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 Inaction in Action, and Action in Inaction: Let us find out from Bhagvad Gita

Reading Time: 8 minutes

In the coming verses, Shri Krishna wants to address Arjuna’s confusion regarding his statement that he does not do anything even though he is the creator of the universe. Such a statement sounds contradictory. Shri Krishna acknowledges that he created the entire universe and the four social castes, yet he states that he is not an agent of action. 

Shri Krishna’s statement can be interpreted in the context of consciousness (atma). Your body, mind, and senses are constantly engaged in action. But atma is eternally still and inactive.

For example, you chose to read this article. That choice was an act and a decision. Who decided to read this piece? Who is the doer of the decision to read?

Decision-making takes place in your intellect (buddhi). It’s a process where you evaluate options. After comparing options, you select the best and engage yourself in that option. That whole process occurs in your buddhi, which orders your mind to pay attention to whatever you are reading. All of these actions are controlled by your intellect. 

Consciousness vs Intellect

Consciousness is your essential nature. As consciousness, you are the one who observes whatever is happening in your mind. All the decision-making processes take place in the mind, they all become known to you, and they are all observed by you because you are a conscious observer. Your essential nature as pure consciousness is the aware observer of whatever takes place in your mind.

Just like how the whole decision-making process takes place in your mind, you are the aware observer of that decision-making process. For this reason, in your fundamental sense of consciousness, you did not choose to read this article. The decision-making took place in your intellect. Atma, consciousness, does not select or do anything at all.

That is the basis for Shri Krishna’s assertion that he does not do anything. 

You might ask: could this conclusion then not be distorted to avoid taking responsibility for your actions?

Suppose you hurt someone. Afterward, you state that it wasn’t you who hurt said person since it is impossible for you to do anything. That would be a massive misapplication of these teachings. To know that you do not do anything at all, to see that you are pure consciousness, is to be enlightened. And, as we know, those who are enlightened are not driven by raga-dvesha. We also know that harmful acts are driven by raga-dvesha. We can conclude that no enlightened person would be compelled to commit a sinful deed by this logic.

How Do We Distinguish Action From Inaction?

कर्मण्यकर्म य: पश्येदकर्मणि च कर्म य: |

स बुद्धिमान्मनुष्येषु स युक्त: कृत्स्नकर्मकृत् || 4.18||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 18

One who sees inaction in action and action in inaction, that person is wise among men. That person is mature and accomplished.

Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 18 (English Translation)

Action in Inaction

Many times there are people who find their social duties as burdensome and remain in inaction. They are giving up their action physically, but their mind continues to remain in action by contemplating different thoughts. Such people may appear to be inactive but their lethargy and running away from responsibilities is actually a sinful action. For Arjuna, choosing not to fight is the absence of action, but that decision itself is an action. A wise person understands that inaction is one running away from their duties and that this decision is an active choice.

Inaction in Action

Let us take an example of Karma Yogis. They execute their duties without getting attach to the results, and dedicating their actions to God. Thus they are involved in all kinds of actions but at the same time not entangled in karmic reactions.  This behaviour can be considered as inaction in action. There have been many kings in Indian history like Druv, Prahlad, Yudhisthir, Prithu and Ambarish etc. who performed their kingly duties to the best of their abilities as karma yogis. Since their actions were not entangled in material desires, their actions were termed as inactions.

The wise one knows two things: the body and mind are engaged in the performance of action, but your true self is not. The other thing is that ceasing to perform your duties is not inaction; rather, it’s the avoidance of responsibility, and there is a choice involved in that. One who recognizes these two truths is wise. They cease to identify themself as a doer.

Do Enlightened Beings Have Desires?

यस्य सर्वे समारम्भा: कामसङ्कल्पवर्जिता: |

ज्ञानाग्निदग्धकर्माणं तमाहु: पण्डितं बुधा: || 4.19||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 19

The enlightened sages call those persons wise, whose every action is free from the desire for material pleasures and who have burnt the reactions of work in the fire of divine knowledge.

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 19 (English Translation)

This verse further describes the enlightened person. The enlightened person is driven to perform activities but not driven by raga-dvesha. The first step toward enlightenment is recognizing that no activity can bring perfect peace and contentment. That source of uninterrupted contentment and peace already lies within you. With this recognition, activities will be free from desire. The enlightened person is one whose karma has been burnt in the fire of wisdom.

Knowledge burns away the veil of ignorance. You will no longer identify yourself with the body, mind, and sense complex when this happens. Instead, you will know that you are the conscious observer of the activities performed by your body, mind, and senses. As the aware observer, you will understand that these actions take place in your presence but without your active engagement and without tainting or affecting you in any way whatsoever. Your consciousness is utterly unaffected by body and mind.

Does Withdrawing From Action Lead to Eternal Contentment?

