Performing duty without attachment
The second part of karma-yoga is ‘performing one’s duty without attachment to the fruits of the actions’. The word which is translated ‘fruit’ can be rendered ‘result’, but the first is better because it implies a distance from the action, and this is the sense of the Sanskrit. If a fruit-tree is planted, the result of the action is that the tree stands there in the ground the fruit comes much later.
To perform an action without attachment to the fruit does not mean without caring whether it is done well or badly. When cleaning a brass pot, or making a speech, a yogi is not to do it carelessly with the brass he must rub evenly and vigorously, and with the speech he must prepare it with a definite structure, and speak firmly. He must not do these things badly and then say, ‘I did not care about the fruit.’ To leave the pot dull, to deliver a confused speech hesitatingly, is not doing the action at all. A pot half dirty has not been cleaned; a confused and uncertain farrago is not a speech at all. What is technically called the ‘fruit’ of these actions would be praise from a neighbour at the shining brass, or even a sense of self-congratulation at how well it had been done, or the applause of the audience for the speech. The test of detachment would be that when the action fails – someone upsets coffee over the pot, or the audience is hostile because they do not like what has been said – then he is not disturbed; similarly if there is success, he is not elated.
Detached action is done as energetically as action which is powered by strong desire; Shankara cites the Gita on this:
As the ignorant act who are caught up in their own interests, so should the wise man perform action, but untouched, and for the good of the world. . . . He should encourage the ignorant to perform right actions, and himself perform them with energy and skill.
As a matter of fact, the yogic agent who is free from involvement in a distant ‘fruit’ can do better than one who is caught up. The worst agent is the lazy man who does not want to do anything at all he prefers where possible to leave things as they are, for fear of what might happen. The next best agent is the man of passion-struggle, who does actions partly to get definite advantages which he desires, and partly to feel in himself the power of overcoming obstacles. He often fails, however, because his excitement makes him try to force things, and also requires him to take a leading role all the time. The highest agent is the one who is not passionately caught up with some future fruit but performs the action in the joy of the cosmic purpose, unmoved Whether it succeeds or fails in the short run.
The notion of acting vigorously and yet without desire for a fruit is peculiarly difficult to understand for some cultures, but in those which have a tradition of sport, it is easily understood. The essence of sport is to try very hard; there is no savour where one side does not make a fight of it, on the ground that ‘it is only a game’. And yet there is no exulting in victory nor depression in defeat; in fact the struggle is to be a means of making friends, not enemies. A good sportsman appreciates a fine shot by his opponent as much as one of his own.
The chess master Edward Lasker relates that when he first came to London, he played a few games at the City of London chess club; one of them he won in brilliant fashion with a startling queen sacrifice. He says in one of his books:
I am sure none of the onlookers realized what a deep impression my opponent made on me when, on being checkmated, he smiled and shook hands with me. He said: ‘This was very nice.’ Only after Dr Schumer had translated these words to me, and had slowly repeated my adversary’s name, did I realize that I had been playing the champion of London, Sir George A. Thomas. For him to take this defeat so graciously, was a fine example of sportsmanship.
It was an attitude which I had hardly ever experienced during the years I had lived in Berlin. Had I won this game against one of the leading amateurs there, probably his only comment would have been: ‘You are just lucky!
Had I played 10 … B x Kt instead of Q – K2, you would have been lost.’
The so-called sportsmanship was derived from chivalry, which took these attitudes into the whole of life. Or at least, that was the ideal, and we know that though many of the knights were brutal illiterates, there were some, and not only Christians, who made serious attempts to live it. Saladin sent a doctor to cure his great opponent Richard the Lionheart; some even say he came to visit him himself.
Robert, son of William the Conqueror, lost his chance of the throne of England by chivalrously refusing to lay siege to a key city when he learned that the queen was in the city and about to bear a child.
Green, in his Medieval Civilization in Western Europe, cites an extraordinary instance of allegiance to the chivalric code, overriding all other consideration. During Henry V’s wars with France, Henry’s brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, bribed a French captain to surrender the town of Cherbourg to the English. The captain was given a safe conduct to travel to his home, but was apprehended by the English at Rouen, tried by the orders of Henry V for accepting money (though from the English) which led him to betray his liege lord the King of France, was found guilty and executed, in spite of the fact that the treason he had committed was at the behest of the English and to the English advantage. Moreover, the trial and sentence would prevent the English from benefiting from treachery in the future.
The Romans in early days had their own chivalric code, which treated even crucial battles as somehow under rules, like a sport. Even up to the second century B.C. there were those who would not countenance such ‘tricks’ and ‘cleverness’ as ambushes or night attacks.
Nearly all sportsmen find that they play worse if there is some valuable prize for which they are competing, or even a large audience to whom a failure would look ridiculous. Attachment to the ‘fruit’ creates tension, which impairs the technique. A Confucian saying is: ‘When the archers shoot for a clay prize, they shoot well; if for silver, badly; if it is gold they are as if blind.’ There are a few, amateurs or professionals, who can practice detachment in their sport. A golf champion was asked how he approached a critical shot when everything depends on it. He replied, ‘I have found that the only way is to play the shot and not try to play the situation; I have to forget the situation in a sort of cocoon of concentration, and then I can play the shot well. If I feel the situation, I often make a mess of the shot.’ There are many such accounts in different fields, but often this detachment is only within the chosen speciality, and not available for life in general.
