Non-duality and the Language of Paradox in the Bhagavad Gita

Non-duality and the Language of Paradox in the Bhagavad Gita

According to the Advaita interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita, the ultimate reality Brahman, is non-dual. This means that it is the only existing reality, there being no second entity apart from it. This also implies that the world of duality which we experience, and habitually take for granted, is false or mithya. Language, operating within the dualistic world appearance, is incapable of expressing the non-dual Brahman. We shall examine the philosophy of language implicit in this quandary, and see how language operates and why exactly it fails to express Brahman. The Gita, being a text, obviously uses language to communicate. How does the Gita use language to do what language cannot do? How can the inexpressible be expressed?

It is here that this paper will focus attention on the use of paradoxical language - the language of contradictions and tautologies - in the Gita. What exactly is being said in instances such as ‘He who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, he truly sees!’, ‘That which is night for all beings, there wakes the enlightened..’? How does such paradoxical language solve the problem of expressing the inexpressible? This paper will undertake an analysis of these and related issues.

The Secret of Action

The Bhagavad Gita can be read as the Vedantic philosophy of action. Arjuna’s questions arise in the field of action (the battlefield) and are concerned with his moral dilemma about the nature of the actions which he is about to undertake, viz., fighting a war. The philosophy of action, Karma Yoga, is certainly one of the main themes of the Gita, along with devotion (Bhakti Yoga), contemplation (Dhyana Yoga) and knowledge (Jnana Yoga).

In the fourth chapter of the Gita, Krishna says that the nature of action is mysterious. ‘For there is something to be known even about action…and something has to be known about inaction. The true nature of action is inscrutable.’[i] One who understands the secret of action sees inaction in action, and conversely, action in inaction. The actual verse goes

Karmanyakaram yah pashyet akarmani karma yah,

Sa budhhiman manushyeshu sa yuktah kritsnakarmakrit. (4.18)

‘He who finds inaction in action, and action in inaction, he is wise among men; he is engaged in yoga and is a performer of all actions!’[ii]

Having promised to unveil the mystery of action, Krishna now appears to speak in riddles. How can one see no action where there is action and vice-versa? And even if one could, how would it be wisdom? What is the point of this paradoxical statement? These are the issues which we hope to explore in this paper.

Brahman – The Nondual Reality

The essential thesis of Advaita Vedanta is that, ‘Reality is nondual, duality is a false appearance, and the individual is none other than that nondual reality.’ The nondual reality is called Brahman (literally, ‘the vast’). This means that it is the only existing reality, there being no second entity apart from it. Brahman is absolute existence, consciousness and bliss (Sat-Chit-Ananda). Existence, consciousness and bliss are not qualities or properties of Brahman. It is not that Brahman exists, but that it is existence itself. Not that Brahman is a conscious entity, rather it is consciousness itself. And not that Brahman is happy, it is bliss itself.

Advaita holds that we are one with Brahman, that we are verily Sat Chit Ananda. This is the purport of all Upanishadic teaching, succinctly expressed in the mahavakyas (‘profound statements’) like Tat tvam asi[iii] – That thou art. And everything else, all other living beings, the whole universe, is Brahman. All beings are in you, and you are in all beings – the real you, of course.

Our true Self, Sat, is not a thing, an object, among other objects of the universe. Rather It is the very existence of all things and they are not apart from It. To the enlightened, each object is an appearance which derives its very being from Sat.

Our true Self, Chit, pure consciousness, is not an empirical experience - not perception, nor apperception - yet all experiences shine in Chit. Chit is the pure consciousness illumining every thought, every experience through the medium of mind, senses and body.  To the enlightened, Chit is experienced in each experience.

All the happiness we seek in the world is but a particle of the ocean of our own Ananda swarupa – our true Blissful Self. To the enlightened, all experiences, apparently pleasant or unpleasant, reflect Bliss.

