na karmanaamanaarmbhaannaishkarmyam purushoshrute |
na cha sannyasanaadeva siddhim samadhigacchati || 4 ||

Neither does an individual attain actionlessness by not initiating action, nor by mere renunciation does he attain perfection.

na : neither
karmanaam : action
anaarmbhaat : not initiating
naishkarmyam : actionlessness
purushah : individual
ashrute : attains
na : nor
cha : and
sannyasanaat : renunciation of action
eva : mere
siddhim : perfection
samadhigacchati : attain

In the prior shloka, Shri Krishna dispelled Arjuna’s notion that the yoga of knowledge was superior to the yoga of wisdom. But there was another aspect to Arjuna’s question. He still was not convinced that he should fight the war, and was searching for pointers in Shri Krishna’s teaching that supported his desire to give up all action and flee the war. We saw this in the first chapter where he went to the extent of suggesting that he become a monk. Shri Krishna wanted to address that issue in this shloka.

First, let us understand what is meant by the word “actionlessness” in this shloka. Like many words in scriptures, it is not meant to be taken literally. The word “actionlessness” points to the ultimate state of the “sthithaprajnya” from the previous chapter. In this state, the vaasanaas have been so thoroughly eliminated that all action becomes completely selfless. There is absolutely no trace of selfishness. The word “Siddhim” or the state of perfection in the second half of the shloka, also refers to this state.

So therefore, Shri Krishna warned Arjuna that “actionlessness” cannot be attained by not starting a new action, nor by giving up actions that have already started. It would be similar to cutting off a plant without plucking its roots. Until our vaasanaas have been completely eradicated, they will keep generating desires which will lead us to selfish actions. But once vasanaas have been eradicated, only selfless actions will remain.

Now, some of us who are not fully convinced by this argument could still say: “I will renounce all actions right now and move to a quiet solitary place. If I just sit still for a long time, my desires will automatically melt away”. Shri Krishna addresses this point in the next shloka.