By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
An action performed with detachment and without any desire for results is known as “Niskama Karma” or “Disinterested Action”. Such actions are performed with a sense of duty and not with the hope of some results. Such actions do not impose any bondage on the person concerned and he can attain liberation through such Niskama Karma. Some people believe that for gaining liberation one should renounce the world and take up sanyas. But Bhagavad Gita states that a person can obtain liberation through three methods—Jn Yoga (knowledge), Karma Yoga (Activity) and Bhakti Yoga (Devotion). A person can attain “Mukti” or liberation by following any of these courses.
Bhagavad Gita is one of the most revered religious texts of the Hindus and even in today’s world many devout Hindus start the day by chanting some Verses from the Gita. But Gita is more a philosophical treatise than a religious discourse, which throws light on such inscrutable metaphysical problems like the ture of the soul, God and man’s liberation. Gita is incorporated in the Mahabharata, the immortal creation of Maharshi Veda Vyas. Mahabharata rrates the story of two branches of the same clan—Pandavas and Kauravas, who stand for good and evil respectively. Duryodha, the Kaurava prince, was the embodiment of evil forces. He was determined to rob Hastipur and Indraprastha from the rightful heir to the throne Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava, by fraud and hence the battle of Kuruksetra inevitably followed. Lord Sri Krish, the God-incarte, was the guiding force of the Pandavas.
On the first day of the battle of Kurukshetra, when both the armies confronted one another, Arju, the third Pandava, requested his charioteer Lord Sri Krish to drive the chariot to the centre of the battle field, from which spot both the armies were visible. Accordingly Sri Krish drove the chariot to the middle portion of the battle field. When Arju looked at the enemy line, he was overwhelmed with grief as he clearly realized that the enemies were none other than his own Kith and Kin. How could he possibly kill them? He thought that it was better to take up sanyas than bringing all that devastation to his own relations. Asserting that he would not fight, Arju laid down his Gandiva.
That was when his life-long friend Lord Krish took the role of a preceptor and Arju became his ideal disciple. Thus unfolded the great philosophical treatise the Bhagavad Gita, comprising 18 chapters, dealing with metaphysical realities like soul and God, as well as the duty of man, leading to the ultimate goal of liberation or “mukti”.
The three main parts of the Gita are Karma Yoga (Action), J Yoga (Knowledge) and Bhakti Yoga (Devotion). In the first chapter we find a grief-stricken Arju refusing to fight and from the second chapter Sri Krish takes over to impart lessons on various aspects of life and reality to show Arju the true means to attain liberation. He starts with his rration of the ture of soul and its characteristics, then explaining diverse aspects of man and the world he goes to the fil chapter on “moksa” or liberation. From his teachings we learn that there are three ways to attain liberation—knowledge, activity and devotion. Different commentators on Gits have emphasized one or the other way as the best method recommended for achieving liberation. Since Indian philosophy is a way of life, these scholars have adhered to these means with sincerity and devotion. Sankaracharya of Advaita Vedanta system believed that only through knowledge or “j” one could attain liberation. Swami Vivekanda tried to realise Reality by combining knowledge and activity. Sri Chaitanya’s chosen path was pure devotion or “Bhakti”. In the Gita Sri Krish seems to extol the virtue of all the three means for attaining liberation, and hence all this confusion regarding which is the best.
Lokmanya Tilak in his “Gita Rahashya” states that in Sri Krish’s view “action” or “Karma” appears to be the best way to attain liberation. This was the result of his deep speculation on Gita and his thoughts and findings were expressed through his magnificent compostion “Gita Rahashya”, which was completed in five months—between November 1910 and March 1911, while he was confined in Mandalay prison. After completing it he wrote, “I have just finished writing my book and I have given it the title “Gita Rahashya”. In it I have expanded some origil ideas, which in many ways, will be presented to the people for the first time. I have shown in this book how the Hindu religious philosophy help to solve the moral issues in everyday life”.
Tilak speculated over the philosophy of Gita with a free and unprejudiced mind, and came to the conclusion that Gita advocates “Karma Yoga” more than the other two, that is “Sankhya” and “Yoga”. With the help of knowledge and devotion, one may attain liberation, but even after that there should not be any recession of his activities. The liberated person, who performs “Niskama Karma” (disinterested action) with detachment, can never be bound by the world of Karma. Bondage is not a quality or characteristic of karma—rather it is the mental attitude. Explaining the matter, Tilak says that the attachment which arises in our mind due to activity, can be gradually diminished by controlling the senses. Through disinterested action or “niskama karma” the bondage of karma can be broken. After reaching Brahman or liberation the person becomes a “sthitapragya” (one who is not affected by prosperity or adversity). Then what is he supposed to do? Should he renounce all his activities as illusory—or should he go on doing his duty? That is a perplexing question. It is possible to justify one or the other of these apparently contradictory ways.
In the opinion of Gita, for the liberated person, action or iction means the same thing—and it never affects him. One should do the duty, sanctioned by his caste (var), without any desire for fruits. That way his action cannot bind him to the world and despite doing work like any other person, he remains free. Shirking one’s duty is wrong according to Gita. That is why Lord Krish urged Arju to fight, as it was his duty as a Kshatriya to destroy evil and establish virtue.
Sri Krish said that it is impossible to abandon all forms of activity, as for our very subsistence we have to do some kind of work. But Arju was not so easily convinced—rather he was perplexed, since the Lord seemed to advocate and extol both the paths of knowledge and action for attaining liberation, the ultimate goal of mankind. If both the ways could lead to mukti or liberation then why was Sri Krish asking him to indulge in bloodshed—and why did he ask him not to take sanyas?
