Gita Chapter 4, Verse 18 – action and inaction

This post is about the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, Verse 18.

verse-04-18-01

karmany akarma yah pasyed akarmani ca karma yah
sa buddhiman manusyesu sa yuktah krtsna-karma-krut

Translation: One who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is intelligent among men, and he is in the transcendental position, although engaged in all sorts of activities.

Meaning: This verse describes the state of Turiya, the fourth state beyond Waking, Swapna and Susupti, that one reaches after the dissolution of the limiting ego. In such a state, one no longer remains the doer and is released from the bondage of Nature. One feels at peace during intense activity and is able to conduct all activity on this foundation of peace.

Sri Aurobindo in the Essays on the Gita

TO ATTAIN to the divine birth, – a divinising new birth of the soul into a higher consciousness, – and to do divine works both as a means towards that before it is attained and as an expression of it after it is attained, is then all the Karmayoga of the Gita. The Gita does not try to define works by any outward signs through which it can be recognisable to an external gaze, measurable by the criticism of the world; it deliberately renounces even the ordinary ethical distinctions by which men seek to guide themselves in the light of the human reason. The signs by which it distinguishes divine works are all profoundly intimate and subjective; the stamp by which they are known is invisible, spiritual, supra-ethical.

They are recognisable only by the light of the soul from which they come. For, it says, “what is action and what is inaction, as to this even the sages are perplexed and deluded,” because, judging by practical, social, ethical, intellectual standards, they discriminate by accidentals and do not go to the root of the matter; “I will declare to thee that action by the knowledge of which thou shalt be released from all ills. One has to understand about action as well as to understand about wrong action and about inaction one has to understand; thick and tangled is the way of works.” Action in the world is like a deep forest, gahana, through which man goes stumbling as best he can, by the light of the ideas of his time, the standards of his personality, his environment, or rather of many times, many personalities, layers of thought and ethics from many social stages all inextricably confused together, temporal and conventional amidst all their claim to absoluteness and immutable truth, empirical and irrational in spite of their aping of right reason. And finally the sage seeking in the midst of it all a highest foundation of fixed law and an original truth finds himself obliged to raise the last supreme question, whether all action and life itself are not a delusion and a snare and whether cessation from action, akarma, is not the last resort of the tired and disillusioned human soul. But, says Krishna, in this matter even the sages are perplexed and deluded. For by action, by works, not by inaction comes the knowledge and the release.

What then is the solution? what is that type of works by which we shall be released from the ills of life, from this doubt, this error, this grief, from this mixed, impure and baffling result even of our purest and best-intentioned acts, from these million forms of evil and suffering? No outward distinctions need be made, is the reply; no work the world needs, be shunned; no limit or hedge set round our human activities; on the contrary, all actions should be done, but from a soul in Yoga with the Divine, yuktah krutsnakarmakrut. Akarma, cessation from action is not the way; the man who has attained to the insight of the highest reason, perceives that such inaction is itself a constant action, a state subject to the workings of Nature and her qualities. The mind that takes refuge in physical inactivity, is still under the delusion that it and not Nature is the doer of works; it has mistaken inertia for liberation; it does not see that even in what seems absolute inertia greater than that of the stone or clod, Nature is at work, keeps unimpaired her hold. On the contrary in the full flood of action the soul is free from its works, is not the doer, not bound by what is done, and he who lives in the freedom of the soul, not in the bondage of the modes of Nature, alone has release from works. This is what the Gita clearly means when it says that he who in action can see inaction and can see action still continuing in cessation from works, is the man of true reason and discernment among men. This saying hinges upon the Sankhya distinction between Purusha and Prakriti, between the free inactive soul, eternally calm, pure and unmoved in the midst of works, and ever active Nature operative as much in inertia and cessation as in the overt turmoil of her visible hurry of labour. This is the knowledge which the highest effort of the discriminating reason, the buddhi, gives to us, and therefore whoever possesses it is the truly rational and discerning man, sa buddhimān manushyeshu, – not the perplexed thinker who judges life and works by the external, uncertain and impermanent distinctions of the lower reason. Therefore the liberated man is not afraid of action, he is a large and universal doer of all works, krutsna-karmakrut; not as others do them in subjection to Nature, but poised in the silent calm of the soul, tranquilly in Yoga with the Divine. The Divine is the lord of his works, he is only their channel through the instrumentality of his nature conscious of and subject to her Lord. By the flaming intensity and purity of this knowledge all his works are burned up as in a fire and his mind remains without any stain or disfiguring mark from them, calm, silent, unperturbed, white and clean and pure. To do all in this liberating knowledge, without the personal egoism of the doer, is the first sign of the divine worker.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita: The Divine Worker

Sri Aurobindo in the Synthesis of Yoga

What then are the lines of Karmayoga laid down by the Gita? Its key principle, its spiritual method, can be summed up as the union of two largest and highest states or powers of consciousness, equality and oneness. The kernel of its method is an unreserved acceptance of the Divine in our life as in our inner self and spirit. An inner renunciation of personal desire leads to equality, accomplishes our total surrender to the Divine, supports a delivery from dividing ego which brings us oneness. But this must be a oneness in dynamic force and not only in static peace or inactive beatitude. The Gita promises us freedom for the spirit even in the midst of works and the full energies of Nature, if we accept subjection of our whole being to that which is higher than the separating and limiting ego. It proposes an integral dynamic activity founded on a still passivity; a largest possible action irrevocably based on an immobile calm is its secret, – free expression out of a supreme inward silence.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – I: Self-Surrender in Works – The Way of the Gita

5 thoughts on “Gita Chapter 4, Verse 18 – action and inaction

  1. Pingback: Aspects of Karma-Yoga « Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  2. Pingback: How to act in a unstable world | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  3. bhattathiri

    Excellent website.
    Our professional life and career depends on what we do how we do what we do and finally on critical decision making. We are constantly faced with these three posers in our career. The Bhagavad Gita expounds some fundamental insight which can be applied in our daily lives and are very relevant in our professional lives as well. To the first question of what is right action ” The Gita tells us that it is superior to perform actions according to our own nature and not according to the whim or fancy… Excellence through the Gita Our professional life and career depends on what we do how we do what we do and finally on critical decision making. We are constantly faced with these three posers in our career. The Bhagavad Gita expounds some fundamental insight which can be applied in our daily lives and are very relevant in our professional lives as well. To the first question of what is right action ” The Gita tells us that it is superior to perform actions according to our own nature and not ac…

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