28.6.1: AN ANALYSIS OF KARMA YOGA

 

The   five shlokas 47 to 51 of the 2nd chapter of the Gita  contain the essential message of karmayoga of the Gita, almost in full. We shall see here an overview of this message through an elaboration and analysis of these five shlokas, supplemented by other shlokas that come later.

 

47. karmaNy-evAdhikAraste maa phaleshhu kadaacana |

maa karma-phala-hetur-bhuH maa te sa~Ngo.astvakarmaNi ||

 

This shloka is one of the two trademark shlokas of the Gita. (The other one is 9.22) It contains one positive ‘Do’-command and three ‘Do-not’-commands for all our actions. Remember Gita finally reduces everything to an Action Plan for our entire life.

 

karmaNi eva adhikAraH te: your right is only for actions; maa phaleshhu kadAcana : never for the fruits (of those actions); maa karmaphala-hetur bhUH: don’t be a cause for the fruits of actions; if you have a desire for the fruits of actions then you would be the originator (hetuH – cause) of those fruits. Do not have any desire for the fruits of actions; maa te sangaH astu akarmaNi: Nor should you like to withdraw from your actions. Do not have any attachment or partiality to non-action.

 

Action means here the obligatory actions (niyataM karma) – cf.18.9 & 18.23- which we are bound to do either in the secular world, or in a religious context or as a spiritual exercise or in social interactions or in human relationships. In other words, all prescribed actions, prescribed either by society or government or religion or humanitarian considerations  are included in the term karma here.

 

Several questions arise here. How can anybody do any action without having a concern or attachment to the fruits thereof? Without thinking of the consequences, positive or negative, how can any action be completed in its fullness? Even if it be so done, is it fair to be unconcerned about the fruits of actions? If the doer of an action is himself indifferent to the consequences of the action, how can the action be said to have been performed well? And how can the action be at all performed efficiently? If we don’t seek  or desire the consequences, why carry out the action at all? Any action can be judged right or wrong only when the consequences are taken into consideration. Then what does non-attachment to the fruits of actions mean?

 

We shall try to answer all these questions and several more that may arise in the discussion. Krishna does not seek to answer them in so many words. But he keeps on piling shloka upon shloka that they all add up together to give the answers.  Therefore  we may need to consider the next four shlokas (48 to 51  in any such discussion. First the straightforward meanings of  those shlokas.

 

***** 48. yogasthaH kuru karmANi sa~NgaM tyaktvA dhanaMjaya |

siddhy-asiddhyoH samo bhUtvA samatvaM yoga ucyate ||

 

yogasthaH: Being anchored (firmly established, located) in yoga; sa~NgaM tyaktvA: renouncing all attachments; and, siddhy-asiddhyoH samo bhUtvA : being equanimous to success (siddhi) and failure (asiddhi). kuru karmANi:  do your actions. samatvaM yoga ucyate: Equanimity is said to be yoga.

 

.This is one of our five-star shlokas; because it gives the specific ‘how’ of what is prescribed in #47, the key shloka for karma yoga.  Be fixed in yoga says the method. And what is yoga is explained in the shloka itself. Yoga is nothing but equanimity.  And what are we supposed to be equanimous about? It is equanimity with respect to success and failure. And this assures us we are not desirous of the fruits of our actions. So maa phaleshhu and maa karma phala-hetur bhUH are both assured. Incidentally, because we have been enjoined to do our karma (obligatory action) as a yoga (being in the equanimous state) this whole process of doing our works has got the name of  karma-yoga.

 

Recall the list of the five teachings U-1 to U-5 of Krishna.  The last one there is brahma-bhAva, the attitude of seeing everything and every one as brahman, the Absolute. This equanimous view is of two kinds.  One is that of seeing all matter and all beings as the same brahman.  Another is that of treating all that happens to us equanimously. Great souls like a Sadashiva brahmendra, or a Ramana Maharishi had that equanimity with respect to everything.  That this should be our goal is what U5 teaches us. Right now Krishna links yoga (the methodology for doing actions the right way) with this ideal of Equanimity.  Recall again it was in 2.38 that Krishna first introduced this sama-buddhi and in the very next shloka 2.39 he lays the foundation for his teaching of karma-yoga.

