Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Decoding the Geeta - Part 1

Caution:- Long post ahead.
As a great fan of Mahabharat, and a student of the principles of life outlined in the Geeta, I have constantly tried to unearth the real meaning behind some of the convoluted shlokas that make up this epic poem. But unlike most others who read the translations and subsequent elaboration provided by most books on The Geeta, I preferred approach is to de-construct each original Sanskrit word myself and arrive at my own interpretation of the subject matter. I prefer this in order to avoid biasing my personal understanding of the lines by interpretations of others. I guess this approach is similar to understanding the results of a chemical reaction by actually performing an experiment in the lab, as against just reading about it in a textbook and assuming it to be correct.

In this post, I will try to deconstruct the most famous lines in The Geeta and present my understanding. These lines provide the proverbial “saar” of the Geeta. Almost everything else said in the Geeta can be linked to these lines in some way or the other. Please feel free to post comments and share your thoughts.

karmaṇy evādhikāras te
mā phaleṣu kadācana
mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr
mā te sańgo 'stv akarmaṇi

Let us start by breaking up the above lines into each individual word. (Sanskrit is a language of sandhi (joint words). In order to decipher the meaning of any shlokha, one needs to separately identify each and every word, and then put the meaning back together).

karmaṇi — in prescribed duties;
eva — certainly;
adhikāraḥ — right;
te — of you;

— never;
phaleṣu — in the fruits;
kadācana — at any time;

Constructed meaningYou have the right to your duty; never to its fruits.

— never;
karma-phala — in the result of the work;
hetuḥ — cause;
bhūḥ — become;

— never;
te — of you;
sańgaḥ — attachment;
astu — there should be;
akarmaṇi — in not doing prescribed duties.

Constructed meaningDo not consider yourself to be the result of your actions; never be attached to not doing your duty.

Now that the literal meaning is out of the way, let us try to put together the purport –

You have the right to doing your duties, but not the result. While what you need to do is in your control, the result of your actions is not.

Never consider what is happening to you as the cause of the results of your actions. But at the same time, do not get detached from performing your duty.

Now for the understanding –

The most common comment people have on this shloka is – 
“How can I motivate myself without being attached to the results?” 
Having wrestled with this question myself for long, I am presenting my understanding of the teaching below.

One of the most important words in the above shloka is “adhikarah”, i.e. right. A person’s rights are limited to what he can do, i.e. this actions, not the result thereof. If one does not have the right to something, one cannot demand it. For example, one person does not have the right to another person’s wealth, hence he cannot demand it. If something is beyond ones rights, achieving it or not is a matter of fate, i.e. something beyond one’s control. If something is out of one’s control, getting attached to it is meaningless.

The Geeta aims to direct humanity towards this higher level of consciousness, which can be a bit difficult to grasp for ordinary people like us. Here is an example for illustrate this. I am sure all of us can remember our childhoods when we used to get emotionally attached to petty objects. A child brings down the house if his toy is broken. His parents try to console him by trying to convince him not to get too emotionally attached to the toy. The toy is not all that important in his life, they tell him. But the child does not understand his parent’s reasoning. For him, the loss of the toy is the biggest disappointment of his life. It is only after the child becomes an adult (and rises to a higher level of consciousness) that he realizes how silly his thinking process was as a child. The toy was actually an immaterial entity. Losing it was not such a big deal. It did not make any difference to his life in the long term.

Extending the same logic, ordinary humans like us are like “children”, who are attached to “toys” like wealth, rank, family etc. We feel inconsolably distraught on loosing these “toys”. But a truly enlightened person would treat these “toys” with the same disregard as an adult treats children’s toys. In the larger picture, all these things do not matter.

karmaṇy evādhikāras te
mā phaleṣu kadācana

“If I am not attached to something, how will I strive for it? If I am not attached to money, how will I convince myself to earn it? If I do not earn, how will I support my family?”

It is here that the concept of “kartavya” (duty) comes in.  It is a man’s duty to perform the right actions. A person’s rights are limited to his actions, i.e. his duties, and not to its results. So at no point should he get attached to the results of those actions. The results of the actions should not govern the tenacity with which he performs his duty. He should perform his duty not because he will get something in return, but because it is the right thing to do. For example, if you are walking on the road, and you see an old man stumble and fall in front of you, you would naturally help him stand up on his feet again. You do this not because you want anything in return, but because it is the right thing to do. The same applies to all facets of life. It is every man’s duty to pursue excellence; earn enough to support his family; provide good education to his children; help the poor and needy. But an ideal man should perform these duties without being attached to their results. This is the concept of “nishkaam karm” (duty without want).

