The Secret of Action

Atul Sinha, Ph.D scholar at S Vyasa Bangalore, India

The West has put its faith in its science and machinery and it is being…crushed under its mechanical burden…The East has the secret of that spiritual change, but it has too long turned its eyes away from the earth. The time has now come to heal the division and to unite life and the spirit.

This secret too has been possessed but not sufficiently practised by India. It is summarised in the rule of the Gita, yogasthah kuru karmani. Its principle is to do all actions in Yoga, in union with God, on the foundation of the highest self…And this we believe to be not only possible for man but the true solution of all his problems and difficulties.

Sri Aurobindo


Karma Yoga unravels the secret of action. It answers questions like what is right action and what is the right way to perform action. In human action there are inherent conflicts like duty verses ethics. Karma Yoga reveals a way to resolve such conflicts in an objective manner

In this paper I use 18 verses from the Bhagavat Gita that talk to the secret of action, to explain the subject

Introduction to Karma Yoga

If it is held by you, O Janardhana! That knowledge is superior to action, why then do you, O Keshava! enjoin on me this terrible action (Gita 3.1)

This is the question Arjuna asks Krishna that begins the discourse on Karma Yoga. If the path of the intellect is superior to action, then why do we not renounce action?

In four verses Krishna succinctly explains why renouncing action is not the solution

Man gains not actionlessness by abstaining from activity, nor does he rise to perfection by mere renunciation (Gita 3.4)

None can ever remain actionless even for a moment; for everyone is helplessly driven to action by the Gunas born of Prakrti (Gita 3.5)

The deluded man is called hypocrite who sits controlling the organs of action, but dwelling his mind on the objects of the senses (Gita 3.6)

The misinterpretation of the philosophy that life has to be renounced is put to rest here

Krishna explains that we have inherent tendencies born out of the three Gunas- Tamas, Rajas and Sattva. Tamas makes us lazy and resistant to action and analysis, Rajas gives us a restless mind and propels us to act while Sattva imbues us with the desire to act for the good of others. We cannot escape our Gunas by curbing action. That is not the path to perfection. When your mind is craving for sense objects, restraining your action is indeed hypocritical. There is no escape from action. This brute has to be faced. Krishna however explains the Karma Yoga way in the next verse

But he excels, O Arjuna! Who restraining the senses by the mind unattached, directs his organs of action to the path of work (Gita 3.7)

Krishna reveals a special way to do work. Cultivate an attitude of detachment to the fruits of action. We can act out of free will. But once the action has started other unknown laws come into play and the result could be anybody’s guess. If we act with expectation we will either be depressed from failure or thrilled by success. This is not the path to lasting happiness. Equanimity is important for lasting happiness. This can only come if we are detached in action.

While equanimity is necessary there are two other conditions in Karma Yoga 1. Right action is action out of duty with no attachment
 2. Dynamic action that is not falling into the trap of laziness

Karma Yoga charts a path of action that liberates us from the bondage of our senses and purifies our mind. At a higher level it helps transcend the three Gunas leading to spiritual freedom

Tamas to Rajas to Sattva

Phase I of karma yoga is to move from Tamas to Sattva

All of us have three tendencies in differing proportions

Tamas — resistance to action, laziness, resistance to thinking and analyzing. Tamas is very binding since there is a sense of happiness in laziness. However we cannot progress if we continue to let Tamas bind us. The result of Tamasic action is delusion and confusion

Rajas — means to shine. This is characterized by dynamism and activity; motivated by desire and incentive for name, fame and money. It is ego driven. Despite accomplishing a lot, Rajasik action results in stresses and tensions since the starting point is the ego. Individual greed becomes the driving force and this results in action where some gain at the expense of others. This is the burden Sri Aurobindo refers to

Sattva — is characterized by duty and selflessness.

To move from Tamas to Rajas requires us to overcome our Tamasik tendencies and to bring into play our Rajasik tendencies. It is achieved by becoming aware of positive outcomes. The person needs to understand that Rajasik action will lead to betterment of his life. This incentive will help to overcome the false bliss of laziness and propel him to act with a goal in mind.

Once a person has overcome Tamas and tasted the benefits of Rajas, he begins to feel its burden. He has acquired wealth and achieved fame but realizes that it has come at a cost. He is trapped in a 24/7-action mode, is restless, stressed and physically strained. The next step is to move to Sattva.