Such a question is not unusual. In Aristotle’s writings it is found that a famous philosopher in ancient Greece, John, maintained in his ethical philosophy that it is better for a man to spend his life in quiet contemplation than wasting it in worldly activities. But in another book Aristotle remarked regarding the duty of a king that “amongst the intelligentsia some get involved in state activity and some in the contemplation of reality. In the question which way is the best, it can be said that both the ways are partially true—yet action is better than iction”.
Lord Krish unequivocally asserted that one should do his duty without any desire for the results. That is, his action must be disinterested and aimed only at “Lokasangraha” (general welfare). He should not be affected by the joy of success or pain of failure. In Vedic philosophy both the path, karma yoga and j yoga (sankhya) are given equal importance. In Vedic view both the paths can be pursued for attaining liberation, but activity must be supported by knowledge. Some scholars regard only ‘sanyas’ as the true and effective means for liberation. What then is sanyas? Usually we believe that a sanyasi should remain unmarried or leave his wife if he is married, renounce the world and wear only saffron. Yet a life-long bachelor Bhisma was engaged in state affairs and war till his death. Wasn’t he a sanyasi? Without doubt, he was a Karmayogi—free from the bondage of action. Sri Krish himself cited the example of Rajarshi Jak of Mithila, who was a king, a family man and was busy in his affairs of the state—yet he was a “rishi”. It does seem that it is the mental attitude that counts—and neither the apparel nor the exterl behaviour.
The man, who works for the welfare of humanity, without any self-interest, is a karmayogi. On the other hand, a person, who renounces the world as unreal and abandous all kinds of work, is a sanyasi. Gita shows the way to liberation through either j, or karma, or bhakti. A karmayogi works for others throughout his life, while a sanyasi renounces the world as a product of maya, go to the forest and spends his life in meditation. Some scholars believe that even if karma is necessary in the initial stage, it has to be renounced later on, as karma yoga independently cannot bring liberation or moksa. So in the end even a karma yogi must embrace sanyas, which is the fil step before reaching liberation. But Tilak does not agree and he says that if this was so, then Krish would never have repeatedly recommended karma.
To dispel the perplexity in Arju’s mind Sri Krish decidedly said:-
“Tasmat asaktas satatam karyyang
Asakta jhyacharan karma
(Therefore without any desire for the results of karma, you do your work as duty. The person who performs his duty without any attachment attains the ultimate reality.)
Tilak is very sure that in the opinion of Sri Krish, even after obtaining perfect knowledge, the wise should go on performing disinterested action and that is the real attitude of Gita.
Bhagavad Gita’s theory of “Niskama Karma” has often been compared to Kant’s Rigorism, which instructs us to do our duty for duty’s sake, without feeling the least emotion. But there is an important distinction between the philosophy of Gita and that of Kant. The ethics of Kant condemns even a right action, if performed under the influence of feeling—even if they were superior feelings like love, kindness, sympathy, generosity etc. Kant totally discarded feelings from his moral philosophy. But Gita appreciates virtuous feelings. Sri Krish himself was a store house of love and generosity. He himself said that though he had nothing to hope for nor had he any want, even then he went on doing good for humanity. Whenever there was predomince of evil, he appeared in the earth to destroy the evil forces and rescue the good. Thus it can be said justifiably that Sri Krish wanted the wise and everybody else to work for the welfare of humanity without desiring any result.
In the last century, Angust Comte, a French philosopher, said that work for humanity is the best form of religion. Spencer, Mill, Nietze and some others supported the humanism of Comte. In India too, following Gita, most of the great sages have advocated service to mankind. In the present century great intellectuals like Swami Vivekanda, Sri Aurobindo, Kavi guru Rabindrath, Mahatma Gandhi and others have put forward a philosophy of humanity. And that is the right path for liberation, as was recommended by Lord Krish in the Bhagavad Gita, as interpreted by Tilak.
I have gone through the Gita several times, since I find it a fasciting text. With my limited intelligence I too think that Sri Krish supported Karma yoga. That is why he urged Arju to fight in the battle of kurukshetra, since it was his duty as a Kshatriya. He said that one should do his allotted duty as sanctioned by his var (caste). Disinterested action does not impose any bondage on the doer, who does his duty without any hope for the fruits of his action. So one should perform his allotted duty without having any desire for the fruits of action. As the Lord says in the Gits—
Ma phalesu kadaca”
(you have a right to action, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your action.)
The way I think is that in Sri Krish’s view one should go on doing his duty without having any desire for fruits. By doing his duty with detachment he can attain mukti or liberation. Such niskama karma (disinterested action) leads us towards our goal of “moksa” or liberation.
It is not possible for the ordiry people like us to perform “niskama karma”, as all our actions are guided by selfish motives. If we achieve the desired result we become happy and if we do not get what we hoped, we become sad. So it is obvious that ‘niskama karma’ is not meant for people like us, since we cannot get rid of attachment or self-interest. Hence possibly niskama karma can be performed only by the wise and virtuous people, who do not have any desire or selfish motive. But I really do not think that we can find even a single virtuous person in this era, who may be called a “sthitapragya”. Perhaps we have to admit that liberation or “moksa” cannot be attained by people like us, since all our actions are guided by selfish motives. Hence liberation for us will remain an unfulfilled dream.