K Haridas Nair from Malaysia looks at the idea of absolute unselfishness through the Hindu path of 'Karma yoga' – or selfless action. This is the third of a series in which we look at core moral values from an Eastern perspective.
Through an understanding of Absolute Honesty or 'Satyam' we have discerned how the intellect can strengthen our sense of will and resolve. Through Absolute Purity or 'Brahmacharya' we have understood how the mind and senses could be managed to provide a sense of congruency, greater energy and vitality through one's body for undertaking inspired initiatives.
The Gita outlines various religious temperaments which are classified into the four well known paths (or ‘yogas’) to realize the Divine: Karma yoga the path of selfless action; Bhakti yoga the path of love and devotion; Raja yoga the path of mental concentration and Jnana yoga the path of rational inquiry. In the end all four paths converge and become one.
Anyone who does good works by helping others demonstrates that they cannot be confined within the limited circle of ‘I, me and mine’ and their body. Mother Theresa in our time exemplifies this spirit. Mankind stands in awe in the presence of such people who are ready to sacrifice for others beyond questions of creed or doctrine. ‘Thy will be done’ provides a focus that denies self in the interest of the 'other'.
In helping the world, we subtly also help ourselves. Work done selflessly for others purifies us and we forget ourselves - a great lesson all need to learn. There are no limits to getting out of selfishness. And true happiness lies beyond selfishness. That is why all the great systems of ethics preach absolute unselfishness as a goal. This is a most powerful and sensitive motivation that can be validated only by experience and not by mere words.
In the path of Karma Yoga the word Karma means work. No one can get anything unless he earns it; this is an eternal law. What we deserve and what we receive is determined by our work/actions or Karma. We are ultimately responsible for who we are and whatever we wish ourselves to be. We have the power within to create our own future, thus emphasising personal responsibility.
The Gita says that it is through doing work with cleverness and as a science, and by knowing how to work, that one obtains the best results.
Abiding by this eternal law is an act of faith. As we undertake unselfish actions – be it to help others in distress, participate in acts of charity, help individuals spiritually and do things with no sense of gain for oneself – the law works to favour us. One is reminded of the following refrain from the film, The Sound of Music
‘Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good; for nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever would, so somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.‘
All work aims to draw out the inherent power of the mind and to awaken the soul. This power is within everyone and so is the knowledge. The different works that we undertake provide opportunities to mine these qualities, to cause these inherent powers within us to awaken and for us to uncover them from within ourselves.
There can be no work without motive. Some are after fame, others money or power. Some work to leave a legacy, others for penance after wrongdoing. There are also those who work for work's sake knowing that good will come from their endeavours. This raises the question: if one works without any selfish motives, what are the gains, if any?
Yes, he who works unselfishly gains the most. Unselfishness pays more. Nevertheless people do not have the patience to practice it. Love, honesty and unselfishness are great ideals manifesting power and possibilities. Anyone who can work even for short while without any selfish motives whatsoever has in them the capacity to become a moral giant.
A sense of self-restraint harbours latent powers. All outgoing energy arising from selfish motives is frittered away. But if restrained, this will contribute to strengthening resolve and will be reflected in the will and character of such individuals.
‘We have the right to work, but not to the fruits thereof.’ If you wish to help, never think of what the other's attitude is towards you. We will need to lift our thinking to this level of understanding. And work we must, says Karma Yoga. The householder must earn a living and the fruits, in the form of wages, will be there – but the important emphasis is that he works not with this in mind but gives his best and does his job guided by an unselfish spirit, neither counting time nor labour expended.
Undertaking an employment, as I do, in the spirit of a vocation removes a lot of stress. Further, involving oneself in additional activities in the spirit of giving engages one positively. While pleasure is ‘I, me and mine’ centred, unselfishness results in happiness as it is an ‘other’ centred activity. The capacity to handle frustrations and self incrimination caused by unfavourable circumstances is often drowned by one's continuous involvement in unselfish actions.
There are many who are desperately focussed in making a living barely making ends meet. Yet, with the right motivation, they can still share a spirit of happiness. Then there are those who earn a lot and spend it in on themselves enjoying the luxuries of life focussed wholly on themselves. The ‘I, me and mine’ syndrome blinds them until they face a crisis and awaken to ask serious questions. Then there are those who have found that sense of balance: meeting their own needs while contributing to others through sharing their knowledge, means and spirituality.
All this can be done by taking up works that come to us and incrementally responding unselfishly every day. The hope, ultimately, is that by constant endeavour we will grow and become increasingly unselfish. While we have to make a living we must also live a life that is meaningful - and selfless action contributes towards sustaining faith and commitment.
This will provide blessings in ways that we can only realise in the silence of our hearts where each one knows how grace has blessed and touched our lives. As the late Australian politician Dr Kim Beazley stressed, ‘Nothing to prove, nothing to justify and nothing to gain for oneself’, epitomises the qualities that must be inherent in the deeds performed.
Swami Vivekananda says, ‘He who gives man spiritual knowledge is the greatest benefactor of mankind because spirituality is the true basis of all our activities in life. Next comes intellectual help; the gift of knowledge for higher things and then that of giving food and clothes. The miseries of the world cannot be cured by physical help alone. Until man's nature is enlightened these physical needs will always arise and miseries will always be felt and no amount of physical help will cure these completely.’
Karma Yoga or Absolute Unselfishness thus inspires anyone to work for freedom through unselfishness by tuning his body, mind and intellect through initiatives that fully benefit others with no demands whatsoever. The unexpected fruits that one receives represent a growth in faith.
Read the other four articles by K Haridas on this topic:
Absolute moral standards or 'moral values' as benchmarks?
'Satyam' - or absolute honesty
'Brahmacharya' or absolute purity
Ahimsa - the basis for absolute love
Download Moral Values from an Eastern Perspective, featurning all five articles ( PDF)