Winter 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 293-304.

Paul Veliyathil:
      EAST-WEST DIALOGUE: Thomas Merton: A Modern Arjuna

Merton's debt to Gandhi and the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita suggest that he undertook his work in peace and justice in the spirit of a practitioner of karma-yoga.

Paul Veliyathil is a priest from the Archdiocese of Ernakulam, Kerala, India. He received a doctorate in theology from the School of Theology at the University of Toronto, and has recently earned a master's degree in pastoral counseling at Loyola College, Baltimore.

CHRISTIANS have reached a stage in our history where we cannot exist in physical and spiritual isolation from other cultures and religions. A spirituality that is built on the uncharitable premise that other faiths are useless, and based on an exclusive reliance on Catholic tradition may at best be a limited and truncated way of life for men and women who find themselves in a religiously pluralistic world.

Thomas Merton realized this truth in the course of his own spiritual pilgrimage, and reached out to other cultures and religious traditions with an open heart and the enthusiasm of a seeker of truth. How to be a monk and a militant, that is, a contemplative in action, was one of Merton's chief concerns during the second half of his monastic life. In his search for an answer to this problem, he turned to the wisdom of the East: "by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism and to those great Asian traditions we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own religion."(1)

Among the religious scriptures of Asia, it was the Bhagavad-Gita with its ideal of karma-yoga (union with God in action) that especially influenced Merton's quest for an integrated life of contemplation and action. He thought that it should have a place in the Western college a curriculum side-by-side with the works of Homer and Plato.(2) Merton was particularly impressed by the power of theGita on Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave, a disciple of Gandhi and a saintly scholar who walked the length and breadth of India advocating his land reform movement. Merton had read Bhave's Talks on theGita (3) with much interest and attention. In the copy of Bhave's book which Merton read (found in the Merton Studies Center, Louisville), all the passages on karma-yoga are heavily underlined.

It is significant that Merton's notion of contemplation as having an active dimension begins to unfold in his Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, where he copied passages from the Bhagavad-Gita into the typescript in support of his views. He thought that active contemplation was the heart of the message of the Gita:

The Gita preaches a contemplative way of serenity, detachment and personal devotion to God under the form of the Lord Krishna and is expressed most of all in detached activity work done without concern for results but with the pure intention of fulfilling the will of God.(4)


Karma-yoga or union with God in action is one of the most important themes of the Bhagavad-Gita. The gist is found in chapter 2:47: "To work alone you are entitled, never to its fruit. Neither let your motive be the fruit of action, nor let your attachment be to non-action."

If desire is removed from the deed, one can work and yet one can avoid attachment to the fruits of action even though engaged in bodily activity (4:21). Action is unavoidable and therefore renunciation of action is impossible. But renunciation of the fruits of action is possible. This desireless action is called karma-yoga, which is the art of performing actions in a spirit of dedication, considering ourselves as instruments in the hands of God.

The Gita contrasts sannyasa (a life of renunciation from the activities of the world) and karma-yoga (a life of involvement in the world). Krishna speaks of both of them in chapter 4:41, in which Arjuna, the hero of the Gita, wants to know which is the better of the two. Arjuna's attitude at this point indicates that he thinks in "either/or" categories (5:1).

In the discussion which follows, true sannyasa is not understood as a renunciation of action, but is redefined so that it means renunciation of the fruits of action or as karma-yoga (5:3). According to Mahatma Gandhi, the sannyasa of The Gita will not tolerate complete cessation of all activity. Gandhi strongly believed in the doctrine of renunciation, but also held that it should be sought "in and through action." For him, action is the sine qua non of life in the body.(5) The Gita says that no one can abstain from action even for a moment (3:5, 33). It is neither possible nor desirable for living beings to renounce all actions. Therefore acts of sacrifice, gifts, austerity, and other duties must be performed in all circumstances (18:5-6). Such works are essential for purifying even a wise person and for maintaining him or her in a state of purity.

sannyasa or contemplative life therefore cannot mean cessation of all action. For Gandhi, a sannyasi should be even more vigilant with regard to his action. He wants the sannyasi to be involved constantly in karma (action) performed in a spirit of detachment: "the sannyasa of The Gita is all work and yet no work."(6) This 'no-work' is obviously not a state of 'not working; but is the indication of a complete liberation from selfish motives and attachments. A karma-yogi works as God works, without any binding necessity. When a karma-yogi 's egoism is removed, actions originate at the depths of his or her being, and they are governed by the Lord. The Gita describes this highest state of contemplative activity in these words: "He has no object to gain by what he does in this world, nor any to lose by what he leaves undone" (3:18).

