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Darsana Six - Verse Nine


Karma Darsana verse 9


In spite of action becoming self-accomplished

by the psychic dynamism and the senses,

the wise one thus knows – “I am the

unattached kutastha.”


Nataraja Guru’s translation:


By means of the inner organ and the senses

Actions become self-accomplished.

However, the wise man knows,

“I am the unattached, inner well-founded one.”

         Verse 9 goes to the heart of action in an enlightened sense, and as such is one of the most valuable lessons in all of Darsanamala. It isn’t just a simple formula that can be repeated and memorized (though Nataraja Guru’s version is perfect for doing just that), as that would compromise its unfettered spirit. By internalizing his wisdom in our own ways, Narayana Guru wants us to become independent operators, following our own intuition rather than being led like a flock of sheep, or as sometimes put, like lambs to the slaughter.

         Nitya sets out immediately to disabuse us of a popular binding fallacy:


In theistic religions we often hear people speak of carrying out or conforming to the will of God. Non-dualistic Vedanta is opposed to such a view. Vedantins do not philosophize in terms of a personalized God using people as instruments to carry out his will.


Though there is a certain validity to this kind of attitude, it has many pitfalls, including passivity and most dangerously, sly substitution of the ego’s program for the “will of God.” Without expert handling it can enable what Nitya epitomizes as “vicious or immoral” actions. At the present time they are exploding all around us. If for no other reason than to avoid this hazard, Vedanta steers clear:


The highest reality to the Vedantin of the monistic school is Brahman or the Absolute. The Absolute is not to be seen as a Being having desires, nor is it an agent who initiates action. Consequently, it cannot be said that the Absolute “wills” anything.


Nitya continues:


If Brahman or the Absolute is the only reality, then the existence of the world should be understood as a dependent factor of that Absolute. If the world has no independent reality of its own, then clearly its actions also should originate from a source other than itself. This reasoning brings us at once to a paradox. The world does not arise as an independent structure. The Absolute, by definition, must be the ground of all existence, but it does not engage in any action. The world cannot act – the Absolute does not act. From where then does action arise?


So action is impossible, and yet it is happening everywhere all the time. What gives?

         Deb started the ball rolling by asserting we don’t own action, it just happens. Our sense of ownership and control is illusory—if only we could understand it! Her sigh was an acknowledgment that this is much more challenging than adopting a belief. It has to somehow be lived.

         By “accident” I was drawn yesterday to the Gita’s tenth chapter, verse 36, where the Absolute is said to be the chance-risk of gamblers, among many other items on a long list. My commentary included a perfect excerpt by Herman Hesse, which throws a lot of light on the impossible conundrum of action. I read it out to get the discussion started, so I’ll include it here with my prior paragraph and a bit right after. I recommend reading the whole verse commentary, which you can find near the bottom of this page:


The interjection of gambling into the list has puzzled commentators, and legitimately so. Yet sannyasa, renunciation, a central theme of the Gita, is itself a kind of gamble. You have to cast yourself at the mercy of the good offices of the invisible. You don’t know where you are going or how you’re going to get there, but you set out nonetheless, hoping for the best. The opposite of this attitude is to hold back and try to channel your life through rational guidelines. The Gita is ever in favor of bravely launching forth to meet your fate. Little or nothing will be learned by hiding from the myriad possibilities life has to offer, whether cloaked in respectability or not. And as carefully as we craft a predictable existence, life has a way of turning the tables right at the moment we begin to feel secure. Upsetting the apple cart appears to be part of its educational program.

     Herman Hesse is one Western writer who grasps this idea. In Demian, first published in 1919, he offers this:


There was no duty for enlightened people, none, none, except this: to seek themselves, to become certain of themselves, to grope forward along their own path, wherever it might lead…. I had often played with images of the future, I had dreamt of roles that might be meant for me, as a poet, perhaps, or as a prophet, or as a painter, or whatever else. That was all meaningless. I didn’t exist to write poetry, to preach sermons, to paint pictures; neither I nor anyone else existed for that purpose. All of that merely happened to a person along the way. Everyone had only one true vocation: to find himself. Let him wind up as a poet or a madman, as a prophet or a criminal – that wasn’t his business; in the long run, it was irrelevant. His business was to discover his own destiny, not just any destiny, and to live it out wholly and resolutely within himself. Anything else was just a half-measure, an attempt to run away, an escape back to the ideal of the masses, conformity, and fear of one’s own inwardness. Fearsome and sacred, the new image rose up before me; I had sensed it a hundred times, perhaps I had already enunciated it, but now I was experiencing it for the first time. I was a gamble of Nature, a throw of the dice into an uncertain realm, leading perhaps to something new, perhaps to nothing; and to let this throw from the primordial depths take effect, to feel its will inside myself and adopt it completely as my own will: that alone was my vocation. That alone! (107-8)


Nataraja Guru has added the adjective ‘irresponsible’, which is only implied in the terms used, but it makes the puzzle even more delicious. If you’re responsible, you must not be really gambling. “Responsible behavior” is often the very thing risked in gambling. If your mother would approve, it takes all the fun out of it, not to mention the opportunities for evolutionary leaps.


