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The Quest for the Royal Road: Selfless Action and Spiritualism

Published: 18.02.2016

Action is natural to living beings. No being can live without doing something. There is life so long as there is action. Every activity of life is guided by action. The end of action is the end of life itself. From this point of view, the Gita has laid down:

There is none among the beings possessing the body who can be absolutely inactive. Action symbolises the existence of life. With the end of action, that aspect of the existence of a being vanishes in which he has been doing actions, all along.

The Jain philosophy also proceeds on the principle that generally no individual can ever attain that state where there is no action. The mind, the speech and the body remain active every moment. Physical activity may stop any moment, but the subtle activity never stops. The sadhaka wishes to liberate himself from action, because action brings unhappiness. In this situation, which path is favourable to the sadhaka to continue his sadhana and raise his Self to the state of the Absolute?

This question has been answered in the Gita by exhorting the individual to engage in selfless action. In the Jain scriptures, the ways of restraint and purification have been recommended. Restraint means a curb. By developing this particular ability, man can curb the entire activity. Till this ability is fully developed, he can at least refrain from unnecessary action. It is imperative to have a definite line of demarcation between necessary and unnecessary action. Otherwise, one's energy is just wasted and actions bring no good results.

If we think about it in greater depth, we find that most of man's activities are necessary. Activities are of many kinds- speaking, walking, eating, sleeping, laughing, etc. If we think about these activities, it seems that 80% activities are unnecessary. Complete silence for a day would help examining these activities and coming to a definite conclusion. It must be noticed how often it becomes absolutely necessary to speak during that period of silence. Most of the speaking is done out of habit. Mahatma Gandhi described silence as the greatest speech and said: "If your purpose is served by speaking one word, do not speak two words. Cirus has never regretted his silence, but has often regretted his speech.

Speaking is a problem, silence is its solution. He who resorts to speaking, creates all kinds of problems and he who observe silence solves also the problems that exist. If it is absolutely impossible to observe silence, one can resort to contemplation and the judicious use of limited words. Similarly, in other activities also the restrain on unnecessary activities is the safest way from the point of view of sadhana. Whatever actions remain after restraining all irrelevant activities that involve the mind, the speech and the body could be called selfless action.

The person who exercises restraint and purifies the action after proper understanding of what is necessary and what is unnecessary, proceeds further in the direction of selfless action. Selfless action means action without attachment. The action may be small or big, necessary or unnecessary, giving up attachment is the measure of its usefulness. That attachment should not effect any aspect of the action. The Jain agamas have a clear-cut view in this regard. The sadhaka has been asked not to allow any worldly expectation to affect his penance and good conduct. With the discarding of expectation, penance and righteous conduct both become samadhi (state of bliss or tranquillity). But with the worldly expectation of any kind, that samadhi gets disturbed. Describing the four types of penance as samadhi it has been said:

  • No penance should be undertaken with keeping benefit in this world in view.
  • No penance should be undertaken with keeping benefit in the other world in view.
  • No penance should be undertaken for world-wide fame, praise, name or publicity.
  • No penance should be undertaken for any purpose except nirjara or self-purification.

Similarly good conduct as samadhi is also said to be of four types:

  • Good conduct should not have benefit of this world in mind.
  • Good conduct should not have the benefit of the other world in mind.
  • Good conduct should not be for world-wide fame, praise, name and publicity in mind.
  • Good conduct should have no other purpose except that of moksha-sadhana as indicated by the arhata (the Adorable Ones).

In the above context, selfless action as prescribed in the Gita and action for self-purification as ordained by Bhagwan Mahavira go together. Any activity which is related to any kind of desire is not counted among the activities meant for self-purification. By saying that one has the right to act but not to its result, Shri Krishna has given complete freedom to act. However, the only characteristic thing about that action is that it has to be selfless action. The Jain philosophy advises restraint of unnecessary action even if it is done in the selfless spirit. Generally speaking, people believe that man should not be inactive. The very meaning of life is to keep on doing something or the other. The day there is nothing to do, man's joy for living is gone. But only those people who have not practised introspection can think on these lines. Only those people can support this view who have not passed through the phase of contemplation. And contemplation as sadhana inspires the individual to refrain from action. The first stage of contemplation is the restraint on the crude activities of the mind, the speech and the body. Restraint on every subtle activity is the ultimate phase of contemplation. Only the one who has reached that stage can attain moksha.

Bhagwan Mahavira himself spent twelve and a half years to attain the state of akarma (inactivity). During that period, he neither preached nor gave any discourse. At that time he did not wish even to talk to anyone. Quite often, he had to suffer all kinds of tortures on that account. However, he put up with everything. He did not utter a single unnecessary world. Whenever he did speak, it was only for the purpose of self-purification. He remained mostly in the state of meditation. He would meditate for several days kt a stretch. During that period, he did not tremble even for a moment, whether he was stung by mosquitoes, scorpion or a snake or even if the flames of fire scorched his body. Normally such things are not easy to understand. Still there is no reason why they should not be believed. There can be no better example of selfless action. How can any desire exist when one is absolutely free from attachment to his body and from pretensions of any kind?

Selfless action is the result of spiritual pursuit. Only a person inclined to spiritualism can develop such an attitude. The individual given to materialistic attitude is constantly plagued by all kinds of desires. As soon as one desire is fulfilled, he is seized with many more desires. This is also the greatest reason for our national crisis today. If our national leaders could start adopting the way of selfless action, a large number of problems could be automatically solved. But so long as they are possessed by desires and growing ambitions and the attitude of purifying action is not developed, the dream of the development of healthy national consciousness would remain a mere dream.


Title: The Quest for the Royal Road
Acharya Tulsi
Publisher: Adarsh Sahitya Sangh
Edition: 2013
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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Agamas
  2. Akarma
  3. Bhagwan Mahavira
  4. Body
  5. Consciousness
  6. Contemplation
  7. Gandhi
  8. Gita
  9. Jain Philosophy
  10. Krishna
  11. Mahatma
  12. Mahatma Gandhi
  13. Mahavira
  14. Meditation
  15. Moksha
  16. Nirjara
  17. Sadhaka
  18. Sadhana
  19. Samadhi
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