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The Gita and the philosophy of non-entitlement

The Mahabharata is an ancient Hindu epic. It’s a highly entertaining soap-opera, with myriad twists and turns that can enmesh serious readers for years in its delightfully tortuous intellectual maze. However, it doesn’t offer any specific and unambiguous moral guidance.

From the perspective of a moral philosophy, the only redeeming feature in this epic is Sri Krishna’s Bhagavad Gita, consisting of 700 verses divided into 18 chapters. Among other things, the Gita expounds the philosophy of Karma Yoga, the yoga of actions.

There has been well-thought out criticism of each and every verse of the Gita, but there is one verse that I’d like to comment on because of its potential for misunderstanding and its potential for self-transformation.

In Chapter 2, verse 47, Sri Krishna says, “You are only entitled to the action, never to its fruits.”

None of the commentators that I’ve read have explained it satisfactorily. Interestingly enough, numerous modern authors of self-help books (mostly of the New Age variety) seemed to have arrived at a similar motto independently (at least, they haven’t attributed it to the Gita).

I do not claim that my interpretation below is the right one. No one can know what the original author of the Gita had in mind. As with all religious and spiritual texts, the distance of time, the vast intervening societal changes, semantic transformations, and misinterpretations caused by translations all contribute to an impenetrable mystery of the original intent.

However, I like to offer my interpretation as a workable, pragmatic spiritual practice with no claim to authenticity, authority, or scholarship.

Before we understand the real meaning of that verse, it is important to understand what it is not.

It is not a statement of political philosophy. It is not a call to communism or slavery, as some people have asserted. At first blush, the verse can be easily misinterpreted as such.

It is not a call to disciples of any latest guru to ‘work, work, work in the service of humanity’ (i.e., in the service of the guru and his or her ashram). When I first read that interpretation as a teenager, namely, that karma yoga means one should work unceasingly, the prospect of a lifetime of drudgery, of unremitting service, and issuing the insatiable masses a blank check on my life made me so tired that I went to take a nap!

Karma Yoga doesn’t mean we should work like drudges. It also doesn’t mean we have no right to the fruits of our labor. It just means we are not ‘entitled’ to them.

This is a fine distinction, the difference between ‘right’ and ‘entitlement.’ This distinction takes the whole statement out of the realm of politics and brings it into the realm of personal psychology – even salvation, if you will – where it rightly belongs.

An old English proverb says, “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” What this essentially means is that there is no guarantee of getting the expected result from one’s actions.

This is the crux of the Gita. Many things can happen after we act. Other people have free will and thwart our actions and impede the expected results. Natural phenomena may intervene. The net result is that the result is not guaranteed.

We pin all our hopes on the expected results. If they don’t arrive as expected, we are frustrated. Some people are wiser: they know that there are no guarantees, that problems arise, and that they should try again and again. But even the most stoic person expects some result at some time in some form. Without some expectation of positive results, they would lose motivation at some point.

Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology, was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again, for all of eternity.

Would the most resolute person find any meaning and happiness if he or she were condemned to fill the shoes of Sisyphus?

Even when we get the expected results from our actions, the fruit may not taste as we imagined it would. The food might turn to ash in our mouth. Or if the fruit tastes exactly as we imagined it, the taste itself vanishes sooner or later, which in turn causes dissatisfaction, as the Buddha pointed out. This pushes us to exert more action to experience the fruit again. And again and again. Just like a drug addict.

So, building our self-esteem, sense of happiness, and meaning in life on the uncertain timing, quality, and tenure of the results of our actions is bound to lead to a crisis. Indeed, for most ambitious and industrious people, this takes the form of a mid-life crisis.

What are we to do?

Sri Krishna offers an alternative that is at once stunning in its simplicity and complicated in execution.

His advice: “You are only entitled to the action, never to its fruits.”

