The Nature of the True Religious Life
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 9: Participating in the Unity of Knowledge and Action

Throughout the process of history, religious life, which is emotionally associated with the existence of God, has often stood in contradiction to the workaday life of mankind. The conflict between knowledge and action has been an age-old problem. Is knowledge opposed to action; is action opposed to knowledge? There have been protagonists of both sides. The Mimamsa philosophy, famous in India, tirelessly proclaims that knowledge is an incentive to action, that knowledge propels you to act or conduct yourself in a particular manner toward the achievement of an end which is beyond knowledge. Knowledge is not an end in itself; it is an enlightenment which precedes a conduct, a behaviour, an adventure or a work that is to be done. After you know something, you do something. You do not merely know something and keep quiet. So the Mimamsa doctrine of action holds that every regulation, every law, every rule is a propulsion to do something. An aphorism, a sutra, from Mimamsa says: You do not sit tight doing nothing after you know dharma or law. Dharma is an incentive to action. Knowledge gives you an understanding of the way in which you have to conduct yourself in life, or do something in the field of day-to-day existence.

This seems to be an easily acceptable fact from the point of view of an ordinary commonplace observation. No one keeps quiet after knowing a fact. The knowledge of a fact is expressed in an implementation of some thought. But the doctrinaires of knowledge hold that action is opposed to knowledge because, as a whole, every incentive to action is an acquiescence in the finitude of the individual, and an inadequacy of knowledge in the proper sense of the term is the reason behind any kind of impulsion from inside.

There are two extreme camps. You may call them, if you like, the right and the left – one holding that knowledge is supreme and all action ceases on the attainment of knowledge, and the other camp holding that action can never cease and knowledge is only a help in performing action more dextrously.

The Isavasya Upanishad, to which we made reference yesterday, has tackled this problem, and on the basis of which or in consonance with which, we may say, the Bhagavadgita has its doctrine of karma yoga. This is a highly intricate technique, not easy to understand because generally people get tired of work. Man cannot easily accept that he is born only to act, to work hard and sweat throughout life. A question arises within oneself, “How long will I go on working like this? I have to retire.” There is a desire to retire from work. If this desire were not there, there would be no retirement from any kind of activity. We get tired, fatigued, exhausted, or fed up, or we feel that there is no necessity to act any more on account of having achieved what we wish to achieve through action. We act because we have to achieve an end which has not yet been attained. But once I have a grip on the goal I wish to reach, the means thereof drops automatically.

The first verse of the Isavasya Upanishad automatically gives rise to the second verse: īśāvāsyam idaṁ sarvam yat kiṁ ca jagatyāṁ jagat, tena tyaktena bhuñjitha, ma gṛdhaḥ kasyasvid dhanam, the meaning of which I tried to explain yesterday. The consequence which follows from this great dictum of the omnipresence of God is a regulation of human activity and an alignment of human existence with God-being. It is necessary that the recognition of the presence of the Almighty everywhere within and without has to be reconciled with our final existence.

Kurvann eveha karmāṇi jijīviṣet śataṁ samāḥ: You should aspire for a long life. You should not curse life. “Let me go quickly. Wretched is life; the earlier I go, the better.” Make no such statements. The life of man is not so wretched as it appears. Nor is it heaven. Na-abhinandeta maraṇaṁ na-abhinandeta jīvitam (Manu Smriti 6.2.153). The Manu Smriti says you have no right either to praise or condemn. “How beautiful is this world!” This statement is not correct. “How idiotic is this world!” This statement also is not correct. It is not so nice as it may appear to your eyes, and also it is not so stupid as it may appear sometimes.

What you call life is the placement of your personality in the context of God’s creation. This much is life. You are placed in a particular station in this vast atmosphere you call the creation of God. You know very well that you are inside this creation, a part of this creation, a part in a very vital sense, in a sense of a living relationship with the mighty expanse of God’s creation – a living relationship, not a mechanical contact. Our relationship with things in this world is vital, living, organic, integral, inseparable, not mechanistic, not a dead relation. We are not corpses, and nothing in the world is a corpse.

The Creative Will of the Supreme Being is pulsating through the veins of every individual, and this urge of the Creative Will of God is felt even in a minute atom. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, in its doctrine of creation, tells us that God became two from the state of His Supreme Oneness, by which the Upanishad intends to convey that the one integral All-being became the subject on one side and the object on the other side. God was the seer as well as the seen. He could declare regarding Himself: I am what I am. Even to declare in this manner, there should be an element of supreme subjectivity which envisages its own subjectivity as a cosmic objectivity – something beyond our heads.

