Seeking the Key To Desireless Action

Spiritual aspirants throughout history have grappled with the issue of what kind of work or action is compatible or suitable for their spiritual quest. Some have chosen an ascetic path, and determined that action should be minimized to the bare necessary amount to maintain the body and allow the spiritual discipline to proceed. The anchorite in the desert, the yogi in the mountain cave are a couple of examples of this approach toward minimizing the influence of desire into action, and thereby maximizing the focus on the spiritual path they were following. The Sankhya path would fit generally into this approach. The issue with this approach is that it leaves the entire vast work of Nature unsupported.

Others have taken the approach that action in the outer world is acceptable as long as it is focused on the spiritual aspiration through undertaking rituals, maintaining outer forms, undertaking what is traditionally known as sacrifice. The idea here is that such action is not strictly based on the action of desire, and it continues to focus on the spiritual reality. As we have seen with the Vedavada tradition which considered such ritual sacrifices to be “karma yoga”, it is possible to be misled into using these practices for the fulfillment of worldly desires, so it is not a perfect solution either.

Still others have taken the approach that outer action in the world can be done according to certain pre-determined principles or rules, because it is needed for the welfare of the world.

In each of these instances, and in other variants, there is an acknowledgement that bondage to the world is related to the force of desire, and the attempt to find a way to live that does away with the attachment that comes from action done with desire.

It is generally believed that without the action of desire, the functions of life in the world, the development of society and personal attention to action cannot exist.

The Gita sets forth a doctrine of doing “the work to be done” without attachment to the fruits of action, without desire. The question remains how to realistically accomplish this goal.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 11, Works and Sacrifice, pp. 102-103,


Reconciliation of Yoga of Knowledge and Yoga of Works

If we put aside the traditional concept of the yoga of knowledge requiring physical renunciation of action, we can find the reconciliation that the Gita is trying to achieve. The Gita gives its approval to the practice of the yoga of knowledge, the yoga of the intelligent will, but not in the absence of action, but in the carrying out of action performed according to the principles that knowledge provides for us.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “For knowledge does not mean renunciation of works, it means equality and non-attachment to desire and the objects of sense; and it means the poise of the intelligent will in the Soul free and high-uplifted above the lower instrumentation of Prakriti and controlling the works of the mind and the senses and body in the power of self-knowledge and the pure objectless self-delight of spiritual realisation….”

“…the Yoga of the self-liberating intelligent will finds its full meaning by the Yoga of desireless works. Thus the Gita founds its teaching of the necessity of desireless works, niskama karma, and unites the subjective practice of the Sankhyas–rejecting their merely physical rule–with the practice of Yoga.”

The central concept here is to do works using the mind to bring the senses under control. Action undertaken in Karma Yoga is done under the principle of “non-attachment, it is to do works without clinging with the mind to the objects of sense and the fruit of the works.”

This process is one that develops in stages, sequentially, starting with the practice of doing works with the consciousness of being the “doer” but with non-attachment to the results. As the Gita progresses, it goes through the various different stages until the complete understanding of the implications of this reconciliation of knowledge and works becomes clear.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 11, Works and Sacrifice, pp. 101-102,

Action Is Not a Bondage

Physical renunciation of action represents a mistaken notion of the nature of action and the cause of bondage by action. As previously noted, it is not possible to abandon action as long as we are in the human body. Some amount of physical action is going to take place. Sri Aurobindo points out, however, an even greater issue in terms of the mistaken attempt to renounce action: “For it is not our physical movements and activities alone which are meant by works, by karma; our mental existence also is a great complex action, it is even the greater and more important part of the works of the unresting energy,–subjective cause and determinant of the physical. We have gained nothing if we repress the effect but retain the activity of the subjective cause. The objects of sense are only an occasion for our bondage, the mind’s insistence on them is the means, the instrumental cause. A man may control his organs of action and refuse to give them their natural play, but he has gained nothing if his mind continues to remember and dwell upon the objects of sense.”

