One should not desire the fruits (or consequences) of one‘s actions
We are now going to explain the fundamental principle and the great secret of the Karma Yoga system; once engaged on this path, we willingly and unconditionally give up the fruits of our actions, and therefore we also give up the desire for selfishly enjoying the good consequences or the fear of supporting the bad consequences of our actions. This is the fundamental principle of “unselfish action through consecration to the Divine”. This is what Kåñna firmly declares in the beginning of Bhagavad Gita: “You have the right to perform the action, but only to perform it, because from now on you should never again desire its fruits; the fruits of your action should never be the motive which sets you to work”.
“Only the poor miserable souls are acting for the fruits of their actions or from the desire for those fruits, the constant object of their thoughts or activities”. “The wise, by complete and profound union with the Divine, and by aligning their existence and their will with the Supreme Will, renounce totally the fruits that result from their actions”.
Further on, Kåñna describes the consequences of this extraordinary, indeed Supreme, attitude: “Abandoning totally the attachment to the fruits of the action, the soul succeeds to instantly merge with the Divine (Brahman) and immediately feels an euphoric state of peace and force based on the almightiness and beatitude of the Divine (Brahman)”. In the last chapter of Bhagavad Gita, this truth is summed up as follows: “A tyagin is one who thoroughly attained the perfect renunciation and about him we can say that he attained this ‘beatific and almighty peace’ that comes from merging into the Supreme Absolute (Brahman) and which manifests in and through him permanently – such is indeed the one who has abandoned the fruits of action”.
In the rest of Mahabharata, all other yogi-c wisemen support Kåñna‘s teachings. In this direction, Manu says: “The only spontaneous and instant way to attain the Divine is that the mind should completely renounce the fruit of action”. Likewise, Kåñna says: “The only true and appropriate action which can have eternal and infinite consequences is the one not motivated by any desire for its fruits or by the pursuit of any reward.” The wise king Yudhishthira is more direct: “The one always wishing to collect the fruits of his moral excellence makes a pitiful trade with virtue”.
All contemporary sages, without exception, agree on this point. Swami Ramadas says: “Karma Yoga is the complete renunciation of the fruits of our actions.” Swami Vivekananda frequently returns to this theme: “Never be concerned with the fruits of your actions. Why should we be concerned only for the results?” “Renounce entirely all fruits of your actions.” “Never look or wish for praises or rewards for anything you do”. “The idea of finally obtaining something as a reward for our activity is considerably obstructing our spiritual evolution and often ends by bringing us suffering” (Practical Yoga).
Swami Brahmananda said to his disciples: “If you truly wish to act correctly, you must never forget two main principles: in the first place a profound respect full of attention for the action to be done and in the second place a total indifference or detachment for its fruits. This is what we call the biggest secret in Karma Yoga” (Spiritual disciplines).
Ma Ananda Moyi explains: “As long as we only hide the desire of stepping forward and being known, there is no Karma Yoga, there is just the pleasure of acting for our own satisfaction. We act then only for selfishly enjoying the fruits of our action or for the prestige that it can bring to us. If, before we act, we renounce completely the fruits of our action this instantly becomes Karma Yoga” (Teachings ofMa Ananda Moyi).
The broader meaning which she gives here to the desire for the fruits of the action, is also shown in the following words of Sri Ramakrishna: “To act only for your own material interest is degrading”. (Teachings of Ramakrishna). In fact, the continual pursuit of the results or fruits of the action, even if we do not directly take advantage of them, is equally a manifestation of selfishness. Swami Sivananda says: “How can an egoist person practice Karma Yoga? As long as he does not make the effort to go beyond his selfishness, this spiritual path is impossible for him”.
The same idea is formulated by Sri Aurobindo: “Karma Yoga cannot exist without the intense desire to abandon selfishness, the rajas guna dominance, the desire for the fruits of action – which are all true seals of ignorance…. Action performed in the spirit of Karma Yoga is just as efficient as the highest realisation in BhaktiYoga and it is similar to the attainment of success in contemplation” (TheYogaguide).
For the successful practice of Karma Yoga we must therefore “free ourselves of any selfish goal, regardless of what that is” (Integral Practical Yoga). Sri Aurobindo further analyses the conditions for this to be accomplished: “The only action which instantly unites us with the Supreme and is rapidly purifying us spiritually, is that action which we do in a state of perfect detachment, with no personal reasons, without looking in any way for notoriety or for the ephemeral honours of this world, without setting forth our personal goals, individual intentions, vital greed or physical preferences, without feeling vanity, without wishing to compel recognition or to find prestige; this is in reality the action that the Divine is doing through us by a sort of clearly felt inner imperative”.
