In the vedantic view, karma must be shunned to make way for knowledge. However, what constitutes karma is not outward action but the feeling of ‘doership’.
There is a common misconception about the view of Adi Shankaracharya and Advaita Vedanta on karma. People believe that Adi Shankaracharya equated moksha to a life of renunciation, a life of non-action, and that he suggested that one who is desirous of moksha or has achieved moksha should live the life of a sannyasi. This is not really true. Let us try and understand what Shankara really meant by first understanding the view of Vedanta itself on karma in relation to moksha.
The reader of this article will say, “I am reading this article”. He considers himself as the reader and he considers himself as separate from this article. However, in the vision of Vedanta, the reality is that it is only the body and mind which is engaged in reading, ‘I’ which is pure, unchanging, consciousness, is not at all involved in the process of reading. Rather, ‘I’, the consciousness, is that limitless reality on which both this article and the reader depend for their existence. This is the understanding of ‘I’ or ‘self’ in Vedanta.
According to Vedanta, ‘I’ or ‘self’ is not this ever-changing assemblage called body and mind. ‘I’ is pure consciousness and it is the truth of not just this one body-mind complex but of the entire universe. It is limitless. Everything depends upon it for their existence. However, it remains unaffected by the changes that happen to this one individual or the entire universe. It neither really causes anything, nor gets affected by anything.
Example: A clay pot depends upon clay for its existence. Even if the pot is broken, clay will still remain. Clay is unaffected by the coming and going of the pot. Clay was before the pot came into being, clay is when the pot is, clay will be when the pot is gone. Therefore, clay is the invariable truth of the pot. In fact, there is only clay. ‘Pot’ is only a name and form which has no existence independent of clay. When there is only clay, then there is no question of causing a second thing like a ‘pot’. So, clay neither causes, nor gets affected. Also, clay is the truth of not just that one pot, but of all the different pots and pans in the potter’s shop. The shapes of these pots may all be very different and their utility may also be very different but the reality is that they are all the same clay. Similarly, consciousness is the truth of the entire universe, all the diverse forms and names, and yet it is unaffected and unchanged by the goings-on of the universe.
One who knows oneself as this consciousness, knows that ‘I’ am unchanging, immortal, and limitless, also knows that ‘I’ am a non-doer of actions (akarta) and a non-enjoyer of results (abhokta). Action and result is only in the realm of natural laws or prakriti, ‘I’ am the truth of those laws. It is this knowledge of self which is called moksha in Vedanta. The one who does not have this knowledge, who is in the darkness of ignorance, who considers himself as only this one form, this body and mind, he considers himself to be the doer and is thus subject to the results of his actions which bind him in the cycle of birth and death. The Gita says:
प्रकृतेः क्रियमाणानि गुणैः कर्माणि सर्वशः ।
अहङ्कारविमूढात्मा कर्ताहमिति मन्यते ॥३-२७॥
Prakriti, i.e. natural laws, acts in everything through its gunas. The ignorant, who considers oneself to be this form, considers himself to be the doer.
Such an ignorant person is always engaged in actions in search of happiness, in search of fulfilment. He considers himself as only this one form, which is lacking, which is inadequate, and he therefore lives a life struggling for freedom from this inadequacy, which is rooted in the limited idea of self. The freedom (moksha) lies in his knowing himself as more than this one form, in knowing himself as the limitless consciousness.
