Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Bhagwat Gita on Work and Motivation

Does the Bhagwat Gita tell us not to care about the fruits of our labour? Or does it offer us the ultimate motivation? Does it teach us everything there is to know about human endeavour, in just two sentences?

Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani !

The shlok from the Bhagwat Gita that is often considered the essence of the Holy Book and of the philosophical and spiritual foundation of the Hindu way of life. This Sanskrit shlok is usually translated into Hindi as “karm kar, phal ki icha mat kar” or “karm kar, phal ki chinta mat kar,” which mean “perform your actions and carry out your duty, don’t care or worry about the result.”

I was frequently confronted with this wisdom, and it mystified me each time. Throughout my younger years I struggled with the meaning and philosophy behind these words, not able to understand how a person can motivate himself to work if he does not care about the result. With passing years, some people explained to me that the philosophy really means that we should plan well and work hard, but not care too much about the result. Seemed to be on the right path, but I wasn’t convinced, still trying to make sense of the conundrum of “motivation without goal.”

Then, along came life, which always is the best teacher. The varied experiences and ups and downs of life taught me varied lessons. Just like with everyone else, there were setbacks and bounce-backs. There were failures and successes. There were threats and there were opportunities.

There were times when I could understand the meaning of the song;

“Jindagi kya hai, koyi na jaane,
Jo jaane woh pachtaye.”

(What is life, no one knows,
The one who knows, regrets)

And then there were times when I stood with my arms stretched out, my face raised to the sun, eyes closed, smelling the fragrance of the flowers and listening to chirping of the birds, reveling in the beauty that life is!

With time, life taught me valuable lessons.

It taught me that there are reasons behind most events in our lives. We may not be able to see them at the time of setback because we have become emotional, but time will reveal it, in its own time….

It taught me that every failure opens doors to bigger opportunities. That this is not just an idiom which has become the worst-offender in clichés, but an actual truth. I learnt that what seems like a major failure today, will be followed by a much bigger opportunity. What appears a set-back today may turn to be a boon tomorrow. E.g. being passed over for a promotion today may not be set-back but a boon, because that would make you look out for bigger opportunities and land you a much bigger position. It’s upto us if we have the maturity to let-go of the grief of the failure and start looking out for further opportunities.

It taught me that opportunities come to everyone. Success comes to those who can recognize and grasp the opportunities, and then work diligently and smartly towards the goals. Success comes to those who have the ability to get up again and again after every fall. Success comes to those who can stop blaming others for their problems, and can take a dispassionate view of the situation and start thinking in terms of what could I have done differently to achieve my goals.

It taught me that luck does play a role in life, but luck is more akin to coincidence which we turned into achievement. Luck probably approaches everyone, but strikes only those who are helping themselves. I have felt at times, that when I am sincerely striving towards a goal I desperately seek, all the angels in heaven come down to Earth to make it happen - to bring about a series of lucky coincidences that help me get what I want. A concept expressed much more poetically in the movie Om Shanti Om as:

Agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaho,
Toh puri kayanaat use tumse milane mein lag jaati hai.

Life taught me that I need to keep working hard, I need to plan ahead about what I want to achieve and how I want to go about achieving it, but that I should not plan everything, as what happens is often at variance with what we expect, and so we need to be flexible. That I should not plan too much into the future, as the best opportunities creep in unexpectedly.

It taught me that nothing can replace diligence. That I can not let failures and challenges deter me. I have to keep picking myself up after every fall, and strive again, with bigger energy. I have to keep striving towards bigger goals and keep my eyes open as the best opportunities come unexpected.

The biggest lesson I learnt is that success is a function more of attitude, and not just of circumstances. If I keep working diligently, keep striving for bigger goals, keep my eyes open and my attitude positive - results would come by themselves. If not now, then later. If I am faced with a problem or a failure, I need to sit back and view it in the larger scheme of life, in the larger time period of a life-time, maybe in terms of time period of human existence. How many issues are really as important as we make them? How many failures would really impact us tremendously when we analyse their affects over our life time? Which failure is so big that we can not pick ourselves up again? How many relationships we ruin just because we over-emphasise our short-term needs and irritants? Life taught me that I need to be able to analyse seemingly negative events, in terms of their potential long-term affect of my life-time and evaluate if they are really significant enough to make a fuss over them. Almost always, they are not. And then I am able to find better solutions for issues in life.

It is now that I understand what Krishn meant when he uttered those immortal words:

Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani !

He is not saying, “karm kar, phal ki icha mat kar;”

He is saying, “karm kar, phal se aasakti mat kar;”

These are two very different meanings. “Aasakti” means attachment. What Krishn is saying is that we should strive hard in carrying out our duties, that we should want the goal and work towards achieving it, but we should not get emotionally attached to it, to the fruits of our labour. We should neither get too disappointed with a failure nor too happy with a success. Because events, successes and failures are all temporary – here today, gone tomorrow. Aasakti or attachment only bring sorrow in case of failures or elation in case of success, and both prevent us from forging ahead to newer goals. That neither short-term sorrow nor short-term elation have any meaning in the long-term analysis of your life.

Once we are able to appreciate this particular concept, then most other concepts which form the basis of the Hindu way of life also become clearer. Whether it’s the concept of the world being illusory (maya) because everything is temporary, or the concept of kismat or bhagya (destiny). The Gita does not say that everything is bhagwan-bharose (as per will of God) as generally opined in India, it actually does say that we make our own destiny, through our karm (our actions)! It goes onto say that our karm defines our lives and our destinies not only in this life, but across various lives and re-births.

But a detailed discussion into that would take me into my belief that religion is only a set of rituals for delivering the teachings of spirituality to the masses; which is why at the very core, all religions teach the same thing – be a good person and love your fellow beings. Which is why the concept of ultimate God is the same in all religions – an eternal omniscient omnipotent energy force that permeates all things and thoughts – God, Allah, Rab, Parmatma (Brahmn), they all have same concepts. But that’s another discussion and I’ll write about that separately.

The Gita is unique in the sense that it places the karm yogi (Yogi through diligent performance of duties) at the same level as the dharm yogi (Yogi through study of religious and spiritual texts, meditation and penance). A karm yogi can also attain moksh through a faithful and diligent performance of his duties on Earth. And that is our motivation for our karm !


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