one likes to work for nothing. Even a dunce does not work
without a purpose, says a well-known Sanskrit adage. Yet,
there are as many different ways of doing work as there are
people. Irrespective of how we work, all of us would certainly
like our endeavours to be effective and successful. Is there
a recipe for effectivity? Yes, says the Chandogya Upanishad.
Its first chapter tells us what contributes to effectivity:
‘Yadeva vidyaya karoti shraddhayopanishada tadeva viryavattaram
bhavati; Whatever is performed with knowledge, shraddha
and meditation becomes more effective.’ (1) The word viryavattaram
literally means ‘more strengthening’. It is also taken to
mean ‘effective’ or ‘more powerful in bearing fruit’. Effectivity
has two dimensions: external and internal. ‘External’ refers
to the effective accomplishment of the work to one’s satisfaction.
‘Internal’ refers to the work’s long-term influence on the
individual’s inner growth. Knowledge, shraddha and meditation
- we discuss these factors one by one.
Work with Knowledge
to the Tamil classic Tirukkurao, one should ‘Think
well before taking up any work. To start thinking after beginning
the work is disgraceful.’ (2) A sound knowledge of the nature
of work, technical expertise, tools required and so on - obviously,
all this is need to be considered before embarking on any
venture. But is there anything more? Yes, according to the
Bhagavadgita there are certain important things we
need to know before taking up any work. There are both objective
(external) and subjective (internal) factors. First, the objective;
these are discussed in the Gita, 18.25.
work leaves its pleasant and unpleasant effects on people
- one who does the work as also those affected by the work.
‘No work is free from blemish, even as fire is covered by
smoke,’ says Sri Krishna, and advises Arjuna not to shun work
just because it is associated with defects. (3) For work to
be effective, one needs to consider all possible consequences
of work and choose that option which will mean maximum good
to the maximum number of people.
of Power and Wealth
of human resources and fixed and running costs of systems
need to be studied beforehand in order to be free from surprises
and shocks later. Of course, we have cost escalation during
project execution due to incompetence, inefficiency and other
factors, but that doesn’t concern us here.
possible violence to people or animals resulting from work
needs to be anticipated earlier.
is perhaps the most important factor influencing effectivity.
Having incompetent people at the helm of an organization is
a sure recipe for ineffective work. The inefficiency and incompetence
at the top effortlessly percolate down the line. Even otherwise,
competent people too reach their level of incompetence sooner
or later, following the Peter Principle: ‘In a hierarchy,
every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.’
A sound knowledge of who is suitable for what, and periodic
quality audits of human resources can greatly contribute to
the effectivity of an organization.
So we have seen some of the objective factors, knowledge
of which can make work effective. Now for the subjective factors;
these are discussed in the Gita, 18.30.
to Take up, What to Leave Alone
assessment of one’s abilities: A dispassionate knowledge
of our strengths and limitations helps us maintain sobriety
and ensure that we don’t live in a fool’s paradise. Embarking
on a venture without adequate competence is a compelling invitation
to inefficiency, ineffectiveness and frustration. Says Swami
is, however, one great danger in human nature, viz. that
man never examines himself. He thinks he is quite as fit
to be on the throne as the king. Even if he is, he must
first show that he has done the duty of his own position;
and then higher duties will come to him. When we begin to
work earnestly in the world, nature gives us blows right
and left and soon enables us to find out our position. No
man can long occupy satisfactorily a position for which
he is not fit. (4) (Emphasis added)
care of the means: Cutting corners or adopting unethical
means might help further the end sometimes, but the negative
samskaras (mental impressions) arising from the questionable
means can cripple an individual’s character. It is good to
keep in mind Swamiji’s golden pronouncement: ‘Let us perfect
the means; the end will take care of itself. For the world
can be good and pure, only if our lives are good and pure.
It is an effect, and we are the means. Therefore, let us purify
ourselves. Let us make ourselves perfect.’ (5)
to change others: We will understand the futility of our
attempts to change others when we reflect on how difficult
it is to change ourselves. In trying to effect external change,
it is good to remember the well-known prayer: ‘God, grant
me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the
courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know
to Fear, What Not to Fear
arises from duality,’ says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
(6) True fearlessness is concomitant with God-realization,
since in that state of Oneness, there is no second object
to fear. Till we reach that blessed stage of realization it
is profitable to cultivate some healthy fears. These fears
have been discussed in ‘From Fear to Fearlessness’, editorial
for April 2004.