त्यक्त्वा कर्मफलासङ्गं नित्यतृप्तो निराश्रय: |

कर्मण्यभिप्रवृत्तोऽपि नैव किञ्चित्करोति स: || 4.20||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 20

Giving up attachment for the fruits of action, always content, free from dependence, even when engaged in action he does no action whatsoever.

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 20 (English Translation)

We are compelled to get what we think is necessary for our well-being and compelled to avoid what we believe is harmful. We define this attachment as emotional dependence. In general, we are emotionally dependent. Our contentment depends on getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t want. Of course, in life, can you control the entire universe to ensure that you always get what you want and avoid what you don’t want. It’s impossible. This means that if your contentment depends on your compulsions, you will be deprived of contentment by that dependence. 

Many people have busy, demanding lives, and withdrawing from one’s responsibilities might seem like a solution to becoming more content. However, this is a misconception. Contentment does not require withdrawal from action. It does not make a difference whether they are engaged or withdrawn for one who is truly content. Contentment does not depend on withdrawal from action, it depends on the absence of raga-dvesha. And the absence of raga-dvesha is only possible once the veil of ignorance is removed when one discovers their true nature and that they are full and complete.

An enlightened person is present and engaged but is not controlled by raga-dvesha. For example, when you have two teams, you identify with one of the two teams. Suppose you watch a sporting event without any identification with a team at all. If you are not identified with a team, you just watch passively and detached. When you identify with one team you are not detached. If your team wins, you are happy, and if they lose, you are sad. An enlightened person would be like a detached observer, without caring about who wins or loses.

Are Enlightenment and Action Mutually Exclusive?

One can be enlightened even while being engaged in action. Many traditions depict an enlightened person as one who is deeply absorbed in meditation. It’s true that when we are absorbed in deep meditation, we appreciate the fullness of our true selves. However, it is not necessary to be in a constant meditative state in order to be enlightened. 

Shri Krishna says that atma does not do anything, even when you are engaged in action. The stillness of consciousness is not affected by the activities of the body and mind. There is no necessity of getting rid of the natural activities of the body and mind. God gave us a body and mind capable of activity—why should we want to get rid of it? We can appreciate our full completeness amid intense activity. The activity of the body and mind does not disturb the stillness of atma

Suppose in the sea there is a raging storm. There is still undisturbed quiet if you are in that sea and you go down into the sea by 10 feet below the surface. But on the surface of the sea, there is a catastrophe. Just below the surface, there is perfect stillness. This metaphor suggests that despite the intense activity of the body and mind, below the surface is the stillness of atma. The aware observer is not engaged or affected by the activity.

What Motivates the Behavior of an Enlightened Person?

निराशीर्यतचित्तात्मा त्यक्तसर्वपरिग्रह: |

शारीरं केवलं कर्म कुर्वन्नाप्नोति किल्बिषम् || 4.21||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 21

Free from expectations and the sense of ownership, with the mind and intellect fully controlled, they incur no sin even though performing actions by their body.

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 21 (English Translation)

As we know, an unenlightened person is motivated by raga and dvesha. If an unenlightened person is motivated by compulsion, what drives one who is enlightened? 

While an enlightened person is engaged in karma, it is only for the sake of maintaining the body. 

An enlightened person who is hungry will eat. When they are tired, they will sleep. The behavior of an enlightened person is driven by what is natural and what is natural to the body. This body is the product of your karma. Therefore, taking care of this body is a matter of karma, and you are fulfilling the karmas with which you are born. We are all born with certain karmas, and by taking care of this body, those karmas get fulfilled. In this way, an enlightened person lives out life by fulfilling their karmas.

The karmas with which you are born are not limited to only taking care of your body. They are very complex and can be fructified in many ways. One way that past karmas fructify is through activities like helping others. 

In past lives, we were all blessed by so many people who helped us. Therefore, since we have been the recipient of other peoples’ blessings, it stands to reason that we would be born with karmas that are fructified when we help others. This particular understanding is used to explain why enlightened people are generally engaged in helping others. 

One incurs no sin while engaged in natural activities, such as eating or sleeping. Harmful activity is driven by raga and dvesha. If you were content and at peace, what could compel you to commit an act of adharma? An enlightened person who is engaged in natural activities that are not products of raga and dvesha does not commit sinful acts.

What the Gita Teaches Us

Even while engaged in action, that enlightened person does not do anything at all. The enlightened person is not identified with the body or mind but with pure consciousness. One who depends on external things for their contentment, that dependence will rob you of contentment. One who has no dependence on external situations can never have their contentment robbed away from them, and that person is eternally content. That said, we don’t have to withdraw from external activities to enjoy peace. What helps us toward contentment is the spiritual wisdom taught in the Gita.