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Detached Action in the Bhagavadgītā

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This is another essay from my Arts degree. Enjoy!

At Bhagavadgītā 2:47-48 Kṛṣṇa says that the path to liberation requires that we should perform the actions required by our svadharma without regard to their “fruits”. What does this mean? Is it a plausible practical philosophy?

Krishna and Arjuna

Krishna and Arjuna

The Bhagavadgītā seeks to marry the activism and quietism of earlier Indian traditions by advocating a performance of action without attachments to the ‘fruits’ (phala) of such action. Specifically, the action to be performed is that of one’s svadharma, approximately, one’s social duty or essential nature. In this essay, I will explore the meaning of this philosophy of ‘detached action’ (karma-yoga) as described in the Gītā, before arguing more broadly for its plausibility and practicality by countering the objection that it disregards ordinary human motivations and ethics.

The earliest schools of Indian philosophy advocate two apparently very different teachings. The Vedic tradition advocates an activism (pravrtti) exemplified in a powerful ritual orientation: one is to play one’s role in the community, to participate in rituals that reflect and uphold the universal order (rita) in order to reap the benefits of virtue, success and enjoyment.[1] A weakness apparently inherent in this philosophy is that in acting according to one’s dharma (approximately, one’s moral duty),[2] one is seeking to acquire merit (through karma);[3] the Vedic ideal could be seen as basically selfish.[4]  The later Upanishadic tradition avoids this egocentric taint by advocating the ideal of liberation from all karma, whether good or bad,[5] in an introverted doctrine of quietism (nivrtti). Yet, with its focus on individual liberation (mokṣa), it advocates a renunciation of all action through solitary contemplation.[6]

The Bhagavadgītā seeks to discover the golden mean between these two apparently contradictory ideals with its suggestion that one should act so as to disregard the ‘fruits’ of action: “work alone is your proper business, never the fruits (it may produce)” (2.47).[7] This not only resolves the incompatibilities of the earlier doctrines but corrects for their weaknesses[8] – one is not to act selfishly, nor wallow in lazy worklessness: “let not your motive be the fruits of works nor your attachment to (mere) worklessness” (2.47).

The Gītā establishes worklessness as impossible:[9] “not for a moment can a man stand still and do no work, for every man is … made to work by the constituents… of Nature” (3.5). We cannot live without breathing, without feeding ourselves – “without working you will not succeed even in keeping your body in good repair” (3.8). Therein lies the flaw of quietism: however much one tries to purge one’s involvement with karma (or with saṃsāra or duḥkha)[10] one cannot renounce completely while yet remaining alive.

The Gītā may appear to advocate action instead, yet it actually seems more concerned about the achievement of a certain detached mental state: “[w]ith body, mind, soul, and senses alone-and-isolated do men engaged in spiritual exercise engage in action” (5.11). The Gītā is very clear that it is not action itself that leads to mokṣa but the detached attitude of the doer: “Attachment gone, deliverance won, his thoughts are fixed on wisdom: he works for sacrifice (alone), and all the work (he ever did) entirely melts away” (4.23). While the Vedic philosophy advocates acquiring good karma as a reward for performing certain sacred ritual actions, one is encouraged in the Gītā to act without consideration for one’s karma, good or bad; while acting, one is to “[h]old pleasure and pain, profit and loss, victory and defeat to be the same” (2.38). The Gītā even goes on to advocate performing the duties of one’s svadharma, just as the Vedic sages do, but, again, without attachment to the rewards (18.45-7).

Detachment is of course a negative term – the difficulty here is in properly describing the positive, practical attitude that is implied. M. Hiriyanna suggests that the Gītā advocates that one should proceed according to the act itself rather than the ends; the end is dismissed from the mind while performing the act.[11] In this respect, it sounds as if we are to simply act without concerning ourselves with motivation or ethical consequences. Not only is it unrealistic and impractical to expect people to behave without adequate motivation, but neglecting the consequences of one’s actions, even if in accord with one’s social duties, is a very irresponsible way to behave. To address these objections, which are popular concerns often voiced by modern Westerners, we must re-examine the Gītā’s philosophy in detail.

