[Advaita-l] Karma yoga: the kinder, softer preparation for self-inquiry and surrender

jaldhar at braincells.com jaldhar at braincells.com
Thu Mar 11 03:05:53 EST 2021

On Mon, 8 Mar 2021, Akilesh Ayyar wrote:

> Ok, then that one doesn't act whose mind is fixed on jnana.

We can just as readily say the mind of one who acts is not fixed on jnana.

> He is said to be acting only from the standpoint of ajnanis, but that is 
> not the actual state of affairs.

Whatever the motivation is, at the end of the day he is acting.  And 
actions will have results which will cause other actions ad infinitum. 
The only way to break the cycle is sannyasa.

> Nope, not at all. In his commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.23,
> Shankara says of Janaka, most certainly not a a sannyasi:

Not yet.  See below.  But in any case as far as Janaka engaged in karma he 
suffered its results.  E.g. we know from Vishnupurana that Janaka the 
father of Sita was the reincarnation of this one.  This indicates that 
despite his knowledge he had not achieved liberation from samsara.

> "Such a man becomes in this state a Brahmana (lit. a knower of Brahman) in
> the primary sense of the word. This identity with the Self of all is the
> world of Brahman, the world that is Brahman, in a real, not figurative,
> sense, O Emperor, and you have attained it, this world of Brahman, which is
> fearless, and is described as 'Not this, not this'-- said Yajnavalkya.
> ...

Right.  Now read the very next vakya.

सोऽहं भगवते विदेहान्ददामि मां चापि सह दास्यायेति

"Bhagavan I give you [my kingdom of] Videha, and also myself to serve 

Janaka on receiving the upadesha from Yajnavalkya  immediately renounced 
the world and all posessions even his own body.  The state of jnana is 
incompatible with anything other than sannyasa.  As I mentioned previously 
Swami Vidyaranya makes the distinction between the vividisha who takes 
sannyasa and then achieves jnana and the vidvan who because of his jnana 
takes sannyasa.  But in either case, jnana and sannyasa are inseparable.

> The topic of the knowledge of Brahman is finished, together with its
> offshoots and procedure as well as renunciation. The highest end of man is
> also completely dealt with. This much is to be attained by a man, this is
> the culmination, this is the supreme goal, this is the highest good.
> Attaining this one achieves all that has to be achieved and becomes a knower
> of Brahman. This is the teaching of the entire Vedas." 

Of course you must have seen what Shankaracharya wrote previously to that.

  यस्मादेवम् अकर्मसम्बन्धी एष ब्राह्मणस्य महिमा नेति नेत्यादिलक्षणः, तस्मात् एवंवित् शान्तः 
बाह्येन्द्रियव्यापारत उपशान्तः, तथा दान्तः अन्तःकरणतृष्णातो निवृत्तः, उपरतः 
सर्वैषणाविनिर्मुक्तः सन्न्यासी,

I include an english translation in case you don't understand.

"As that praise (mahima) of Brahmavidya characterized by 'neti neti' is 
not connected with karma, 'the knower of it becomes peaceful' i.e. 
pacifying that which is pervaded by the external senses 'calm' 
i.e. detached from the thirsts of the antahkarana, 'withdrawn' i.e. free 
from all desires; **a sannyasi.**"

Sannyasa is the supreme goal, the highest good, the teaching of the entire 
Veda.  What happens if for whatever reason you cannot take to sannyasa? 
That's where karma and karmayoga comes in.

> "He who perceives inaction in action, and action in inaction, is wise among
> men; he is a yogi and performs all actions." (4:18)

Shankaracharyas bhashya on this shloka is quite extensive.  To understand 
it we must first understand the intellectual millieu which is its context.

The Rshis acquired knowledge of the Vedas.  It was not revealed to them by 
a God or prophet but they "saw" it.  (The literal meaning of Rshi is 
see-r." or they heard it (shruti = that which is heard) in other words 
they experienced it.  Pondering upon the Veda they acquired knowledge of 
dharma which consists of what is to be done or not done.  Thinking still 
further their descendents began to wonder: how does karma become complete? 
How will it lead us to the ultimate goal?  At one extreme were those who 
insist that karma as defined by the Vedas and dependent shastras *is* 
complete.  There is no higher goal than the heavenly worlds enjoyed 
through right action.  At the other extreme some such as Bauddhas, Jains 
etc. passed into nastikata claiming that karma including vedokta karma not 
only doesn't lead to the supreme felicity but is actually harmful to that 
goal and only jnana can do that.  Inbetween some thinkers tried to develop
  jnana-karma fusion which in turn is of different types depending in on 
whether karma is thought to be an auxillary to jnana, jnana an auxillary 
to karma, both to be equal, etc.  Sureshvaracharya has catalogued many 
such theories in the sambandha section of his Brhadaranyakopanishadbhashyavarttika.

