ARVINDUS

Contemplationam

An Interpretation of the Bhagavadgītā, Chapter IV, Śloka 18

AN INTERPRETATION OF THE BHAGAVADGĪTĀ, CHAPTER IV, ŚLOKA 18

"He who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction is intelligent among men, he is a Yogi and a doer of all action."

The above words can be read in the Śrīmadbhagavadgītā in śloka 18 of chapter IV.1 This statement may come on a bit incomprehensible to those new to the Bhagavadgītā and thus shall it in this contemplation be elucidated by an interpretation. And this interpretation can be started by pointing out that the Bhagavadgītā is originally written in Sanskrit. And the original Sanskrit word or term that is translated here with the English word 'action' regards 'karma'.2 Indeed can in this śloka 'karma' be translated with 'action' but the term 'karma' in Sanskrit means a lot more than just 'action'.3 For many people the term will sound familiar as the concept of the law of cause and effect.4 Basically this law says that actions of a certain nature result in experiences of a corresponding nature (either before or after rebirth has taken place).5 Good actions lead to pleasant experiences and bad actions lead to unpleasant experiences. What one desires and thus strives for one attains.6

When explicating karma in its possibilities of good and bad it is postulated as dual in itself. However the concept of karma has itself also an opposed concept, namely that of dharma. The term 'dharma' has on itself a vast field of meanings,7 but can here be defined as 'right action'.8 Karma then can against this background be understood as 'wrong action'. So we have dharma as right action and karma as wrong action, which can again be divided into good action and bad action. That dharma is set as another order of action than karma means that dharmik action is not causal for future physical life experiences. Karma leads to rebirth to reap the fruits of one's actions9 but dharma bears no karmik fruits and leads thus to mokṣa or spiritual enlightenment.10 Dharmik action is action which is conductive for one's spiritual attainment.

Let us now return to the beginning of this contemplation where karma was translated with 'action'. When dharma is opposed to karma, making karma adharma, then if karma regards action should dharma be understood as inaction. Wrong action, karma, is action, and right action, dharma, is inaction. This remark should be understood against the background of the expanded meaning of karma, expanding from the meaning of 'action' into the larger meaning of 'action-reaction'. On the level of karma meaning 'action' should dharma be understood as 'right action' and on the level of karma meaning 'action-reaction' should dharma be understood as 'inaction'. The inaction of dharma refers to it not causing any reaction.

In the above section was dharmik inaction put opposite to karma. Confusing as it may be there is a form of karmik inaction that can be put opposite to dharma also. For the mere abstinence of performing an action may cause a reaction too and is thus seen as an action too.11 To avoid confusing this karmik inaction with the earlier mentioned dharmik inaction we shall term it 'unaction'. And like action has both karmik wrong action and dharmik right action does unaction have both karmik wrong unaction and dharmik right unaction. Note that no bad and good unaction is poned here since wrong unaction is seen here as simple action. A tabulation of what has been brought to the fore so far may be useful here.

1) Karma / Adharma / Action 2a) Wrong Action & Wrong Unaction 3a) Bad Action
3b) Good Action
2b) Reaction 3a) Unpleasant Reaction
3b) Pleasant Reaction
1) Dharma 2a) Right Action & Right Unaction  
2b) Inaction  

Figure 1.

On level 1 we see karma or adharma or action opposed to dharma. On level 2a the karmik wrong action and unaction is opposed to the dharmik right action and unaction. On level 2b the karmik reaction is opposed to the dharmik inaction. On level 3a causes a karmik bad action a karmik unpleasant reaction. And on level 3b causes a karmik good action a karmik pleasant reaction.

With the above elements explicated we can make a start of our interpretation of śloka 18 of chapter IV of the Śrīmadbhagavadgītā. The śloka was translated as follows: "He who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction is intelligent among men, he is a Yogi and a doer of all action." This śloka can now be interpreted as follows: 'He who sees dharmik inaction in dharmik right action and right unaction, and karmik reaction in karmik wrong unaction is intelligent among men, he is a Yogi and a doer of all action.'

The above interpretation is not yet complete. It is stated in this śloka that one who sees inaction in action and action in inaction is intelligent among men, a yogi and a doer of all action. This śloka says firstly that one who sees thus has the power to discern between right and wrong and secondly that such a person is a yogi. A yogi is generally considered as one striving for spiritual realization but since this term in this śloka is used to refer to one with the power to discriminate between dharma and adharma it must be taken here as referring to one having reached the aforementioned ideal already.12, 13

Now how is such a perfected yogi a doer of all action? When a yogi realizes himself spiritually and identifies with the metaphysical ātman in his heart he also becomes one with the universal brahman, for these two are one.14 And this metaphysical brahman is not just considered as transcendent to this world, it is also considered as one with everything in it.15 Thus; every action done is done within the totality of brahman, and thus is the realized yogi that gained discrimination of dharma and adharma by identification with his ātman and with that with brahman also the doer of all action.16

With this additional explanation we may now come to the following interpretation of śloka 18 of chapter IV of the Śrīmadbhagavadgītā: 'He who sees dharmik inaction in dharmik right action and right unaction, and karmik reaction in karmik wrong unaction is intelligent among men, he is one with brahman and thus a doer of all action.'

