by Swami Krishnananda
In this chapter there are brief statements made on a variety of subjects. A predominant one is the principle of right action, which has been more elaborately touched upon in the Second and the Third Chapters. Niyatasya tu sannyasah karmano nopapadyate, mohat tasya parityagas tamasah parikirtitah (18.7): An obligatory duty can never be abandoned. One cannot relinquish that which is imperative – that which is a must under the circumstance a person is placed in this universe. We observed more details in this regard when we studied the Third Chapter.
An obligatory duty is that kind of work or performance which is organically related to our very survival and existence in this world, and its interrelatedness to other beings in the world. Our existence is conditioned by certain obligations to the atmosphere or the environment or society in which we are living, and if this point is missed due to any intense form of selfishness on one’s part – where one works for one’s own welfare as it were, very, very ignorantly, not considering the internal relationship that one bears consciously or unconsciously with the outer atmosphere - if this ignorance is going to be the motive behind one’s action, deluded is that person. Mohat tasya parityagas tamasah parikirtitah: Such abandonment of work which is obligatory, is called tamasic renunciation. That is, that which is imperative cannot be relinquished. More details can be found in the Third Chapter.
Duhkham ity eva yat karma kaya-klesha-bhayat tyajet, sa krtva rajasam tyagam naiva tyaga-phalam labhet (18.8): That tamasic relinquishment is mentioned as that form of abandonment of action which is tantamount to abandonment of duty itself; that is called tamasic relinquishment. There is another relinquishment, called rajasic tyaga: “Because it is difficult – it is very painful, it involves a lot of hardship, I have to work day and night – therefore, I will not do that work.” This argument for not doing a work is not actually feasible, and it is not tenable. The reason for not doing a work should not be merely the fact that it is a strain upon oneself to do hard work. We have to sweat, and “I do not want to sweat; therefore, I will not do this work. Physically it is painful, torturous and, therefore, I am afraid of doing this kind of work or undertaking this project.” When a person abandons doing a work because it is painful and requires hard labour on their part, that kind of abandonment of work due to fear of hard work or labour is called rajasika tyaga. It is not sattvic.
Karyam ity eva yat karma niyatam kriyate’rjuna, sangam tyaktva phalam chaiva sa tyagah sattviko matah (18.9): Sattvic renunciation does not mean renunciation of action. Then, what does it mean? It is the doing of one’s work because it is something that must be done under the circumstances in which one is placed. Karyam ity eva yat karma niyatam: “Definitely it has to be done, because it is binding upon me. Yet, I shall do that work but be free from attachment to the work.” It does not mean that we should be attached to duty. The performance of duty is an impersonal involvement of ourselves in a call that is super-individual, and it does not call for attachment. Attachment is an emotional clinging to a particular form or event or anything whatsoever; and duty, being a superior call from a law that is above human nature, cannot be an object of attachment. Therefore, when a person performs a work as a duty incumbent upon that person and yet never feels that it is ‘my’ work; and knows that it is not anyone’s work but it is a work done for the work’s sake; and does not expect any recompense or fruit thereof – such an impersonal work with no tag attached to it in the form of emotional clinging or fruit accruing therefrom, such an impersonally construed unselfish action done for the sake of work alone can be regarded as sattvic action. All other kinds of work are rajasic or tamasic.
Na dveshty akusalam karma kusale nanushajjate, tyagi sattva-samavishto medhavi china-samsayah (18.10): The person who renounces attachment due the preponderance of the sattva guna in him, who is very intelligent in perceiving the pros and cons of things, has no doubt whatsoever about the way in which work is to be done, hating not painful work, clinging not to pleasurable work; such a person is really an example before us. It does not mean that we should cling to something because it is pleasant, nor does it mean that we should hate something because it is not pleasant. Na dveshty akusalam karma kusale nanushajjate: The pleasant form of work does not call for attraction, nor should it evoke hatred when it is a painful work calling for hard labor on our part.
