Saturday, May 14, 2011

A 5000-year-old take on Acceptance

Chapter 2, verse 47 may be the most quoted verse from the Bhagavad Gita, which itself is probably the most well-known of the Hindu scriptures. The Gita is commonly dated to circa 3000 BC, so it’s been around for a little longer than our recent blogs on this topic (here and here), but as with most material, especially scripture, it can lie completely undiscovered by most people, or equally commonly, widely misread and misinterpreted.

My personal journey of discovery with the Gita began with this particular verse. I remember the moment like it was yesterday. Picture a sunny spring day in North Carolina. I’m at a non-denominational worship service, a Sunday morning interlude during a weekend business conference, sitting on the bleachers in the Annex building of the Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum, in Winston-Salem, NC, listening to the voices echoing off the bare walls and high roof. I’m feeling calm and somewhat meditative after two hectic days. About third or fourth on the agenda, Mr. Kulin Desai steps to the lectern, and after a short invocatory prayer, recites the above verse in Sanskrit and proceeds to unfold it in expansive, lucid & contemporary terms. When he steps off the podium, I hear a giant click in my head as a big piece in this jigsaw puzzle of life moves into place, and I can truthfully tell you that my life hasn’t been the same since.

In what way? For one, I can probably count with the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve felt frustrated in the decade since that precious moment. It has been a lot easier to let go immediately when the spilled milkdrop hits the floor, and to instead focus on uprighting the milkjug or mopping the floor (see HERE for original reference). Easier to “keep your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you“, and to “meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same”. However, I admit I’m still working on filling the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run” and many other matters (enjoy the rest of this Kipling gem here).

But to return to the subject verse. My literal reading of it (informed by my 6th-grade knowledge of Sanskrit) goes like this:

You have authority only over action, never its fruits.

Be not (ie. do not take yourself to be) the source of the fruits of the action, and do not be associated with inaction.

Basically it says action is the only thing we are entitled to, not results, that we do not create the fruit of an action, and that shirking from action is no solution to the problem of responsibility. But this is very commonly misinterpreted; you’ll find a plethora of senior Hindu figures intoning solemnly - “The Gita says to perform your duty and pay no heed to the result”. The way Kulin explained it, in line with Advaita Vedanta philosophy and also plain common sense, it would be foolish to expect anybody to perform an action without expecting a result, without a desired result as motivation. I swing the bat fully expecting to connect; you leave home in the morning fully expecting to get to work in good shape and good time, and so on. What this verse really implies that is that the actual result could be different, and that it behooves us to be prepared. In the example of driving to work, I could get any of four results: exactly what I wanted (I reach the office right on time), more than what I wanted (arrive with plenty of time to spare and a better-than-usual parking spot), less than what I wanted (construction forces a detour and I arrive very late), and the opposite of what I wanted (I get into a bad accident and end up in hospital instead). So if I am clear that my chosen action does not guarantee my desired result each time, and that not acting is an action too, it prevents success from going to my head and failure from getting me down. Now that’s a set of beliefs I can buy.

The ready way this lends itself to misinterpretation is not limited to the sphere of Hinduism. Just in the last week, I’ve come across two different books where acceptance was used in the sense of ‘taking no action’ or ‘being a doormat’. As we have seen, the Gita recommends anything but.

Go forth, act, and don’t play God.



  1. Sree,
    Thank you for this. It's been years (decades) since I last read the Bhagavad Gita. I downloaded a copy this morning and read for a while from chapter 4.

    I managed to pull some pretty strong frustration out of my hat yesterday and reading the Gita, I determined that I temporarily developed an attachment disorder. In this case, the attachment was to the expected results of my actions. Although this wasn't the case yesterday, today it was clear and easy to see.


  2. Kristoofus OmshantiusMay 15, 2011 at 12:59 PM

    Sree--This is a great start, but I find myself looking for The Next Step. It seems to me that you leave it in a kind of muted gray in-between space--that balanced area where "things aren't going to your head and failure isn't getting you down."

    By itself, it strikes me along the same lines as "lower your expectations and you won't be disappointed." Or that muted sense that is commonly associated with medications to control mood swings or bipolarity.