 

It will be a useful exercise now, in view of what comes later, to look at the following 24 shlokas which dwell directly on the concept of Equanimity:

 

5.18; 6.8; 6.9; 6.29; 12.15; 12.18; 13.27; 13.28; 14.24; 14.25 – these say what is samatvaM, by giving almost a type of definition. Each one delineates sama-buddhi in a particular way and with a different emphasis. It is this sama-buddhi that is the basis for the right way of doing karma-yoga.  And Krishna, the good teacher He is, slowly introduces all the complexities of equanimity little by little in these shlokas. One can also see that the level at which Krishna is talking is going gradually upward as we progress along these shlokas. This is Krishna’s spiral method of teaching. Actually, the last two shlokas in this list contain the words tulya-nindAtma-samstutiH (alike to censure and praise), mAnApamAnayos-tulyaH (alike to honour and disgrace) – these are nothing but   peaks of equanimity.

 

2.38; 2.56; 4.22; 6.30; 6.32; 12.13 – these prescribe the methodology to achieve samatvaM.

 

9.29 gives Krishna’s own example.

 

4.24 enunciates the basic Upanishadic truth.

 

18.20 delineates the principle of samatvaM  in an integrated capsule form

 

2.72; 5.19; 5.20; 7.19 and 18.54 declare the implicit constituents of the goal of samatvaM.

 

49. dUreNa hyavaraM karma buddhiyogAt dhanaMjaya |

buddhau sharaNam-anvicchha kRRipaNaaH phala-hetavaH||

 

buddhiyogAt dUreNa hi avaraM karma: (Ordinary) Action is far inferior (avaraM) to action done as buddhi-yoga.

 

Krishna refers to the above mode of doing action desirelessly and keeping equanimity as the norm, as a buddhi-yoga. This is the method by which we get beyond the result-oriented ritualism. It is not what we do, but how we do it with equanimity is what gives the name buddhi-yoga. Though Krishna uses this term only in three places – 2.39, 10.10 and 18.57 – this is what He means whenever He refers to the way actions have to be done.

 

Buddhau sharaNam anviccha : Take resort to this kind of intellect (and its dictates); phala-hetavaH kRRipaNAH: those who desire for the fruits of actions are wretched (miserable, pitiful). This word ‘kRRipaNAH’ is a very strong censure of those who desire and go after the fruits of actions; Krishna borrows the idea and the word from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad[1] :He who departs from this world, O Gargi, without knowing this Immutable, is miserable. Miserable, because, desire-prompted actions are what creates new vAsanAs and therefore further entries in the samsAra cycle, they ngo down and down in the scale of samsAra.

 

50. buddhiyukto jahAtIha ubhe sukRRita-dushhkRRite .|

tasmAd-yogAya yujyasva  yogaH karmasu kaushalam ||

 

buddhiyuktaH:  yoked to the samatva-buddhi (the intelligence of equanimity) (as mentioned in #48), the seeker ,  iha – in this world;  jahAti : discards (renounces) ubhe sukRRita-dushhkRRite: both good and evil actions – their merits and demerits). tasmAt : therefore, yogAya yujyasva: strive for (be in alignment or conformity with) this yoga; yogaH karmasu kaushalaM: Yoga is nothing but efficiency or dexterity in action.

 

Yoga is efficiency in action, says the last quarter of this verse. This is a famous statement to be imprinted in gold. What is this efficiency? The efficiency consists in maintaining the evenness (equanimity) of mind in success and failure of the action – and here, Shankara as well as Ramanuja add, with the mind dedicated to God[2]. Without this dedication to God, one cannot be equanimous to success and failure. And once this equanimity to success and failure is there, the action is rid of all motives and so neither the merit of the action nor the demerit of the action devolves on the doer and that is the skill or efficiency or kaushalaM that marks the action! When one works with such dedication and with the efficiency of sama-buddhi,  then even the actions which usually bind cease to do so. Hence yogaH karmasu kaushalaM !  

