Who (or what) is it that ‘acts’?

Those who have read any of my books, or the brief biography that is available on this site and others, will know that I began my ‘philosophical investigations’ with the School of Economic Science, as it is known in the UK. And you will also know that I have commented frequently upon the misguided notions that were propagated by the school in the name of Advaita. One of the key misunderstandings that I had, which was not cleared for many years, despite reading widely and discussing Advaita with many people on the Internet, relates to ‘action’.

As usual, this was a Sankhyan idea effectively being passed off as belonging to Advaita. It was the notion that it is ‘the guNa that act’, or that action is a function of prakRRiti. In the first edition of ‘The Book Of One’, I actually had a chapter called ‘The Myth of Action’ and the first section of this was entitled ‘Only the guNa Act’. Here are several paragraphs from this:

 “The three qualities of nature, the guna, of which all of nature is constituted, are in constant motion and this is the only ‘action’. Yes, the body acts – it is constituted of the three guna – but we do not. Here is a useful practical example of this: It may be that you cycle from time to time. I enjoy cycling in the New Forest, where I live – free exercise in beautiful surroundings and fresh air. However, there are a few hills along the routes, and sometimes you have to go up these rather than down. Many people just get off and walk their cycle up. Others take it as some sort of challenge and insist on trying to cycle to the top without having to dismount. When the going becomes hard, they make an extra mental effort, along the lines of ‘I am damn well going to get to the top, even if it kills me’! This is the hard way!

 “Whenever I find myself in this situation, I remember a quotation that my class at the SES organisation had to learn from the Bhagavad Gita. It goes like this:

naiva ki~nchitkaromIti yukto manyeta tattvavit



indriyANIndriyArtheShu vartanta iti dhArayan

And, by the time I’ve remembered it and spoken it in my mind, I’m at the top of the hill! No – that was a joke. Actually, I never remember the complete order of words in the second and third lines, anyway. Seriously, though, the complete translation of these two verses from the Gita (V 8-9) is as follows:

Believing that it is merely the senses surrounding the objects of sense, though seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, talking, mentally grabbing or letting go, even just opening or closing the eyes, the Sage, knowing the true nature of (the Self) should think ‘I do nothing at all’.

 “Its effect, when fully appreciated, is quite remarkable. The person who, gritting his teeth with determination, sets out up the hill with the idea ‘I am going to do it’, is quite likely to fail. If, on the other hand, you genuinely believe that you are doing nothing at all and you simply watch the legs moving, heart pumping etc, you find that all the ‘doing’ disappears. The legs move as before but there is no attempted willing involved. You are almost a bystander and the results do not matter. You no longer care whether you make it to the top or not. The whole process becomes effortless and – this is the even more amazing aspect – you are far more likely to get to the top without dismounting! I have observed this for myself time and again.

“The Self is that which is behind everything but itself does nothing. The Kena Upanishad speaks of it at length. It begins: By whom commanded and directed does the mind go towards its objects? Commanded by whom does the life force, the first cause move? At whose will do men utter speech? Which power directs the eye and the ear? It is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the speech of the speech, the life of the life, the eye of the eye. … There the eye does not go, nor speech, nor mind. We do not know That; we do not understand how it can be taught. It is distinct from the known and also It is beyond the unknown. (Ref. 9, Part 1 verses 1 – 3.)

 “The Self is the reality behind all appearances, itself unknowable. It does nothing but all apparent activity takes place through its power and against its background. We are the Consciousness, which, by virtue of this body-mind instrument, is capable of seeing, hearing, speaking etc. The body-mind sees, hears, speaks and acts but ‘we’ do not. Everything takes place within this awareness; but the awareness itself, which is what we truly are, is beyond all movement, beyond space and time.”

It is interesting (or at least I find it so!) that I removed the bits relating to the guNa from the second edition of the book, so at least I was aware that those statements were not accurate according to Advaita. But the clarity was still not there. For example, it ought to be clear that it cannot be the body ‘doing’ the cycling – it is after all inert. I added the following quote from Swami Pramananda, a disciple of Swami Dayananda (taken from ‘Blueprints for Awakening’ by Premananda):

“If my sense of ‘I’ is placed in the consciousness, not in the body-mind, then nothing that the body-mind does belongs to me, the Self. That does not mean that the body-mind will not do anything; it will do what it needs to do. But the doing is not owned by the Self; the Self remains a non-doer. Things happen, things get done. I abide in the Self; there is no doing involved here.”

 But this still does not really make it clear what is going on here. I suppose I never really thought about it too deeply, because the fundamental understanding of who we really are and the nature of reality does not really depend upon clarity about the nature of action. Consequently, the realization that this misconception propagated by SES was still lingering did not dawn until I encountered topic 14 (kartradhikaranam – the individual soul is an agent) in the Brahma Sutras (II.iii.33-39). This deals with the question of whether the jIvAtman is an agent or not.