    What if you go strongly for what you want, and then become PASSIONATELY ATTACHED to this result: greeting everything that comes--no matter what it is--as a gift, a present to be opened, an opportunity to grow your love bigger? Is that a fruit of our intention and conscious action that we could reliably come to have authority over?

    Of course, there are times when I have that general intention and in a particular situation, I'm not successful (but only about 100 times a week--I'm definitely improving). :-)

    Paradoxically, at those moments, the Bhagavad Gita's admonition is very helpful, because letting go of the need (the should) for achieving the desired fruit of my action is the key to getting it back.

    Maybe that's it. We're back to the judgment at the core. Not getting what we want is rarely the problem. It's judging that it's bad that trips us up.

    Whaddya think?

    1. “It Can’t Wait”: Faith & Jay-walking on the sidewalks … (when you come to the fork in the road, take it, says Yogi Berra)… free as a jay-bird, limp as a rag doll… good old GK … fierce pleasure in the is-ness of life… de-briefing, not waiting … Kristoof lauds Faith’s acceptance of the earlier non-acceptance, being with the earlier not-being-with … Hmmm… is that a “muted gray in-between space – that balanced area”? … well, it certainly seems like she isn’t down anymore, but muted? Gray? Doesn’t seem to fit … Gray … hmmm, mix of black and white … black and white … radical opposites … well maybe not opposites, just very different things … in close proximity … hmm … you mean, like a chessboard? Aha, that’s it! A chessboard… making moves, planning, thinking ahead … switching gears between offense and defense, black squares to white squares and back to black … full acceptance, powerful action … my turn, your turn … navigating, negotiating, lightning or rapid chess maybe… … oh, shaving’s done… time for powerful action, in the shower.

  3. Kris Om,
    I cannot imagine a more delightful, thoughtful & insightful response. Let me clarify & organize my thoughts on this ... I will be baaack.

  4. Kris: I still don’t know the cleanest place to start from, so I’m going to jump right in and flail around. I’m regularly accused (sometimes by myself) of wallowing in muted gray spaces, so being challenged to sharpen the point and provide Next Steps forward is good for me.

    I don’t think the ‘balanced area’ to which you refer is in any way muted gray; at least, it doesn’t have to be. I can visualize that state being completely compatible with moving passionately towards my goals and living big, without lowering any expectations to avoid disappointment.

    I think the simple cognitive realization that any outcome is possible for each action one takes is news to many folks, especially who you find saying “I can’t believe he did that!” and “How dare she say that!” For the rest of us, I think the trap lies in the words we use. Expectation could mean simply the outcome with the highest probability in one’s opinion, but all too often, it means the only outcome with which one will be happy.

    Attachment is another one of those tricky words. I currently can’t think of anything else that could be attached to a result but one’s happiness, so the way you’ve worded your question seems discordant to me; please clarify/enlighten.

    In the meantime, let’s say I re-word your question thus: “say you go strongly for what you want and passionately WANT the result, is the attitude (of treating every subsequent result as a gift/present/opportunity) a fruit of that intention and possibly something reliably under our authority?” This seems to me to be a tad academic, but generally I would tend to call attitude an action, not a result. If you want to zoom into the process of achieving your intended attitude, I’m sure you could gain mastery over it (once a week for 100 weeks, you're done :-). However, as I expand my comfort zone, I’m finding new areas that can reduce good intentions to dust (mine is currently telemarketers). And by authority, I think the Gita means full control, not the kind you gain over time and is necessarily incomplete.

    This just hit me as I write - another reason results fall outside our sphere of control is that we inhabit a world with more than one intention. For results to be entirely & always predictable, I need a deterministic process and only one driving force – mine.

    I’m almost dead certain (actually I’m dead certain but constantly testing) that it’s always the judgement that trips us up. Not getting what we want is just a stimulus. In fact, the way I visualize the whole process is that there is first a millisecond of pure perception – a moment where all we’re doing is taking in stimuli through our five senses. Only after that does our mind have anything to operate upon. The more spacious and leisurely we can be in that millisecond of perception, the more complete the received information and hence the more accurate our resulting decisions. If we have an over-developed judgement muscle, it tends to jump in prematurely and cloud the incoming stimuli.

    Nuff speculation. Your turn now.


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