Action in Knowledge of Kṛṣṇa
na me karma-phale spṛhā
iti māṁ yo ’bhijānāti
karmabhir na sa badhyate
“There is no work that affects Me; nor do I aspire for the fruits of action. One who understands this truth about Me also does not become entangled in the fruitive reactions of work.” (Bhagavad-gītā 4.14)
The whole world is bound by karma. We all know of the existence of microbes, or germs which exist by the millions within the measurement of one millimeter. In the Brahma-saṁhitā it is stated that beginning with the microbe, which is called indragopa, up to Indra, the king of the heavenly planets, all are bound by karma, the reactions to work. We all have to suffer or enjoy the reactions of our work, be they good or bad. As long as we have to suffer or enjoy these reactions, we are bound to these material bodies.
By nature’s arrangement the material body is given to the living entity for his suffering or enjoyment. Different types of bodies are acquired for different purposes. The body of a tiger is made for killing and eating raw meat. Similarly, the hogs are made in such a way that they can eat stool. And as human beings, our teeth are made for eating vegetables and fruits. All of these bodies are made according to the work done by the living entity in past lives. Our next bodies are being prepared according to the work we are now doing, but in the previously quoted verse, Śrī Kṛṣṇa indicates that those who know the transcendental nature of His activities become free from the reactions of their own activities. Our activities should be such that we will not again become entangled in this material world. This can be made possible if we become Kṛṣṇa conscious by studying Kṛṣṇa, learning of the transcendental nature of His activities, and understanding how He behaves in this material world and in the spiritual world.
When Kṛṣṇa comes to this earth, He is not like us; He is totally transcendental. We desire the fruits of our activities, but Kṛṣṇa does not desire any fruits, nor are there any reactions to His actions. Nor does He have any desire for fruitive activity (na me karma-phale spṛhā). When we enter into business, we hope for profit, and with that profit we hope to buy things that will make our life enjoyable. Whenever conditioned souls do something, there is a desire for enjoyment behind it. But Kṛṣṇa has nothing to desire. He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and He is full with everything. When Kṛṣṇa came to this earth He had many girlfriends and over 16,000 wives, and some people think that He was very sensual, but this was not the fact.
We must understand the meaning of relationships with Kṛṣṇa. In this material world we have many relationships as father, mother, wife, or husband. Whatever relationship we find here is but a perverted reflection of the relationship we have with the Supreme Lord. Whatever we find in this material world is born of the Absolute Truth, but here it is pervertedly reflected in time. Whatever relationship we have with Kṛṣṇa goes on. If we have a relationship in friendship, that friendship is eternal and continues from life to life. In the material world, a friendship exists for a few years and then breaks; therefore it is called perverted, temporary, or unreal. If we make our friendship with Kṛṣṇa, it will never break. If we make Kṛṣṇa our master, we will never be cheated. If we love Kṛṣṇa as our son, He will never die. If we love Kṛṣṇa as our lover, He will be the best of all, and there will be no separation. Because Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Lord, He is unlimited and has an unlimited number of devotees. Some are trying to love Him as a lover or husband, and therefore Kṛṣṇa accepts this role. In whatever way we approach Kṛṣṇa, He will accept us, as He states in the Bhagavad-gītā (4.11)
tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham
manuṣyāḥ pārtha sarvaśaḥ
“As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Pṛthā.”
The gopīs, or cowherd girlfriends of Kṛṣṇa, underwent tremendous penances in their previous lives to attain Kṛṣṇa as their husband. Similarly, in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Śukadeva Gosvāmī says that those boys who were playing with Kṛṣṇa had undergone great penances and austerities in their previous lives in order to acquire Kṛṣṇa as a playmate. Thus the playmates, associates, and wives of Kṛṣṇa are not ordinary living entities. Because we have no idea of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, we take His activities as triflings, but actually they are sublime. All perfection of our desires is there; whatever desires we have constitutionally will be perfectly fulfilled when we are in Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
Kṛṣṇa did not need any friends to play with Him, nor did He desire a single wife. We take on a wife because we have some desire to fulfill, but Kṛṣṇa is complete in Himself (pūrṇam). A poor man may desire to have a thousand dollars in the bank, but a rich man who has millions has no such desire. If Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, why should He have desires? Rather, He fulfills the desires of others. Man proposes and God disposes. If Kṛṣṇa had any desire, He would be imperfect, for He would be lacking something. Therefore He says that He has no desire to fulfill. As Yogeśvara, or the master of all yogis, whatever He wills is immediately realized. There is no question of desire. He becomes a husband or lover or friend just to fulfill the desires of His devotees. If we accept Kṛṣṇa as friend, master, son, or lover, we will never be frustrated. Every living entity has a specific relationship with Kṛṣṇa, but at present this relationship is covered. As we advance in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, it will be revealed.
