You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself—without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind. 2.47-48 (Easwaran Trans.)
Shri Krishna here propounds a most strict and severe discipline, but it is also a discipline that liberates. Who can claim to have not engaged in work for the sake of reward? Most of those in Western culture and even in global culture take it for granted that the purpose of work is to earn a paycheck and that such rewards are just desserts. We have bought wholesale into the idea that the world economy functions on enlightened self-interest, which can basically be read as selfishness, plain and simple. It doesn’t take long to realize that this paradigm inevitably produces dissatisfaction. The faith of Wall Street that “greed is good” produces suffering around the world in the form of exploitation of the earth and laborers as everything, even life itself, becomes a commodity. But even supposing that one is well paid and that one engages in ethical business does not guarantee that a paycheck will be satisfactory. We easily get used to material rewards, and as soon as we regard them as deserved, they cease to satisfy.
Krishna advises Arjuna to perform his duty as a warrior without regard for the consequences and without seeking power or material gain. Arjuna’s nature as a warrior is to fight, and he should concentrate on this task alone. If he focuses on anything other than duty, Arjuna will not be able to bring his whole mind to bear on the task at hand. And, we are told, the person who works for earthly rewards will reap the fruit of rebirth. The person who leaves any unfinished business on earth will keep returning again and again, to make a little more money or indulge in a little more pleasure-seeking. Real liberation must move beyond temporal rewards. And yet, if we still have these desires, it will do no good to suppress them or engage in feelings of guilt and remorse. Desires must either run their course or be transformed into something higher and purer. The spiritual disciplines of puja, japa, meditation, and asana are designed to transmute base desires into higher ones in a process of spiritual alchemy. This is the “fight” to which most aspirants are called.
Even on a more mundane level, we can examine how attachment to the result can be paralyzing. Suppose a first-time writer sits down at the computer and says, “I will now write a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.” Every phrase and sentence that makes its way onto the page will seem all wrong, and the would-be writer will most likely never make it to the first chapter, let alone a perfectly crafted novel. But suppose he or she says, “Let me just sit down to write each day and see what happens.” Such open-ended exploration will be much more likely to produce a high-quality product. Trying too hard to be a success can paradoxically be a sure road to failure. Krishna advises cultivating indifference to the results and simply getting lost in the task itself.
Some people have the opposite problem and are attached to inaction rather than action. Using the novel-writing example above, such a person might say, “It would be rather presumptuous of me to try to write a novel, so I will just daydream about it instead.” This person will not be satisfied in life, for, as beings caught in the world of name and form, we have been given the vehicle of action. We should seek to use that vehicle in the very best ways that we know how rather than sit on our hands. We are entitled to work, to engage our hopes in concrete projects. We are not guaranteed that those projects will succeed, but we are bound by duty to try to make them succeed.
In the Chandi, a prayerful recitation of the deeds of Goddesses Durga and Kali, the Mother fights against many demons who are grouped together in pairs. I am often reminded of two demons in particular, Self-Deprecation and Self-Conceit. In the spiritual life, and indeed in any pursuit whatsoever, we must avoid these twin tendencies. One is the temptation to regard ourselves more highly than we ought, and the other is the temptation to put ourselves down. Both of these tendencies are forms of insecurity, of a lack of true self-love. If we see ourselves as manifestations of the one eternal Self and concentrate on duty alone, we will be able to defeat these demons. Both Shree Maa and Swamiji are fond of saying that we should regard God as the doer, and this attitude frees us from many kinds of mental self-torture. If I operate from the perspective of ego, I will always be afraid of getting things wrong. But if I operate from the perspective that I, myself, am nothing more than a tool or instrument that the Universe uses, I will be free to simply do the work.