karmaṇy akarma yaḥ paśyed
akarmaṇi ca karma yaḥ
sa buddhimān manuṣyeṣu
sa yuktaḥ kṛtsna-karma-kṛt

Translation of Bhagavad Gita 4.18

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.

Commentary by Sri A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada of Gaudiya Sampradaya:

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. Consequently he is intelligent in human society, even though he is engaged in all sorts of activities for Krishna. Akarma means without reaction to work. The impersonalist ceases fruitive activities out of fear, so that the resultant action may not be a stumbling block on the path of self-realization, but the personalist knows rightly his position as the eternal servitor of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Therefore he engages himself in the activities of Krishna consciousness. Because everything is done for Krishna, he enjoys only transcendental happiness in the discharge of this service. Those who are engaged in this process are known to be without desire for personal sense gratification. The sense of eternal servitorship to Krishna makes one immune to all sorts of reactionary elements of work.

Commentary by Sri Vishvanatha Chakravarthi Thakur of Gaudiya Sampradaya:

This verse gives an understanding of the truth of action and non-action. He is intelligent who sees that persons of pure heart fixed in knowledge like Janaka who do not renounce activity, but rather engage in action, in niskama karma yoga, do not accrue karma (akarma); and who sees that one who does not perform actions, renouncing actions as a sannyasi, being of impure heart without knowledge, though talking profusely of knowledge because of knowledge of scriptures, actually obtains bondage of karma leading to misery. He engages in all activities; he does not renounce action even through instructions or association of those who think themselves knowledgeable, talking a lot about jnana.

The Bhagavatam says:

yas tv asamyata-sad-vargah pracandendriya-sarathih jnana-vairagya-rahitas tri-dandam upajlvati suran atmanam atma-stham nihnute mam ca dharma-ha avipakva-kasayo ‘smad amusmac ca vihiyate

One who has not controlled the six forms of illusion [lust, anger, greed, excitement, false pride and intoxication], whose intelligence, the leader of the senses, is extremely attached to material things, who is bereft of knowledge and detachment, who adopts the sannyasa order of life to make a living, who denies the worshipable demigods, his own self and the Supreme Lord within himself, thus ruining all religious principles, and who is still infected by material contamination, is deviated and lost both in this life and the next. SB 11.18.40-41

Commentary by Sri Ramanuja of Sri Sampradaya:

4.18 Here by the term ‘non-action’, the knowledge of the self, which is distinct from action and which forms the subject under consideration, is meant. ‘He who sees non-action in action and also action in non-action,’ denotes him who can perceive knowledge of the self even while action is being performed and who can also perceive action while engaged in non-action, i.e., knowledge of the self. What is the import of this saying? What is taught here is this: One can perceive, by constant contemplation on the truth about the self, that the action that is being performed in itself is a form of knowledge. One can also perceive that this knowledge is also of the form of Karma because of its being contained in Karma Yoga. Both these (i.e., action in the form of knowledge and knowledge in the form of actions) are accomplished by contemplation on the true nature of the self, even while work is being performed. Thus, he who can see actions as included in contemplation on the reality of the self, is wise, i.e., he knows the full meaning of the Sastras; he is fit among men, i.e., fit to attain release. He alone has fulfilled all actions, i.e., carried out the entire purpose of the Sastras. [The purport is that no contradiction between knowledge and action is felt by one who knows the philosophy of the self]. How is the form of knowledge accomplished through works which are obviously activities that are being performed? Sri Krsna explains:

Commentary by Sri Sridhara Swami of Rudra Sampradaya:

Showing the mysterious intricacies of action and inaction is being delineated by Lord Krishna. One who sees inactions in actions such as yagna or the worship of the Supreme Lord and who sees that such worship is actually non-action as it leads to knowledge and having no reactions does not bind one to material existence. This person understands. Similarly one who sees action in inaction such as the non-performance of prescribed activities such as Ekadasi vrata or completely abstaining from all grains on the 11th day of the waxing moon and waning moon when not performed results in sinful reactions and binds one to material existence and who sees that such abstention is actually action within inaction is properly situated. Lord Krishna actually praises such a person as being of superior intelligence by dint of their comprehension and subsequent application of this esoteric subject matter. The word yuktah means yogi or one dedicated to the science of the individual consciousness in communion with the ultimate consciousness. This verse verifies previous verse II.XXXXVI with actions offered to the Lord, verse III.IV by not performing actions and verse III.XVII the redundance of action once moksa or liberation is achieved.