Just as Rajas is used to overcome Tamas, Sattva is deployed to cut Rajas. Cutting out strong attachments to the fruits of action and developing the humanitarian characters of compassion (Daya), sharing (Dana) and self control (Dama) we move towards detachment and karma yoga

The movement can be depicted as

1. Desire Oriented Action

2. Duty Oriented Action

3. Doing good to others

Essence of Karma Yoga

Seek to perform your duty; but lay not claim to its fruits. Be you not the producer of the fruits of karma; neither shall you lean towards inaction (Gita 2.47)

Yoga is skill in action (Gita 2.50)

These two verses sum up the essence of karma yoga. Detach yourself from the fruits of action but act you must. This is also referred to as yajna way of action. You offer your actions to God and accept happily whatever comes your way as a result of your actions. This way you convert normal action to karma yoga

Develop skill in action- relaxed, calm, steady, even. Yoga is equanimity.


Once we have transited to Sattva we enter the zone of conflict. Phase II of Karma Yoga is the secret of resolving conflicts

Rajasik action is transactional and can be governed by written down laws, which everybody can follow. However Sattvic action is contextual and cannot be regulated by law. It is characterized by dharma. Sattvic action enters the region of conflict.

These conflicts are

Ethics verses Ethics: Exemplified by the situation of a doctor who has to break a bad news to a patient. Should he sacrifice honesty for maintaining the calm of the patient?

Duty verses Duty: Exemplified by conflict of duty towards parent verses duty towards country Duty verses Ethics: Exemplified by Arjuna’s dilemma in the battlefield

These are the types of conflict that arise. There are four subtle secrets of Karma Yoga that can be used to overcome these conflicts

Secrets of Karma Yoga

There are four secrets of action
 1. Recognizing good action and bad action is necessary but not enough. Understand non-action 2. Attuned to that non-action perform all action
 3. See action in non-action
 4. Action in total attunement with cosmic laws is total detachment in action

He who sees inaction in action and action in inaction, he is wise among men, he is a yogi and accomplisher of everything (Gita 4.18)

This verse that sums up the secret of karma is one of the most difficult verses to understand

Non-action is a state of mind that is free of turmoil, totally silent.

Fixing the mind in that zone and directing the organs to act will lead to unattached action. At the outer level action is taking place yet the inner level is action less. This is what is meant by inaction in action.

As we tune more and more into silence we begin to notice action in non-action. At the outer level there is no action but at the inner level there is action. For example when we sleep, the outer level is action less but at the inner level there is awareness at work in our dream and deep sleep states. A stone seems action less, but within the stone is frenetic atomic level action taking place ceaselessly. This is what is meant by action in inaction

Finally the advanced yogi operates at the higher level of Karma Yoga called Gunatita, which is beyond the Gunas. He is in tune with cosmic laws and in a state of total detachment. Although appearing to do action he does nothing

How does this link to conflict? As we go to higher levels of silence the governing laws change and become more generalized.

Similarly the way to resolve conflict is to choose the higher good-duty over selfish action, higher duty over lower duty, ethics over duty, greater ethical principle over lesser ethical principle. Acting for higher good frees you from the karma of lower good. For example a soldier going to fight for his country is a higher good that taking care of his parent

Secondly when we take decisions in the state of silence or non-action our discrimination improves and allows us to discern the principles of action clearly

Master Karma Yogi

Phase III is advanced Karma Yoga where the movement is towards spiritual freedom

The master karma yogi has moved through the stages of the three Gunas, crossed the region of conflict and entered the zone of Gunatita where he has transcended the Gunas and is in tune with cosmic laws. He is in a stage of no bondage and although in action he does nothing.

As Krishna says

Even if I smash the whole world, neither I kill nor does the act bind me.

It is like Siva destroying the world during Pralaya. For that horrifying act, if sin were to accrue, he will be the worst sinner. But totally attuned to Akarma, all acts cease to bind him and it is equivalent to non-performance of the act

The progress of Karma Yoga can be depicted as

  1. Kamya Karma-Desire oriented action

2. Duty Sense-Duty oriented action

3. Yajna Way-Converting normal action to Karma Yoga

4. Karma Akarma-Action in non- action

5. Ultimate merger

Therefore constantly perform your obligatory duty without attachment. By performing unattached action, man verily obtains the Supreme (Gita 3.19)


Karma Yoga can be simply summarised as

Phase I- Movement from Tamas to Rajas to Sattva

Phase II- Zone of Conflict and its resolution

Phase III- Advanced Karma Yoga- Gunatita and Spiritual Freedom