April 20, 2013

What the #$&% is Actionless Action? ~ Matthew Gindin

Photo: Simthsonian Freer Sackler Gallery

On action, liberation and violence in the Bhagavad Gita.

In 2006, I spent a summer studying the Bhagavad Gita as part of a Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) program in a Canadian ashram. Previously, while living as a Buddhist monk, I read the Gita maybe a dozen times in different translations, as well as spent a few years studying the early Buddhist, Jain and Brahmin cultures that had influenced it. Over that time, I came to a decent, if humble, understanding of the Gita. As a result of this small advantage I found myself in the position of “decoder” after class, when my fellow students asked me to help explain a text that seemed torturous and nearly incomprehensible to them.

In the years since, I have continued to study the Gita, benefitting from excellent new scholarship and translations, such as that of the late Georg Feuerstein. I have also taught it myself as part of Indian philosophy courses. What I have found is that there is still much confusion. What I’d like to clarify in this essay is twofold: 1) the Gita’s seemingly confusing standpoint on freedom, which, as we shall see, focuses on its revolutionary understanding of the doctrine of action (karma); and 2) the Gita’s apparent endorsement of violence.


The word Krishna uses for action is karma. The oldest usage is in the Vedic texts, where karman means “ritual action,” referring to the complex Vedic ritual sacrifices and offerings of the brahmins (priest caste). These were understood to be very powerful, changing people’s fate and future and altering the cosmos itself.

Starting around the eighth century BCE or so, a group of spiritual seekers called shramanas (strivers) rewrote the meaning of the term. The shramanas rejected the authority of the Vedic traditions and formed communities in the forest that experimented with meditation, ascetic practices, hallucinogens, and diverse philosophical views. Some of the views and practices of the shramanas were adopted or developed by innovative brahmins as well, and the thoughts of these brahmins became the early Upanishads.

Those shramanas who stayed outside of the Vedic fold formed their own communities. Most of them have faded away in time except for two: Buddhism and Jainism. These two communities became the largest and most influential of the shramana groups. Both argued that “karman,” or action that transforms the future, did not lie in rituals but in the moral quality of an individual’s behavior.

Greedy, harmful actions bring suffering; generous, loving actions bring happiness.

The early Jains, however, argued that all action is inherently violent and binding, trapping the soul in the prison of matter. If one can renounce all violence/action, then one can free oneself from rebirth and the prison and soar to the top of the universe, an omniscient, peaceful spirit. Jains believed that even unintentional harm, like stepping on an insect by accident, is bad karma. Consequently the goal of ancient Jainism was sallekha, or a religious fast unto death while in a state of meditation—the ultimate actionlessness. Those who have been through the Gita a few times may already see where this is heading.

The Buddhists agreed that karma was binding and had to be renounced, but saw karma as primarily mental. The Buddha taught that one should give up negative karma and cultivate “karma that led to the end of karma,” i.e., renunciation, wisdom, and meditation. Ultimately one would let go of creating any mental karma at all, which would lead to the experience of nirvana, followed by a life of dispassionate but compassionate activity for the sake of others. The early Buddhists believed that it was nearly impossible to do this without becoming a monk or a nun and leading a very pure, very simple lifestyle. The early Raja Yoga tradition (the yoga of meditation) which would later be set down in sutras by Patanjali took a very similar perspective to the Buddha.

The views of the Jains and Buddhists were very influential. The new ideal, that of the renunciant—the monk or nun—created a problem for those who followed the religious teachings of the Brahmins, which valorized marriage, family, tribe and clan, and were very concerned with maintaining a harmonious, just, and well-ordered society. The Brahmins were impressed with the arguments, insights, and lifestyles of the new monks and nuns. But for the Brahmins, the religious life consisted, for most people, of fulfilling duties in society and family.

This is in many ways analogous to our situation as Westerners encountering traditional Indian Yoga. We are impressed with the images of yogis in Himalayan snows; we resonate with the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths; we yearn for the purity and nonviolence of a Jain jungle dweller. Yet, we feel duty bound to pursue social justice in our communities, and we are deeply committed to our work and families. The Gita comes along with an interesting answer to our dilemna.