In action even when the body and senses are active one who realises the atma or soul is distinct from the physical body sees these actions as inaction. Contrarily one who is void of knowledge sees action as inaction due to avoiding actions because they are troublesome and difficult, for this person the non-performance of action is hypocritical as revealed in verse III.VI and is an obstruction to knowledge.

The performer of actions situated in knowledge of the atma observes the performance of Vedic activities naturally in action and inaction as they come of their own accord. So thus being guided by the atma within there is no scope or possibility for such a person to perform a prohibited act or to not perform prescribed acts as they come of their own accord. Thus it should be noted that the nature of prohibited actions is included as well.

Commentary by Sri Madhvacharya of Brahma Sampradaya:

In this verse Lord Krishna delineates the intricate and subtle forms of actions. When a person performing karma or prescribed Vedic activities resolves with certitude that the action performed is solely for the Supreme Lord and not for the one performing the action whose consciousness is merely a minute reflection of the ultimate consciousness then does realisation begin to dawn within and all actions performed by such a one are factually inaction. Then one realises that all actions performed are actually performed by the Supreme Being Himself in the same consciousness as when the Supreme Reality even creates the universes. This person is spiritually intelligent and situated in true wisdom, for such a person is verily in communion with the Supreme Consciousness and even when this person is not performing any actions, such a person should be understood to be performing all actions and the knower of all actions.

Now begins the summation.

Karma or actions are the nature of all living beings. This is because they are not the actual performer of any action and are dependent. Akarma or inaction is the nature of the Supreme Lord because of His being independent and the factual performer of all actions. The living beings accept karma and reactions to actions when egoism is present in the belief that one is the doer or thinks that the actions were performed by them. In the Narada Purana it states that since the Supreme Lord Krishna is never bound by cause and effect all His actions are to be understood as inaction. In the Pancharatra it is noted that the word krtsna has the attribute of not being perceptible in regards to activities. This denotes that all actions are under the control of the Supreme Lord. Since all material actions are visible to the living beings, what is not visible is the karma or reactions that come with the actions that the living beings are forced to accept due to having desires for the rewards of their actions and this perpetual desire to enjoy causes tem to perform actions which keeps them attached.

Commentary by Sri Keshava Kashmiri of Kumara Sampradaya:

Out of compassion Lord Krishna states the truth of action, inaction and prohibited actions. One who sees inaction in action meaning actions bringing no reaction and are not binding to samsara or the cycle of birth and death such as yagna or the worship of the Supreme Lord which leads to knowledge, purity of mind and liberation know it is not binding to samsara. Previously in verse II.XXXX Lord Krishna stated that in prescribed Vedic actions there is no loss or fear of negative results. Contrarily sinful reactions and bondage will be incurred by inaction to the injunction one is qualified to perform such as non-performance of Ekadasi vrata or the complete abstention from all grains on the 11th day of the waxing and waning moons. Lord Krishna spoke of this mentality of hypocrisy in verse III.VI of one who contemplates sense objects while appearing inactive. The use of the particle ca meaning and, denotes that those who are followers of karma yoga or the performance of prescribed Vedic activities wilfully partakes of prohibited food such as grains on Ekadasi then they will be subject to sinful reactions. But if suc a one planning to observe Ekadasi vrata and accidentally partakes of food grains on Ekadasi due to miscalculating the time of commencing or breaking the fast then there is no sinful reactions because the sankalpa or internal invocation was to perform the Ekadasi vrata. Then Lord Krishna praises the one who knows the truth about the intricacies of action and inaction as those of superior intelligence and is firmly on the spiritual path obtaining all fruits because the performer of Vedic actions receives the fruits of the actions included by inaction as well.

Commentary by Sri Adi Shankaracharya of Advaita Sampradaya:

