Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Two Ways of Performing Action

Nithin Sridhar

“Karma” or “Action” is the very foundation of our existence. A second does not go by without anybody performing any action. People are continuously involved in performing one or the other tasks- eating, drinking, talking, driving etc. But action does not refer to physical activity alone. Every word, every thought that arise in the mind represents an action being performed. The whole universe works on the principle action and reaction.

The Hindu Shastras/Scriptures call this phenomenon which forms the very basic functioning principle of the cosmos as “Karma”. Every situation, good or bad a person faces in his life is the fruits of his past actions (Karma Phala). Every person or animal, a person encounters or comes in contact with, is result of some Karmic bond (called in scriptures as “Rina Bandha”) present between them. Many people often understand this negatively to mean “Destiny” or “No-free Will”. But, that is only a misconception. On the other hand, Karmic Law is based on complete Free-Will a person has to make choices, to take decisions in every situation he faces. The Karma Phala (Fruits of action) one gets is entirely depended on the Karmas one performs. As the saying goes, “As you sow, so you reap” the whole Universe is based on this Karmic law of action and its fruits.

The Shastras speak of the two ways a person can perform the Karmas- Sakaama and Nishkaama. “Sakaama” refers to performing an action with an eye towards the fruits that action will bore. Such action may lead a person to temporary happiness/Sukha or to temporary sorrow/dukka depending upon whether the Karmic fruit was as per the expectation of the person or not. On the other hand, the Karmas performed in Nishkaama way, i.e performing an action with the sense of duty without expecting any result, such a person will find inner contentment irrespective of the Karmic fruits.
“Sakaama Karmas” increases attachment to the sensory world. As there is no end to the desires of the person, he will be eternally pursuing one desire after another performing countless number of Karmas. He will be ever-struck in this Karmic cycle of Sukha-Dukka. Brahmavaivartha Purana (1) says thus-

Avashyam eva bhoktavyam krutakarma shubha ashubam |
Naa bhuktam kshiyate karma kalpa-koti-shaitairapi ||

A person will definitely enjoy the fruits of his action; it may be good or bad; for without giving the results, an action does not die out even after billions of years.

Hence, these karmas are also called as “Bandhaka Karmas”, actions that increases the bondage to the sensory world. If the same Karmas that cause Bandhana/Bondage are performed in Nishkama way, surrendering the fruits of action to God, giving up one’s sense of doership of action, such Karmas will become “Mochaka”-a way to Liberation from this karmic cycle of birth and death. Shastras say-

Krutena Karmana | Akrutena Mokshaha ||

Performing action leads to Karma, Performing Actionless action leads to Moksha.

“Krutena” means “performing action”. Any activity performed with the sense of identification with doing it, will invariably lead to the bondage of Karmic cycle. Even though literally “Akrutena” means “Not performing Action”, the real meaning is not “Inaction” but what can be described as “action-less action”, i.e performing an action without Ahamkara-sense of I-ness of performing it. In other words, surrendering to God the Action, its fruits and the sense of doership of it.

In Bhagvad Gita, Sri Krishna describes this Nishkaama Karma as “Yogah karmasu kausalam(2)”- Yoga is the action perfected. Further he explains what he means by Yoga as thus-

yoga-sthah kuru karmani sangam tyaktva dhananjaya |
siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva samatvam yoga ucyate ||(3)

O Arjuna, abandon all attachment to success or failure and perform your duty by being steadfast in yoga. Such evenness of mind is called yoga.

“Samatvam Yoga Uchyate” means “performing action in a detached manner”. Krishna is asking Arjuna to become a “Stitahprajna”- one who is not affected by external factors. This yoga is called as “Nishkaama Karma” or “Actionless action”. No spiritual progress is possible for a person without him giving up his Ahamkara(I-ness) and Mamahkaara (mine-ness) and learning to perform Nishkaama karma with the sense of Dharma (Duty) and Tyaga (sacrifice).

