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What the ancient Indian text Bhagavad Gita can teach about not putting too much of our identity and emotions into work

Robert J. Stephens, Clemson University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

A 2023 Gallup poll found that U.S. employees are generally unhappy at work. The number of those who feel angry and disconnected with their organization’s mission is climbing.

An analysis of data from 60,000 employees by BambooHR, an HR software platform, also found that workplace morale was getting worse: “Employees aren’t experiencing highs or lows — instead, they are expressing a sense of resignation or even apathy.”

As a scholar of South Asian religions, I argue that a mindfulness technique called “nishkama karma” – acting without desire – described in an ancient but popular Indian text called the “Bhagavad Gita,” may prove useful for navigating the contemporary world of work.

The Gita presents a variety of “yogas,” or disciplined religious paths. One such path suggests adopting an attitude of righteous resignation – a kind of Stoic equanimity or even-mindedness. In the workplace, this might mean performing one’s professional duties to the best of one’s ability – but without being overly concerned about the results for one’s personal advancement.

The “Bhagavad Gita,” or “Song of the Lord,” is an 18-chapter dialogue between Krishna, the Lord of the Universe, and the warrior-hero Arjuna. Found in the sixth book of the world’s longest epic poem, the “Mahabharata,” the Gita was likely composed between the third century B.C.E. and the third century C.E.

The Gita opens on a battlefield where Arjuna, the beleaguered champion of the Pandavas, is set to fight his cousins, the Kauravas, along with his uncles and former teachers, for the rightful control of the ancestral kingdom.

 

Arjuna is faced with the moral ambiguity of internecine warfare. He is stuck in a dilemma between obligations to his kin and former teachers and obligations to his “dharma” – religious and social duty – as a warrior to fight against them. Arjuna is therefore understandably reluctant to act.

Krishna, who has assumed the humble guise of Arjuna’s charioteer in the story, advises Arjuna that it is impossible for anyone to refrain entirely from all action: “There is no one who can remain without action even for a moment. Indeed, all beings are compelled to act by their qualities born of material nature” (3.5).

Even choosing not to act is itself a kind of action. Krishna instructs Arjuna to perform his duties as a warrior regardless of how he feels about the prospect of fighting against family and friends: “Fight for the sake of duty, treating alike happiness and distress, loss and gain, victory and defeat. Fulfilling your responsibility in this way, you will never incur sin” (2.38).

Given the inevitability of action, Krishna advises Arjuna to cultivate an attitude of nonattached equanimity or even-mindedness toward the results of his actions. Unlike feeling detached from the work process itself, cultivating an attitude of detachment from the results of one’s work is presented in the Gita as a method for gaining a clear and stable mind.

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