4.18 Since engagement and non-engagement (in action) depend on an agent, therefore, yah, he who; pasyet, ie. pasyati, finds; akarma, inaction, absence of action; karmani, in action-karma means whatever is done, action in general; in tha action-; and yah, who; finds karma, action; akarmani, in inaction, in the absence of action; sah, he; is buddhiman, a wise one; manusyesu, among men. All dealings involving an act, accessories, etc. exist certainly on the plane of ignorance, [Both engagement and non-engagement presuppose agentship and an act of some kind. This, however, holds good on the plane of ignorance, but not on that of Self-realization.] only so long as one has not attained to the Reality. He is a yogi, yuktah, engaged in yoga; and a krtsna-karma-krt, performer of all actions. One who discriminates between action and actions. One who discriminates between action and inaction is praised thus. Objection: Well, what is meant by this contradictory statement, ‘He who finds inaction in action’, and ‘action in inaction’? For action cannot become inaction, nor inaction action. That being so, how can a witness have (such) an incongruous perception? Vedantin: Is it not that [Ast. reads na in place of nanu.-Tr.] to an ordinary foolsih observer, that which is reality is inaction appears as action, and similarly, action itself as inaction? That being so, in order to show things as they are the Lord says, ‘He who finds inaction in action’, etc. Therefore there is no incongruity. Besides, the qualifications such as ‘intelligent’ etc. (thus) become logical. And by saying, ‘there is something to be known’, is implied the perception of things as they are. Moreover, freedom from evil cannot follow from an erroneous perception; whereas it has been said, ‘by knowing which you will become free from evil’. Therefore, one account of action and inaction being perceived contrarily by the creatures, the Lord’s utterance, ‘he who finds inaction in action,’ etc. is for dispelling their contrary perception. Not that in the empirical plane inaction has action as its receptacle, like a plum in a bowl! Nor even has action inaction as its receptacle, because inaction is a negation of action. Therefore, action and inaction are actually perceived contrarily by the ordinary persons-like seeing water in a mirage, or silver in nacre. Objection: Is it not that to every one action is action itself? Never is there an exception to this. Vedantin: That is not so, becuase when a boat is moving, motionless trees on the bank appear to move in the opposite direction to a man on the boat; an absence of motion is noticed in distant moving things which are not near one’s eyes. Similarly, here also occurs the contrary perceptions, viz seeing action in inaction under the idea, ‘I am doing’, [Ast. omits ‘aham karomi iti, under the idea, “I am doing”‘.-Tr.] and seeing, inaction in acion,-because of which it is said, ‘He who finds inaction in action,’ etc. in order to eliminate them. As such, although this answer has been given more than once, still a man becomes repeatedly deluded under the influence of a totally opposite perception. And forgetting the truth that has been heard again and again, he repeatedly raises false issues and questions! And therefore, observing that the subject is difficult to understand, the Lord gives His answer again and again. The absence of action in the Self-well-known from the Vedas, Smrtis and logic, as stated in, ‘(It is said that) This is unmanifest; This is inconceivable’ (2.25), ‘Never is this One born, and never does It die’ (2.20; Ka. 1.2.18), etc.-has been and will be spoken of. The contrary perception of action in that actionless Self, i.e. in inaction, is very deep-rooted, owing to which ‘even the intelligent are confounded as to what is action and what is inaction.’ And as a consequence of the superimposition of aciton pertaining to the body etc. on the Self, there arises such ideas as, ‘I am an agent; this is my action; its result is to be enjoyed by me.’ Similarly, with the idea, ‘I shall remain quiet, whereby I shall be free from exertion, free from activity, and happy’, and superimposing on the Self the cessation of activities pertaining to the body and organs and the resulting happiness, a man imagines, ‘I shall not do anything; I shall sit quietly and happily.’ That being so, the Lord says, ‘he who finds inaction in action,’ etc. with a view to removing this contrary understanding of man. And here in this world, though action belonging to the body and organs continues to be action, still it is superimposed by everyone on the acitonless, unchanging Self, as a result of which even a learned person things, ‘I act.’ Therefore, in action (karmani), which is universally considered by all people to be inherent in the Self, like the perception of motion in the (stationary) trees on the bank of a river-(in that action) he who contrariwise finds the fact of inaction, like perceiving absence of motion in those trees-. And, in inaction (akarmani) in the cessation of the activities pertaining to the body and organs and ascribed to the Self in the same way that actions are ascribed-, in that action, he who sees action because of egoism being implicit in the idea, ‘I am happily seated quietly, without doing anything’-; he who knows thus the distinction between action and inaction, is wise, is learned among men; he is engaged in yoga, he is a yogi, and a performer of all actions. And he, freed from evil, attains fulfilment. This is the meaning. This verse is interpreted by some in another way. How? (Thus:) ‘Since the daily obligatory duties (nityakarmas) certainly have no results when performed as a dedication to God, therefore, in a secondary sense, they are said to be inaction. Again, the non-performance of these (nitya-karmas) is inaction; since this produces an evil result, therefore it is called action, verily in a figurative sense. That being so, he who sees inaction in the daily obligatory duties (nitya-karmas) owing to the obsence of their results-in the same way as a cow that does not yield milk is said to be not a cow, though in reality it is so-so also, in the non-performance of the daily obligatory duties, i.e. in inaction, he who sees action since that yields results such as hell etc…’ This explanation is not logical, because freedom from evil as a result of such knowledge is unreasonable, and the utterance of the Lord in the sentence, ‘…by knowing which you will become freed from evil’, will be contradicted. How? Even if it be that liberation from evil follows from the performance of nitya-karmas, it cannot, however, follow from the knowledge of the absence of their results. For it has not been enjoined (anywhere) that knowledge of the nityakarmas (themselves), leads to the result of freedom from evil. Nor has this been stated here by the Lord Himself. Hereby is refuted the ‘seeing of action in inaction’ [As explained by others.