The Yoga of Activity

The Problem of Anxiety

Most men are insensible when they rest, and mad when they act. – Vatican Saying 11

This little-noticed Vatican Saying goes to the heart of the issues addressed by the practice of the yoga of activity. In other words, the Bhagavad Gita may help us to understand what issues this saying was trying to address, and may help us to study this saying by contrasting Epicurean methods and prescriptions versus those of Eastern religion and other schools. For the sake of clarity, I looked up the definition of insensible and found this:

without one’s mental faculties, typically a result of violence or intoxication; unconscious.

(especially of a body or bodily extremity) numb; without feeling.

The Monadnock translation says: “For most people, to be quiet is to be numb and to be active is to be frenzied.” And so the problem here is framed as generalized anxiety in most of the population. People generally lack the ability of enjoying inaction by abiding in mindful, pleasant, unperturbed serenity, and when they engage in action they tend to also lose their peace of mind easily. This Vatican Saying, therefore, seems to illuminate the preoccupation with one’s attitude or disposition (diathesis) in Diogenes of Oenoanda, Philodemus of Gadara, and other sources.

The first thing we should acknowledge is that remaining at ease while being active–whether in work, family, or other projects–can be a balancing act. Most people might benefit from training themselves to be involved in activity without stress and confusion, to be like the eye of the storm, calm in the midst of chaos. We may initially be tempted to articulate the goal of this training as steady mindfulness and happiness, regardless of the work or activity one is doing. Is this possible, or desirable?

Also, is Buddha’s right-livelihood precept an answer to this? We must remember that many Buddhist doctrines were direct answers to Hindu doctrines that Siddhartha Buddha contended with. For example: killing for a living, working in a sweatshop, or in the military, etc. might be considered wrong livelihood from a Buddhist perspective. In the Epicurean tradition, on the other hand, Philodemus in On the Art of Property Management listed various professions of his day that led to a pleasant life, and various that impeded it. And so this question of existential angst concerning work, and action in general, has long been considered by thinkers–long before Marx–, as it is clear that activity in general, and livelihood in particular, have strong correlations with one’s stress levels and ability to be happy.

Before we delve into Krishna’s prescription for a yoga of activity, we should go back to the basics and consider how an Epicurean avoids action void of meaning or purpose via applying hedonic calculus as described in the middle portion of the Epistle to Menoeceus. In other words, we can neutralize the meaninglessness and angst created by our activity if we recognize the pleasure we gain at the end of our toil. Efforts and actions only make sense if they produce greater pleasure than pain over the long term, and so all activity should be activism for a life of pleasure. Now let’s contrast this with Krishna’s way of conferring meaning to action.

Krishna’s Prescription: Turn Mindful Activity into a Yoga

Early in the third chapter of the Gita, which focuses on Karma Yoga, we read:

One who restrains the senses and organs of action, but whose mind dwells on sense objects, certainly deludes himself and is called a pretender. – BG 3:6

Here, Krishna criticizes those who are active but mindless, saying they are hypocrites, and implies by this that mindful action is recommended, that we should be fully present in every activity we engage in. We are beginning to see Krishna’s prescription concerning being active and pragmatic in the world. But, before I move on, I’d like to clarify the definition and meaning of karma, which simply means action but today typically evokes the idea of reincarnation.

Karma is tied to cause and effect. We, like all things, are in a constant process of becoming. We are the effects of people and events that came before us, and we are the cause of our future selves and future realities. This is fair enough. But in Hindu doctrine, this idea of our entanglement is tied to a belief in reincarnation. If we strip away this aspect, karma (which, again, simply means action in Sanskrit) can be a useful word, and a useful field of ethical study. Or, we could simply use the word action itself. However, as it is often used in the Gita–where karmic entanglement is tied to the cycles of reincarnation–karma generates confusion. Taken as a natural process, karmic entanglement (the entanglement of our actions) is completely normal, and is something we must pay attention to in our choices and avoidances.

By saying “Think of Me” (while you act) in the Gita, Krishna is saying that all action should be approached with a relational, happy attitude, and that the benefits of bhakti (or devotion) can shift the mood or attitude with which we engage in activity. This is why his movement is today called Krishna Consciousness, as it posits that one can create a portable paradise by engaging in activity with a certain attitude. In addition to engaging in activity while in wholesome association (whether it is Krishna or great friends), I’ve found that using music (as the Hare Krishnas often do) in order to make work feel less burdensome and more fun is also a great way to achieve productivity without anxiety. For instance, when I play happy music I tend to enjoy house chores and they do not feel like chores, and some work environments also report greater productivity and better mood among workers as a result of music.

In trying to understand the psychology behind karma yoga, we must note that it seems like not wanting or caring about the fruits of our actions is a matter of motivation, of attitude–again, diathesis (disposition). The point of being mindful of our craving, yearning, or desires while we act it not that we should avoid virtuous ambition. It seems like the challenge to engage in action without attachment might be, among other things, an attempt by yogis to achieve action with ease and confidence, and without anxiety.

One way to achieve this action with ease, with a non-craving attitude, that the Gita recommends is via turning all action into devotional practice. BG 3:9 says that people should offer all actions as oblations or sacraments to Spirit,  and BG 3:13 says that people should only eat prasadam–food that has been offered to God. We must consider here also the psychology of sacrifice. The word sacrifice comes from Latin, and originally means “to make sacred“. If actions are seen and experienced as sacrifice, they become sacred, they are consecrated. So what Krishna means here is that action must be offered to a cause or else they lack meaning, and this meaning is redemptive, it helps to make them feel pointless.

