The Ethical Paradox of the Jñāna-Karma Dialectic and Its Solution in the Yoga Vāśiṣṭha – 1

September 25, 2020 Authored by: Sreejit Datta

Some seekers of moksha or absolute liberation are often perplexed by an ethical dilemma: is it too selfish to seek my own liberation while the whole world around me burns? Some others arrive at the same dilemma even when they proceed from the opposite direction: if it is right knowledge which burns away the chains of bondage keeping us caught in the cycle of birth and death, should we not make the attaining of right knowledge our only goal, while summarily suspending all other pursuits, even if that act of suspension exacts from us an enormous personal cost?

Is there a dichotomy between the path of right knowledge and the path of action? This indeed is the question which lies at the heart of the matter. It gives rise to such ethical perplexities, which keep famously reappearing in the now classic dialectical discourses found throughout the Mokṣaśāstra literature, most notably in the Bhagavad-Gita and in the Yoga Vāśiṣṭha. Interestingly enough, the preceptors in these two great books of Mokṣaśāstraappear to be representing two distinct worlds – and as such, two different paths – on account of their work, on account of the role they played in their societies, on account of their locations in the Varṇāśrama matrix.

One of them is Sri Krishna: a Kshatriya, a most influential chief of the Yādavas, a great political figure, a man who belonged to the world of warriors and of ruthless war-strategies, a man of action; whereas the other is Vaśiṣṭha: a Brāḥmaṇa (we are reminded of his epic encounter with King Viśvāmitra in which the latter lost his faith in the value of kṣatra-balaor physical prowess and decided to devote his life to the pursuit of brahma-bala or spiritual prowess), a great rishi, a sage par excellence who had attained the highest enlightenment, a man of the world of learning, a man of knowledge. For this reason, it may be surprising for some to know that both Sri Krishna and Vaśiṣṭha concur on the indispensability of both action and right knowledge for the seeker of moksha.

Both preceptors have categorized action into two classes: action in ignorance, and action in right knowledge. ‘Action in right knowledge’ is an action undertaken even afterright knowledge has dawned on the sādhaka, the seeker of moksha. Right knowledge is the realization that all, including the sādhaka himself, is Brahman – the Absolute, the undivided pure consciousness, the first principle.The attainment of such knowledge dissolves the illusion of the world of subject-object binary. And ‘action in ignorance’ is that category which encompasses all those actions that are undertaken without having attained right knowledge. In this connection, Sri Krishna has stated in the Bhagavad-Gita that “[A] person does not attain freedom from action by the non-performance of actions; nor does he attain fulfilment through mere renunciation.” (Bhagavad-Gita 3.4)

It is not possible to attain freedom from action by the non-performance of actions – sounds paradoxical, right? Furthermore, no less an authority than the Vedas state that theSaṁnyāsins renounce their homes and all other associated worldly affairs only to attain right knowledge, the Paramātman. What, then, is the utility of work, of any kind of action, for the sādhaka? Anticipating this query, Sri Krishna concludes his statement by saying “nor does he attain fulfilment through mere renunciation.” This is precisely where Sri Krishna starts laying down a solid ethic for the seeker. This ethic provides the seeker with a path to be followed,it helps him determine his attitude towards action.In other words, it enables him with the power to take decisions in the faceof uncertainty – the uncertainty that arises from a profound analysis of one’s very being, and as such it is an uncertainty of the most unsettling kind. It should be noted that this kind of uncertainty is not arisingdue to some external factors that often create obstructions on the path to success of an endeavour, of any endeavour. The specific uncertainty in this matter, which may perhaps be summarised by the phrase “to act, or not to act”, is of the nature of an apparently unsurmountable existential problem.

