Living Gita: 41: The Art of Actionless Action

Continued from Previous Page

sukhaduhkhe same kritwaa laabhaalaabhau jayaajayau
tato yuddhaaya yujyaswa naivam paapamavaapsyasi
ll 2.38 ll

Treat pleasure and pain the same, so also gain and loss and victory and defeat and then engage in battle. Battling thus you shall not incur sin.


Krishna is the greatest rebel ever, there has never been another rebel like him. But he is the right kind of rebel, a rebel with a cause, not a rebel without a cause. His cause is supreme: in his own words, protecting the good, destroying the wicked, and establishing dharma. It is more like reestablishing dharma rather than establishing it, because it had already existed in the past, but had declined over long stretches of time, kaaleneha mahataa. It is the same dharma that he wants to reestablish, not an original dharma. He has no compulsion to be original. The compulsion to be original is an egoistic compulsion, a compulsion born of the egoistic mind. In fact, all compulsions are born of the egoistic mind, minus the egoistic mind there are no compulsions. Krishna does not claim the dharma he is talking about is original, the dharma he is teaching is original;  he says it is the same dharma that has always existed, it has only been forgotten by people, particularly by people who should remember it, by men in leadership positions.

He says in so many clear words that the dharma he is speaking about is the dharma that the rajarshis of the past knew, the dharma that he – the wisdom of the soul – had taught royal sages like Vivaswan, Manu, Ikshwaku and so on at the beginning of time, in the days when kingship had just come into being. He had taught them how to live and lead for the good of the people, how to use the authority invested in them for doing good to the people, how to serve their interests best by using that authority, how to live their life as individuals and as leaders of men and the organizations called kingdoms rooted in values like truthfulness, integrity, kindness, compassion, understanding, the spirit of sacrifice, putting others’ interests before one’s won. He had taught them how to be serve their subjects while remaining their kings, had taught them how not to let power go to their heads and trample the ordinary men and women underfoot.

They knew for instance that the eyes of the poor and the weak were like the eyes of the snake, like the eyes of the sage, which can reduce you to ashes and therefore they should not exploit or give pain to the weak. But they did not exploit the weak not out of fear, but out of love for them. They saw the same divine in the educated and cultured and the uneducated and rough, in the rich and the poor, in the brahmana and the chandala, in the cow and the dog,  in everything. And everybody’s pain was llike their own pain to them, everybody’s happiness like their own happiness. They were not obsessed with power, for them power was not an end in itself, but a means to a noble end – for lokasangraha, for the good of the world. Power was not a privilege to them but a responsibility, as it was to kings like Rama and Bharata in much later years.

These were the ways envisioned by the rishis of yore and those were the ways he wanted to bring back into the world of kings, into the world of leaders, with no claim to originality. Rebels rebelled for the sake of rebelling, for the sake of their egos, so that people called them rebels and originals, talked about them, extolled  their originality, but he had no such interest, for he had no ego, he had transcended his ego.  He was not like an attention deficient child who needed constant attention and kept doing something or the other so that attention was on him, as many rebels are.

And this rebel says that sin is not in the act but in the actor. Krishna says if you act in a particular way, then whatever you do, even if it is killing, you will incur no sin. If sin is in the act, that cannot be true - if a particular act is sin, whatever way you do it, it will be sin. Like if killing per se is sin, in whatever way you do the killing, it will be sin. But Krishna says if you kill in a particular way, it will not be sin. Which means that it is the way you kill that makes it a sin or otherwise. That it is the attitude of the killer that decides whether it is a sin or not. If you kill with a particular attitude, then it is not sin, if you kill with another attitude, then it will be sin. Since all attitudes are conditions of the mind, it is the mind of the killer that makes the killing a sin or otherwise. In other words, it is the doer that makes an act a sin, not the act itself.

Sin is not in the act but in the doer. A revolutionary statement.

Victor Hugo’s French classic Les Miserables is one of the greatest works of world literature. A large novel, it is about a good man named Jean Valjean who steals a loaf of bread to feed his hungry little sister. He is arrested by Inspector Javert, for whom a theft is a theft whatever the reasons behind it, and is sent to prison where he spends nineteen years for his original crime and for trying to escape repeatedly. Eventually when he comes out of prison and seeks a job, no one is willing to give him one because he was once a convict. Eventually he reaches a new town and, taking a new name, through hard work and talent becomes a successful rich man famous for his charities and the owner of a factory that employs many people. Here again, after so  many years of jail, he is again arrested by Javert, this time for hiding his true identity, while he is at the bedside of a young dying woman who had turned prostitute fo feed herself and look after her baby. It makes no difference to Javert that Valjean is now a generous man doing so much charity, kind to everyone, and was at the bedside of the dying woman with her baby whom he had brought to her so that she could have a look at her before she died.