-Tr.], for (according to the opponent) ‘seeing of action in inaction’ has not been enjoined here [Here, in the present verse.] as a duty, but (what has been enjoined is) merely that performance of the nityakarmas is obligatory. Moreover, no result can accrue from the knowledge that evil arises from non-performance of nityakramas. Nor even has non-performance of nityakarmas. been enjoined as something that should be known. Besides, such results as freedom from evil, wisdom, engagement in yoga, and being a performer of all actions cannot reasonably follow from a false perception of action as inaction. Nor is this a eulogy of false perception. [The stated results accrue from correct knowledge, not from false perception; and correct knowledge alone is praise-worthy.] Indeed, false perception is itself an abvious form of evil! How can it bring about liberation from another evil? Surely, darkness does not become the remover of darkness! Opponent: Well, the seeing of inaction in action, or the seeing of action in inaction-that is not a false perception. Vadantin: What then? Opponent: It is a figurative statement based on the existence or the non-existence of results. Vedantin: Not so, because there is no such scriptural statement that something results from knowing action as inaction and inaction as action, even in a figurative sense. Besides, nothing particular is gained by rejecting what is heard of (in the scriptures) and imagining something that is not. Further, it was possible (for the Lord) to express in His own words that there is no result from the nityakarmas, and that by their non-performance one would have to go to hell. Under such circumstances, what was the need of the ambiguous statement, ‘He who sees inaction in action,’ etc., which is misleading to others? This being the case, such an explanation by anyone will be clearly tantamount to imagining that statement of the Lord as meant for deluding people. Moreover, this subject-matter (performance of nityakarmas) is not something to be protected with mystifying words. It is not even logical to say that the subject-matter will become easy for comprehension if it is stated again and again through different words. For, the subject-matter that was stated more clearly in, ‘Your right is for action alone’ (2.47), does not need any repetition. And everwhere it is said that whatever is good and ought to be practised deserves to be understood; anything purposeloss does not deserve to be known. Besides, neither is false knowledge worth acquiring nor is the semblance of an object presented by it worth knowing. Nor even can any evil, which is an entity, arise from the non-performance of nityakarmas, which is a non-entity, for there is the statement, ‘Of the unreal there is no being’ (2.16), and (in the Upanisad) it has been pointed out, ‘How can existence originate from nonexistence?’ (Ch. 4.2.2). Since emergence of the existent from the nonexistent has been denied, therefore anyone’s assertion that the existent originates from the nonexistent will amount to saying that a non-entity becomes an entity, and an entity becomes a non-entity! And that is not rational because it runs counter to all the means of valid knowledge. Further, the scriptures cannot enjoin fruitless actions, they being naturally painful; and it is illogical that what is painful should be done intentionally. Also, if it is admitted that falling into hell results from their non-performance (i.e. of the nityakarmas), then that too is surely a source of evil. In either case, whether one undertakes them or not, the scriptures will be imagined to be useless. And there will be a contradiction with your own standpoint when, after holding that the nityakarmas are fruitless, you assert that they lead to Liberation. Therefore, the meaning of ‘He who finds inaction in action,’ etc. is just what stands out literally. And the verse has been explained by us accordingly. The aforesaid perception of ‘inaction in action,’ etc. is being praised:

Commentary by Sri Abhinavagupta of Kaula Tantra Sampradaya:

4.18 Karmani etc : He who finds the actions, [seemingly] of his own, to be non-actions [of his], on account of his being non-performer [of any action], because of his state of total tranquility; and he who recognises the non-actions [of his] i.e., the actions performed by others, as actions being performed by himself (or who recognises the non-actions undertaken by others as being undertaken by himself), because of his intrinsic nature of the fully risen state; that person alone is a man of intelligence in the midst of all; and he [alone] performs action fully i.e., in its entirity. Therefore what fruit should be borne for him by what action ? This is at the stage of rising. But, at the stage of total tranquility he injures, or cuts all actions. Thus he performs all action or performs no action. This is the secret and sacred knowledge, got by sitting near (by serving) the feet of the preceptors. Therefore –

Sanskrit Shloka Without Transliteration Marks:

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

Sanskrit to English Word for Word Meanings:

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.