Ch. 4 Yoga of Unattached Karma (Part 10)

This article is part 47 of 125 in the series Jīvana-dharma-yoga


Distinction between karma and akarma

karmaṇo hy-api boddhavyam boddhavyam ca vikarmaṇaḥ
akarmaṇaś-ca boddhavyaṃ gahanā karmaṇo gatiḥ
(BG 4.17)

The discussion on karma and akarma is so deep that it baffles even the wise, says Bhagavān. What does that imply? Simply that the responsibility of a man is great and that it should translate into sad-asad-viveka -- discernment between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. Thus it becomes one’s duty to use his viveka and independently undertake due consideration. We have to keep this in mind carefully.

Akarma is that action which is not ordained for us. Karma that is beyond our capability and propriety is akarma for us. Bhagavān’s opinion is that this should be examined carefully.

akarmaṇaśca boddhavyaṃ

The inference is that we should also know the karma that we should not perform. This is the subtle precept in the theory of karma.

A particular karma may be highly valued in the world; it may be recommended to us by society and the learned. It is left for us to decide whether it is right for us to perform it.

Going on a pilgrimage to Kedarnath and Badrinath has been believed to be a great virtuous accomplishment for aeons. But eighty or ninety- year old men and women should decide whether it is karma or akarma for them. Deciding it for them is difficult for others.

Suppose the head of a family is suffering from a terrible disease. Someone then instructs his wife to observe certain austerities for two weeks in a far off pilgrim centre to propitiate the divine and to gain longevity for her husband. Whether it is karma for her to stay with her husband during this time or travel to a far-off place is something she has to decide for herself.

Thus, karma for Rama may become akarma for Bhima. And something that is akarma for Shyama may be karma for Soma. Here, it is impossible to have one rule that holds for all circumstances. Therefore, individual responsibility plays a major role. No one can escape responsibility by disregarding viveka and arguing, "I did it because he told me," "I trusted Bhagavān and did it," and "I believed my guru’s blessings and did it." Devotees who follow the bhakti tradition should be careful about this. They usually say, "Bhagavān will take care of everything; we do not have any responsibility". These are not the words of those who have understood the distinction between karma and akarma.

Bhagavān gives results. Humans put forth the effort. Is the effort right? Is it adequate? These are the questions that are in front of us. We should always have this sense of personal responsibility.

karmaṇy-akarma yaḥ paśyet akarmaṇi ca karma yaḥ
sa buddhimān manuṣyeṣu sa yuktaḥ kṛtsna-karma-kṛt
(BG 4.18)

This means that we have to see karma in akarma and akarma in karma, and that this is the mark of a wise man. What is akarma? Akarma may mean two things —

  1. Not performing any activity implying karmalopa or delinquency in one’s duty
  2. Performing activities but remaining aloof from it, as though no activity is being performed — karma-phala-virakti — disinterested in the fruits (results) of karma.

The second meaning is implied here, not the first. Bhagavān’s opinion is never to give up karma. This is made clear in many other verses —

mā te saṅgos-tv-akarmaṇi (BG 2.47)

yajña-dāna-tapaḥ-karma na tyājyaṃ kāryam-eva tat (BG 18.5)

Therefore, we have to read the meaning of this dictum as giving up the desire for the results of action, as given in (2). Pāpa does not affect one who performs all his various ordained, rightful and dhārmic duties, but does not worry about their results, as though he is not performing them at all. His karma does not shackle him.

jñānāgniḥ sarva-karmāṇi bhasmasāt kurute tathā (BG 4.37)

ātmavantaṃ na karmāṇi nibadhnanti dhanañjaya (BG 4.41)

karmaṇy-akarma yaḥ paśyet akarmaṇi ca karma yaḥ (BG 4.18)

These are some of the greatest and most important words in the Gītā. Akarma may mean two things, therefore we have to be careful in grasping the meaning.

In “mā te saṅgos-tv-akarmaṇi,” akarma means giving up karma entirely. This is not right. Another akarma — where desire for the fruit of the karma is given up — is implied.

"karmaṇy-akarma" means that one has to perform his duties, but remain aloof as though he is not doing anything, meaning that he should remain neutral towards the good or bad consequences of his actions. He should work hard, but not feel that he is tired, or that he did not get to taste the sweet fruit of his labour.

Akarmaṇi ca karma” means that one has to take a giving-up attitude towards the results of action. This is interesting. Doing one’s duties is karma, akarma namely giving up even the thought of its results is itself another karma.

Desire to perform karma, but disinterestedness in its results — that, then, is the prescription. Akarma in the form of giving up the desire for results while performing ordained karma, karma in the form of disinterestedness while giving up the results of karma.

While performing karma, giving up the ownership and desire for the results becomes akarma. While giving up such desire (which is akarma), the act of giving up itself becomes karma. Thus, “karmaṇy-akarma” and “akarmaṇi ca karma.”

A cook in a hotel cooks food for customers, that is his karma. He does not worry about who is eating the food prepared by him. That is akarma. A customer who visits the hotel eats the food. That is his karma. It is akarma for him to inquire about the person who cooked the food. Thus, akarma within karma and karma within akarma — perform duties diligently but be unconcerned about the results — this is the principle.



Rains, Crops and Deities

annād-bhavanti bhūtāni parjanyād-anna-sambhavaḥ
yajñād-bhavati parjanyo yajñaḥ karma-samudbhavaḥ
(BG 3.14)

The divinities of the world do not provide rains and crops only to those who perform yajñas. They are generous. If one propitiates them, they become helpful to the entire mankind. If there is even one virtuous man in the village, the entire village is benefited by the results of his good deeds.

The implication of this teaching is that one has to enjoy the benefit obtained by the performance of yajña by sharing it with everyone, even though he has earned it alone. What does it really mean? Even though a deity gives some bounty as a boon to someone who has performed various virtuous actions, even others have the right to partake of it. The performer of yajña is not the lone beneficiary of the received boon. Everyone who is with him would have helped him in some or the other way, however small or big. If not in a positive, encouraging way, they would at least have helped him negatively by not harming the venture, by not creating obstacles in his way! Therefore, they also have the right to enjoy the boon received in a yajña.

Thus, the specious argument whether a non-performer of a yajña obtains its benefits or not, falls flat. There must be at least some virtuous people. A part of the fruits of their virtuous actions are obtained by everyone — this shows the greatness of virtuous deeds. The good performed by one brings welfare to everyone.

andu naraṅgĕ yuddhamukhadoḻ paratattvaṃ peḻdu lokakāṃ
bandapĕnannĕyoddhatara duṣṭara daṇḍisi sādhuvṛndakā-
nandavanittu śāśvatada dharmava saṃsthitagaivenĕṃda go-
vindanĕ nīnadaṃ marĕte-yenadaninnumadekĕ bāre bīradiṃ?

O Govinda, once upon a time, at the commencement of a fight,
You instructed Nara on the Supreme Principle, and proclaimed
That you will appear in this world to punish the evil,
To gladden the good, and establish dharma.
Have you forgotten that promise?
Why do not you appear now with all your might?

End of Chapter 4

To be continued...

The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.



Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



Engineer. Lapsed blogger. Abiding interest in Sanskrit, religion, and philosophy. A wannabe jack-of-all.


Mother of two. Engineer. Worshiper of Indian music, poetry, and art.

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