“All actions done in a selfish spirit, no matter how good they may seem to people from the ignorant world, are not of any use for the true aspirant to Yoga” (Yoga guide). “Any action performed with keen attention and harmoniously integrated, conceived with the intention to be a genuine offering to the Divine, free of desire for its fruits, free of selfishness, done in a balanced state of mind, with a complete inner equality both in success and failure. This action being carried out mainly for the love of the Divine and not for gaininglater rewards, compensations, or some personally desired result, having the very intense awareness that all actions belong to the Infinite Divine Power. This is the instantaneous way of spiritual elevation and self offering through Karma Yoga”.
As one can expect, the writings of Mahatma Gandhi are filled with the same ideas, only that he presents them a bit differently: “the continual satisfaction lays in the sincere effort of performing (the action) and not in the success. The complete effort is, with anticipation, the expression of complete victory” (Ethical religion). And as usual, he draws upon his personal example as being instructional: “I have just very imperfectly realised my intense desire of profoundly melting into the Divine; I have ardently wished to be just a boulder of clay in the Divine hands of the Creator, so that I could serve much better, without being interrupted at all by my ego” (Young India).
Regarding this attitude he later gives a metaphysical explanation, which we should deeply reflect upon: “The human being should not exploit the results of his actions. Acting permanently in this way, will give a constant empowerment granted by the Divine”. (Quoted by Mahader Desai in “Gandhiji in the villages of India”).
When acting to obtain a result (a frequent occurrence) it is obvious that, before everything else we think about the possible results of our action, which we even try to predict, according to our intelligence: the pleasure or the advantages which the action will bring us or those who interest us. Nevertheless, we have all experienced many cases when the results were not what we had hoped for (indeed that is what happens most often), being sometimes entirely opposite to our expectations.
We seldom consider the long-term results of our actions. When we are enjoying a delicious and luxurious lunch for example, or when we offer cookies to a child it is not often that we think of the possibility of indigestion. If we recommend to someone a certain title for reading, we do so, hoping that by reading the book some change will emerge in him, which will bring about an enrichment of his soul or even a positive transformation of his ideas. But even in these situations, our predictions are far from becoming true in all cases. As such, almost always we are incapable to completely and accurately predict the results of our actions in the long run. No matter the care or attention with which we raise a child we will never know beforehand if he will turn to be good or bad or how will he use the faculties which we are developing in him or how will he use the knowledge we teach him. In fact, as Swami Vivekananda rightly observed: ” We can never accomplish something which does not have some good results and, similarly, there is no action which does not do some harm somewhere … There is no action which will not simultaneously determine, on different levels, both good and bad fruits” (Practical Yoga).
With the exception of people who reached the state of wisdom, no matter how smart we are or we think we are, common sense and our life experience obliges us to admit that our predictions about the results of our actions are almost always incomplete and uncertain. According to our inner attitude and temperament we find that the results (the ‘fruits’) of our actions are for the greatest part ultimately determined by the Divine will or by fate (in other words by Karma) these results being in extremely few cases totally determined by our intentions or our firmly focused will.
As a conclusion, we can say that the desire for the fruits of action is not as fulfilling as we may think it is and the rule given in Bhagavad Gita and Karma Yoga is not as far out as it may look at first sight. Understanding this we must find out if there is a wise, preferable purpose to action.
The desire to obtain the fruits of action is obviously just one aspect of desire in general. Regarding this, yoga considers desire as the most terrible obstacle on the path of inner evolution.
In Bhagavad Gita, Kåñna speaks about this in forty-two sütras (aphorisms), from eleven different chapters. He is full of compassion for these “souls of desire”. He talks about these “poor slaves of desire” and he continuously insists upon “the necessity of being completely free of desire”. For him, desire is one of the “gateways to hell, the destroyer of souls”. And in his description of “demonic souls” he is doubtlessly referring only to the greed for the fruits of action when he says: “Enchained, devoured by anger and greed, constantly busy to collect ever greater profits through dishonest ways for serving the satisfaction of their transient pleasures and the fulfilment of their desires, they almost always think: ‘Today I have fulfilled this desire, tomorrow, no doubt I will fulfil another; today I have obtained this richness, tomorrow, for sure, I will obtain even more’.” Kåñna also speaks about the eternal enemy of knowledge which, disguised as selfish desire, is a consuming fire. And, in his vision, a person “must completely renounce selfish desire, with no exception”, if he is pursuing the “path of becoming one with the Supreme Divine Brahman”. This is why Kåñna insists that the aspirants towards enlightenment should “abandon, with no exceptions, all desires born of selfishness”. But he doesn’t deny that it can be quite difficult “to always overcome this enemy, named selfish desire, which is so difficult to attack”.