Brahman is free of all differentiation (bheda). It does not have internal differentiation (swagata bheda) like a tree has constituent branches, leaves, trunk and roots. Nor are there similar entities from which it differs (sajatiya bheda) like one tree differs from other trees. And finally, there are no dissimilar entities from which Brahman can differ (vijatiya bheda) like a tree differs from cats or birds or mountains. Brahman is absolutely free of difference. There is no entity which can exist apart from Brahman, i.e., there is no second entity apart from Brahman – hence advaitam (literally, ‘without a second’).

Avidya – Ignorance

The natural question of course is how does Advaita explain the world of multiplicity? Why do we not know this nondual Brahman if that is what we really are? And if we are Brahman what is the point of ethics, religion, spiritual practice and even Advaita philosophy?

Avidya (ignorance) is the key philosophical concept in Advaita as it is used to formulate the Advaitic position in ontology, epistemology and axiology. Ontologically, Advaita has to explain the ontological status of the experienced world of multiplicity, and more specifically, how the many has come from the One Brahman. Giving the famous example of the rope mistaken for the snake, Advaita postulates ignorance or avidya as the cause of the world. Just as we might mistake a rope in semi-darkness for a snake, because we are in ignorance of the rope, we are in error when we perceive a world of multiplicity and this error is the outcome of our ignorance of Brahman - or in one word, avidya. It is due to the avidya about Brahman that we posit the world and see ourselves as limited individual beings. The One is mistaken as the many and this mistake is due to avidya.

In epistemology, we necessarily postulate a knower, the known and knowledge. Advaita holds that it is due to avidya that Brahman appears as these three. It is Brahman as pure consciousness shining upon the mind which makes knowledge possible.

In axiology, the realm of values, the whole aim of life becomes liberation from the bondage caused by avidya. Due to avidya, we imagine ourselves as limited mind-body complexes subject to birth, change, disease and death. We act in accordance with our fears and desires and are bound by the consequences of our actions. This is suffering, and freedom from suffering can come only by overcoming avidya. Only knowledge can overcome ignorance and error – only vidya can overcome avidya. So the quest is for vidya – spiritual knowledge. The quest is to discover who we truly are.  And in this quest, ethics, religion and spirituality are all relevant. They are all valid and indeed, necessary, till enlightenment is attained. Enlightenment is the intuitive realization that the self, Atman, is not body/mind but, Brahman, the ultimate nondual reality.

Krishna compares vidya and avidya to day and night respectively (Gita 2.69). Brahman, the ultimate reality, is like the darkness of the night to those in the thrall of avidya, while it is as clear as day to the enlightened who have overcome avidya.

The Limits of Language

Language can be used only when certain conditions are met. These are called Sabda pravritti nimitta – occasions/causal conditions for the use of language, and they are five in number. If in an entity, one or more of these conditions are present, we can successfully use language to refer to that entity. Brahman, as we shall now see, meets none of these conditions.

  1. Jati or class – If the object belongs to a class, we can use the class/species/set as a description. A ‘cow’ refers to an animal which belongs to a class of animals called ‘cow’. Brahman, being singular, does not belong to any class.
  2. Guna or quality- When we say ‘red lotus’ the colour red indicates the lotus and differentiates it from, say, a ‘blue lotus’. But, Brahman is qualityless (nirguna).
  3. Kriya or action – The presence of an action or function can serve to distinguish an entity from others. Terms like ‘driver’ or ‘cook’ work by using the functions of cooking or driving. But Brahman has absolutely no change or action (nishkriyam).
  4. Sambandha or relation – Relations are a very useful basis for the use of language. ‘Teacher’, ‘student’, ‘father’ or ‘child’ are relation based descriptions. But, relations require at least two entities. Brahman, being nondual, has no second entity to which It can bear some relation.
  5. Rudhi or convention – We can name something just by convention. Most proper names are given by convention. But, this requires the entity to be pointed out, distinguished from all others. If I say, ‘He is John,’ I must, physically or otherwise, point out John. Brahman, being imperceptible, cannot be pointed out.

Since Brahman does not possess any of the causal conditions for the use of language, it lies beyond the limits of language.[iv] Language cannot refer to Brahman, we cannot speak of it. Brahman remains forever inexpressible. Brahman is a-vak-manasa-gocara ‘beyond the reach of words and thought.’

