It is now more than fifty years since I visited Mahatma Gandhi in his ashram in Central India. I was a student then, and the country I had grown up in was not “British India” to me. It was Gandhi’s India, roused from centuries of foreign rule by one little brown man who had given up everything to serve those he called “the lowest, the lowliest, and the lost.”
I walked from the railway junction along a dusty road to Sevagram, “the village of service.” I had not come in search of political knowledge or a charismatic national leader. I wanted to discover how Gandhi had become such a supreme master of the art of living. Like everyone else in India, I knew that in his youth he had been a timid, ineffectual “briefless barrister” whose only extraordinary characteristic, as he liked to say, was his big ears. By the time he came back to India from South Africa in 1915, he had transformed himself into such a mighty force for love and wisdom that he was a lighthouse to the whole world. He worked tirelessly, and the older he got the younger he seemed. A Western journalist had asked him, “Mr. Gandhi, you have been working fifteen hours a day for fifty years. Don’t you think you should take a vacation?” Gandhi smiled his toothless smile and replied, “I am always on vacation.”
I had just one question burning in my heart: what was the secret of this transformation? What could I do to make myself like that in my own small circle?
When I reached the ashram, the tropical sun was setting in a blaze of glory. I joined a group of eager aspirants who were waiting for Gandhi to come out of his cottage. I was told he had been absorbed since early morning in delicate negotiations with British and Indian leaders. India’s future looked dark in those turbulent times, and I naturally expected to see a tired, tense figure emerge, with scant time or energy for eager admirers like me.
Imagine my astonishment when the door opened and out came a boyish figure with the buoyant step of a teenager, laughing with Nehru and others as he cracked a joke we could not hear. He looked as if he had been playing Bingo all day. As he caught sight of me I was struck by his beautiful eyes, so full of love that the more you looked into them, the deeper you fell. He beckoned to us with a friendly nod, inviting us to join him on his evening walk. But Gandhi didn’t just walk. He strode along so swiftly that the rest of us had to keep breaking into a trot to stay apace with him.
When we came back the sun had set, and people from many nations had gathered in the meadow for Gandhi’s evening prayer meeting. As the stars came out one by one in the soft blue of the Indian sky, Gandhi came and took his seat under a green neem tree. I managed to get a seat close to him, so I could keep my eyes focused on him throughout.
Gandhiji’s secretary, Mahadev Desai, began to recite the last eighteen verses of the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Indian scripture couched as a dialogue between Arjuna, the warrior prince who represents you and me, and Sri Krishna, who stands for the Lord within. Arjuna asks, “Tell me, Krishna, of those who are established in wisdom. How do they talk? How do they act at home and work, among friends, among enemies? When faced by challenges, frustration, disappointment, disloyalty, how do they behave?”
And Sri Krishna replies: “They are established in wisdom who have removed every trace of selfish motivation from the mind. Alike in victory and defeat, success and failure, they have mastered the art of living and attained life’s highest goal.”
I had read these words before, but they never attracted me. To a college student trained in the scientific thinking of the West, they didn’t even seem plausible. Is any motivation left when personal motives are given up? Is there really anything wrong in the desire for recognition or success in a noble cause? And if it were possible to be free from personal motivation, wouldn’t such a person be cold and impersonal, like a zombie? But such questions never even arose in the presence of this little man, so vitally alive, so original, that his whole life was a work of art.
As I listened entranced to those sonorous Sanskrit verses, I saw Gandhi turn inwards, completely absorbed in the Self within. He was not his brown body at all but an immense spiritual force. This is our real stature, he was telling us. This is what it means to be a human being. Modern civilization tells us we are physical creatures whose highest motivation is biological. Gandhi was showing us that our unsuspected potential is vastly greater. We are not mere physical creatures, but spiritual beings whose highest motivation is to love, to give, to serve.
Afterwards that scene haunted me everywhere I went. I began to understand that the loftiest concept of living has nothing to do with making money, gathering intellectual knowledge, gaining power, or achieving fame even for a noble purpose. It is when we turn our back upon our own personal pleasure and profit for the sake of others that we attain real mastery of the art of living.
The Bhagavad Gita was Gandhi’s manual for how to love, to give, and to serve.
And I had seen the secret of his transformation. Sanskrit has a saying: “You become what you meditate on.” By meditating on the Gita every day and trying constantly to translate it into his life, Gandhi had made the Gita his spiritual reference book, a manual not for spiritual retreat but for mastering the tempestuous challenges of modern life.
In a famous verse the Gita defines yoga as “skill in work”—skill in the art of action. “Work” here is the Sanskrit karma, not just our occupation but everything we do. What does the Gita teach about how to work, and how can work be yoga?
The Gita is a call to action. Its dialogue unfolds not in a quiet forest retreat but on a battlefield—the battlefield of life, of the human heart. We have no choice but to act, Krishna tells us. Even doing nothing is action. But we do have the choice of what to work for and how to work. We can work for ourselves or we can work for others. We can work in love and harmony or we can work in competition under pressure, goaded by petty motives like covetousness, envy, and pride. And the choice is ours. Living for others may not seem attractive, but it brings happiness, meaning, and freedom. Living for oneself promises to satisfy, but it only leads to increasing alienation and despair. So Krishna concludes, “I’ve shown you both paths, Arjuna. Now you choose what you think best.”
