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How to act is important for the proper pursuit of happiness. The Gita teaches a theory of action that is unique in all of religious literature. The methodology of performing actions and obligations efficiently gets a special name, ‘Karma Yoga’ from the Teacher of the Gita. Every religion certainly insists on the need for fulfilling one’s obligations. However, in the Gita, there is a punchline added to this duty, namely, ‘non-attachment to the fruits of actions’, as an irreplaceable addition, which has made it the hallmark of Hindu spiritual attitude. The basic shloka from the Gita that constitutes the ultimate authority for this is one of the most quoted shlokas of the Gita, far beyond the boundaries of Hindu religion.


karmaNy-eva adhikAras-te mA phaleshhu kadAcana /

mA karma-phala-hetur-bhUH mA te sango’stv-akarmaNi //” (II – 47)

You have the right only to your action – not to the fruits thereof. Do not become the cause for the fruits (by desiring the fruits); nor should you be attached to the non-doing of action.


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? If we don’t seek the consequences, why carry out the action at all? Any action can be judged right or wrong only when the consequences are known. Then  what does non-attachment to the fruits of actions mean?


Unless we can give satisfactory answers to all these questions, the teachings of the Gita cannot apply to our active life. All the six questions above would get a right answer if only we accept an attitudinal change of mind. It is this change in the attitude of mind that the Lord teaches in the Gita. What is this attitude? “Be an actor in a play on the stage!” This is the recipe for that attitude. The actor on the stage has to get angry when it is his role to do so. He should be happy or funny  when the Director tells him to be so. He should laugh or giggle  when he is so directed.  When he is asked to hit another actor on the stage, he should hit. All these are part of his role as an actor on the stage. By being angry or funny or by hitting or laughing, there may be consequences within the play. These consequences should not worry him or be of concern to him. In other words he should have no attachment to these consequences either positively or negatively. In fact, there should not be any worry, attachment, concern, desire or dislike within the play other than what the Director of the play has chalked out for your role.


Suppose for instance, you are playing the role of Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear. At a crucial scene King Lear asks you ‘How much do you love me, dear?’. You, as Cordelia, are supposed to answer “I love your majesty according to my bond, nor more nor less”. You can’t go beyond that seemingly curt reply and start explaining to King Lear, lest he should misunderstand you and feel desperate. This is exactly what he did later, as we all know. If you start any further explanation (to dad Lear!) beyond the words of the script, it means you are being attached to the fruits of your actions within the play. This is the meaning of non-attachment. Do your duty and be not attached to what that action will bring – good or bad. Nor should you refrain from acting, just because you do not like that sort of reply. Then the actress-Cordelia is not playing her part and certainly the Director would not like it. This is Karma Yoga.


Easier said, than done, in worldly life! It becomes a tall order in actual practice in the outside world, because we are all tossed by various desires and attachments. “I” and “Mine” are thoughts which we find it very difficult, almost impossible,  to  dispense with, in the drama of life. So Krishna gives an everlasting strategy. This is called the ‘yajna attitude of all action’. This has been so emphatically chalked out in the Gita and has pervaded the entire cultural ethos of the ideal Hindu life, both religious and secular, that one can mark it as the greatest contribution, for all time,  of Hinduism to the ways of the world.


What is this yajna methodology? It is called ‘Dexterity in Action’ (karmasu kaushalaM – II -50). It is only by such efficient action one will not be bound to (pegged to, imprisoned by)  transient existence in this world. All unhappiness in this world springs out of the non-recognition of the transience of everything. To be beyond this unhappiness  means not to be bound by syndromes of the transient; and this, in turn, is not to be  bound to the results of any action whatsoever. For, any action as well as its results are both transient  This phenomenal independence from the results of any action whatsoever is ‘Efficency in Action’.


But how  exactly is this ‘Efficent Action’ to be implemented? It is to be done through  ‘Dedication’. Any action that is dedicated to either a noble cause or person or deity is a yajna. ‘Do every action of yours as a yajna’, says Krishna. ‘Any action that is not done as a yajna fetters you to the recurring transientness  of the world’, says He in III – 9, first line:

yajnArthAt karmaNo’nyatra loko’yaM karma-bandhanaH

tadarthaM karma kaunteya mukta-sangas-samAcara (III -9)


And the second line means: ‘And therefore do all your actions without attachment’. And this, read with the words ‘mA phaleshhu’ in the  trademark shloka II-47, says: ‘And therefore do all your actions without attachment to the fruits thereof’. The full meaning of this ‘maa phaleshhu’ shloka has therefore to be grasped by reading it along with III-9 and the following six shlokas  (and probably many more!) which occur later:


yogasthaH kuru karmANi sangam tyaktvA dhananjaya /

siddhy-asiddhyos-samo bhUtvA samatvaM yoga uchyate // II – 48

Established in  Yoga, perform actions, abandoning attachment, remaining even-minded in success and failure; for,  even-mindedness is said to be  Yoga.