Although the Supreme Lord is full and has nothing to do, He works in order to set an example. He is not bound to His activities in the material world, and one who knows this also becomes free from activities that bring karmic reaction.
pūrvair api mumukṣubhiḥ
kuru karmaiva tasmāt tvaṁ
pūrvaiḥ pūrvataraṁ kṛtam
“All the liberated souls in ancient times acted with this understanding of My transcendental nature, and so attained liberation. Therefore, you should perform your duty, following in their footsteps.” (Bhagavad-gītā 4.15)
The process of Kṛṣṇa consciousness requires that we follow in the footsteps of the great ācāryas who have attained success in spiritual life. If one acts by following the examples set by great ācāryas, sages, devotees, and enlightened kings who have performed karma-yoga in their lives, he shall also become free.
On the Battlefield of Kurukṣetra, Arjuna was very much afraid of being entangled in his activities by engaging in warfare. Kṛṣṇa therefore assured him that if he fought for His sake there would be no possibility of entanglement.
kavayo ’py atra mohitāḥ
tat te karma pravakṣyāmi
yaj jñātvā mokṣyase ’śubhāt
“Even the intelligent are bewildered in determining what is action and what is inaction. Now I shall explain to you what action is, knowing which you shall be liberated from all misfortune.” (Bhagavad-gītā 4.16)
People are actually confused as to what is work (karma) and what is not work (akarma). Kṛṣṇa here indicates that even great scholars (kavayaḥ) are bewildered about the nature of work. It is necessary to know which activities are genuine and which are not, which are bona fide and which are not, which are prohibited and which are not. If we understand the principle of work, we can become free from material bondage. It is therefore necessary to know how to conduct work so that when we leave the material body we will no longer be forced to take another but will be free to enter the spiritual sky. The principle of proper work is clearly stated by Śrī Kṛṣṇa in the last verse (55) of the eleventh chapter:
yaḥ sa mām eti pāṇḍava
“My dear Arjuna, he who engages in My pure devotional service, free from the contaminations of fruitive activities and mental speculation, he who works for Me, who makes Me the supreme goal of his life, and who is friendly to every living being – he certainly comes to Me.”
This one verse is sufficient to understand the essence of the Gītā. One must be engaged in “My work.” What is this work? It is indicated in the last instruction in the Gītā (18.66), in which Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna to surrender to Him.
By the example of Arjuna we are to learn that we should only perform work that is sanctioned by Kṛṣṇa. This is the mission of human life, but we do not know it. Because of our ignorance we engage in so much work that is connected with the bodily or material conception of life. Kṛṣṇa wanted Arjuna to fight, and although Arjuna did not want to fight, he fought because Kṛṣṇa desired it. We have to learn to follow this example.
Of course, Kṛṣṇa was present to tell Arjuna what his work was, but what about us? Śrī Kṛṣṇa was personally directing Arjuna to act in such and such a way, but just because Kṛṣṇa is not personally present before us we should not assume there is no direction. Indeed, there is direction. In the last chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā the proper work we are to perform is given.
bhaktiṁ mayi parāṁ kṛtvā
mām evaiṣyaty asaṁśayaḥ
kaścin me priya-kṛttamaḥ
bhavitā na ca me tasmād
anyaḥ priyataro bhuvi
“For one who explains this supreme secret to the devotees, pure devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me. There is no servant in this world more dear to Me than he, nor will there ever be one more dear.” (Bhagavad-gītā 18.68–69)
It is therefore incumbent on us to preach the method of the Bhagavad-gītā and make people Kṛṣṇa conscious. People are actually suffering for want of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. We should all engage in spreading the science of Kṛṣṇa for the benefit of the whole world. Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu came with this mission of teaching Kṛṣṇa consciousness, and He said that regardless of one’s position, if he teaches Kṛṣṇa consciousness he is to be considered a spiritual master. Both the Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam are filled with information on how to become Kṛṣṇa conscious. Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu selected these two books and requested that people in all corners of the world spread this science of Kṛṣṇa in every town and village. Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu was Kṛṣṇa Himself, and we should take this to be Kṛṣṇa’s indication of our proper work. But we should be careful to present the Bhagavad-gītā as it is, without personal interpretation or motivation. Some people present interpretations of the Bhagavad-gītā, but we should present the words as they are spoken by Śrī Kṛṣṇa.
