Brothers, in the last chapter, we discussed the yoga of desireless action. It is impossible to attain desirelessness if we give up swadharma and embrace the dharma which is not ours. It is a trader’s swadharma to sell indigenous goods. But when he gives it up and starts selling foreign goods imported from distant lands, his motive is nothing but to earn more profit. How can such work be free from desire? Pursuit of swadharma is therefore indispensable for desireless work. But swadharma could also be pursued with an eye on the gains. Take the case of non-violence. Violence is taboo for a votary of non-violence; but he could be outwardly nonviolent while being steeped in violence inwardly. For, violence is an attribute of the mind. The mind would not be non-violent merely by giving up outward violence. A sword in hand is a sure sign of a violent mind; but one does not become non-violent merely by throwing the sword away. The same is true about swadharma also. To have desirelessness, one must definitely avoid dharma which is not one’s own; but that is only the first step towards desirelessness. It is not sufficient for attainment of that goal.
Desirelessness is a state of the mind. Pursuit of swadharma is necessary but not sufficient for acquiring that state. Other means must also be used towards this end. To light a lamp, oil and wick are necessary but not sufficient. It is also necessary to have a flame. Darkness disappears only when we light a flame. How to light a flame? For this one must purify one’s mind. The mind should be thoroughly cleansed through intense self-examination. The Lord has given this important advice at the end of the Third Chapter. The Fourth Chapter has its genesis in this advice.
The Gita uses the word ‘karma’ (action) in the sense of swadharma. We eat, drink, sleep; these are all actions. But these are not the actions that the Gita refers to when it talks of karma. Karma refers to the performance of swadharma. But in order to attain desirelessness through such karma, an important aid is necessary. One must overcome desire, attachment and anger. One cannot have desirelessness unless and until the mind has become pure and calm like the waters of the Ganga. The actions necessary for the purification of mind are called ‘vikarma’ by the Gita. Karma, vikarma and akarma—these three terms are important in the Fourth Chapter. Karma means the outward actions done in the pursuit of swadharma. Vikarma means total involvement of the mind therein. We may bow to somebody, but that outward action is meaningless without inner humility in the mind. There should be unity between the inner and the outer. I may worship the image of the Lord; but that act is worthless if it is not accompanied with devotion. In the absence of devotion, the idol will just be a piece of stone and so shall I; and the worship will only mean that a stone is facing a stone! Desireless, selfless karmayoga is attained only when outward actions are complemented with the inward action of the purification of mind.
In the term ‘desireless action’, the adjective ‘desireless’ is more important than the word ‘action’, just as in the phrase ‘non-violent non-cooperation’, the adjective ‘non-violent’ is more important than the word ‘non-cooperation’. Non-cooperation without non-violence could be a terrible thing. In the same way, it could be dangerous if performance of swadharma is not complemented with vikarma of the mind.
Those engaged in social service today are certainly pursuing their swadharma. When people are poor and destitute, it is a natural duty to serve them and make them happy. But all social workers cannot, therefore, be called karmayogis. Social service without pure motives in the heart of the workers could have disastrous results. Such a social service can generate in equal measure the vanity, hatred, envy and selfishness that we generate when we serve our families exclusively. This is clearly evident in the world of social work today.
