The 47th shlōka of the second chapter of the Srimadbhagavadgīta is the famous shlōka where Sri Krishna instructs Arjuna on how to perform (and at the same time, how not to) perform karma.
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन |
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोsस्त्वकर्मणि ||
“You have the right only on the performance of karma, not on the desire of the fruits of the same; Do not make the performance of karma contingent upon obtaining desired results; nor should you take the refuge of inaction (non-performance of karma)”
This shlōka, just as the rest of the gīta, has been widely commented upon by the ācharyas of various sampradāyas. In the Tattvavāda sampradāya of Sri Madhwāchārya also, this shlōka has received extensive treatment. Let us look at some salient points highlighted in the Dvaita tradition. The following notes are based primarily on the explanation given in the Gīta Bhāshya and Gīta Tatparya by Sri Madhwāchārya and in the Gīta Vivrutti by Sri Rāghavēndra Tīrtha.
Is this injunction only for uttama jivas?
Arjuna is the avatāra of Indra, and possesses the amsha of Nara. By virtue of being a dēvata he is guaranteed Mōksha at the end of his Sādhana. Therefore, a question naturally arises – Sri Krishna uses the word ते in this shlōka, which means ‘for you’. Does this mean that the instruction to give up फल is meant only for Arjuna and jnānis like him?
Sri Madhwacharya says ते इत्युपलक्षणार्थं
The word ‘tē’ is meant to be understood as a upalakshaṇa. The intended meaning is ‘If giving up the desires of results is meant to apply even to a jnāni like you, then need it be stated that the same applies to others also?”
Therefore, the injunction in this shlōka is meant for all people.
Give up the ‘desire’ of results, not results itself
In the second pāda of this shlōka, Sri Krishna says मा फलेषु कदाचन. Or rewording it appropriately, he says मा फलेषु अधिकारः कदाचन. An ordinary reading of this part would lead us to the conclusion that Sri Krishna is saying “you do not have any right over fruits of karma”.
Does this mean that the results are to be given up or sacrificed? Once results of a particular action accrue, do we throw it away?
Sri Madhwacharya clarifies this as – कामनिषेध एवात्र | फलानि ह्यस्वात्र्येण भवन्ति
It is only the ‘desire’ over results that is forbidden. Not the fruits themselves. That is because we, ordinary jīvas, do not have freedom over results anyway. It is the very nature of karma that it brings results. Even if the greatest wish exists, one cannot prevent the accrual of results. Therefore, asking an individual to give up the accrued results itself is meaningless. It is the desire or attachment over the results that is forbidden.
Once an individual realizes that it is Sri Krishna alone who grants results of any karma, such a state where the desire is sacrificed, becomes possible. Therefore the greatness of Paramātma and the miniscule nature of Jīvatma is important to understand.
Do not become transactional
Sri Krishna says मा कर्मफलहेतु
He asks us not to become a कर्मफलहेतु. A karma-phala-hētu is that person who performs a task only if it is guaranteed to give a certain result. Such an attachment over results is not to be had.
Sri Rāghavēndra Tīrtha explains the term कर्मफलहेतु very well. He gives another example from Sanskrit literature – शाकपार्थिव – which means शाकप्रियपार्थिव – A King who likes vegetables. The word priya is understood as being inherently present. Similarly, the word karmaphalahetu is to be split as karmakrutau phalam hetuh yasya sah which means one for whom results are a mandatory reason for doing any work. Such a state of mind is to be avoided.
The natural question of a circumspect individual would then be – “If I do not get to wish for a particular result, then why perform the task at all?”
Sri Krishna immediately negates such a conclusion by saying मा ते सङ्गोsस्त्वकर्मणि – you cannot take refuge of inaction.
What then is the purpose of Nishkama Karma?
If one should not perform any karma with attachment over a particular result, yet cannot give up any karma – what exactly is the purpose of such activity?
Sri Madhwāchārya answers this by saying – अन्य फलाभावेsपि मत्प्रसादाख्यफलभावात् – even if no other results accrue, the fruits in the form of my devotion, knowledge and grace shall always be there.
Nishkama karma gives knowledge of Paramātma that leads to Mōksha, through brahmajnāna. The state of mukti is infinitely greater than Swarga and other pleasures that are stated as the fruits of some Vedic karma. Their loss will, therefore, not be felt.
Sri Madhwa therefore states that one can positively desire for bhakti, jnāna and bhagavat-prasāda when performing karma.
This raises a question. When Sri Krishna disapproves desire over results, how can we assume desires such as bhakti and jnāna are allowed?
Sri Madhwāchārya answers this beautifully.
One can consider a practical situation to understand this. A person can tell another – “Bring everyone over to my house”. This can be followed by a statement like – “Do not bring Maitra to my place”. The former statement is the sāmānya rule whereas the latter is the vishēsha rule. Therefore, vishēsha (exception) always over-rides the sāmānya (norm).
The same principle applies in this case. The statement by Sri Krishna in this particular Gīta shlōka is the sāmānya niyama. There are however many statements in shrutis and smritis that propagate having deep desire for obtaining brahmajnāna.
“नैकात्मतां मे स्पृहयन्ति केचित्”, “भक्तिमन्विच्छन्तः”, “ब्रह्मजिज्ञासा”, “द्रष्टव्यः” and so on
The above statements from the Bhāgavata, Sūtras and other granthas act as the vishēsha.
Therefore, the sāmānya niyama of having no attachment over results is applicable in all cases, except when over-ridden by the desire for bhakti and jnāna of Paramātma.