But this won’t do as it puts Advaita in an impossible situation. On one hand, the scriptures like the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita are supposed to reveal Brahman, and on the other, they cannot, for they are after all, only words. So, how do they manage to do the impossible – express the inexpressible?

Expressing the Inexpressible

Shankaracharya mentions the story of an enquirer who asks a spiritual master repeatedly about Brahman but the answer is always silence. The master finally explains his silence thus, ‘I teach but you comprehend not – silence is the Self.’ [v]The teaching of Brahman through silence is well known in the Advaita tradition.[vi] But, if we are to speak at all, is there any way in which Brahman can be meaningfully spoken about? Advaita has some very innovative strategies to do exactly that. Some of those strategies are briefly noted below.

  1. The via negativa or apophatic method– Neti, neti ‘not this, nor that’:

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad describes the true Self as ‘neti, neti Atma’. By eliminating every entity that is an object of perception or thought, there remains that inexpressible Self which is not an object, which is the pure subject. The Taittiriya Upanishad proceeds by this method of negation by relegating to anatman (non-self) the physical, vital, mental, intellectual and causal sheaths whereafter the Atman remains not as an object or a sheath, but as the pure subject, the witness of the five sheaths. This has to be intuitively grasped.


  1. By implied meaning – lakshyartha:

Words cannot directly refer to Brahman but they have a certain power by which they can indirectly indicate Brahman. This is the power of implied meaning. Imagine the Mr. Smith whom you knew thirty years ago as a young, fit scholar at Oxford is now middle aged, portly and a successful businessman in London. And you are moved to exclaim, ‘He is that Smith!’ We have no difficultly in understanding what you mean. We naturally ignore the contradictory characteristics of past and present, young and old, fit and fat, scholar and businessman, Oxford and London. We understand you mean the person himself, bereft of all these contradictory adjectives. Similarly, when the Upanishad says ‘You are God!’ we are to ignore the contradictory qualities of creature and Creator, human and Divine, and understand God and you are the essentially the same Brahman, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.


  1. By using incidental (non-essential) qualities:

Brahman is without qualifying attributes by which we mean Brahman has no intrinsic qualities. But there are incidental or non-intrinsic qualities which the scripture can skillfully utilize to indicate Brahman. Just as you point out a house saying, ’Its that house over there with the crow sitting on the roof,’ where the crow, while not in any way an intrinsic part of the house, nevertheless performs the very useful function of differentiating the house from other houses (which presumably are not adorned with sundry crows at that moment!). Similarly, Brahman can be provisionally defined as the Creator, Preserver and Destroyer of the universe (which It is not in reality, for there is no real world to create, maintain or destroy). Or the Self can be indicated as the witness of the mind. This is perhaps the main stratagem adopted by Advaita. Incidental qualities are superimposed and then negated so that the student can, hopefully, intuitively grasp Brahman as the ground of negation. Shankaracharya himself says, ‘adhyaropa-apavadabhyam nisprapancam prapancyate[vii] - the traditional spiritual teachers have taught Brahman, which is Transcendent, by the method of superimposition and de-superimposition.


  1. The language of paradox:

This is pertinent to our present problem. Advaita teachers take the help of paradoxical language, playing off contradictory assertions against each other to indicate Brahman in which all contradictions are subsumed and transcended. Thus we find ‘That moves and moves not, It is far and near’, ‘Minuter than the minutest, vaster than the vastest…’ (Isha Upanishad) or, in our present discussion, ‘Inaction in action, and action in inaction’.

Paradox Revisited

Let us return now to our paradox. How is it wisdom to see inaction in action and vice versa? The commentator, Shankaracharya, predictably uses the concept of avidya to dissolve the paradox.

