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Indian Sadhu

Do I Have to Cease Action to Become Enlightened?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

To answer this question, we can study Arjuna’s question and Krishna’s response at the start of Chapter 3 in the the Bhagavad Gita:

अर्जुन उवाच |

ज्यायसी चेत्कर्मणस्ते मता बुद्धिर्जनार्दन |

तत्किं कर्मणि घोरे मां नियोजयसि केशव || 3.1 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 1 (In Sanskrit)

Arjuna said, if better than karma, you consider knowledge to be, O Krishna, then why, into this gruesome deed, do you compel me, O Krishna. || 3.1 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 1 (Engish Translation)

Arjuna questions why he is compelled to fight if spiritual wisdom is better than karma yoga. Why must Arjuna fight if spiritual wisdom is better than fighting this battle?

Arjuna argues that enlightenment is preferable over karma yoga since karma yoga is only the means to achieve the goal of enlightenment.

At the beginning of chapter 2, Arjuna briefly considered the possibility of running away from the battlefield and taking to the life of a monk. It is a common belief that to become enlightened one must completely renounce the world. This is false. Arjuna continues his argument:

व्यामिश्रेणेव वाक्येन बुद्धिं मोहयसीव मे |

तदेकं वद निश्चित्य येन श्रेयोऽहमाप्नुयाम् || 3.2 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 2 (In Sanskrit)

With apparently contradictory words you seem to confuse my intellect. Tell me certainly that one (path) by which I shall gain the highest good. ||3.2||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 2 (English Translation)

Arjuna is thinking about which single path will lead him to the single goal. The path of karma yoga is to remain on the battlefield. Arjuna believes the other path is leaving the battlefield, renouncing the world, and spending the rest of his days in spiritual study. Arjuna says that only those two options exist, to which Krishna replies:

लोकेऽस्मिन्द्विविधा निष्ठा पुरा प्रोक्ता मयानघ |

ज्ञानयोगेन साङ्ख्यानां कर्मयोगेन योगिनाम् || 3.3 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 3 (In Sanskrit)

The Blessed Lord said, in this world there are two paths described by me long ago, O Arjuna, jnana-yoga for renunciates and karma-yoga for aspirants. ||3.3||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 3 (English Translation)

There are two kinds of lifestyles that were described long ago: jnana-yoga and karma-yoga

Jnana-yoga means the single-pointed pursuit of spiritual growth to the extent of renouncing all conventional worldly activities. Jnana-yoga is often used to describe Vedanta or the pursuit of knowledge. Here, however, jnana-yoga is the exclusive pursuit of spiritual wisdom. This activity is for samkhya or those who have renounced the world. The other path, karma-yoga, is for those who haven’t renounced the world. Both paths are pursuing moksha with equal intensity.

It is not true that one who has renounced the world can more effectively pursue moksha. It does not mean they are further along on a spiritual path or have reached the end of this path. 

Does Renouncing the World Automatically Make Someone Enlightened?

न कर्मणामनारम्भान्नैष्कर्म्यं पुरुषोऽश्नुते |

न च संन्यसनादेव सिद्धिं समधिगच्छति || 3.4 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 4 (In Sanskrit)

By refraining from action a person does not gain actionlessness. Nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection. || 3.4 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 4 (English Translation)

Krishna refutes the idea that renunciation is somehow a superior path to enlightenment. By refraining from becoming engaged in action, a person does not experience action-lessness. It does not lead to a state of perfection where you feel that there is nothing further to be done. 

A person does not gain enlightenment by refraining from action. To remove the veil of ignorance requires spiritual wisdom. Mere renunciation doesn’t necessarily lead to spiritual wisdom. 

Imagine that entering a cave is symbolic of leading a life of renunciation from the world.

If your mind is full of worldly thoughts (raga and dvesha) before entering the cave, you would still have desires after entering. These do not go away just by entering the cave.

If your true self was covered by a veil of ignorance, you would bring that veil of ignorance with you into the cave. If your mind is full of ignorance, and you meditate, what are you meditating on? You can only meditate on what you know, not what you don’t know. If you enter a cave without knowing your true nature, you cannot meditate on it. Eventually, you would realize that you will not become enlightened by meditating in the cave.

Karma yoga is an essential step of preparation on a spiritual path. If your path eventually leads to renunciation, you must practice karma yoga first.

Is it Possible to Lead a Life of Inaction?

न हि कश्चित्क्षणमपि जातु तिष्ठत्यकर्मकृत् |

कार्यते ह्यवश: कर्म सर्व: प्रकृतिजैर्गुणै: || 3.5 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 5 (In Sanskrit)

No one, even for a moment, ever remains without action because all are compelled to perform action by the qualities of nature. ||3.5||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 5 (English Translation)

Krishna is beginning to develop the point here that action is natural. Everyone will be engaged in some type of action or another without choice. Three qualities drive people (the principles of purity, passion, and darkness) and are present in every mind. These three qualities will compel every person to be engaged in some activity. 

It is natural for every person to be engaged in action. Ishvara created us with arms, legs, and a powerful mind. We are designed for action. Krishna’s point is that since we are designed for action, to renounce action is unnatural. It might be suited for certain people who live as a recluse. But in general, people are designed to be engaged in action. Since you are already designed for action and inclined to be engaged in action, let that serve as a spiritual practice. That is karma yoga. Since we are naturally inclined to be engaged in action, what we can do is redirect that action. Redirect means a shift in motivation where your actions are no longer being driven by desire. 

At first, Raga and dvesha drive our actions in an attempt to gain worldly contentment. After this conversion of attitude brought my karma yoga, instead, your actions will be driven by dharma to lead you onwards on your path of spiritual growth. Instead of seeking worldly contentment, you are now seeking inner peace and contentment.

What the Gita Teaches Us

No matter which path in life we decide to follow, refraining from action does not lead to enlightenment. For some people, renunciation might be helpful to gain enlightenment. Regardless, karma yoga is an essential step to reaching enlightenment. Action in this world is a perfectly natural inclination. We can use our actions to perform karma yoga to reach enlightenment.