On the occasion of Janmashtami the author – a retired college Principal from Ahmedabad, and engaged in cross-religious dialogue – has invoked Krishna, and argued how Mahatma Gandhi’s anashakti yoga was in tune with Krishna’s teachings in the Bhagavadgita.
Javed Mustafa is a retired college Principal from Ahmedabad.
Krishna has always fascinated me. I see many colours of Krishna: a child god–naughty, pampered and affectionate, a lover with the enchanting music of the flute, a diplomat-warrior, and above all, a friend/teacher/philosopher.
In a way, the imageries and symbols associated with Krishna reveal the meeting ground of the phenomenal and the transcendental, the temporal and the eternal, body and soul, and time and timelessness. However, it is Krishna’s conversation with Arjuna in the battlefield of Kurukshetra that gives me a refreshingly different understanding of work, bondage, desire, freedom and renunciation. These are deeply existential and spiritual issues, and all religions in their own ways cope with these riddles. In Krishna’s conversation with Arjuna I find something eternal–beyond any institutionalized religion, beyond any dogma, beyond any sect.
As I read the Bhagavadgita, I find the notion of three gunas (tamas, rajas and sattwa) and niskam karma (or detached work) tremendously appealing. Let us understand it through purely ‘secular’ terms. Yes, tamas or passivity/inertia often blocks our life-energy and creative zeal for meaningful work. It takes us to a dark domain, some kind of a death wish. Passive, alcoholic, sleepy, cynical–we see many people of this kind among us.
Again, we see heightened enthusiasm, ambition, utilitarian zeal and achievement-orientation among entrepreneurs, capitalists, political activists, celebrities and over-energetic youth. Yes, these are the earthly people guided by the spirit of rajas. But then, there are also people among us – calm, composed, meditative, peaceful–who work without causing noise, who radiate love and do not expect anything in return. These are the people guided by the quality of sattwa.
Quite often, in the earthly sphere our inflated ‘egos’ operate, and for every action we do we desire results that serve our personal interests. In other words, what is often regarded as ‘rational’/’economic’/’
instrumental’ action is essentially like this. See its innumerable manifestations in the world. I sell a product; I need good profit. I became a MLA/MP; I desire to become a Minister and expand my empire.
As a Minister, I initiate a program; and I want newspapers and television channels to advertise my ‘big’ performance. Capitalism, modern development, banks, stock exchanges, markets, sports carnivals, politics – the world functions on these achievements of rajasic actions – the actions that inflate our egos (I am the ‘agent’; I am ‘great’; I am ‘successful’), and intensify our desire for fame, power, money, immortality. In a way, this sort of action causes bondage; we become victims of our egos and desire. At times, we are intoxicated with pleasure because of ‘success’, and the next moment we are angry, envious and depressed because we have ‘failed’. In other words, we remain caught into the vicious circle of desire and bondage, success and failure, and pleasure and depression.
Is it then possible to be free from this maya? As Krihsna advised Arjuna, emancipation does not lie in an escape from work. A lonely cave, a solitary island, a Himalayan hamlet-there is no escape. If our ‘egos’ (the feeling that with my ‘fame’, ‘power’ and ‘glory’ I am separated from the all-pervading Eenergy that has created me , or the notion that I am merely my body) continue to operate, we would remain restless and violent even in those esoteric places of silence and tranquility. Hence, the answer is sattwa (or even beyond all gunas-a stage of nirguna): offering one’s action as a mode of prayer, and not to be obsessed with the calculation of egotistic profit and loss. This is niskam karma–a mode of detached action or what Mahatma Gandhi regarded as anashakti yoga.
Let us understand its deeper meaning. Generally, there are two kinds of doubt regarding the feasibility of this sort of action. First, is it possible to act without bothering about its utility or result? Suppose as a writer you have given your best and written a novel. Yes, you would like it to be circulated and read. Now what does happen to you if the publisher fails to sell many copies of the novel, you do not get sufficient royalty, and you do not get any award.
Here Krishna would advise you in this way: ” You have given your best. You are sincere in your work. Now just offer it. And don’t be obsessed with its immediate/visible results. You need not think you are ‘great’ if you get an award. Nor do you need to be depressed if no literary magazine reviews your book. Your swadharma is to write and create. Find yourself in the fulfillment of your swadharma.”
Second, does the ethos of niskam karma mean that you allow yourself to be exploited? Suppose I work in a factory, and the owner doesn’t give me due wages. Does it mean that I do not fight for my rights and remain happy to be exploited? Certainly not. Krishna would advise you like this: “Fight. Fight fearlessly. Fight for justice. But this struggle is not merely for your wages; this is for everybody in your workplace; this is for justice; this is an offering to a great cause that transcends you as a discrete/limited being.”
In a way, Mahatma Gandhi understood Krishna’s message fairly well. For him, Kurukshetra was the site of colonial invasion. He didn’t escape. He worked, fought, suffered, celebrated; and yet, he felt it as a dharma–an action without the desire for egotistic fame and profit. His satyagraha, I believe, emanates from this spirit of anashaki yoga. His intense engagement became a meditative act. Truly, he sought to reduce himself to ‘zero’.
On this festive occasion I recall Krishna in this Gandhian way. Possibly, a wounded society–filled with the vices of communal politics, culture of narcissism and all sorts of obscurantism in the name of religion, needs to rediscover Krishna for a therapeutic healing.