” It is at that moment that a player walks in, Preeti Sabarwal and introducing herself by her name asks if it isn’t there the registration of the women’s hockey team is going on. Kabir Khan tells her registration of the Indian National Women’s Hockey team is already over, she is very late and she should try the next year. Preeti is annoyed and argues that Kabir Khan can’t keep the captain of a state team out. Kabir asks her of which state team she is the captain and when Preeti tells him ‘Chandigarh team’ he points out this is not the Chandigarh team. Kabir Khan says categorically this is the Indian National Women’s Hockey team and there is no place in it for those who come late. Eventually Preeti is allowed to join the team only after she completes her punishment for coming late: doing ten rounds of the playground in seven minutes with her kit up. Kabir Khan exudes power here and Preeti has no choice but to obey him.

He asks the players to line up and introduce themselves and the girls do that, each announcing her name and saying from which state team she is. Every time a girl does that Kabir Khan asks her to stand away from the team and it is only when one girl announces her name and says India as her team’s name that she is allowed to stay in the team. The girls learn their lesson fast and one by one all of them introduce themselves by their names and saying India as their team’s name. Kabir Khan tells them he will say this only once and will not repeat it: “This team needs only those players who first play for India and then for their teammates. And after that if they have any life left in them, then for themselves.” Preeti Sabarwal who has by then completed her rounds now joins the team.

When Lakshmi, the female team manager, tries to speak for Preeti saying she is a good player and recommending her, Kabir Khan curtly says: “I’ll decide who is good and who is bad.” By demonstrating his authority over even Lakshmi, Kabir makes it crystal clear who is the decision maker here and what he wants from the players: unity and discipline. 

The short scene, slightly comical and harsh, initially creates a kind of animosity towards Kabir khan for his harshness. The players introducing themselves by taking the name of the state from where they come is the standard practice and people coming a little late is not uncommon in India – they may have valid reasons. Besides Preeti is a privileged person, as a state captain. But Kabir Khan totally succeeds in sending the message he wants to send – how important unity as a team and total commitment to it are and how important discipline is to them all.  His entire future coaching of the team will be based on these values: unity as a tem, commitment to the team and discipline; it is through these that he transforms a loser team into world champions. The shock treatment he gives at the very beginning registers those values indelibly in the minds of all and clearly tells all there is no place in the team for those who break any of those values.

That opening scene contributes to the team’s success and their eventual world leadership no less than anything else that happens subsequently.

Sometimes a shock treatment is necessary.

In the case of Arjuna the only way to instantly bring him to his senses is the whiplash Krishna gives him by calling him a eunuch. What Arjuna is doing is unpardonable – refusing to fight for dharma, refusing to fight adharma and for a kshatriya there is nothing more shameful because he is defined as a person who fights adharma, who has vowed to protect dharma. The word eunuch Krishna uses for him is the most insulting term, the most hurting term, in the Mahabharata culture you can use against someone like the heroic Arjuna, the greatest archer of the day and warrior who knows no fear. Krishna’s choice of the word is instant but it speaks of his brilliance.


Krishna then speaks to him from the highest standpoint, the adhyatma or spiritual standpoint, the standpoint of the highest in Indian philosophy, the standpoint of the absolute truth, the paramarthika satya. He tells Arjuna there is no death and what we call death is a myth.  Death does not end anything – anything except the body. Not even the pranas. The pranas remain with us even after death, as the books by Brian L. Weiss and similar others prove to the modern mind, as the east has always taught. The antahkarana with all its component parts remain with us – manas, buddhi, chitta and ahamkara, which along with prana constitutes the sukshma-sharira or the subtle body. The karmas and our vasanas remain with us, along with our primal ignorance of our nature called avidya – the karana sharira which is the cause, karana, for future births. What we call jiva or jivatma is the sukshma sharira and the karana sharira together when we are not in the body – after death – and along with the body when we are alive. Of course, also along with the soul. So what dies is only the physical body, the annamaya kosha. The atma, our true self, which is beyond all these, never dies nor is it ever born – as the Gita says:   

na jaayate mriyate vaa kadaachin naayam bhootwaa bhavitaa vaa na bhooyah ajo nityah shaashwato'yam puraano na hanyate hanyamaane shareere ll2.20 ll

“It is never born nor does it ever die; after having been, it again never ceases to be. Unborn, eternal, changeless and ancient, it is not killed when the body is killed.”

