Transcending Activity

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The genius of Acharya Shankara was reflected in his bringing out the Bhagavadgita from its obscurity of being hidden in the vast forest of words that is the Mahabharata. His wonderful commentary on the Gita gave it an important place, so much so that thereafter, anyone interested in studying Indian philosophy had to necessarily study the Gita, which is true even today. There are commentaries without number on this text.

Following in the footsteps of Shankara, Swami Vivekananda brought out four yogas from the Gita: karma yoga, raja yoga, bhakti yoga, and jnana yoga. Through his masterly expositions on these yogas, he gave to the spiritual and philosophical world, treatises that double as manuals for following these disciplines, which are meant to manifest one’s innate divinity. The goal of raja yoga is to achieve complete cessation of thoughts or mental activity. The goal of bhakti yoga is to attain supreme bhakti. The goal of jnana yoga is to attain supreme jnana. However, the goal of karma yoga is not to engage in maximum activity but to go beyond all activity. There is a great risk of misunderstanding this ideal of karma yoga and that is why Swamiji cautioned the aspirants and advised them to emphasise on being selfless while doing work.

The goal of spiritual life is self-abnegation. This can be achieved only by gradually effacing and eventually completely annihilating one’s ego. Therefore, the goal of all four yogas that Swamiji expounded could only be the complete destruction of the ego. In karma yoga, one has to do selfless work. This is imperative since all suffering is caused by the presence of two attitudes: the sense of doer-ship and the sense of enjoyer-ship. As long as one has either of these attitudes, that of assertion and possession, one is bound to suffer. By doing selfless work, one tries to get rid of the attachment one has to the results of a work. If one is not at all affected by the results of a work, then the sense of possession gradually fades and ceases to exist. If one is established in the practice of selfless work and does not expect any result, then one stops having ideas like ‘This is mine’, ‘I have to acquire that’, or ‘That belonged to me once’. Thus, the idea of possession or the idea of enjoyership is removed.

Even after the removal of the idea of possession, the idea that one has to perform some activity remains, albeit in a weak form. This arises out of the idea of assertion or the idea of doership. The idea of doer-ship can be transcended only when one realises the futility of action or the vanity of thinking, ‘I do this’, ‘I have to do this’, or ‘I did this’. To understand the fallacy of such thinking, one should understand when one can say that one has control over something: only when one has the power to make or mar something. In the present scenario, one can say that one has done something only if that person could remain not doing it. In the case of karma yoga, one can say that one acts only when that person can remain without activity. But, can anyone remain activity?

To answer this question, we need to understand what activity or karma is. While Acharya Shankara takes karma to be the performance of Vedic rituals for the fulfilment of one’s desires, by karma Swamiji means any activity, even breathing or thinking. If one were to take Swamiji’s definition of karma, it is impossible for any living being to remain inactive. Sri Krishna also tells in the Gita that it is impossible for any living being to remain without work. He also says that it is Nature that propels living beings to indulge in activity. So, the problem lies in situating the agency of activity. If one thinks that one is the agent of activity, it would definitely cause suffering. One has to realise that the agency of activity is not in oneself but beyond.

The spiritual aspirant following the path of knowledge or Advaita should understand that this manifest universe is born out of ignorance and hence all activity has only an apparent existence and is unreal. In that case, the agency of activity would also be real and whatever one does would be the result of the actions one has done in the ignorance of thinking oneself to be the doer and the enjoyer. The spiritual aspirant following the path of devotion or a theistic tradition should understand that whatever one does is not done because of one’s will or agency but because of the will or agency of the supreme Divine or God. Only by acknowledging the supremacy or the agency of God and by considering oneself as a mere instrument can a devotee engage in karma yoga and eventually transcend activity, as there is in reality nothing to do. Everything has been already done by God as Sri Krishna tells in the Gita and it is only apparently that living beings are acting as not even a leaf can move without the will of God.

While practising karma yoga, one has to be very careful in giving up any kind of initiative. That can be done only when one is established in truthfulness. Otherwise, one can become insincere and label one’s laziness and inertia as surrender to God. The litmus test to understand whether a work is being done due to one’s initiative or not is to repeatedly check whether there is any desire in either the work or its outcome.

The follower of Advaita should understand that since the ultimate Reality, Brahman is beyond time, space, and causation, it is impossible for any action to take place. Since the knowledge of Brahman is already present and is not created by anything or any endeavour, but is uncovered by the removal of ignorance, it is imperative that one transcends activity, because it is very much within the domain of ignorance. All cognition and emotions are also within the realm of ignorance. Hence, the resolve to do any action, the steps taken to perform an action, and the differentiation of the person who does an action and the action that is performed, are all different manifestations of ignorance.

No amount of work can produce the knowledge of Brahman, because it would then mean that such knowledge can be caused by something and it would then become unreal. So, to understand the highest Reality, one has to rid oneself of all desires and ego. Only then would one understand that there is no work because there is no universe. To use the analogy of Sri Ramakrishna, just as a thorn is removed by another thorn, ignorance can be removed by endeavour. However, this endeavour should be focussed on the thought that one’s true nature is beyond all activity.

About Author: The author is Editor of Prabuddha Bharata.

This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata (www.advaitaashrama.org). I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. You can subscribe online at www.advaitaashrama.org. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To know more Click here