The Gita does not separate the way of sannyasa (contemplation) and action as two different ways opposed to each other. In the Gita's view, sannyasa is necessary for action because no one can rise to the stature of karma-yogi or active contemplative in the world without engaging in deep contemplation (6:1-2). Thus, if a person practices one or the other way fully, he or she attains the goals of both (5:4).

Hence Krishna tells Arjuna to shake off desire in all its forms and prepare for battle in perfect equanimity (2:38). This explicit direction to fight with equanimity indicates that The Gita stands exclusively for detachment from the self. (7) Once that is achieved, bodily action becomes morally insignificant. sannyasa (contemplative life) is therefore more a matter of mental state than physical withdrawal from the world (4:21).


Before exploring similarities between Merton's teaching on contemplation and action and the Gita's karma-yoga , it is instructive to compare Thomas Merton the activist monk to Arjuna, the hero of the Bhagavad-Gita . At the beginning of the Gita, Arjuna stands in the battlefield, unwilling to fight (2:1-2). At the start of his monastic life, Merton, too, was wary of the world and unwilling to get involved in its affairs. He saw the world as 'evil,' 'insipid,' and 'insane,'(8) and entered the monastery having "spurned New York, spat upon Chicago, and trampled on Louisville, heading for the woods with Thoreau in one pocket, John of the Cross in another, and holding the Bible open at the Apocalypse."(9)

Just as Arjuna thought of contemplative life and engaging in the duties of the world in "either/or" categories, Merton also thought that contemplative life was superior to active life and made distinctions between 'infused contemplation' and 'active contemplation.'(10) Arjuna experienced within himself the tension between his desire to flee the field of battle and to fight, and as a result he "cast aside his bow and arrow and sank down on his chariot-seat, his mind overcome with grief" (1:47). Similarly, Merton went through a grueling struggle between the writer in him and the monk. He felt such a contradiction between the active (Thomas Merton) and the contemplative (Brother Louis) aspects of his life that he mourned, "No one seems to understand that one of us has to die."(11)

As a consequence of his encounter with the Lord Krishna, Arjuna undergoes a catharsis and comes to realize that because fighting in the world was his duty, it is something good and necessary. He also learns that the secret of all activity is that it be desireless action (karma-yoga ). Thus he turns out to be a karma-yogi (18:73). Similarly, Merton, who withdraws from the world into the confines of the monastery, undergoes a transformation of consciousness as a result of his deep contemplative experience. He 'returns' to the world in compassion and love, saying "my task is to come to terms completely with the world in which I live and of which I am a part, because this is the world redeemed by Christ, even the world of Auschwitz."(12)

Merton's experience of God in prayer enabled him to see the entire creation as a gift of God. Consequently, he wanted to offer all to God, to see God present in all things, to realize that God is working in and through human beings to make the world a better home for all his children. Just as Arjuna was impelled by Krishna to fight against the tyranny and injustice of his cousins (they had unjustly appropriated his birthright of the kingdom), Merton was impelled by the Lord to fight against the threat of nuclear war and racial injustice in the United States through his activities in the peace movement and his collaboration with the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Thus Merton turns out to be a modern Arjuna, a contemplative in action.