The Gita also discusses the insignificance of death by comparing it to the different stages we all pass through in life: kaumaram or adolescence, yauvanam or youth, jara or old age. Dehantara-prapti, attaining a new body, is no more than that, says the Gita.

So Arjuna’s worry that Bhishma, Drona and the other people he considers his own, swajana, will be killed is misplaced. Death is no more than change of clothes – we discard used bodies and take new ones just as we discard worn out clothes and take up new ones:

vaasaamsi jeernaani yathaa vihaaya

navaani grihnaati naro'paraani

tathaa shareeraani vihaaya jeernaany

anyaani samyaati navaani dehee ll 2.22 ll

“Just as a man throws away his worn out clothes and puts on new ones, so too the self living in the body discards worn out bodies and enters new ones.”

Krishna realizes this absolute standpoint may be too high for Arjuna and for a lot of other people, so he comes down to the dharma level, the level of social ethics. He points out that as a kshatriya it is his duty to fight adharma and establish dharma.

The kings in those days had by and large forgotten their commitment to dharma and had started following the ways of adharma. Most of them had forgotten that power is not a privilege but a responsibility and as men endowed with power their duty was to stand for the poor and the downtrodden, to protect the weak from exploitation by the powerful, it is for this purpose that kingship had come into existence – to end matsyanyaya, the fish eat fish policy.

Minister Kanika taught Dhritarashtra that anything that a king does to grab power is justified because power justifies everything. Many other ministers taught the same to their kings and by and large there was a belief that ethics are only for show and selfishness is what they should believe in their hearts. They advised kings to be like fishermen – the word used by the epic is matsya-ghati, those who kill fish. They taught kings to be as ruthless in destroying enemies as the razor is in shaving off hair.  And they taught an enemy is whoever stands in the way of their reaching their goals, no matter what those goals are. Your son, your father, your friend, no matter who it is, if he stands in the way of your attaining your goals show no mercy to him, they taught.

As a kshatriya, Krishna points out, it is Arjuna’s duty to destroy those who practice such policies and to fight evil wherever you find it.

Krishna not only points out that it is Arjuna’s duty to destroy adharma, he also teaches the chance to fight a war for dharma is a golden opportunity provided by the samashti – the cosmos, life – to him and it is like the gates of heaven being opened wide for him. It is only fortunate kshatriyas that get such opportunities, Krishna tells him. Fighting is Arjuna’s swadharma and just as a painter comes fully alive only in moments of painting, a singer only in moments of singing, a dancer only in moments of dancing, it is only in moments of battle that Arjuna fully experiences self-actualization and self-transcendence.

So fight the war for the sake of dharma and also for your own sake, that is what Krishna tells his friend from the dharma angle. It is his duty to others and it is also his duty to himself. He owes it to himself as much as he owes it to others. Therefore get up and fight, Krishna tells Arjuna.

The ancient Indian tradition of teaching is to begin at the highest level and then gradually climb down to the lower levels. We find it in the Gita itself several times and we find it in the Upanishads. Thus the Kena Upanishad begins at the highest philosophical level explaining the power behind the eyes and ears and other sense organs and organs of action, the universal power behind everything, the One Truth, the Brahman. Then the same truth is taught through a beautiful story that tells us that the real doer behind all our actions is Brahman though we in our lack of understanding assume we do things, our successes are ours and so on.

The story says that once the gods win a great victory and they become arrogant. Then a mysterious being, a yaksha, appears before them and Indra, the lord of the gods, sends Agni, Vayu and so on one by one to find out who it is. Questioned by the gods, instead of answering who he is, the yaksha asks them who they are. Agni says he is Agni and can burn everything to ashes and the yaksha palaces a blade of grass before him and asks him to burn it. He tries to burn it from the left, then from the right, then from the top and then from everywhere, but fails and goes back ashamed. The same way, Vayu is not able to move a blade of grass.  

Then Indra himself comes and the yaksha disappears and in his place he finds Goddess Uma Haimavati who teaches him that the victory was not of the gods but of Brahman, they should not be arrogant considering it their victory.

It is after this someone says, aupanishadam brrohi, ‘Please teach me the Upanishad.”  The poor guy has missed the whole teaching.  He is instructed to repeat the Shatarudriya, the one hundred prayers addressed to Rudra, also known as Rudradhyayi, Rudraprahsna and by many other names. The idea is that it will purify his mind and he will then be able to understand the higher truths the Upanishad speaks of.