It has everything to do with the very nature of the ignorance which has prompted the seeker to seek moksha, in the first place. The ignorance which has created the apparent duality of subject and object for the seeker, is the same ignorance which misguides the seeker in his attempt to determine the means of achieving renunciation. For, as MadhusūdanaSarasvatī elucidates Sri Krishna’s statement in his commentary, “renunciation itself is not possible without purity of mind born of (selfless) actions. Even if it (saṁnyāsa) is somehow undertaken out of mere eagerness, it does not culminate in yielding its fruit.”Indeed,further light is shed on the matter by Sri Krishna by his immediately next utterance in the Bhagavad-Gita: “…no one ever remains even for a moment without doing work. For, all are made to work under compulsion by the guṇas born of Nature (Prakṛti).”

Therefore no one, not even the possessor of right knowledge, can remain without undertaking some form of action or another. This point, although it sounds contradictory, has been explained by Vaśiṣṭha in great detail in the Yoga Vāśiṣṭha. In it, Sri Rama – the young prince of Ayodhya – is the seeker of right knowledge, and he is perplexed by the same ethical dilemma, which he expresses in the form of a question to the venerable sage who is his preceptor. Sri Rama asks: what ills are begotten if a possessor of right knowledge, one who has been able to get rid of such false notions as ‘I’, ‘mine’ etc., goes on to undertake actions? And if he stops undertaking actions, what good does that bring about? He adds that, in his opinion, renouncing actions and undertaking actions are equivalentfor such a person, viz. one who has already attained right knowledge.

To answer Sri Rama’s question, Vaśiṣṭha first asks Sri Ramato explain what the young princeunderstands by karma, how karma thrives, what its roots are, and how to uproot karma. Sri Rama’s answer was incisive. But it was marked by a radical tendency to renounce all actions, radicalism being a characteristic of inexperienced youth. Sri Rama had duly prepared himself for this discourse (which makes up the bulk of the 32,000 śloka-long text composed by MaharṣiVālmīki) by embarking on pilgrimages and by undertaking contemplative reflections on the nature of the universe. Through those exercises, the young prince had come to the conclusion that the world is full of misery, and that actions give rise to bondages which keep the jīvas, or individual beings, wandering in the cycle of birth and death. He had therefore made up his mind to renounce the world as well as all actions.Accordingly, his answer to Vaśiṣṭha’s question reflected this attitude of renouncing actions. He described karma as a tree, and he likened the human body with the‘karma-tree’.

The accumulated karma from previous births, he explained, was the seed of that tree, which germinates in the saṁsāra. The various organs of the body were its branches, happiness and misery its fruits, youth its spring and maturity the ripe flowers. He described time as an insolent monkey, which despoils the tree every now and then.Old age was its autumn, at which season the karma-tree sheds its leaves in bulk; and slumber the onset of winter, when its issues (the various activities of the body and their results) are drawn inwards and assume the subtle or potential form.Finally he extended this analogy to offer a reply to Vaśiṣṭha’s question – as to what the roots of karma were – by likening the organs of action (the mouth, the hands, the legs, the genitalia and the rectum) as the root of karma which manifests itself as the tree of body. He further posited the sense organs (ears, eyes, nose, tongue and skin) as the roots of the organs of action. He explained that the embodied beings engage in actions under the influence of vāsanā-s, which were like the vast tracts of moist earth, the mire, in which the sense organs are for ever immersed.

Sri Rama further advanced his brilliant analogy to posit the mind as the root of the sense organs. He said that this expansive mind-root pervades the threefold world; and that it simultaneously draws unto itself and ejects the sap of infinite names and forms through the sense organs.He then determined the jīva as the root of mind. The jīva, he defined, was that state of the consciousness which runs after the objects of sense. It is the conditioned consciousness, whose foundation is the Pure Consciousness –which is the Primary Cause of all jīvasor all forms of conditioned consciousness, the First Principle, known as Brahman (neuter gender in the Sanskrit) the transcendental, which is not rooted in anything further, and is the infinite universal consciousness, of the nature of pure and whole Truth.