One who works for Kṛṣṇa may appear to be working like anyone else in the material world, but this is not the case. Arjuna may have fought just like an ordinary military man, but because he fought in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, he was free from the entanglement of his activities. In this way, his work, although appearing material, was not material at all. Any action sanctioned by Kṛṣṇa – regardless of what it may be – has no reaction. Fighting may not be a very nice thing, but sometimes, as in the case of the Battle of Kurukṣetra, it is an absolute necessity. On the other hand, we may perform work that may be very altruistic or humanitarian in the opinion of the world and yet be bound to material activity. So it is not the action itself that is important but the consciousness in which the action is carried out. Bhagavad-gītā (4.17) says:
boddhavyaṁ ca vikarmaṇaḥ
akarmaṇaś ca boddhavyaṁ
gahanā karmaṇo gatiḥ
“The intricacies of action are very hard to understand. Therefore one should know properly what action is, what forbidden action is, and what inaction is.”
The path of karma is intricate; therefore we should understand the distinctions between karma, akarma, and vikarma. If we simply engage in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, everything becomes clear. Otherwise we will have to make distinctions between what we should do and what we should not do in order not to become entangled. In the ordinary course of life we unknowingly break some law and have to suffer the consequences. Similarly, the laws of nature are very strict and stringent, and they accept no excuse. It is a law of nature that fire burns, and even if a child touches it, he will be burned despite his ignorance and innocence. Thus we have to choose our course of action very carefully lest the stringent laws of nature react to bind us to suffering. It is therefore necessary to understand what work to do and what work to avoid.
The word karma refers to prescribed duties; the word vikarma refers to activities against prescribed duties; and the word akarma refers to activities with no reaction at all. In the execution of akarmic activities there may appear to be some reactions, but in actuality there are not. When we work under the directions of Kṛṣṇa, this is actually the case – there are no reactions. If we take it upon ourselves to kill someone, we are subject to capital punishment by the state government. Our actions are then called vikarma, for they are against prescribed actions. If, however, the government drafts us into the army, and we engage in battle and kill someone, we do not suffer the reactions, and this is called akarma. In the one case we are acting according to our own whims, and in the other we are acting under the direction of the government. Similarly, when we act under Kṛṣṇa’s direction, the actions we perform are called akarma, for that kind of activity has no reaction.
akarmaṇi ca karma yaḥ
sa buddhimān manuṣyeṣu
sa yuktaḥ kṛtsna-karma-kṛt
“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.” (Bhagavad-gītā 4.18)
One who can actually see that despite activities there are no karmic reactions, who understands the nature of akarma, actually sees things as they are. The word akarmaṇi refers to one who is trying to avoid the reactions of karma. By dovetailing one’s activities in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, although one may perform all kinds of activities, he is free. On the Battlefield of Kurukṣetra, Arjuna engaged in fighting, and those on the side of Duryodhana also engaged in fighting. We must understand how it is that Arjuna is free from reaction whereas Duryodhana is not. Externally we can see that both parties are engaged in fighting, but we should understand that Arjuna is not bound by reactions because he is fighting under the order of Kṛṣṇa. Thus when we see someone working in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, we should understand that his work does not carry any reaction. One who can see such work and understand it is to be considered very intelligent (sa buddhimān). The technique is not so much in seeing what a person is doing but in understanding why he is doing it.
Actually Arjuna was engaged in very unpleasant activity on the battlefield, but because he was in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, he suffered no reaction. We may be performing some action which we may consider to be very good work, but if we do not perform it in Kṛṣṇa consciousness we have to suffer the reactions. From the material point of view Arjuna’s initial decision not to fight was a good one, but from the spiritual point of view it was not. When we do pious work, we get certain results. We may take a birth in a very good family – in the family of a brāhmaṇa or a wealthy man – we may become very rich or very learned, or we may become very beautiful. On the other hand, if we do impious work, we may have to take birth in a low-class or animal family, or become illiterate or foolish, or very ugly. Although we engage in very pious work and take a good birth, we will still be subject to the stringent laws of action and reaction. Our principal aim should be to escape the laws of this material world. If we don’t understand this, we will become attracted by aristocratic families, wealth, a good education, or a beautiful body. We should come to understand that despite having all these facilities for material life, we are not free from birth, old age, disease, and death. To caution us about this, Śrī Kṛṣṇa warns in the Bhagavad-gītā (8.16):
punar āvartino ’rjuna
mām upetya tu kaunteya
punar janma na vidyate
“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place.