Following this ancient tradition, after discussing what bothers Arjuna from the standpoint of adhyatma first and then from dharma standpoint, Krishna moves on to discuss it from the laukika stand point – the worldly or samsaric standpoint, which is the lowest. Krishna tells him if he did not fight the war and ran away from it, people, particularly his enemies, would consider him a coward, they would ridicule him and question his samarthya – competency. For a man competent to the point of being excellent in whatever he does, to the man who is the best in his chosen field, the greatest archer of the day in the world, Krishna asks, what could be more painful than people laughing at him .And then Krishna assures him he shouldn’t worry about a thing: if he loses, heaven is his; and if he wins, the earth is.

Having discussed his problem from the adhyatmika, dharmika and laukika standpoints, Krishna tells Arjuna how to fight the war, as we saw in the previous verse:

“Treat pleasure and pain the same, so also gain and loss and victory and defeat and then engage in battle.”

Krishna assures him that fighting this way he shall not acquire sin, if that is what worries him. When you transcend the ego and act, you acquire no sin at all. Sin is only within the realm of the ego. When you go beyond sukha and duhkha, when you go beyond labha and alabha, when you go beyond jaya and ajaya, you are already beyond the ego and you incur no sins for your acts.

Krishna indicates here something that he shall discuss in much greater detail later, something that is absolutely central to the Gita: Doership is a myth, the belief that we do things is a myth. Actions happen through us, we don’t do them. “The Lord neither creates doership, nor karmas for people. He does not unite people with karma-phala either.” He does not unite people with the results of their actions. All the time it is swabhava, prakriti, that is acting.

The wise man is he, the yogi is he, who while doing all kinds of actions like seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, letting go, seizing, opening and closing the eyes knows that he does nothing at all, that the senses are moving among the sense objects. And the one who knows thus, Krishna adds elsewhere in the Gita, is the wisest of men, the true yogi, and he has already done all that a man needs to do.

This is called seeing inaction in action, akarma in karma, and if you can see that you have become like Krishna – or you have become Krishna himself since Krishna is the soul in us, our soul, the universal soul - who says he has nothing to achieve, he has already achieved all that needs to be achieved and if he keeps working, it is only for the good of the world, for lokasangraha.

Akarma is the highest philosophy of the Gita and there is nothing higher. There is no higher philosophy than the philosophy of akarma and also there is no higher secret of excellence in action than akarma.

Having indicated this, Krishna winds up the sankhya section of the chapter and moves onto what he calls buddhi yoga, which is what is commonly known as karma yoga.


Speaking about karma yoga, Krishna says what he has talked about so far is the wisdom of sankhya and and he shall now speak of the wisdom of yoga with which we will break through the bonds of karma. He then adds that here there is no abhikrama-nasha, loss due to non-completion of what is begun, nor is there any pratyavaya, harm in doing things differently from the prescribed way. Even a little of this dharma can save you from the great fear.

Krishna is speaking here comparing karma yoga with karma kanda – the section of the Vedas dealing with highly complex and involved rituals that the original simple Vedic rituals eventually become. Garhapatya, a Vedic ritual and its kins anvaharya-pachana  and avahaniya, for instance, were extremely simple rituals to begin with, requiring the performer to maintain three fires at home. An educated man, a dwija, a twice-born so called because he has received a second birth through education, was supposed to maintain these fires at home once he completed his studies, went back home and became a grihastha. The fires – they could be just three lit lamps – stood for the fire or the light of knowledge and the three fires stood for commitment to the three Vedas, which at that time was all knowledge available to society. So in essence agnihotra was a constant reminder to the educated man to remain committed to knowledge – all knowledge – even though he had formally completed his studies in the gurukula – something like the modern concept of lifelong learning. Agnihotra told the man that learning never ends, just because he has completed his studies in the gurukula it does not mean he knows everything and there is nothing more to learn. In that sense agnihotra was both a reminder to remain humble and also to remain open to more learning – book learning, the learning that comes from other people, the learning that comes from his own reflections and the learning that life brings to him.

I have known a professor who used to go to the classroom with the notes her professor had given her when she was a student – notes yellowed from age. She would then look at the notes and write every word there on the chalkboard while also reading each word out aloud. Students copied them down in their notebooks, memorized them and reproduced them in the exam where all questions came from those notes and all answers were also to be found in the notes. She taught history and to her the great revolt of 1857 which we call today the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857 was still Sepoy Mutiny. She never felt the need to revise her knowledge.