Is Bondage, What Is Freedom
binds when selfishness is the motive behind. According to
Vedanta, the Atman is the eternal, blissful and infinite core
of our personality. It is again the source of real Knowledge
and everlasting Bliss. Ignorance (avidya) of our real
nature makes us look for happiness and fulfilment in the world.
So we desire (kama) sense objects. Desire drives us to action
(karma) for its fulfilment. Work done with desire steeps us
more in ignorance, and the vicious cycle of avidya-kama-karma
ensures continuity of the ‘misery-go-round’ of birth and death.
desire-prompted work forges more links in the chain that binds
us to the world, selfless work, done without anxiety about
its result (if the means are taken care of, the end must come),
purifies the mind, strengthens the will and triggers our progress
on the path to freedom.
Effect of Samskaras on Character
are closely related to our discussion on bondage and freedom.
The first chapter of Swamiji’s illuminating lectures on karma
yoga discusses this important topic. (7) We recapitulate the
salient points. Every action and thought is registered on
our mind as a subtle impression (samskara). These impressions
have a built-in property: they goad us on to repeat the action
or thought. Each repetition strengthens and deepens the impression.
The algebraic sum of these good and bad impressions, accumulated
over years, nay, births, is what is meant by character. If
the sum is positive, we have good character and if negative,
bad. This sum total determines our reaction to situations,
our personal life, work environment and so on. In short, what
we are at any given moment is governed by these impressions.
Just as bad impressions make us act bad in spite of ourselves,
good samskaras make us act good in spite of ourselves. So
freedom implies becoming free from the hold of good im pressions
too. Augmenting good impressions can ‘drive’ our life on the
path of good. The first step in strengthening our character
is, thus, the cultivation of good thoughts and performance
of good deeds.
done consciously for long becomes a habit, thanks to the samskaras.
Work done in a slipshod way or with questionable means also
leaves its impression on the mind. The work may be accomplished
all right, but the cumulative impressions resulting from how
we work and the means we adopt will strengthen our bondage
and slavery to the mind. We can appreciate how powerful these
impressions are only when we attempt to turn a new leaf, try
to live a moral life. The mental resistance offered by the
bad impressions will be enough to unnerve us and make us retract
from our resolves at self-transformation.
however, offers hope to everyone and condemns none. Only,
more bad impressions will mean greater struggle. Everyone
can turn a new leaf provided he is prepared to pay the price
and struggle unremittingly. There is also an inspiring assurance
from Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi that japa, or repetition
of God’s name, can minimize the intensity of karma. (8)
Work with Shraddha
translated as ‘faith’ for want of a better word, shraddha
signifies a special mindset. It is a self-propelling force
in us that keeps us riveted to the task in hand till its completion.
Swamiji gives an example to clarify the point: What will be
the mindset of a thief adjacent to whose room is a room full
of gold? He will keep thinking about how to break the separating
wall and acquire the gold. He will not rest till he accomplishes
the task. The force that eggs him on despite obstacles is
what is called shraddha. (9) Some striking implications of
shraddha become evident from this example.
a man endowed with shraddha has an ideal, which goads
him on to action till its attainment and endows him with the
strength to overcome all obstacles in the way. The ideal of
human life is Self-realization. Swamiji begins his lectures
on karma yoga by saying, ‘The goal of mankind is knowledge.
That is the one ideal placed before us by Eastern philosophy.
Pleasure is not the goal of man, but knowledge (emphasis
added).’ (10) Second, a man with shraddha will not need
supervision for his work. Third, quality. He
will set his own lofty standard for work and will strain every
nerve to accomplish it. Fourth, accountability. Such
a worker is more accountable to his higher Self. His accountability
to the organization is a matter of course. Fifth, enthusiasm.