The key word is “entitlement.” It has the connotation of a guaranteed right. One who has a sense of entitlement says, “I sowed the seed, it must sprout.” Really? Why must it? Who’d guarantee it? How would they guarantee it?

If the seed does sprout, then the person says, “The tree must bear fruit.” And then, “I must eat that fruit.” Then, finally, “I better enjoy the fruit!”

See how the ‘entitlement’ chain spreads? However, between the cup (the sowing of the seed) and the lip (eating of the fruit), there’s many a slip: the seed may not sprout; if it does, the tree may not grow; if it does, it may not bear fruit; if it bears fruit and when you go to pick the fruit, you may fall down and paralyze yourself; if and when you pick the fruit and open your mouth to take a bite, you suddenly remember you are diabetic; if you do eat the fruit, you suddenly discover you have an allergy to that particular fruit, or it may taste horrible.

If you tie your sense of self worth and meaning in life to the ultimate experience of unalloyed pleasure in finally eating the fruit and suffering no ill effects from it, you are setting yourself up for a series of disappointments and frustrations.

If sowing a seed and eating a fruit is fraught with so many potential obstacles, how many more potential obstacles might present themselves to more complicated activities!

So, what are we to do?

Sri Krishna advises us to perform whatever actions we must and completely ignore the results. The results may come or they may not. But by concentrating on performing our actions to the best of our ability – indeed, to pursue excellence in all we do – and not tying our happiness to the outcome, we realize immediate happiness right here and now, not in some distant future or in an afterlife. The future is uncertain (which is why we can’t ever insist on getting the outcome, i.e., we can’t be entitled to it); the afterlife is unknown, its existence unproven.

By focusing on performing the action in the present to the best of our ability and not reserving our experience of happiness to the actual realization of the outcome, we are guaranteed happiness right here and now. Such happiness is automatic and unpreventable.

If that seems counter-intuitive, try to remember a time when you were completely absorbed in some task – maybe putting together a jigsaw, solving a game puzzle – and you didn’t realize the time fly by. When you ‘came back to earth’, I’m sure you were aware of being happy.

Indeed, games are the easiest examples for understanding the state of mind whereby we are engrossed in our task happily without necessarily tying our happiness to the end result. That’s because most people don’t tie their sense of self-worth with the result of game, unless they are professional game players, in which case the game isn’t as much fun any more.

This state of decoupling actions from their results is possible for all actions, not just in games. You can experience this with the most mundane tasks, such as doing the dishes, cleaning house, fixing the roof, fetching groceries, and so on. You can experience a surreal sense of peace and one-pointed consciousness by practicing the philosophy of Karma Yoga.

If and when our action produces the desired result, then that is an added bonus. If not, it’s no big deal, because we got our payback right up front. It’s a no-lose situation.

The only fly in the ointment of this philosophy of Karma Yoga is the difficulty in putting it into practice. All our life, we have associated the end result with accomplishment, with our sense of self-worth, our confidence, and our happiness.

Our ego is the self-referential construct of our minds that is an abstraction of all the individual events of our life that represent the end result of some protracted sequence of actions. For example, 15-17 years of dedicated schooling until graduation; several years of dedicated work before we get a promotion; several years of investments before we reap the benefit of accumulated capital; a long period of dating until we get the mate of our dreams; many years of raising our kids before they too graduate from ‘desirable’ colleges; 35 – 40 years of slaving away at a job in anticipation of a happy retirement; and so on.

It is difficult to free our ego from the addiction to the end result of actions and to re-program it to derive happiness from the actions themselves rather than the outcomes.

The theory of Karma Yoga is stunningly simple in its formulation of action and process, yet enormously difficult to implement since it asks for nothing less than the total decoupling of the old and entrenched association of happiness with outcome within the ego.

It requires the complete transformation of the ego itself.

But – and perhaps because of this difficulty – the results of practicing Karma Yoga are well worth it.

And therein lies the delicious irony – a fascinating self-recursion – in the philosophy of Sri Krishna.

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