Mohandas Gandhi used the Bhagavad Gita as his go-to source for dealing with life’s daily problems and issues. A short book of 700 verses, the Gita grounded and inspired Gandhi throughout his life. Like other Indians of spiritual stature, he even wrote a commentary on the classic text in the 1920s.
I recently read Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda’s translation, Bhagavad Gita: The Song of God. Having once worked at a Jesuit university, I was intrigued by the Gita’s insistence on matters relating to action, which may strike some people as peculiar, if not terribly wrong-headed.
Years ago, the university had an annual “Make a Difference Day” in which throngs of students and staff would engage in service projects over the course of several hours on a Saturday all over the city. I remember one year the university president announced the total number of service hours the university had given to the St. Louis community (it was in the many thousands). Common at the university (though unimaginable in my unenlightened undergraduate years) are “alternative” spring break trips where students engage in service activities in various places in the US and, occasionally, abroad.
Consider the Gita:
You have the right to work, but for work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of your work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working….Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even-tempered in success and failure; for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by yoga. [chapter 2]
[Y]ou must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results…. Do your duty, always; but without attachment. That is how a man reaches the ultimate Truth; by working without anxiety about results. [Chapter 3]
You must learn what kind of work to do, what kind of work to avoid, and how to reach a state of calm detachment from your work. [Chapter 4]
You dream you are the doer,
You dream that action is done,
You dream that action bears fruit.
It is your ignorance,
It is the world’s delusion
That gives you these dreams. [chapter 5]
Ours is a culture keen on quantification, results, and doers. We need to know that we are making a difference, that we are succeeding, that we are making important change happen, that our precious hours matter, and that others know about it. Many of us might be befuddled, if not irked, by Gandhi’s response to a journalist who asked him to summarize the secret of his life in three words, “Renounce and enjoy!”