Thursday, July 18, 2013

On Nishkaam Karma

"Nishkaam karma" is variously translated as "selfless action" or "disinterested action".    We have luminaries such as Hegel and Humboldt,  or more recently, Amartya Sen, (and Gurcharan Das) weighing on what this means.  Does it mean acting without regard to the consequences, does it mean being self-effacing,  does it mean doing duty for duty's sake?  

"You have a right to the effort, not to the results, therefore act without attachment to the results".  This is the rough translation of the verse in the Gita that so puzzles the above mentioned authors.

To one, no attachment to the results means no consideration of the consequences of actions.

To another, it means since one is not attached to the results, so for instance, one lets someone else take the credit, and so one is self-effacing.

To the third, if one is not attached to success or failure, then one is acting for duty's sake alone.

The simplest way of conveying what I think as the meaning is as follows - With the best intentions, best means, and best effort, the outcome is uncertain, there is always an element of luck or providence or God's Will or whatever you want to call it; success and failure is never fully within one's control.  Therefore, "be with an even mind in success or failure".

The whole of the Gita is about Yoga (the physical postures taught in modern Yoga studios are merely one branch of Yoga).  The Gita variously tells us that Yoga is excellence and proficiency in action, Yoga is evenness of mind.   The Gita tells us to distinguish between right action, wrong action and inaction. 

One undertakes certain actions to achieve certain goals.  One's goals must be right (the Gita talks about this).  One performs Yoga by undertaking the right actions.  One performs Yoga by being excelling in the effort. One performs Yoga by accepting the outcome with equanimity.  Performing Yoga will lead one to a state of abiding peace and joy.