The Self-consciousness of God is referred to in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: aham asmi – I am. This cosmical sense of the I-amness of God is the first step taken by Him in the act of creation. In the originality of the Absolute, there is not even the sense of I-amness. There is no subject and predicate in the Supreme Being. There is no ‘am’. The verb ‘am’ cannot be applied to God. But in the initial step in the direction of the creation of the cosmos, the stage of I-amness, or I-am-what-I-am, supervenes. This is what the Vedanta speaks of as Ishwara or Hiranyagarbha, and here the universe is organically involved in God’s existence. The universe has not come out.

But when there is a consciousness of the universe having been created, God as Supreme Subject is counterpoised to the universe as Supreme Object. The universe is one object and not many objects, and the observer of this single object is the single subject, the great mighty Creator. God visualises His creation as a single observer of a single object which is spread out before His cosmic eye, and there is a condensation of this cosmic sense, and it descends into greater and greater densities of formation and concretisation until one is split into the isolated subject and the isolated object, in the process of which condensation of the original sense we have these principles known as tanmatras, mahabhuta, etc. - shabda, sparsha, rupa, rasa, gandha; prithivi, apah, tejas, vayu, akasha: earth, water, fire, air, ether, and so on.

But there is a further coming down when the observer of the universe ceases to be a supreme individual but a finite thinking unit, one among the many others, the state in which we are today. Here we are in a state of utter finitude involved in a physical or bodily encasement. We are not merely sparks of this conflagration of the universal fire, as we used to be in our angelic condition; we are smoking, like damp fuel sunk in the flame of fire, and we have to pass through the three states of consciousness – waking, dream and sleep – which are absent in God. For the sake of the experience of these three states, we have to manufacture within our own selves the instruments of these experiences, known as the five layers: the causal, the intellectual, the mental, the vital and the physical, in Sanskrit known as the anandamaya kosha, vijnanamaya kosha, manomaya kosha, pranamaya kosha and annamaya kosha. We are encased in a fivefold coating, a dense covering of the little spark that is within us; putting on this fivefold spectacle of the koshas, we are looking at this creation of God. Therefore, it appears as if there are five things. We have five spectacles, and therefore, we see five things: earth, water, fire, air, ether. If we had one hundred spectacles, we would see one hundred things. Fortunately, we have only five. The one has been split, as it were, into the fivefold manifestation.

But God is calling every finite individual, as the father would like to have the prodigal son back. The rebellious son revolted against the father, ran away with all the little wealth that he could grab from the benevolent one who is the father, and became prodigal. The son may forget the father, but the father cannot forget the son. We are completely oblivious of the existence of God, the Supreme Father, but God is not oblivious of our existence. So God beckons every little finite unit back to Himself. “My son has gone away, and I am deeply grieved. When will he come back?” This, the father would have been thinking when the naughty one ran away due the height of his egoism. God is calling us back. This urge of evolution we think of in scientific language is God calling everyone back.

Everything is running in the direction of God, speeding with all velocity, right from the lowest to the highest. When God calls, who can resist this call? It is the centre of the universe calling everything on the periphery, described allegorically as the Rasa Lila in the Sri Bhagavada Purana – the Gopis dancing around Sri Krishna. The whole universe is restlessly moving around this central nucleus of the great Almighty. There is Rasa Lila going on everywhere in the universe. Sri Krishna is the proton, and the electrons are the Gopis, and every organisation that we set up in this world is a Rasa Lila that we are performing. There is a central chairman, a president, a king, an emperor, a monarch, whatever we call him. He is the nucleus and all others, the Gopis, are electrons going around him.

The necessity for setting up an organisation even at the atomic level is an expression of the need felt by the finite for the Infinite. All our activities, enterprises in society, are a blind groping in the dark in search of the great God whom we have lost. Blindly we are searching for God in the dark rooms of creation. In our hunger, in our thirst, in our sleep, in our fatigue, in our longings of a multitudinous variety in this world, in our births and deaths and transmigratory processes, we are asking for God. In the shops that we set up, in the travels that we undertake, in the learnings that we are imbibing in the colleges and the universities, in the cries and the sorrows and the joys and exuberations of life, we are asking for God. Everyone is restlessly dancing, crying, only for this central unit which has been severed, as it were, through consciousness by a folly inexplicable to the human mind. This restlessness is expressed as action, karma.