Na hi deha-bhrta sakyam tyaktum karmany aseshatah (18.11): No embodied person can totally be free from work. The very fact of our being in a body calls for some kind of engagement because of the fact that this body is made up of physical matter and, therefore, it is a form of prakriti constituted of the three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas. Inasmuch as prakriti is always in a state of disturbance – it is not in a state of equilibrium – and its properties of sattva, rajas and tamas are constantly moving in a cyclic fashion, they compel the body to also be subject to that kind of cyclic action because of the fact that the physical body of a human being, or of anyone whatsoever, is not free from the contingency arising from the operation of the three gunas. Therefore, anyone who has a body has to work. If one has no body, that is a different matter. Deha-bhrta karmany aseshatah na sakyam: The very fact that we are embodied in a physical tabernacle means that we are part of physical nature, and the process of physical evolution will also have an impact upon our body; it will compel us to do something. Therefore, freedom from work for an individual with a body is unthinkable.
Yas tu karma-phala-tyagi sa tyagity abhidhiyate: Abandoning work is, therefore, not possible as long as we have a body; but we shall be free from the binding effect of karma or action, provided we do not look to the effect or the fruit that accrues to the work. We should do our work because it is necessary to work for the welfare of everybody, not because we get some recompense out of it. If we have an eye only on the salary that we get and not on the duty that is expected of us, then that duty, that work that we perform, will be tarnished with a little bit of selfishness – because even while we are working, our mind is thinking of the salary or of ‘that something’ that comes out of the work. We are not interested in the work itself; and, therefore, it is not sattvic.
Sattvic work is work done for work’s sake only, whether or not it brings any fruit. Actually, every duty performed well in a most unselfish manner will, of its own accord, bring a result which is most pleasant, and we need not ask for it. Every duty is connected with a privilege; and we should not cry for the privilege. If we ask for it, it will not come. If we do our duty well, the privilege automatically follows without asking for it.
Anishtam ishtam misram cha tri-vidham karmanah phalam, bhavaty atyaginam pretya na tu sannyasinam kvachit (18.12): People who are attached to work due to selfishness on their part reap fruits which are of three kinds – anishtam, ishtam, mishram. Sometimes an action that is done brings unpleasant results; sometimes an action brings pleasant results; sometimes an action brings mixed results: a little bit of joy, a little bit of pain. This is the case with those people who perform work with selfishness, who cannot renounce the fruit of action. But this threefold mixing up of karma’s fruits will not have an effect upon sannyasins who have renounced the fruit of action.
Panchaitani maha-baho karanani nibodha me, sankhye krtante proktani siddhye sarva-karmanam (18.13): All action is bound by a fivefold factor. Therefore, knowing that there are five facets to every action that one performs, let there be no wrong notion on the part of any person that they are doing it. There are five conditioning factors behind any kind of movement, action, work, or whatever it be. Sankhya, which is the highest knowledge, and which details the varieties of results that follow from different kinds of karmas, tells us that there are five phases of an action. Therefore, the doership of an action is only one phase. To lay excessive emphasis only on doership and be totally oblivious of the other four factors would be utter ignorance on the part of the doer of action. Maybe we are doing the work, but we are not the only one involved in that work.
What are the other four factors? Adhishthanam tatha karta karanam cha prthag-vidham, vividhas cha prthak cheshta daivam chaivatra panchamam (18.14): The physical body has something to say about the quantum of work that we can execute, and also the quality of work that can be expected from us. Whether our body is strong and healthy or weak and sick is a factor that also is to be taken into consideration when we do any work. Hence, according to the nature of the physical condition, there will also be the conditioning of the result that follows from the action. That is one aspect among the five.
Tatha karta: The ego principle that is actually motivating the action is also one factor. Why are we doing an action? The ego has a motive behind it. The physical body is one aspect, no doubt; but the ego is another aspect, and it is more important. The ego decides the methodology of work. That is the second factor.