The Gita clearly affirms that no one can abstain from action even for a moment because the world process has to go on continuously (3:14-15). It is neither possible nor desirable for human beings to renounce all actions. Merton iterates the same view when he says that 'the whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream" and that contemplatives have to be in the same world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest.(13) Just as The Gita does not differentiate the way of yoga and the way of karma as two separate ways opposed to each other (4:38; 5:6), so Merton strongly argues that interior contemplation and external activity are two aspects of the same love of God: "Action is charity looking outward to other men and contemplation is charity drawn inward to its own divine source. Action is the stream and contemplation is the spring."(14)

Acting in the world without selfish attachment to the result of our action is the gist of karma-yoga (2:47). Merton also points out that 'desire' is the key factor which decides whether an action is truly contemplative activity or mere activism.(15) How much Merton approved of and cherished the Gita's notion of desirelessness is seen from a key passage he quotes from Bhave's Talks on the Gita in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander :

The action of the person who acts without desire should be much better than that of the person who acts with desire. This is only proper, for the latter is attached to the fruit and part, much or little, of his time and attention will be spent on thoughts and dreams of the fruit. But all the time and the strength of the man who has no desire for fruit is devoted to the action.(16)

The Gita compares a person who acts with desirelessness (karma-yogi ) to a lotus petal to which water does not stick though it remains in the water (5:10). Merton describes a contemplative in action in very similar terms as "a man who at once loves the world, yet stands apart from it with a critical objectivity which refuses to become involved in its transient fashions and its more manifest absurdities."(17)

Implicit in the whole teaching of The Gita is the belief that there is no other way to attain desirelessness and non-attachment than through a new attachment to what is greater in quality and power than that to which one was previously attached. One overcomes the narrow clinging to results, the passionate involvement with the consequences of one's actions only when that passion is replaced by one directed to the divine. Merton's emphasis on the need for deep experience of God in solitude and contemplation as a prerequisite for any meaningful activity in the world is unequivocal: "Without the deep root of wisdom and contemplation, Christian action would have no meaning and no purpose."(18)


Merton's understanding and appreciation of the Gita's ideal of karma-yoga came full circle as a result of his studies of the life and writings of Mahatma Gandhi, who owed so much to the teachings of The Gita and who gave perfect expression to the idea of karma-yoga in his life. Merton considered Gandhi "a sign of the genuine union of spiritual fervor and social action in our time."(19)

Clearly, what attracted Merton was Gandhi's "fundamentally religious view of reality, of being, and of truth." (20) Gandhi's view of the relationship of spiritual life and public activity proved central to Merton's thinking. Merton was inspired by the way Gandhi achieved in himself the balanced synthesis of contemplation and action, "a healthy blending of the contemplative heritage of Hinduism together with the principles of karma-yoga and the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount."(21)

Gandhi helped to clarify for Merton the Gita's teaching about the unity of life -- of the person's inner spirit and outward acts, of one's prayer life and life in the world -- because "Gandhi did not cut himself off from public activity, branding it as secular."(22) Rather, the domain of political life for him was sacred and holy. "Even his moments of prayer and silence," Merton writes, "were not merely 'private' for Gandhi, but they belonged to India and he owed them to India because his spiritual life was simply his participation in the life and dharma of his people."(23) Gandhi also helped Merton to convince himself that he not only could assume his role in public life and at the same time be faithful to his vocation as a contemplative monk, but indeed that he must do it as a religious duty.


Merton heeded Gandhi's message and applied in his life the ideal of karma-yoga . He had many characteristics of a true karma-yogi . As a contemplative monk he had a deep experience of God which is the primary characteristic of a karma-yogi. Merton engaged in the life of a Trappist monk in the woods of Kentucky. The more he engaged in action, the more he tried to move into the solitude of a hermitage as an attempt to return to the 'spiritual roots' of public involvement. As Rosemary Ruether writes,

In the monastic spirituality of Thomas Merton, traditional Christian rejection of 'this world' took a new and concrete meaning, not as a struggle against flesh and blood, but as a struggle against the powers and principalities of the great empires, with America as their most recent representative. Here monastic spirituality was reconnected with its apocalyptic roots.(24)

