Understanding “action in inaction and inaction in action” as mentioned in Bhagavad-Gita 5.17.

by June 12, 2012

From: Raghottama Dasa

QUESTION: 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)

ANSWER: This particular verse is one of the most puzzling verses in the bhagavad gita. Its 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 Bhagavad 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 this particular vision which is mentioned in this verse will be yuktah. He will be well connected, he will be wise and he can do all sorts of work without getting bound. What is the vision that this particular person has? karmany akarmah yah pashyet – one who sees that even when action is performed, actually there is  inaction. And secondly He says that akarmany cha karma yah – one who sees that even when there is no activity performed still there is action that is performed. This seems to be very bewildering. And Srila Prabhupad’s translation action in inaction and inaction in action is not just a tongue twister but it is also a brain twister. Crucial 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 this four line verse, in the two lines they do not 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 do our action. Karma can also mean the reaction that 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 the whole system of action and reaction, as when we say 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 scriptures 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. So the 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 can’t understand the text just by using a dictionary. Unless we understand the broad culture in which it is spoken, the broad philosophical context in which the words are being used, just a dictionary will more confuse us than illuminate us.

So now, regarding the word akarma – the word akarma can have two meanings. The literal first meaning would be inaction. Karma is action. Akarma can be inaction. And the second meaning of the word 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 word. karmanya akarmah yah pashyet. Karmanya is ‘in action’, two words – ‘in action’. Akarma refers to inaction. It’s one word. One who sees inaction in action. So now, Let us see which of the various meanings 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 of 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 we 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 reaction. 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. One who sees action in inaction, akarmani is inaction and karma here is action. So what 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 Krishna has explained or hinted, more than hinted rather, exemplified in 3.6 in the Bhagavad 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- karmendriyani samyamya – but is 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 such a person deludes himself also. So… why ? The world may think that he is advanced and 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 he is not doing any action at a physical level, he is not doing any activity, but his mind is doing a lot of activity. And even from that mental activity, there is reaction. There will be karmic bondage. Of course Bhagavad Gita is spoken right at the start of kaliyuga. In kaliyuga, Parikshit Maharaj mentions this or 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 only as long as things stay in our mind. But if we let things stay in our mind, then those things will surely express themselves in our words and in our actions sooner or later. Often sooner than later. So therefore it is best to avoid thing, avoid having sinful thoughts even in our minds. But Krishna is speaking in dwapara yuga this verse. And that time, it also applies that even if one has sinful thoughts, especially Somebody is acting as if that person is renounced, so that applies not only to renunciates, but to all devotees who are committed to following the four regulative principles. So externally they show to the world that they are following 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 line 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 here the word instead of action as Srila Prabhupada has used, we can use the word activity to be clear. So even when there is performance of activity still there is no reaction. So instead of 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 don’t get any reactions if we are doing that in the mood of devotional service. And then the second line means that 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 instead of  inaction we use the word 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 there is no external activity, still there will be karmic reaction because our desires are racing along sinful tracks. And that desires also bring consequences. So actually in this verse Srila Prabhupada translates everything very literalistically and by translating literalistically, he gives us a glimplse of how confusing Bhagavad 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 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 Prabhupada that he has given us Bhagavad Gita as it is and he has given us a clear understanding of the Bhagvat Gita.

Thank you.

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