By now we have heard many teachings on ‘action’, and now, after all this, we suddenly find that no one really knows what it is! But once this riddle is solved, a corner is turned and progress flies like the wind.
BHAGAVAD GITA, CHAPTER 4, VERSE 16
What is action? What is inaction? Even the sages are confused about this, so I will explain it to you. Knowing this, you will be released from all misfortunes.
This verse is pivotal. It is going to be one of those places where some kind of mystery is hidden from obvious view. Surely what action is is obvious, but the verse suggests that it isn’t, so there must be something here that we may not know or understand correctly.
We are also presented with ‘inaction’, but it is the nature of nature to move, so how can there be any such a thing as inaction? To grasp what is being taught here, we must remember the context—Karma Yoga, or Action Yoga (chapter three).
“Even the sages are confused about this”
If the sages are confused about action and inaction we are surely looking at something very deep and very important that will not be immediately apparent to us, so let’s begin the hunt with a look at the word for ‘sage’:
In this verse, the word for ‘sage’, which is different than before, means ‘poet’.
If you want to remember something, put it in verse and meter and give it a little tune. This is what the sages did, and why we find so many mystical texts written in verse and meter. By putting teachings in verse and meter they are easily remembered and can be chanted, which reinforces the memory. (Remember this if you have children; it will help them with their school work.) This also makes written teachings nearly impossible to change and protects them from error and becoming obscured. This problem was discussed earlier.
The word for poet in Sanskrit also means ‘to describe or paint a picture’. In other words, we have a description that we can look at. The sages put teachings into rhythmic musical form to paint pictures of them so that we can see into them and glean their meanings. Scriptural teachings on Yoga have multi-layered understandings so that each of us can see Truth relevant to our own current phases of development, implying that because we make progress and change, so will our understanding.
The word for ‘knowing’ means ‘understanding what you know’. Understanding something is gained through experience, in this case, experience in meditation. But by the time one is a ‘sage’ much time has already been spent in meditation, and still the sage is confused. So where does that leave us?
This tells us not to expect to come upon the final answer overnight and without some means other than the usual mental logic. It must be experienced to be understood, and meditation is where you can experience it. It is useless for life in the fast lane. It is meant for sages—those with a meditation background who are deeply committed to realizing Truth and attaining liberation, and who use their meditation as a lab for gaining the necessary experience that ‘proves’ the teachings.
These hidden messages are always intended for sages and yogis so that they may become un-confused and continue to move forward, for there are places in the journey of yoga sadhana that one runs into seemingly unavoidable and unyielding obstacles. It is at these points that one must have a guru who understands through his or her own experience. But the author of the Gita, Vyasa, is taking the trouble to spell it out as best as He can in the awkward mode of written words.
“You will be released from all misfortunes”
The word for ‘misfortunes’ also means ‘disagreeable’ and ‘inauspicious’. This indicates that, even though we do yoga sadhana, these kinds of things may still be encountered but will not adversely affect us or our progress when we have correctly understood action and inaction, and have proceeded accordingly.
Think about yourself. How much of what comes to mind is nature (related to body, feelings, mind, personality, activity)? Now ask yourself who is noticing this.
Action and Inaction
All action is carried out by nature. One who is identified with nature experiences himself as the doer of action. Only one who is not identified with nature does not experience himself as the doer of action. Such a person, in effect, does nothing at all, and gets beyond the bondage and misfortunes of karma.
Namaste (I bow to the Divine One that You really are),
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