 

Another  important thing to note in this shloka is the concept of discarding both good and evil actions.  This discarding of both good and evil actions is a unique characteristic of the Hindu religion and its philosophy.  Recall how nistraiguNyo bhava of #45 also implied the discarding also of sattva, though not in the beginning of the spiritual ascent but at the end (See comment under #45).

 

51. karmajaM buddhiyuktA hi phalaM tyaktvA manIshhiNaH |

janma-bandha-vinirmuktAH padaM gacchhanty-anAmayam ||

 

manIshhiNaH: Wise men; buddhiyuktAH: being yoked to that kind of intelligence which is full of sama-buddhi (of #48); karmajaM phalaM tyaktvA: (and consequently) renouncing fruits that arise from actions ; janma-bandha-vinirmuktAH: get released from all bondages of birth; anAmayaM padaM gacchanti : they reach the status where they are not bothered by any such disease or sorrow.

 

There are several ways in which one can understand these shlokas. There are two aspects. Why do we have to do it this way, and how?.   ‘Why’ is explained by the first 25 observations below. ‘How’ is explained by the remaining. First, a general observation: All religions say: Do your duty. But Hinduism adds a punchline to it: “Do it without attachment or sense of ownership”. Incidentally,

3.30 and 18.26 , both capsule the entire theory each in one shloka.

 

  1. Action is done by the complex of body, mind  and intellect – together called BMI. Vedanta is very emphatic that the BMI is not the real You or the real I.  The consequence of action will come only to the BMI.   But one has  to be detached from one’s BMI. This means we should have no attachment to the consequence of action.  Maa phaleshhu. This is the major Vedanta answer to the ‘Why?’-question.

  2. Any binding  to, that is,  being desirous of,  the results of the action means a bondage to its transience. Any bondage to transient things creates a vAsanA which will have to be exhausted later either by an experience in this birth or by having a future birth. (See 5.12).

  3. Any thirst for the fruits of actions will create opportunities for us to enjoy the fruits of those actions; this will mean more births again and again  to experience them.

  4. Dispensation of the fruits of action is under the control of Providence. So to think that we have done the action and so we deserve to enjoy the fruits of action – is illogical.

  5. The above four are all academic Vedanta answers. But the most important worldly-wise answer is the following. If you are attached to the fruits of your action, efficiency of the action will suffer. Attached involvement implies excitement which implies confusion; therefore efficiency suffers. Example: Answering an examination paper.  While writing the examination if you are attached to the result of your examination and keep on thinking as to who will evaluate your answers, how well or otherwise the evaluation will be done and how best you can outwit the evaluation by taking easy shortcuts and so forth, you will not only be wasting your time but your answering efficiency and concentration would have already suffered. Another Example: Acting on the stage.  If the actor, while acting, worries about what will happen to the other actor-roles on the stage by his harsh words or soft words, he will not be able to do his role (harsh or soft) right. He has to be detached but involved, for the purposes of acting.  If the player who plays the role of Harish Chandra[3] worries about what will happen to his wife who is begging at his feet for clemency at the cremation ground, his role of Harish Chandra would not have been played well. If the actress who plays the role of Cordelia[4], the third daughter of King Lear, worries about what will happen to her father King Lear by the matter-of-fact words she speaks, her role would not have been played well.  A third example can be given from a daily occurrence[5] which must have happened to many of us.

  6. Detachment is only a question of attitude. See 3.25 & 18.57 Attachment means presence of ego-centric desires. Let not attachment or aversion determine the action.

  7. See 2.48. Even-mindedness to success or failure is a must.  This is  “maa phaleshhu”.

  8. “maa te sangostvakarmani”. You cannot desist from action because you have to do what is prescribed for you. See 3.8.

  9. Renunciation of an obligatory duty is in no way justified. One cannot reach the goal of Karma Yoga that way. See 3.4; 18.7, 18.8.

  10. Detachment from the fruits of actions does not mean indifference to them. For you have to do your duties efficiently.  “samAcara” is the word. See  3.9 and 3.19. Also 18.26.

  11. Later Krishna is going to say that you are not the doer of your actions.   So the fruits of the actions are not yours. So “maa phaleshhu”. Another way of looking at this: “na aham kartA”; so where is the right for me for the fruits of actions?

