Where is the meaning of "inaction in action and action in inaction" in Bhagavadgita 4.18 ?

karmany akarma yah pasyed akarmani ca karma yah sa buddhiman manusyesu > sa > yuktah krtsna-karma-krt

Word for word: karmani — in action; akarma — inaction; yah — one who; pasyet — observes; akarmani — in inaction; ca — also; karma — fruitive action; yah — one who; sah — he; buddhi-man — is intelligent; manusyesu — in human society; sah — he; yuktah — is in the transcendental position; krtsna-karma-krt — although engaged in all activities.

Translation: One who sees inaction in action and action in inaction is intelligent among men, and he is in the transcendental position, although engaged in all sorts of activities.


  • Read verse 3.27 – Pandya Apr 20 '16 at 7:21
  • This might help: “Activity and rest are two vital aspects of life. To find a balance in them is a skill in itself. Wisdom is knowing when to have rest, when to have activity, and how much of each to have. Finding them in each other - activity in rest and rest in activity - is the ultimate freedom.” ― Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Celebrating Silence: Excerpts from Five Years of Weekly Knowledge 1995-2000 – Amit Saxena Apr 20 '16 at 12:04

Here is a better understanding of the verse. I would like to start with an analogy.

Inaction in action: Unattachment amidst Action

Suppose a person is taking his food and we request him to listen to a story simultaneously. So, we would say "Listen to the story while eating" or an act of "listening in eating" is requested. This way, we urge him to listen without interrupting his eating. Similarly Sri Krsna preaches "Inaction in action" which means Inaction or unattachment should be fully practised right during the action. In other words, it is desirable that unattachment be practised while the cause of the attachment (action) is in progress. Working with sense of ownership and practising unattachment after the action is just not sufficient.

Action in Inaction: Action amidst Unattachment

Now let us suppose that the same person is listening to a story and we request him to take food simultaneously. So, this time an act of "eating in listening" is requested. Now, what does Lord mean here when he preaches "Action in Inaction"? He means that one should take up an action amidst this state of Inaction. In other words, one should already be in a state of unattachment when one takes up an action.

And such a man who stays unattached amidst action and performs action amidst unattachment is declared as the intelligent among men. He is well unattached although doing all sorts of activities.

And unsurprisingly, very similar ideal of Karma yoga was discussed by Swami Vivekananada when he was lecturing on Karma yoga. Here (Karma Yoga -> Karma in its Effect on Character) are his words:

The ideal man is he who, in the midst of the greatest silence and solitude, finds the intensest activity, and in the midst of the intensest activity finds the silence and solitude of the desert. He has learnt the secret of restraint, he has controlled himself. He goes through the streets of a big city with all its traffic, and his mind is as calm as if he were in a cave, where not a sound could reach him; and he is intensely working all the time. That is the ideal of Karma-Yoga, and if you have attained to that you have really learnt the secret of work.

The verse by the God and lecture by Swamiji look very similar. And it seems easy to follow what God means by "Inaction" is nothing but "greatest silence and solitude" in Swamiji's words.

Therefore, as we see that in first case Lord means that unattachment should be practised while the action is in process. And in second case, He means that action should be started amidst a state of already-in-unattachment. This way, the Lord preaches to be in state of unattachment all the time.


Many of the Gita verses are strongly or weakly inter-linked to each other. This verse is 1 among them.

BG 4.17 - One who sees inaction (Akarma) in action (Karma) and action (Karma) in inaction (Akarma), is wise among men. [S]He is united (in yoga), [despite] doing all actions (Karma-s).

The root of many Gita verses (including this & famous "karmanye vAdhika..") resides in below verse:

BG 3.27 — All actions (karma-s) are enacted in Prakruti by [3] modes (guna-s). Bewildered with ego (false identity), [true] self (Atma) believes "I am the doer".

That means, when the consciousness is bound by 3 modes, it acts in following way (BG 14.5 to 14.9):

  • When SAtvik, it performs NishkAma Karma or Sat-Karma; Here it doesn't worry about any reactions (fruits of action); This gives bliss & knowledge; Leads to higher planes
  • When RAjasika, it performs SakAma Karma; Here it performs action with desire for fruits (or reactions); It can be positive, negative or mixed; This keeps oneself within humanly worlds
  • When TAmaskia, it performs Vikarma; Such actions are performed under ignorance and often leads to hellish regions

Now all the above 3 modes, binds the consciousness into material nature.
What doesn't bind is:

  • In Yoga (or SAmkhya), it performs Akarma or attains NishkarmatA; Here the consciousness surrenders the sense of "doership" itself

Note that, SAtvika & Yogic situations seems very similar. But in reality, there is a thin difference between "NishkAma Karma" and "NishkharmatA (Akarma)". That is "doership without reactions" and "no doership at all".

So naturally one thinks, "if Yoga is about 'no doership', then let me not do anything. By this I will achieve NishkarmatA.".
That's a right argument which leads to SannyAsa (retirement from actions). But, SannyAsa reduces the number of choices of actions, Not the number of actions itself. SannyAsa helps some people by creating less confusion by less choices (entropy). But one doesn't necessarily attain NishkarmatA or Akarma by opting for sannyAsa:

BG 3.4, 3.5 — By not starting Karma, [the state of] 'not doing (NishkarmatA)' is Not achieved by consciousness (Purusha); and Retirement (SannyAsa) really doesn't result in way to liberation(samAdhi). Anyone for a moment doesn't sustain by generating only "inaction" (Akarma); All have to act(Karma) under control of [3] modes born out of nature (Prakruti).