Advaita Vedanta denies jnanakarmasamucchaya and kevalakarma in favor of 
kevalajnana.  But unlike the nastikas, it does not deny the validity of 
karma altogether.  Rather, it explains the Veda teaches two paths for two 
different classes of people.

This is the background to the idea which is being taught in this shloka. 
"He who perceives inaction in action" - the adherent of kevalakarmavada 
thinks that action is all there is and rubbishes the idea that one can be 
free of it.  But action cannot lead to the ultimate goal of life.  If one 
is rowing a boat with only one oar, one can make strenuous effort but will 
still only go round and round in circles.  The yogi knowns it is jnana not 
karma which leads to liberation.

"He who perceives action in inaction"  The adherent of kevalakarmavada 
further faults the kevalajnanavadi for abandoning the Veda by denying the 
validity of the karma taught therein.  And for good reason because the 
nastikas did exactly that.  The advaitin explains that he is _not_ denying 
the validity of karma for those for which it is appropriate but it is 
simply not relevant for the situation of a jnani.  What the 
kevalakarmavadi perceives as "inaction" (i.e not prescribed by Vedic 
dictates) is in fact prescribed by the Veda (i.e. a kind of "action" by 
that definition) and in fact is the supreme purport of the Veda because as 
is explained in i.e. 4.24 all aspects of the yajna are founded on Brahman.
(Note all this discussion concerns yajna but it applies to all karma even 
secular laukika types because yajna is the archetype of karma.)

The yogi is wise because he knows that both paths are valid.  Notice the 
use of the verb pashyati "he sees".  Nothing in this shloka implies that 
both paths must be followed at the same time or even that they are both 
equal.  Only that both should be known as founded on Veda.

> "The work of one who is free from attachment, who is liberated, whose
> thought is established in knowledge, who does work only as a sacrifice, is
> wholly dissolved." (4:23)

The karma referred to is prarabdha karma.  Due to circumstances jnana may 
not immediately be followed by sannyasa until this residue is dissolved. 
But it will happen Bhagavan assures us.  It most certainly doesn't mean a 
sannyasi can keep performing new activities without penalty.

> The idea of literal sannyasa as superior is contrary to the message of the
> Gita. Renunciation does not mean physical sannyasa. Physical sannyasa is
> compatible with true renunciation but is not required.

Is true renunciation anything like a true Scotsman?  I must say that for 
someone who was condemning reading books not long ago, you seem to be 
inordinately dependent on books - and only translations at that.  If you 
were at all familiar with the history and practices of Advaita Vedanta you 
would know that sannyasa only means physical science.  From before 
Shankaracharya to the present day this is how it has been understood. 
"mental renunciation" is a modern-day dodge invented by the kind of people 
who want to be "spiritual" as a fashion statement but not at the risk of 
actually inconveniencing their placid lives.

> The question is what their nature is, and what is futile to fight?
> Presumably the fact that they keep smoking means that it is their nature --
> since that is in fact what they do

How can smoking be part of your nature if it kills you?  A simpler 
explanation is that they keep smoking because their desires are so strong 
they are addicted.  It may be very difficult but they can successfully 
overcome addiction.  Similarly, one who does not perform their duty with 
the excuse of jnana even though they are grhasthas or keeps dabbling in 
worldly affairs even though they are sannyasis are overcome by desire and 
are not acting according to their nature.

> This is a total misunderstanding of the Gita, again, per the above. It is
> the mental state and not the fact of physical action that determines whether
> there is some kind of binding action happening.
> "Content with whatever comes to him, transcending the dualities, free from
> envy, constant in mind whether in success or in failure, even though he
> acts, he is not bound." (4:22)

Another argument made by kevalakarmavadis was that it is impossible to 
live without karma and you sannyasis are hypocrites because even you e.g. 
beg for alms.  But this kind of bare minimum activity for the preservation 
of life is not considered the same as karma in general which is 
characterized by samkalpa or intention.  In a puja for example, we 
formalize it aham amukakarma karishye but it is present in any motivated 
action. Sannyasis eat only because living things try and remain alive. 
Breathing, digesting etc. are not considered karma for the same reason. 
It's something living things do by virtue of being alive not for specific 

When the sannyasi asks the grhini for bhiksha he doesn't ask for a menu 
and proceed to order main course, salad and dessert etc.  He is "content 
with whatever comes to him"  So it will not bind him.

> Huh? The mind is roiled by emotion. When it is roiled, effort brings it
> back. The roiling is what requires the effort. The effort eventually, over
> time, reduces the emotion. It doesn't happen all at once. 

Just as there are warning labels on heavy machinery saying "do not operate 
under the influence of drugs or alcohol" if a person is not emotionally 
unstable they should deal with that problem first and then proceed to 

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>

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