Beyond Work: The Bhagavad Gita

Reading time: 5 minutes

Work is Omnipresent and Inevitable

All life is action. Our bodies and minds are constantly in motion. Consider the beating heart, the breathing lungs, the neurons transmitting thoughts, the blood cells moving throughout our circulatory system. “Even the life of the body could not be if there were no action.”

Beyond Work: The Bhagavad Gita

The work of our minds and bodies is unceasing:

Not by refraining from action does man attain freedom from action…For not even for a moment can a man be without action… Helplessly we are all driven to action by the forces born of Nature… Even the life of the body could not be if there were no actionThe world is in the bonds of action.

The universe within which the mind and body is located works unceasingly. The universe (personified as a deity) says:

I have no work to do in all the worlds…I have nothing to obtain, because I have all. And yet I work.

If ever my work had an end, these worlds would end in destruction, confusion would reign within all: this would be the death of all beings.

While work is unavoidable, it does not necessarily culminate in human salvation. Work must be approached with the right attitude. 

Forsaking Reward

The working mind must detach itself from the rewards of work activity:

Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.

Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work.

How poor those who work for a reward!

Seers in union with wisdom forsake the rewards of their work…and go to the abode of salvation.

At first glance, the injunction to “work not for a reward” may appear alien, insofar as it contradicts the universally held moral intuition that work should be rewarded. Why work in the absence of wages or some other form of compensation?

Work Brings Salvation

Although the Bhagavad Gita recommends that one vigilantly eschew “rewards”, it extols salvation as the outcome of work that is pursued with the right mentality. To the extent that salvation constitutes the outcome of work pursued in the setting of specific mental conditions, the work-reward relationship is preserved. What changes (when the worker adopts the right attitude) is the locus of reward: the reward no longer resides in a benefit that is external to the worker. The rewards rather reside in benefits that are internal to the worker. The reward that manifests in the worker who pursues work in the setting of the right mental conditions is called Salvation.

Pure Work

Not all work is beneficial. Work must be “pure” to bring about salvation. Pure work:

  • Is pursued in equanimity, i.e. the worker is “not moved (by the) success or failure” of his efforts.
  • Feels effortless. When work is done with selfish desire it feels effortful and is to this extent thinking it impure. “I am not doing any work”, thinks the man who is in harmony, who sees the truth…”
  • Is done “because it ought to be done”, regardless of whether it is “pleasant or unpleasant”.
  • Is egoless. When the worker pursues her work, she is free from selfish desires: The worker pursues ends that are intrinsic to the work itself rather than tethered to rewards involving enrichment or self-aggrandizement. Pure work is “free from vain hopes and selfish thoughts.”
  • Is pursued “In liberty from the bonds of attachment” to a desired outcome. “In this wisdom a man goes beyond what is well done and what is not well done. Go thou therefore to wisdom… in work.”
  • May produce an imperfect outcome or product. “And a man should not abandon his work even if he cannot achieve it in full perfection: because in all work there may be imperfection…”
  • Is motivated by good will: “Let thy aim be the good of all, and then carry on thy task in life.”
  • Is accompanied by feelings of joy. By experiencing joy, one guides those who work less skillfully: “Let not the wise disturb the mind of the unwise in their selfish work… Let him, working with devotion, show them the joy of good work.”
  • Conduces to self-reliance. “In whatever work he does such a man in truth has peace: he expects nothing, he relies on nothing, and ever has fullness in joy.”
  • Facilitates freedom. When engaging in pure work one’s attention is no longer fixated on the satisfaction of desires. Boredom and restlessness results when desires are fulfilled; Frustration and longing results when desires are not realized.  Insofar as pure work is free from desire if frees us from both outcomes: “In the bonds of work I am free, because in them I am free from desires. The who can see this truth, in his work, he finds his freedom…But those who follow not my doctrine, and who have ill will, are men blind to all wisdom, confused in mind: they are lost.”
  • Brings contentedness. When one works purely one is glad about whatever (one is given). “He is without jealousy, and in success or in failure he is one: his works bind him not.”
  • Connects the individual to the universe of which she is a part.  Pure work is a “surrender to the infinite” and to this extent imparts a sense of meaning and connectedness. When work is pursued “in freedom from bondage”, it leads the worker to a “a region supreme which is beyond earthly action.”
  • Embodies the individual’s duty: “And do thy duty, even if it be humble, rather than another’s, even if it be great. To die in one’s duty is life: to live in another’s is death.”

Beyond Work

In its equation of freedom with duty, the Bhagavad Gita anticipates the ideas of Immanuel Kant (the most influential Philosopher of the modern West). Although Pure Work is dutiful, the worker engaged in pure work does not feel that he is working.  The worker who approaches work with the right attitude thinks: ‘I am not doing any work’. Pure work is to this extent beyond work.

Source: The Bhagavad Gita. Translated by Juan Mascaro. Penguin Books, 1962.

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