BG 3:14-16 continues the idea of food offered as prasadam, and these verses are superstitious, but they do raise the question of what we are doing to acquire our food. Are we stealing? Working? What are we taking, and what are we giving back to nature and society? These considerations are entirely contextual, but might raise further questions about the entanglements (ecological or otherwise) that we generate with some of the actions that we most take for granted.

Actionlessness is Impossible

According to BG 18:11, one can’t actually be inactive. Therefore, true renunciation means that one relinquishes the fruit of action. In other words, “renouncing the world” as ascetics wish to do is impossible. IN BG 3:33, Krishna says that even the wise act according to nature, therefore we shouldn’t suppress our nature (VS 21 contains a parallel saying).

In BG 3:4-5, Krishna says that actionlessness is impossible because nature is constantly in motion, and later verse 8 says that we can’t even keep our body without action: we must eat, protect ourselves, etc. The bacteria in our guts and other bodily functions exhibit action while we sleep. We are reminded of Sri Buddha, who nearly died from emaciation while meditating with ascetics. When a girl offered him a bit of rice, he then and there realized that the ascetic path was unnecessary, and began to teach the “middle way“.

Spirit as Enforcer of Labor

In the book De l’inhumanité de la Religion, Raoul Vaneigem posits that a study of the history of religion as it relates to labor relations reveals the deployment of Spirit (or God) as the enforcer of labor. This makes religion look dehumanizing and exploitative. For this, he cites the early Biblical curse upon man concerning labor.

Through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life … By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.  – Genesis 3:17-19

The author’s criticism is valid, and too important to ignore. What the author did not mention–perhaps because of unfamiliarity with the caste system in India–is that this is also true in the East, and particularly in the Bhagavad Gita–which even includes a similar passage to the Bible saying that people can only prosper through sacrifice (BG 3:10-12). Here, we see how Spirit is not only the enforcer of labor, but even the enforcer of hereditary castes or social classes, and even prescribes specific roles and duties to each class (BG 18:41-44) according to the gunas, or inherent tendencies in human nature and in all of nature.

You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty. – BG 2:47

In BG 2:49, we also read that desiring the fruits of one’s action is selfish and sinful, and in BG 3:22-24 and 5:8-9 Krishna claims to do all things, so that a yogi should think “I myself do nothing“. In other words, it is implied that God, or nature, does all things and that people are puppets of nature’s drives, which again produces alienation from the fruits of one’s work. Consider what this does for capitalism: it blesses the alienation that workers must feel when the fruit of their labor is appropriated by the capitalist, and turns it into piety.

After assigning duties to each caste, the Bhagavad Gita (18:47-48) says that doing one’s own duty even with errors is better than doing other people’s duties, even if well accomplished. This means that fundamentalist Hindus must ignore the pragmatic realities of the skill-sets, education, and natural abilities of people in strict obedience of taboos related to social class. Today, many progressive Hindus re-interpret the caste doctrine as meaning that people should act according to their inherent nature, but in very traditional villages still today, and in the original writings, castes are hereditary.

Interestingly, the Gita (3:17-18) says that the yogi who has gained direct insight into his real nature, is so self-sufficient that he’s exempt from these divinely and societally imposed duties.

One who is, however, taking pleasure in the self, who is illumined in the self, who rejoices in and is satisfied with the self only, fully satiated—for him there is no duty.

A self-realized man has no purpose to fulfill in the discharge of his prescribed duties, nor has he any reason not to perform such work. Nor has he any need to depend on any other living being.

This may be a contradiction, or it may be saying that some rules apply to some, and other rules to others. Clearly, we in the West do not live in a society where clear, hereditary duties, responsibilities and roles are imposed to most of us from birth, and when–due to religious indoctrination or familial traditions–this is the case, individuals can often (at some personal cost to themselves) emancipate themselves from these family traditions.

Action and Mentorship

Without work, human civilization would be a jungle of disease, famine, and confusion. If all the people in the world were to leave their material civilizations and live in the forests, the forests would then have to be transformed into cities, else the inhabitants would die because of lack of sanitation. On the other hand, material civilization is full of imperfections and misery. What possible remedy can be advocated? – from Paramahansa Yogananda’s introduction to his translation of the Bhagavad Gita

Having critiqued and evaluated the merit of Krishna’s prescription for mindful activity, and proposed an Epicurean alternative in hedonic calculus, I wish to recognize that–if one’s choice of livelihood passes hedonic calculus–there can indeed be virtue in work, that it can lead to fulfilment and happiness and be done without anxiety, that man can create value through effort, and that a man can come to deserve great things and prove himself through labor. Also, there are activities that are particularly auspicious.

Whatever action is performed by a great man, common men follow in his footsteps. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues. – BG 3:20-21

This continues in verses 25-26 with an appeal to Arjuna to act as mentor and as exemplary to other soldiers. Like Confucius, Krishna also stresses the importance of mentors, saying that what superior beings do, inferior ones imitate because it is natural to want to imitate those who are in some way better than we are. As we learned in the discussion of Arjuna’s existential angst, the Gita’s teachings are for a kind of higher man, and the higher man sets or chooses a model of action for others–but must also embody that model. This is an anti-corruption measure for society, and appears to be one of the goals of the writers of the Gita.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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