Action – Agency

An action should have an actor (kartA). That means there should be someone to claim: “I am doing this”. Only humankind has this sense of agency, though all living beings naturally are active. Man is born as part of nature and lives as part of nature. But he does not realize his being an integral part of nature, and therefore is oblivious of the fact that his ability to know, ability of volition, and ability to do works are merely part of the creative function of nature. Because of this obliviousness he thinks he is the doer of all these actions. Such a man is called vimUDhAtmA (the stupefied one or the stupid). Only such stupid ones have the sense of agency and they alone have karma.

From Karma and Reincarnation, Swami Muni Naryanana Prasad, D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd., 1993, ISBN 81-246-0022-8. Buy from Amazon US, Buy from Amazon UK

14 thoughts on “Action – Agency

  1. Bhagavad-Gita: Ch III Verse 27: While actions are being done in everyway by the gunas of the Nature (natural forces), one who is deluded by ‘egoism’ thinks thus: “I am the doer.”

    Bhagavad-Gita: Ch II Verse 47: Your right (I will prefer to translate adhikAra as ability to control) is for action alone, never for results. Do not become the agent for the results (fruits) of action. May you also not have an inclination for inaction.

    Perhaps this verse hints at the availability of “Free Won’t”, though not Free will?!

  2. Swami Vivekananda: “Be perfectly resigned, perfectly unconcerned; then alone can you do any true work. No eyes can see the real forces, we can only see the results. Put out self, lose it, forget it; just let God work, it is His business. We have nothing to do but stand aside and let God work. The more we go away, the more God comes in. Get rid of the little “I”, and let the great “I” live.”

    Krishnamurti: “We live by action; we cannot possibly avoid action. You may withdraw from the world into a monastery, take vows, but that is still action. . . This is your life, and if you understand your life, your behaviour, your conduct, your relationship, your confusion, to find out what to do so that action is excellent at all levels, then you must ask if there is an action that is not fragmented by thought”

    Swami Chinmayananda on BG Chp 3 vs 27: All along Krishna has been insisting that nobler actions are actions without attachment. This is easier said than done. Even if one intellectually accepts this idea, it is not at all easy to act up to it. To every one of us, the difficulty is that we know not how to get ourselves detached from our activities, and still act on in the field . . . identification with the mental condition creates the false sense of ego which arrogates to itself the idea ‘I am the doer’. The doer demands the fruits of his action. To get over this attachment is to end this misconception.

    BG Chp 3 Vs25: As the ignorant men act from attachment to action O Bharata, so should the wise act without attachment, wishing the welfare of the world.
    Swami Chinmayananda comment on vs 25: Here Krishna says that a Man of Self-Realisation also works in the world with as much diligence and sincerity, tireless enthusiasm and energising joy, burning hopes as any ordinary man. The only difference between the two is that while the ignorant acts and is motivated in his actions by his attachments and anxieties for the fruits, a man of complete perfection will work in the world without attachment, only for the purpose of the redemption of the world.

  3. What you say about agency is right, but then why call those who think they are the agents as “vimūḍhātmā” – that’s derogatory and judgmental – isn’t it the way the world is? Why should the akarta think lowly of others, and yet we call him wise…

    • As far as my understanding goes, Vimudhatma does not have a derogatory connotation in the verse mentioned but it simply means ‘deluded person’. It is another matter that even this could be taken to be derogatory, by a Vimudhatma!

      • You are right! All of the versions of the Gita that I have looked at translate ahaMkAravimUDhAtmA (in 3.27) as something along the lines of ‘one whose mind is deluded by egoism’. So maybe Swami Muni was using poetic licence when he translated this as ‘stupid’. although he does also use the word ‘stupefied’ which is OK.

        • The dictionary meaning of “stupid” does not convey any derogatory (= belittling or disparaging or slighting or offensive or abusive) sense.

          The American Heritage Dic:
          1. Slow to learn or understand; obtuse.
          2. Tending to make poor decisions or careless mistakes.
          3. Marked by a lack of intelligence or care;
          4. Dazed, stunned, or stupefied.
          5. Pointless; worthless.

          Collins English Dic:
          1. lacking in common sense, perception, or normal intelligence
          2. (usually postpositive) stunned, dazed, or stupefied
          3. having dull mental responses; slow-witted
          4. trivial, silly, or frivolous

          Random House Kernerman Webster Dic:
          1. lacking ordinary quickness and keenness of mind; dull.
          2. characterized by or proceeding from mental dullness;
          3. tediously dull, esp. due to lack of meaning or sense;
          4. annoying or irritating;
          5. in a state of stupor; stupefied: stupid from fatigue.
          6. Slang. excellent; terrific.

  4. I agree that it is perhaps an unfortunate term, since it carries derogatory overtones. I think it is probably chosen precisely to make one think that I myself would be stupid if I do not constantly remind myself that I am not the doer. Also, Monier-Williams gives ‘perplexed in mind’ as one of the translations. I think that the word ‘stupid’ should be used if one is aware of the teaching and yet ignores it, and the word ‘ignorant’ should be used for those who are not aware of the teaching.

  5. The question I should have made explicit that goes with the quotes is:

    It is clear that we are not the doer, but rather the impersonal functioning of nature / the universe. But then, whilst we are ajnanis should we act/decide as though we had free will whilst knowing that it is not so, and therefore leaving the fruits of actions to be whatever they are? And if so what is right action?

    The quotes in my previous comment suggest actions should be for the welfare of the world. On the other hand Sri Ramana Maharshi held that we should not get involved in the world in any way and focus our efforts on liberation – especially given his view of eka jiva vada and ultimately ajata vada. What is the Vedantic view between Vivekananda and Chinmayananda vs Sri Ramana?

    • Can I request you to look at my post entitled “Action – to-be-done” and respond as to whether that answers your question on what’s right action?

      • Hi Suka

        Your post doesn’t fully answer my question. Yes of course ahimsa and following one’s role / duty as per BG. But BG also advocates (per my quotes) doing action for the sake of the world which is beyond purely the role you are born into. Though, in other places BG also finds sannyasa and non-action permissible for evolved individuals and jnanis.

        So how to reconcile the views of Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Atmananda of not being involved in the world with those of Vivekananda and Chinmayanda of being active in the world for the sake of the world, and the BG seemingly contradictory acceptance of both positions?

  6. That’s really the topic of an essay, if not a book, rather than a quick answer. That is really the way of it: vyavahAra considerations are long and complex; paramArtha simple. Work for enlightenment and the mithyAtva will take care of itself! Sorry to fob you off! If others want to take up your questions in detail, I would be happy for them to do so. I have to do a WordPress update and then get on with my next book!

  7. Dennis – that is very reasonable and agreeable samanvaya, reconciliation. However, I find when such words are used, people use it more to judge others than themselves, simply because it is convenient, and an easy way to appear smart and one up…

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