After more years in jail, Valjean escapes again, starts looking after Cossette, the daughter of the dead woman, as his own daughter. But Javert is still is in pursuit of him and locates him once again but Valjean is able to flee with Cossette before his is arrested and finds employment as a gardener in a convent with Cossette living with him and attending school.

Cossette is now grown up and she and a young radical student called Marius are in love. When the young political radicals fighting for freedom and democracy capture Inspector Javert, it is Valjean who saves him but in spite of that Javert is not willing to forget his duty towards the law and let go of Valjean. Eventually unable to reconcile the conflict in his mind, between his commitment to the law and gratitude to Valjean,for saving him from execution by radicals, Javert jumps into a river and kills himself.

As we can see here, to Inspector Javert it is the act that is a crime and not the actor – he knows Valjean is a wonderful human being but he believes that his past crime still makes him a criminal and he needs to be punished. A lifetime of pursuing a good man in the name of the law for a crime that began as stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry little sister!

Whether it is a crime or a sin, in both cases it is the same. Both the crime and the sin is in the actor and not in the act, that is what Krishna is trying to say here when he says in you performs actions with a particular attitude, you will not incur sin. Valjean is a sinner to the law: he has stolen a loaf of bread, he has tried escape the prison, he has lived under an assumed name, many are his crimes before the law if you go by the act; to the law the fact that he is now almost a saint, a charitable man loved by an entire city and lovingly elected its mayor, helpful to many, even willing to risk his freedom and life to do good to others – these things do not count.

The old attitude of treating the act as sin and not the actor is childish, says a modern master.

A woman giving her breast to her father is a sin in all religions. So is a father sucking the breast of his daughter. But it is the theme of one of the most celebrated and costliest paintings of the world. Hundreds of master painters have painted the scene, celebrated statues and murals have been made on the theme, all with the least condemnation of the act. On the contrary, they all celebrate it!

The original story behind these paintings, murals and statues has the name Caritas Romana or Roman Charity. It is the story of a woman called Pero whose father Cimon was sentenced to death by starvation and thirst by the Roman court. Pero seeks permission to visit her father in the jail every day until he dies and the permission is given. As she comes to visit, carrying her recently born baby, the guards make a thorough search of her to make sure she is not carrying any food or drink for her father and of course they do not find anything. Their suspicions grow when the father does not die as expected even after weeks and they make their searches even more thorough but they cannot find anything with her. Eventually after six full months, they realize what has been happening: Pero has been secretly suckling her father, she had been giving him her breast milk. The story has a happy ending: when the authorities realize what has been happening, instead of getting furious with her they are so moved by the incident that they not only let her go free but frees her father too.

It is not the act that is sin, but the attitude behind the act.  The person behind the act makes it a sinful  or a virtuous act.

Many years ago I developed a course in ethics for young people. One of the case studies given to the young girls and boys to discuss in the course was that of a young girl who is in a moral dilemma. There is a flood in the local river and the girl’s boyfriend is on the other side. The boyfriend is seriously ill and there is no way of saving him unless she reaches him and nurses him back to health. There is a boatman at the ghat but  he is unwilling to take her across because of the fury of the river, but he will do it on one condition: she would have to give herself to him. Finding no other solution, she does that in her despair to save her boyfriend, goes to her boyfriend and nurses him back to health. A few days later he asks her how she reached him when the river was in spite and she tells him the truth. The boy gets into a fury and rejects her for being unfaithful to him.

The course required the participants to decide after discussion among themselves whether the girl had sinned or not when she gave herself to the boatman.

If the sin is in the act, she had; but if it is in the person she hadn’t. She was making a sacrifice for saving the life of her boyfriend and a sacrifice is always an act of merit.

Did Yudhishthira commit a sin when he lied about the death of Ashwatthama to Drona for the sake of dharma? If we go by the act, then he did; but if we go by the intention behind the act, then he did not.

In the Mahabharata itself we come across a son of Ahalya and Gautama referred to as Chirakari, Slow-to-Act. We do not know his real name. He is in a dilemma. His father Gautama has asked him to chop off the head of his mother for committing adultery. Disobeying one’s father is a sin. But killing one’s mother is a still greater sin. Chirakari now does not know whether to obey his father and to kill his mother or to disobey him and spare his mother’s life. He is not able to make up his mind one way or the other and in this dilemma a lot of time is lost by when Gautama has a change of heart and comes back running in despair to cancel his earlier order. He praises his son for disobeying him.

If the sin is in the act, Chirakari has sinned by disobeyng his father. But if we look into his reasons, he has of course not sinned. He had strong reasons to disobey his father.