How can you resist doing something? You say, “I will not do anything.” Who are you to say that? No one has the capacity, the strength or the permission to say, “I will not.” To bring back the analogy of the Bhagavadgita once again, if we are all Gopis, we are also all Arjunas. As Gopis we dance around the nucleus of the Absolute; as Arjunas we are sunk in sorrow: “Oh, I will not do anything. I throw down my bow and arrow of effort and hibernate in the region of non-action.”

“What a pity,” says Sri Krishna, the Guru, the Master, the superior, our guide. Nothing in the universe can resist the call of God, and action is the response of the finite in respect of this call.

When you know this fact that you are responding to the call of God in your activities in life, your activities become karma yoga. When you do not know why you are working in this world – when you are not aware that this activity of yours is only a response to the call of God – it looks like a drudgery, a bondage, a prison house, a jail into which you have been thrown. Then you curse life, curse samsara, curse everybody, curse the Creator, and nothing is good here.

But when enlightenment dawns, when you know the purpose and the meaning and the significance behind action, you would not dread death. There is no fear of becoming extinct. Neither you lose by death, nor you gain by living. There is neither gain nor loss in life. It is an impersonal adjustment of the finite with the Infinite. This is action. It is impersonal because you are not doing it for your sake, or anybody’s sake. It is a necessity under the circumstances of your present condition of finitude. A necessity cannot be called good or bad. It is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It is a need; that is all. There the matter ends. When you say it is an inescapable necessity, you should not call it good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. These ethical epitaphs do not apply to an impersonal urge which propels you to act in this world in one way or the other.

Therefore, karma yoga is impersonal action. It is not a personal duty that you do for your own self or for your family members. When you take care of your family, when the father protects the child or the son serves the father, when you owe an allegiance to any organisation, when you do a duty of any kind, you are again responding to this universal call from the humble position in which you are placed. And in the kingdom of God, there is no first and last, no superior and inferior; no action can be dubbed as good or bad, and no action can be called necessary or unnecessary because it is not connected to you as a finite individual. It is connected to the All-Being of the universe, of which you are an inextricable part. You are doing nothing. The whole creation is pulsating with action, and the pulsation of action which is throbbing forth from the heart of the universe is felt by every part thereof, which we all are. The whole cosmos is working for God-realisation, and the impact of this work of the universe is felt by every one of us, which is why we act willy-nilly.

As the wheels of a vehicle move, you too move because you are seated in it; therefore, you are not doing anything. You are not a karta. You are not an agent of action, and therefore, you cannot reap the fruit of that action. Therefore, action cannot bind you. Karma is not bondage: na karma lipyate nare. Man, why are you afraid of karma? It cannot bind you, it cannot cling to you, it cannot cleave to the individual. Na karma lipyate. Therefore, try to live long. What do you lose by living long? Why do you say, “Let me go early?” What do you gain by leaving this world early, by committing suicide? You will be reborn into another realm.

The procession of the evolutionary urge of the universe in the various stages of its manifestation is such that no one can escape passing through all the stages. So inviting death very early is not in any way a wisdom on the part of the individual, because life is not cut off by death. It is continued in the next formation of another type of finitude. Merely because you have severed your physical connections earlier by a foolish thinking and acting, you have not gained anything. Sometimes there can be a nemesis following actions performed foolishly. The body has to drop automatically, and not by force. As a ripe fruit is automatically, spontaneously severed from the stem to which it is clinging in the tree, and it is not proper or fair to pluck a raw fruit – that would be like peeling your own skin – so is the unwisdom involved in committing suicide or killing oneself, or killing anything for the matter of that, because life in a body, in a physical embodiment, is the force of the prana exerted upon this vesture proportionate to the intensity of the desire which can and has to be expressed through this body only.

You have taken this body because of a particular desire which can be fulfilled only through this instrument, and no other instrument. You have not become a lion or a tiger or an angel. You have become this so-called person that you are. You are a man or a woman, poor or rich, whatever you are. When this particular desire has exhausted its momentum and it can have no purpose to serve through this body, it becomes a redundant old cloth, as it were, a shirt that you have to throw away. But as long as the momentum is there, it will be vitally connected to the body, and if you interfere with it when it is vitally so related to the body, you would be touching a live wire, and it will vehemently react, as electricity kicks when you touch a live wire. A sorrowful state of existence may be the nemesis that may follow from this act.

