A reflection on the question “For What Do We Work?” by Interim Minister Rev. Evan Keely.
A spiritual practice I have been observing this year is a daily reading of two verses of the Bhagavad-Gita along with eight commentaries by various sages who have pondered this text over the centuries. Some of these commentators shared their reflections a thousand years ago; others, more recently. I can honestly say I have very little understanding of this great classic text, though I have read it many times over the years, but that has neither prevented me from continuing to study it, nor has my fairly vast ignorance entirely hindered me from gaining valuable insights in the course of this this year-long journey through the seven hundred verses of these scriptures.
The Bhagavad-Gita is a portion — a very famous and, to many, deeply beloved portion — of a longer text, one of the great epics of ancient India, the Mahabharata. As the Homeric epics of Greek civilization revolve around a war, and are interpreted by some as an extended metaphor for moral and spiritual conflicts in human life, so too the Mahabharata is a long and elaborate story of a great war, and some interpreters have understood the story as a spiritual struggle. Many stories from antiquity include tales of physical conflict in order to articulate the core values of the community: we find examples in the Popol Vuh from Mayan civilization, the Aeneid of the Roman poet Virgil, or in the narratives of ancient Israel. Religious liberals like ourselves are often very conscious of the discomfort these kinds of tales can evoke, and how they can be interpreted as glorifying warfare, but if that causes us to dismiss them out of hand as obsolete barbarisms, we do ourselves a disservice: they have a great deal of wisdom and understanding to impart.
The eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad-Gita ostensibly articulate a dialogue between the warrior-prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna as they survey the battlefield of Kurukshetra, but of course it is also a dialogue between the human soul and the divine, an exploration of the meaning and purpose of life and the nature of good and evil.
The question of how we should act and what work we should and should not perform is explored in the Gita extensively. In the second chapter, the Lord Krishna says to his devotee, “Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for a reward, but never cease to do thy work.” So goes the translation by Juan Mascaró. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (familiarly known as the “Hare Krishnas”) translates it thus: “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.” Swami Gambirananda translates it this way: “Your right is for action alone, never for the results. Do not become the agent of the results of action. May you not have any inclination for inaction.” I am at a great disadvantage in that I do not know Sanskrit, but I am seriously considering studying it, if only to try to deepen my own understanding of this one verse of Hindu scripture. I think its message is of profound importance not only for me personally, but for the age in which we live.
Vishvanatha Chakravarthi Thakur was a Hindu theologian who lived in the seventeenth century. In his commentary on this verse, he imagines further dialogue between Arjuna and God on this subject. He supposes Arjuna must ask, “But in doing actions, a result must come.” And that the Lord replies, “By doing an action with a desire for a certain result, you become the cause of that result. But you should not act in that manner. I give you that blessing. And do not become attracted to non-performance of your duty, or in doing sin, rather you should hate doing that. I give you that blessing also.”
I find this a radically different mindset to assumptions that are fundamental to the culture in which we live. It is not at all unusual for us, when we first meet someone, to ask, “So what do you do?” It’s often an innocuous question; it can even be a thoughtful and respectful question, a way of showing interest in a new acquaintance. But why that question? Does the prevalence of such a query tell us something about our culture’s attitudes towards work, about how we often view our identity through the lens of the work we do? Putting aside for the moment whether or not we should or shouldn’t do this, we might nevertheless recognize that we often do it. The Lord Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna is for the warrior to avoid seeing himself as his work, to not be attached to the outcome of his work: to do his duty not for the sake of what he might get out of it, but simply because it is his duty — and that non-attachment does not create an excuse for inaction.
The sage Ramanuja is traditionally believed to have been born in the year 1017, so this year the thousandth anniversary has been celebrated. In commenting on this sloka, he remarked:
Acts done with a desire for fruit bring about bondage. But acts done without an eye on fruits form My worship and become a means for release. Do not become an agent of acts with the idea of being the reaper of their fruits. Even when you…perform acts, you should not look upon yourself as the agent. With regard to inaction, i.e., abstaining from performance of duties…let there be no attachment to such inaction in you.
We work hard, and we invest of ourselves; it’s easy to become very attached to the outcome. How do we dedicate ourselves to something and still find the strength and courage to let go of what follows? I have found over the years of working with congregations that this is an especially potent question in communal religious life. I have observed that in church, people very often become very attached to the work that they do. This is not surprising. Many people bring their whole selves to religious communities; for those who are devoted, the religious community exists to reaffirm core values and to guide life’s most important decisions. So the work that we do in a church is likely to be work that we care about a great deal.
We don’t know when the theologian Keshava Kashmiri lived; some believe he was born in the late fifteenth century. His comment on this sloka includes these words:
A living entity performing actions without considering the rewards will never develop the fragmentation and indeterminate nature of one whose mentality is attached to the fruits of their actions…they are not concerned about the reward; they do not let reward be the reason for the motivation of their activities. We must perform all of our actions without being motivated by the fruit.
A story that we Unitarian Universalists like to tell ourselves and each other about ourselves is that religious life for us is purely voluntary; we congratulate ourselves that we don’t use guilt “like other religions do.” I observe that we Unitarian Universalists are just as adept at making guilt a part of religious life as any of numerous other faith communities; in a way, what’s worse about us is that we don’t often admit it — we usually prefer to pretend that we create these magical guilt-free zones in our churches. (We don’t.) We also tend to assume that guilt is always a bad thing, which is another fallacy. Guilt has its place; like anything else, it can be abused, but like fear or anger or devotion or gratitude or any other spiritual impulse, what we do with it is what’s important. The Bhagavad-Gita offers a narrative about duty that may provoke, for some, a feeling of guilt, though I am persuaded that this is neither the intention of the text nor an adequate or insightful interpretation of it. In what Krishna teaches Arjuna, duty is intertwined with liberation; doing our work and not being attached to its fruits is a way of unshackling oneself from the solely material and pointing one’s life toward the spiritual substratum pervading all existence, a means of reorienting one’s life away from the perishable and evanescent and toward the eternal and the infinite. What work are we doing in our shared life that points toward eternity and infinity, and how are we doing our work such that we are striving to merge our consciousness with the ultimate consciousness, with God?
To read the full commentaries on this sloka quoted above as well as the commentaries of others, visit this page.