Action and Contemplation

Hinduism

Action and Contemplation
Friday, August 17, 2018

There are three major texts in Hinduism and Indian philosophy:

  • The Vedas are the most ancient Sanskrit writings (as much as three to four thousand years old) containing hymns, philosophy, guidance, and rituals.
  • The Upanishads—which means “what is learned sitting at the feet of”—are later (800-200 BCE), even more mystical texts which elaborate on many of the ancient themes. There are probably thirteen major and many minor Upanishads.
  • The Bhagavad Gita emerged in various translations from four centuries before Christ to four centuries afterward. It is an extended dialogue between Prince Arjuna, a warrior, and Lord Krishna, his charioteer. The 700 classic verses amount to an extended commentary on “action and contemplation.”

The Bhagavad Gita describes Lord Krishna, one of Hinduism’s central gods, as both this and that, totally immanent and yet fully transcendent, physical and yet formless, the deepest inner self and yet the Godself (Bhagavad Gita 10). Krishna has even been called “The Unknown Christ of Hinduism”—the same mystery of spirit and matter that we Western Christians, with our dualistic minds, struggled to put together in Jesus.

Krishna, like Jesus, also shows the integration of action and contemplation. The Gita does not counsel that we all become monks or solitaries. Rather, Lord Krishna tells Prince Arjuna that the true synthesis is found in a life-long purification of motive, intention, and focus in our world of action. The Gita calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery. How can we do “pure action”? Only by gradually detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God, Lord Krishna teaches.

Jesus says the same thing in several places (Mark 12:30, for example): “You shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus even counsels the same love toward the neighbor (Matthew 22:39). The only way to integrate action and contemplation is to go ahead and do your action, but every day to ask yourself why you’re doing it. Is it to make money? Is it to have a good reputation? Is it to keep busy? Or is it for the love of God? Then you will discover the true Doer!

Reflect on these passages from the Bhagavad Gita (4:18, 23-24):

The wise see that there is action in the midst of inaction,
and inaction in the midst of action.
Their consciousness is unified,
and every act is done with complete awareness.

When a man has let go of attachments,
when his mind is rooted in wisdom,
everything he does is worship,
and his actions all melt away.

God is the offering. God
is the offered, poured out by God;
God is attained by all those
who see God in every action.

In the Gita, Prince Arjuna is the noble individual soul (“Atman”), and Lord Krishna is the personification of the Divine (“Brahman”). Already in the ancient Vedas, Atman and Brahman were discovered to be one, at least in a foundational sense. This is exactly as Jesus proclaimed when he said, “I and the Father are One” (John 10:30). Teresa of Ávila begins her journey through The Interior Castle by proclaiming God’s castle and chosen dwelling is precisely “the beauty and amplitude of the human soul.” [1] This is without doubt the true Perennial Wisdom Tradition.

Reference:
[1] Teresa of Ávila, The Interior Castle, Mirabai Starr, trans. (Riverhead Books: 2003), 36.

Image Credit: A Hindu Woman in Yoga Asana Meditation (detail), Lucia Puertas, 2010, river Ganges, Varanasi, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Bhagavad Gita does not counsel that we all become monks or solitaries. Rather, the true synthesis is found in a life-long purification of motive, intention, and focus in our world of action. The Gita calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery. How can we do “pure action”? Only by gradually detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God. —Richard Rohr

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