Within this larger metaphysical framework, the question of how best to interface with the mundane world, with its daily tedium of action and choice, volition and consequence, remains. The Atman or Brahman may be eternally fulfilled, but the individual, even incorporating in himself an ansh of that transcendent reality, has to strive to retain equilibrium and balance reflective of that reality, in the midst of the business of living. The bulk of the Gita is devoted to essaying a modus vivendi to answer this seminal existential poser. The first premise is that in the human realm, involvement with action in some way or the other is unavoidable. There cannot be renunciation of action. The Gita is crystal clear on this.
If action cannot be avoided, then the next question is how to ‘cohabit’ with it while retaining one*s serenity and peace of mind. The ‘action* in question here is not that which falls within the purview of mechanical stimulus and response. It is not an involuntary sequence of locomotion. The eye blinks, the tympanum vibrates, the nose twitches. This involuntary action of the motor nerves is not at the core of the action-in-life which is the focus of the Gita. The Gita is concerned with action which is the result of conscious choice. It is this locus of movement which internalizes in itself the potential for turbulence. This was the source of trauma for Arjun on that day of battle. In his own case the canvas was spectacular: shining banners, the battlefield and resplendent chariots. But the virus could as easily affect an ordinary clerk, one ordinary day, as he gets ready to go to the office: Is the effort justified? Is it required? What will be its reward? Can it be substituted by another course of action?
The clamor in action arises when the mental processes interface with the daily vicissitudes of living. This interface is unavoidable, but its consequences are not unalterable. An object, a person, a relationship, a situation, a place becomes important because we give it a certain value. The point to consider is to what extent the giving of this value is a necessary and inherent aspect of the human situation.
It would appear that in the praxis of human situations, there is no fixed law of universal cause and effect. For instance, situation A influences person B, but leaves person C unmoved. Now, if there was something inherently value-invoking in situation A in a universally applicable way, then person C would have been influenced with the same intensity as person B. Obviously, if the giving of this value is not an inherent attribute of the situation itself, then its origins must be in the person himself. From here arises the next and fundamental question: To what extent can this giving of value be controlled?
The Gita firmly believes that the value imbuing process is controllable. Going further, it strongly advocates that in order to overarch the tension and agitation of daily life, the individual should seek to control it. The Gita’s prescription, in this regard, breathtaking in its simplicity, but undoubtedly based on profound empirical observation, is that action-in life should be performed free of attachment, sans desire, and, most importantly, without tainting it with the value of expectation.
A mindset, acquired through conscious effort and discipline, which de-links the performance of action with a contemplation of its reward is, according to the Gita, an invincible panacea to the strife of daily living. Like much else in the Gita, it is an exhortation based on sound common sense. In the mortal world, involvement in action is unavoidable but it hardly needs reiteration that there is no guaranteed nexus of efficacy between effort and achievement. There are in life too many imponderables and variables that can make the most well planned actions go awry, and the most unintended effort achieve success. Even from the point of pragmatic expediency, an obsession with consequence even as the effort is unfolding, is an inefficient utilization of available energy. Action, which one considers right, should be performed, as an end in itself, severing it from the debilitating and ineffectual preoccupation with reward. Then, action, which in the absence of such an approach could agitate, becomes a means to constructively overcome such agitation, an act of consecration, enabling the retention of peace of mind.
But is the ideal of nishkama karma—desireless action—really feasible? After all, it appears but natural for an individual to work towards a result, to be conscious of the desired consequence of his efforts, to be seized, in short, of the likely rewards of his endeavours. Does the Gita, therefore, espouse an impracticable behavioural pattern? We are all conscious of our individual identities. Each of us has an ego that strives for recognition and achievement. Can this sense of ‘l-ness’ this ahankar, this consciousness of ‘self constantly striving for projection in competition with other individual egos, be nullified?
The Gita’s answer, drawing heavily from the mainstream concepts of Hindu philosophy, is twofold. At one level, it devalues the scope of such an ego. These warriors,’ Krishna tells Arjun, ‘will one day cease to exist even without you/ A man who, therefore, thinks that without him, the world around him will collapse, is deluded. In a transient and ephemeral world, there is a finiteness to our preoccupations, and an even greater finiteness to our abilities in configuring them. As Krishna reiterates: ‘When a man sees himself as the only agent, he cannot be said to see.” More importantly, our actions, are, in the normal course, far less autonomous than we would like to believe. ‘There is no being on earth, or among the Gods in heaven free from the triad of qualities that are born of nature,’ Krishna says to Arjun. Our actions are affected by these inherent qualities of nature, ‘but deluded by individuality, the self thinks, “I am the actor.”‘