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Which actions must one never renounce?
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
12 min
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यज्ञदानतप:कर्म न त्याज्यं कार्यमेव तत्।

यज्ञो दानं तपश्चैव पावनानि मनीषिणाम्।।5।।

yajña-dāna-tapaḥ-karma na tyājyaṁ kāryam eva tat

yajño dānaṁ tapaśh chaiva pāvanāni manīṣhiṇām

The work of Yagna, gift, and austerity should not be relinquished, but it should indeed be performed; (for) Yagna, gift, and austerity are purifying to the wise.

~ Chapter 18, Verse 5

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एतान्यपि तु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा फलानि च।

कर्तव्यानीति मे पार्थ निश्चितं मतमुत्तमम्।।6।।

etāny api tu karmāṇi saṅgaṁ tyaktvā phalāni cha

kartavyānīti me pārtha niśhchitaṁ matam uttamam

But even these works, O Partha should be performed, leaving attachment and the fruits, such is My best and certain conviction.

~ Chapter 18, Verse 6

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नियतस्य तु सन्न्यास: कर्मणो नोपपद्यते।

मोहात्तस्य परित्यागस्तामस: परिकीर्तित:।।7।।

niyatasya tu sannyāsaḥ karmaṇo nopapadyate

mohāt tasya parityāgas tāmasaḥ parikīrtitaḥ

But the renunciation of obligatory action is not proper. Abandonment of the same from delusion is declared to be Tamasika.

~ Chapter 18, Verse 7

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दु:खमित्येव यत्कर्म कायक्लेशभयात्यजेत्।

स कृत्वा राजसं त्यागं नैव त्यागफलं लभेत्।।8।।

duḥkham ity eva yat karma kāya-kleśha-bhayāt tyajet

sa kṛitvā rājasaṁ tyāgaṁ naiva tyāga-phalaṁ labhet

He who from fear of bodily trouble relinquishes action, because it is painful, thus performing a Rajasika relinquishment, he obtains not the fruit thereof.

~ Chapter 18, Verse 8

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कार्यमित्येव यत्कर्म नियतं क्रियतेऽर्जुन।

सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा फलं चैव स त्याग: सात्त्विको मत:।।9।।

kāryam ity eva yat karma niyataṁ kriyate ‘rjuna

saṅgaṁ tyaktvā phalaṁ chaiva sa tyāgaḥ sāttviko mataḥ

When obligatory work is performed, O Arjuna, only because it ought to be done, leaving attachment and fruit, such relinquishment is regarded as Sattvika.

~ Chapter 18, Verse 9

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Questioner (Q): Sir, it’s being said, “Renunciation of obligatory action is not proper.”

What is meant by ‘obligatory action’? Is Shri Krishna talking about my social responsibilities or something else?

Acharya Prashant (AP): No. First of all, the English word ’obligatory’ is not quite proper. Shri Krishna says, “Niyat Karma. Niyatam Karma Kuru.” A more befitting word would be ’destined action’, not ’obligatory action’. It is not ‘Nirdharit Karma’ (pre-ordained or pre-determined action), it is ‘Niyat Karma’. It’s not quite an obligation. It is the only real option. It is your destiny.

You are being advised to do that which your destiny has anyway pre-ordained. What is it that has been pre-ordained for you by your destiny? Social responsibilities? Familial responsibilities? Following the code of your sect, cult or religion? Following the dictates of your desires and fancies? Is that your destiny? Nobody in his right senses would agree to this.

Destiny is the end. Destiny is the final point for the sake of which we all exist and keep moving. What is it that we finally want? Where is it that we ultimately want to reach? That is destiny, obviously. Destination, the end, the summit, the culmination, the total fulfillment, absolute completion—all these points towards destiny.

So, what is it that we are moving towards? Look at any human being, any conscious being. What is it that they ultimately want?

We keep wanting, right? What is the ultimate want? Here is a hint. If the want is really final and ultimate, then it would leave you with no residual or next want. So, we want to reach the end of wanting. We want completion, fulfillment in such a final way that we are left with nothing to want anymore. That’s the destination. That’s what all spiritual process is aimed at. A peace, contentment so absolute that you are left with no trace of incompleteness, bitterness, hope, future, desire. That’s destiny. That’s a destiny because if we don’t reach it, we will keep moving. How can you stop if you are still discontented? How can you stop if you are still unfulfilled? You will have to continue your movement just as it has continued since time eternal.

So, if that is destiny, what is ‘destined action’, ‘Niyat Karma’? Destiny is the end of all Karma. Then, what is ‘Niyat Karma’? What is ‘destined action’? Go into it. You have to act in a way that brings you to your destiny, and destiny is the end of both the actor and action. But destined action is the action that brings you to your destiny, and it can bring you to your destiny only when such action is guided by destiny alone.

You see, whosoever guides or dictates your action would make you act in a way that suits the guide, in a way that fulfills the aspirations and matches the character of the guide, right? If you are to reach your destiny, then can miscellaneous forces of Prakriti (material nature) be the right guide for your movement? If miscellaneous forces are guiding you, they will direct you towards miscellaneous destinations. Isn’t that obvious?

If you are to reach your destiny, then only your destiny can guide you. And if your destiny is Truth, then only Truth can guide you towards Truth; only Truth can illuminate your path towards the Truth. Therefore, your destined action is to get rid of your falsenesses. Act in a way, inspired by the Truth, that you hack down the shackles of your falseness. If your destiny is Freedom, then you have to act in a way that negates your bondages. That’s what Niyat Karma is.