This of course led us into a vivid discussion, since all our social conditioning militates against such a free and easy attitude. As Deb reminded us, Hesse lived in an extremely rigid time and an extremely rigid society, so it took a measure of intensity to break out of the mold. His time was not unlike ours. Repressed, uptight people abound now as well as then, and what looks like freedom is more often a desperate reactionary thrust against the bondage than true liberation. It’s important to know the difference.

         Somewhere along the line most of us have learned to equate “spiritual” behavior with being responsible, with being good. At the back of our minds, we assume being good will lead to all sorts of happy outcomes, and when it doesn’t we are disappointed and confused. It’s supposed to work! It’s supposed to save the world! This is a key difference between Eastern and Western religion and philosophy. Western religions are all about doing God’s will and thereby being good or godly. The so-called Eastern perspective is that balance is the key, a dialectical uniting of opposite tendencies. Rishis with this perspective are not surprised that being good automatically produces a counterthrust of being bad, and the better we are the worse it becomes. We learned this principle ourselves in the Bhana Darsana just prior to this one.

         Deb said that we think our behaviors will take us to the center, but we already are the center—implying that by over-managing our actions we are more likely to be creating a psychological schism than attaining unity. She mentioned a graduation speech by former President Obama, containing exactly the kind of message that is often included and agrees with the present idea: don’t think that you want to be X later on, just gravitate to what you love. The more you limit your focus, the more possibilities you omit. Love brings the enthusiasm to excel.

         To Jan this sounded a little like living on the edge, and from a “safe” perspective perhaps it is, but the edge is after all where life is fresh and vibrant, where new opportunities are born. Jan is presently wrestling with a very vital version of how to act with expertise, with several major life changes underway. Luckily she has practiced significantly during previous times of peace—a wise course for anyone, because staying grounded in the midst of chaos is no bed of roses.

         I shared an example that I hope is consoling for everyone. Over a half century ago, Deb was sent from her high school algebra class to look for math puzzles in the library. She didn’t like math and gravitated to the philosophy section next to it, where she picked up a book she had never heard of, the Bhagavad Gita. As she perused it she was puzzled by the apparent pro-war attitude, among other things. She put the book back with barely a thought and went on with her life.

         More than five years later, she and I were in Portland and she saw an advert in the newspaper for a class on the Gita given by some guy named Swami Nitya. Still baffled by what she had read so many years before, she determined to go to the class. I went along.

         It blows my mind to think that the most central feature of both our lives would almost surely not have happened if she hadn’t been drawn to that book in her high school library. One tiny incident, utterly unplanned, has expanded into a lifetime of unbelievably crucial experiences. It is like a big bang (actually a teensy bang) expanding into a universe. That’s the shape of life at its best.

         Moni told a similar story. As a young woman she went for a five-day retreat to the Ooty Gurukula at the behest of her parents. She had little idea what she was getting into, but that’s where she met Swami Nitya. Some time later Nitya asked her parents if she could accompany him as his assistant, and they agreed. She has been deeply connected with him and his world ever since.

         So how do we promote or nurture such unanticipated explosions, and how many ways do we, mostly unintentionally, dam up the river? Since we know virtually nothing, what do we have to go on?

         Karen suggested that trust was essential. Because we’re afraid of what an unpredictable outcome might be, we hold back. We don’t allow our potentials to take root. That’s exactly where trust or faith is needed. Oddly enough, I received a very nice essay entitled Trust Yourself just as I was writing this, from Melanya again:

         Deb added that learning acceptance was a natural corollary of trust. And if you can get to laughter, especially about your own foibles, you’ve really attained the requisite ease.

         Several people were reminded by this thread of the venerable horse parable ( where what seems initially good turns out badly and vice versa. The message is to not judge superficially, but simply observe how things play out. Almost every action has a mixture of positive and negative elements. The more we try to “steer” our actions, the farther away we get from unitive action.

         Nitya includes the Gita section where we are invited to see inaction in action and action in inaction, which is a powerful way of restraining our manipulative impulses. I’ll include a link to the section, along with a short teaser in Part II. What I described in class was more or less the same.

