by Swami Krishnananda
The famous doctrine of karma yoga is the theme of the Third Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. This is one of the most difficult sections in the whole text and a very important one which provides the key to an understanding of the basic principles of the whole message. It was stated earlier that action should be grounded in understanding. This was the point made out in the Second Chapter. Now, what does it mean? How is it possible to root activity in understanding? This is expounded in the Third Chapter. There are certain misconceptions prevalent in the minds of people in regard to activity. For instance, oftentimes we feel that we are fed up with activity. We can withdraw ourselves from action as such, and remain inactive and do nothing. There are occasions in life when people feel like doing nothing. And the Bhagavadgita’s answer is that this is an impossibility. There is no such thing as doing nothing, because of a very important reason, viz., the activity of the universe. The universe is ever active, and it can never be inactive. A person, any individual, anything for the matter of that, which is a part of the universe, has no freedom to maintain an independence over the prescriptions of cosmic laws. The way in which any individual has to conduct himself, the manner in which anything has to behave in this world, is decided by the law that operates in the universe as a whole. And for you to say or for me to say that I shall do this, or, I shall not do that, would be a misplacement of the understanding. The universe is not separable from the individual, and vice versa. Inasmuch as there is nothing inactive in the universe and no individual can be inactive, there is no chance of any person maintaining a silence in regard to activity. The idea of inaction arises on account of a misunderstanding of the nature of action. We feel that, if our hands and feet do not move, or if we do not speak a word, we are inactive. But action does not necessarily mean the movement of the physical limbs. It is a vibration that we set up in ourselves and in our atmosphere by the process in which the constituents of our individuality conduct themselves. Every cell of the body is active, and our mind is never inactive. To think is to act. And to be really inactive would be to cease to think. And even in the so-called mental inactivity of deep sleep the mind is subtly active in a different manner. The psychology of sleep will reveal that the mind is not really inactive even in sleep. There is no occasion conceivable when we can be totally inactive. Right from the minutest atom up to the highest conceivable galaxy one cannot see anything sitting idle or being inactive. This is one of the aspects of the reply of Krishna to Arjuna’s decision not to act. There is no such thing as ‘no action’; your action is inseparable from your being. Every finite entity is active on account of the very finitude of itself. Action is the necessary consequence of the finitude of entities.
One would wonder why should everything be active. Why is it that the whole universe is evolving and moving towards something? What is the matter? The matter is simple. The finite struggles to overcome its limitations, because the essential nature of the finite is not finitude. We are not finite entities, really speaking, and the consciousness of finitude is attempted to be overcome by the activity so-called, involving what we know as evolution. No action can be isolated from finitude. The vibration set up by every finite individual or entity is the action thereof. We are made up of various layers of personality and every layer is vibrating with a tendency to overcome the limitations of finitude, with an urge to move onward, forward, for the realisation of a wider finitude, a more comprehensive one, with the final intention of a total abolition of all finitude by an establishment in the Infinite. Until we are established in infinitude, we shall be active and, therefore, there is nothing in all the universe that can be regarded as really inactive. Inaction is a misnomer, and the absence of initiative in action in a physical form cannot be regarded as inaction. To be thinking actively and to be inactive physically is condemned vehemently in the very beginning of the Third Chapter. It is not only a hypocritical attitude on the part of the individual but a false approach to realities in general. That would be the opinion of the Teacher of the Bhagavadgita in regard to people who are physically inactive but mentally active. Mental action is real action. Our bondage or our freedom is in the way in which our mind works, and not in the manner of the movement of the physical body, merely. So, the substance of this essential point about action is that everyone is active, and everyone has to be active, on account of the very structure of the universe.
But, then, if we are compelled by the law of the universe and have to be acting in some manner or other, we appear to be helpless tools in the machinery of the cosmos. Are we such? Or have we some freedom? What is yoga? If bondage in the form of this compulsive activity cannot be escaped under any circumstance, what for is any endeavour? To this the answer is the principle of karma yoga. While karma or action binds and can bind, karma yoga which is transmuted action cannot bind and will not bind. The binding type of action is a whirling of the individual centre within its own cocoon towards the apparently conceived fulfilment of a personal objective or ulterior motive. But there is another kind of action which shall not bind. And that is designated in the Bhagavadgita as ‘yajna karma’, action performed as a sacrifice. In a mythological style, in the form of a beautiful image, Krishna says that the Creator produced the individuals in the early days of creation, with a message to everyone. The great God who created us seems to have spoken to us thus, at the time of creation, “Children, I have created you, but I have created you together with a duty.” To be born as an individual is also to be born with a duty inseparably. If we are to be free from duty, we have to be free from individuality itself. So, when we were born as individuals at the time of creation, in the origin of things, we have been sent by the Creator with a commission to perform a duty in the form of yajna, “Sahayajnah prajah srishtva purovacha prajapatih; anena prasavishyadhvam esha vo’stvishtakamadhuk” — a famous verse which sums up the principle of spiritual action. Individuals were created together with the principle of yajna, or sacrifice. The obligation to perform a duty is a call to sacrifice. And action performed as a sacrifice becomes a divine worship, and it shall not bind. Any action which is performed without the spirit of sacrifice involved in it but with the selfish intention of the fulfilment of an individual or personal motive shall bind and bring sorrow to the individual.