For "why-s" on this topic, refer: How do the scriptures describe an ideal Sanyasi?

Now we have a good platform to understand the actual verse in question.

Wise sees action(Karma) in inaction(Akarma):
If someone opts for "not doing something", then actually one is doing something already, by "opting" for it! The body acts in its own tendencies all the times, by breathing, seeing, walking, talking etc.. Mere "thinking" is also a Karma. As soon as I "think": 'I won't do anything', I failed by doing the action of "thinking".

Wise sees inaction(Akarma) in action(Karma):
An intelligent person knows that, all actions are performed by 3 modes material nature (BG 3.27). Whatever I did, doing & will do, is predetermined. Hence, such yogi is completely uninterested in worldly matters, while still being aware & doing all activities, seemingly interested. That's how the consciousness is fixed into the supreme.


When "I" perform an action either without caring of reactions (Sattva) or desiring reactions (Rajas) or ignorantly (Tamas), "I" am still attached to either consciousness or mind or body. Because, I am showing "concern" to the choices.
If none of them, then "I" disappears or in other words, "I" merges with supreme "I".

Weak analogy: If I play "Super Mario" video game, then after a while, will start thinking that "I am Mario" and would relate with his all right, wrong, random acts, his distress & his winning. If that Mario goes in Yoga, then he will know that whatever is happening with me is preordained. Not only that, "I" am not the one which "I" am thinking so far. "I am a different 'I'"!


"A person acting in Krishna Consciousness is naturally free from the bonds of karma. His activities are all performed for Krishna; therefore he does not enjoy or suffer any of the effects of work". - Srila Prabhupada Bhagavad Gita As-it-Is Chapter 4 Text 18

Srila Prabhupada always would note how it is impossible to do nothing. At any time the mind is active even while the body is at rest.1

Even the Bhuddhist meditation of quieting the mind or stopping the mind2 is action. It is impossible to forever stop the mind. Meditation may stop the flow of thoughts for some time, maybe one minute maybe an hour, but the flow of thoughts always returns.

On the converse, when the body is in motion perhaps running, the mind may be at rest.1

The external appearance of the individual can not be used to determine the state of the soul in the heart.

Spirit and matter are two separate energies.

This verse is sort of the nature of those Confucian Chinese Proverbs.3

Basically if one is engaged in Krishna Consciousness the actions (karmas) have little overall concern on the souls service to Krishna.

When one is in service to Krishna, the service can be executed in the mind, in the heart, or with the feet, voice, ears, nose, or tongue.

Silence does not always mean lack of sound. Darkness does not always mean lack of light.4

The soul is transcendental to material nature.

Source Reference:

1Morning Walk - Delhi - March 25, 1976, 20th minute:

"Prabhupāda: You are independent of mind always. It is your mind. You are not mind.

Puṣṭa Kṛṣṇa: Yes.

Prabhupāda: Then you are independent of mind always."

21975 Conversations and Morning Walks: Morning Walk June 10th, 1975, Honolulu, 33rd minute:

"Siddha-svarūpa: You see? They're saying that perfection is no motion. They're saying that perfection is inactivity. So they already have in their mind what they think is perfect, and then they're going to see if this method helps a person to achieve calmness or whatever they're calling perfection.

Prabhupāda: That is that Buddha philosophy, nirvana. Nirvāṇa, stop all activities. Buddha philosophy.

3The Confucian Gita?:

"2.47: (Barbara Stoler Miller trans.) 'Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action; avoid attraction to the fruits and attachment to inaction!' This strikes me as a Confucian point."

4Lecture on CC Adi-lila 7.108 -- San Francisco, February 18, 1967, 24th minute:

"Ravindra-svarūpa: If the brahma-jyotir is in the spiritual sky, how could we reach it in our mind? Is it in our mind also?

Prabhupāda: It is here also. Just like the sunshine, when it is covered by cloud, the sunshine is also there. Do you follow? You see that the sky is covered, but still you say, "It is day." Why? The sunshine is there. Similarly, brahma-jyotir is here also. Sarvaṁ khalu iti brahma: "Everything is Brahman," but it is covered by māyā. Therefore the full-fledged brahma-jyotir, you cannot see.

Ravindra-svarūpa: I thought it [the brahma-jyotir] was a place that was far away.

Prabhupāda: Yes. It is... Just like above the cloud there is sunshine, fully. We have seen it in an aeroplane. This airlines, U.S. airlines, they say, "Friendly skies." So go to the friendly sky. Why do you remain here, nonsense sky, always covered with cloud? Go to the friendly sky. Just go above the cloud. The cloud is māyā. Go above the māyā. Then you see. You are seeing already, but it is not full-fledged experience. Everything we are seeing. We have experienced God's power, God's energy. But because we are in ignorance, therefore we cannot conceive perfectly. And as soon as you are above the māyā... Māyām etāṁ taranti te (BG 7.14). That māyā you can, I mean to say, surpass simply by Kṛṣṇa consciousness. As you become full-fledged Kṛṣṇa conscious, oh, then you see always brahma-jyotir and Brahman and Kṛṣṇa and everything."

  • Thank you @TheDestroyer. I was assuming that the proper source reference was implied by the verse number and the author Srila Prabhupada. My mistake. Please allow me to give more information about the great A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and his book entitled "Bhagavad Gita As it Is". – Erik Ward Eeshwar Das Dec 11 '18 at 18:15
  • @TheDestroyer Do these five references satisfy the Guidelines for new users answering questions? Maybe I should add more? – Erik Ward Eeshwar Das Dec 11 '18 at 20:57

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