"Fruitive Activity": Telling Terminology in the Science of Self-Realization

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Srila Prabhupada artfully enlists a rare English word for our spiritual benefit.

In his translations of Vedic scripture, Srila Prabhupada put the old, nearly retired word fruitive back to work, with new purpose. "Fruitive activity" is Srila Prabhupada’s useful way to translate the Sanskrit word karma. While he more commonly translates karma simply as "action," his use of "fruitive activity" serves to highlight karma as action not dedicated to the service of the Lord, resulting in bondage under the material energy.

Srila Prabhupada readily employed "fruitive." For example, from his Bhagavad-gita As It Is: "Bound by a network of fruitive activity," "men of small knowledge engage in fruitive activity," "devotees become free from the hard-knotted desires for fruitive activity." And in Srimad-Bhagavatam we hear the sages of Naimisharanya disclose their predicament: "We have just begun the performance of this fruitive activity, a sacrificial fire, without certainty of its result. . . ."

Fruitive does not appear in many dictionaries (and it’s not in my Microsoft Word spell check). Dictionary.com (based on The Random House Dictionary of the English Language) defines it thus: 1. adj., able to produce fruit or fruition; fruitful. 2. able to enjoy or produce enjoyment. 1625-35 < Medieval Latin: fruitivus.

While the old fruitive means to be able to produce fruit or enjoy, fruitive as adapted in the vocabulary of the science of bhakti-yoga is a term of crucial distinction. To what end should a thing be fruitful? Enjoyment in ignorance of one’s real self-interest is not actual enjoyment. It may begin in pleasure, but invariably it ends in some concomitant suffering. Fruitive enjoyment conditions us to the temporary body, while self- realization involves offering all the fruits of our activities to the Supreme Personality of Godhead and is thus the natural pleasurable activity of the soul.

As Krishna teaches in the Bhagavad-gita, actions without at least some service to God are material karma and keep us bound to the continuous cycle of birth and death. Such self-serving actions cannot yield the pure fruit of love of God. Only pure, sincere activity can. Though our conditioned nature impels us to stay in this world committing one karmic action after another, creating for ourselves an endless succession of material bodies, we shall get instant relief simply by serving Krishna, acting for His satisfaction.

To illustrate the condition of the classic materialistic fruitive worker, Srila Prabhupada often used the example of the poor ass, or donkey. Standing in a field next to his mother, the young ass drinks her milk and is then weaned on the grass. Yet to train him, his owner denies him even grass until he surrenders to carrying loads on his back, loads that are wider, higher, and sometimes heavier than his own body. To get grass again, he staggers down the long roads with the huge loads. Meanwhile, soft grass is growing everywhere, on all sides of him.

Our human plight of working hard for fruitive results is compared to that of the ass. Only a rare person becomes embarrassed by the hard struggle for material existence and wants to find a permanent solution to the problem. The Srimad-Bhagavatam concludes that, indeed, most people are satisfied to continue to struggle very hard for sense gratification, just like the ass. For those of us dissatisfied with spending our lives in this way, Krishna gives specific instructions on how to overcome the tendency for material fruitive activity.

Arjuna’s Question

The topic of fruitive activity comes up in many chapters in the Bhagavad-gita, where Arjuna has delayed combat to consult Krishna. Here's an example from chapter three: "O Keshava, why do You want me to engage in this ghastly warfare if You think that intelligence is better than fruitive work?" (Gita 3.1)

Arjuna denounces and renounces the impending war as mere fruitive material work. Then Krishna chides him in a chivalrous spirit. “You are a great hero, Arjuna. And you can’t refrain from doing something, not even for a moment.” And: “After all, everyone has to do some work; how else will you maintain yourself?”

But Arjuna wants out. He wants his ill-intentioned but beloved friends and relatives, hell-bent on violence, to remain unscathed by him. This is his fruitive desire. He is full of his own desire, apart from Krishna’s desire. The very thing he does not want to do, to defeat them, is motivated by false ego. Personal sentiment has swayed him to want to spare people who already have death written on their foreheads.

Meanwhile Krishna’s will is for Arjuna to do battle for the sake of what is right. Executing Krishna’s will is devotional service. For a soldier, violence, which is necessary to protect the weak, is the highest dharma. What a golden opportunity awaits Arjuna!

To simply and clearly state the best answer to Arjuna’s query, Lord Krishna gives a succinct formula: "Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu must be performed; otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain free from bondage." (Gita 3.9)

The bondage Krishna refers to here is what results when we act on our own behalf, not allowing the higher purpose of Krishna to direct us. Only acting on behalf of the supreme cause, the service of Lord Krishna, will relieve Arjuna from his suffering. Not doing so will bind and condition him to his human worldly karma.

