BZ text: chap 19: Desireless Work

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Desireless Wark
OF the ideas thrown out by the Gita, the one about work
without desire for fruit, is considered to be the profoundest.
In contemporary times the Hindu leaders have lavished fulsome
praises on it for being unique in the domain of thought and
for its potentiality to establish world peace. Dr. Radhakrishnan
thinks that “action done devotedly and whole-heartedly, with-
out attachment to the results makes for perfection”. He goes
to say that “If we act in the spirit of the Gita with detach-
ment and dedication, and have love even for our enemy, we
will help to rid the world of wars.”!
The often quoted verse of the sacred poem which puts the
idea in a nutshell is: “To action alone hast thou a right and
never at all to its fruits, let not the fruits of action be thy
motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inac-
This is considered to be the highest ideal for humanity set
by the sublime philosophy of the Gita. But is this practicable?
Can any individual work without having an eye on the fruits
of his labour? Has any group, section or class of people in
this world, not excluding the Indians, followed this ideal since
it was propounded by the Gita for the first time? And,
finally, is it a wholesome ideal at all and can its practice
benefit an individual or human society?
Before these pertinent questions can be answered, it is
necessary that we try to see what occasion arose for the author
of the poem to enunciate the theory of desireless work.
Under sacerdotal supremacy in the Vedic Age the Indian
society was divided into upper and lower castes with high and
low status, unequal distribution of wealth and of the available
amenities of life. The Buddhist revolution could not altogether
destroy the distinctions but surely succeeded in raising the
status of lower castes and toiling masses, in ameliorating their
lot and in making all people feel that they were equal in every
respect and the prevailing inequality was man-made. When,
therefore, with the defeat of the Revolution the Brahmin in-
stitution of caste was restored and reinvigorated and the
labouring millions denied social justice, it led to unhappiness,
sullenness and discontent in the country. It was difficult for
teeming millions to forget the good old days when a vaishya
and shudra and even an outcaste could rub shoulders with a
Brahmin and a kshatriya, choose his own profession and obtain
more or less adequate wages for the labour done by him.
Under the new circumstances created by the rise of nee-
Brahminism a worker had neither the freedom to choose his
avocation nor the right to demand full payment for his labour.
It led to widespread disaffection and non-cooperation on the
part of the working classes, the producers of social wealth.
The resultant instability in all walks of life threatened the
society with impending doom. Something had to be done and
a method devised to stem the tide of hostility and stabilise the
endangered social order.
It would seem that in the silent though wide spread
campaign the working classes were joined by nonconformist
intellectuals who, disgusted with Brahminic reaction but
impotent to manfully face it, took to renunciation as the way
to liberation. It was another aspect of the mass non-coopera-
tion with the rising neo-Brahminism. Says Dr. Radhakrishnan :
“Arjuna refuses to fight and raises difficulties. He puts up a
plausible plea for abstention from activity and for retreat from
the world, an idea which dominated certain sects at the time
of the composition of the Gita. To convert him is the purpose
of the Gita.”3
While the Brahmin thinkers were seriously engaged in
finding some effective philosophical weapon to prevail upon
the recalcitrant intellectuals and the disaffected toiling masses
to return to the path of cooperation irrespective of their own
inclinations and interests, the author of the Gita formulated his
theory of anaskti karmayoga (action without attachment) or
work without any desire of fruits, as the true worship of
Supreme God. It must be recognised that the idea was
remarkably successful in achieving its immediate purpose and
has served as a powerful weapon in the hands of exploiting
classes throughout the past fifteen centuries in this country.
Brahminism divides Indian society into roughly two classes,
the leisured among whom Brahmins and godmen (sadhus) are
the most privileged and live on the fruits of other people’s
labour, and the toiling millions including soldiers, traders,
working intellectuals, agriculturists, shudras and untouchable
outcastes. The theory of desireless work was invented to keep
the latter class in a perpetual state of slavery and let the former
be the master and have the best of the world. One can under-
stand and even appreciate the fairness of the “desireless work”
theory in a classless society where all people are expected to
work hard and produce social wealth and share the products
equally; but in a society of uneven classes the theory is bound
to operate in a thoroughly unjust manner.
Lethargy and indifference of workers being one of the main
and pressing problems encountered by the Brahmin leaders of
post-Revolution era, the author of the Gita repeatedly referred
to it throughout the discourse and presented his solution in
different forms to bring home the crucial point of desirelessness
in all actions.
The problem as dealt with in the Gita was complex and the
solution too could be no simple one: to be active is essential,
inactivity is sin; no one should shun work he is called upon
to do even if the work is not to his liking; no one should care
for wages; whatever is offered should be accepted ungrudgingly
and with pleasure; the nature of work should be of no con-
sideration; only to work with undivided attention and with
faith in God should be the aim; this in brief is Karma Yoga
or Anasakti Yoga (Yoga of detached action), the path to
liberation through activity. “Perform action, 0 Dhananjaya”,
advises Sri Krishna, “dwelling in union with the divine,
renouncing attachment and balanced evenly in success and
failure; equilibrium is called yoga.”4
Underlining the importance of work for living beings in
order to exist, the Blessed Lord says: “Do thou thy allotted
