Question by devotee: I have heard you explain in your discourses that we souls are the doers of our actions. Then why have the Bhakti Saints written padas (devotional songs), saying that they are only instruments in the hands of God, and that He is a real doer of their karmas?
Answer by Swamiji: The concepts Karm (action) and Karmphal (fruit of those actions) need to be understood separately for two categories-before surrender to God and after surrender to God.
Consider the first category-those souls who have not surrendered to God. They are under the grip of the unforgiving ego that makes them feel they are the doers. Also, they harbor personal desires independent of the will of God. In this state, God does not inspire their actions. He gives them the power to act, notes their karmas, and gives the fruits at the appropriate time.
Now consider the second category-those souls who are surrendered to the Almighty. They are free from the pride of doership. Also, they make God's desire as their own desire. In this state, the soul becomes the non-doer, and God becomes the Director for that surrendered soul. Hence, the God- realized souls are able to say:
karata karāvata āpa hai tulasī tulasī śhora
The Saint Tulsidas says: "I neither wrote the Ramayan, nor do I have the ability to write it. Shree Ram was the writer Himself, yet people say that Tulsidas has done it." We must bear in mind that this statement applies only to the second category, i.e. the God-realized saints.
The path for moving from the first category to the second category is to perform actions as if they are dependent upon us, and at the same time, to internally practice to think that God is the doer. Sage Vasishtha has expressed this very beautifully, in his advice to Lord Ram:
kartā bahirkartāntara vihara rāghava (Yoga Vāsiṣhṭha)
"O Ram! Act carefully, as if the results are dependent upon You. But from within, practice thinking that God is the real doer."
So at present, we will have to keep both principles in mind, as we journey from the materially bound state to the God-realized state.