Agnihotra was a reminder that this was not enough, you have to keep learning, you have to share your knowledge with others through teaching and you have to generate new knowledge. That is how you pay back your rishi rina, debt to the rishis, who gave us knowledge.

It was a simple ritual to begin with. But eventually the ritual became complicated. Similarly agnihotra was another simple ritual that every educated man performed every morning. They were rites for expiating sins committed against others with or without knowledge and asking forgiveness from existence for any offences one might have committed towards life and the world. It was a ritual that expressed love, care and reverence for nature reminding us to live in tune with nature and not exploit and harm nature. This beautiful ritual too became complicated.

Just as medicine that used to be simple but has now become so complicated that it is totally beyond the understanding of the common man, rituals became so complicated that only professional priests could do that. And professional priests added a rich vocabulary to the rituals that was not part of everyday speech, just as medical science adds new terms that only professionals understand. Both the terms abhikrama-nasha and pratyavaya Krishna speaks about belong to this class of words.

Ritualists were terrified of Abhikrama-nasha, because the priests told them that if you began a ritual and did not complete it, it would not only cause the destruction of all that you did but also you would incur sin for not completing the ritual. Similarly, there are precise ways in which each ritual had to be done, and if you made any mistakes in the process, you not only lost the benefits of the ritual but also committed a sin called pratyavaya.

Krishna, a non-conformist, a rebel to the core and non-ritualist who gives new meaning to every term he uses in the Gita, assures Arjuna that there is neither abhikrama-nasha nor pratyavaya in karma yoga. You can do karma yoga fearlessly. And you don’t need a priest to do it for you, you can do it on your own. Besides, even a little of karma yoga done delivers you from the great fear – the fear of death. Karma yoga takes you into worlds beyond death, you enter the world of apunar-bhava, you escape the helpless cycle of births and deaths.

Spirituality is simple. It is simplicity itself. We make it complicated because we are complicated. Spirituality is being sahaja, natural as we are meant to be. Live in the now, that is spirituality. When we do something, focus on it completely, that is spirituality. Allow the love in our heart to flow out to others, that is spirituality. “My way is the way of the white cloud,” a master said – meaning, go with things, go where the wind of life takes you, that is spirituality. Don’t cling, let go, float with the current, that is spirituality. Be joyous, that is spirituality. Live consciously, that is spirituality. Accept, that is spirituality.  

Spirituality is being ordinary – not special. The urge to be special is unspiritual. No tree wants to be what it is not. It is content with what it is – that is spirituality.

Just do what you must do and do it with total attention and devotion – that is spirituality.

Reaching out to others is spirituality. Having the common good as a basic value – that is spirituality. Having daivi sampada – positive virtues – instead of asuri sampada – negativity – that is spirituality. Spirituality is living authentically and not blindly led by others. Spirituality is transforming work and life into worship. Spirituality is celebrating life – utsava bhava.  Spirituality is self mastery – not being a slave to the baser emotions in us.

An American came to Zen master Ikkyu and asked him to tell him as briefly as possible what Zen is: the master picked up a piece of paper and his brush and painted the word attention on it and handed over the paper to the American. The man looked at it, frowned and said, “Can you make it a little elaborate?” The master took the paper back and painted something more on it and gave it back to him. When the American looked at it he saw the word attention written twice. Now visibly upset, the man asked, “Master, can’t you make it a little detailed so that I can understand it?” The master took the paper back again and wrote something more on it. And the man read, “Attention, attention, attention’.

That is Zen, the very essence of spirituality.

And the Gita teaches nothing different.


Image courtesy: Sathe

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Living Gita 41_The Art of Actionless Action


A series of articles on the Bhagavad Gita for people living and working in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times filled with stress and fear. This scripture born in a battlefield teaches us how to face our challenges, live our life fully, achieve excellence in whatever we do and find happiness, peace and contentment.

[Continued from the previous post.]

sukhaduhkhe same kritwaa laabhaalaabhau jayaajayau

tato yuddhaaya yujyaswa naivam paapamavaapsyasi ll 2.38 ll

Treat pleasure and pain the same, so also gain and loss and victory and defeat and then engage in battle. Battling thus you shall not incur sin.


Krishna is the greatest rebel ever, there has never been another rebel like him. Bu he is the right kind of rebel, a rebel with a cause, not a rebel without a cause. His cause is supreme: in his own words, protecting the good, destroying the wicked, and establishing dharma. It is more like reestablishing dharma rather than establishing it, because it had already existed in the past, but had declined over long stretches of time, kaaleneha mahataa, in the words of Krishna. It is the same dharma that he wants to reestablish, not an original dharma. He has no compulsion to be original.