15. Karma + Vikarma = Akarma2
The mind should be fully in tune with and involved in work. ‘Vikarma’ is the word that the Gita uses for this involvement and application of the mind in work.‘Vikarma’ means the special karma which varies with the needs of each individual mind. Many kinds of vikarma have been illustratively mentioned in the Fourth Chapter. They have been further elaborated from the Sixth Chapter onwards. Only when we perform this special karma, only when the mind is in tune with the outward action, will the flame of desirelessness be lighted. Desirelessness is gradually developed when karma and vikarma come together. The body and the mind are distinct entities; so the means to be employed for their growth are bound to be different. The goal is reached when they are in tune with each other. To achieve harmony between them, the authors of the scriptures have prescribed a two-fold path. In bhaktiyoga (the yoga of devotion) they have prescribed penance and austerities without and japa within. If the japa within does not accompany outer forms of penance like fasting, the latter would be in vain. One should always reflect on why one is doing penance; the motive, the spirit should always be alive in the mind like a burning flame. The word ‘upavas’ (fasting) etymologically means ‘to dwell close to God’. In order that our mind and heart may dwell close to God, sensual pleasures are to be abjured. But if we give up such pleasures and do not think of God, of what value is the physical act of fasting? If, instead of thinking of God, we think of things to eat and drink while fasting, that ‘fast’ would be worse than a feast! In fact, there is nothing more dangerous than thinking about sensual pleasures. Tantra (technique, means) must be accompanied by mantra (pondering over, meditation). Tantra in itself is not important; and mantra without action has no value. Only when the hands are engaged in service and there is spirit of service in the heart can true service be rendered.
Performance of swadharma will be a dreary affair without the warmth of feelings in the heart. It would not then blossom forth and bear the fruit of desirelessness. Suppose we undertake the work of nursing the sick. If there is no compassion in the heart, it would be a burdensome drudgery for us. The patients too will find the service to be a burdensome obligation. If the mind is not absorbed in it, such service will boost the ego. Expectations will then arise in the mind: “I am helping them today; tomorrow they should help me. They should praise me. People should admire me.” Or else, we may get fed up and complain that the patient is peevish and irritable even though we are taking so much care of him. Sick men are usually in a depressed and irritable mood. If the spirit of service is lacking, we would get tired of nursing them.
If the mind is in tune with the work, the work is transformed into something unique. When vikarma joins karma, desirelessness comes into being. When a spark touches the gunpowder, it explodes. Karma is like the gunpowder. It works wonders when the flame of vikarma ignites it. Karma in itself is inert and lifeless; it is the spark of vikarma that makes it indescribably powerful. We may keep a packet of gunpowder in our pockets or handle it with impunity; but when ignited, it would blow up the body into pieces. The infinite power in swadharma is likewise dormant. Combine it with vikarma, and then see what transformation it can bring about! The resultant explosion would reduce to ashes ego, desires, passions and anger, and then supreme wisdom will be attained.
Action is in the nature of kindling, burning of which results into knowledge When you ignite a log of wood, it turns into burning coal. How different is the fire from the log! But it is, after all, the log which has undergone this transformation. When vikarma is united with karma, karma attains a divine radiance. A mother’s action of caressing her child is apparently insignificant; but who can describe the upsurge of emotions it gives rise to in the hearts of both the mother and the child? It would be utterly nonsensical if one were to say that such emotions would result if a hand of such weight and such softness is moved up and down such a back. Yes, the action is insignificant; but the mother has put her whole heart into it, and it is this vikarma that causes unprecedented joy. There is an incident described in the Ramcharitmanas (the Ramayana written by saint Tulsidas). The vanaras3 had come wounded and bleeding after a battle with the demons. They were in great pains. Lord Rama just looked at them with love, and all their pain vanished. It would be ridiculous if someone else were to try to bring about such a result by looking at them in an outwardly similar way.
Vikarma, combined with karma, results in a powerful explosion of energy, and then akarma is produced. A big log of wood, when burnt, turns into just a handful of harmless ash. In the same way karma, ignited by vikarma, ends up in producing akarma. Is there any relation between the properties of wood and that of the ash? Absolutely none. You can collect the ash in your hands and merrily smear it all over your body without harm. But there is no doubt that the ash has come out of the burning of that log of wood.
