Essay on Bhagavad Gita

“I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance.”― Friedrich Nietzsche

Almost every kid growing up in India is made familiar with the baffling and bewildering central message of the book – “you should work without attachment to the fruits of your labour”. It doesn’t resonate much, particularly since the kids in India are subjected to the tyranny of comparative grading, quarterly exams and competitive examinations quite early in life. They are incentivised by their parents who tell their kids that if they want a cushy job that gives money and respect in the society, they better crack their exams. More clever parents also use operant conditioning by rewarding their kids with bikes, fancy dinners and vacations when they climb higher on the relative grading curve. The message from Gita is ignored as young men and women venture into the world to grab their share of the pie.

To unravel the mystery behind Gita’s central message (work without attachment), let’s start with the workplace (where Indians, who take the entrance exams are doing very well these days, being the engines of global economy). The wisdom of Gita can be seen working at any office environment. Gita identifies three kinds of gunas (read energy) called Satvik, Rajsik and Tamsik (read them as White,Grey and Black). To identify which kind of energy is dominant in a worker, you have to assess him on three key parameters – his self-worth, his perspective, and his process versus outcome orientation.

The self-worth of workers with White (or Satvik energy) is attached to knowledge and wisdom. They take great pride in excelling at their work and secretly want to be acknowledged as wise and clever.Their role models are usually businessmen who are driven by knowledge and creativity (WarrenBuffett and Steve Jobs), rather than the size of their business empires. Since they are driven by knowledge they measure other workers also by their capabilities rather than their rank. They would not respect a superior no matter what his designation or accomplishments, if they feel that he or she is all style and no substance.

Such workers have a detached and objective view about their workplace and do not hesitate to give critical feedback about the work culture of their company. Such workers are generally cheerful though, since they see every high or low in business/job as an opportunity to learn and create something new and better. Workers with white energy also tend to have a longer term perspective and see business as a win-win game. They understand that what is good for them is good for their colleagues, juniors and superiors and their vendors and ultimately for their customers. Thus it is easier to reason with white energy workers and easier to invest your trust in them. Due to their long term perspective, they have a disciplined approach to life and work and understand their hard tasks have to be accomplished for years before rich dividends are reaped.

Workers with white energy tend to enjoy the process of the assignments they are given. They are capable of extracting learning even from dull and repetitive tasks and rarely crib about them. Their ultimate career goal is to find a calling; work where they really enjoy the process of the assignments they are working on.

The same three parameters self-worth, perspective and process versus outcome will help in identifying grey (Rajsik) and black (Tamsik) energies in a workplace. Self -worth of a grey energy worker is attached to money and power. He evaluates his co-workers and superiors by their rank,designation and perks. They tend to admire businessmen who accumulated money and power even though the overall means they used may have been unsavoury (think Donald Trump). Such people are highly aware about the institutional politics in their organization. Since they are opportunists they will be very energized if they feel an assignment will set them up for a promotion or monetary raise.

The perspective of a grey energy worker doesn’t go beyond the next quarterly or annual appraisal.They are easily dismayed if they feel that the fortunes of their organization will be shaky by the time their next bonus will be due. They appear loyal to organizations but are actually working on a transactional basis. They are best managed through contracts and incentives.

The grey energy workers have a focus on the outcome of the assignment they are working on. They will crib if they feel that the current assignment will not create much financial or monetary value,however will still execute the assignment thinking it’s professional to do so. Their career goal is to work for reputed organizations which will pay them more and more for less and less work.

The self-worth of a black energy (Tamsik) worker’s appears to be on very shaky ground and it is hard to figure out their drivers. They seem to be more driven by momentary pleasures of the workplace,like having a good party on the Friday with barbecued chicken and lamb delicacies. According to them the best employers are the ones who give a lot of vacations and allowing them to chill during workdays. They seem to be either delusional, in denial or blind about their standing in their workplace. Sometimes they do not realize how close they are to getting fired.

