The Truths and the Myths of Selfless Action

Selfless Action is considered to be one of the greatest virtues of the mankind. A man practicing selfless action is highly respected in this world. The central theme of the philosophy of Gita is the principle of “Selfless Action” (Nishkama Karma). Lord Krishna explains the need for selfless action and the need for detaching the fruits from the action in the following words (Gita II 47-48)

“Action alone is your province, never the fruits thereof; let not there be any motive for the fruit of action, nor should you desire to avoid action (due to its unpleasant fruits). Therefore, you must act without attachment, steadfast in Yoga, even minded in success and failure.”

Simple are these words; yet most difficult is the path of selfless action in real life. How is it possible for any person to undertake any action without thinking about the result? Goal is not the end of the action but often the cause of the action. While, it is correct that action alone is in the control of the person and not the result of the action (which depends on so many variables), yet every action has to be done with a purpose and a goal.

Napoleon Hill, in his classic books “Law of Success” and “Think and Grow Rich” wrote after years of research that the primary attribute that distinguishes a successful man from an ordinary man is “Goal” in life. He said that all successful people without exception has one characteristic in common, and that was a “goal in life”. Fitzhugh Dodson rightly said

“Without goals, and plans to reach them, you are like a ship that has set sail with no destination”.

Mahadev Desai, a disciple of Gandhi, named the name of his book “The Gita According to Gandhi” as “The Gospel of Selfless Action.” This is the only translation of Gita that is authenticated by Gandhi, who is believed by many as the ideal example of a man with selfless action. While it is true that Gandhi did not acquire any personal benefit in his life yet can we say that Gandhi did not have any goal in life or that he was indifferent to the success and failure of his goals or movements? Yet even Gandhi said, “Glory lies in the attempt to reach one’s goal and not in reaching it.”

Thus goal is necessary for the purpose of action. However, Gita state that the goal must not be to achieve personal benefits. The attempt to achieve such a goal is the source of selfless action which is the source of all happiness in life. But can any person perform any action without any personal benefit?.

The Absurdity of Selfless Action

Selfless Action or Nashkama Karma is considered to be so important in Indian Philosophy that it is prescribed as not only one of the means of salvation but the most superior means of salvation higher than Gyanayoga (Union by Knowledge) and Bhaktiyoga (Union by Devotion).

It is, however, not explained, why a “selfless” action is superior to a “selfish” action? How to distinguish a selfless action from selfish action? Can doing one’s duty towards a parent is selfish action or selfless action? Can performing a job of a professional like army personal, policemen; Industrialist or revenue office is a selfless action or selfish action? Is it not true that a terrorist perform the highest selfless action as they alone can sacrifice their life selflessly? Can terrorism be said to be a selfless karma?

Many people would agree that only fanatics or a dumb people would be inclined to do a selfless karma, as every thoughtful person thinks before action. For every thinking person, every action has a purpose and goal and he tries his best to achieve the goal. He also gets disappointed by his failures and feels happy for his success.

Yet we find some people who seem to spend all their life for the benefit of others. We all know many such people around us whom we love and respect from the bottom of our heart. Yet we can never understand them nor do we try to emulate them. What could be the logic and reason in the mind of such people? Can there really be any logic for the highly acclaimed selfless action or such people do selfless act only as matter of faith or achieve the good in the other world (heaven)?

The Logic of Selfless Action

Gita like many other philosophies and religions of the world believes that the ultimate knowledge of the world is to realize that every thing in the universe is connected to each other with an invisible thread. The basic principle of Gyanyoga or the True Knowledge is the belief in the (Absolute) God that is present in all and everything in this (material) world as the manifestation of Him. Thus a wise man sees “All in God and God in all”. Following this principle, we can see God as the common Truth or Force or Energy or the Universal Soul that is present in all creations of the universe.

By another analogy, if we can compare Universe as the Body of the God, the individual creatures can be compared as a cell of the body of God. Thus we all are in God as also God is in us as God has no separate existence than the creations of the universe.