Even on Brahmaloka, the highest planet in the material universe, repetition of birth and death are also present. We have to go to Kṛṣṇa’s planet in order to be free from this. It may be very nice to be a rich or beautiful person, but how long shall we remain such? That is not our permanent life. We may remain learned, rich, and beautiful for fifty, sixty, or at most a hundred years, but real life is not for fifty or a hundred years, nor a thousand years, nor even a million years. We are eternal, and we have to attain our eternal life. That we have not attained it is our whole problem. That problem can be solved when we are Kṛṣṇa conscious.
If we leave this material body in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, we will no longer have to return to the material world. The point is to avoid this material existence altogether. It is not a question of improving our condition in the material world. In prison a man may want to improve his condition to become a first-class prisoner, and the government may give him A status, but no sane man will become satisfied by becoming an A-class prisoner. He should desire to get out of the prison altogether. In the material world some of us are A-class, B-class, or C-class prisoners, but in any case we are all prisoners. Real knowledge does not consist in simply getting an MA or PhD but in understanding these basic problems of existence.
tam āhuḥ paṇḍitaṁ budhaḥ
“One is understood to be in full knowledge whose every endeavor is devoid of desire for sense gratification. He is said by sages to be a worker for whom the reactions of work have been burned up by the fire of perfect knowledge.” (Bhagavad-gītā 4.19)
The word paṇḍitam means “learned,” and budhāḥ means “well versed.” In the tenth chapter we also find the word budhāḥ in the verse budhā bhāva-samanvitāḥ (Bhagavad-gītā 10.8). According to the Bhagavad-gītā, one may not be a learned man just because he has received a lot of education from a university. The Bhagavad-gītā (5.18) says that he is a learned man who can see everything on an equal level.
brāhmaṇe gavi hastini
śuni caiva śva-pāke ca
“The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater [outcaste].”
In India, according to Vedic civilization, a brāhmaṇa who is learned is considered to be the topmost man in human society. The paṇḍita, who is learned and gentle, sees such a brāhmaṇa on the same level with a dog or an outcaste who eats dogs. In other words, he sees no distinctions between the highest and the lowest. Is this to say that being a learned brāhmaṇa is no better than being a dog? No, that is not so. But the paṇḍita sees them as the same because he does not see the skin but the spirit. One who has learned the art of seeing the same spirit soul within every living being is considered to be a paṇḍita, for in actuality every living being is a spiritual spark, part and parcel of the complete spirit whole. The spiritual spark is the same in all, but it is covered by different dresses. An honored man may come in a very shabby dress, but this does not mean that he should be dishonored. In the Bhagavad-gītā (2.22) these material bodies are likened to dresses that are worn by the spirit soul.
navāni gṛhṇāti naro parāṇi
tathā śarīrāṇi vihāya jīrṇāny
anyāni saṁyāti navāni dehī
“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”
Whenever we see any living entity we should think, “Here is a spirit soul.” Anyone who can understand such a spiritual vision of life is a paṇḍita. Cāṇakya Paṇḍita gives the standard for education, or the qualification of a paṇḍita, in this way: “The learned man sees all women, with the exception of his wife, as his mother; he sees all material possessions as garbage in the street; and he looks on the sufferings of others as he would look on them in himself.” Lord Buddha taught that we should not even hurt animals by word or deed. This is the qualification for a paṇḍita, and this should be the standard of life. It is therefore to be understood that one is to be considered educated in accordance with his vision of life and his activity in accordance with that vision, not by his academic degrees. This is the understanding of the word paṇḍita from the Bhagavad-gītā. Similarly, the word budhāḥ specifically refers to one who is well versed in the study of scripture. The results of such realization and scriptural learning are thus described in the Bhagavad-gītā (10.8):
mattaḥ sarvaṁ pravartate
iti matvā bhajante māṁ
“I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me. The wise who know this perfectly engage in My devotional service and worship Me with all their hearts.”
The well-versed person, or budhāḥ, is one who has understood that Kṛṣṇa is the origin of all emanations. Whatever we happen to see is but an emanation of Kṛṣṇa. For millions and millions of years sunshine has been emanating from the sun, and yet the sun is as it is. Similarly, all material and spiritual energies are coming from Kṛṣṇa. As a result of knowing this, one becomes a devotee of Kṛṣṇa.
Thus one who knows that he must work in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, who no longer desires to enjoy this material world, is actually learned. Everyone is working in the material world due to lust (kāma), but the wise man is free from the dictations of this lust (kāma-saṅkalpa-varjitāḥ). How is this possible? Jñānāgni-dagdha-karmāṇam: the fire of knowledge burns up all reactions of sinful activities. It is the most potent of purifiers. Our lives have meaning and direction only in so far as we strive to attain this transcendental knowledge of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, rāja-vidyā, which is the king of all knowledge.