When vikarma is united with karma, akarma results. What does it mean? It means that one does not then have the feeling of having done anything. Action does not weigh on the mind of the actor. We act, but still we are not the doers. As the Gita says, you are not the slayer even if you slay somebody. A mother may give a thrashing to her child, but the child will still turn to her for solace. He would not do so if you thrash him. It is so because the mother’s heart is pure. Her action is totally devoid of any self-interest. Vikarma, or the purity of mind, erases the ‘action-ness’ of the action. Infused with the inner vikarma, Lord Rama’s action of looking at the vanaras became a sheer outpouring of love that acted as a balm on their wounds. But it did not tire Rama a bit. Action performed with pure heart is free from any attachment. There is, therefore, no question of any sin nor merit remaining as a residue after that action is over.
Otherwise, an action puts great burden and pressure on the mind and the heart. Suppose, news breaks out now that all the political prisoners are going to be released tomorrow. Imagine the resulting commotion! We are always agitated and strained with anxiety by the thought of the goodness or badness of our actions. Action engulfs us from all sides. It catches us by the scruff of our neck. Just as the sea-waves dash against the shore and make channels into it, the forceful waves of karma enter the mind and agitate it. Dualities of pleasure and pain are created. Peace of the mind is lost. Even after the action is over, its momentum remains. It takes hold of the mind and makes it restless.
But if karma is coupled with vikarma, any amount of action does not tire. The mind remains calm, peaceful and radiant. When vikarma is poured into karma, it becomes akarma. It is as if karma is erased after it is over.
16. Art Of Akarma Should Be Learnt From The Saints
How does karma become akarma? From whom can we learn this art? From the saints, of course. The Lord says at the end of this Chapter, “Go to the saints and learn from them.” Language fails in describing how karma is transformed into akarma. To gain an understanding of this, one has to sit at the feet of the saints. The Lord is described as ‘शांताकारं भुजगशयनम्’—He is fully at peace even though He is lying on the thousand-hooded cobra (Shesha). The saints too do hundreds of actions, but do not allow even a little ripple of commotion to arise in the still waters of their minds. This remarkable thing can never be understood unless the lives of saints are observed from close quarters.
Nowadays, books have become quite cheap. There is no dearth of teachers. Education is widespread and cheap. Universities are liberally doling out knowledge. But nobody seems to have assimilated it. In fact, the more one looks at the heaps of books, the more one realises how necessary it is to sit at the feet of the saints. Knowledge encased within the thick covers of the books does not come out of those covers. I am always reminded of an abhang (devotional poem) in this context:‘काम क्रोध आड पडिले पर्वत, राहिला अनंत पैलीकडे ।।’ (‘The high mountains of desires, passions and anger bar the way to the Lord.’) Similarly, the way to knowledge is barred by the heaps of books. Although libraries are everywhere, man still seems to be a monkey—ignorant and uncouth. There is a big library at Baroda. Once a gentleman was carrying a thick volume with a lot of pictures, thinking it to be an English book. When I browsed through it, I found it to be a French book! The gentleman must have thought that as the book was in the Roman script, had nice pictures and good binding, it must be full of knowledge!
Every year, tens of thousands of books are published in English. This is so in other languages too. With such spread of knowledge, how is it that man behaves so stupidly? Some say that the power of the memory has weakened, some say that concentration is becoming difficult, some say that whatever a man reads, appears true to him. Some say that there is no time left for thinking! The Lord says to Arjuna, “Yoga will be far away so long as your intellect, confused by listening to different things, remains unsteady. So stop reading books and listening to others and surrender yourself to the saints. There you would read the book of life. Your doubts will get dissolved by the silent, wordless sermons there. You would know how to remain perfectly serene even while constantly performing acts of service, how the heart could be tuned to produce music without a break even as the storm of action rages outside.”
Vikarma is normally translated as wrong or forbidden action. Vinoba is perhaps the only one who has given the term a different meaning, which has been explained in the following paragraphs. It can be considered a major contribution to the interpretation of the Gita.
Commentators have usually translated it as inaction, but Vinoba's interpretation is refreshingly different.
Vanara (commonly believed to be monkeys) was probably an aboriginal community living in the forests of south India. They formed Lord Rama's army which vanquished the forces of Ravan, the demon king of Lanka.