Can action be envisaged without attachment to action and without reward? In my childhood years, I have often tried visualizing the scenario of the mythological battlefield of Kurukshetra in my mind’s eye with two opposing army formations arrayed against each other, and Krishna as the charioteer offering his services as strategist to a reluctant Arjuna and his army, heavily outnumbered by the inimical side, mostly consisting of his relatives, teachers and others whom he held in high esteem and could not reckon as enemies. What a master strategist and motivator would Krishna have been to persuade Arjuna to perform his duty as a warrior, overcoming his vexed and unsettled frame of mind arising from overwhelmingly subjective considerations of having to battle against his own kith and kin…! The dialogue that followed was not only philosophical in content but also formed a guideline for ethical living and good practices that are valid in practically all walks of life.
Doing one’s duty without expectation of reward may have very few takers in our work-a-day world. At the level of everyday business of life, work does not actualize without remunerative reward.
In management practice, there is no work or effort that is not directed at obtaining a desired result. All work must perforce be result-oriented. Any business year starts with expense budgets and sales targets to limit expenses and set the stage for growth in volumes and profits that must mandatorily be accomplished by end of every quarter, cumulatively progressing towards the annual numbers. Thus any activity that is not directed at commercial objectives is simply not admissible.
In terms of physics, work is defined as the energy required to move an object from one point to the other. Work happens when a force acts on a body, and there is a displacement of the point of application in the direction of the force. The effort of a person lifting an object from the floor amounts to work done on the object, measured by the force required to lift the weight of the object times the height that is lifted. In the absence of aforementioned outcome, it cannot be defined as work.
So where do we stand when someone tries to make out a case for working without expectation of or attachment to reward? On prima facie consideration, it does not seem to make sense amidst all the avariciousness and rapaciousness prevailing in the world of plastic culture and philistine tastes that we all inhabit, where the end apparently justifies the means and the dominant sentiment is mostly to wangle disproportionate returns with the barest minimum in efforts and inputs.
Regardless of man’s superficial responses to the demands of labour that is required to accomplish anything worthwhile, when one plumbs deeper into the significance of work, the realization dawns that the focus, at all times, needs to be on the task at hand, without being distracted by the lure of reward systems. Strive for professionalism, excellence will follow, was one of the slogans during the early part of my career, where the trainer defined professionalism as the competency of executing a task in zero error and on time; or, doing right things right, the first time, every time. Detailed planning preceded every major project, dividing it into various phases or milestones and the timelines within which these were required to be accomplished, progressing sequentially to overall completion and delivery, again within the defined allocation of resources. The focus was only on work, on its qualitative execution. All quality systems, in manufacturing or service business, going by whatever names such as Kaizen, 5 S, TQM, Six Sigma, ISO et al are all directed at systematic task orientation to ensure perfect execution and, in these days of environmental compulsions, also on reducing and recycling waste to its irreducible minimums before finally disposing it in as environment-friendly manner as practicable, with due respect to the imperative of preserving the planet for gen-next. That these will contribute to desired results in the form of superior products and services, leading to customer satisfaction and higher sales, whilst also satisfying environmental conservation, are all collateral benefits of a job well done, pointing to the fact that what matters and what ought to occupy one’s mind is only execution of the assigned task to the absolute best of one’s ability. If the attention is diverted by the reward linked to the task, it is sure to detract from the quality of execution.
All of the foregoing concepts and its applications, practised widely in present day engineering, project management, administration and allied pursuits, obviously had its origin nearly three thousand years ago in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Krishna had to get into an interactive discourse, to motivate a reluctant Arjuna to perform his duty as a warrior to fight the evil forces militating against his kingdom. Recapitulated in 700 verses detailed in 18 chapters, the Bhagawad Gita, or the song of the lord, presents a comprehensive treatise on the purpose of life and the path to self-realisation. One of the key precepts in the Gita pertain to the importance of ‘nishkaama karma’ or desireless action, undertaking action without any attachment to the work or desire for results, “To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction / Fixed in yoga, do thy work, abandoning attachment, with an even mind in success and failure, for evenness of mind is called yoga”, yoga here denoting higher realization or union of self with the Absolute.
The guideline, therefore, is selfless action, regardless of rewards; with focus invariably on the quality of one’s actions without worrying about the rewards, as work that is qualitatively executed is reward in itself. Undue attachment to rewards and material possessions is the reason for disappointments when we lose our positions and possessions in life. When the concern is totally on action, results will cease to be of anything more than momentary relevance, enabling one “…to meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same;” and “….to fill the unforgiving minute / with sixty seconds worth of distance run”.
Contemplating further on the esoteric significance of the Gita, the battlefield of Kurukshetra is also an allegory for the field of action or righteousness, the ground where a person battles out his struggles against the forces of evil, the soul that is Arjuna, guided by Krishna the intellect as the charioteer, mounted on the chariot denoting the body, drawn by five horses, symbolically representing the five senses, to imply the war within, the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage to emerge triumphantly from life, free from the tyranny of the ego, the cause of all human suffering and sorrow.
Poised as I am at the final phase of my career with another six months to go to approach the end of an extended tenure, I like to look back and gratefully remember the mentors, seniors and colleagues who illuminated my path, facilitated my working and motivated my steady ascension up the corporate ladder. The strenuous, stressfully demanding and often frustrating years navigating through learning curves, several highlights by way of pioneering and path-breaking achievements and the accolades that followed, pleasant diversions like enjoying an after dinner movie in the 500 seat theatre on board QE2 (the biggest cruise ship in the early eighties), interactions with multi-national crew and officers in the course of shipboard, anchorage and terminal operations across multiple vessel types ranging from bulkers, tankers, gas carriers, conventional ships, specialized super heavy lift vessels, container ships, naval frigates etc at various ports within India and Arabian Gulf, Egypt, Singapore and Japan, eureka moments in logistics and project cargo management entailing meticulously planned multi-modal movements of heavy and over-dimensional equipments, will all remain deeply etched, cherished memories.
Did I achieve everything that I set my mind on, including few prized targets that were aggressively pursued? The answer is in the negative, tempered with realization of the unattainable and unfathomable aspect of worldly life, of a few things always remaining beyond one’s ken and outside one’s reach, as couple of projects that were dreamt about but regrettably not supported by robust efforts towards its realization, or still those tasks into which enormous labour was invested fearing failure in the face of overwhelming odds but which unexpectedly attained fruition through fortunate quirk of circumstances, or still those goals that did not fructify in spite of persevering endeavour, drawing solace and hope in Browning “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”