One of the Gita’s goals is to show a way to be free of karma that doesn’t require giving up action. For the Gita, what is binding about an action is the egotistical desire that underlies it. This desire takes as its focus the desired result of the action. For example, I walk into a cafe and smile at the waitress. I do this because I desire for people to like me and think I’m a good sort of fellow. Or I go to a job I don’t like that much, but I do it for the money. The Gita argues that it is not the actions themselves that are binding to us, but the desires underlying the actions. The way to be free is to change the “why” and the “how” of our actions, not to stop acting at all.

Photo: General Press1

The Gita’s plan for freedom in action has two parts: 1) Do what is right, not what is pleasant; and 2) do what you do not for your own desires, and not while clinging to the results, but as an offering to God/Goddess.

Here is an example of this in real life: Your mother calls you and begins criticizing you. You would like to give her a shot back; it seems to you that this would be pleasant. Instead you bring to mind the Gita’s first suggestion and do what is right: You are kind instead. Is this enough to be free? That depends on how you react to what happens next.

Your mother does not appreciate your kind response, but instead presses her argument, irritably complaining about the choices you’ve made. You then become hurt and angry. Ah ha! You were not heeding the second, key aspect of the Gita’s recipe. When you were kind to your Mom you had a desire in mind: that she stop how she was behaving and become kind in return. That is not the Gita’s Karma Yoga (yoga of action).The karma yogi is kind to her Mom because it’s the right thing to do, without desiring a certain result, simply because it is her Dharma (her moral duty), as an offering to God/Goddess.

This person is free, says the Gita. Why? Because what is going on in her mind is fundamentally between her and her Self, between her actions and God/Goddess. How her Mom reacts is irrelevant. Gandhi once said that without this teaching of acting for the greater good but renouncing attachments to results through surrendering to God, he would never have been able to endure the difficulties of liberating India.

The Gita goes farther than the Buddha, shifting the issue of karma entirely to the psychological realm, arguing that not only is every action not inherently binding and violent but that even violent action is not inherently binding and violent. When Arjuna argues that he does not want to go to war to restore just government, Krishna urges him to do so and even argues that it can be done in a state of freedom, because it is the right thing to do, and in a way which does not damage the soul.

What the Gita wants to say is that people can be merchants or mothers, tailors or lawyers or politicians, and still be yogis. What it did was choose the most extreme example of this possible: a soldier. The Gita is not interested in advocating war (in fact the Gita is part of a larger text, the Mahabharata, which is decidedly anti-war). What the Gita wants to do is make its case even in the example of a soldier, because if it can convince you there it can convince you anywhere.

This is a challenging doctrine. I have to say that I am not sure I am convinced by the Gita that even violent action can escape being binding and damaging. Yet I realize that to focus on this point is to miss the Gita’s message. The message of the Gita is that it is possible to act in the world as an offering to God, motivated by what is right, and that this life is a life of freedom which can transcend karma and lead to ultimate spiritual liberation. In that sense it is much more optimistic about human nature than early Buddhism and Jainism.

The Gita is not cynical about us, believing that we are doomed to lives of self-absorption and petty obsessions. We can elevate ourselves to lives of moral conviction and surrender to the Divine, and live free in life’s dance. If early Buddhism and Jainism compared life to an ocean we needed to cross to be free, the Gita sees freedom in riding the waves—but without trying to control them, and without losing sight of our personal Dharma in this moment.


Matthew Gindin, R.Ac., is an acupuncturist, ayurvedic counselor, meditation, qigong and yoga teacher living in Vancouver, BC. He began teaching meditation and yoga after living as a Buddhist monastic for three years. He regularly lectures on yoga philosophy, Buddhist psychology, holistic medicine, and Jewish spirituality. Being curious and perhaps a little too thoughtful, Matthew has explored and practiced neo-Shamanism, Tantric Yoga, all of the major schools of Buddhism and Daoism. His core spiritual commitments are to the contemplative life, positive action in the world, and his home tradition of Judaism whose two core demands, “love God” and “love people” are what he tries to live up to. As well as writing for the web he blogs at Blue Waters, Blue Mountains (www.susuddho.blogspot.com) and Talis in Wonderland (mgindin.wordpress.com). His professional site is www.matthewgindin.com.


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Associate Ed: Thandiwe Ogbonna/Kate Bartolotta

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