May we also become such doers of all action.

Notes
  1. Srimad Bhagavad Gita, translated and commentated by Swami Swarupananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2007, Ch. IV, Śl. 18, p. 106.
  2. Ibidem.
  3. Monier Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Etymologically and Philologically Arranged, With Special Reference to Greek, Latin, Gothic, German, Anglo-Saxon, and Other Cognate Indo-European Languages, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1862, p. 209.
  4. Alice A. Bailey, 'Letters on Occult Meditation', in: Twenty-Four Books of Esoteric Philosophy, (CD-ROM, Release 3), Lucis Trust, London / New York, 2001. "Karma.  Physical action.  Metaphysically, the law of retribution; the law of cause and effect, or ethical causation.  There is the karma of merit and the karma of demerit.  It is the power that controls all things, the resultant of moral action, or the moral effect of an act committed for the attainment of something which gratifies a personal desire."
  5. Wendy Doniger O 'Flaherty (editor), Karma and Rebirth, in Classical Indian Traditions, University of California Press, Berkeley / Los Angeles / London, 1980, p. xi.
  6. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, With the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya, translated by Swami Madhavananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2008, Ch. IV, Section iv, Śl. 5, p. 495. "As it [that self] does and acts, so it becomes; by doing good it becomes good, and by doing evil it becomes evil – it becomes virtuous through good acts and vicious through evil acts. Others, however, say, 'The self is identified with desire alone. What it desires, it resolves; what it resolves, it works out; and what it works out, it attains.'"
  7. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, p. 449.
  8. Steven J. Rosen, Essential Hinduism, Praeger, Westport / Connecticut / London, 2006, p. 35.
  9. See note 5.
  10. Sri Swami Shivananda in: Bhagavad Gita, translated by Sri Swami Shivananda, (World Wide Web Edition), The Divine Life Society, Shivanandanagar, 2000, p. 40. "That which elevates a man and helps him to reach the goal of life and attain knowledge is Dharma (righteousness); that which drags him into worldliness is unrighteousness. That which helps a man to attain liberation is Dharma; that which makes him irreligious is Adharma or unrighteousness."
  11. Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Ch. III, Śl. 4, p. 74. "By non-performance of work none reaches worklessness; by merely giving up action no one attains to perfection."
  12. Sri Ramakrishna in: Mahendranath Gupta, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Volume I, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, undated, p. 370. "There are both vidya and avidya in this world of maya. Who may be called a paramahamsa? He who, like a swan, can take the milk from a mixture of milk and water, leaving aside the water. He who, like an ant, can take the sugar from a mixture of sugar and sand, leaving aside the sand."
  13. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, p. 823.
  14. Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994, p. 204, ff.
  15. Chāndogya Upaniṣad, With the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya, translated by Swāmī Gambhīrananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata 2009, Ch. III, Section 14, Śl. 1, p. 208. "All this is Brahman."
  16. Ibidem, Śl. 4, p. 214. "'This Self of mine within the heart, is the performer of all actions, […]. This is Brahman."
Bibliography
  • Alice A. Bailey, 'Letters on Occult Meditation', in: Twenty-Four Books of Esoteric Philosophy, (CD-ROM, Release 3), Lucis Trust, London / New York, 2001.
  • Wendy Doniger O 'Flaherty (editor), Karma and Rebirth, in Classical Indian Traditions, University of California Press, Berkeley / Los Angeles / London, 1980.
  • Mahendranath Gupta, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Volume I, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, undated.
  • Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994.
  • Steven J. Rosen, Essential Hinduism, Praeger, Westport / Connecticut / London, 2006.
  • Sri Swami Shivananda in: Bhagavad Gita, translated and commentated by Sri Swami Shivananda, (World Wide Web Edition), The Divine Life Society, Shivanandanagar, 2000.
  • Monier Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Etymologically and Philologically Arranged, With Special Reference to Greek, Latin, Gothic, German, Anglo-Saxon, and Other Cognate Indo-European Languages, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1862.
  • Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, With the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya, translated by Swami Madhavananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2008.
  • Bhagavad Gita, translated and commentated by Sri Swami Shivananda, (World Wide Web Edition), The Divine Life Society, Shivanandanagar, 2000.
  • Chāndogya Upaniṣad, With the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya, translated by Swāmī Gambhīrananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata 2009.
  • Srimad Bhagavad Gita, translated by Swami Swarupananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2007.