Karma in the Bhagavad Gita

From Conversations on the Science of Yoga – Karma Yoga Book 1: Karma

Is it possible to renounce action in order to eliminate karma and avoid its effects?

Swami Satyananda: People may try to give up their karmas, believing that stress, tension and pain spring from them, but it is not possible to do so. Karmas are imposed on everyone by certain laws of nature. It is said in the Bhagavad Gita (3:27):

Prakriteh kriyamaanaani gunaih karmaani sarvashah.

All actions are fashioned in all cases by the qualities or gunas of nature only.

Prakriti compels one to act through the interaction or the intermediate agency of the three gunas: sattwa, rajas and tamas. Therefore, the law of karma cannot be renounced and one should not try. The Bhagavad Gita (18:60) gives very clear instructions on this point:

Svabhaavajena kaunteya nibaddhah svena karmanaa;

Kartum nechchhasi yanmohaatkarishyasyavasho’pi tat.

O Arjuna, bound by your own karma, born of your own nature, that which from delusion you do not wish to do, even that you will do helplessly!

Even if one were to renounce the external karmas, such as walking, typing, going to the shop and working in the kitchen, the mental karmas would continue. Karmas do not belong only to the body; they belong to the realm of the mind and desires. Even if one were to completely abstain from action, one could not stop thinking. The monk who lives in a monastery without a family also does karma. Even a person with plenty of money who does not have to work still does karma. The external actions that one does in everyday life are not the significant karma. The desires entertained in the mind are the real karma. When a person desires, it is karma.

Karma is a movement that takes place within the body, mind or emotions. No one can remain for a single moment without action, whether it is physical, mental, emotional, or on some other level of being that one does not observe. According to the Bhagavad Gita (3:6), there is not a moment in life when one can remain without action:

Karmendriyaani samyamya ya aaste manasaa smaran;

Indriyaarthaanvimoodhaatmaa mithyaachaarah sa uchyate.

He who, restraining the organs of action, sits thinking of the sense objects in his mind, he, of deluded understanding, is called a hypocrite.

A person must act as long as he remains alive. The nature of his mind and his desires will compel him to act. If his desires, passions and ambitions do not compel him to act, he will become lethargic and dull. Desire, passion and ambition stimulate karma, they are the fuels for karma.

One should not misunderstand the philosophy of karma. Even if one sits down the whole day and does no work, one is still creating karma. Without moving the body or involving the senses, karma is constantly being created in the realm of the psyche, within the deeper dimensions of the mind, but those dimensions are so mysterious that one does not understand them. There is not a moment in life when the path of inactivity or inaction can be followed. One may not move, talk or participate in family affairs, but one is still thinking. In addition to that, there are involuntary actions, such as digesting, assimilating, and so on. No one can renounce action.

What type of action, physical or mental, can be abandoned? Sneezing, sleeping, writing, speaking and sitting are all actions or karmas. Even renunciation is action, because the abandoning of action is also an action. What do people mean when they say they have renounced the world? Has anybody been able to abandon action until now? Nobody can do it, even if they want to. A person’s desires will compel him to act. As long as a person has ambitions and desires, he will have to act. A porter, a sadhu, a leader, a householder, everybody has to perform karma or act.

There is no such thing as renunciation of karma, no philosophy as such. The Bhagavad Gita teaches the utmost necessity of karma, because nobody can escape from karma. Karma cannot be eliminated by renouncing action or even by renouncing one’s intentions. Sri Krishna says (3:4):

Na karmanaamanaarambhaannaishkarmyam purusho’shnute;

Na cha sannyasanaadeva siddhim samadhigachchhati.

Not by non-performance of actions does man reach actionlessness, nor by mere renunciation does he attain perfection.

The dialogue in the Bhagavad Gita between Krishna and Arjuna took place on this particular point. Arjuna felt he should try to escape from the clutches of karma, from the emotional turmoil of involvement with everyday life. He thought the easiest solution would be to stop doing karma, to be detached from everything. With this in mind, he wanted to renounce, but Krishna disagreed. What is important in life is one’s relationship with karma; the entire action should be evaluated from that view. Yoga has nothing to do with giving up action. It is about transforming the purpose and the meaning of life.