  12. Every desire is wrong. For desire leads to anger, anger leads to delusion, delusion leads to malfunction of the intellect and that is chaos. (See 2.62 & 2.63). So desire for the fruits of action is also wrong.

  13. No expectations means no thought of success or failure. Therefore no frustration or elation. No consequential pain or pleasure. No jubilation, no dejection. No chance for play of the ego.

  14. No  preoccupations with the future. This means: ‘Act in the living present’.

  15. Your right is only for action, not for its renunciation. If you forcibly try to renounce all action, 3.5 says you will not succeed. Your nature will compel you to act. (3.33) (18.59, 18.60).

  16. Refusing to perform an obligatory duty will bring punishment not only in this world, but in the other world also.

  17. The non-absolute philosophical schools emphasize: All actions are to be done for the satisfaction of God and never for any other fruit.

  18. See ‘yat karoshi …’ (9.27) . You have dedicated all your actions to God. So no more claim either on the action or its results.

  19.  18.12 says ‘Fruits of action adhere not to those who do not have any desire or attachment to them. Such people are not therefore instrumental in making their action bear fruit. “mA karma phala-hetur bhUH”

  20. All unhappiness arises from non-recognition of the transience of everything. Therefore don’t be bound by the syndromes of the transient. Fruit of action is a transient.

  21. Nothing is yours. Everything is the Lord’s. In particular, the phala (=fruit of action) also cannot be yours.

  22. Action done for oneself adds a coating to the Ego and thickens it. Thus it insulates one from God. Actions done for others remove the self-centredness.

  23. ‘artha’ and ‘kAma’ depend on destiny (prArabdha karma). ‘Dharma’ and ‘moksha’ depend upon self-effort, done desirelessly. So effort should not be wasted on doing karma with an eye on the fruits.

  24. The Br.U. says those who work for fruits of actions are miserable, like ‘slaves bought for a price’.  kRpaNAH, paNakrIta iva dAsAdiH, says Shankara.

  25. Neither the good nor the bad should keep us in bondage (2.50). all thought of phala, either way, is an obstacle to the spiritual ascent.

  26. Do everything as a yajna, as a dedication. (This is Krishna’s  major answer to the question: How do we actually be detached?) That way attachment will never be self-centred and no personal interests are at stake. Dedication means voluntary acceptance of suffering by the BMI for the sake of the deity of dedication.  More on this yajna in Ch.3.

  27. In order to get rid of all attachments, acquire the (only) attachment to God.  Recall the Tirukkural[6]: Attach yourself to the attachmentless Lord, because that is the only attachment that will help sever all other bonds and attachments

  28. Break the VasanA-thought-action chain by doing every action as a discharge of obligation, not for reward: -- as you say, Thank you. We say thank you, without any reservation or expectation. That is the way all obligatory duties have to be performed – for the sake of the fact it is our duty and for nothing else. Action is always followed by a reaction. This, in Vedanta, is what is meant by saying every action creates further vAsanAs which lead to further thoughts and actions. This chain has to broken. That is why the skilfulness in action is recommended by the methodology of evenness of mind. Once the evenness is there, there is no more motive for the action, and so the very nature of the action changes. Instead of creating further vAsanAs, the action now evaporates without creating any vAsanA-thought-action chain.

  29. Six examples:  (a) Doctor on the Operation Table. The Doctor is indifferent to the question whether the patient is a good person or not;

(b) Actor on the stage vis-à-vis his actions on the stage; the actor never worries about what will happen to the other players on the stage because of his action; he carries out the instructions he received from the Director of the show. So also we humans should carry out the obligatory duties that our Director, the Almighty has chalked out for us;

(c) Gramaphone needle doing its job without any like or dislike

(d) Child kicking the chest of the adult who carries it. It has no axe to grind.

(e) Nurse attending on a patient.

(f) Judge sentencing a criminal.