“The body’s actions, even the mind’s actions are nothing in themselves, neither a bondage, nor the first cause of bondage. What is vital is the mighty energy of Nature which will have her way and her play in her great field of mind and life and body; what is dangerous in her, is the power of her three Gunas, modes or qualities to confuse and bewilder the intelligence and so obscure the soul.”

From this viewpoint, true liberation consists not in abstaining from action, whether physical or mental, but in separating oneself from entanglement that bewilders the senses and the intelligence, essentially rising above the action of the three Gunas, observing and supporting their action, but not being attached either to the action or its fruits. Each of us has to act while we are in the world–that is the role of Nature of which we are a part, not a separate existence.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 11, Works and Sacrifice, pp. 100-101,

Renunciation of Action Is Not Possible

Traditional spiritual teachings, including the path of knowledge from ancient India as well as teachings in other parts of the world draw a strict dichotomy between “life in the world” and “spiritual life”. The spiritual aspirant withdraws to a cave, or the desert or forest, some isolated location to reduce the calls of the world and thus enable a concentrated, quiet focus on the spiritual consciousness. Other traditions try to accomplish a similar result with the cloister or monastery.

What the Gita has pointed out clearly is that renunciation of action is in fact not possible, even if we try, as spiritual aspirants have tried, to reduce our interaction with the world. There are two major points here: first, as most spiritual practitioners find out, simple withdrawal or suppression of outward actions does not remove the inner linkage of the consciousness to the “things of the world”. Second, all life, whether secluded, isolated and quiet, or active and participating in all the actions of the world, is a form of “action” and thus, there is no escape from action.

The real solution, as proposed by the Gita, is then both more realistic and more effective than the futile attempt to achieve liberation through suppress of outward acts. The Gita in effect states that the true renunciation is the separation of the intelligent will from attachment to action and its fruits, regardless of the form of action.

Sri Aurobindo sums it up: “Man embodied in the natural world cannot cease from action, not for a moment, not for a second; his very existence here is an action; the whole universe is an act of God, mere living even is His movement.”

The Isha Upanishad provides similar insight: “All this is for habitation of the Lord; whatsoever is individual universe of movement in the universal motion.” (Isha Upanishad, verse 1)

The Gita’s solution rests upon the oneness of all existence. It relies on a movement in consciousness rather than an act of physical renunciation that is illusory in its value or reality. Not only is renunciation of action not possible, but it fails to take into account the significance of the Divine Existence in manifestation of which each living entity is a part.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 11, Works and Sacrifice, pp. 99-100,

and Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, pg. 19

Renunciation of Works Redefined By the Gita

The prevailing wisdom of the Gita’s time was that following the path of knowledge required a physical renunciation of works; whereas the path of works was considered to be one of carrying out ritual and rite in order to achieve success in the world. The Gita does not accept either of these premises, however; on the contrary, the Gita develops an entirely new line of understanding that redefines the meaning of renunciation and thus reconciles the path of knowledge with the path of works, in a new, higher and inward sense.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “…it is an error to think that by not engaging in any kind of action this actionless state of the soul can be attained and enjoyed. Mere renunciation of works is not a sufficient, not even quite a proper means for salvation. ‘Not by abstention from works does a man enjoy actionlessness, nor by mere renunciation (of works) does he attain to his perfection,’–to siddhi, the accomplishment of the aims of his self-discipline of Yoga.”

The teacher’s goal here is to take the traditional concepts that are rooted in Arjuna’s mind and reconfigure them in such a way that Arjuna can realize that the Truth is subtle and not easily grasped with the habitual mind focused on outer things. In the Gita’s perspective, action can be actionless; and actionlessness is action–everything depends on the standpoint and attitude of the actor. Simply taking on the robes of the renunciate does not mean that real, inner renunciation has actually taken place in the soul–there may still be lingering attachment to the fruits that are offered by the world. Similarly, someone apparently immersed in action, even the kind of fierce violent action to which Arjuna has been called, may be liberated from attachment to that action or its fruits and enjoy the real inner state of peace, calm and equality that represents the true inner meaning of renunciation.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 11, Works and Sacrifice, pg. 99,

The Unreconciled Contradiction

The reversal of consciousness, the reorienting of the focus inward and upward, is part of the traditional path of knowledge; this path, however, traditionally involves giving up action, or at least as much of it as can be given up while we remain anchored in the human body, and focusing all the attention on this inward spiritual reality, through meditation, concentration and achievement of a state of spiritual trance.