The fact is that Sankhya philosophy believes that it is prakRRiti that acts and puruSha that enjoys. (It is also amusing to note that they equate prakRRiti with the female principle and puruSha the male principal – i.e. it is the woman who does all the work while the man sits back and appreciates it!) Thus, they believe that it is the inert buddhi which is the doer. Advaita, on the other hand, asks how it could be that something inert could ever do anything. They believe that the mind is only an instrument – that is why it is called antaHkaraNa (karaNa is an ‘instrument’). That which is inert (anAtman) can neither do nor enjoy. Yet clearly the jIva must be able to act or otherwise there would be no point to the scriptures, which tell us to do this and that in order to prepare the mind and remove Self-ignorance so as to attain enlightenment. (Also, if it were the buddhi that acts, what would be its instrument?)

All of this ties in quite nicely with the essay I posted in April 2016 entitled ‘The real I verses the presumed I’ – https://www.advaita-vision.org/chidabhasa/.  It is the presumed I, the chidAbhAsa, which is the ‘doer’ and the ‘enjoyer’. The real I does nothing, as indicated in the above extract, and the mind (being inert) can do nothing without being enlivened by consciousness. Shankara points out in his commentary on B.S. II.iii.40 that the notion of ‘doing’ and ‘enjoying’ arises out of ignorance, and he quotes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (IV.v.15): “Because when there is duality, as it were, then one sees something, one smells something, one tastes something, one speaks something, one hears something, one thinks something, one touches something, one knows something. But when to the knower of Brahman everything has become the Self, then what should one see and through what, what should one smell and through what etc? Through what should one know that according to which all this is known? …Through what, O Maitreyi, should one know the Knower?

When it is said that the Self does not act, this is from the standpoint of absolute reality. But, at the empirical level (vyavahAra), there is nothing else that can initiate action other than Consciousness. It is this ‘reflected Consciousness’, operating through the instrument of the mind that effectively acts, i.e. the ‘presumed I’ of the essay. The jIva (a mithyA, vyAvahArika entity) is both ‘doer’ and ‘enjoyer’ of action.

Interestingly, the Nyaya philosophy claims that the jIva is a doer. They say that mokSha is an event in time when this ‘doership’ comes to an end. Advaita, of course, says that we are already free but, as a result of the association with the mind (buddhi) we erroneously think that we are not. This is like the classic metaphor of the clear crystal appearing to be colored as a result of the proximity of some object that is colored. When the mind ceases to function, as in deep sleep, the superimposed doership of the jIva also seems to cease. But it was never a doer to begin with; it is only ignorance of all of this that prevents that realization.

So the bottom-line regarding this question is that the jIvAtman is both a doer and an enjoyer from the vyAvahArika viewpoint and neither a doer nor an enjoyer from the standpoint of paramArtha. How can it be both a doer and a non-doer? In B.S. II.ii.40, Vyasa uses the analogy of a carpenter. A ‘carpenter’ is only a carpenter when he is using his tools to work with wood. When he playing with his children or driving his car, he is not a carpenter. Similarly, the jIvAtman, when associated with the instrument of the mind is a doer but ceases to be so when the mind is inactive.

So – another example of how valuable it can be to tackle the Brahma Sutra Bhashya!

4 thoughts on “Who (or what) is it that ‘acts’?

  1. “… this was a Sankhyan idea effectively being passed off as belonging to Advaita. It was the notion that it is ‘the guNa that act’, or that action is a function of prakRRiti.”

    Interesting observations from the pen of Dennis musing on the S-curve of his learning Advaita.

    Thanks to the number of books he authored, the name “Dennis” has almost become a symbol for Shankara Advaita in the West in these days. In spite of it, he could openly write about his own misgivings. This speaks volumes about his humility. Our Congratulations.

    Nevertheless, perhaps it is unfair to apportion the blame entirely on one institute saying that it was a “misconception propagated by SES.” Many of our ‘desi’ Swami-s eager to export Vedanta to the West, IMHO, have to take the lion’s share. They were eager to identify a single canonical text for the propagation of Vedanta and homed on to Bhagavad-Gita, projecting it and teaching it as an equivalent to the Bible in Christianity. Incidentally, as many readers would have known, the quotation that ” ‘the guNa that act’, or that action is a function of prakRRiti” flows out of BG III – 27 and 28; XIII – 19 and 21, also many verses in chapter XIV (5, 21, 23 and 25).

    Agreed Shankara himself considered and commented on Bhagavad-Gita as one of the three principal canons of Advaita Vedanta. But he placed it in the third place. First come the Upanishads, called as the upadesha prashtAna (for Instruction) for Advaita Vedanta, the next is brahma sutra-s termed as nyAya or ukti prasthAna (for logical analysis and deductive understanding). Only after passing these two through the phrases of shravaNa (listening to) and manana (reflection on what is heard and fully understood), one is expected to follow the third called sAdhana prasthAna which is BG. Maybe it is better to consider BG as a “life strategy manual” for a seeker who has understood the Advaitic message of jIvabrahmaikatva but still feels a responsibility towards the life and interactions of the body which houses him/her as long as it stays alive. By propagating BG first, many of the teachers do bring in confusion in the mind of a novice seeker who heard the famous Upanishad vAkya, “I am brahman.”