work, for action is better than inaction, even the maintenance
of thy physical life would not be effected without action.”5
“Save work done as and for a sacrifice this world is in bondage
to work. Therefore, 0 son of Kaunteya (Arjuna), do thy work
as a sacrifice becoming free from all attachment.t’f
To restore economic security and stabilise social order, it
was essential that the producing classes should work un-
interruptedly. Sri Krishna ordains: “Therefore without attach-
ment perform always the work that has to be done, for man
attains to the highest by doing work without attachment.”?
Lest it should be suspected that the philosophy of Karma
Marga was a new-fangled idea of the Brahmins, Sri Krishna
adduces the testimony of the most renowned kshatriya sage in
support of his views: “It was even by works that Janaka and
others attained to perfection. Thou shouldst do works also
with a view to the maintenance of the world.t’f Janaka,
mentioned in the Upanishads as a philosopher was the
kshatriya king of Mithila. He was known as rajarishi (royal
It is only when the elders who guide the destinies of the
nation, follow the principle of doing desireless work constantly
that the masses will follow. Therefore, Sri Krishna cautions
the leaders to set up high standard by personal example:
“Whatever a great man does, the same is done by other men
as well. Whatever standard he sets, the world follows.”9
The argument that great men should become beacon lights
to guide the common folk is further explained by showing that
God, who is under no compulsion to work, is incessantly
acting to keep the world in order as also to save the society
from becoming corrupt: -“There is nothing in the three worlds,
o Partha, that should be done by Me, nor anything unattained
that might be attained, yet I am engaged in work. For, if
even I did not engage in work unwearied, 0 Partha, men in
every way follow My path. If I should cease to work, these
worlds would fall in ruin and I should be the creator of con-
fusion of castes and destroy these people. “10
The author of the Gita touches the core of the problem by
denouncing those as ignorant who work from selfish desires
and ask for wages or for work to their liking. He refers to
unattractive labour which working classes were reluctant to do.
He declares those intellectuals to be wise who cooperate with
the leaders of neo-Brahminism and instead of fomenting
disaffection among the sullen toiling multitudes advise them
not to cavil at anything and be prepared to undertake any
labour without asking for the fruits of work. The nature of
the problem is clearly defined by Sri Krishna thus: “As the
ignorant act from attachment to action, 0 Bharata (Arjuna),
so should the wise act without attachment desiring the welfare
of the world. Therefore, let no wise man unsettle the ignorant
people attached to action ; but acting in harmony with Me let
him render all action attractive.”ll
From the Blessed Lord’s admonition it is permissible to draw
two inferences: First, that there were leaders who upheld the
objections of the working classes and supported their cause;
they are warned to reconsider their position and do as bidden.
Secondly, the appeal is made in the name of welfare of the
world (loka sangraha). Evidently tbe author had the world of
the haves, the privileged, in mind and not the world of the
have-nots, the disinherited and dispossessed. It should not
cause surprise as this has been the method of exploiting classes
in every society in the human history: to present their own
problems in a way as to make them the problems of the whole
Raising the discussion to religious level and bringing the
analogy of God and Brahmin sages of ancient times, into it to
make his thesis appear reasonable, Sri Krishna says: “Works
do not defile Me; nor do I have yearning for their fruit. He
who knows Me thus is not bound by works. So knowing was
work done also by the men of old who sought liberation.
Therefore do thou also work as the ancients did in former
loyal and obedient worker has to be told what neo-
Brahminism expects of him so that he may achieve liberation
and enjoy happiness hereafter if not in this world. The condi-
tions are so clearly worded that any comment on them is
unnecessary: “Having abandoned attachment to fruit of action.
always content, nowhere seeking refuge, he does nothing
though he is ever-engaged in work. Having no desire. with
his heart and self under control, giving up all greed, performing
actions by the body alone, he commits no sin. Content with
whatsoever he obtaineth without effort, balanced in success or
failure, though acting he is not bound. The work of man
whose attachments are sundered, who is liberated, whose mind
is firmly founded in wisdom, who does work as a sacrifice, is
dissolved entirely.”13
For demanding full wages of his labour a worker is called
greedy but the man who pockets the fruits of his labour gets it
by chance or by the grace of God and should be allowed to
have it. There is not a word of disapproval for what the
exploiter does. This is the ugly aspect of the philosophy of
Karma Yoga taught by the Gita and extolled by the Hindu
savants. “It (the Gita teaching) is intended,” says
C. Rajagopalachari, “to be the basis for actual moulding of
men’s lives, so as to develop a habitual and spontaneous attitude
of selflessness and detachment. “14
A worker will be entitled to the appelation of yogi and con-
sidered fit for moksha if he acquires the virtue of desireless
action, have faith in Ishvara and is not defiant against the unjust
social order in which inequality born of caste system is the
rule: “Having abandoned attachment yogis perform action
only by the body, by the mind, by the budhi (intelligence) and
even by the senses for purification of self.”15 “Verily those
who renouncing all action in Me and intent on My worship
meditating on Me with whole hearted yoga, these I speedily
lift from the ocean of death and existence, 0 Partha, their
minds being fixed on Me. “16 Of course while a loyal worker
has to be rewarded with hope of liberation hereafter the disloyal
one bent upon securing social justice must be shown his place:
“The harmonised man, having abandoned fruit of action,
attaineth to the eternal peace, the non-harmonised impelled by
desire and attached to the fruit, is (therefore) bound. “17