Now, what is this yajna, or sacrifice, with which we are born, and which is the message given to us by the Creator in the earlier days? What is yajna in whose spirit we are expected to perform action or do our duties? This is something very crucial for us to remember. The concept of Deity is brought forth as an important item in the understanding of the nature of sacrifice. The word ‘Deva’ is used in the following verse which speaks of co-operative action as the form of every type of sacrifice. The Deva is a superintending Deity. “May you be propitiating the gods (Devas) by means of your actions, activities or duties, and in return may the gods bestow upon you their blessings.” This is a mythical form given to an important scientific principle or a philosophical point involved in the performance of any action. The binding character of action consists in the neglect on the part of the performer of the action in regard to a principle that is inseparably involved in the performance thereof. We have noted on an earlier occasion that we are not the sole agents of action and that it is not true that everything is decided by us. The agent of an action is not one single individual, on account of which the fruits cannot be expected by us, solely. The important invisible factor which conditions actions of every kind is what is termed the Deity, or the ‘Deva’, in this context. There is a spiritual guiding element existing as an intermediary reality between the apparent individual agent of action and the fruit that is to accrue therefrom, the motive with which the action is performed and the ideal towards which activity is directed. Our actions are directed towards some end; this is the nature of every action. It is a means to an end. Now, this end is remotely placed away from the agent of action, and there is something in between, in the middle of the agent of action and the end aimed at through that action. That principle which is in between is the ‘Deva’, the Deity, the god, the spiritual conditioning factor, an ignorance of which is the cause of failure in the fulfilment of any purpose. To be ignorant of this principle is to be ignorant of the whole process of right action. The performance of worship, in religious parlance, to gods, deities, angels, or whatever we call them, implies an inward attunement of ourselves with a transcendent principle which lies between the subject and the object, ourselves and the end which we are aiming at. God Himself is descended, as it were, in one degree of reality in the context of our existence, in the level of reality in which we are, and to be ignorant of this fact is to be ignorant of the existence of God Himself. In one degree, in one form of intensity, God is present between us and that which we are aiming at through our performances. But we are ignorant of this secret. As we are involved in space and time, we are phenomenal individuals, our consciousness is not resting in itself, but is moving through the apertures of the senses externally towards the objects located in space and time, we are unable to be conscious of the presence of this spiritual element as a transcendent reality between us and the end of our actions.
We cannot see God with our eyes because of the fact that God is Absolute-Consciousness and ‘our’ consciousness is thrown out of ourselves with the force of desire which rushes with a tremendous velocity towards the object of desire. Desire is our bondage, action is not the bondage. Any desireful action is binding, desireless action is free. To be desireless, again, is not an easy thing, because even as every finite entity is inseparably involved in some kind of activity, it is also involved in some sort of desire. The desire of the finite is engendered by the incapacity of the finite to rest in finitude. We ask for freedom from finitude, that is our desire, and we have no other desire even when we ask for small things — it may be a cup of tea — what we are asking for is not that little drink but a freedom from the agony of finitude, the sorrow in which we are sunk by the limitations of our personality. That we cannot tolerate. We want to overcome the limitation by some means. So we run to shops, go on trekking, climb mountains, go to circus and cinema, and we do all sorts of things not for their own sake — to think so is a mistake in our minds — but for the sake of achieving an illusory freedom from finitude. It is illusory because we are here following a wrong course of action, and even this illusion of the little transcendence of finitude gives us a titillation of satisfaction. That is why we are running after the things of the world. We are fools of the first water. And so we are after the things of the world, and we obey the orders of the senses. But we cannot be conscious of what we are really intending at the base, at the root of our personality. We are not asking for the objects of the world. That is not our intention, that is not our desire. Our desire is infinitude, nothing short of that, but the senses cannot allow us to think in this manner, they are dupers of a very strong type, they are dacoits who pull us in erroneous directions. And the consciousness is caught up in this vehement activity of the dacoity of the senses. And that is the source of bondage, not action. Krishna enlightens the mind of Arjuna, “You are mistaken, my dear friend, in saying ‘I shall not act.” What does poor action do to you? It cannot harm you. It is an impersonal requisition of the law of the cosmos and in the obedience of yours in respect of it, you shall not be bound, you shall be rather liberated, because the activity of the cosmos is towards the liberation of the spirit. It is not intended for binding you, for the whole of creation moves towards Self-realisation, finally. We may call it the realisation of the Absolute; towards that end the universe is evolving and we are dragged on as when we are in a railway train which is moving. The whole cosmos is a vehicle rushing in a tremendous speed towards Universal Selfhood, the great Atman of the Cosmos, the God of Creation, the Absolute, Brahman. This being the case, it will be highly improper and unbecoming on the part of a person to think in terms of little finite desires, and to work for the fulfillment of those tinsels or petty ends forgetting the great purpose behind even our little desires and actions. Hence, perform action with this consciousness of its being a sacrifice of your individuality, gradually, by degrees towards the larger purpose of the consciousness of the Deity that is transcending both you as an agent and the end as the limited object outside. This synthesis between the subject and the object is the Deity.