The sin is not in the act but in the actor. The disobedience is done for the right reasons and hence it is no sin.


When Krishna says when you battle treating pleasure and pain the same, so also gain and loss and victory and defeat the same, you shall not incur sin, once again Krishna means much more than what he says.

To understand this, let’s take the case of a baby kicking its mother from within her womb – all babies do that. We know kicking one’s own mother is a great sin. But does the baby commit any sin by kicking its mother? Of course not, we all agree. But why? Because the baby has no ego yet, at least no active ego.

In a hilarious scene in the recent movie Chennai  Express, we have Meenamma, the character played by Dipika, giving in her sleep a resounding kick to her friend Rahul played by Shahrukh Khan, who is sleeping in the same bed, sending him off the bed half way across the room. Now, kicking any sleeping man is a sin but does Meenamma commit a sin here? No one would say she does. Because in sleep she has no ego. Similarly, if you kick your husband or wife in sleep, does it amount to sin?  Of course not, for the same reason: he or she has no ego as a sleeper.

If you have no ego, no act of yours is a sin. Extending this argument further, if you do something without egoistic purposes, then what you do will not be a sin.

Actions without desires, actions from which you want nothing for yourself, are called nishkama karma. In nishkama karma, you perform actions without attachment to results, victory or loss making no difference to you, gain or loss making no difference to you. And that is what Krishna is asking Arjuna to do: Treat pleasure and pain the same, so also gain and loss and victory and defeat and then engage in battle. Battling thus you shall not incur sin.

Krishna is asking arjuna to go into battle without egoistic purposes, without the ego, in the nishkama karma spirit and assures him that if he acts in that spirit he will not incur sin.

Kins to nishkama karma in spirit are karmas done with ishwararpana buddhi and swadharma buddhi.  

When we have to do something we do not want to do but we must do, as Arjuna has to do now in the battlefield, as we all have to do a lot f the time, do it with swadharma buddhi – with the attitude that this is my dharma, this is my duty, this is something that I am bound to do. Do it with the attitude that you are doing it not for gaining anything for yourself but for the good of others. Do it with ishwarapana niddhi – with the attitude that you are doing it as an act of worshipping God, then you shall not incur sin.

Krishna’s revolutionary statement.

Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi put it beautifully when he said in Upadesha Saram:

eeshwaraaarpitam nechchhayaaa kritam
chitta-shodhakam mukti-sadhakam
. [Upadesa Saram 3]

“When actions are dedicated to God, done not because you desire something [but for the good of the world], they purify your mind and lead you to liberation.”

This verse is closely related to the previous verse which says;

kriti-mahodadhau patana-kaaranam
phalam asaasvatam gati-nirodhakam
[Upadesa Saram 2]

“[Results of] actions [life scripts as discussed in earlier essays] are the cause of fall into the vast ocean  [of samsara]. [Besides] their returns are impermanent and also obstructions on the path.”

So by performing your actions dedicating them to God, as acts of worship of Sacred Existence, done for lokasangraha, surrendering their results to the world, whether they are good or bad, whether they are successes or failures, whether they are happy or unhappy, considering gain and loss as equal, accepting all results with equanimity, you do not incur sin.


We can understand what Krishna says at another yet dimension: that of akarma.

That is what Krishna means when he says if for you pleasure and pain are the same, so also gain and loss and victory and defeat are the same, and then even if you kill in the battle it will not be a sin. To consider pleasure and pain the same, to consider gain and loss the same, to consider victory and defeat the same, you have to be egoless and if you are egoless, what you do is not a sin. Because sin is not in the action but in the condition of the actor, in his attitude, in his state of egolessness or otherwise.

Be egoless and fight the battle, that is what Krishna is telling Arjuna. And if you are egoless, then naturally happiness and unhappiness will be same to you, victory and defeat will be the same to you, gain and loss will be the same to you. Happiness and unhappiness are seen as happiness and unhappiness by the ego, victory and loss are seen as victory and loss by the ego, gain and loss are seen as gain and loss by the ego.

Egoless actions are called akarma, actorless actions, doing things without a doer being present. Sometimes akarma is translated as non-action, to distinguish it from inaction. The Chinese have a term which means exactly the same thing: we-wei, meaning empty action, actionless action, actorless action, action in which the actor is absent.

