Those who follow the path of service, who have completely purified themselves and conquered their senses and self-will, see the Self in all creatures and are untouched by any action they perform. Those who know this truth, whose consciousness is unified, think always, “I am not the doer.” (BG, 5:7-8)
Arjuna has asked Krishna to finally tell him which is better: the way of the contemplation [renunciation] or the way of action [karma-yoga]? Krishna has answered—sort of—by saying that selfless service is “better” in that it is more practical and accessible. But that service should not be performed with the notion that one is earning anything. Krishna concludes by saying “I am not the doer” should be the mantra of someone who is truly serving.
I reflected a couple of weeks ago on this enigmatic statement:
The process of offering is Brahman; that which is offered is Brahman. Brahman offers the sacrifice in the fire of Brahman. Brahman is obtained by those who see Brahman in every action. (BG, 4: 24)
Rather than participating in the realm of karma, of anticipating reward or punishment, success or failure, wise people act with a sense of non-attachment to the results. It is really God who acts; my job is to simply get out of the way, to be an instrument. This is Hinduism at its most transcendent: those who are united with ultimate reality become simply instruments of God. Karma, like a childhood disciplinarian, is left behind for a more mature spiritual life.
Christianity has a parallel to this union with the divine. After all, Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” and “apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But Christianity has still been plagued with a theology of ego and deserving. I’ve heard Christians talk about “earning another jewel in your crown” for good deeds. Heaven and hell are often described as places of reward and punishment.
This isn’t official doctrine, of course: Protestant evangelism tries to free people from this cosmic ledger by proclaiming that Jesus settles accounts for us, freeing us from trying to earn God’s favor. Jesus extends to us the free gift of God’s grace. We are invited into a relationship of love, and no longer have to sacrifice to appease God, because God has already performed the ultimate sacrifice by God’s own self. Yet we are invited to deny ourselves (renounce) and “take up our cross” (act) and join Jesus in this cosmic sacrificial act. By doing so, we find eternal life.
But the theology of deserving keeps creeping in through the back door. The fatal flaw of evangelicalism is that as long as we only see self-sacrifice as an act of appeasement, instead of an act of creative love, of birth, of the artist’s ultimate commitment to their work, of resistance in the face of injustice, of liberation, or as God’s own sacrifice to God’s own Divine Self, we are stuck in a reward/punishment scheme. Grace is still subservient to karma. This is why people experience some forms of Christian evangelicalism as abusive, and why it has made such a cozy partner for patriarchy and white supremacy.
This is why we cannot separate renunciation and action, contemplation and service. When we serve, we are not scoring points in the cosmic ledger: we are joining God in God’s action.
God Who Acts, act in me; act through me; and let me be still.