Now consider yourself as a cell that can be located in any of the organ of the body like leg, liver, tongue, heart etc. We all, like a cell, perform our respective functions that are different from others yet complementary to each other. Now let us presume that you are a cell in the tongue. So you are most pleased to have the food that is tasty and pleasant to the taste buds. You also hate any food that is insipid or tasteless. Now, if you are a selfish cell, you would show least concern to the rest of the body’s requirement of food and nutrients and always desire to have only the food that is tasty even if they are full of calories, fatty, spicy or hot. This is true for most of the people. However, such food is bad for the body as the tasty food which provides instant gratification to senses ultimately makes a person obese and make the body unhealthy for life. The result is that ultimately, the person would lose his health and he would become permanently unfit to even taste such food. Thus if you as a taste bud cell and fail to appreciate the requirement of the rest of the body, soon you will lose your own capability to enjoy the tasty food for life.

Such contradiction can be found in all organs of the body. Their interests of different parts of body are often conflicting to each other. Stomach would like to have the food that are easy to digest which are often tasteless while other sense organs like eyes, nose and tongues cherishes only the tasty and high calorie-high protein-high fat and high carbohydrate food. The body of the person would like to rest and sleep, but the mind of the person would like it to work hard for maximum achievements and lose calories and weight. If we closely analyze, we might notice that the interest of one organ seems to be against the interest of another organs.

Now, if the taste buds are intelligent, they would realize that they have no existence apart from the rest of the cells of the body. Hence they would see the other cells of the body not as adversary but as a friends and gladly approve a food that is liked by other organs of the body as keeping everyone happy and satisfied is in the best interest of the body.. It is “known” to a “wise’ cell that its interest lies in the interest of the body because, if body itself is not healthy, it can’t be enjoy any food. Thus these cells “know” that by doing well for others, one actually does well to themselves.

Similar logic work seems to apply for the human beings also.

The Reasons for the Selfless Action

How many times have you willingly lost a game to your loved ones? We all love losing in games to our children and our loved ones. Why? Because when we lose, they win and they feel happy and in their happiness lie our own happiness. We don’t feel bad on losing to them. Why? Because, we consider them as if they are our own selves. Thus if they feel happy, we feel even happier. Same is the case when we play with our friends any game. We neither feel happy in winning nor feel sad in losing. Why? Because we know, that one of the two has to lose. So if we have lost and our friend has won, we feel no disappointment as we treat our friend as an extension of self.

However, what happens, when we lose to our enemies? We feel very sad. We also feel very happy when we defeat our enemies. Even when we are not directly playing against our enemies but another person from our country is playing against them and defeats them, we feel extremely happy. Why? Because, we consider the other as our adversary that invokes opposite emotions in us. So their happiness causes us sadness and their sadness causes us happiness.

Everyone Acts with a Selfish Motive

Now, consider a person who is extremely selfish. He would care for none and he feel happy only for his personal achievements. Yet his happiness is only temporary and remains till the point he has go others people with him. Often people take friends and family for granted. Imagine a world, where only you exit and the rest of the world perishes. Here we are the Lord and the owner of the world, yet we all can imagine that in such situation, we would be most unhappy. The reason is that happiness comes only when we have friends to share our happiness.

Most of us do understand this simple truth and make a small world of our own. Some people limit their extended self to their family i.e. their spouse and their children. So when they do something for their spouse or children, they never feel that they are doing any selfless act as they never feel that they are doing anything to “other person” as family is noting but “self’. Some people extend themselves much beyond their family and include other relatives like parents, brothers, sisters and cousin into it. Some include the society, or countryman in their extended self. Yet for some people the entire humanity itself become extension of their self. And at the highest level, some people include all living beings in their extended self. So they even don’t want to harm an animal or even destroy a plant in their life.

Therefore, for a person who has limited himself to his own body, may find even a family man as selfless person as the person serves the other member members of the family without any expectation of personal benefit. Similarly a family man may consider a dutiful cop, or a humanist like Gandhi as “selfless” as his concept of self limits only to his family.

However, every person, undertake only such actions that benefits his (extended) self. Therefore all actions are selfish thought it may appear selfless from another person’s point of view. Only such person can be indifferent to any loss or gain, victory or defeat he never loses anything. If he has lost still he has won since his extended self has won. Therefore, such a person is indifferent to the consequence of his action. This is what is preached in Gita.


Gandhi said, “A man is but the product of his thoughts what he thinks, he becomes”. Therefore, the cause of selfless action is the True Knowledge that all people in this world are connected to each other. We are all complementary to each other rather than adversely to each others. Only with this paradigm shift in the thought man can achieve the goal of selfless action that is the cause of all happiness in this world. If you don’t believe it just imagine the world, where you are the only inhabitant. It is only by selfless action to others whom we consider as our own, one gets happiness and at the end get salvation.

Steve Liem

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