The Gītā is well established as part of the Brahminical tradition in India, thus, to clarify the message of the Gītā, we must examine the terms it uses from this earlier tradition, whose meanings the Gītā assumes we understand.[12] The most important of these for our argument is mokṣa, often translated ‘salvation’. It is related to the earlier ideas of brahman and Ātman, and the Sāṃkhya idea of samādhi. These terms all denote slightly different concepts but I shall treat them all as more or less one, as indeed the Gītā seems to.[13] Broadly speaking, they denote a positive goal approximating liberation, salvation, release, balance or rest, but beyond (or without) empirical description or conceptual categories of thought.[14] They denote a psychological state to be achieved, even if, in the instance of brahman for example, they are sometimes described as a substantial element of external reality also.[15]

In contradistinction to the mokṣa-state, are, as the Gītā tells us, the guṇa-states of sattva, rajas, and tamas.[16] These are said to ‘bind’ the embodied self (14.5),[17] respectively, to happiness and wisdom (14.6), to craving and works (14.7), and to ignorance and sloth (14.8). Broadly, these states[18] are suffused with duḥkha (sorrow/craving), entangle one in saṃsāra (the endless round of life-death), and steep one’s being with karma, trapping one between the opposites of fear and desire.[19] Essentially, in the guṇa-states, one is pursuing desire, one is in a state of craving a happy state (sattva), possession (rajas), or a slothful state (tamas), or fearing the absence of such. Consequently, the Brahminical systems do not advocate the gaining of pleasure as helpful in attaining the mokṣa-state as pleasure leads to either a desire for more pleasure or sorrow at its absence. Overcoming such frictions could only conceivably be achieved in a state of compromise – a kind of rest-in-stasis between craving and fearing, beyond the opposites. Philosophically, we might describe this as a state of neutrality or balance. This is approximately the mokṣa-state the Brahminical works advocate, including the Gītā when it encourages us to “surmount (all) dualities” (4.22).

I want to pause for a practical example of these two broad states in action. W. Timothy Gallwey in his book on the psychology of tennis,[20] advises players to avoid forming judgments about their performance during a tennis game. He advises them to avoid calling a particular shot ‘good’ or ‘bad’; he instead asks them to let the play happen, to avoid over-trying.[21] In other words, he advises players to perform without the distraction of their desire-to-win or their fear-of-losing – these guṇa-values distract the player psychologically from her game. Instead, he advocates a kind of neutral observation of one’s own actions in order to remove this distraction. This I liken to the mokṣa-state of the Gītā.

In returning to the text, we must be wary not to mix up the terminology of the guṇa– and mokṣa-states. Any terms which the Gītā employs (particularly in translation) to refer to the mokṣa-state which suggest conceptual categories of thought (such as pleasure or pain, fear or desire) cannot truly be meant in the sense those words usually indicate (when referring to the ordinary guṇa-states). The mokṣa-state is not, strictly speaking, “peaceful” (2.64) in the way that having a nice relaxing bath is. The detached state cannot be the pleasurable, all-good-in-opposition-to-bad sort of peace but a kind of neutral sense of centredness. Similarly, terms such as sameness, detachment, renunciation, and disregard must be in fact attempts to describe the balance/neutrality of the beyond-opposites mokṣa-state, not suggestions to become oblivious, distracted, inactive or ignorant.

Now we have clarified the Gītā’s stance, we can return to our objections concerning the motivation for and ethical consequences of the action it advocates. My contention is that both ethics and adequate motivation are irrelevant to the discussion. Both motivation and ethics are concerned with a choice of right action – these are guṇa-value decisions. ‘To act’ here does not mean ‘to choose an action’ as this implies a choice between conceptual opposites – between right and wrong, fear and desire, action and non-action; we have already established that the Gītā is not interested in choosing between opposites, but instead thinking past them.

And thinking past the opposites, does not mean banishing or ignoring them. The guṇa-values are the ‘attached’ values that, like action, will always occur while we are living: “Let a man but think of the objects of sense – attachment to them is born” (2.62) and, “there is no agent other than these constituents [the guṇa-values]… which give the body its existence” (14.19-20). Importantly, in the mokṣa-state, the guṇa-values still continue to occur: “As one indifferent he [the one who has transcended the three constituents] sits, by the constituents unruffled: ‘So the constituents are busy’: thus he thinks” (14.23); he experiences them still yet he is unmoved by them, being in the mokṣa-state. So, one may still form one’s own motivations in the usual way – making moral choices, practical decisions, playing tennis to win – but one is to neutralise the impact of anxiety, uncertainty, duḥkha associated with these necessary acts, one is to exist while neutralising the guṇa-values inherent in living.

In fact, I contend that the Gītā does not advocate any particular action (or non-action):  “Renouncing works – performing them (as spiritual exercise) – both lead to the highest goal” (5.2).  The Gītā only puts action over non-action as a corrective to the popular Upanishadic quietism. It is primarily concerned not with doing but with being. The Gītā’s recommendation of acting according to one’s svadharma may appear to contradict this, however, we have once more to examine the full implications of the terminology and context. In Indian society, one’s svadharma was not just one’s social role as we mean it today; it was considered also one’s intrinsic inborn nature – what one is. This explains why the Gītā does not explicitly describe social duties in great detail.[22] Essentially, since we cannot escape guṇa-values or the propensity to act, the action the Gītā recommends is to be that which is in accord with one’s inborn nature (svadharma), while neutralizing guṇa-values. Arjuna therefore must fight, not just because he is in the warrior class, but because his sudden decision to renounce all fighting is borne out of the guṇa-values of fear and uncertainty, not out of his genuine being (svadharma). In fact, the genuine being of svadharma is considered synonymous with the right state of mind, which is the mokṣa-state, just as brahman (“ultimate reality”) is considered the same as Ātman (“the self”) in the later Upanishads; the mokṣa-state is a realisation of the Indian conception of the genuine self, true being.

