Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Problem of Action and Its Renunciation

Readers often assume, when they first pick up the Bhagavad Gita, that Krishna preaches the renunciation of action. Yet, in the second chapter of the Gita, Krishna urges Arjuna to act, and to act violently. Krishna denounces Arjuna’s unwillingness to fight, and demands that he pick up his bow and his arrows, do battle with the armies and allies of his cousins, and destroy them. This, in fact, is the reason the conversation revealed in the Gita takes place.

Since desire taints most, if not all, deliberate action, how can we renounce action without ceasing all action? Arjuna raises this question at several points (in Chapter 3, Chapter 5, and Chapter 18). Many readers are similarly perplexed, and ask, much as Arjuna does, how one can renounce the outcome of action without renouncing the action itself. But this difficulty is only seeming. However Arjuna poses the question, Krishna’s answer is consistent. By renouncing the fruits or outcome of action, the desire that taints the action, and enslaves the one who acts, is disarmed.

According to Krishna, action is purified by renunciation of the fruit of action. In this sense, it ceases to be “action” at all, if action is defined as any activity deliberately undertaken by desire for its outcome. If we accept this definition of action, then, when the leaves of a tree rustle in the wind, there is no action, at least as Krishna describes it in the Gita. After all, we are not concerned with the intent of the leaves or of the wind and expect that there is none. That "something happens" therefore is not equivalent to "action" in the text of the Gita.

Some forms of deliberate action (that is, activity driven by intent) is praiseworthy provided it is selfless. The action Krishna prescribes includes performing sacrifice, making offerings, and mastering desire. If this is Krishna's meaning, then the Gita itself is a form of sacrifice and self-discipline, and the battle Krishna and Arjuna discuss is primarily the figurative battle within Arjuna's heart.

Throughout the Gita, the reader is confronted with frequent references to renunciation. The meaning of renunciation is easily misunderstood unless one looks closely at the context in which the word appears. In English, renouncing something is synonymous with abjuring, relinquishing, surrendering, forsaking, or rejecting it. The difference in meaning between these words is subtle or simply nonexistent. Their difference in the text of the Gita is unclear except in context. The words themselves are neutral, and may mean different things, depending on what is actually being “renounced.” This again creates difficulty for the reader trying to understand the form of renunciation Krishna encourages in contrast to the form of renunciation he explicitly discourages.

For the sake of clarity, I have used the word “renounce” in the text only in the positive sense of renunciation of the fruit of action, which is a form of sacrifice to God. This renunciation is praiseworthy and Krishna enjoins its practice. In contrast, I use the words abjure, abandon, and forsake only where the cessation of action itself is the practice in question—a practice that Krishna denounces as the cheat it is. After all, as Krishna says, in reference both to His human and divine Self, “I Myself am never without action.”