As to ‘duty’ it does not mean something imposed and accepted reluctantly, as opposed to what one really wants to do. The word translated duty really means ‘what is to be done’, and the yogas listed as virtues in the Chapter of the Self are expressions of the true Self of man, not unnatural rules precariously holding down a volcano of passions, as in the vision of Russell which he felt was shared also by Conrad. They are ‘what is to be done’ in the sense that full and regular breathing is what is to be done by the asthmatic; when a suggestion is given to remedy his emotional spasm, it is given in such terms as ‘breathe slowly, breathe in relaxation, breathe fully’. These instructions, apparently in conflict with what he feels he can do, are the proper, natural way of breathing; in a sense they are followed as something imposed from outside, but really they are restoring the natural function on the deepest level.
The aspects of duty are set out in the law-books for the ordinary man, but the special yogas, for the one who seeks liberation, are given at the end of the Chapter of the Self, and they correspond closely to various lists in the Gita. Shankara’s glosses on particular words like ‘control’ are almost word for word the same in the two commentaries. This is another indication of their close connection.
In the Gita, men are divided into four classes, but these divisions are not based on birth but on the character of the individual’s attitude and conduct.
The natural actions of the Brahmin are proper to the qualities with which he is born: serenity, control, tapas (austerity), purity, forgiveness, straightforwardness,
knowledge, spiritual realization, and faith. All this is the natural duty of a Brahmin.
Bravery, majesty, firmness, being equal to any occasion, not frightened at opposition, generosity, authority – all this is the natural duty of a warrior.
Skill in agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade – this is the natural duty of the merchant.
Service is the natural duty of a shudra.
In the Gita, and in the Mahabharata epic generally, of which it is a part, there are many passages to show that membership of these classes is not simply from birth in a particular family. ‘Truthfulness, giving, freedom from hatred and wickedness, humility, kindness, tapas – where these are seen, that man is a Brahmin. If these are found in a shudra, and not found in a Brahmin, then the shudra is no shudra and the so-called Brahmin is not a Brahmin.’ And again, ‘A Brahmin who is not a spiritual man, and an elephant made of wood – there is nothing there but the name.’
Obviously in a merchant family, mercantile ability in the children will very easily find scope, and similarly with the other classes. Imitation is a powerful force in education, and the father was there as a teacher. But there is nothing inevitable about it. There may be inherited abilities which the parents have not developed in themselves, and in any case the yogic view is that the mind, being in touch with the cosmic mind, is almost infinite, is not absolutely determined in its scope. However, by a process similar to that by which some geneticists come to believe that an ‘instinctive’ preference in First World War generals for horses over tanks could have been genetically, not socially determined, the view grew up in Hindu society that a person’s role in life was determined by inheritance – ‘caste’ as the Europeans called it. Dr Shastri and his teacher were strongly opposed to this idea. The teacher, himself a Brahmin of a most distinguished lineage, insisted that his high-caste pupils should sometimes serve tea to shudra pupils, thus reversing the roles for the purpose of spiritual training. He used to point out to his pupils that the incarnation Rama, emperor of India, had among his closest friends the ‘monkey’ Hanuman, a member of one of the aboriginal tribes of India. These views nearly cost him his life.
The ‘Brahmin’ is one who knows, or wishes to know, Brahman, and his duty is to be a man of Brahman, to keep alight the flame of knowledge, spiritual realization and faith, and to demonstrate it in his own life as truthfulness, kindness, and absolute independence. In this way he is a teacher of men. Some Brahmins demonstrated fearlessness by becoming wandering renunciates, without any property and living by begging, never staying more than three nights in one place.
The ‘warrior’ is a man of passion-struggle mixed with spiritual awareness, and he protects the order of society, by protecting the weak against the wolves and tigers in human form who would make a jungle out of it. The merchant is skilful in producing wealth for the community and himself; he supports the Brahmin, and pays taxes to the warrior, in return for spiritual light and material protection respectively. The Brahmin’s role is of supreme importance in civilizing the aggressive and acquisitive drives of the warrior and merchant, which otherwise lead to a delight in conquest or in piling up wealth, as absolute values and not as service.
The fourth class is the role of service. This is for someone who does not feel equal to standing alone in life; he wants help and protection, and he joins a group which contains those whom he feels he can look up to; he gives his loyalty and service to this group.
The shudra is not an exploited serf or slave, but a voluntary servant. As a matter of fact every spiritual student carries out this role at some time in his life, and it is to be noted that many of the poet-saints of India, like the great geniuses Tulsidas and Surdas, had names ending in ‘-das’, which means a servant. St Paul has a famous sentence, ‘whose service is perfect freedom’. The riddle in this phrase often disappears through a mental trap-door into oblivion, but no one can understand yogic training who has not at least partially solved it.
© Trevor Leggett