Krishna's Philosophy of Action
Krishna's advice to Arjuna turns from a discussion of abandoning all desires to a philosophy of action. Persons cannot attain spiritual progress just by renunciation of desires alone; in addition to renunciation, there must be action for the attainment of our spiritual goals.
So now, Krishna instructs Arjuna in the ways of yoga.
Not by nonperformance of actions does a man attain freedom from action; nor by the renunciation of actions does he attain his spiritual goal.
For no one, indeed, can remain, for even a single moment, unengaged in activity, since everyone, being powerless, is made to act by the dispositions (gunas) of matter (prakiti).
Whoever having restrained his organs of action still continues to brood over the objects of senses — he, the deluded one, is called a hypocrite.
But he who, having controlled the sense-organs by means of the mind, O Arjuna, follows without attachment the path of action by means of the organs of action — he excels.
Do you do your allotted work, for action is superior to nonaction. Even the normal functioning of your body cannot be accomplished through actionlessness.
Except for the action done for sacrifice, all men are under the bondage of action. Therefore, O son on Kunti, do you undertake that action for that purpose, becoming free from all attachment.
— III.4–9, Bhagavad Gita
Now Krishna instructs Arjuna in the manner of selfless action. The unselfish man does an action not for its consequences or rewards, but out of devotion and for the action itself. Indeed, the Bhagavad Gita recommends that the way to escape meaningless cycles of rebirth is to perform all one's actions without egotistical concern for their fruits.
Krishna is advancing another argument in favor of the yoga of action, namely that every man has to recognize his role in the scheme of cosmic ethics and actively promote its functioning. If he fails to do so, the cosmos will be turned into chaos. This is the basic theory of early Brahmanism. A prime illustration of the value of selfless action is shown in stanza 14: “From food creatures come into being; from rain ensues the production of food; from sacrifice results rain; sacrifice has its origin from action (karma).”
Human action has cosmic significance, according to the Bhagavad Gita. Action is the force that sets the cosmic wheel in motion and keeps it going. Sacrificial action leads to rain, which in turn leads to food, which leads to creatures, who begin the process all over again.
Having, in ancient times, created men along with sacrifice, Prajapati said, “By means of this sacrifice do you bring forth. May this prove to be the yielder of milk in the form of your desired ends.
“Do you foster the gods by means of this and let those gods foster you; thus fostering each other, both of you will attain to the supreme good.
“For the gods, fostered by sacrifice, will grant you the enjoyments which you desire. Whoever enjoys the enjoyments granted by them without giving to them in return — he is, verily, a thief.”
The good people who eat what is left after the sacrifice are released from all sins. On the other hand, those sinful ones who cook only for themselves — they, verily, eat their own sin.
Know action to originate from the Brahman and the Brahman to originate from the Imperishable. Therefore, the Brahman, which permeates all, is ever established in sacrifice.
Whoever, in this world, does not help in the rotating of the wheel thus set in motion — he is of sinful life, he indulges in mere pleasures of sense, and he, O son of Pritha, lives in vain.
But the man whose delight is in the Self alone, who is content with the Self, who is satisfied only within the Self — for him there exists nothing that needs to be done.
He, verily, has in this world no purpose to be served by action done nor any purpose whatsoever to be served by action abnegated. Similarly, he does not depend on any beings for having this purpose served.
Therefore, without attachment, always do the work that has to be done, for a man doing his work without attachment attains to the highest goal.
For, verily, by means of work have Janaka and others attained perfection. You should also do your work with a view to the solidarity of society.
Whatever a great man does, the very same the common man does. Whatever norm of conduct he sets up, that the people follow.
There is not for me, O son of Pritha, in the three worlds, anything that has to be done nor anything to be obtained; and yet I continue to be engaged in action.
For if ever I did not remain engaged in action unwearied, O son of Pritha, men would in every way follow in my track.
These worlds would fall into ruin if I did not do my work. I would then be the creator of chaos and would destroy these people.
— III.10–23, Bhagavad Gita
At IV.19–20, this ideal of action is described directly.
He whose undertakings are all devoid of motivating desires and purposes and whose actions are consumed by the fire of knowledge — him the wise call a man of learning.
Renouncing all attachment to the fruits of actions, ever content, independent, such a person, even if engaged in action, does not do anything whatever.
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