In another chapter from Mahabharata, Kåñna explains to the king Yudhishthira: “About the person who selfishly desires all the good things of this world, being entirely and always attached to the fruits of these selfish desires, we can say that he already bears Death in his mouth… The complete restrain of selfish desires is at the root of all true virtues”. We consider it unnecessary to emphasise again that in Mahabharata all other sages are repeating the same warning. And the same holds true for the modern sages; it is sufficient to quote only a few on this idea.
Sri Ramakrishna: “The heart which has only burned in the fire of selfish desires can in no way stand the influence of elevated spiritual feelings or experiences” (Teachings ofRamakrishna). And als “Nobody can enter the Heavenly Kingdom if he holds on to even the slightest trace of selfish desire”.
Sri Aurobindo is dedicating an important part of his letters addressed to his disciples to the techniques that will allow them to get rid of “ego and selfish desires”. He says: “Problems and suffering fall upon the human beings because they are filled with selfish desires for things or states that cannot exist permanently and which, willingly or not, they will loose and even when they would obtain them they will ultimately bring deception and will be unable to fully satisfy them for ever” (Answers). He adds: ” If the selfish desire is not completely mastered, how could we walk fast and easy on the spiritual path? Because liberation shows up instantly after the loss of ego and selfish desires”.
Ma Ananda Moyi observes that “often enough, we selfishly tend to satisfy one wish through another one, which results in the fact that desires cannot disappear and also the tendency to desire in human beings will not disappear”. (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi). Because of this, she was directing all those coming to see her to replace selfish wishes with detached desires. She said: “You are the ones who are always creating selfish desires through your thoughts, and you are also the ones who can destroy them, by firmly and detachedly thinking the opposite“.
This complete detachment and freedom from the fruits of action is for us quite hard to grasp, especially in the beginning, because usually when we act we do so for a selfish wish, in order to get a result or a pleasant fruit which should be favourable or at least agreeable to us. Even in those actions that we say are ‘selfless’, it seldom happens that we don’t wish for anything at all in exchange. If, for instance, when giving a present to a child or when helping a poor person, the recipient doesn’t even say “thank you”, we are, very often at least slightly surprised.
Also, most of the time we are tempted to think that if we should expect nothing in return for our completely detached actions, then it is useless to continue them. But from the teachings of the Karma Yoga system we have seen that this is a misunderstanding. What should then be our purpose?
Obviously, there are “certain actions integrated into the Divine harmony and therefore indicated” about which we have already spoken, but even so, they cover only a fraction of our activities. The fulfilling of our svadharma gives us a larger scope but it is still not enough. The best answer to this is given by Gandhi who was performing all actions that he considered to be righteous and strictly necessary according to the highest necessity (ideal) of the moment, without caring for the results, a fact which did not make him an easy partner in his negotiations with the British authorities. In such a situation someone told Gandhi: “If you are going to do what you have informed us, the consequences will be catastrophic both for India and you personally”. His answer was “This doesn’t interest me at all”. This is “the highest ideal of the moment”- meaning, that we do in a state of detachment that which is right in that specific situation, about which we have a feeling of duty, to be open to the mysterious “inner voice” of consciousness, to have a detached desire to be the best possible vehicle or channel for the manifestation of the Divine, to align our intention with the cosmic will. All these are leading to salvation if we: “offer completely our actions and their fruits to God” as Kåñna says in Bhagavad Gita. In this direction, Swami Ramadas said: “we can easily and instantly discover God in us if we offer him totally, through a thorough and sincere consecration, the fruits of all our actions” (Letters).
Ma Ananda Moyi goes even further when she says: ” the ancient prayer – ‘God, please make my heart free of thirst for results’ – is still the result of a hidden inner wish to get a result. But as long as we aspire with all our heart, passionately, to become able to perform actions without lust of result we can be sure that, with the help of the Divine we will attain this state. As long as the ego will exist or will dominate, inner conflicts will burst out from time to time, even if we will try to perform detached actions. These conflicts appear because the ego still binds us to the fruits of our actions and, consequently, drives us in a specific direction” (Teachings ofMa Ananda Moyi).
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