By Vishakha Devi Dasi
Lord Krishna says, “No one can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment.” So what should we be doing?
Lord Krishna teaches us how to make the best use of our natural tendency to act.
In the Bhagavad-gita (3.5) Krishna tells us, “No one can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment.” It’s the nature of the soul to be always active, and that natural proclivity keeps our body and mind always active. Because we’ve been active since before we can remember – since we were in our mother’s womb (not to speak of after we were born) – we generally don’t think about the purpose of activity. Rather, we tend to go through life acting in the ways those around us act. Generally, it’s something in the order of play – education – work – family – pleasure.
At some point as we pass through these various phases, we may pause to ask a vital yet often overlooked question: “What’s the ultimate purpose of action?” Again, if we don’t take time to introspect, the answers will most likely be to have fun – acquire knowledge – make money – create a home – enjoy.
This may seem innocuous enough to most of us, but Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.1.3–4) doesn’t agree: “The lifetime of such a householder is passed at night either in sleeping or in sex indulgence, and in the daytime either in making money or maintaining family members. Persons devoid of atma-tattva [inquiry into the Absolute Truth] do not inquire into the problems of life, being too attached to the fallible soldiers like the body, children and spouse. Although sufficiently experienced, they still do not see their inevitable destruction.”
Srimad-Bhagavatam, Bhagavad-gita, and all the great world scriptures repeatedly insist that our lives and the actions we do are not meant simply for fulfilling our own desires or those of our family, or even of our extended family. For example, in the beginning of Bhagavad-gita Arjuna did not want to fight. Materially, it appeared laudable that he was giving up his claim to the kingdom to avoid fighting and killing his relatives over it. But Lord Krishna did not approve. Why? Because Arjuna had decided to satisfy his own senses. Externally Arjuna’s renouncing his claim to the kingdom may have appeared good, but anything that’s done for the satisfaction of one’s own senses is kama – lust, personal desire. Instead of gratifying our personal desires, the spiritual adept wants to satisfy God’s and God’s devotees desires.
Devoid of Sense Gratification
Sri Krishna explains: “One is understood to be in full knowledge whose every act is devoid of desire for sense gratification. He is said by sages to be a worker whose fruitive action is burned up by the fire of perfect knowledge.” (Gita 4.19)
To understand the implications of this statement, we first need to understand our ontological position, meaning our metaphysical nature. Each one of us is more than a combination of material elements. Although our body is composed of material elements, we are ultimately none of these elements but are spiritual beings. It’s the presence of spirit – the soul, or atma – that gives apparent life to our body, mind, and intelligence.
This has monumental significance, for if our body, mind, and intelligence are not our actual identity, then gratifying these won’t actually gratify us. Gratifying the body is compared to decorating a dead body. If we decorate a dead body with costly garments and flowers, it may look attractive, but it’s dead. It’s not enjoying; in fact, it can’t enjoy. What’s the benefit of decorating it? It’s a common custom, but there’s no actual benefit to the dead person.
Similarly, our body is dead from the very beginning, because it’s matter and matter is always dead. But our body appears alive due to the presence of a small spark of spirit, the atma, within it. The atma is our actual identity.
To act to gratify our senses is likened to decorating a dead body, because in the final analysis there’s no actual benefit from such activity. We may become wealthy or comfortable or win the praise of others, but these things are temporary, and from such accomplishments we’ll not get the satisfaction we seek.
Action with Purpose
The soul is always active, so our body or mind is always active, but what should we act for? What is the ultimate purpose of activity if it’s not to satisfy ourselves, our family, our friends, or our extended interests like nationalism and altruism? In the Gita (2.47) Sri Krishna begins to respond to this question by telling Arjuna, “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action.”
Krishna wants Arjuna to do his duty – to act – without being attached to the results of that activity. In Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.29.21) the Lord elaborates: “Activities offered to Me without personal motivation, even if they are externally useless, amount to the actual process of dharma [the eternal function of the living entity].”