Why is action necessary in life?

Swami Satyananda: In the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjuna refused to perform his role and act, Krishna asked him, “If you will not act, what will you do?” Arjuna replied, “I will leave, go to a monastery and stop all actions. The monastery will feed me and I will read scriptures all day long. I will not have to tell lies, I will not have to fight and kill, I will not have passion or hatred for anyone, I will not worry about anyone. I will just need a little food and the whole day I will be in meditation.” But Krishna said, “No, that is not the way for you.”

Very few people are able to live such a life. The majority cannot do it, because the mind is under the sway of the three gunas: sattwa, rajas and tamas. The people who are sattwic by nature have exhausted their karmas and fulfilled the purpose of nature, so they have no desires. They remain the same, even if they are exposed to wealth, beautiful men or women, and all the luxuries of life. They are all right if they have everything, and all right if they don’t. It is said in the Bhagavad Gita (18:26):

Muktasango’nahamvaadee dhrityutsaahasamanvitah;

Siddhyasiddhyornirvikaarah kartaa saattvika uchyate.

He is called sattwic, who is free from attachment, non-egoistic, endowed with firmness and enthusiasm, and unaffected by success or failure.

The performance of karma, however, is necessary, even for the sattwic person, because if he were to give up karma, the others would imitate him. Therefore, the sattwic person should set an example for the ordinary people by doing karma. If he doesn’t, the balance of nature will be disturbed, because nature has created desire and action, and without them people will not evolve. It is said in the Bhagavad Gita (3:26):

Na buddhibhedam janayedajnaanaam karmasanginaam;

Joshayetsarvakarmaani vidvaanyuktah samaacharan.

Let no wise person unsettle the minds of ignorant people, who are attached to action. He should engage them in all actions, himself fulfilling actions with devotion.

Most people are under the sway of rajo guna. They are dynamic and aggressive; they want this, that, and everything. The rajasic person, who is active by nature, will go mad if he renounces or gives up karma. Then there is the tamasic person, who is lazy, lethargic, indolent, and procrastinating. This person will not evolve unless he works. Krishna tells Arjuna that it is safer for everybody to perform karma, whether one works through the body, mind, or intellect. He has conveyed this teaching in all the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita (3:8). His constant advice to Arjuna is to act decisively:

Niyatam kuru karma tvam karma jyaayo hyakarmanah;

Shareerayaatraapi cha te na prasiddhyedakarmanah.

Do thou perform your bounden duty, for action is superior to inaction. Even the maintenance of the body would not be possible for you by inaction.

While living in this world one must continuously perform karma. Krishna explained to Arjuna his swadharma, the most appropriate duties for him to perform, and made him aware of what he should be doing. Similarly, each person must perform certain duties, and none can ever escape them. Nature compels everyone to do karma. Even those who renounce the world cannot avoid this natural compulsion. It is said in the Bhagavad Gita (3:33):

Sadrisham cheshtate svasyaah prakriterjnaanavaanapi.

Prakritim yaanti bhootaani nigrahah kim karishyati.

Even a wise man acts in accordance with his nature; all beings follow their nature; what can restraint do?

All the creatures of this world have some duties to perform. They have their swadharma, and the performance of swadharma is compliance with God’s will. Just as the nature of wind is to blow, water to flow and fire to burn, likewise every person has certain duties to perform. Nature has allotted specific duties to everybody. Krishna tells Arjuna that renunciation of action is in no way appropriate. Even sages, mahatmas, sadhus and sannyasins cannot renounce action. According to the Bhagavad Gita (18:7) anybody who renounces action is a sinner:

Niyatasya tu sannyaasah karmano nopapadyate;

Mohaattasya parityaagastaamasah parikeertitah.

Verily, the renunciation of obligatory action is improper. The abandonment of the same from delusion is declared to be tamasic.

God himself takes birth to perform action: Rama, Buddha, Christ and Krishna performed karma. Lord Krishna incarnated to kill Kamsa, and Rama took birth to kill Ravana. The incarnations of God have been born with the sole objective of performing some specific karma.