The compulsion to be original is an egoistic compulsion, a compulsion born of the egoistic mind. In fact, all compulsions are born of the egoistic mind, minus the egoistic mind there are no compulsions. Krishna does not claim the dharma he is talking about is original, the dharma he is teaching is original; he says it is the same dharma that has always existed, it has only been forgotten by people, particularly by people who should remember it, by men in leadership positions.

He says in so many clear words that the dharma he is speaking about is the dharma that the rajarshis of the past knew, the dharma that he – the wisdom of the soul – had taught royal sages like Vivaswan, Manu, Ikshwaku and so on at the beginning of time, in the days when kingship had just come into being. He had taught them how to live and lead for the good of the people, how to use the authority invested in them for doing good to the people, how to serve their interests best by using that authority, how to live their life as individuals and as leaders of men and the organizations called kingdoms rooted in values like truthfulness, integrity, kindness, compassion, understanding, the spirit of sacrifice, putting others’ interests before one’s won. He had taught them how to serve their subjects while remaining their kings, had taught them how not to let power go to their heads and trample the ordinary men and women underfoot. 

They knew for instance that the eyes of the poor and the weak were like the eyes of the snake, like the eyes of the sage, which can reduce you to ashes and therefore they should not exploit or give pain to the weak. But they did not exploit the weak not out of fear, but out of love for them. They saw the same divine in the educated and cultured and the uneducated and rough, in the rich and the poor, in the brahmana and the chandala, in the cow and the dog, in everything. And everybody’s pain was like their own pain to them, everybody’s happiness like their own happiness. They were not obsessed with power, for them power was not an end in itself, but a means to a noble end – for lokasangraha, for the good of the world. Power was not a privilege to them but a responsibility, as it was to kings like Rama and Bharata in much later years.

These were the ways envisioned by the rishis of yore and those were the ways he wanted to bring back into the world of kings, into the world of leaders, with no claim to originality. Rebels rebelled for the sake of rebelling, for the sake of their egos, so that people called them rebels and originals, talked about them, extolled  their originality, but he had no such interest, for he had no ego, he had transcended his ego.  He was not like an attention deficient child who needed constant attention and kept doing something or the other so that attention was on him, as many rebels do.

And this rebel says that sin is not in the act but in the actor. Krishna says if you act in a particular way, then whatever you do, even if it is killing, you will incur no sin. If sin is in the act, that cannot be true - if a particular act is sin, whatever way you do it, it will be sin. Like if killing per se is sin, in whatever way you do the killing, it will be sin. But Krishna says if you kill in a particular way, it will not be sin. Which means that it is the way you kill that makes it a sin or otherwise. That it is the attitude of the killer that decides whether it is a sin or not. If you kill with a particular attitude, then it is not sin, if you kill with another attitude, then it will be sin. Since all attitudes are conditions of the mind, it is the mind of the killer that makes the killing a sin or otherwise. In other words, it is the doer that makes an act a sin, not the act itself.

Sin is not in the act but in the doer. A revolutionary statement.

Victor Hugo’s French classic Les Miserables is one of the greatest works of world literature. A large novel, it is about a good man named Jean Valjean who steals a loaf of bread to feed his hungry little sister. He is arrested by Inspector Javert, for whom a theft is a theft whatever the reasons behind it, and is sent to prison where he spends nineteen years for his original crime and for trying to escape repeatedly. Eventually when he comes out of prison and seeks a job, no one is willing to give him one because he was once a convict. Eventually he reaches a new town and, taking a new name, through hard work and talent becomes a successful rich man famous for his charities and the owner of a factory that employs many people. Here again he is again arrested by Javert, this time for hiding his true identity, while he is at the bedside of a young dying woman who had turned prostitute fo feed herself and look after her baby. It makes no difference to Javert that Valjean is now a generous man doing so much charity, kind to everyone, and was at the bedside of the dying woman with her baby whom he had brought to her so that she could have a look at her before she died.

After more years in jail, Valjean escapes again, starts looking after Cossette, the daughter of the dead woman, as his own daughter. But Javert is still is in pursuit of him and locates him once again but Valjean is able to flee with Cossette before he is arrested and finds employment as a gardener in a convent with Cossette living with him and attending school.

