The attitude of detachment is the essential core of what goes  by the name of karma yoga, the yoga of selfless, dedicated action. This attitude is the lesson that philosophy teaches us. From the innumerable stories of the purANas and our everyday experience, we note that whenever, for instance,  there is an irresoluble dilemma in life, death or its equivalent,  we tend to philosophize. This resort to philosophy is not for a psychological satisfaction, nor is it an attempt  at helpless compromise with reality. It is in fact the only means to get to the root of the matter. In the classical case where Arjuna presents his dilemma to Krishna on the battlefield and collapses, the first thing that Krishna does is to recall to him the nature of the Atman. Krishna says: 'You are grieving about something that ought not to be grieved about, neither these kith and kin of yours nor you as Arjuna are everlasting'. 'Go about in the world', says Krishna, 'fully conscious of the fact that you are the Atman, and therefore you can never be tarnished by these feelings of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, friendship and enmity. Be completely detached as if you were an actor on the stage. An actor does not hesitate to 'kill' his bosom friend who is playing the part of the enemy on the stage'. 'Detachment' does not imply ineffectiveness as some critics would have it. Only when you are completely detached can you do a job without being confused by excitement. This does not mean that you are not involved. Certainly you are. As an actor on the stage you have to be involved with everything that goes on there and especially with the part you play; and you must play it well. Even if you have to be angry on the stage, you have to be; but the real You - whatever you are outside the stage - is not angry. This is karma yoga. You are acting in the world according to the role given to you, according to your sva-dharma (= one's own duty) , and performing it effectively, never for a moment forgetting the fact,  that it is your duty to act without expecting anything out of it. The thief in the play who is stealing currency notes (real notes, that is) can never for a moment believe that the currency will stay with him, the real him!. So the gIta says: 'Do your duty, don't be attached to the outcome thereof.' 
What does it mean 'not to be attached'? The gItA describes what happens after 'attachment'.  (bhagavad-gItA: 2- 62, 63):

sangAt-samjAyate kAmah kAmAt-krodho'bhijAyate /
krodhAd-bhavati sammohaH sammohAt-smRti-vibhramah / 
smRtibramSAd-buddhi-nASaH buddhi nASAt-praNaSyati //

Anxious desire follows attachment; the (non-fulfillment of) that desire leads to anger; 
only one step away is  delusion, followed  by a  confusion of intellect; and this leads to
the failure of intellect; and thereafter, disaster.


The effort therefore should be to overcome these consequences of attachment and that is what one means 'not to be attached'. If a person can go about one's duties for the sake of duty and not claim authorship, ownership or doership for oneself then one will not be subject to the experience of resultant pleasure or pain. Neither the good results nor the bad results of his actions would bind him. So long as any actions bind him he has to return to the cycle of transmigration. The ultimate purpose is to see that neither the good nor the bad keeps us in bondage. That is why we are advised to be detached. 

Total detachment does not mean asceticism. Poverty is not the only gateway to purity. Asceticism usually is taken to mean retiring to the forest and seeking in the serenity of the silence there a communion with the divine. This is certainly a worthwhile goal but this is not prescribed for the millions who cannot but toil in the humdrum world of  samsAra.Hinduism has different prescriptions for different levels of seekers. Retiring to the forest as an  ascetic is prescribed for those who are ready for the fourth stage of life. For the millions of us,  when the scriptures  say 'be detached' they mean 'have a detached attitude'. It is the attitude that matters, not the physical act of renuciation. The physical act of renunciation, if it is not simultaneously accompanied by the a complete cessation of the feeling of attachment to anything that binds, is only hypocrisy  (gItA, 3 - 6):
                                 karmendriyANi samyamya ya Aste manasA smaran /

indriyArthAn vimUDhAtmA mithyAcAras-sa ucyate //

The one  of deluded understanding who,  restraining the organs of action, sits thinking in his mind of the sense objects, is called a hypocrite. 

On the other hand, being in the world, if you go about its affairs with a feeling of  detachment, that  is exactly what is wanted of a seeker who is a householder.  Karma yoga recognizes  that the real evil is not in the physical possessions themselves but in the attachment to them. It is not the ordinary duties involved in the process of earning a livelihood that should be abhorred, but selfishness - which is a consequence of attachment to the non Self. It is this that should be suppressed and ultimately conquered. It is in this sense that Krishna advises Arjuna to fight the battle rather than show attachment and compassion to his fellow-men and retire. Krishna makes a  remarkable  statement in this strain, which must be engraved in gold: (Gita, 3-30):


mayi sarvANi karmANi sanyasy-AdhyAtma-cetasA /
nirASir-nirmamo bhUtvA yudhyasva vigata-jvaraH //

Renouncing all actions unto Me, with the mind centred on the Self,without any desire and without any ego, go and fight, without any  fever (of excitement).

It is significant to note that one has to 'fight' without desire, without ego and without excitement! When interpreted for the common man this means: Do carry on your life's journey doing all your duties  without selfishness, without the fever and excitement that you normally show in chasing happiness and satisfaction. How is this possible?  It should be made possible. That is karma yoga. 

For this it may not be necessary (though advantageous) to go along the path of religious belief, involving an acceptance of the divinity of man, the conviction that there is a supreme power, that the authority of the scriptures is unquestionable, and so on. All that is required is the belief in the dignity of man. Thus one may encounter a staunch karma yogi who does not believe in God and religion. Such a karma yogi will do his duties devotedly, not because he will otherwise incur demerit but because he knows no other way to be of use to himself and to society. Social responsibilities will be meticulously discharged by him becaiuse he is convinced that he owes service to society for his very sustenance as a member of that society.  He believes that each one of us must do his or her job sincerely and to the best of one's ability. If the returns of work do not properly match the amount of effort expended and the efficiency and dedication with which it is executed, he knows that these ills of society can never be corrected by rebellion. But he is not a conformist. He might well be an unusual person who has struck out a new path for service to society, and in following it exhibits zeal and steadfastness. Such a karma yogi has no ambitions for himself except some residual attachment for the work he is doing  and he would, therefore not yield to anybody in estimating the importance of his work. 

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