What does akarma mean – does akarma free us from past karma?
Transcribed by: Keshavgopal Das
Question: What does akarma mean – does akarma free us from past karma
Answer: The word akarma in BG has two distinct meanings. Verse BG 4.18 uses the word akarma as follows – karmany akarma yaḥ pashyed, akarmani ca karma yah (One who sees inaction in action and action in inaction is intelligent among men). Here Lord Krishna uses a literary device called zeugma, which uses one word to refer to two or more different things, in more than one way. For example, let us look at two sentences – (i) he took his hat, (ii) he took his leave. In first sentence “took his hat” means “picking up the hat” while in second sentence “took his leave” is a phrase which means that the “person left the place.” Here in BG 4.18 the word akarma and karma are used as zeugma. The word akarma can mean either (i) no reaction i.e. an action that does not produce any reaction or (ii) no action i.e. doing nothing. Similarly, the word karma has two meanings in this verse: (i) action i.e. doing an activity or (ii) reaction to the activity. Apart from these two meanings of word karma, it can also refer to two other meanings in general – (i) system of action and reaction e.g. when we say “law of karma” or (ii) a particular type of action i.e. prescribed duties.
In this verse, the first line is karmany akarma yaḥ pashyed. It means that while doing an action (karmany) there is no reaction (akarma). Krishna is telling to Arjuna that if you fight (karma) without any selfish motive, or fight in a mood of service, then such a fight will not bring you any reaction (akarma). Here the word akarma means “no reaction”.
In the second line of the verse – akarmani ca karma yah – Krishna says that one who does no action (akarmani) i.e. the person goes to the forest, renounces the world and does nothing, such a person can also get karmic reaction (karma). How? If they are contemplating on sense objects, they are escaping from duty, they will also get karmic reaction (karma).
In this verse, Krishna is emphasizing that a person who sees beyond external action or no action but sees the internal motivation, such a person is a seer. If the motivation is to act in a mood of service, they are not going to get any reaction (akarma). However, if they are acting in the mood of self-centred enjoyment, then they are going to get reaction (karma).
Basically, the word akarma means that if we are serving Krishna, such an activity is not going to get any reaction. Akarma itself does not neutralize bad karma, but by doing action in the mood of service to Krishna we please him. Then, if Krishna desire, he can free us from sinful reactions (aham tvam sarva papebhyo mokshyishyami ma shuchah). Whether a devotee gets any karmic reaction or not will vary from person to person. It can be that either Krishna can take all the karmic reaction or Krishna will let those karmic reaction come to the devotee in a way that is conducive to devotee’s spiritual growth. So, it is not exactly karmic reaction will come freely, but Krishna will handle it for our benefit.
An analogy can be given here. Suppose, a son of a very reputed person commits some crime and police catches him and puts him into jail. The father then approaches the police and requests to leave the son and tells the police that he will discipline his son. Police on assurance of the father leaves the son and he comes back home where father takes care that the son does not commit such a crime by disciplining him in terms of supervising him or restricting him etc. The disciplining will happen in both the case when in custody of police and in the care of his father. However, in the first case it is ‘rule of law’ but in second case it will be ‘rule of love’. There will be restriction or deprivation in both situation. However, in first case he will be in jail but in second case he will be at home, under the care of his father. When father takes charge, the son comes out from the system of law. Similarly, a devotee may externally seem to be suffering from karma, but internally the devotee is in Krishna’s care where he remains under Krishna’s vigilance. Krishna arranges in such a way that the devotee can come closer to him.
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