As a karma-yogi , Merton understood the meaning of the Gita's insistence on doing one's dharma (duty) and he took upon himself his dharma of loka-samgraha (maintenance of the world-order or welfare of humanity -- 3:25). Merton firmly believed that it is true karma-yogis who are detached from the allurements of the world, who hold the world from falling apart: "the only thing that can save the world from complete moral collapse is spiritual revolution," and he considered "the desire for unworldliness, detachment, and union with God" (which is similar to karma-yoga ) to be the "most fundamental expression of this revolutionary spirit."(25)

The Gita portrays the karma-yogi as "one who sees action in inaction and inaction in action" (4:18). Merton realized that the unity of life achieved by active contemplatives was 'at the same time the highest action and the purest rest... a willing beyond will in apparent non-activity. They would attain to the highest striving in the absence of striving and of contention."(26)

Merton experienced this action-inaction dialectic in his own life. In the midst of the greatest silence and solitude of the monastery, he engaged in manual work and teaching and also associated himself with the workings of the peace movement and the fight against racial injustice.(27) While involved in all these activities, he simultaneously engaged in prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Thus Merton combined in himself the life-style of a karma-yogi as 'one who in the midst of the greatest silence and solitude finds the intensest activity and in the midst of the intensest activity the silence and solitude of the desert."(28)

The Gita 's description of a karma-yogi as one who sees God in everything (13:27) is also true in the case of Merton, who understood the meaning of the incarnation of Christ as an invitation to see him everywhere. Merton had the intuition and faith to see the sacredness and beauty of the tall maize in the fields and consider it as having a 'pre-Eucharistic righteousness and wisdom."(29) He saw the world around him as a sacrament of God and declared that "the only way to live is to live in a world that is charged with the presence and reality of God."(30) Merton also possessed a respectful and unbiased attitude towards people whether they were black or white, Asian or African, Buddhist or Hindu -- an attitude befitting a karma-yogi because he "sees the same in all whether it be a Brahmin endowed with learning and humility or a cow or an elephant or a dog or an outcaste" (5:19:8).

Along with the author of the Gita, who teaches that karma-yoga is hard to practice, Merton also thought that the way of contemplation and action is the "hardest assignment."(31) He experienced in his life a continuous struggle for a spirit of desirelessness. Merton also seems to agree with the author of the Gita, who considers karma-yoga "the best and most commendable among the ways of salvation" (6:46), by affirming that "a life of contemplation and action is the highest and the ideal form of life."(32) He did not, however, underplay the relevance and value of other ways of life in the world.


Thomas Merton's goal was to become a sannyasi not in the sense of a saffron-clothed, world-denying recluse, but a person with detached involvement in the world whose every action finds its root in contemplation. His entry into the hermitage during the last three years of his life and his simultaneous reaching out to the world through his writings on racial issues and the peace movement, together with retreats and discussions with peace activists, were an attempt to become a true sannyasi in the Gita 's sense -- a karma-yogi . But it was a struggle that would continue throughout his life without a final resolution. Thus, although many of the characteristics of a karma-yogi apply to Merton, in the end he clearly cannot be called a karma-yogi in the same sense that the term is used of Gandhi.

While Merton's commitment to karma-yoga was serious and sincere and wholehearted, it was also more of a 'romantic' nature. That is, his attitude toward The Gita was not exegetical or hermeneutic. He did not approach it with the systematic frame of mind of a philosopher, but with the poetic and intuitive sense of an artist and a mystic. This distinction is vital for understanding Merton and the fundamental difference between his karma-yoga and that of Gandhi.

Certain of Merton's limitations by their very nature generated considerable distance between Gandhi and Merton. First, karma-yoga demands extreme asceticism and total sacrifice of one's life, liberty, and reputation. When we take into account Merton's life overall, we have to admit that at the time of his death, he had a long way yet to go to become a karma-yogi in this respect.

The second limitation is in a way the cause of the first. When, as early as 1895, Gandhi started his karma-yoga in his South African Tolstoy Ashram, he had not yet understood the nature of capitalist, imperialist, and racist oppression of India by the British. To that extent his own response to it in terms of karma-yoga was still in the making. It took nearly a quarter of a century (1895-1920) for him to understand the nature of Indian oppression, and it was only then that his karma-yoga flowered and fructified in its fullness.

