Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Nishkama Karma (desireless action) and Nishkarma Karma (actionless action) In the Bhagavad Gita


Looking at this lecture
On Karma
by Professor Chris Framarin on the Bhagavad Gita I heard him mention that he demurred from the position on habits and dispositions which was the dominant one espoused by such luminaries as Professors Potter and Perrett. That seemed interesting although in an introductory lecture he could not go into it in any great detail. When I read the chapter on this very topic in Hindu Ethics by Roy Perrett I have to say that I agree.

Nishkama karma is translated as desireless action or action without being attached to its fruits. For some strange reason or I perhaps heard it wrong this sounded to me like nishkarma karma or 'actionless action'. Theres's a sense in which this is true. If desire for the fruits of the action is its mainspring, or what drives it or what is its chief mark then the absence of desire fundamentally alters it. Metaphysically speaking we are no longer captive in time. T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets refers to this feature of action in Section III of The Dry Salvages:

Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: 'on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death' - that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.
O voyagers, O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination."
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

Consider a clock whose mainspring is broken or removed. It's not even right twice a day because it isn't working and therefore not telling the time. It has 'clockness' without being a clock. Karma is a clockwork concept but without the 'mainspring' of desire it is 'nishkarma karma'.

Where Perrett goes astray is his narrow understanding of freedom in action as being linked to spontaneous response rather than habitual reaction. The cultivation of sattvic routines is the foundation of immediate morally sound reactions. It is arguable that the good man demonstrates his connaturality with the good by doing it without taking thought. He has freely conditioned his actions by training and attention to duty.

Perrett writes:
A response, in this sense, involves an agent directly encountering a situation in a non-­stereotyped way, taking account of the full variety of features present and selecting appropriately from a large range of non­-stereotyped actions. Notwithstanding the undeniable utility which accrues to acquiring at least some reaction repertoires, a response instances a special kind of value that a reaction does not. Many of us, I suggest, would prefer our lives to be lives of response, rather than of reaction, and we are well aware how much our dependence on our habits hinders our achieving this goal.
from:
Gita on Karma
It is perfectly intelligible to claim that a man or woman who have schooled themselves in courage in many different situations over a long period of time will do the courageous thing when it required of them. What they do spontaneously is built on that foundation.

The other point on which Perrett is mistaken is the characterisation of the ontology of the Gita as being a self/body dualism. My previous remarks on the jnana marga in Karma and the Gunas karma are centred on an understanding that is within the advaitic tradition. A self/body dualism is predicated on a Cartesian view. There are different emphases in the orthodox tradition but generally the mind is inert or more precisely the physical complex which is individual when pervaded by pure consciousness gives rise to an individual mind. I am using a distemper brush here.

There is an interesting discussion of first order and second order desires but really when the food is burnt nouvelle cuisine dribbles of jus won't rescue it.

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