(Note that the Gita’s central teaching,  sama-dRshhTi,  is already emphasized here as a sine qua non of karma yoga).


niyataM kuru karma tvaM karma jyAyo hy-akarmaNaH /

sharIra-yAtrApi cha te na prasiddhyed-akarmaNaH // III – 8

You must perform  action that has been allotted. For, action is superior to inaction. Even the maintenance of your body cannot proceed through inaction.


tasmAd-asaktas-satataM kAryaM karma samAchara /

asakto hyAcharan-karma param-Apnoti pUrushhaH // III -19

Therefore, unattached always, you should gladly perform action that is prescribed; for, the person, performing action without attachment, mounts to highest bliss.


saktAH karmaNy-avidvAmsaH  yathA kurvanti bhArata /

kuryAd-vidvAms-tathA-saktaH chikIrshhur-loka-sangrahaM //III-25

Even as the unknowing people toil, wedded to sense, so do the enlightened ones toil, sense-freed, but set to bring the world deliverance.


yuktaH karma-phalaM tyaktvA shAntim-Apnoti naishhTikIM /

ayuktaH-kAmakAreNa phale sakto nibadhyate // V – 12

Having abandoned (the attachment for) the fruit of actions, the master of Yoga attains endless Peace. But the person, who is unwedded to yoga, attached to the fruit of action, is fastened down by his action born of desire.


chetasA sarva-karmANi mayi sannyasya matparaH /

buddhiyogam-upAshritya mac-cittas-satataM bhava // XVIII – 57

Mentally surrendering all actions to Me, and accepting Me as the Supreme, have your heart and mind and will fixed on Me by resorting to buddhi-yoga.


With a global understanding of the Gita along the lines of the above shlokas and similar ones, the following elaborate paraphrase of the ‘Maa phaleshhu’ shloka emerges. The key words are therefore: Dedication  andNon-attachment to the fruits of actions’. We shall try to explain these  in quite some detail .


It is attachment  that rouses desire and it is desire that brings in anger.  The chain reaction goes on. The final result is a further bondage to the cycle of works and thereon to the cycle of births and deaths.  Non-attachment on the other hand will not bind you to the results of the action, just as a child kicking the chest of the adult who is carrying it, does not have any axe to grind and so does not get tarnished by the kicking act.  This is the great secret of Karma Yoga. If actions are done without desire or attachment they do not bind you by their results.  The effort therefore should be to overcome the 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 (‘ubhe sukRta dushhkRte’ II – 50) keeps us in bondage. That is why we are advised to be detached. The methodology for  this in actual practice is  Yajna.


Any action done in total dedication to a cause or to a person or a deity is a yajna. The word ‘sacrifice’ inbuilt into the meaning of the word refers to the attitude of ‘not mine’ which is a prerequisite for all yajnas. Whatever is done, is done unselfishly and is dedicated as not mine. This is right action. The finite personality in us always craves for results, for proprietorship and for enjoyment of the reward for the actions. This craving is the Satan in us. Starve this Satanic desire in us. Then the Eve in the form of the results and rewards of actions will not tempt us. Action done for the sake of fruits is what is being tabooed. Like a gramaphone needle which plays any kind of music with the same regard for precision and perfection, irrespective of whether it is to ‘its’ liking or not, we should do our actions irrespective of whether we like it or not. (II – 48). The strategy for this is dedication.


Dedication means: voluntary acceptance of suffering for the sake of somebody else. The deity of the dedication – maybe a father, a mother, a guru, a boss,  a cause, or a God – is the only thing that should matter. You do a certain thing because it is to the liking of the deity of your dedication not because, you will get something out of it.  You avoid doing a certain thing because it is not to the taste or the orders or the wishes of the deity of your dedication. Once we start doing actions with this attitude of dedication we are sure to find an alchemy taking place in the interior core of our minds. Thereafter without our knowing it our whole internal psychology will start restructuring itself to this methodology of doing actions.


Whether it is academic study or a competitive project or a financial deal or a religious worship or a social service – whatever it be, the work done with the attitude of dedication will not bind one in terms of its consequences. That is what a judge does when he sentences a criminal. That is what a surgeon does, at the operation table. He is dedicated to the cause, he is not attached to the person on the operation table. Thus Karma Yoga is self-less desireless dedicated action – action, for all purposes, done exactly as would be done by a person who is totally attached and involved. (Shloka III -25). The difference is only in the mental attitude of the doer. (Shloka XVIII-57).  Desireless and unselfish action performed and dedicated in this way leads to purification of the mind. VAsanAs that are bound to be imprinted in the mind can be avoided only by such actions. Such nishhkAma-karma is the summum bonum of Karma Yoga.  