Although Merton was an activist monk in his own way, he could not really have grasped the nature of structural oppression. In this respect, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Martin Luther King, Jr., of the United States, and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa come closer to Gandhi in their practice of karma-yoga than did Merton.

But Merton did render monumental service by interpreting the profound spirituality of The Gita to the West and tried his best to integrate aspects of karma-yoga into his life despite the inherent restrictions from his vocation as a Trappist monk. The Gita 's view of karma-yoga also helped him reiterate his conviction of the unity of life, thus enabling him to arrive at a mature formulation of the spirit of contemplative activity. karma-yoga taught Merton to understand better and apply more forcefully in his life the gospel principle of "being in the world, but not of it." It reinforced his belief that holiness is equivalent to a life that strives for integration in all realms of human experience.

In a statement he wrote on the occasion of the inauguration of the Merton Collection in Bellarmine College, Louisville, Merton said, " Whatever I may have written, I think it can all be reduced in the end to this one truth: That God calls human persons to union with Himself and with one another in Christ."(33)

For Merton, contemplative action is the way to achieve this twofold union. As the goal of karma-yoga is also the attainment of this twofold union, it would not be incorrect to say that the gist of Merton's writings is likewise about the truth of karma-yoga . Thomas Merton's quest for truth in the religious traditions of Asia thus invites us to develop a global spiritual vision based on an openness to everything good and holy. It is an invitation that can be refused only at the peril of spiritual asphyxia.

  1. Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal (New York: New Directions, 1975), p. 343.
  2. See Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation (Louisville: Merton Studies Center), p. 28.
  3. Talks on the Gita (New York: Macmillan, 1960).
  4. The Inner Experience , p. 28.
  5. See Ramesh Betai,Gita and Gandhi (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1970), p.119.
  6. Mahatma Gandhi, Anasaktiyoga: The Gospel of Selfless Action or The Gita according to Gandhi , trans. by Mahadev Desai (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1946), p. 130.
  7. According to Gandhi, "fighting" and "war" in The Gita have to be understood symbolically. Fighting in the world is understood as participating in the affairs of the world. Merton, in consonance with his pacifism and on the basis of his studies on Gandhi, convinced himself that The Gita does not justify war.
  8. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978), p. 330.
  9. Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1973), p. 159.
  10. See Thomas Merton, What is Contemplation? (London: Burns and Oates, 1950), p. 133-35.
  11. The Seven Storey Mountain , p. 410.
  12. "My Place in the World," Merton's Notebook, No. 76, 1965, second half: Readings, etc. (Louisville: Merton Studies Center).
  13. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1968), p. 156.
  14. Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978), p. 70.
  15. See Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951), p. 52.
  16. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander , p. 153.
  17. Contemplation in a World of Action , p. 158.
  18. Ibid., p. 239.
  19. Thomas Merton, Seeds of Destruction (New York: Ferrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1980) p. 229.
  20. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander , p. 117.
  21. Seeds of Destruction , p. 227.
  22. Thomas Merton, Gandhi on Non-Violence (New York: New Directions, 1965), p. 9.
  23. Ibid., p. 7.
  24. Rosemary Ruether, "Monks and Marxists: A Look at the Catholic Left," Christianity and Crisis 33 (April, 1972): 76.
  25. The Ascent to Truth , p. 3.
  26. Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), p. 217.
  27. Faith and Violence , pp. 3-11, and Seeds of Destruction , pp. 3-184.
  28. Vivekananda, The Yogas and Other Works (New York: The Vivekananda Center, 1953), p. 461.
  29. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander , p. 306.
  30. Contemplation in a World of Action , p. 169.
  31. See Thomas Merton: Pilgrim in Process , Grayston and Higgins, eds. (Toronto: Griffin House, 1983), p. 171.
  32. Faith and Violence , p. 115.
  33. J. H. Griffin and Msgr. Alfred Horrigan, Thomas Merton Studies Center I, p. 14.