“One who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is intelligent among men, and he is in the transcendental position, although engaged in all sorts of activities.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.18)Download this episode (right click and save)
The result was a war that saw the deaths of millions. The main cause, the leading fighter for the ultimately victorious side, Arjuna, didn’t want to fight at first. He was ready to lay down his weapons, retire to the forest, and avoid the consequences to destroying friends and family fighting for the opposing side.
It was his dear friend, cousin, and charioteer who got his mind right. The close friend turned into a guru at Arjuna’s behest and then urged the warrior to stand up and fight. That person is purported to be divine, the Supreme Personality of Godhead in fact. How could God advise anyone towards death and destruction?
The answer lies in the mystery of karma. Translated into English, the word is simply “action.” There is more to it than that, as it is action which has reactions. At one point in the discussion with Arjuna, Krishna talked about action and inaction, and how they may be different than what they appear on the surface. There can be inaction in action and action in inaction. From this we can deduce that there can be negative consequences, sinful reactions, from doing nothing.
1. Prisoners escape from a jail
It’s your job to patrol the various sections of a prison. The inmates are there due to past crimes. They are serving their punishment. You are not attached to the job. It’s not like you hate the prisoners; you understand that sometimes people make mistakes.
One day there is a prison break. One of the inmates has escaped from their cell and is now helping others do the same. You decide to sit there and watch. You don’t want to get involved. There might be violence if you do. You might have to shoot people, which may lead to death.
It’s obvious that in this situation inaction is the wrong course. It is sinful, impious, bad - whatever label you choose to affix. The reason is simple. The inmates are criminals. The very act of escaping jail is wrong. Then when free, there is a good chance they will commit more crimes. As a guard, you are implicated in those sinful deeds since it was your job to help protect the innocent people.
2. A child is about to ingest poison
A child likes to roam around, since they are constantly discovering. One day you are left in charge of a small child, one who doesn’t yet know how to walk. They can crawl, though, and they have found their way into the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink. There are some cleaning agents there in bottles. As an adult, you know the harm in drinking these liquids. The result can be lethal.
You see the child about to spill one of the bottles. You are the guardian. You are supposed to do something. Yet you decide to not get involved. Why make the child cry? The child will get upset that you are interfering with their fun.
Once again, the sinful reaction from inaction in this situation is clear. Not doing something has dire consequences. There is the inherent responsibility to intervene.
3. Rogues about to overtake a kingdom
This was actually the situation Arjuna was in. His cousins, known as the Kauravas, had already taken the kingdom. Thus far the Pandavas hadn’t objected. Duryodhana, the leader of the Kauravas, tried to have the Pandavas killed on several occasions. The plots didn’t work since Krishna was the ever well-wisher to Arjuna, his brothers, and their mother, Kunti Devi.
The setting of the Bhagavad-gita is the battlefield of Kurukshetra, a place where the two parties had assembled for a war. The Pandavas had decided enough was enough. Still, Arjuna was hesitant. In this situation, inaction was sinful since Arjuna was shirking his responsibilities as a warrior. Moreover, the reason for the doubt was concern over bodily welfare. Arjuna thought he could save the lives of his friends and family on the other side.
The sentiment was good, but the end result to accepting this path would be disaster. The thieves would be rewarded for their sinful behavior. Any person would then have cause for concern about their property. If an entire kingdom can be overtaken without a fight, then what about the property of each person living within that kingdom? There would be sinful reaction from the inaction of avoiding responsibility.
4. A choking victim
This example is similar to the one with the child and the poison. You’re in a restaurant. You suddenly hear a sound from a nearby table. It is obvious that a person is choking. They cannot breathe. They have made the universal sign for choking.
You can help them by performing the Heimlich Maneuver. You are close by and thus perfectly situated to offer help. You decide to not get involved. Why go through the trouble? What if you don’t succeed? People will blame you for the failure.
Again, the consequences are obvious. The person can die. Though you did nothing, you deserve a large part of the blame after the fact.
5. A person struggling in material life
You know better. You have struggled yourself. Then you met a representative of the Supreme Lord, a person who follows in the line of succession restarted by Arjuna from that famous day. They taught you the science of self-realization. Now you know about karma, action, inaction, life, death, matter, spirit, the cycle of birth and death, and the ultimate cause of the creation.
You see someone else struggling in material life. They have specifically asked for help. You decide not to get involved. Though you know exactly where they are going wrong, you keep the vital information to yourself. In this case the consequence is continued rebirth for that person. They may not find the path to transcendental bliss for a long time.
From these examples we see that it’s not always easy to determine the right path. Inaction isn’t always the best policy. Action can lead to sinful reaction, as well. Arjuna had the best person to guide Him, and the same guidance is available to all through the mercy of the spiritual master.
For the present age, the guru gives the general guidelines that the best form of inaction is to avoid four sinful behaviors: meat-eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. The most worthwhile action is to chant the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The more time a person spends in bhakti-yoga, devotional service, the more clear the right course of action becomes. Their action becomes inaction, as there are no more material consequences.
Arjuna not sure of what to do,
Quit or to occupation be true?
Why for deaths of millions be the cause?
Questioned Krishna, to start of war a pause.
The Supreme Lord secrets of action explained,
Sometimes from inaction sinful reaction gained.
In this age avoid pillars of sinful life four,
And in devotion God the person adore.