Contemplation on Action (Yoga Vasishtha)

Contemplation on Action (Yoga Vasishtha)



Can action be performed without a motive?
Can something be achieved without intention or desire?
What do we term as ‘action’ anyway?
I explore here with reference to the Yoga Vasishtha and Sri Ramana Maharshi’s utterances.


Yoga Vasishtha (Swami Venkatesananda III-88/12)

In the above passage in the Yoga Vasishtha, it talks about action happening without desire or motive or intention, but as a natural functioning. The analogy of the sun being reflected in water is given where neither the sun nor the water have any intention of being reflected or reflecting respectively. Wise persons, it says are not attached to acting and neither to not acting.


The creation of the universe itself is described as a “motiveless pastime”! 


How strange it sounds to our conditioned ears which are used to believing that desire and motive are essential for action to happen.


In another place the Yoga Vasishtha says:

“Wise men that are possessed of their intellectual sight, look internally within themselves in the recesses of their hearts and minds; without looking at the lookables without, or thinking of anything or many efforts whatever; but move on with the even course of their destiny, as the water flows on its course to the ocean of eternity.

They who have come to the light of their transcendent vision, fix their sight to brighter views beyond the sphere of visibles; and discern the invisible exposed to their view.

They who have come to the vision of transcendent light (the glory of God), have their slow and silent motion like that of a hidden water course; owing to their heedlessness of everything in this world.

They who are regardless of the visibles and thoughtless of the affairs of the world, are like those that disentangled from their snares; and they are truly wise, who meddle with their business as freely, as the free airs of heaven gently play with and move the leaves of trees.

They who have come to sight of the transcendent light, athwart the dizzy scenes of mortal life; are not constrained to the course of this world, as seafarers are not to be pent up in shallow and narrow pools and streams. (Sailors are glad to be in the wide ocean, than to ply in the waters of inland creeks).

They that are slaves of their desire (of enjoyment in this and next life), are bound to the thraldom of works ordained by law and sruti; and thus pass their lives in utter ignorance of truth. (Hence knowledge and practice are opposed to one another, the one being a state of bondage for some frail good and gain, and the other of freedom and lasting bliss).”

Book VII, Chapter XXII  14-19 (Vihari-Lala Mitra)


“It requires no design or desire on the part of an actor to act his part, whereto he is led by the tenor of his prior propensities (of past lives); as a potter’s wheel is propelled by the pristine momentum, without requiring the application of continued force for its whirling motion. So O sinless Rama! mind our actions to be under the direction of our previous impressions, and not under the exertion of our present efforts.”

Book VII, Chapter I, 9 (Vihari-Lala Mitra)


The above excerpts talk of the actions of a wise person who is not mentally engaged in the movement of the world though his body carries out the natural functioning assigned to it “as the free airs of heaven gently play with and move the leaves of trees”. There is no attachment or desire for the fruits of action as their mind is not engaged with the “lookables” or forms of the world. All is seen as one functioning taking place one could say according to the natural laws. The feeling of ‘doership’ – thinking that “I” make things happen is not present. What we refer to as prarabdha karma (the karma assigned or karmic momentum pertaining to the current lifetime) carries on without additional karma being created in the present life by reacting to events based on desire or aversion.


The Yoga Vasishtha goes further to call into question action and its effect. An example famously given is that of a crow alighting on a coconut tree and a coconut falling from the tree at the exact same time. The two events, the text says, are unrelated. The happening is coincidental. This breaks the backbone of the mechanism of causation! Yet, in our minds, we’re in the habit of linking events in a cause-effect timeline that then enables us to create a story or narrative. When this story-making begins to be taken personally, this ignorance brings suffering. 


“There is no difference of acts, from the agent, as they have sprung together from the same source of their creator: they are the simultaneous growth of nature like flowers and their odour…”

Book III, Chapter XCV, 1 (Vihari-Lala Mitra)


“It is a mere fiction of speech to speak of the world as creation or production, because it is difficult to explain the subject and object of the lecture, without the use of such fictitious language (as the actor and act, the creator and the created &c.).”

Book III, Chapter XCV, 5 (Vihari-Lala Mitra)


[Read more on action in the Yoga Vasishtha here]


The text goes still further to question duality.

When the duality of subject-object is seen to be false, then the doer and the deed are not seen to be separate so to even speak of happenings is a fiction.


This discussion reminds me also of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Upadesa Saram’s first verse:

“By the law/will of the Creator, the fruits of actions are realized. How is action then supreme? It is not. It is inert.”

– Sri Ramana Maharshi, Upadesa Saram, verse 1 [also set to music – video available on YouTube and also linked below]


Action is called “inert” because it cannot effect a result. We all know from experience that all our best efforts cannot guarantee a result. So it stands to reason that if something is disproved in one situation, it cannot be a truth. If action cannot guarantee result in even one situation then are we certain that our belief that action brings about results is valid? If not, then what is action anyway? Because we are used to thinking that action is something that achieves a particular result and if that definition is not valid then what is action? Something inert. 


This does not mean that we must throw in the towel on acting in life! It is important to understand the context of these teachings and to not take them on literally or as dogmas or philosophies to follow. That is why these teaching were traditionally imparted under the close guidance of a teacher who could also provide a context for them – usually by witnessing the sage’s own life of activity around his ashram, the students did not misunderstand these teachings as applying to the dynamic realm of life where as we saw right at the beginning, natural functioning takes place. They are speaking of an internal, not an external attitude.


There is also a reason why these teachings were not preached as dogmas or commandments and were given to only those who were mature enough to not misunderstand them. These days however, they are very much in the mainstream and so it becomes even more important to ensure one is well-guided when reading such texts and to clarify one’s doubts with someone who can help.



Ramana Maharshi’s Upadesa Saram:



See also:
The Natural Flow: Dharma and Tao
Stressed-Out? Here’s 3 Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita

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