The Gita on “I do nothing” “I do nothing at all”


I do nothing at all
– thus should the Truth-knower think` concentrated

THIS is the first line of a Gita verse. Lethargic people quote it energetically (it may be the only energetic thing they do)` though few of them know where it comes in the Gita. And they do not know the rest of the verse exactly. Where the one who wants to use it does not acknowledge the authority of the Gita, or indeed of any authority whatever` it may be simply the idea that is taken up. The argument is presented something like this:

I am asked to undertake certain items of fixed discipline. The aim is supposed to be to transcend egoistic consciousness, and realize universal consciousness. Yet I am given fixed actions and restrictions` which of course have to be executed by the individual egoistic consciousness. I am told: “Get up at an early hour` and meditate.” Or perhaps: “Practise brahmacharya: restrain the sex impulse.” Or again` I am told: “Try to overcome anger, even when someone seeks to harm you.”

Well` all these things will inevitably be assertions of egoism. Anyone who does them is bound to think: “I am getting up early to practise yoga: the others are still in bed”` or: “I am a brahmachari, and brahmacharya is called the highest means”` or “I am forgiving, I am tolerant: others are revengeful”.

So in fact` to undertake such so-called discipline must assert the very thing it is supposed to dissolve, namely egoism.

The true practice` therefore, is simply to realize the actionlessness of the Self. And that is not done by engaging in actions. Actions by their very nature intensify the idea that the Self is active; and this idea is false, for the Self is purely a witness. So these instructions would in fact strengthen illusion.

Then, like a rabbit out of a hat, the Gita verse is produced: “I do nothing at all – thus should the Truth-knower think.” The first thing to notice about this argument is, that it is applied only to spiritual things. If someone were to say: “I presume you don’t intend to cook your breakfast` as that would be an action` and actions strengthen illusion,” the reply is: “Oh` don’t be so ridiculous. The body has to be kept going„ doesn’t it?” “So you think that some actions are necessary?” But the coffee is boiling over` and the subject has to be dropped. Somehow it never revives. And this is characteristic of tamas: inquiry is never pursued to a conclusion. It is distracted, or the ground is shifted, or it is simply giggled away.

Still there are others who put forward the same argument, but with a different purpose. They sustain their position with reasoned arguments, and they cannot be said to be avoiding the issue.

However if we examine their argument, which is made to seem so critical, so penetrating` so scientific` we find that it rests on a great assumption which is just taken for granted. Look at the words again:

All these things will inevitably be assertions of egoism. Anyone who does them is bound to think: “I am getting up early to practise yoga; the others are still in bed”` or: “I am a brahmachari, and brahmacharya is called the highest means”, or “I am forgiving, I am tolerant: others are revengeful.” So in fact` to undertake such so-called discipline must assert the very thing it is supposed to dissolve, namely egoism.

Notice the wording: “. . . will inevitably be . . .” “. . . is bound to think . . .” “must assert … egoism”. This sort of character analysis is made by someone who has in fact not very much experience of life. A beginner at a difficult task like mastering Law` or Chinese` or French cuisine` or computer programming` does not have to have a sense of egoistic inflation. Sensible people do not have it at all. They do not think: “I am a lawyer”, “I am an Orientalist”, “I am a chef”, or “I am a master of computer science”. They soon realize the enormous difficulties in front of them` and the correspondingly great efforts that will have to be made` to become even passably skilful.

Our ignorance of a subject increases with our knowledge of it. One may think that this cannot be so: how can there be a greater ignorance of Chinese than the man who simply does not know Chinese? “I do not know Chinese” -what ignorance can be greater than that? But the truth is, that in the very first weeks the student discovers that Chinese is not one language but two: the spoken language, and the written language` which is not spelled out like most other languages, but set down with over 5,000 separate symbols. He now knows: “I know neither spoken Chinese` nor the written characters.” After a year or so` he may have learnt about 1,000 characters, but now discovers that there are other ways of writing even the ones he does know: the normal Square hand` and another called the Grass hand` which is often quite different. So he now knows that he is ignorant not only of thousands of Square hand characters` but of thousands more Grass hand characters also.

In this way his ignorance increases with his knowledge. At the beginning he did not know he was ignorant of the Grass hand` because he had never heard of it. But now he knows … that he does not know. It has been well said: “There is no need to practise humility; just train yourself to look at the facts. The frog called Pride can survive only in a very small well.”

The point` however` still remains that discipline is an action. For a long time it has to be sustained by personal effort – great effort` as Shankara says repeatedly in his Gita commentary. In karma-yoga these actions are performed in the capacity of a servant of the Lord, with the humility of a servant. The results are offered to the Lord without any residual personal claims on them, in the shape of anticipated appreciation either by the world or even by the Lord.

If this is accompanied by the two other elements in karma yoga, namely meditation and calm endurance of even very unfavourable circumstances` then the time comes, says Shankara, when such karma yogic action becomes habitual. It is no longer an effort of will but natural. This means that the deeper levels have become purified. One day during the meditation there is a sudden inner flash` which is technically called Knowledge-of-truth. Shankara explains in his Gita commentary several times that meditation is the immediate precursor of Knowledge-of-truth. So the Truth is first known in meditation. Shri Dada says: “While you have consciousness of ‘time and space, you cannot know Atman (the universal Self).”

Now the yogi is a Truth-knower. His self is realized as the Universal Self, the Lord whom he had been worshipping, though the unresolved karma still upholds a pseudo-individuality as a body-mind complex. It is this yogi who is referred to in verse 8 of Chapter 5 of the Gita:

“I do nothing at all”
– thus should the Truth-knower think`
one-pointedly concentrated`
Though engaged in seeing, hearing, touching`
Smelling, eating, going, sleeping.”

The question at once arises, What would this actually be like? The ordinary man, when he thinks “I do nothing at all” just comes to a halt. Perhaps he falls asleep. But this is not an ordinary man: the “I” of the Truth-knower is not the ordinary little “I” that is locked into the body and mind. This great “I” is the divine “I”, and divine energy pours through the temporarily surviving body-mind complex. The energy is not accompanied by the feeling “I am doing something”: it is a spontaneous effortless overflowing of divine bliss.

The apparent injunction that the Truth-knower should meditate in concentration on “I do nothing at all” is addressed to the remnant of the body-mind, which might in some cases be disturbed by chance memories of individual activity. When such memories are ruled out` these instruments function directly as divinely inspired, even when not formally teaching` but for instance eating or sleeping.

Sincere seekers are known to have been inspired by the sight of such a Truth-knower lying asleep. In the Zen tradition there is a saying, that the brilliant and eloquent sermon impresses the hearers, but fails to affect their lives` whereas a single cough from a fully realized man alters the whole being of a real aspirant.


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