Cossette is now grown up and she and a young radical student called Marius are in love. When the young political radicals fighting for freedom and democracy capture Inspector Javert, it is Valjean who saves him but in spite of that Javert is not willing to forget his duty towards the law and let go of Valjean. Eventually unable to reconcile the conflict in his mind, between his commitment to the law and gratitude to Valjean for saving him from execution by radicals, Javert jumps into a river and kills himself.

As we can see here, to Inspector Javert it is the act that is a crime and not the actor – he knows Valjean is a wonderful human being but he believes that his past crime still makes him a criminal and he needs to be punished. A lifetime of pursuing a good man in the name of the law for a crime that began as stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry little sister!

Whether it is a crime or a sin, in both cases it is the same. Both the crime and the sin are in the actor and not in the act, that is what Krishna is trying to say here when he says in you perform actions with a particular attitude, you will not incur sin. Valjean is a sinner to the law: he has stolen a loaf of bread, he has tried escape the prison, he has lived under an assumed name, many are his crimes before the law if you go by the act; to the law the fact that he is now almost a saint, a charitable man loved by an entire city and lovingly elected its mayor, helpful to many, even willing to risk his freedom and life to do good to others – these things do not count.

The old attitude of treating the act as sin and not the actor is childish, says a modern master.

A woman giving her breast to her father is a sin in all religions. So is a father sucking the breast of his daughter. But it is the theme of one of the most celebrated and costliest paintings of the world. Hundreds of master painters have painted the scene, celebrated statues and murals have been made on the theme, all with the least condemnation of the act. On the contrary, they all celebrate it!

The original story behind these paintings, murals and statues has the name Caritas Romana or Roman Charity. It is the story of a woman called Pero whose father Cimon was sentenced to death by starvation and thirst by the Roman court. Pero seeks permission to visit her father in the jail every day until he dies and the permission is given. As she comes to visit, carrying her recently born baby, the guards make a thorough search of her to make sure she is not carrying any food or drink for her father and of course they do not find anything. Their suspicions grow when the father does not die as expected even after weeks and they make their searches even more thorough but they cannot find anything with her. Eventually after six full months, they realize what has been happening: Pero has been secretly suckling her father, she had been giving him her breast milk. The story has a happy ending: when the authorities realize what has been happening, instead of getting furious with her they are so moved by the incident that they not only let her go free but frees her father too.

It is not the act that is sin, but the attitude behind the act.  The person behind the act makes it a sinful or a virtuous act.

Many years ago I developed a course in ethics for young people. One of the case studies given to the young girls and boys to discuss in the course was that of a young girl who is in a moral dilemma. There is a flood in the local river and the girl’s boyfriend is on the other side. The boyfriend is seriously ill and there is no way of saving him unless she reaches him and nurses him back to health. There is a boatman at the ghat but he is unwilling to take her across because of the fury of the river; he will do it on one condition: she would have to give herself to him. Finding no other solution, she does that in her despair to save her boyfriend, goes to her boyfriend and nurses him back to health. A few days later he asks her how she reached him when the river was in spite and she tells him the truth. The boy gets into a fury and rejects her for being unfaithful to him.

The course required the participants to decide after discussion among themselves whether the girl had sinned or not when she gave herself to the boatman.

If the sin is in the act, she had; but if it is in the person she hadn’t. She was making a sacrifice for saving the life of her boyfriend and a sacrifice is always an act of merit.

Did Yudhishthira commit a sin when he lied about the death of Ashwatthama to Drona for the sake of dharma? If we go by the act, then he did; but if we go by the intention behind the act, then he did not.

In the Mahabharata itself we come across a son of Ahalya and Gautama referred to as Chirakari, Slow-to-Act. We do not know his real name. He is in a dilemma. His father Gautama has asked him to chop off the head of his mother for committing adultery. Disobeying one’s father is a sin. But killing one’s mother is a still greater sin. Chirakari now does not know whether to obey his father and to kill his mother or to disobey him and spare his mother’s life. He is not able to make up his mind one way or the other and in this dilemma a lot of time is lost by when Gautama has a change of heart and comes back running in despair to cancel his earlier order. He praises his son for disobeying him.

If the sin is in the act, Chirakari has sinned by disobeyng his father. But if we look into his reasons, he has of course not sinned. He had strong reasons to disobey his father.

The sin is not in the act but in the actor. The disobedience is done for the right reasons and hence it is no sin.


When Krishna says when you battle treating pleasure and pain the same, so also gain and loss and victory and defeat the same, you shall not incur sin, once again Krishna means much more than what he says.