         As Jan said, such dialectical contemplations attain to the balance of synthetic awareness, harmonizing our actions. She even shared an example. Earlier in the day she had been thrashed by a negative voice in her head, but instead of giving in to it, she took herself in hand. She brought up an opposite postulation, and it helped her to calm down and become steady.

         Her tale got Paul to muse on just how powerful the ego is, and how it idolizes control. It never gives up without a fight! He has noticed that when he pretends to know what he’s doing, he actually doesn’t have any idea. The insight has taken the edge off a certain bull-headedness that just about anyone with an unrestrained ego is bound to experience. Wouldn’t it be nice if the ego were a bit more docile! Paul felt frustrated that achieving a yogic synthesis was such hard going. Yet both he and Jan have shown they have learned to not just give in to the ego’s ravings, but to bring them under benign control like gently taming a wild horse.

         I put in that we can’t achieve synthesis in isolation. While it may look like the goal we want, it isn’t arrived at by the normal linear methods. We have to do what Jan did: dispassionately observe our position and counter it with an opposing one. That’s the practical arena for doing our work, exactly where we have to be the “unattached, inner well-founded one.” Instead of wishing to be over and done with our dilemma, we have to assess where we are and intelligently determine what the counter-spell would be. When we do that, the synthesis, the unitive state of yoga, blossoms naturally, on its own.

         Nitya brings back maya as an instructive factor, inviting us to treat it as a kind of synthesis of opposites:


Vedantins do not place action as arising either in the Self or in the non-Self. Instead, they place it in the magical alternation that takes place in consciousness and call it maya.


Beverley in her digitizing of this verse has included the graphic Nitya refers to in giving another dialectic example:


Maya implies an alternation in comprehending the real and the unreal, just as we experience, for example, Edgar Rubin’s illustration of the gestalt of a white figure on a black background. When we concentrate on the black ground we see two faces looking at each other. If concentrate on the white figure, it becomes a vase. When one alternative is real, the other becomes unreal.






         Nitya often said that if something appeared exciting and then afterwards was repulsive, it was an indication of relativism or maya. By contrast, absolute values are eternally delightful. He gives another example here, speaking of two men, one with a love infatuation and the other obsessed with revenge:


Both love and hatred are powerful motivating forces. In each of these examples the time will very likely come when cool reason supervenes and passion diminishes. Then both agents will begin to question the validity of the attitude previously held to justify their actions. What previously was a consuming interest may well begin to seem mere stupidity. They will be ready to admit they acted as though possessed by some irrational spirit. It is the alternation of moods that makes an action at first seem to be worthy but afterwards seem to be worthless.


This reminded Karen of Hesse’s saying we shouldn’t care if we wind up “as a poet or a madman, as a prophet or a criminal,” that it’s irrelevant. She wondered if this meant that a madman or a criminal was simply fulfilling his dharma, and so we should endorse their behavior. This is a good and subtle point, and it embodies the fears we have about letting go. Might we become something we don’t approve of if we drop our guard? Better to be safe than sorry. Of course that’s a recipe for stagnation.

         My take is that we shouldn’t be using this advice to judge other people. It’s about finding ourselves, and criminality is a horizontal matter. What Hesse meant was that we shouldn’t have preconceived notions about our course of action, of where it will take us. We will only discover our dharma if we are open to everything. Once we start laying down conditions, we have killed the process. Where trust is most needed is of our self. We (and even more, Hesse’s peers) have been taught that we are sinners, untrustworthy and in need of redemption. For years we were directed to not trust ourselves, so we don’t. Yet if we get to know ourselves better, we might see the beauty and kindness that infuse our very being, and then we could more easily dispense with our inhibitory reservations.

         Vedantins characterize unitive action as action in tune with one’s dharma. Dharma, far from being a kind of duty, is attained when we live up to our destiny, much as Hesse described it. In another parallel with our Brihadaranyaka Upanishad study group, we just read this in Nitya’s comments on II.5.11:


This is the challenge of life. You have not only to know your dharma but also the situation in which the call of dharma comes and all those who are along with you in the fray. From the Supreme Self that belongs to all to the very tip of your nails, dharma has its way. You should be able to spread yourself, open up and be as extensive as this vast world of the cosmos. Then you should be able to gather yourself into the most efficiently functioning inner drive of the supervising monitor of your life. Every consideration should oscillate between the totality and the inclusion of yourself in it as the recipient of the gains of your dharma. Then all is well and good. (559)


The theme of including the full range of experience is also found in the present commentary:


Just as the concept of the Self ranges from the individual ‘I’ to blissful identity with the Absolute, so too the Self should be seen in another dimension. This ranges from the individual field of value-vision and interest to include the whole collective consciousness of all sentient beings.