Well, now we come to the point of the great doctrine of karma which is hiddenly promulgated in this second verse of the Isavasya Upanishad, elaborated in the Bhagavadgita and all the doctrines of karma yoga. Life, as I repeated already, is a process of undergoing a training, as it were, in this field of education of the universe for the purpose of encountering the great Almighty, from Whom you have been severed at the time of the act of creation. Until you enter the Being of God, action will not cease, just as the river does not cease its roaring until it reaches the ocean. No urge can be resisted until you come face to face with the Almighty Himself.

Evaṁ tvayi nānyatheto’sti na karma lipyate nare. This law appertains to you in this condition of your existence. As you evolve higher and higher, the sense of finitude becomes less and less felt. Your dimension goes on increasing, becoming larger and larger as you ascend higher and higher in these stages of evolution. As I once told you, when you move from the base of a triangle towards the apex you are lessening the distance between the two sides of the triangle, the two sides of the triangle being the subject and the object. At the base they are quite apart, as if they are not connected with each other in any manner, but when you evolve further and further, when the synthesis between the seer and the seen is achieved in a larger and larger measure, the distance between the seer and the seen gets diminished until it is lost completely in the apex. At the point of the triangle where the two sides meet, the distance between the two sides is completely lost. The subject has become the object, and vice versa.

Until this stage of unity of the seer with the seen is achieved, so long as the finite has not entered the bosom of the Infinite, action cannot cease. Tvayi evaṁ is an ordinance in respect of you in this condition. What is the ordinance? It is to say that you have to participate in the program of the universe. Participation is your duty; doing is not your duty. You do not do anything, because you cannot do anything. Why is it that you cannot do anything? Because you cannot exist any more outside the world to which you belong.

In one verse of the Bhagavadgita, in its eighteenth chapter, it tells us that several factors are involved in the production of the result of an action. That is the reason why many times we do not succeed in our attempts in life. “Oh, I have done so much effort; I have not succeeded,” is the complaint heard everywhere. You might have put forth all the effort, granted, but other factors might not have cooperated.

Adhiṣṭhānaṁ tathā kartā karaṇaṁ ca pṛthagvidham, vividhāś ca pṛthakceṣṭā daivaṁ caivātra pañcamam (Gita 18.14), says the Bhagavadgita. The structure of the individuality – the constitution of your personality – is adhisthana. You are not as strong as an elephant, for instance. You can do a little work, but not so much as the elephant does.

The intensity or the understanding of the intellect is another factor which is called karta, the second factor. The strength of the instruments and the capacity of the instruments of the senses to perceive things properly is another factor: karaṇaṁ ca pṛthagvidham. Vividhāś ca pṛthakceṣṭā: The purpose for which you are engaging yourself in action, being multifarious, causes divided interest, and therefore, you are not wholly concentrated in any particular action. This is a fourth factor.

Lastly but not the least, and most important of all the factors, which decides the success of an action, is daivaṁ caivātra pañcamam: the extent to which you are in harmony with the will of the Creator. The percentage in which you are aligned to the cosmic will is also the percentage in which you will succeed in this world. If you are in union or in harmony with the divine will in only one percentage, then your success will be one percent, not ninety-nine percent. Here is a great doctrine of God being the Supreme Actor and the individuals being only participators. Arjuna was not the real actor. Sri Krishna was the real actor, though he was only seated and apparently doing nothing. God only sits, as it were, in His cosmic throne. As I told you the other day, His existence is action.

God need not act with hands and feet, because He is above space and time, and He is the Supreme Actor. The sun does not act with hands and feet, and does not speak with a mouth, but his very existence is the activity of the universe. Every cell of your body operates because the sun shines in the sky. Likewise, the supreme enlightenment, the brilliance of God shining in the firmament of the supreme spiritual experience has such an impact upon every cellular embodiment in the form of individualities here that everything pulsates to its tune. This is again the Rasa Lila, the dancing to the tune of God, not dancing to the tune of the sense organs and the objects.

Inasmuch as you are not the real actor, for reasons already stated, and also inasmuch as you cannot cease from action, for reasons again already stated, karma cannot bind; and karma is not irreconcilable with knowledge. Knowledge is action, and action is knowledge in the case of God. His knowledge is action. His being and consciousness are identical with His creative activity. And to the extent you are able to participate in this unity of knowledge and action which is the characteristic of God, to that extent you are a karma yogi in this world. Karma yoga is the union of knowledge and action. It is not knowledge alone, and it is not action alone; it is a blend of both, a necessity for which is again insisted upon in an enigmatic verse of the Isavasya Upanishad which comes later on: anyad evāhur vidyayā anyad āhur avidyayā, iti śuśruma dhīrāṇām ye nas tad vicacakṣire (Isa 10).