“Moksha”or Final Liberation is not possible without attaining “Atma Sakshatkara”. But this cannot be attained without the Karmas. Sage Agastya in “YogaVashishta” lucidly explains this thus-

ubhabhyam eva paksabhyam yatah khe paksinam gatih |
tathai va jnana karmabhyam jayate paramam padam ||(4)

Just as a bird flies with its two wings, so also an enquirer flies to goal of Self-Realization through the co-ordination of two wings of Jnana and Karma.

Whatever may be the path, a spiritual seeker takes but he must develop Samabhavatva (treating everything in same manner without likes and dislikes) and perform Nishkaama Karmas. Only when a person performs the Karmas prescribed in Shastras (vihita karmas) in such a Nishkaama way, will he achieve Chitta Shuddhi-purification of mind and be able to develop the competencies necessary for Jnana Sadhana.

Shastras classify Karmas into four categories- Nithya, Naimitta, Kamya and Nishiddha. Nithya Karmas refer to daily activities that a person is supposed to follow like Sandhyavandana. Naimmitta refers to Karmas performed on specific occasions. Kamya refers to Karmas done to fulfill specific desires. Nishiddha refers to Karmas that are prohibited like Killing etc. A person must first practice Apara/Bhedha bhakti (5) by implementing the Karmas prescribed in the Shastras in a Nishkaama way and by avoiding the Karmas prohibited by the Shastras. Only such a practice will make him develop the surrendering required to be able to give up his Ahamkara and Mamah-Kaara. This results in Chitta-Shuddhi. Without performing Nishkaama Karma, Chitta Shuddhi is not possible.

A person who has thus purified his mind will develop qualities like Viveka(spiritual discrimination), Vairagya(dispassion), Titaksha(forbearance)(6) etc. Only such a person is eligible for practicing Jnana Sadhana. He should then approach a Sadguru and practice the Sravana Chatushtaya (the four fold spiritual practice)- Sravana ,Manana , Nidhidhyasa  and Atma-Sakshatkara.

Sravana and Manana refers to listening and internalizing the teachings imparted by one’s Guru. A shishya is expected to do further reading of the Shastras on the said subject and get cleared of the doubts that arises in his mind. The Guru will guide the disciple slowly towards Jnana by clearing one by one all the doubts that arise inside the disciple. After intellectually understanding the Guru’s words the shishya must practice Nidhidhyasa- Meditation and Contemplation as instructed by his Guru. By sincerely practicing the Sadhana’s instructed by the Guru, the Shishya will attain Atma-Shakshatkara.

Many people have this misconception that performing rituals alone (Karma Anushtana) can lead a seeker to Moksha and practice of Jnana Sadhana is not needed. But it is not so. In Vivekachudamni, Adi Shankara clears this doubt thus (7)-

Cittasya shuddhaye karma na tu vastupalabdhaye |
vastusiddhirvicharena na kincit-karma-kotibihi ||

Actions cause purification of the mind but they do not, by themselves, cause the attainment of Reality. The Self-Realization is brought about only by Self-Enquiry/Jnana Sadhana and not in the least by even ten million acts (alone).

Hence the Karma Anushtana of the rituals and practices done in a Sakaama way does not lead to Moksha but instead it will increase the bondage to the material world. But if these Karmas are done in Nishkaama way, it will lead to the purification of the mind of the sadhaka who will attain the qualities like Viveka etc. And these competencies will enable him to perform Jnana Sadhana Anushtana and achieve Atma Sakshatkara and hence Moksha.


1. Brahmavaivartha Purana 1.44.74

2. Bhagvad Gita 2.50

3. Bhagvad Gita 2.48

4. Yoga Vashista

5. For more information about classification of Bhakti, refer the article “The Two Stages of Devotion”.

6. For more information on Sadhana Chatushtaya-Four Competencies, refer the article “The Two Paths of Life”.

7. Vivekachoodamani, Verse 11

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