 

An important rejoinder to the requirement of Detachment or Non-attachment:

 

Once a bevy of housewives who were listening to these lectures, unanimously raised the following question: Sir, what you are saying on detachment as a sine qua non for karma yoga may be alright from the point of view of the text of the Gita. But look at us.  We are all housewives. Each one of us has a husband, family, children and parents to be taken care of. We love them all.  We all have tremendous affection and attachment for our children and their welfare. How are we supposed to be detached? If we are not attached to our family what will happen to them? Is it not our duty to serve and take care of our family?.  It is almost impossible for us to detach ourselves from our family ad carry on our lives. All of you Gita-expositors say the same thing about detachment.  But we cannot go and ask great Swamijis this question of ours. Please tell us whether you really mean that we should practise non-attachment even in the midst of our family duties, or wait for us to reach age 50 or 60 and then start your ideas of detachment.

 

The answer to this legitmate question has been given by Kanchi Mahaswamigal in one of the books of ‘Deivathin Kural’ and also in his lectures. Yes, says the Mahaswamigal.  ‘What you ladies say is legitimate. But who asked you not to pour your affection on those to whom you are attached? Pour all your affection, as much as you can, and more if you so wish, on all your children, kith and kin and whomsoever you are attached to.  Simply flood them with your affection. No problem. But remember this. Do not ever expect anything as a result or reward in return. Do not pour your affection on your children expecting them to do something for you in return. Do not keep any such expectation as a motive for your pouring affection on them. So long as you totally avoid all expectations of ‘fruits’ or ‘rewards’ either immediately or in the future, you are within the norms of the Gita. In fact by doing like this, your minds will in due course of time develop the maturity for a healthy detachment!’

 

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[1] Yo vA etadaksharaM gArgi aviditvA asmAllokAt praiti sa kRRipaNaH : Br.U.3.8.10

[2] IshvarArpita-cetaH –Shankara Bhashhya to shloka #50

[3] Harishchandra, son of Trishanku, was a king of Ayodhya and the 28th in descent  from Ikshwaku, the founder of the solar dynasty. In order to satisfy the claims of the sage VisvAmitra, who wanted to test his integrity, he parted with his kingdom and all that he possessed, sold his wife and only son and hired himself out as the employee of an outcaste who kept a burning ghat. Whenever a dead body was brought for cremation there, Harishchandra used to recover the toll and make it over to his master.  One day it so happened that a snake bit his only son, Rohita, and the exqueen brought the dead body of the prince for cremation to the same ghat. Even though the ex-king recognized them to be his own wife and child, he would not allow the cremation to be done without the recovery of the usual toll. At last the penniless woman offered to part with the rag with which she had covered her shame and the heartless ex-monarch was going to strip her naked when the gods interposed and restored the pious king to his throne and all his former prosperity.

[4] Cordelia is the third daughter of King Lear. When the King asks his three daughters as to how much they love him, the first two daughters, with an eye on the share of the kingdom they were going to inherit, speak in flowery exaggerations about their love to their father. Cordelia who sees the game is disgusted with her sisters’ greed,and so is satisfied by simply saying: Father, I love you just as a dutiful daughter, neither more nor less’. The King had expected much more words from her. He disinherits her and divides his kingdom between the other two daughters. So goes the story.

[5] Let us suppose you have gone all the way to a shopping mall, parked your car,  found your way to the exact shop you want, picked up your merchandise, worth some thousands, and then suddenly at the checking counter, find that you don’t have your wallet on you and that has all your ID cards, driving license, credit cards, check book, mobile phone and everything in the world which had been giving you the security of which you were so sure and proud.  You start feeling and touching every part of yourself as well as of your dress to see whether you have it somewhere. Amidst this quick flutter of action, the man behind you in the line, says: Relax, young man, go and look in your car, look in your glove compartment.  Your behaviour is obviously one of total confusion, anxiety and tension and the man behind you who has no axe to grind and who has no stakes in the game can say: Relax! But it is you who have to relax, not he! He can think of advising you to ‘rlax’ because he is not ‘attached’ to your wallet as you are. It is because of your attachment you have even forgotten to remember that the other possible place  where it could be is the glove compartment and it requires a totally detached person behind you in the line, to remind you. 

[6] Patruga patratrAn patrinai appatraip patruga patru viDarkku.- Tamil Tirukkural 350.

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© 2017 by V. Krishnamurthy

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