How can one understand “action in inaction and inaction in action”

by Chaitanya CharanApril 3, 2012

From: Raghottama Dasa

How to understand “action in inaction and inaction in action” as mentioned in Gita 5.17, please explain with some examples.


(Transcription done by Rupak Panigrahy)

This particular verse is one of the most puzzling verses in bhagvat gita. 

Bhagavat Gita 4.18.

karmany akarma yah pasyed

akarmani ca karma yah

sa buddhiman manusyesu

sa yuktah krtsna-karma-krt


So in this section of Bhagvat Gita Lord Krishna is explaining how one can act in a way that does not cause bondage. So here he is saying that a person who has a particular vision which is mentioned in this verse will be yuktah. He will be well connected, he will be wise, can all sorts of work getting bound. What is the vision that such a person has. (karmanya akarmah yah pashyet) one who sees that even when action is performed atually there is  inaction and secondly he says that (akarmayi cha karmayah) even when there is no action performed still there is action that is performed. This seems to be very bewildering. And srila prabhupad’s translation action in action and inaction in action is not just a tongue twister but it is also a brain twister. Conclusion for understanding this verse properly is the point that although the same words are repeated in both the lines karma and akarma in the first and second line in the four line verse in the two lines they dont mean the same thing. The word karma can have multiple meanings. Karma can mean action such as we have to do our karma. So that means we have to our action. Karma can also mean the reaction we get to our actions. He is suffering because of his karma that means he is suffering because of his karmic reactions. Or karma can also refer to whole system of action and reaction, as we mentioned the law of karma. And fourthly the word karma can also refer to one particular kind of action. So if you look at 4.17 the verse before this — there lord krishna is talking about 3 kinds of actions.


karmano hy api boddhavyam

boddhavyam ca vikarmanah

akarmanas ca boddhavyam

gahana karmano gatih



So here in this verse krishna uses three words karma, vikarma and akarma. So here karma refers to action that is in accordance with scriptures. So it refers to basically punya karma. So in this verse in this context the word karma refers to pious or righteous action according to scriptures. vikarma viruddha rupena karma refers to action that is contrary to scripture that is immoral. And that leads to bad reaction. So karma is punya and leads to good reactions and akarma refers in that particular verse not to inaction but to non reactive action. That action that does not produce any reaction. So I will repeat the four meanings of the word karma.

1. karma can mean action in general

2. karma can mean the reaction to action

3. karma can mean the whole system of action and reaction.

4. or karma can refer to one specific category or type of action that is pious action.


So this is one of the challenges of studying scripture without the guidance of the parampara. That in Sanskrit the words are multivalent. The same word can have multiple meanings. And unless we know the context we cant understand the text. Just by using a dictionary unless we understand the broad culture in which it is spoken the broad philosophical context the words are being used just a dictionary will more confuse than illuminate us.


So now regarding the word akarma. The word akarma could have two meanings. The first one the literal meaning would be inaction. karma is action. Akarma can be inaction. The second word of the meaning akarma is non reactive action. As I mentioned earlier action that does not produce any reaction.


So now let us look at the two lines of this verse with this background. karmanya akarmah yah pashyet. In action one sees inaction. So this is the meaning of this verse. karmanya akarmah yah pashyet. karmanya is in action , two words ‘in’ ‘action’. akarma refers to inaction. One word. One who sees inaction in action. So now let us see which of the various names of karma and akarma apply over here. So essentially what lord krishna is telling is that somebody might be doing work but he will not get reactions for that work if he is  doing it in a devotional consciousness or service to the lord. So that kind of work is non reactive. So here krishna is referring to arjuna. Arjuna, you may fight in this war, but if you are doing it as a service to me then even when you act you will not get any reactions. So this verse if you want to freeze it more clearly then you can say one who sees that even in spite of the performance of the work performance of activity there is no reaction. So in this verse karma refers to action and akarma refers to no reacion. So one who sees that despite performance of action there is no karmic bondage, there is no reaction. One who sees such a person , such a vision, that person is enlightened. Now what is the next verse saying. Next line saying rather. akarmani cha karmayah. action in inaction. akarmani is inaction and karma here is action. So waht does this mean. This means that somebody is externally not doing any activity. So akarma in this line means not no karmic reaction but it means inactivity. So even when one is not performing any activity one is inactive, still what happens — cha karmayah. karma refers not to the activity but here karma refers to the reaction to our activity. It refers to karmic bondage. So Krishna is telling here that even when one does not perform any work still one gets the karmic reaction. So how can that happen. That krisha has explained in detail, explemplified in 3.6 in the Bhagvat Gita.