Thus, Sri Rama concluded his reply to Vaśiṣṭha’s questions, by stating that theconditioned consciousness is truly the seed of all actions. He said that as soon as the consciousness of the jīvagets conditioned by I-ness and starts identifying itself as the doer, it seems to have become the seed of actions and then it gives rise to the illusion of multifarious actions. Otherwise, it ever shines forth in its real nature as the transcendental First Principle, the Brahman. Thus, the body, according to young Sri Rama, was the manifested form of actions. He admitted his experience of restlessness despite his profound insight into the cause and nature of actions, misery, and the cycle of birth and death; and beseeching an ethic from the venerable sage, hedeclared:

Kindly tell me how, living in the world, one may not experience pain and pleasure. I have a firm conviction of the reality of the world. How to counter this conviction? How do the wise obtain peace and tranquillity within? If you do not have the solution, I shall then renounce everything and abandon my ego. I have nothing to do with this body. When I abandon all actions, my breath will naturally stop and my body will become inert (will die).

Thereafter the sage Vaśiṣṭhabegins his instruction. In response to Sri Rama’s powerful analysis of the karmic causallinks between the multiple levels of the being – wherein the prince traced the foundation of various manifested forms to the unmanifest, the Absolute – the great sage begins by pointing out that there has to be an ethic which would be capable of resolving the dilemma of ‘to act, or not to act’.The sage indicated that actions continue ceaselessly as long as the body lasts, and as such, there has to be a secret of being which would balance the necessity to renounce actions (in order to break the cycle of birth and death) with the imperative to perform actions (in order to maintain the body; for liberation is attainable only in the living body, and not otherwise).

To unfold this secret, Vaśiṣṭha embarks on a detailed ontological analysis of consciousness. He informs the young prince that it is the consciousness that takes the shape of all things, in accordance with its perceptions within and without the body, under the spell of error.The consciousness may falsely perceive something, but such falsehood does not deter it from taking the shape of that mistaken notion, and instantaneously that false perception appears as the real – simply because it has already taken a form, or a name, or both.If the consciousness does not perceive falsely, then it won’t fall in such errors. Notwithstanding whether such errors of the consciousness are real or unreal, it is clear that consciousness itself blossoms into such an error.

Call it vāsanā (longing arising from memory or past impressions), icchā (will), manas (mind), karma (actions), or saṁkalpa (idea), it is actually the consciousness which is called by various names, based on its specific contextual function.So long as the body lasts, Vaśiṣṭhaonce again emphatically reminds his pupil, the embodied being will have to live with the citta – or those functional distinctions of the ‘inner instrument’ just mentioned above – irrespective of whether the embodied being does or does not possess right knowledge. It is just not possible to get rid of the citta for the embodied being.

The question which then arises is: since life is inseparably accompanied by citta, how can we possibly renounce actions while we live?Vaśiṣṭha gives the solution: if one can get rid of the thought of all those objects which are signified by the word ‘action’, by constantly reminding oneself ‘I am unattached, indivisible, the highest consciousness’ and ‘I am non-doer’, then one can be established in one’s real nature of the self, known as the Atman.Therenunciation of the differentiated, or, the subject/object-duality-ridden idea (vikalpa) of action is of the same nature as renunciation of action.When the appearance that is the world stops being real, only then the non-existence of the world is realised. That realisation, Vaśiṣṭhainforms us, is the real discarding of citta; that is renunciation, and that is moksha in real terms. Knowledge, in the conditioned consciousness, acquires a tendency to move towards the objects of knowledge, giving rise to knowing, which is action. If that tendency is checked, then knowledge remains in its own unadulterated form, in its sva-rūpa, and that is neither knowledge nor action; in fact it cannot be anything but Brahman.


Bhagavad-Gitawith the GūḍhārthaDīpikā commentary by MadhusudanaSaraswati, Tr. by Swami Gambhirananda (1998), AdvaitaAshrama, Mayavati.

Yoga Vāśiṣṭha; Tr. into Bengali by ChandranathBasu (1911), Mahabharata Kāryalaya, Kolkata.

Yoga Vāśiṣṭha; Tr.into English by Dr R.M. Hari (2012), H.M. Damodar.

Centre For Indic studies