According to the commentator, Krishna’s purpose in deliberately using paradoxical language is to correct an error. Under the influence of avidya, the unenlightened tend to superimpose the actions of body/mind upon the actionless Atman.  Correction of this error would involve ‘seeing’(realizing) that our true self does not act at all even when the body/mind is acting. Shankaracharya comments,

            ‘…viparyaya nivritti artham Bhagavato vacanam ‘karmani akarma yah ityadi.’[viii]

‘…it is to correct the error that the Lord speaks thus, ’He who sees inaction in action’ etc’

The commentator uses a telling image. To a man in a boat sailing on a river, the motionless trees on the bank may suddenly appear to move. Similarly, the actions of body/mind are attributed to the unchanging Self and we feel, ‘I am walking, talking and thinking.’

Equally, to the unenlightened, sitting down quietly means inaction. Still identified with the body/mind, they are unable to see that the enforced stillness of the body is also action. The enlightened see that this so called ‘inaction’ is actually action. Such an enlightened person, seeing oneself as the actionless Atman while active in body and mind, and understanding the inactivity of the unenlightened to be  as good as action, is truly wise. He is ever established in Brahman (yuktah) and has accomplished what human life is really meant for (spiritual enlightenment).

The Secret of Action 

Advaita guides us through an analysis of our daily experience (action and inaction in this case) to distinguish the true Self (Atman) from the non-self (anatman). The real Self is pure consciousness, while the apparent self is the ego (ahamkara) which is merely a function of the mind (antahkarana). Like the filament in a bulb which glows because of electricity, the ego is lit up by pure consciousness and we become aware of ourselves and others. Then the ego appropriates to itself the mind with all its memories, hopes and fears, knowledge and limitations. Encased in this body-mind complex, the ego then engages in various actions (or tries to be inactive) and sets in motion the whole cycle of karma, karmic results, birth and death. This is our life as we know it now. The whole exercise is to discriminate pure consciousness from the ego and to know that we are pure consciousness, Atman, and not the ego. The Atman neither acts, nor gets any karmic consequences and, therefore, does not transmigrate. 

All actions are in the pursuit of fulfilment. The ego acts only because it feels itself to be a limited human being, unfulfilled and subject to hopes and desires, fears and frustrations. The enlightened person, knowing himself to be Infinite existence-consciousness-bliss is always fulfilled. Hence, he is called kritsna-karma-krit, the one who has accomplished all actions, because he is ever fulfilled. This does not mean that the enlightened Yogi is inactive. There is no more action prompted by dissatisfaction, but there could very well be altruistic action. There could be the most intense action for the welfare of the world.

Karma Yoga requires involvement with society and the world. The karma yogi must seek peace and calm within the hurly-burly of work and not by running away from society. The karma yogi, in the midst of the greatest silence and solitude, finds the most intense activity, and in the midst of the most intense activity finds the silence and solitude of the desert. He goes through the busy streets of London, and his mind is as calm as if he were in a Himalayan cave, where not a sound could reach him; and he is intensely working all the time. That is the ideal of karma yoga, that is the secret of work.

We do see this in the lives of the great enlightened spiritual teachers of humanity whether it be Krishna himself, or the Buddha, Christ, Prophet Muhammad, Shankaracharya or Vivekananda. All of them led the most active lives, working for the welfare of all till their last breath, without the least trace of selfishness.

In essence, what we have to do is to have to recognize the actionless pure consciousness within and claim it alone to be the true Self, not the ego. And this is possible even when the ego is engaged in action, even in the midst of the most intense action. Eternal serenity in the midst of intense altruistic action is the ideal of Karma Yoga – the philosophy of action taught in the Bhagavad Gita.

[i] The Bhagavad Gita 4.17

[ii] The Bhagavad Gita 4.18 

[iii] Chhandogya Upanishad, Chapter 6

[iv] Shankaracharya, Mandukya Upanishad bhashyam, introduction to the 7th mantra

[v] Shankaracharya, Brahmasutra Bhashya, 2.2.17

[vi] See Shankaracharya’s Dakshinamurti Stotra, ‘The Guru’s teaching is through silence, and all doubts of the disciples are dispelled…’

[vii] Shankaracharya, Bhagavad Gita bhashya 13.3

[viii] Ibid., 4.18

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