At the same time, Sri Krishna is urging Arjuna to not give up works, but in fact, to carry out an extreme example of action–being the protagonist in an enormous battle in a civil war that involves is family, friends, teachers and respected elders, and in so doing, be the leading actor in carrying out the deaths of many of those people.

This does not appear to fit the traditional model of the path of knowledge as Arjuna has come to understand it, and he is noticeably perplexed and confused by what appears to him to be a major contradiction in the teaching.

Sri Aurobindo describes Arjuna’s feelings: “Arjuna complains that he has been given a contradictory and confusing doctrine, not the clear, strenuously single road by which the human intelligence can move straight and trenchantly to the supreme good.”

It is the object of the Gita to face this contradiction squarely and it devotes substantial effort in the following chapters to work out Arjuna’s concerns.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 11, Works and Sacrifice, pp. 98-99,

Reversal of Consciousness

We live immersed in a consciousness of fragmentation, division and separation. We are generally fixated on these separations and we interact with the world as if it is made up of numerous separate and divided beings and forms, and as if we are independent of them and able to thereby decide and act as separate beings ourselves. This is more or less like “not seeing the forest for the trees”.

Western psychologists have identified two sides to the brain, the “left brain” which is primarily involved with analysis, and the “right brain’ which sees “gestalt” or what we may call the “big picture” or pattern. Due to the nature of our technological society we have developed a strong pattern of left brain interaction at the expense of the right brain.

An integrated viewpoint would include the analytical powers of the left brain, while keeping those powers in context and balanced with a right brain overview.

The ancient texts on Yoga, including the teaching set forth in the Bhagavad Gita, also identifies two different standpoints for consciousness, which they call the lower and the higher. The lower consciousness corresponds to the fragmented view that modern scientists call “left brain”, while the higher generally corresponds to the identification of “right brain” that can see everything as a whole, within a context of Oneness. The Upanishads speak of a tree of creation that has its roots above and its branches below, symbolizing the standpoint of Oneness as the foundation for all the differentiation of forms we find here in the lower nature.

It is this standpoint that results from the reorientation of the focus from downward and outward to inward and upward. Sri Aurobindo describes it thus: “It is a reversal of the whole view, experience, knowledge, values, seeings of earth-bound creatures. This life of the dualities which is to them their day, their waking, their consciousness, their bright condition of activity and knowledge, is to him a night, a troubled sleep and darkness of the soul; that higher being which is to them a night, a sleep in wich all knowledge and will cease, is to the self-mastering sage his waking, his luminous day of true being, knowledge and power….For while they are filled with the troubling sense of ego and mine and thine, he is one with the one Self in all and has no ‘I’ or ‘mine’….He attains to the great peace and is not bewildered by the shows of things; he has extinguished his individual ego in the One, lives in that unity and, ….can attain to extinction of the Brahman….the great immergence of the separate personal self into the vast reality of the one infinite impersonal Existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 10, The Yoga of the Intelligent Will, pp. 96-97,

Liberated Action In the World

Samadhi and action in the world are not actually mutually exclusive states of being. Once the orientation of the consciousness is moved inward and upward, leading to non-attachment to the objects of the senses and the play of desire and the dualities, the individual is in a position to undertake works from the standpoint of that non-attachment, above or beyond the play of dualities.