A worker endowed with shraddha does not let mental restless
influence the quality of his work. He is endowed with fortitude
and enthusiasm, two important traits of a sattvic worker outlined
in the Gita. (11)
in the Atman
never tired of exhorting people to have shraddha, burning
faith in themselves, in their real, divine nature: ‘The history
of the world is the history of a few men who had faith in
themselves. That faith calls out the divinity within. You
can do anything. You fail only when you do not strive sufficiently
to manifest infinite power.’ (12)
Work with Meditation
with an Awakened Buddhi
during work refers to a mindset that helps us detach ourselves
from the body and mind and remember our real nature (Atman)
or, what amounts to the same, God, who dwells in the heart
of all beings. For a beginner this amounts to refusing to
identify with the body and the untrained mind, and trying
to be a witness to his mental gyrations without getting affected
by them. Practice enables one to become more alert and identify
oneself with buddhi, the discriminative faculty. Incidentally,
selfless work as a spiritual discipline is expected to result
in this identification with buddhi, a step fundamental to
any fruitful spiritual endeavour. We don’t work mechanically
anymore, but with an awakened buddhi watching the movements
of the mind and bringing it back to the task in hand every
time it strays, following the Gita dictum: ‘Whenever
the unsteady and restless mind strays, rein it in and bring
it back to dwell on the Atman.’ (13)
work with an alert mind is what Swamiji advocates in his prescription
for inner transformation through work: ‘When you are doing
any work, do not think of anything beyond. Do it as worship,
as the highest worship, and devote your whole life to it for
the time being.’ (14)
a meditative awareness during work needs preparation and practice.
When Arjuna asked Sri Krishna how to control the wayward
mind, the Lord replied that it was possible through practice
and detachment (15) - detachment from anything that is inimical
to the attainment of one’s goal. When someone remarked that
it was extremely difficult to proceed towards God while leading
the life of a householder, Sri Ramakrishna taught with a beautiful
example how with practice one can work in the world with a
major part of the mind fixed on God:
about the yoga of practice? At Kamarpukur I have seen the
women of the carpenter families selling flattened rice.
Let me tell you how alert they are while doing their business.
The pestle of the husking-machine that flattens the paddy
constantly falls into the hole of the mortar. The woman
turns the paddy in the hole with one hand and with the other
holds her baby on her lap as she nurses it. In the mean
time customers arrive. The machine goes on pounding the
paddy, and she carries on her bargains with the customers.
She says to them, ‘Pay the few pennies you owe me before
you take anything more.’ You see, she has all these things
to do at the same time - nurse the baby, turn the paddy
as the pestle pounds it, take the flattened rice out of
the hole, and talk to the buyers. This is called the yoga
of practice. Fifteen parts of her mind out of sixteen are
fixed on the pestle of the husking-machine, lest it should
pound her hand. With only one part of her mind she nurses
the baby and talks to the buyers. Likewise, he who leads
the life of a householder should devote fifteen parts of
his mind to God; otherwise he will face ruin and fall into
the clutches of Death. He should perform the duties of the
world with only one part of his mind. (16)
Prayer and Meditation amid Work
in spiritual practices amid work is a great help in cultivating
meditative awareness. Holy Mother underlined its importance
with an example:
doubt you must do your duties. This keeps your mind in good
condition. But it is also necessary to practise japa, meditation,
and prayer. One must practise these at least in the morning
and evening. Such practice acts like the rudder of a boat.
When a man sits in the evening for prayer, he can reflect
on the good and bad things he has done in the course of
the day. Then he should compare his present mental state
with that of the previous day. … Unless you practise meditation
morning and evening, along with your work, how can you know
whether you are doing the right thing or the wrong? (17)
has a name for work done with an alert mind: ‘self-conscious
activity’. What are the benefits of such an activity? Over
to Swamiji: ‘Call upon the sleeping soul and see how it awakes.
Power will come, glory will come, goodness will come, purity
will come, and everything that is excellent will come when
this sleeping soul is roused to self-conscious activity.’
order that work becomes effective, three important things
need to be factored into it: knowledge, shraddha and meditation.
Besides making work effective, these factors convert work
into a spiritual discipline, effecting inner transformation.
Chandogya Upanishad, 1.1.10.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.66.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.2.
Swami Nikhilananda, Holy Mother (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda
Center, 1962), 222.
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 367.
Holy Mother, 220.