Krishna Karma

Sacrificing the fruitive tendency to act for our own gratification is the beginning of pleasing the spiritual master and Krishna. It is usually at the urging of devotees who want to help us, who understand the many benefits in store for us. Devotees well know there is great relief from suffering when we take up devotional service. Our attachment for illusory material things is like a thick painful knot that grips our heart, but when we do some selfless act of love for God that knot is pierced. We begin to see ourselves as masters of our own fate instead of puppets of the material energy. We begin to develop gratitude and love for the spiritual master and the Lord. One day, to work in pure devotion for Krishna and the Vaishnavas becomes our most cherished treasure.

But to begin we must become clear about this science of the sacrifice of actions. Three terms in the Bhagavad-gita describe types of action: karma, vikarma, and akarma. Karma is activity prescribed (traditionally, by the Vedas or one's guru) according to one’s psychophysical nature. Vikarma is forbidden action; it is considered sinful and results in suffering. Akarma (or naishkarma) is action that produces no karmic reaction, good or bad. Akarma is thus ideal activity. As Srila Prabhupada explains:

No work should be done by any man except in relationship to Krishna. This is called krishna-karma. One may be engaged in various activities, but one should not be attached to the result of his work; the result should be done only for Him. For example, one may be engaged in business, but to transform that activity into Krishna consciousness, one has to do business for Krishna. If Krishna is the proprietor of the business, then Krishna should enjoy the profit of the business. If a businessman is in possession of thousands and thousands of dollars, and if he has to offer all this to Krishna, he can do it. This is work for Krishna. Instead of constructing a big building for his sense gratification, he can construct a nice temple for Krishna, and he can install the Deity of Krishna and arrange for the Deity's service, as is outlined in the authorized books of devotional service. This is all krishna-karma. One should not be attached to the result of his work, but the result should be offered to Krishna, and one should accept as prasadam the remnants of offerings to Krishna. If one constructs a very big building for Krishna and installs the Deity of Krishna, one is not prohibited from living there, but it is understood that the proprietor of the building is Krishna. That is called Krishna consciousness. If, however, one is not able to construct a temple for Krishna, one can engage himself in cleansing the temple of Krishna; that is also krishna-karma. (Gita 11.55, Purport)

Cleansing the Dirt from the Heart

Until we become pure devotees, to overcome the tendency for fruitive activity remains one our greatest challenges. This tendency has been with us for many lifetimes. As devotees of Krishna, though we may strive for the highest values in life in our service to the Lord, subtle contamination of self-aggrandizement can surface in a variety of ways, all of which are compared to dirt in the heart.

My favorite way to deal with my strong fruitive nature is to chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Being accustomed to the practice, as soon as I chant on my beads I feel hope, no matter how complicated I have let my life become. I know that Krishna doesn’t want me to go on fooling myself. Whatever conflicting, fruitive motive has gelled in my mind, sincere chanting is a direct connection to Him who fights our battles for us, as Krishna helped Arjuna. He personally cleanses the heart of His devotee. Beyond this, the Hare Krishna mantra is a call to the Lord: “Please engage me in Your devotional service.” In this way we pray to do the desired, ideal action, not the fruitive one.

Great devotees throughout the ages have offered beautiful prayers to the Lord to ask Him to remove from their hearts the blinding dust of fruitive activity. The following prayer to Lord Nrisimhadeva asks Him to overpower the tendency for fruitive karma: "I offer my respectful obeisances to Lord Nrisimhadeva, the source of all power. O my Lord who possesses nails and teeth just like thunderbolts, kindly vanquish our demonlike desires for fruitive activity in this material world. Please appear in our hearts and drive away the ignorance so that by Your mercy we may become fearless in the struggle for existence in this material world. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.18.8)

About the Author: 

Karuna Dharini Devi Dasi

Karuna Dharini Devi Dasi, a disciple of Virabahu Maharaja, practices Krishna consciousness in New Dwaraka, the temple community established by Srila Prabhupada in Los Angeles, California. She cooks for and attends to the temple's beautiful Radha-Krishna deities, Sri Sri Rukmini-Dwarakadisa.

Karuna Dharini has participated in ISKCON educational seminars to better understand the fields of  communications, teaching, and child protection. She teaches a course on Vaishnava etiquette to women beginning their practice of Krishna consciousness.