Even when  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 in Me, with mind inward on the Self, you should fight, devoid of  the fever of excitement, heedless of expectations and of any sense of proprietorship.


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, and 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 because 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. This kind of social action, without any self-interest is a simple way of training oneself in karma yoga . It is in fact the first thing that young people must learn. Identifying oneself with a cause, with a social purpose, one gets attracted by the charms and thrills of social service and the innate satisfaction it provides.  Such social service done as a dedication to society without the least self-interest, and in a totally detached attitude of self-effacement, such action is  also yajna.


From vAsanAs to thoughts and from thoughts to actions is a very familiar chain. To break it, one has to substitute the evil vAsanAs by divine vAsanAs which arise out of puNya-karma, the karma which arises out of compassion and dedicated devotion to the divine  and the universal brotherhood of man. This substitution is not a simple process. One may think of the mind-complex as a large reservoir of vAsanAs, the contents of which cannot be poured out. So in order to 'substitute' good vAsanAs for bad ones, all one can do is really to 'pour' more and more good vAsanAs into the reservoir and dilute its badness.

Punya karmas will create vAsanAs which will gradually overwhelm the pattern of sin that exists in the mind. The gItA gives us a clear recipe for exactly this breaking of the vAsanA-thought-action chain which takes us down the scale of samsAra. The gItA says: 'Do your assigned duty and do it in the spirit of yajna'. That is, do your duty because you have to do it. ‘It is not as important to do what you like to do as to begin to like what you have to do’ (This is a quote from Sathya Sai Baba). Do it without desire. Do it as if it were a part you have to play and you have no stake in your part. The real stakes are beyond the play. Within the play one should have no desire or attachment. This is the spirit of yajna.

The quality of a 'doer' of actions has been classified by the gItA in the standard three-fold way. The lowest type of  'doer'  has no control  (ayuktaH)  over himself. He is unsteady in his application. His low instincts and impulses prod him on to behave in a mediocre (prAkRta) way. He is so mediocre that his mediocrity increases by every action of his – just as garbage heaps up by more garbage. And he becomes fraudulent (ShaTaH) and so unbending (stabdhaH) that he is stubborn in his errors and obstinate in his stupidity.  He is bent upon creating quarrels and disputes and so the world knows him to be malicious (naishkRtikaH). In this way he sets up a pattern for himself that the good things that others may do for him rebound from him as a virus that hurts and destroys. Avoiding all creative endeavours, productive or purposeful, he is a model of sluggishness and indolence (alasaH). Consequently he becomes unable to meet life's challenges and so is despondent (vishAdI). Naturally he postpones  (dIrgha-sUtrI) everything until it is too late.  Such a person is called a tAmasa-kartA: (gItA, 18 -28):


ayuktaH prAkRtaH stabdhaH shaTo naishkRtiko'lasaH /
vishAdI dIrgha-sUtrI ca kartA tAmasa ucyate

No one would like to belong to this category either in his early student-life or afterwards.  The better 'doer' ( that is, better than the one  classified as tAmasa-kartA) is called a rAjasic (=dynamic, passionate) doer. (XVIII – 27):


rAgI karma-phala-prepsuH lubdho himsAtmako'shuciH /
harshha-shokAnvitaH kartA rAjasaH parikIrtatah
Impulsive, desiring to gain the fruits-of-actions,
greedy, rude and bold to overcome, unchastened, slave by turns of sorrow and joy, such a doer is a rAjasic (impassioned) doer.  He is a passionate go-getter irrespective of the means he adopts.

Even though some of these like a little aggressiveness and working for a goal are  expected  out of a ‘good’ student in worldly understanding, in the understanding of the Gita, the dedication in the form of a yajna expected from him is however not there. The student  may ask: 'What is then the meaning of dedication in the context of my daily chore of studies? To whom do I dedicate myself?  Why? What is the outcome of such dedication? How does it alter the picture?' It does; for I tell him:


Think of your mother at home, far away;  she is looking forward to your returning from college with a feather in your academic cap. She expects you to follow certain norms in your daily activities and she has great hopes about your returning to be more balanced, more mature, more knowledgeable, than when she sent you to college. You certainly do not want to disappoint her. Now comes the crucial technique of yajna. It says, for example, 'Dedicate all your actions to your mother, do everything because your mother would like you to do it that way. Avoid certain things because your mother would want you to do so'. In short, you live and act as your mother would want you to. In other words you have dedicated your every step to your mother”.  