How Do We Begin?
The Gita gives the secret of living in freedom in a famous line: “You have the right to work, but not to the fruits of your action.”
This simple statement has led to a lot of confusion. In practical terms, it can be summarized clearly: “Choose a selfless goal and selfless means to attain it. Then give the job your very best and leave the results to the Lord.”
This immediately raises the question of what the Buddha called “right occupation.” The basis of the physician’s oath is “First, do no harm.” I think that is a very good oath for all of us. If we want to improve the quality of our lives, the very first step is to be sure that our livelihood is not gained at the expense of life. Any job that brings injury or suffering to any other creature should be shunned as unworthy of a human being.
“All creatures love life,” the Buddha says. “All creatures fear death. Therefore do not kill, or cause another to kill.” Even if we only lend support to activities that bring harm to other people or other creatures, we are violating the most basic law of life. I am a vegetarian, for example, not merely because of age-old custom, but because I know that the divinity that is present in my heart and yours is present in every living thing.
When we begin to look at life this way, we may well find ourselves involved unwittingly in work that the Buddha would call “wrong occupation.” This can be a distressing discovery with very awkward consequences. On the one hand, there is no point in blaming ourselves if we find that our job is at the expense of life. But once we realize this, it is incumbent on each of us to withdraw from such activities, even if that entails a cut in pay or a turbulent period of looking for work where we can use our skills in more beneficial ways.
If followed sincerely, this one simple principle—“first, do no harm”—could transform our society. Imagine what would happen if all the talent, time, and resources that now go into military research, violent or sensate entertainment, and the production and marketing of products that are harmful to health were diverted to solving the problems of unemployment, homelessness, abuse, and violence that plague this country, the richest on the earth. Even if our occupation does not make much of a contribution, there are many opportunities for selfless service where we can offer our time, energy, skills, and enthusiasm to a cause bigger than ourselves.
Life is for Giving
We are sent into life for one task: to enrich the lives of others.
Once we have disentangled ourselves from work that takes from life, we can begin to give. In fact, the Gita would say, this is the very purpose of life. We are not given life for our own enjoyment. Life is a trust, and each of us is a trustee whose job is to use the assets entrusted to us for the greatest benefit to all.
In this sense, none of us is ever unemployed. We always have a job to do. We are sent into life for one task: to enrich the lives of others. Anybody who lives taking from life without giving, the Gita says baldly, is a thief: stolen time, stolen energy, stolen education, stolen talent.
The best work is done not through the profit motive but through love.
I have had friends and academic experts tell me over and over again, “You don’t know human nature. Without profit, human beings will not give their best.” I tell them affectionately, “It is you who don’t know human nature. You are debasing human nature; I am elevating it. Everywhere, the best work is done not through the profit motive but through love.” Mahatma Gandhi, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa—men and women like this show us our real human stature.
Just because the economic order has been functioning until now on the profit motive, that is no reason to claim this is the basis of behavior. We have such affluence and abundance in this beautiful land that I still cannot understand why there is poverty, why children should be without food and shelter, why millions of men and women, skilled and ready to work, are unable to get jobs. Even an untrained economist like me cannot fail to see that this is not an economic order but economic disorder. The time has come when society has to function on a higher motive: the motive of love in action, to which every human being responds.
Just as a seed, its nutrients, the soil it is in, and the climate are all part of the environment that makes the seed grow into a tree, the consequences of every action are contained in the action itself. This is the meaning of that much misunderstood word “karma.” Every act we do, even the thoughts we think, has consequences that are contained in it. As an acorn grows into an oak tree when the environment is favorable, every action has to bear fruit of a similar nature in due time. Selfish acts bring the fruits of selfishness: disrupted relationships, loneliness, frustration, depression, despair. Generous work brings the fruits of giving: loyal friends, security, faith in human goodness, and the increasing capacity to give more.
For right results, right means are essential. Wrong means can never lead to a right end, any more than thistle seed can yield apples. However good the desired end may be, however sincerely it is desired, wrong means bring wrong ends simply because they are prompted by self-will, which always provokes self-will from others: opposition, ill will, anger, and the stubborn insistence on having one’s own way. Everything becomes tainted in this kind of atmosphere, even in the best of circumstances.
Don’t Be Anxious about Results
Once you have chosen right work and right means, the Gita says, all that is left is to do your best. Do your work with enthusiasm and concentration and don’t worry about getting the results you want when and how you want them. The results of our work are part of a much, much larger picture than we can govern. They are not in our hands. Worrying about getting things the way we want only agitates us and those we work with.
All work develops in phases. If you look only at the immediate consequences instead of the goal, you are likely to get emotionally entangled and burn out or lose hope. You may even get so personally involved that you begin resorting to wrong means just to get things done the way you think they should be. In the long run, this can only weaken your work and turn results against you.