So, to conclude, in suggesting we should perform our actions without regard for their fruits, the Bhagavadgītā advocates existing, while in action or not, and neutralising the distracting effect of the guṇa-values natural to our being. The directive ‘to act without regard for the fruits’ is not an instruction ‘to choose your action without considering the consequences’. Nearly every word in the sentence needs to be more carefully defined. For ‘to act’ we should understand something like ‘to be’, or ‘to observe neutrally the world’, because the Gītā is unconcerned by what the action is. For ‘without regard for’ we should recall that this, like ‘without attachment for’ or ‘while renouncing’, is a negative verbal phrase used to indicate the detached neutrality of the mokṣa-state – this is not obliviousness or ignorance. ‘The fruits’ are not just the ‘consequences’ or ‘results’ but the ‘guṇa-values’ involved in determining or anticipating these. They are the ‘selfish interests’ which distort the serene neutrality and balance of the mokṣa-state which permits us to perform perfectly what circumstances and our essential being (svadharma) have determined as necessary action. (If there were another course of action to be done, one’s own essential being (svadharma), involving one’s sense of duty, morality, motivation, and logic, would provide it.) The ‘detached’ mokṣa-state allows us to do ‘what must be done’, come what may; it permits us to live deliberately. And as much as this mokṣa-state is a mindset, a quality of experiencing not just thinking (since all thought is conceptual), I must add that the terms ‘neutrality’ and ‘balance’ may themselves be too conceptually cold to adequately express what must be an ineffable categorical sense of rightness, or the sublime. One must feel a kind of amazed stupor at the wordless, a-conceptual mystery of life as it is even while in action, as Arjuna must feel before the revelation of Kṛṣṇa’s glorious and terrible divinity even in the person of this commonplace chariot-driver.



Gallwey, W. Timothy. The Inner Game of Tennis. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975.

Hiriyanna, M. Outlines of Indian Philosophy. London: Allen & Unwin, 1932.

Koller, John M. Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.

Perrett, Roy W. “Hindu Ethics.” In The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Hugh LaFollette, 2410-2419. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Perrett, Roy W. Hindu Ethics: A Philosophical Study. Honolulu: University of Hawaiai Press, 1998.

Zaehner, ed. The Bhagavad-Gītā. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

[1] John M. Koller, Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2012), 13-17.

[2] Koller, Asian Philosophies, 93.

[3] Koller, Asian Philosophies, 10.

[4] M. Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy (London: Allen & Unwin, 1932), 120.

[5] Roy W. Perrett, “Hindu Ethics” in The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Hugh LaFollette (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 2412.

[6] Koller, Asian Philosophies, 17.

[7] All primary source references from R. C. Zaehner, ed. The Bhagavad-Gītā (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969). Zaehner’s square brackets have been converted to parentheses to avoid confusion with my own square brackets.

[8] Hiriyanna, Outlines, 120; Roy W. Perrett, Hindu Ethics: A Philosophical Study (Honolulu: University of Hawaiai Press, 1998), 16.

[9] Hiriyanna, Outlines, 123; Perrett, Hindu Ethics, 15.

[10] Perrett, Hindu Ethics, 23.

[11] Hiriyanna, Outlines, 119.

[12] Hiriyanna, Outlines,124.

[13] For example, samādhi at 2.53, mokṣa at 5.28, brahman at 7.29, etc. All translated in similar ways.

[14] Koller, Asian Philosophies, 18-19, 94.

[15] Koller, Asian Philosophies, 18. I shall not be addressing ontological claims in this essay, as our question concerns only attitudes for action (see further below in note 18).

[16] Zaehner, Bhagavad-Gītā, 140.

[17] Zaehner, Bhagavad-Gītā, 140.

[18] I am aware there is an ontological claim here regarding the actual existence of the ‘guṇa-constituents’ which may or may not be plausible. However, since our argument concerns the Gītā’s stance on action, and by implication, attitudes for action, we are only interested in these ‘guṇa-constituents’ (ontologically existent or not) insofar as they influence the attitudes of the doer. Hence I refer to the ‘guṇa-states’. One can correct for this if one wishes by reading ‘states of mind influenced principally by the ‘guṇa-constituents’’ every time I use ‘guṇa-states’ or similar.

[19] Hiriyanna, Outlines, 120.

[20] W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975).

[21] Gallwey, Inner Game, 42.

[22] Hiriyanna, Outlines, 124.

Written by tomtomrant

8 August 2013 at 5:17 pm