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Action and Inaction

by Swami Rama

Book: Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Rama[This is an excerpt from Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Rama. 1985 edition. The translation of the Sanskrit verse into English was done by Pandit Usharbudh Arya. The commentary is by Swami Rama.]

4:16: What is action, what is inaction? Even the wise are confused in this matter. Therefore I shall teach you concerning action, knowing which you will be freed from the foul world.

4:17: One should learn of action; one should learn of action that is opposed to right action; one should learn of inaction. The reality of action is deep.

4:18: He who sees inaction in action and who sees action in inaction, he is the one endowed with wisdom among human beings. He is joined in yoga, a performer of complete action.

Even great leaders and heroes sometimes become bewildered in deciding between right action, action that is opposed to right action, and non-action. When faced with a decision, how is one to determine which is the best response? Perhaps the action one chooses will have an effect opposite to what is anticipated and will create conflict, disharmony, or grief. In that case is it better not to act at all? Such questions occur to every person many times each day, although the process of considering these choices is so subtle that one may not be aware of it. If one does not know what the right action is, his mind starts pondering over the possible negative consequences of the actions he is considering. That can result in uncertainty, confusion, and loss of willpower. Indecisiveness, delay in deciding, and the fear of making a decision are unhealthy and painful. In such cases it is buddhi that needs training. If one is prone to be hesitant and uncertain in deciding how to act, the decisive factor of one’s internal organization (buddhi) should be sharpened so that it can promptly and unhesitatingly advise the mind and enable one to make a timely decision. Right action, of course, is always best. Action performed in a state of tranquility with non-attachment is always the right action. Contrary to that is action committed in a deluded state of mind, but even worse is inaction. A suspicious, doubtful, and deluded state of mind inevitably leads to injurious action. Action that is undertaken without having the counsel of the decisive faculty of one’s internal state is injurious action.

Many people are overly cautious and afraid of taking action, so they become inactive. Inaction makes one inert and is worse than wrong action. During the period of inaction one appears not be performing actions, but he is actually reacting adversely to the situation he faces. He is in a sort of negative withdrawal that leads to slothful ideas: “Why do I need it; why should I do it; I can live without it; I’m not capable; therefore I should not even make an effort to do it.”

Inaction is a result of the influence of tamas. In vikarma,* action that is opposed to right action, rajas and tamas join, but rajas is predominant. Rajas makes one active, but without sattva one remains deluded. It is actually the sattva quality that keeps the mind tranquil, and action performed in the state of tranquility is right action.

One who has disciplined himself, trained his senses, and attained a concentrated mind that always seeks the counsel of buddhi does not commit mistakes in performing his actions. He surrenders the fruits of his actions willingly for the sake of others. Such selfless action has two benefits: the fruits of one’s actions do not bind him, and his action becomes a form of worship, meditation in action. The yogi goes on performing actions with a tranquil mind and always remains free from the bondage of action. For him there is no self-interest. All his actions are motivated by selflessness, and he is free.

* Vinoba’s commentary provoked a lengthy discussion and investigation of other commentaries to delve more deeply into the meaning of the word vikarma. Vinoba’s commentary differs from the commentary of his revered teacher, Mahatma Gandhi. Vinoba says that vikarma is a special type of action, and he speaks of it in a positive sense. Verse sixteen itself says that even the great sages are perplexed about these different forms of action. With due respect to Vinoba, vikarma is to be understood as an action that is opposed to karma and performed in a deluded state.

Editor’s Note:

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