In other words, dharma means that according to our qualities and proclivities we act in society not for personal aggrandizement but for Krishna’s pleasure. Work is not meant to be results based, but motive based. When we act in accord with the directives of a bona fide spiritual master without personal desire but with a desire to serve and please God, then even the most insignificant activity can elevate us spiritually. And that is the ultimate purpose of activity.
When we act, however, to materially benefit from the results of our activity, ironically we become the losers in three ways: (1) Ultimately we are frustrated because in fact we cannot control the results of our actions, for to a large degree those are up to forces far greater than we are. (2) By trying to control the results of our activity we give up our natural, constitutional dependence on Krishna. And (3) when we’re motivated by results, we’re karmically implicated by our actions. In Srila Prabhupada’s words, “One who is attached to the result of his work is also the cause of the action. Thus he is the enjoyer or sufferer of the result of such actions.” (Gita 2.47, Purport)
So according to our innate individual qualities and proclivities (Gita 4.13), we should function in society to the best of our ability. Arjuna, for example, was a military man, and Krishna instructed him: “Do thou fight for the sake of fighting, without considering happiness or distress, loss or gain, victory or defeat – and by so doing you shall never incur sin.” (Gita 2.38) Srila Prabhupada elaborates:
Lord Krishna now directly says that Arjuna should fight for the sake of fighting because He desires the battle. There is no consideration of happiness or distress, profit or loss, victory or defeat in the activities of Krishna consciousness. That everything should be performed for the sake of Krishna is transcendental consciousness; so there is no reaction to material activities. He who acts for his own sense gratification, either in goodness or in passion, is subject to the reaction, good or bad. But he who has completely surrendered himself in the activities of Krishna consciousness is no longer obliged to anyone, nor is he a debtor to anyone, as one is in the ordinary course of activities. (Gita 2.38, Purport)
Arjuna fought on the battlefield, as did his enemies. Externally the activities appear the same, but there was a wide gulf of difference between them. His enemies, who were in material consciousness, were convinced by false ego that they were the doers of everything. They did not recognize the supremacy of the Supreme Lord and had no knowledge that ultimately they were under His control. Arjuna, on the other hand, fought without false ego, giving all credit to Sri Krishna and depending on Him while fighting to the best of his ability.
In other words, our external activity is not as important as our consciousness. In Srila Prabhupada’s words, “A man working in Krishna consciousness in a factory does not associate himself with the work of the factory, nor with the workers of the factory. He simply works for Krishna. And when he gives up the result for Krishna, he is acting transcendentally.” (Gita 18.9, Purport)
Persons engaged in devotional service – the activities of Krishna consciousness – rid themselves of both good and bad reactions even in this life. Krishna says, “By thus engaging in devotional service to the Lord, great sages or devotees free themselves from the results of work in the material world. In this way they become free from the cycle of birth and death and attain the state beyond all miseries.” (Gita 2.51) Devotees of God go to His world after they pass away.
In the final analysis, the purpose of activity is to increase our awareness and appreciation of Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. To this end we use the body and mind He has given us according to His directives and for His pleasure. Over time, we naturally become uninterested in the results of our efforts, which are ultimately up to Him, and increasingly interested in acting with the best possible intention, namely to please Him and His devotees.
We want to identify ourselves with our actual, divine nature and our source, God. Then we’ll naturally act with great pleasure for His pleasure. Of this sort of activity the Gita (2.72) says, “That is the way of the spiritual and godly life, after attaining which a man is not bewildered. If one is thus situated even at the hour of death, one can enter into the kingdom of God.”
Vishakha Devi Dasi has been writing for BTG since 1973. The author of six books, she is the temple president at Bhaktivedanta Manor in the UK. She and her husband, Yadubara Dasa, produce and direct films, most recently the biopic on the life of Srila Prabhupada Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement, and the Swami Who Started It All. Visit her website at OurSpiritualJourney.com.