Niyat Karma has been widely and grossly misinterpreted and misrepresented. People have said Niyat Karma is ‘obligatory action’, which means you have to do things that the society expects of you or stuff that your culture expects of you, or you have to engage in particular types of behavior or conduct. And that they have named as the ‘obligatory action’.

It is not, obviously. Your obligation is towards no one except Krishna. Is that not the essence of the Gita? Even if you are to engage in obligatory action, who is it that you are obliged to? Are you obliged to the priest, and the pastor, and to all the runners of the society? Is it to them that you are obliged? What is it that you really owe to them? Nothing. Then how can you be obliged to them? All that you owe to yourself is your Freedom. And you heavily owe that to yourself, don’t you? You are indebted to yourself. That’s your obligation if we are to talk the language of obligation at all. That is your only obligation.

Your only obligation, in other words, is to reach your destination. That’s your only responsibility. You are not indebted to anybody else in any serious way. Yes, there are superficial obligations and debts that you must keep settling. That’s fine. But all that cannot be taken too seriously. Even if those debts are settled fully, still you would be as deeply mired in misery as you currently are.

Let’s say, you owe a couple of lakhs (hundred-thousands) to someone. Let’s say, there are certain functions to be performed in the family, and you feel responsible for them. Let’s say, you have to provide for somebody’s education. Let’s say, you feel that it is very important for you to get somebody married off. And let’s say that you are able to take care of all these obligations. Now, where does that put you? In a very sweet and sacred spot? Are you joyful and contended now?

The one you wanted to marry off has been married off. The loans that you needed to settle have been settled. The house that you wanted to build has been built. All the obligations that you could think and dream of have indeed now been taken care of—where does that leave you? Free? Liberated?

So, fine. It’s a part of the drama of life that you keep settling some dues. There are no free lunches. If you just have enjoyed a full meal somewhere, it is obligatory upon you to settle the bill. It’s alright. Keep doing all those things. But, those things can’t be taken very seriously, because they aren’t seriously going to take you to your destination. To go to your destination, your internal compass has to be aligned in a very different way. It has to be aligned to a very different field.

Even while performing your so-called daily routine, you have to constantly keep thinking, “How are my actions directed towards my Liberation?” See, you cannot stop certain actions. You will get up, you will take bath, you will brush your teeth, you’ll have food, you’ll need some clothes, you’ll talk to people, you’ll need sleep, right? All those things are there. The question is, “Those things are indispensable, but have I aligned those actions with the greater direction of my Liberation?”

Being a human being, you will walk—but which direction are your legs taking you? Being a human being, you will talk—but who is it that you are talking to? Being a human being, you will eat—but how really have you earned your bread? In whose company are you breaking your bread? Those are the questions that you seriously need to answer. Those are the questions that will decide whether you are doing your Niyat Karma.

Niyat Karma, I repeat, is not about sticking to a particular code of pre-decided conduct. Niyat Karma is a very lively and dynamic thing. Every moment you have to be alert and conscious. Every moment you have to keep asking yourself, “This action that I am doing, this decision that I’m taking, is it leading me towards Liberation, or have I given in to my ego? Where is this coming from, and hence, what is it taking me towards?”

In the middle of all your daily miscellaneous actions, keep asking yourself, “What is the sum total of all of this? What’s the net result? Am I getting lost in the maze of the thousand little things that happen to me daily, or have I remained the insight to see what the resultant, the net resultant of my entire day is?” And there are a thousand little things that happen to everybody every day. Don’t they? The important thing is to keep the resultant in mind. “What’s the sum total of all of this?”

Giving undue importance to something micro, something trivial is quite tempting. And equally tempting is to give little importance to that which deserves tremendous attention. The little things we do every day, I repeat, are unavoidable. What is, however, possible, is to align them to the one great thing that we live for. The man living badly sleeps wakes up, walks, eats, talks, works, sleeps. And the man living rightly sleeps wakes up, walks, eats, works, sleeps. They all do the same things ostensibly.

Seen from a distance, apparently, both are just living and acting. But go closer and pay attention, and you will find that there’s a great difference between talking and talking, eating and eating, earning and earning, walking and walking. Gautama Buddha was walking the jungles. So were a thousand robbers. Right? And an uninitiated eye would not spot the difference.

So, one fellow just walked past me. He was Gautama Buddha. Then, there is another fellow who walked past me. He’s a robber. They are the same because both are just walking. But there is a great difference between walking and walking. When Gautama Buddha is walking, his walk is aligned with his destiny; his walk is being controlled now by something beyond the ego. And when the robber is walking, his steps, his walk is being commanded by something very trivial.

That’s the difference. That alignment is extremely important. And ‘alignment’ is a modern and moderate word. In classical spirituality, this alignment of your daily life with your ultimate purpose is called ‘surrender’. You do whatever you do, but you surrender it to an ultimate purpose.

So, you do speak. You do shout. You do standstill. And you do run hard. You do all those things. But all those things are now being done at the command of something far bigger than your limited interests, your limited ego. That is called Niyat Karma. Never be confused again.

Niyat Karma is not what the elders have decided for you. Niyat Karma is not what the traditions have decided for you.

Niyat Karma is that which takes you to your dissolution, which is your destiny, which is your desire ultimate. Born a human being, you will have to act. Act rightly. Act for the right purpose. Live for the right end. That alone is the right life.

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