    In my case, I could not resolve for a long time how Shri Krishna says that there is nothing but brahman which does not have birth and death, claiming Himself as brahman and at the same time speak of many of His births! Similarly at one place He claims that there is no distinction between gold or the crow-poop, but at the same time speaks that a seeker attaining Him will not be reborn as if the seeker, even after realizing himself/herself to be brahman would still continue to carry a unique ID tag of his separate identity of who s/he had been prior to “Realization” and thus manage to avoid rebirth in the world unlike his other less fortunate mortals.

    One more confusion that these Gurus propagate is presenting Shankara as if he alone is a bhagavan-incarnate, an Avatar of Lord Ishwara Himself, as if the others are not the modulations of brahman, holding at the same time that all forms from a blade of grass up to the Creator are said to be mithya.


  2. Very good and clarifying post Dennis. re. The last sentence (from the BS), ‘the jIvAtman, when associated with the instrument of the mind is a doer but ceases to be so when the mind is inactive’. Yes, when the mind, an adjunct or superimposition on Atman is inactive, as also during during deep sleep. Another, equivalent, way to say it would be: ‘When a person (jiva) ceases to identify him/herself with a body-mind’, which, in this case, it shows that the one who speaks thus is not covered by the veil of avidya.

    Gita 4-13 is a reference to the fact that, though Atman-Brahman is a Kartru (doer) by virtue of His transaction of creation, He/It is not performing any action, for that creation is only an appearance.

    Other than the jiva not being in its essence (that is, in his real nature) a Kartru, he/it is also not a Drashtru (seer), a Shrotru (hearer), a Mantru (one who reflects), a Boddha (cognizer), etc. All these forms or functions are pervaded by the Sakshi (Witness Consciousness). I write all this as a general or complementary illustration, not aimed to anyone in particular.

    On a more or less personal note (this time addressed to Dennis), I attended weekly meeting of ‘Practical Philosophy’ (the name under which the School of Economic Science operated, at least in Canada) in Toronto for four years. The role and significance of the three gunas was imprinted in my mind from the beginning and it sounded quite satisfactory; I immediately took it on board. More bits of information about that organization for whomever may be interested: 1) Gurdjieff and Ouspensky were relevant figures, at least initially; 2) the list of recommended books (including Plato, Marsilio Ficino, Hermetism, and many other authors and schools, was quite catholic, meaning diverse and comprehensive; 3) 10 min. meditation bid was recommended (TM of Maharishi Maheshi) – one had to undergo initiation for this meditation; 4) teaching was imparted, or coming, every 2 yrs or so (also secretely, at least during the first few years) from the Shankaracharya of the North, if I remember. Someone told me later that the teaching (Advaita) was only partial, incomplete – was it because the authorities of the Math did not completely trust that organization with the strange name of ‘School of Economic Science? At the end, what prompted my leaving it was that (after four full years!) the problem of obedientialism showed its ugly face. One more sect!

  3. I hope you will find this relevant to the question Who (or what) is it that ‘acts’?

    Laura Huxley recalls her meeting with Krishnamurti at the home of yoga master, Vanda Scaravelli ……

    “…I told him of the medical research done in Canada in the field of alcoholism
    — of unexpected and successful results reported by Canadian doctors with a number of hopeless alcoholics who stopped drinking after only one or two administrations of LSD, and without further therapy. Krishnamurti seemed surprised. He was silent for a few moments. There was something that he was going to say; also I had the feeling that his inner intensity was too powerful for the medium of words. I had no idea what was coming, but I knew something was about to happen.
    Silently he was holding my eyes with his dark burning look. Then with an extremely tense voice, he exploded, “You know, I think that those people who go about helping other people .. .” He stopped— then, with an even more piercing gaze, he spat out the next words like bullets of contempt: “those people … they are a curse!”

    After the conversation at the table I had no doubt that “those people” included me. The accusation and the fire with which he flung it at me were for an instant paralyzing.

    Then, almost without thinking, I asked, “What about you? What do you
    think you are doing? You go about helping other people.”
    As though he had never thought of himself as belonging to that cursed category, Krishnamurti was taken aback for a moment, totally surprised and perplexed.

    Then, with disarming simplicity and directness, he said, “But I don’t do it on purpose!”
    It was the most extraordinary of statements. Aldous was enormously impressed by it, and also very touched and amused. Of course he understood it. But I must have looked bewildered, for Krishnamurti, in a softer, calmer way, said, “It just happens, do you see?” Alas, I did not see very well.

    Krishnamurti continued, “I am not a healer, or a psychologist, or therapist, or any of those things.” The words “healer,” “psychologist,” “therapist” burst from him like projectiles ejected by compressed power. “I am only a religious man. Alcoholics or neurotics or addicts— it doesn’t matter what the trouble is— they get better quite often— but that is not important; that is not the point— it is only a consequence.”


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