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The Art of Work


Sannyasa, the fourth stage of Vedic life, symbolizes renunciation and detachment. But, Lord Krishna says, why wait till then?

Renunciation is essential to spiritual life, but that doesn’t mean we have to go to the forest. Living a renounced life at home begins with placing Krishna in the center of the family. By worshiping Him daily, we can master the art of performing our normal work for His pleasure.

A famous pacifist, who also wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad-gita, once said that if in fact Lord Krishna had asked Arjuna to kill, he would no longer accept the authority of Lord Krishna. But Lord Krishna does ask Arjuna to fight, and more astonishingly He supports His request with eighteen chapters of philosophy. The Bhagavad-gita is not, however, a treatise on war. A more subtle point is being made. Although every state needs a class of men to assume the duty of protecting its citizens from aggression. Lord Krishna’s arguments to convince Arjuna to fight are more than a call to secular duty; they are an analysis of how to attain perfection through one’s duty, even as a warrior.

The first consideration of any man seeking perfection is to become free from karma. The law of karma is similar to the physical law of motion that states that every physical action has an equal and opposite reaction. Karma has jurisdiction over human actions and allots reward and punishment. Bound by karma, one must repeatedly take birth to reap the good or bad results of one’s work. Thus a person engaged in fruitive work can never attain perfection.

It was especially difficult, therefore, for Arjuna to imagine attaining perfection in the course of his work, since his duty was warfare. The reaction to killing was a dreadful prospect. Arjuna therefore concluded that only by renouncing his duty could perfection be possible.

Hearing Krishna’s instruction on buddhi-yoga. Arjuna felt that his desire to renounce action was reinforced. Buddhi-yoga literally means using one’s intelligence to advance in spiritual knowledge. According to his understanding of karma. Arjuna concluded that intelligence in spirituality meant renouncing work for a life of penance and philosophical pursuits. In other words, he wanted to become a sannyasi.

In one sense it is understandable that Arjuna desired sannyasa. According to the Vedas, human life is meant for self-realization, and therefore an intelligent man should certainly try to free himself from worldly duties so that his life is not diverted to temporary pursuits.

So, considering what he felt to be Krishna’s instruction concerning renunciation and its obvious advantages. Arjuna became bewildered by Krishna’s insistence that he achieve perfection through performance of his duties. “O Krishna,” he asked the Lord. “why do You want to engage me in this ghastly warfare, if You think that intelligence is better than fruitive work?”

To encourage Arjuna to seek perfection through his work. Lord Krishna began to correct Arjuna’s shallow understanding of sannyasa.

Sannyasa is not just a physical separation from home. One has to be internally detached. Krishna condemns the man who poses as a sannyasi but has not been purified of his worldly propensities by properly discharging his prescribed duties: “One who restrains the senses of action but whose mind dwells on sense objects certainly deludes himself and is called a pretender.”

A pretender will not be able to maintain his apparent detachment because sannyasa is a painstaking life. The sannyasi must be satisfied to live simply, depending wholly on the gifts of nature. The pseudo mendicant without occupation but desirous of worldly comforts will be forced to beg a living at the cost of others. Such so-called renunciation for the purpose of maintenance is at no time recommended by Lord Sri Krishna. Rather, He advises Arjuna. “Perform your prescribed duty. for doing so is better than not working. One cannot even maintain one’s physical body without work.”

Although the perils of renunciation and the need to maintain the body certainly dampened Arjuna’s aspiration for sannyasa, he was nevertheless still bewildered as to his prospects for happiness at home. He still dreaded karma. Lord Krishna therefore explained to Arjuna that work—even the work of a warrior—can be without karmic reaction: “Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed; otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore. O son of Kunti perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain free from bondage.”

Lord Krishna thus gave the key to understanding perfection at home by giving Arjuna a deeper understanding of karma. The basis of karma is that the one who is responsible for actions has to enjoy or suffer the consequences of those actions. Arjuna should now understand that responsibility for work lies not with the performer but with the one who has desired the work. Working for the satisfaction of Vishnu means that one works not out of one’s personal desire but out of the desire to serve God. Such a dutiful man is thus absolved of the responsibility for reaction to his work.

For example, because a soldier fights on the order of his government, he is never tried for murder, even though he may kill many enemy soldiers. On the other hand, if the same soldier kills even one man in his village in a private conflict, he will be punished severely. The real meaning of karma, therefore, is that one who acts on his own desire must accept the consequences of his action. On the other hand. the actions one performs out of duty yield no reaction.

The Bhagavad-gita thus offers a feasible process of self-realization for the common man. Nonetheless, to work for Vishnu and cultivate detachment from the fruits of work is an art that needs expert guidance. Guidance is especially needed today, when one’s duties, unlike Arjuna’s, are not prescribed by a society dedicated to self- realization.

A good example of how Lord Krishna’s principle of attaining perfection at home can be practically applied today is found in Caitanya-caritamrita, the life and teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. While touring South India, in every village Lord Caitanya visited He would inspire the people who saw Him to become God conscious. In the village of Kurmakshetra a rich brahmana invited the Lord to his home and served Him with great respect and attention. Being inspired by Lord Caitanya’s association, he begged the Lord. “My dear Lord, kindly show me favor and let me come with You. I can no longer tolerate the miseries caused by materialistic life.”

But Lord Caitanya did not think it advisable for one in this age of Kali to leave one’s family suddenly. Rather, He advised the brahmana to remain at home, continue his duties, and try to become purified by adopting a spiritual way of life. “Don’t speak like that again,” the Lord told him. “Better to remain home and chant the holy name of Krishna always. Instruct everyone to follow the orders of Krishna as they are given in the Bhagavad- gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam… . If you follow these instructions your materialistic life at home will not obstruct your spiritual advancement”

Lord Krishna’s message in the Bhagavad-gita is thus applicable to all men. We should therefore consider that if even in the midst of war spiritual perfection is obtainable, then why can’t perfection be achieved at home?