It’s very hard to mentor such workers, as they never seem to get any perspective. Manager feels tha the can neither reason with such workers nor incentivise him by appealing to his interest. The only way to manage such workers is by keeping a constant watch on them with a proverbial stick in your hand.

Black energy workers neither enjoy the process of their assignments, nor do they understand how important the outcome of the assignment is for the organization. They appear unfocussed and are perpetual cribbers.

Now that I have described the three energies, the reader would have created a hierarchy in his head.Obviously it makes sense to hire as many white energy people as you can, employ few grey energy people and keep black energy people as far away from you as possible. In fact the words white, grey and black itself create a mental hierarchy. Bhagavad Gita also creates this hierarchy multiple times in the book. However and brace yourself for this, the Gita also says that ultimately all three energies are equal.

It is perplexing, isn’t it? At one hand, the Lord is saying that those with black energy (Tamsik) will keep falling into deeper circles of hell and those with grey energy (Rajsik) will keep rotating in a materialistic circle. Then he becomes democratic and says that I see all the energies as equal and so would a sage who is really connected to me. The Lord says all the energies are coming from me only,and angelic and demonic within people are all aspects of me. It almost sounds as if the Lord has sympathy for the devil. Like Mick Jagger, he says – every cop is criminal and all the sinners saints. Inthe answer to this riddle, also lies the answer to our original quest – how to work without attachment to fruits.

Let’s revisit the black (Tamsik) energy. The key trait of such people is that they are almost living for transitory and momentary pleasure. That is why they lack focus, perspective and are not able to attach their self-worth to fruitful causes. But don’t all of us have some admiration of a person with acarefree attitude who seems to be enjoying the moment. Perhaps you only appreciate them outside the workspace. Isn’t there something admirable about a person who is capable of forgetting everything and letting go in a burst of laughter. Don’t we all feel that there is something divine about the ignorant playfulness of children? Rock and roll bands (like Mick Jagger and his Rolling Stones)were in fact indulging themselves in hedonistic and momentary enjoyments in the sixties. They were also accused of being spawns of Satan (Tamsik) by many. Was it really the handiwork of Satan or is there something irresistibly charming about frivolous gay abandon.

Similarly, haven’t management professors emphasized that a good Strategy (the forte of White energy or Satvik people) is futile without Execution skills? (the strength of Grey Energy or Rajsik people). Isn’t everyone with some experience of business, aware of the importance of goal orientation or getting the task done (something which comes better to grey energy people)? Isn’t a sound understanding of how people respond to incentives which is cornerstone of economic thinking (and something that comes more easily to grey energy people) vital for success in business?In fact in any healthy organization, the goals of strategic thinkers (White energy) would be aligned with the incentives of the managers (Grey energy) and the guidelines of the ground level workers(Black energy).

However, the three energies tend to misunderstand and dislike each other both in workplace and outside. Artists and creative people mostly dislike businessmen and lawyers. Blue collar worker feels that the capitalist is out to exploit them (which may be true on many occasions but often the businessmen among other things is also trying to help organize the life of blue collar workers). Knowledge driven people find materialistic people greedy and shallow. Carefree people find knowledge driven people stuffy and snobbish. In fact the swinging sixties can be seen as youngsters indulging themselves in the creative white energy (more like the Beatles) or the hedonistic black energy (more like the stones) as they couldn’t get enough “Satisfaction” from the order and structure of post- world war USA. It is also human nature to like people who are more like you. Thus artists tend to bond more with other artists and businessmen admire other businessmen.

The sage or wise person according to Gita is one who can engage with all kind of energies without bias and prejudice for anyone in particular. I think the road to attaining wisdom of a sage begins with two rare and elusive qualities – tolerance and humility. Tolerance for knowledge driven person means understanding that not everyone is as intelligent or creative as he/she is. Tolerance for a commerce person translates into understanding that not everyone will be as organized and structured as he/she is.

