Attachments Can Cause Suffering
Hindu and Buddhist philosophies posit that focusing on the rewards or outcomes of one’s actions is a prominent cause of emotional bondage in our material existence.
Buddhism holds that, above all, desire (selfish craving or tanha) and ignorance (unawareness or avidya) lie at the root of suffering (unsatisfactoriness or dukkha.) Desire is the yearning for hedonistic pleasure, affection, possessions, relationships, power, and even immortality.
The Bhagavad Gita on Detachment from Fruits of Labor
कर्मण्ये वाधिकारस्ते म फलेषु कदाचना।
कर्मफलेह्तुर भुरमा ते संगोस्त्वकर्मानी॥
karmaṇy evādhikāras te mā phaleṣu kadācana
mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te sańgo ‘stv akarmaṇi
—Bhagavad Gita 2:47
Translation: “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.” [Source: “Bhagavadgita” by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan]
“The wise are not bound by desire for rewards”
This verse suggests that the anticipated results of actions should not be the motivation for the performance of those actions.
All rewards are factually independently ordained by the Supreme Lord … therefore, it is not correct to imagine that any reward which one receives is due only to one’s own efforts. … So one who is spiritually situated performs actions unattached to reward. Verily such is the way of action. … Actions performed without desire as a matter of duty are full of wisdom. … One should understand that it is fallacious to believe that one is the ultimate controller of their own destiny because the Supreme Lord ultimately ordains all results.
Hinduism (and Buddhism) actively advocates right conduct to attain definitive rewards: liberation (moksha, mukti, or nirvana) and salvation. Another Hindu philosopher Adi Shankaracharya explained that hankering for the fruits of labor results in entrapment in the cycle of birth and death, thus inhibiting liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
Buddhism encourages virtuous actions (in addition to the eschewal of bad actions) to beget positive karma for favorable rebirth and perhaps nirvana. While the abovementioned verse discourages attachment to outcomes, it does not imply that a person who performs actions without attachment to the rewards will not receive its rewards.
The Bhagavad Gita on Letting Go: The Power of Detachment
श्रेयो हि ज्ञानमभ्यासाज्ज्ञानाद्ध्यानं विशिष्यते।
śreyo hi jñānam abhyāsāj jñānād dhyānaḿ viśiṣyate
dhyānāt karma-phala-tyāgas tyāgāc chāntir anantaram
—Bhagavad Gita 12:12
Translation: “Better indeed is knowledge than the practice of concentration; better than knowledge is meditation; better than meditation is the renunciation of the fruit of action; on renunciation follows immediately peace.” [Source: “Bhagavadgita” (1948) by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan]
Describing the psychological and spiritual benefits of renunciation of the rewards of actions (“karma-phala-tyagas,”) the Hindu Philosopher Madhvacharya explains this verse:
Superior to meditation with knowledge is non-attachment to performing actions for rewards and the renunciation of the rewards of actions coupled with bhakti or exclusive devotion to the Supreme Lord. … All one’s activities should be intended as an offering to the Supreme Lord because from such activities realization dawns and renunciation of the rewards of action arises and liberation from material existence manifests and the Supreme peace is attained.
Idea for Impact: Let Go of Attachments to Results
Having no expectations of actions and lowering your expectations of people is liberating and can lead you to a happier life, not to mention of better relationships.
In terms of pursuing goals, freeing yourself from attachments to a particular outcome has to do with comprehending that there are certain things you cannot control. The attachment to a result takes hold when you believe that in order to be happy, you “must have it,” or you “should reach a goal.” Equally this attachment also arises from the anxious anticipation of a strong negative feeling if you do not reach your goal.
Alas, this attitude of letting go of attachment to results is not easy to implement. Psychologically, human beings are habitually driven by our hopes for the future, by desires from our relationships, and by a variety of other optimistic constructs like knowledge, power, status, and glory.
You can start by letting go of your attachments by redefining the form you think the results should come in. That way, should you not achieve the goal as you wish, you will remain content. Though it is an intimidating thought, remembering that many things are outside your span of control can help you let go of steep expectations.
Rather than limit the focus of your goal, a healthy approach is to consider instead your anticipated results as preferred results. By deliberating, “I prefer to have this outcome,” you can be open to anything that happens—good or bad. When good stuff happens, you can count your blessings. When bad stuff happens, you can just change direction without whining and self-pitying about how bad stuff was not supposed to happen you. Lowering expectations and detaching yourself from specific outcomes can reduce disappointment when things don’t go just as you desired.
Complement this philosophy of actions (karma or work) and results from the Bhagavad Gita with,
- Artist Vincent van Gogh’s Calvinistic belief that work, like religion, was a way to communion with God.
- General Dwight Eisenhower’s awareness that, after ordering his troops across the English Channel during World War II, the success of the invasion of Normandy was no longer in his own hands—that one could control efforts but not outcomes.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to my friend Venkatasubramanian, founder of the Bangalore-based Vyoma Linguistic Labs for help with this article. Vyoma is a non-profit organization devoted to the translation, preservation, and dissemination of rare classic Indian texts. It also produces Sanskrit learning products.