One who has this self-knowledge is free from such delusional struggles. But more importantly, he always sees himself as a non-doer – even though he may be a king and running an entire nation. He knows himself as not this body and mind but as the unchanging truth of this body and mind. Therefore, even though he acts from our point of view, he is actually a non-doer:
त्यक्त्वा कर्मफलासङ्गं नित्यतृप्तो निराश्रयः ।
कर्मण्यभिप्रवृत्तोऽपि नैव किञ्चित्करोति सः ॥४-२०॥
One who is always fulfilled by oneself, who doesn’t looks for fulfilment in the objects of the world, such a person who has given up attachment to results of actions, even though he is engaged in activity, does not actually do anything. – Gita 4.20
So, even though he acts, his actions are not really ‘karma’. In this regard, ‘karma’, the word, has a very specific meaning in Vedanta. ‘Karma’ is the action of a person who considers himself as the doer of that action and the receiver of its result. He is, thus, ignorant of himself (ajñani). He does not know that actually, he is pure consciousness. It is because of this ignorance that the results of his actions accrue to him and cause him future births. As opposed to this, when a jñani acts, he knows himself as non-doer. The results, therefore, don’t accrue to him and don’t cause any future births. He is free from the cycle of birth and death. And thus, his actions are not called ‘karma’. This is what Shankara means when he says that one who has self-knowledge lives a life of non-action. In his commentary to the above verse, he writes:
विदुषा क्रियमाणं कर्म परमार्थतः अकर्म एव तस्य निष्क्रियात्मदर्शनसंपन्नत्वात् I
Actions of that wise man are in reality non-action because he knows oneself to be the non-doer.
The same is explained by him over and over throughout his commentary on the Gita.
Therefore, ‘karma’ in Vedanta doesn’t simply mean activity of the body. Nor does ‘akarma’ mean sitting idle or physical inactivity. This is the common understanding of these terms. Vedanta wants us to understand them in an entirely new light. That is why the Gita gives us this profound verse:
कर्मण्यकर्म यः पश्येदकर्मणि च कर्म यः ।
स बुद्धिमान्मनुष्येषु स युक्तः कृत्स्नकर्मकृत् ॥४-१८॥
One who sees akarma in activity (of the form) and karma in inactivity (of the form), he is wise among men, he is enjoined (with self-knowledge), he has done all that is there to be done. – Gita, 4.18
One needs to see akarma in activity of the body-mind complex by the knowledge that it is only the body-mind complex which is active, not ‘I’. ‘I’ is always a non-doer. Then, one also needs to see karma in inactivity of the body-mind, i.e. sitting idle. How? By the same knowledge that when ’I’ is always the non-doer, how can it give up actions. Activity and inactivity are both in the body-mind complex, the doer. ‘I’, the consciousness, is never the doer and is therefore not associated with the activity or the inactivity of the body-mind complex.
Shankara explains this very precisely: कर्तृतंत्रत्वात् प्रवृत्तिनिवृत्त्यो: – “Activity and inactivity are both dependent upon the doer.” It is the doer who does something and it is also the doer who decides not to do something. As long as there is a doer, there is activity and its result and there is also inactivity and its result. When the sense of ‘doership’ is no longer associated with oneself, then one sees oneself as always a non-doer, whether the body-mind is active or inactive.
Shankara makes his view very clear in his commentary. He says that after achieving self-knowledge, one’s body-mind continues to work. If he is a grihastha (householder), then activity is for lokasangraha (well-being of all), if he is a sannyasi, then for the maintenance of the body. But in neither case does he see himself as the doer. He knows himself as the non-doer and that is why his actions are not ‘karma’.
It is because of this very clear and precise understanding does Shankara repeatedly say that in Vedanta, there is no combination (समुच्चय) of karma and self-knowledge, that karma and self-knowledge are opposed to each other as darkness and light. If there is self-knowledge, then there cannot be karma because one doesn’t see oneself as the doer. Only when self-knowledge has not been achieved, when one is ignorant, is there karma. Therefore, one needs to understand the very specific meaning of the word ‘karma’ and that it is not the physical renunciation of actions that is suggested, either by Vedanta or by Advaita Vedanta of Adi Shankaracharya, but only a mental renunciation of ignorance, of ‘doership’:
सर्वकर्माणि मनसा संन्यस्यास्ते सुखं वशी ।
नवद्वारे पुरे देही नैव कुर्वन्न कारयन् ॥५-१३॥
Renouncing all karma (i.e. sense of doership) by the mind, one who is not bound by senses, lives happily in the city of nine gates (the body), without doing or causing anything to be done. – Gita, 5.13
– Om tat sat – Udhav Sureka