I am not commenting on the Isavasya Upanishad here. Incidentally, I have taken this theme in the context of the explanation of the nature of the true religious life, which is the theme on which I am speaking.

The true religious life, therefore, is a life of aspiration for God; yes, but it is not non-action. It is not running away from things. Who can run away from the creation of God? Soar high and higher to the highest heaven, go deep and deeper into the furthest nether regions, but you are not outside the realm of God’s creation. Therefore, how can you resist or escape from the impulse to action imparted to you by the creative will of God Himself?

Evaṁ tvayi nānyatheto’sti na karma lipyate nare, kurvann eveha karmāṇi jijīviṣet: Try to live in this world performing action – performing action not as an agent individually placed segregated from others, but participating. Parasparaṁ bhāvayantaḥ śreyaḥ param avāpsyatha (Gita 3.11), says the Bhagavadgita: Action is a cooperative function; it is not an individual enterprise. When the Upanishads or the Bhagavadgita say that you have to engage yourself in action, it means cosmic action, not your action or my action. And to make clear the fact that it is cosmic, this verse of the Bhagavadgita which I recited just now tells that cooperative interrelationship is involved in this action of karma yoga. It is a mutual alignment of individualities in a particular context or a society. When you are a member of a particular society, you work in alignment with the objectives of other members also, which again are totally aligned to the central objective of the organisation. Likewise, when I conduct myself, when I speak, when I think, when I do anything, I am in alignment with you in your thought, in your feeling, in your action, and every one of us is in alignment with the central objective of this organisation of the universe, of which God is the supreme ruler. In this sense, life is a yoga of action. And all life is yoga. Any kind of life is yoga. Any state of existence is a participation in this cosmic purpose. Therefore, life is yoga.

Life is yoga. It is not raja yoga, karma yoga, this yoga, that yoga, hatha yoga, kundalini yoga, and what not. It is a perpetual inward communion that every form of finitude establishes with the next higher stage of ascent. So every atom is performing yoga. Every cell of your body is in a state of yoga. It is crying for the Great Being. This cry of yourself for God is the action that you perform; therefore, karma is sadhana, not bondage. And karma is not merely action isolated from knowledge, it is being itself moving forward as becoming, the ocean itself surging forth towards its maker. Karma yoga is knowledge and action combined in a unique sense. It is not a coming together of two different things. They are two faces of a single body. Knowledge and action are not two things, A and B, coming together, joining hands with each other – nothing of the kind. They are two aspects of a single effort, so that true yoga is not capable of being designated by any particular name. It is a total movement towards a total experience.

This mission of human life is, therefore, an acquiescence in God’s calling, and the gospel of the Upanishads condensed in these two verses of the Isavasya is the gospel of man’s movement to God. The first verse proclaimed the glory of the omnipresence of the Supreme Being. Inasmuch as the Almighty pervades the whole of creation, there is no possessor in this world, and there is no property. Greed is unthinkable. And in this divine atmosphere of the presence of God in all things, our duty is to participate in the work of creation, which is a movement to God. Today we may call it evolution, sadhana, yoga, or by any name we like.

Life is glorious. It is not a curse. We are not in a hell. We are in the kingdom of God, and God is calling us. And our great duty in life is to listen to this call in every minute movement of nature and every adventure in life, whatever be the form it may take. This is the way in which we respond to God. An awareness of this fact is yoga. Therefore, īśāvāsyam idaṁ is the theorem, and the corollary that follows from this theorem is kurvann eveha karmāṇi jijīviṣet. In mathematics we have a theorem and a corollary. Some great doctrine is stated in the theorem and something follows from it automatically. The great doctrine that is stated is that God is All-being, īśāvāsyam idaṁ; and the corollary that follows is that action is inescapable, action is not bondage, and we are not the performer of the action, we are only a participator in the great urge of the creation of God, the urge towards God-being.

Therefore, in karma yoga three points have to be remembered. The first is that we cannot escape from action. The second point is that we are not the doer of the action; we are only a participator. The third is that karma cannot bind, as we are usually told. Karma is inseparable from knowledge, and knowledge is inseparable from God’s existence. Knowledge is chaitanya, chit, which is the essential nature of God, and that is inseparable from action. So action is, in a way, an expression of God Himself in the form of this creation, which is called visargah in the eighth chapter of the Bhagavadgita.

The whole universe is the action of God, and as you are involved in this action of God, you are involved perpetually in action, but whose action? In the action of God. So God acting is karma yoga, and you, too, are supposed to be performing this yoga when you are participating in this great action of God.