All this churning reflection should make you want to take a deep breath, sit back, and exhale all the constrictive demands weighing heavily on your psyche. Relax. You are a soaring incarnation of bliss and beauty, and your universe is infinitely inviting. We are unsure what comes next, but it is bound to be fascinating and challenging, even thrilling. There is no need to identify with your constraints. Let yourself expand, infinitely. You will naturally come back to your circumscribed self, so you don’t have to force it. Let it be. Let it flow. Action will happen naturally, as needed. Everything is fine. And so, good night.


Part II

         Swami Vidyananda’s commentary:


The Self does not act, and if we say it is the inner organ and the senses that act because they are inert, they cannot accomplish actions as they are only the means of action. But if we examine how actions originate, we conclude that they are beginningless and automatic. Although all actions are accomplished by the presence of the Self, in reality the Self does not act at all. The Self remains apart and is well-founded. The man using the double process of dialectical reasoning (ha-apoha) knows this reality with certitude.


*         *         *


         Here’s a relevant snippet from ISOA:


In our own terminology, phenomenological reduction merely means the verticalization of the factual and empirically objective world ‘about us’ or ‘given to us’ in its horizontalized version. The intentional world is a more fluid one, or at least a finer and subtler one, with a thin and pure schematic status hidden behind fully factual appearances and brute realities. The phenomenologist retains within brackets the essential realities underlying facts. If the world of facts has a horizontal reference, the world proper to phenomenology gives primacy to a vertical reference. (345)


*         *         *


         The section of my Gita commentary IV.16-23 gives a lot of additional information about the integration of action and inaction. Check it out:

         Here’s a brief preview:


         A helpful technique is to meditate on the concept “I am not the doer.” When caught up in action, we can observe that it is happening and we are participating in it, but we are not the cause. We aren’t really doing anything. The ego has been trained to think of itself as the source of what we do, yet it is merely the final portal through which action passes, as it becomes actualized from its source inside to its expression in the world. Restraining the thought “I am the doer,” allows much more room for action to manifest in an excellent fashion.

         Schematically viewed, the vertical is inactive and the horizontal is active. The former incorporates our varied potentials, while the latter consists of the ones that have been promoted into existence. The intelligent seeker integrates the vertical with the horizontal elements, bringing each to bear on the other. They are not treated separately. The inaction of the vertical infuses every horizontal action, and the unfolding turbulence of horizontal events is unified and pacified by relating them to the steady state of the vertical.


*         *         *


         Another idea from the verse bears close scrutiny, and I’m doing that here because it didn’t fit well in Part I. Kutastha means firmly established, rock solid. In Vedanta it should imply connection with the ground of reality, the core or basis of all. Nitya presents it in another sense here:


In the individuated self are two aspects. One is pure consciousness, which is identical with the Self as existence, knowledge, and value sense. The other is a negative factor which remains crystalized (kutastha) as an embedded source of incipient memories or potentials. From this source various colorations and conditioned reflexes can arise to saturate and modify any item of awareness experienced in the dream or wakeful states.


I wonder if the editorial process might have miscarried, since we don’t usually think of the vasanas (incipient memories or potentials) as intrinsic to the ground. The text sounds like it presents kutastha as similar to the seedbed of vasanas and distinct from pure consciousness, where it normally means connected to the solidity of the Absolute.

         As Karen noted, being unattached and yet rock-solid is contradictory. Like inaction in action I suppose. But that is nonetheless the gist: if we are solidly grounded in the Absolute, it allows us to be much freer, much less attached to the vagaries of horizontal fates.

         I don’t think this is an intentional paradox designed to free our thinking, as is sometimes the case, but I can’t definitively say exactly what’s meant here. Normally I take kutastha as indicating a solid connection with the basis of our life, exactly the thing that we lose touch with when “various colorations and conditioned reflexes” arise. Here it is the source of those very things. It is definitely being used in a way that’s at variance from the verse itself. Something to ponder.


*         *         *


In another coincidence, Carlo Ravelli, in his delightful Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (New York: Riverhead Books, 2016), in describing the revelations of quantum theory, notes how the chance aspect of the Absolute relates to physics:


[The] interactive leaps with which each object passes from one place to another do not occur in a predictable way but largely at random. It is not possible to predict where an electron will reappear but only to calculate the probability that it will pop up here or there. The question of probability goes to the heart of physics, where everything had seemed to be regulated by firm laws that were universal and irrevocable. (18)



Scott Teitsworth