Akarma is a term Krishna praises in the highest possible terms in the Gita. As we shall see later in greater detail, Krishna says:

karmano hyapi boddhavyam boddhavyam cha vikarmanah
akarmanashcha boddhavyam gahanaa karmano gatih
ll 4.17 ll
karmany-akarma yah pashyed akarmani cha karma yah
sa buddhimaan manushyeshu sa yuktah kritsnakarmakrit
ll 4.18 ll

“We have to understand what action [karma] is and we have to understand what forbidden actions [vikarma] are. We have also to understand what non-action [akarma] is. Indeed hard to understand are the ways of action. He who recognizes non-action in action and action in non-action is the wisest among men; he is a yogi and has already done all that he needs to do.”

Elsewhere Krishna says:

naiva kinchit karomeeti yukto manyeta tattwavit
pashyan shrinvan sprishan jighrann
ashnan gacchan swapan shwasan
ll 5.8 ll
pralapan visrijan grihnan unmishan nimishannapi
indriyaani indriyaartheshu vartanta iti dhaarayan
ll 5.9 ll

“The yogi who knows the truth thinks he does nothing at all – while seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, letting go, seizing, opening and closing the eyes – convinced as he is that it is the senses that move among the sense objects.”

The true yogi is an akarta – non-actor, non-doer, non-performer, while doing all kinds of  actions like seeing, touching, eating, sleeping,  coming, going and the thousand other things we all do every day.

There is a beautiful story about Krishna, Rukmini and Durvasa. Once Sage Durvasa came to meet Krishna but he had to stop on the other side of the river because the Yamuna  was in spate. Krishna asked Rukmini to take some kheer to the sage and she started from the palace happily. It is only when she reached the Yamuna that Rukmini realized the river was in spate. She returned to Krishna and told him that she couldn’t cross the river because of the flood. Krishna laughed and told her to go back to the river and tell her if Krishna was a true brahmachari, she should part and give way to her. Rukmini laughed now – Krishna was her husband and the father of her children, she knew Krishna was not a brahmachari, but Krishna insisted and she went still laughing.

To Rukmini’s amazement, when she told the Yamuna what Krishna had told her to say, the river parted and gave her way. Rukmini crossed the river, went to the sage on the other side and gave him the kheer.

Rukmini collected the empty vessels after he finished the kheer and it’s only when she reached back the Yamuna that she realized that the river was still in spate. She went back to the sage and told him about it and Durvasa laughed and told her to go back to the river and tell her if Durvasa has not eaten the kheer, she should part and give her way.  By now Rukmini was thoroughy confused but she did what the sage asked her to do, though she had just seen with her own eyes him eating all the kheer. Of course, Yamuna parted her waters and gave her way.

The whole episode was a lesson in what akarma is for Rukmini as it is for us. One can do anything and yet not do it at all if one is an akarta, a witness to what is happening, just a nimitta for things to happen through.

Akarma is when you become just a nimitta – an instrument, a passage, a tool for actions to happen through.

At one stage in the Gita, in  the Vishwarupa Darshana Yoga, Krishna tells Arjuna that all the people who stand in the battlefield have already been killed by him – by destiny, by Existence, by God, by samashti prarabdha, by the cosmic will, whatever term we prefer to use – and Arjuna has only to become a nimitta:

tasmaat twam uttishtha yasho labhaswa
jitwaa shatroon bhungkshwa raajyam samriddham
mayaivaite nihataah poorvameva
nimittamaatram bhava savyasaachin
ll 11.33 ll

“Therefore, Arjuna, get up and win glory. Win over your enemies and enjoy the rich kingdom. They have all been already killed by me. Be just a means for things to happen through!”

Becoming a nimitta is doing akarma! When you do akarma, you just become just a passage for things to flow through, as Krishna’s flute is for his music to flow through. Things happen through you and you don’t do them, you are not the doer.

And when you are not the doer, naturally, you incur no sin for those actions.

Incidentally when you do that, when you do akarma, when you become an akarta, all your actions, if they can be called your actions, become brilliant. This is the highest performance excellence. You excel in your actions to the extent you are absent in your actions! And Krishna knows, Arjuna’s name is already a synonym for excellence and if he can rise to the level of akarma, every action that comes out of him will have the stamp of the highest excellence.

So Krishna is not only teaching us how to do things we don’t want to do, which  our heart does not agree with, like in Arjuna’s case the battle at the moment, but also how to do things at the highest  level of excellence.

When you perform actions remaining the same in happiness and unhappiness, in victory and failure, and in gain and loss, you are egoless and egolessness is the art of excellence.

Yoga karmasu kaushalam, says Krishna in the Gita – yoga is excellence in action. And the path to the highest excellence is through akarma, actionless action.

At its highest level, the Gita is a book of the art of actionless action.

And remember: doership is a myth. We do not do the things we do. They happen through us.

Though our ego wouldn’t let us agree with this.

Continued to Next Page 


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

Top | Hinduism

Views: 3537      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.