The Gita: A Nishkama Chariot

Left to right: Book – Gita For a Global Word; Author – Rohit Chopra

How relevant are the Gita’s 700 verses to the 7.4 billion people who, today, confront inner conflicts that are dharmic and eternal (do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way) and external conflicts that ask karmic questions that are particular to contemporary times?

“What is the nature of our obligations towards our fellow beings?

“What sense do we make of the relentless wars being waged today between state and non-state actors? 

“What approach do we take to fighting battles with adversaries like the COVID-19 coronavirus?”

This is how Santa Clara University Professor Rohit Chopra opens his thoughtful book The Gita for a Global World: Ethical Action In An Age Of Flux.

“It is a sign of universal relevance and enduringly enigmatic character of a book when it speaks compellingly to opposing concerns.” He continues, “Like any other text, religious or secular, the Gita may not provide easy or immediate answers to such questions. But it may give us a way to struggle with them, and show us a way to find the answers for ourselves….While the setting of the Gita is an actual field of battle [Kurukshetra where Lord Krishna serves as a charioteer (Sarathy), guiding Prince Arjuna (Partha) who questions the ethics of war], the battlefield of the text refers to any struggle we may face in life.”

Chopra suggests that the Gita has been read as Gandhi did, as a “battlefield … located in every human soul, where the perennial conflict between good and evil occurs without end.” Or the ancient text can be used to “justify violence in the service of a cause,” as the so-called father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer did when he contextualized the devastation of Hiroshima (and, to a lesser extent, Nagasaki) by quoting the Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The coda of Chopra’s book lands squarely with the Gandhian worldview.

My first exposure to the complete Gita was in college when I read Barbara Stoler Miller’s poetic translation (I read it with hopes of obtaining an “A” grade in my Hinduism class). Soon, I came across a member of the Hare Krishna movement who handed me a copy translated by ISKCON founder Swami Prabhupada. I imagined that the Hare Krishnas also had hopes attached to their action — hopes of “converting” me or at least of parting me with a couple of bucks in exchange for the book. My most recent version of the Gita is courtesy of the Chinmaya Mission — I hoped that by studying the Gita each week in Chinmaya’s Bala Vihar program, my children would forever retain a certain sense of their Indian heritage. The irony of attachment was not lost on me when I recently re-read this shloka (verse) in the second chapter of Swami Chinmayananda’s translation of the Gita;

“karmanyevädhikäraste mä phalesu kadäcana |

mä karmaphalaheturbhürmä te sango’stvakarmani”

“The right is to work only, but never to its fruits;

let not the fruit of action be thy motive, nor let thy attachment be to inaction.”

Two questions came to me upon this reading:

(1) While I encourage my children to not be attached to both the fruits of action and to inaction, have I actually lived by this philosophy? 

(2) Is the Gita’s philosophy aspirationally unachievable like Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox of Motion wherein we can walk only halfway toward our destination, each midpoint moving us asymptotically closer, but the end goal of nishkama karma (“desireless action”) in our modern world always being infinitely out of our reach?

No, I have not consistently practiced what I’ve preached. While I’ve always had a bias for action, I cannot recall an action of mine that was divorced from some sort of desire to take a bite out of the fruit of my action. Simply put, if I accept Chopra’s introductory definition of nishkama karma as “desireless action,” I must confess that I’m still wedded to the opposite sakam karma, since my ego has me desiring results.

As I’ve grown older and now have a grandchild, I’ve embraced a desire that is a less self-centric form of “enlightened self-interest.” While my stage of development still has this enlightenment yoked to a result, now I am more motivated by placing others’ interests above my own. Perhaps a gentler, less rigid definition of nishkama karma can give us hope for a gentler, less Hobbesian human condition in the 21st century. This more expansive definition would mean that we consider the consequences of our actions from the perspective of others. 

Reading Chopra’s exploration of the Gita’s relevance in the modern world is a challenging delight because of his layered approach. He insightfully builds on his introduction of nishkama karma by going deeper in distinguishing outcomes and consequences: “an ‘outcome’ refers to a planned or hoped-for result that, consciously or unconsciously, shapes the nature of the action, while a ‘consequence’ is the result that will occur from the action anyway…Abandoning concern for outcomes … is an act of humility. Thinking through the possible consequences of our actions is also an act of humility, for thought and action that are grounded in this approach do not privilege our own needs and well-being over those of others.”  

Reading the Gita in this way is how I aspire to be a grandfather.  More broadly, it is also how all of us can discover hope in this Age of Crisis Globalization; it is why we can believe that actions taken today will have consequences on the battlefields of climate change, social inequality, techno-cultural imperialism, and killer pandemics. I choose to hug the trunk of the mighty banyan of the Gita and, in so doing, embrace the idea of planting a tree under whose shade I am unlikely to sit.


Dr. Raj C. Oza has written Globalization, Diaspora, and Work TransformationSatyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, and P.S., Papa’s Stories. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.

This article is for the RCO’s son-in-law Maneesh, who has been Sarathy to RCO’s Partha, in counseling through personal example that “Evenness of mind is called yoga.”


 

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