karmendriyani samyamya

ya aste manasa smaran

indriyarthan vimudhatma

mithyacarah sa ucyate



So krishna says here that if somebody controls the external senses of action but internally contemplating on the sense objects then such a person is a hypocrite. and such a person krishna says not only deludes the world but deludes himself also. So why ? The world may think that he is advanced, he may also imagine that I am making advancement but he is actually just staying implicated within the cycle of desires and their consequences. So such a person even if not doing any action at a physical level, he is not doing any activity his mind is doing a lot of activity. And even from that mental activity there is reaction, there will be karmic bondage. Of course Bhagvat Gita is spoken right at the start of kaliyuga. In kaliyuga parikshit maharaj mentions; SBM it is mentioned kali had this good quality in kaliyuga the wrong that we perform in our mind we are not given karmic reaction for that. Because people’s minds are wildly out of control so that exemption is given. But still we are not given reactions as long as things stay in our mind. But if we let things stay in our mind those things wil surely express themselves in our words and in our actions sooner or later. often sooner than later. so therefore it is best to avoid things , avoid having sinful thoughts even in our minds. Krishna is speaking in dwapara yuga this verse. that time even if one has sinful thoughts especially Somebody is acting as if that person is renounced, so that applys not only to renunciates but all devotees who are committed to following the four regulative principles. So externally they show to the world that they follow the four regulative principles but internally they contemplate on breaking those principles then krishna is telling that such a person will get reactions. So akarmani cha karmayah. Even if a person does not perform any activity still that person gets karmic reactions.


So one who understands this dynamism, this deep dynamism which ultimately based on desires not just external actions such a person krishna is telling is enlightened.


So I will repeat what this verse means. It means that you can keep the two examples of arjuna as a warrior, to understand the first and a hypocritical meditator as an example for the second line. So even if one performs external activity still one does not get any reaction, that is the meaning of the first line. So instead of the word acion which prabhupad uses we can use the word activity to be clear. So even when there is performance of activity there is no reaction. so instead the word inaction we use the word no reaction to make things very clear. So that is the meaning of the first line. So even when we do activities still we dont get any reactions if we are doing that in a mood of devotional service. And then the second line means even if one is not doing activity, so akarma here , in the previous line akarma refers to no karmic reaction, here akarma refers to inactivity. So again for inaction we use the inactivity. So even when there is inactivity, so in this line the word karma refers not to action as it referred to in the previous line. here it refers to karmic reaction. So even when ther is no external activity still there will be karmic reaction because our desires are racing along sinful tracks. And desires also bring consequences. So actually in this verse srila prabhupad translates everything very literalistically and by translating literalistically he gives us a glimplse of how confusing Bhagvat Gita would have been if we just had a literalistic translation throughout. Mercifully for us srila prabhupad does not do this sort of translation throughout the Gita. He actually makes things very clear in his translations and also in his purports. But here just to give the glimpse of the enigma and the puzzle that the Gita is if we just if we just try to understand it not by seeing the culture in the context but just the language then it could be very confusing. So we can be grateful to srila prabhupad he has given us Bhagvat Gita as it is and he has given us a clear understanding of the Bhagvat Gita. Thank you.

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Chaitanya Charan