The lack of tolerance is responsible for much self-afflicted misery in the world. The more knowledgeable or capable a person is, more likely he is to be intolerant. The most vivid example from recent memory is Steve Jobs. The brilliant Jobs only admired other brilliant and creative people(white energy people) and he was known to be intolerant of grey and black energy people. Jobs certainly brought many good things to the world, but he also made many people in his personal space miserable. He also created unhappiness for himself due to his intolerance. The most vivid example of tolerance from the business world is Warren Buffett. Buffett is by all means a greater intellect than Jobs. However Buffett is also remarkably patient and tolerant of people who are less ignorant than him about business (in fact compared to him most people are ignorant and idiotic when it comes to business). When you become tolerant of all energies, you become capable of engaging with them.

Even more elusive than tolerance is humility. Knowledge and creativity driven people (white energy)look down on the vanity of money and power driven people. But the truth is that knowledge driven people are equally vain. All artists (who perhaps epitomize white energy the best) are vain in the sense that they are driven by the need for self- expression. Artists like to chide kings and queens by telling them their material possessions would sooner or later be destroyed, while their works would echo through eternity. But by chasing the ultimate prize of art – artistic immortality; the artists are giving away their vanity.

It is true that artists have the best shot at immortal self-expression. For example Apple may be a great institution today, but 50 years down the line it most likely would not exist (such is the nature of business history). I-phone and I-pad may be the coolest gadgets today but two decades later they will look like duds. Even the body of knowledge that Apple has created about doing business, would be redundant as future organizations will learn from their example and create a new body of knowledge. What is much more likely to survive is the idea of Apple and Steve Jobs as a maverick.The works of Einstein and Newton would be bettered and surpassed, but the works of Shakespeare and Mozart would persist as they are. People will connect with these artists as if they knew them as people for many centuries to come.

So humility starts with the realization that this lofty goal of self-expression is almost unattainable for most people, except maybe for rarest of talents. If most kings, tycoons, scientists and even most artists will be forgotten with time, then what is the urge for action?

When Shakespeare and Mozart were writing their works, do you really think they were excited by the prospect of being remembered for eternity. Truth is they were only acknowledged as genius some three centuries later. They were doing their work because they were really enjoying it. They connected white energy (knowledge and creativity) with black energy (pure hedonistic enjoyment). Since they were really enjoying it, they got better at it and when they got better at it, they enjoyed it even more. Thus a feedback loop was created out of synergy between white and black energy, which resulted in some divine music and literature which the whole world enjoys. Shakespeare even had commercial and organizing instincts (grey energy) which certainly helped the cause. These guys were doing their work without too concerned about the only reward that lasts a long time (artistic immortality), and the drive was coming from the black energy. As John Lennon said, it’s about living for the day.

Maybe that’s why there is something refreshingly divine about rock and roll which is largely fuelled by hedonistic and momentary pleasure. Sure most of the times you feel that the rock and rollers have lost it. But sometimes the drive for enjoyment is combined with creativity (white energy) and the organization and structure of Stadium rock (grey energy) to create a fruit for everyone to enjoy(a cosmic perspective). The Cosmic Perspective is the ultimate key to inner peace. As Robert Plant once sang – when all is one and one is all

Perhaps that is what Nietzsche meant when he said that all a soul of philosopher wants to do is getup and dance. After acquiring all the knowledge, a sage ultimately feels that maybe all he can do is be happy, and make others happy. And in that state he is most close to the divine nature.

And in black energy also lays the answer to our original query. Indian parents should start telling the kids to choose subjects that they really enjoy (Tamsik), keeping in mind the options available to them under the current education system (Rajsik) and should study them with discipline and curiosity (Satvik). If the kids get the black energy aspect right (Tamsik enjoyment from studies) the fruits will automatically come.

It is not so mystical after all.

– Amaresh


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