Sri Aurobindo describes the Gita’s view on how to integrate liberation with works in the world: ” ‘Thou hast a right to action, but only to action, never to its fruits; let not the fruits of thy work be thy motive, neither let there be in thee any attachment to inactivity.’ ”

” ‘Fixed in Yoga do thy actions, having abandoned attacment, having become equal in failure and success; for it is equality that is meant by Yoga.’ Action is distressed by the choice between a relative good and evil, the fear of sin and the difficult endeavour towards virtue? But the liberated who has united his reason and will with the Divine, casts away from him even here in this world of dualities both the good doing and evil doing; for he rises to a higher law beyond good and evil, founded in the liberty of self-knowledge. Such desireless action can have no decisiveness, no effectiveness, no efficient motive, no large or vigorous creative power? No so; action done in Yoga is not only the highest but the wisest, the most potent and efficient even for the affairs of the world; for it is informed by the knowledge and will of the Master of works: ‘Yoga is skill in works.’ ”

This status of action brings the individual who practices it to a state of harmony and Oneness with the entire universal Creation, while at the same time liberating him from bondage to the normal human motives, goals and results, and the attendent suffering. It is a powerful way of liberation, an active form of samadhi.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 10, The Yoga of the Intelligent Will, pp. 95-96,

The Nature of Samadhi

Samadhi as a state of consciousness is an essential aspect of the conversion from the outward and downward orientation of the intelligent will, to the inward and upward orientation. When we reflect on what samadhi is, we tend to equate it with a top of deep trance, non-responsive and non-perceptive of the touches of the external objects of the senses.

Sri Aurobindo (and the Gita) takes issue with this view of samadhi. “The sign of the man in Samadhi is not that he loses consciousness of objects and surroundings and of his mental and physical self and cannot be recalled to it even by burning or torture of the body,–the ordinary idea of the matter; trance is a particular intensity, not the essential sign.”

Rather, there is a more subtle, inner sign of samadhi in the ability of the person to remain free and above the action of desire, the modes of nature and the dualities of attraction and repulsion. This freedom can and does occur even when the individual is in the midst of action in the world. One cannot recognize the liberated soul acting in samadhi from a particular manner of speaking or acting.

“Equality is the great stamp of the liberated soul and of that equality even the most discernible signs are still subjective.”

The definition of this change in orientation of consciousness, the development of a consciousness of samadhi, is ” ‘A man with mind untroubled by sorrows, who has done with desire for pleasures, from whom liking and wrath and fear have passed away, such is the sage whose understanding has become founded in stability.’ He is ‘without the triple action of the qualities of Prakriti, without the dualities, ever based in his true being, without getting or having, possessed of his self.’ ”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 10, The Yoga of the Intelligent Will, pp. 94-95,

The Process of Disengaging Attention From the Objects of the Senses

The connection between the sense mind and the senses of perception is strong and imposing. We cannot simply shut off the impulses sent by the objects of the senses and carried through the nerve connections to the brain where the connection to the sense-mind is then carried out. At the same time, the Gita prescribes a reorientation to detach ourselves from our fixation on the outer world and its objects in order to turn our focus toward the higher and inner truth of our existence, the Soul, the Purusha.

Sri Aurobindo defines the issue: “This cannot be done perfectly by the act of the intelligence itself, by a merely mental self-discipline; it can only be done by Yoga with something which is higher than itself and in which calm and self-mastery are inherent.”

This is where a consecration and devotion can come in, by turning the attention first of all to the Lord of our being, who is the Purusha within, and unify our consciousness and identification of our standpoint with that inner Purusha. “And for that we must at first make him the object of our whole being and keep in soul-contact with him. This is the sense of the phrase ‘he must sit firm in Yoga, wholly given up to Me’;”

While we cannot prevent the objects of the senses from impinging on the sense mind, we can move the fixed attention and focus of the intelligence away from attending to and being fixated by these objects. Sri Aurobindo explains: “If this is done, then it becomes possible to move among the objects of sense, in contact with them, acting on them, but with the senses entirely under the control of the subjective self,–not at the mercy of the objects and their contacts and reactions, –and that self again obedient to the highest self, the Purusha. Then, free from reactions, the senses will be delivered from the affections of liking and disliking, escape the duality of positive and negative desire, and calm, peace, clearness, happy tranquility,…will settle upon the man.”

“It is this calm, desireless, griefless fixity of the Buddhi in self-poise and self-knowledge to which the Gita gives the name of Samadhi.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 10, The Yoga of the Intelligent Will, pg. 94,