To understand this, let’s take the case of a baby kicking its mother from within her womb – all babies do that. We know kicking one’s own mother is a great sin. But does the baby commit any sin by kicking its mother? Of course not, we all agree. But why? Because the baby has no ego yet, at least no active ego.

In a hilarious scene in the recent movie Chennai  Express, we have Meenamma, the character played by Dipika, giving in her sleep a resounding kick to her friend Rahul played by Shahrukh Khan, who is sleeping in the same bed, sending him off the bed half way across the room. Now, kicking any sleeping man is a sin but does Meenamma commit a sin here? No one would say she does. Because in sleep she has no ego. Similarly, if you kick your husband or wife in sleep, does it amount to sin?  Of course not, for the same reason: he or she has no ego as a sleeper.

If you have no ego, no act of yours is a sin. Extending this argument further, if you do something without egoistic purposes, then what you do will not be a sin.

Actions without desires, actions from which you want nothing for yourself, are called nishkama karma. In nishkama karma, you perform actions without attachment to results, victory or loss making no difference to you, gain or loss making no difference to you. And that is what Krishna is asking Arjuna to do: Treat pleasure and pain the same, so also gain and loss and victory and defeat and then engage in battle. Battling thus you shall not incur sin.

Krishna is asking Arjuna to go into battle without egoistic purposes, without the ego, in the nishkama karma spirit and assures him that if he acts in that spirit he will not incur sin.

Akin to nishkama karma in spirit are karmas done with ishwararpana buddhi and swadharma buddhi.   

When we have to do something we do not want to do but we must do, as Arjuna has to do now in the battlefield, as we all have to do a lot of the time I our life, do it with swadharma buddhi – with the attitude that this is my dharma, this is my duty, this is something that I am bound to do. Do it with the attitude that you are doing it not for gaining anything for yourself but for the good of others. Do it with ishwarapana niddhi – with the attitude that you are doing it as an act of worshipping God, then you shall not incur sin.

Krishna’s revolutionary statement.  

Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi put it beautifully when he said in Upadesha Saram:

eeshwaraaarpitam nechchhayaaa kritam

chitta-shodhakam mukti-sadhakam. [Upadesa Saram 3]

“When actions are dedicated to God, done not because you desire something [but for the good of the world], they purify your mind and lead you to liberation.”

This verse is closely related to the previous verse in Upadesha Saram which says;

kriti-mahodadhau patana-kaaranam

phalam asaasvatam gati-nirodhakam.


“[Results of] actions [life scripts as discussed in earlier essays] are the cause of fall into the vast ocean [of samsara]. [Besides] their returns are impermanent and also obstructions on the path.”

So by performing your actions dedicating them to God, as acts of worship of Sacred Existence, done for lokasangraha, surrendering their results to the world, whether they are good or bad, whether they are successes or failures, whether they are happy or unhappy, considering gain and loss as equal, accepting all results with equanimity, you do not incur sin.


We can understand what Krishna says at another yet dimension: that of akarma.

That is what Krishna means when he says if for you pleasure and pain are the same, so also gain and loss and victory and defeat are the same, and then even if you kill in the battle it will not be a sin. To consider pleasure and pain the same, to consider gain and loss the same, to consider victory and defeat the same, you have to be egoless and if you are egoless, what you do is not a sin. Because sin is not in the action but in the condition of the actor, in his attitude, in his state of egolessness or otherwise.

Be egoless and fight the battle, that is what Krishna is telling Arjuna. And if you are egoless, then naturally happiness and unhappiness will be same to you, victory and defeat will be the same to you, gain and loss will be the same to you. Happiness and unhappiness are seen as happiness and unhappiness by the ego, victory and loss are seen as victory and loss by the ego, gain and loss are seen as gain and loss by the ego.

Egoless actions are called akarma, actorless actions, doing things without a doer being present. Sometimes akarma is translated as non-action, to distinguish it from inaction. The Chinese have a term which means exactly the same thing: we-wei, meaning empty action, actionless action, actorless action, action in which the actor is absent.

Akarma is a term Krishna praises in the highest possible terms in the Gita. As we shall see later in greater detail, Krishna says:

karmano hyapi boddhavyam boddhavyam cha vikarmanah

akarmanashcha boddhavyam gahanaa karmano gatih ll 4.17 ll

karmany-akarma yah pashyed akarmani cha karma yah

sa buddhimaan manushyeshu sa yuktah kritsnakarmakrit ll 4.18 ll

“We have to understand what action [karma] is and we have to understand what forbidden actions [vikarma] are. We have also to understand what non-action [akarma] is. Indeed hard to understand are the ways of action. He who recognizes non-action in action and action in non-action is the wisest among men; he is a yogi and has already done all that he needs to do.”