Any ambiguity that may have persisted in the mind of the
reader about the import of the Karma Yoga has been removed
in the last canto of the poem dealing with the cult of the
Personal God where the main thesis is summarised in a
forthright manner: “Renunciation of duties that are pre-
scribed (by the shastrasy is not proper; the relinquishment
thereof from delusion is said to be born of tamas (darkness).
He who gives up a work from fear of physical suffering, saying
(this work is) ‘painful’ thus performing a passionate relinquish-
ment. He who performeth a prescribed duty as a thing that
ought to be done, renouncing all attachment and also the
fruit-his relinquishment is regarded as satvika (enlightened).”18

Though clothed in religious or “spiritual” phraseology this
was the estimation of loyal and disloyal workers in the eyes of
neo-Brahmin economists and politicians. A virtuous man is
a blind conformist entertaining no doubt whatsover about the
prevalent social code and ever willing to do any work irrespec-
tive of the adequacy or inadequacy of wages offered and the
nature of the work ordered to be done by him. For the welfare
of the exploiter-world every task had to be undertaken and
accomplished by the satvik (good) worker and no objection as
“why” had to be raised: “The wise man, who renounces, whose
doubts are dispelled, whose nature is satvika (of goodness) has
no aversion to disagreeable work and no attachment to agree-
able work.”19

Reiterating that work was in no case to be given up and
insisting that the desire for fruits was to be abandoned, Sri
Krishna says: “It is indeed impossible for any embodied being
to abstain from work altogether. But he who gives up the
fruit of work, he is said to be tyagi (relinquisher).”2o Again:

“An action which is ordained (by shastras) done by the unde-
sirous of fruit, devoid of attachment, without love or hate, that
is said to be satvika (of goodness).”21

How is the work of a disloyal worker, who is self-respecting
and assertive, protests against coercion and demands due wages
and suitable work, to be judged. Sri Krishna answers: “But
that work which is done by one longing for desires, or again

with egoism or with much effort, that is declared to be rajast
(passionate). That work undertaken from delusion without
regard to capacity and consequences-loss and injury to others-
that is declared to be tamasi (of darkness).”22

What do the vague statements like “without regard to
capacity”, “consequences” and “loss and inj ury to others”
signify? They mean that if workers want work of their choice
or stick to their demand of full wages it is bound to cause
damage to the large interests of society dominated by upper
classes. The real intent is being concealed in a way that
suggests that the workers’ case is not based on reason and is
therefore indefensible.

And, finally, giving the verdict about the worker himself,
Sri Krishna, as is his wont, reserves the harshest epithets for
the one who disagrees with his philosophy of Karma Yoga and
stands by his rights: “The doer who is free from attachment,
who has no speech of egoism, full of resolution and zeal and
who is unmoved by success or failure he is said to be of the
nature of “goodness” (satvika). “The doer who is swayed by
passion, who eagerly seeks the fruit of his works, who is
greedy, of harmful nature, impure, who is moved by joy and
sorrow-he is said to be of “passionate” nature (rajasi). “The
doer who is unbalanced, vulgar, obstinate, deceitful, malicious,
indolent, despondent and procrastinating, he is said to be of
the nature of dullness” (tamasi).23

It is the acceptance of this philosophy of Karma Yoga
(desireless work) which induced the teeming millions of India
to become uncomplaining, submissive, contented equally under
the severest repression of the native upper class tyrants and
cruel oppression of foreign desperadoes for nearly fifteen
hundred years. It emasculated them and deprived them of all
capacity to rise in revolt against the unjust order of society.
It brought in its train dire poverty, utter wretchedness, hard-
ships and miseries in which hundreds of millions lived and
groaned in the slender hope that they will get justice and
happiness in the next w”orld. As we shall see it subjected India
to outside invasions and foreign rule.

It is well to remember that whatever claims may be made by
its votaries for Karma Yoga in the province of religion so far
as the mundane affairs were concerned its code of conduct
soley applied to the producing and the exploited classes; the
leisured sections were free from its application for they neither
worked nor had any need to ask for due wages; their only
concern was to appropriate the fruits of other’s labour and
therefore the “desireless work” philosophy admirably suited
them to appropriate and preserve the unearned gains. Karma
Yoga stabilised the shaky Brahmin social system and helped
the exploiters to play their game cheerfully and fearlessly.
While the upper classes enjoyed life with all available amenities,
luxuries and vulgarities the so-called happiness of the down-
trodden and poverty-stricken masses was imaginary. They
were promised happiness not by having creature comforts in
this world but in the belief that they were performing their
proper duties as ordained by the holy scripture for union with
the Divine or for a good life hereafter.

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