Non-attachment is the mastery of consciousness,
wherein one is free from craving objects of enjoyment,
whether they have been perceived
or imagined from promises in scriptures.
—Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 1.15
In the opening scene of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna, greatest warrior among men, looks across the battlefield before the great war of the Mahabharata.
The Kuru and Pandava clans both hold claim to the highest kingdom on earth; they are cousins, and have gathered men from all corners of the kingdom to fight in this epic war. Arjuna is preparing to fight men who have been friends and family–he knows many are virtuous, courageous and wise, and he struggles with his duty as a warrior to fight them. Arjuna asks himself how there can be glory in sacrificing his kin for the sake of his family’s reinstatement to the throne.
Krishna, the embodiment of God, speaks to Arjuna of his duty (dharma), telling him that the soul is immortal and that attachment to one’s own state of living, or to another’s, is selfish and fruitless as the attachment to material objects. And if that attachment causes man to ignore his dharma, he cannot find honor, because he has lost the path of righteousness; and he cannot find peace, because all earthly matter is transient and will eventually fade or change.
“Prepare for war with peace in thy soul. Be in peace in pleasure or pain, in gain and in loss, in victory or in the loss of a battle. In this peace there is no sin. This is the wisdom of Sankhya, the vision of the Eternal.”
Non-attachment is a practice that begins with distinguishing between that part of us which is eternal, and those things which are extraneous and transitory. Recognition of this difference then allows us to avoid a feeling of personal loss or pain when things change or don’t go as planned. We see that the true Self remains whole and untouched, and we can find peace in its permanence.
Yoga teaches us non-attachment through its various practices. In asana practice, we are encouraged to work at a level appropriate to our personal ability, and not to push or strain ourselves past that level. We also learn in challenging poses to disassociate ourselves from physical discomfort so that we remain relaxed. In pranayama and meditation we relinquish attachment to the active thoughts, the worries or preoccupations we usually face, in order to maintain stillness in the mind. We learn to become disinterested in the final results, to momentarily let go of future goals and obligations and limit our awareness to the present moment.
Do thy work in the peace of Yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or failure. Yoga is evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.
Bhagavad Gita, 2.48
The Bhagavad Gita teaches that we have the right to our actions, but not to the fruit of those actions. Since we cannot control the activity of other beings or matter in the world, we cannot control whether our actions will prove successful. To form expectations, or to become attached to an outcome, is a futile and often disheartening exercise.
“Set thy heart upon thy work,” Krishna tells Arjuna, “but never on its reward. Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work.”
Although the concept of acting without the promise of any return for our labor can be hard to accept, non-attachment is crucial to finding peace in life. We cannot escape work and action, and if we let our happiness be subject to the potential results of our work, we risk disappointment.
When I contemplate the philosophy of non-attachment, I’m reminded of R.K. Narayan’s novel, The Vendor of Sweets. The story centers around Jagan, owner of a sweet shop in India, a pious, conservative, hard-working man. His son Mali has disappointed him by leaving for America, wasting his money, and returning a few years later with an American wife. Mali returns to ask Jagan to invest his savings in an unethical business venture. When Jagan refuses, the rift between him and his son widens, and Mali becomes untrustworthy, stealing money from the sweet shop, and disrespectful. Jagan is deeply troubled by his son’s actions and choices, and his worry leads to depression. Eventually, he learns that his unhappiness was caused not by Mali, but by his own attachments to Mali’s behavior and prosperity. Jagan chooses to retire to a temple, breaking all ties with his former life. Having renounced his attachments, Jagan finds true peace at last.
“He whose undertakings are free from anxious desire and fanciful thought, whose work is made pure in the fire of wisdom…in whatever work he does such a man in truth has peace: he expects nothing, he relies on nothing, and ever has fullness of joy.” Bhagavad Gita, 4.19-20
It makes sense that attachment to material objects which fade with time could be the source of much unhappiness in a lifetime. It is perhaps more challenging to accept that our peace depends on action without attachment to the results. What motive have we to act, unless it is to secure a specific outcome? According to theGita, to fulfill our dharma, or our duty in life, is the only motive for pure, unattached action. All other action is motivated by self-interest, and will likely lead to unnecessary suffering.