A Gita Verse on Karma Yoga:

Renouncing all action in Me,
with self-awareness,
free from hope,
free from selfishness,
devoid of fever, Fight!  

(III.30)

There are two courses of training in the Gita: Karma yoga or the yoga of action, and Jnana yoga or the yoga of knowledge. The first is for one who is still identified with the body, who is still in what Shankara calls `ignorance’. The man who is ignorant in this technical sense is not necessarily crude or uncultivated or uninformed: he may be brilliantly clever and creative and knowledgeable. He may know the sacred texts, and be able to discuss and expound them. But he is still absolutely in the grip of fixed identification with the body.

Perhaps the word identification is not a good one, because it sometimes has a figurative meaning, as when we say that the audience can identify with a particular character in a play. There is something optional about audience identification; it is based on a deliberate `suspension of disbelief’ and – at the deepest level – it is not felt to be true. But in the yoga analysis, the feeling `I am the body’ is felt to be true, absolutely true, and there is nothing optional about it.

Shankara introduces this verse with the comment that it is setting out a course of yoga training for the man who has not yet realized that his true Self is something universal. It is for one who feels, when he does something: `I am doing it’; for one who feels when he is struck: `I have been hurt’. He is sure that he is young, or old, or ill, or dying.

This karma yogi, however, though now feeling `I am this body’, does have a mental conviction that he is somehow capable of attaining another body after death. That is to say, he believes that he has an immortal soul, though it is always an individual one, and as such, limited and different from other souls.

The first instruction to such a man is:

Renounce all actions in Me, in the Lord. This means that actions are done as a service to the Lord, and the doer does not lay claim to the results of the actions. There are many such injunctions in the Gita: `Your right is to actions alone, never to the results’ and `Wretched is he whose motive for action is to get results.’

Nearly everyone at some time or other misunderstands these passages to mean that one should not work for results. And at some time or other, this misunderstanding may become extended, till it slowly comes to mean that it does not matter whether a piece of work is well done or not.

As a teacher in India has remarked, this misreading is nearly always applied to spiritual tasks which do not much appeal, but not to things like making a meal. In spiritual matters (he said) students will produce a piece of slipshod work which they would never dream of presenting in their trade or profession. Because it is something spiritual, they excuse themselves by claiming to be `not working for results’. But they themselves would never accept such an excuse for a carelessly cooked meal. The Gita is thought (by them) not to apply to daily life. Clearing up this misunderstanding is so important that a whole page is given to it in the book Training The Mind Through Yoga (p. 121) by M V Waterhouse.

In his commentary to Gita 3.30, Shankara explains the yogic view. All work, spiritual or worldly, is done for the supreme Lord, omniscient and the true Self of all.

The student is to meditate as he does it:

`I am a doer, and I am doing this for the Lord, as a servant works for his master.’

This is Shankara’s explanation of the words of the verse `with self-awareness’.

Suppose for instance that an army chauffeur is to drive his commanding officer to Salisbury. He takes great trouble to find the best route for that time of day. When they are nearly there, the officer stops the car, and makes a phone call to check something.

He returns and says: `It’s no use going to Salisbury now. Take me back.’ Some officers explain: `I knew something might happen about now – that’s why I checked.’ Others do not explain at all: the officer has been as much inconvenienced as the driver. It is simply part of the job for both of them.

A good army driver is not upset that his efforts have turned out to be useless. He aimed very carefully at getting to Salisbury by the best possible route; he was working for this result. But he was not attached to it at all. When that result turned out to be not wanted, he simply thought: `I took him there and now I’ll take him back. I’m doing my job.’ He prides himself on not compressing his lips, not slamming the car into gear or taking the bends sharply as he turns. He uses all his skill now in making the return journey as smoothly and efficiently as he made the journey out.

Shankara’s example of the servant shows clearly the difference between aiming at results, which is essential to efficient action, and attachment to them, which is often an obstacle. As Confucius remarked: `When the archers are shooting for a clay prize, they shoot well: when the prize is silver, they shoot badly; when it is gold, they are as if blind.’ Archery was one of the Six Accomplishments of his ideal man, and Confucius knew what he was talking about. The superior archer shoots without attachment to the results; only then is his concentration complete. He is not upset if a sudden gust of wind deflects a perfectly shot arrow. In this respect archery, like any other activity in the world, can be a training for yoga. In the Gita, the disciple Arjuna is eight times addressed by his teacher as Dhananjaya, which literally means Conqueror of Gold. The reference is to Arjuna’s fame as an archer, which won him many gold prizes. One of the great commentators says: `By using this title the teacher implies that one who has mastered archery will also be able to master yoga.’ To master archery, Arjuna must have learnt how to concentrate his mind in complete freedom from attachment. But he has learnt this only in the special field of bow-and-arrow; now he must apply that same thing to the whole field of life.

In the same way, in some spiritual schools of the East it is said that if, when cleaning the floor, the cleaner can do the job well, not as a chore done with sighs but with peace of mind and as a service; and without calling attention to it afterwards, or complaining that the work has not been appreciated; and without being upset if someone comes in with muddy shoes immediately afterwards – if he can do this, he is already far along the path to Realization.

A Jesuit father told the writer that towards the end of his novitiate he was given a large stone floor to clean. He left it spotless. As he rose from his knees, the Master of Novices came in with a bucket of sludge, threw it over the floor, and told him to clean it again.

Such things can happen in monasteries in the East also. But it is at least as severe a test of the sludge-thrower as of the cleaner. The thrower too has to be in a state free from egoism, before he can throw the sludge properly. Unless the thrower is himself free, he cannot train others to be free, or test them as to whether they are free. Such people may not be easy to find: when found, they may not be willing to throw the sludge. It is a human weakness to misuse authority to gratify a hidden desire for domination; sometimes people believe themselves to be giving others spiritual training or testing, when in fact they are just enjoying giving them hell. `By their fruits you will know them.’ Real training leads to inner purity, spontaneous enthusiasm, and finally to inspiration; bullying or nagging leads to what the author of Training The Mind Through Yoga calls `a desert’. In fact, life itself usually throws enough sludge without needing reinforcements.

The last lines of the verse are an expansion of the idea of personal grasping for personal results.

`Hope’ means making pictures not of the action, but of the expected results in the shape of praise, respect, gratitude and so on. These pictures affect the action adversely, as when the archers shot for gold in the time of Confucius.

Such things are selfish, but there is a special `selfishness’ which impairs co-operative action also, by demanding the most prominent role for the self, regardless of ability, with other people reduced merely to assistants. It often leads to failure because selfishness cannot easily wait when it is time for waiting. It wants results now, for itself.

`Fever’ impairs action by loading it with emotion, and especially pictures of failure. Neurotics often confuse effort with worry, and they draw back from yogic effort on the ground that yogis should not `worry’ about things. Worry means making pictures of failure, and then trying (usually unsuccessfully) to find some way of avoiding what has been imagined. In this way students may fight themselves, and they usually lose. Proper effort means making pictures of success, and pursuing them Mingle-mindedly. Well before his final God-realization, Swami Rama Tirtha used to sit down to meditate with the thought: `Today, today, today!’

The final line of the verse: `Fight!’ was addressed to a warrior about to perform his duty on the battlefield. It is today a direction to fight against ignorance. So our teacher, Dr. Hari Prasad Shastri, told his pupils. The ignorance is an illusion, and an illusion does not take a fixed time to dispel. It can be cancelled, as Swami Rama said, Today, today, today.

© Trevor Leggett

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