When I began teaching meditation in this country thirty-five years ago, I took the advice of an enthusiastic friend and rented a hall in Oakland for a public talk. “That’s the way these things are done in the United States,” she said. “You’ve got to think big.” I was willing. We put up some posters and turned up early, expecting a large crowd. There were three: myself, my wife, Christine, and our friend, who was standing at the coffee bar and drinking up the coffee herself.
The rest of the crowd arrived later: a young fellow and his brother, who I decided later must have been coaxed into coming. As soon as I started speaking, he fell asleep.
Imagine: you rent a big hall, draw an audience of four with your wife included, and one of the four falls asleep! You can see why the Gita says that if you want to do important work, you can’t afford to have your ego involved: if you do, you are bound to get agitated and hurt and be tempted to do all kinds of things to keep it from happening again.
Instead of being bothered on that occasion, I watched my mind and was pleased to discover that it wasn’t agitated in the least. Events like this belong to the first phase of selfless work. If I had forgotten that first phases are followed by second phases, I might have given up and concluded that I would never be able to teach Americans how to meditate.
But those incidents were not the whole. I was seeing only the first act, perhaps only the first scene. To put it another way, this was simply the first in a long series of steps. I was learning to walk. I told Christine, “We don’t have to worry about the number of people. We just have to give our best.” I gave the same enthusiastic talk to those four that I would have given to a packed hall, and within a few weeks I was speaking on meditation at the University of California campus to an audience of four hundred students.
“Yoga,” the Gita counsels, “is evenness of mind.” When we are working for ourselves, we feel driven and burn out. When we are working for prestige and power, we get tense and even sick. Not being anxious about results means that when fortune smiles on you, when success comes, you don’t get excited; you just say thank you. Then, when fortune frowns and friends desert you and everything seems to fly in your face as is bound to happen—because that is the nature of life—you don’t get depressed or lose heart. Nothing can shake you; you are at your best whatever comes. That is living in freedom.
In practice, of course, all of us have to admit that we start even selfless work with some private motive. It is good to accept that first. But if we are practicing meditation and allied spiritual disciplines, these private, personal, selfish motives will gradually become less and less.
I, too, started even my teaching work with some private motives. Although I was devoted to my students, there was a measure of personal motivation also. But I went on giving my very best to my meditation and my students, and gradually, through a lot of effort, I found that personal motives were dissolving in the overwhelming desire to be of service.
How we work, the Gita makes clear, is as important as what we do. Spiritual values are not so much taught as caught from the lives of those who embody them. Your job may be nothing more glamorous than a janitor in a hospital, but if you are practicing spiritual disciplines sincerely, you will be contributing to other people’s lives, even though you may not see it happening. These are spiritual laws.
We don’t have to envy others because the jobs they do seem to be more prestigious or creative or because other people seem to have more skill. We are where we are, doing what we are doing, because we have something to learn from that particular context. What and who we are—what we have thought, done, and desired—has brought us to that job and to those co-workers, and that makes it just the situation we need to grow. With growth will come a new context to work in, new people, new challenges, greater opportunities for service.
Is there any job that is 100 percent perfect? Is there any position where you do only what you think you should, where your employer gives you meditation breaks and allows you to tell her how to conduct her business according to your interpretation of the eternal verities? Every job has its requirements that are not our own. Very few jobs are pure. No occupation is free from conflict; no task guarantees to protect us from stressful situations or from people with different views. And no job is free from drudgery; every line of work has a certain amount of routine. So the Gita says, Don’t ask if you like the work, if it is creative, if it always offers something new. Ask if you are part of work that benefits people. If you are, give it your best. In that spirit every beneficial job can become a spiritual offering.
Work as Yoga
Finally, Sri Krishna says, work done in the spirit of selfless service becomes worship. Our work and even our recreation become yoga, part of our path to the complete integration of character, conduct, and consciousness.
The purpose of work is the attainment of wisdom. Modern civilization hasn’t caught up with this idea, which turns economics upside down. I understand the need to support ourselves and our families, to have a sense of personal fulfillment, and even to provide the goods and services that society needs. But there is a higher purpose for work, and that is for self-purification: to expand our consciousness to include the whole of life by removing the obstacles to love. And there is no way to do this except in our relationships at work and at home: by being patient, being kind, working in harmony, never failing to respect others, and never seeking personal aggrandizement.
A Sanskrit adage sums it up: “All life is yoga.” Our food, our work, our relationships, our recreation, even our sleep are viewed not as physical necessities but as activities which, when practiced in a spirit of love and service, help take us to the supreme goal.
In one of the most glorious passages in the Gita, Sri Krishna says: “Whatever you do, make it an offering to me.” If you are acting for personal profit, it is not an offering to the Lord. If you are acting out of the desire for personal prestige, it is not an offering to the Lord. But whoever is free from personal motives—profit, pleasure, prestige, power—that person, says the Gita, is a real yogi. Life cannot dictate to him; he lives in freedom. She is whole; she lives in joy whatever life brings. For such a person, the Gita promises, “Yoga puts an end to sorrow.”