In the great epic Mahabharata, Arjun, one of the five Pandavas, puts down his weapons and refuses to fight in the ongoing war. He is filled with anguish at the sight of his loved ones, the elders in particular, for whom he has great affection. The prospect of fighting the blameless and killing his kinsmen fills him with a strange pity. ‘I shall not fight’, he declares, leaving his charioteer Krishna dumbfounded.
Krishna reminds Arjun that, this is no ordinary battlefield (Kurukshetra), it is also a moral field (Dharamkshetra). The war was waged as the last resort when all other alternatives had been exhausted. Arjun is aware that his cause is just and yet he cannot transcend his human emotions. Krishna tries several arguments to persuade Arjun to fight. One of these is a truly novel moral argument based on action. Krishna knows that Arjun is a man of action, so he exhorts him to act for the sake of his duty, without any thought to the consequences. Krishna believes that the moral worth of an action lies in a persons motive rather than in the consequences of the action. He speaks thus, ‘Be intent on the action, not on the fruits of action’.
This moral insight is also called ‘nishkama karma’ or disinterested action. Eknath Easwarana translates it as – “You have the right to work, but never to the fruits of work.” Krishna condemns ‘desire’ motivated acts as conducive to rebirth and believes that any action performed in ‘selfless spirit’ is virtuous and will not accumulate karma. This infact is the basic premise of ‘nishkama karma’.
Arjun is now caught between his svadharma (his duty as a kshatriya warrior, which is to fight a ‘righteous war’) and sadharana dharma (the duty of his conscience which dissuades him from violence). It is a tragic dilemma (dharma sankat) indeed. Krishna, then reveals his awe inspiring aspect as God, who is the creator and destroyer of the universe. He leaves the choice with Arjun and asks him to make a reasoned decision based on what he has learned. ‘Act as you choose’, says Krishna.
The experience of Krishna’s terrifying form, makes Arjun realise that his duty is linked to cosmic power (Krishna’s divinity). And as long as he acts according to his duty, he conforms to cosmic dharma. This makes him an instrument of cosmic will rather than a doer (ego). Arjun reasons that, he can act according to his duty and fulfill his moral commitment of fighting a just war to restore order (response) or he can wallow in emotions and think of his self-interest (reaction). He chooses response over reaction. “I will do your bidding,” says Arjun.
The concept of ‘nishkama karma’ has intrigued many a philosophers. They have been trying to interpret ‘nishkama karma’ as a spiritual ideal for centuries. However, the thing to observe here is that ‘nish’ which means ‘without’ in Sanskrit, ‘kama’ which means ‘desire’, ‘phala’ which means ‘fruit’ and ‘karma’ which means ‘action’ or ‘action performed without desire of its fruit’ (nishphala karma) does not accumulate karma. Since it is done in selfless spirit of fulfilling one’s moral commitment rather than personal glory or blame, Krishna says, it will not incur debt. This was Krishna’s promise to Arjun.
The choice to detach himself from the consequence of his actions was not easy for Arjun. But he is able to rise above his ego and be an instrument of divine will (‘Be just my instrument’, says Krishna). Having seen the awe inspiring aspect of God, where, in time grown old, events have already happened according to divine will, Arjun just needs to do his duty. By attending to his duty single-mindedly without any thought to the consequence, Arjun’s action is linked to Krishna’s divinity or cosmic power.
Arjun chose moral commitment over self-interest, divinity over humanity, liberation over bondage. When we perform actions with desire for its fruit in mind, we bind ourselves to the cycle of birth and rebirth. The purpose of life is liberation or moksha. Nishkama karma or detaching one’s actions from personal reward helps us to attain this purpose. However, in the final analysis, the choice rests with us. As long as the desire for rewards of our work matter to us, as much as the work, we are reborn for those rewards, but when we perform only those acts that are incumbent on us, we attain liberation.