This is the karma yoga of the student who has dedicated all his actions to his beloved mother. The consequences of such a dedication must be seen to be believed. At almost every step one experiences an alchemy taking place in one's mind; a constant war will be waged in the inner recesses of the mind between the good vAsanAs and the not-so-good vAsanAs and each time the conviction that one is doing things for the sake of one's mother at home will gradually resolve issues and tilt them towards the side of the better vAsanAs. Such a student may be said to be doing svAdhyAya-yajna, the yajna of study.

This is exactly what the gItA describes in its classification of 'doer' as 'satvic'  (the ideally noble, rightful) in XVIII - 26:


mukta-sango’-naham-vAdI dhRty-utsAha-samanvitaH /
siddhy-asiddhyor-nirvikAraH kartA sAtvika ucyate
Free from attachment, free from egoism, full of a fixed impersonal resolution and a calm rectitude of zeal, unelated by success and undepressed by failure, such a one is called  the sAtvika-kartA.


This verse being the punchline in our elaboration of the yajna attitude, we treat  the concepts one by one in detail.

Mukta-sangaH -- Free from attachment:  This is easier said than done. The scriptures with one voice give the recipe how to be free from attachment. The human mind by nature cannot  obey the commandment of non-attachment. Therefore they say, attach yourself to God. The Tamil tirukuRaL puts this most succintly and beautifully:


paRRuga paRRaRRAn paRRinai appaRRaip-
parruga parru viDaRku
Acquire only the attachment to God who has no attachment Himself. In order to  get rid of all attachments that attachment has to be acquired.


This is the religious facet of karma yoga. In the modern terminology of psychology  this is called 'releasing from worldly ties by retying to Spirit'.  But this attitude would require a belief in God and things of the 'beyond'. Youth  may perhaps want a prop without the intervention of the idea of God. The mother as a deity of dedication is only one example of how karma yoga can be implemented even at the level of a teen-age student and even for the purpose of what appears to be a most self-centred action in which the good of the society does not enter the picture and wherein only the good of one's own self is the prime mover. The mystery of the yajna attitude is its potential to convert even an act of selfishness into an act of dedication and detachment! So the student,  in tune with his attitude of dedication to his mother, should see to it that  attachment to his mother replaces his  perennial attachment to the results of his work.


For a man in  (incidentally, not 'of ') the world, this means he is either attached to his God whom He serves or to his abstract God of Service -- which may be either  the society, the cause, or the organization he serves.  In all cases there is attachment no doubt but the attachment is never for an end which is self-centred. This is the yajna attitude. In the secular world this means one is stepping clear of bonds and physically moving away from problems so that even difficult problems of management or tricky personal problems get solved from a distance.

Free from egoism. (anahamvAdI) Again the dedication takes care of this. Whether it is the Marketing Executive, the Administrative Manager, the student on the climb, or the man in the world, the dedication to either the cause, or the organization, or the mother, or God, is the proper antidote for curtailing the ego and in due time making it totally subservient to everything else. Once the ego is put in its place, the yajna attitude is on.

dhRti-utsAha-samanvitaH (accompanied by firm resolve and  deep fervour): Firm resolve and deep fervour are two  fundamental  qualities which not only the student but every other type of person we are talking about would need. The very fact they  are put in here as the necessary associates of an ideal doer, show that a work done with healthy detachment is not a work which is indifferently done or something which is executed as an unwanted evil necessity. One enjoys doing the work.  And one does it efficiently. It is the spirit with which one does the work rather than the mundane carrots that bring the joy.

siddhy-asiddhyor-nirvikAraH --Unelated by success and undepressed by failure: Here it is that the student will know what it is to dedicate his work to his mother. It is common knowledge that when a child does not perform in school it is the father, (generally),  more than the mother, who will be uncompromising. The mother usually takes the stand that the child did its best and she hopes for a better performance in the future. The dedication to the mother by the teen-age student of all his work, both its  success and its  failure, achieves two things. First, it takes off the sting  of the performance (positive or negative) from the student . Secondly the mother is prepared to take the disappointment of the failure better.  In the general case of the man in the world, the success and failure would not be taken personally as to cause excitement either way, because one knows by his dedication to the Cause or the God, that one has done the best under the circumstances. The ideal example is a good nurse in a hospital who brings her entire personality in the picture and works with dedication irrespective of ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

The alchemy of the yajna attitude by dedication of even ordinary acts to a larger cause, be it as concrete as one's mother at home, or as unsubstantial as God in heaven, or as abstract as any impersonal noble cause, has to be experienced to be believed. It confirms the recurring emphasis in the scriptures on the importance of correct attitudes. Therefore it is the attitude with which you approach your karma that is important, rather than the karma itself.



Action with detachment leads to actionlessness, as we shall see in Ch.11. Even in an action with detachment, somebody must be responsible for that action. Who is it? This is taken up in the next chapter.

Go to Chapter 10


Copyright  ©  V. Krishnamurthy    Feb.9, 2004


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