Work as Service

That unique monument of Indian wisdom, the Bhagavad Gita, has much to tell us about the nature of action, which is no doubt a measure of the importance of the subject.

'The world is imprisoned in its own activity,' we are told, 'except when actions are performed as worship of God.' This is not the Buddhist approach, but it is an expression of the truth which should be all the easier for Christians. 'Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachment to results.' Nothing could be clearer, unless the following:
'You have the right to work, but for the work's sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.'
'They who work selfishly for results are miserable.'

To most modern men and women this is not merely unacceptable - it is incomprehensible. But many of these Notes are in that category, and the truth of these words is patent to those who are able to see. The modern man works not only for results, in most cases he works for what he can earn thereby. So far has he gone to the opposite extreme to that set forth in the Gita that he sometimes even persuades himself that he has no right to work unless he is paid for it. Full payment for work of any kind, for service of any kind, has acquired a character that is almost sacramental, i.e. not the work but the remuneration has now that character. The obvious fallacy of this attitude is obscured by dogma and propaganda, which, as we know, ipso facto cannot be true.

But what does the Gita mean when its words are applied to modern life?

That most men must live by their work is not in itself a justification of the current view. Supposing we put the case like this: that men should be remunerated according to the status, the degree of resposibility, of the work they are able to do, in order that they may live worthily in accordance with that status or responsibility, but that the remuneration they receive should be for their living and not for their work? Supposing, moreover, that they should receive it as for their living, and that their work should be a service - what the Gita would call a sacrament?

Let us remember that it is not such a conception as this that is new - though it may seem so to a modern man; this conception, indeed, is normal and older than the Gita itself, as old as human civilisation. As recently as the end of the last century, not to mention many isolated cases still surviving today, not only men in exhalted and responsible positions were so remunerated and worked as a service, but also men and women in ordinary domestic employment. In both cases, as the basis of the contract, their lives were protected, they were cared for, they received housing, food, sometimes clothing, and money for their personal needs. In return they were given the opportunity of service. Sometimes the service called for was intensive, to the limit of their capacity, at other times it was little more than a formality - but their remuneration was in no way affected thereby or dependent on what they did. So it has been in all walks of life throughout history. Such an age-old principle is basically different from that which seeks payment for each hour's work, which demands as much as can be extorted and gives as little as possible in return.

Yet in that way happiness is possible and a life that is worthy of a self-respecting human being. In that way man is free to develop spiritually; in the other there is only misery and degradation. That surely is what the Gita means - applied to daily life: 'They who work selfishly for results are miserable.' We have only to look around us in order to see.

It may be objected that such a principle is inapplicable to industrial organisation, but we are considering something more fundamental than that; the being of man and his use of his mind may be sacrosanct - industrial organisation certainly is not. We are considering the development of understanding and calling upon the eternal wisdom of the Song of God to aid us, which wisdom is never in conflict with that of the Lord Buddha, the Lord Jesus, or the supremely wise men of any age or place. Man may be essentially divine, but there is nothing holy about his commercial activities. Just as laws are made for man, not man for laws (a circumstance apt to be overlooked by some people) so commerce was made for man, not man for commerce (a circumstance not merely overlooked but contraverted).

Men could abuse such a system of service, and did, but that did not matter. Some gave what the modern man would call too much (though that is probably impossible), and others too little; it was they, primarily, who benefited - in the former case, and suffered - in the latter.

Work should be a sacrament, according to the Gita. Work should be a service, we may prefer to say. What is certain is that people should not be bribed to work, should not consider their 'rights' (have we any?) except in relation to their duties, and should not take except in the certainty of giving more than they receive.

I cannot leave the Bhagavad Gita without quoting these few words:
'There never was a time,' says Sri Krishna, 'when I did not exist, nor you ... nor is there any future in which we shall cease to be.'
These words do not seem to call for exposition. If they need explanation that is to be found in these Notes in so far as I may be capable of giving it.
'That which is non-existent,' Sri Krishna says again, 'can never come into being, and that which is can never cease to be.'

(© RKP, 1958)

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