An ordinary person finds it almost impossible to give up attachment to temporal things, and strive towards “nishkaam karm”. But an enlightened person raises himself above “moh maya”. He does not need the carrot of the result to be motivated to perform his actions. He performs his actions because that is the right thing to do, i.e. his duty.

A student should study hard for an exam, and put his heart and soul into understanding the subject and scoring well. But he should do it because that is the right thing to do, i.e. his duty, without being attached to the “moh” (want) of securing a high rank in class. The rank in class is not in his control (not his right or “adhikaar”), and is the result of many other factors like other students’ performances etc.

A professional should strive towards excellence in his profession, because that is his duty and not because of his attachment to a high position or greater wealth. That is out of his control.

The results of one’s actions are not based on his actions only. Hence attaching oneself to it is meaningless.

mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr

The cause of all sorrow in the world is attachment to results. Detachment from results is the only true way in which a person can deal with the ups and downs of life effectively. A person who can detach himself from the results of his actions is called “sthita-pragya” (sthita- seated, pragya- wisdom, i.e seated in wisdom). He does not get moved from his mental center of gravity either in joy or sorrow. Detachment from results can help you tide over any sorrow, overcome feelings of anger and jealousy and maintain your equilibrium in moments of joy. In fact, one can argue that a “sthita-pragya” is in a perennial state of joy, as inner joy can only come from performing one’s duties correctly, and nothing else. As long as you have performed all your duties, you should be happy. The results of your duties should not make you happy or sad.

A key point to note here is that “detachment” does not mean “indifference”. Detachment does not mean not loving your family, not caring for the needy, not striving for a good living. A person should do all these as they are his duties, but without being expecting anything in return, or being attached to the result. Do not be detached from your duty, be detached from the results.

Giving love to others is your duty, but receiving love from others in return (the result) is not in your control. Do not expect love in return. It is the duty of your loved ones to reciprocate your love, which they should perfom.

Helping the needy is your duty, but whether the person you have helped would be grateful to you or not, is out of your control. Being grateful is the other person’s duty, which he should perform.

In this way, if every person in the world performs his duty, all discord can be done away with.

At the same time, not doing your duty is a sin. Another practical example can illustrate this point better. If you have an ailing mother, it is your duty to ensure that you do everything in your capability to help her recover. If you cannot save her in spite of your best efforts, do not loose your balance in sorrow. However, if her demise was the result of a lack of effort from your side in taking care of her, you have not performed your duty. This is where the concept of “prayashchit” (redemption) comes in. You are then required to repent and redeem yourself in various ways.

mā te sańgo 'stv akarmaṇi

Most of us (including the writer) may never reach the state of such enlightenment in our lives. But that is what we should all strive for.

Part 2 is here.
Footnote:- I would like to clarify that I am not a “Krishna Bhakt” or a Geeta preacher, but merely a student of Hindu spiritual thought. The content of this post should be regarded as a dispassionate analysis and not a religious discourse. Readers are requested to share their thoughts on as comments. Please feel free to agree or disagree with me. A constructive discussion will only refine the analysis.

References -
  1. http://vedabase.net/bg/2/47/
  2. http://krishnabhakt.blogspot.com/2008/07/karmanye-vadhikaraste.html
  3. Mahabharat Episodes with the Geeta (Must watch) –
    1. Episode 72 
    2. Episode 73 
    3. Episode 74 


chaos said...

Dada, extremely good translation and explanation.

points on the foot note: Geeta is not from Hindu religion; when Geeta was conceived, there was no hindu dharma ... it was sanatan dharma. Hindu dhrama has merely adopted the preachings. and again ... you can't say hindu spiritual thoughts, as spiritualism doesn't believe in religion per se... so either you can say spiritual thoughts adopted by hindu or hindu's religious thoughts ...

Wondering Wanderer said...

Point taken.
In case you are also interested in Mahabharat, check out - http://my-mind-space.blogspot.com/2008/09/chakravyuha-demystified.html
This is my most popular blog post till date.