Elsewhere Krishna says:

naiva kinchit karomeeti yukto manyeta tattwavit

pashyan shrinvan sprishan jighrann

ashnan gacchan swapan shwasan ll 5.8 ll

pralapan visrijan grihnan unmishan nimishannapi

indriyaani indriyaartheshu vartanta iti dhaarayan ll 5.9 ll

“The yogi who knows the truth thinks he does nothing at all – while seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, letting go, seizing, opening and closing the eyes – convinced as he is that it is the senses that move among the sense objects.”

The true yogi is an akarta – non-actor, non-doer, non-performer, while doing all kinds of actions like seeing, touching, eating, sleeping, coming, going and the thousand other things we all do every day.

There is a beautiful story about Krishna, Rukmini and Durvasa. Once Sage Durvasa came to meet Krishna but he had to stop on the other side of the Yamuna because the river was in spate. Krishna asked Rukmini to take some kheer to the sage and she started from the palace happily. It is only when she reached the Yamuna that Rukmini realized the river was in spate. She returned to Krishna and told him that she couldn’t cross the river because of the flood. Krishna laughed and told her to go back to the river and tell her if Krishna was a true brahmachari, she should part and give way to her. Rukmini laughed now – Krishna was her husband and the father of her children, she knew Krishna was not a brahmachari, but Krishna insisted and she went, still laughing.

To Rukmini’s amazement, when she told the Yamuna what Krishna had told her to say, the river parted and gave her way. Rukmini crossed the river, went to the sage on the other side and gave him the kheer.

Rukmini collected the empty vessels after he finished the kheer and it’s only when she reached back the Yamuna that she realized that the river was still in spate. She went back to the sage and told him about it and Durvasa laughed and told her to go back to the river and tell her if Durvasa has not eaten the kheer, she should part and give her way.  By now Rukmini was thoroughly confused but she did what the sage asked her to do, though she had just seen with her own eyes him eating all the kheer. Of course, Yamuna parted her waters and gave her way.

The whole episode was a lesson in what akarma is for Rukmini as it is for us. One can do anything and yet not do it at all if one is an akarta, a witness to what is happening, just a nimitta for things to happen through.

Akarma is when you become just a nimitta – an instrument, a passage, a tool for actions to happen through.

At one stage in the Gita, in  the Vishwarupa Darshana Yoga, Krishna tells Arjuna that all the people who stand in the battlefield have already been killed by him – by destiny, by Existence, by God, by samashti prarabdha, by the cosmic will, whatever term we prefer to use – and Arjuna has only to become a nimitta:

tasmaat twam uttishtha yasho labhaswa

jitwaa shatroon bhungkshwa raajyam samriddham

mayaivaite nihataah poorvameva

nimitta-maatram bhava savyasaachin ll 11.33 ll

“Therefore, Arjuna, get up and win glory. Defeat your enemies and enjoy the rich kingdom. They have all been already killed by me. Be just a means for things to happen through!”

Becoming a nimitta is doing akarma! When you do akarma, you become just a passage for things to flow through, as Krishna’s flute is for his music to flow through. Things happen through you and you don’t do them, you are not the doer.

And when you are not the doer, naturally, you incur no sin for those actions.

Incidentally when you do that, when you do akarma, when you become an akarta, all your actions, if they can be called your actions, become brilliant. This is the highest performance excellence. You excel in your actions to the extent you are absent in your actions! And Krishna knows, Arjuna’s name is already a synonym for excellence and if he can rise to the level of akarma, every action that comes out of him will have the stamp of the highest excellence.

So Krishna is not only teaching us how to do things we don’t want to do, which  our heart does not agree with, like in Arjuna’s case the battle at the moment, but also how to do things at the highest  level of excellence.

When you perform actions remaining the same in happiness and unhappiness, in victory and failure, and in gain and loss, you are egoless and egolessness is the art of excellence.

Yoga karmasu kaushalam, says Krishna in the Gita – yoga is excellence in action. And the path to the highest excellence is through akarma, actionless action.

At its highest level, the Gita is a book of the art of actionless action.

And remember: Doership is a myth. We do not do the things we do. They happen through us.

Though our egos wouldn’t let us agree with this.


Photo courtesy: Sathe 

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