karmanyevaadhikaaraste maa phaleshu kadaachana |
maa karmaphalaheturbhoormaa te sangostvakarmani || 47 ||

You only have authority over action, not ever to the result. Don’t be motivated by the result, and don’t get attached to inaction.

karmani : action
eva : only
adhikaaraha : authority
te : your
maa : not
phaleshu : result
kadaachana: ever
maa : no
karmaphalahetuhu : motivated by result
bhuha : become
maa : don’t
te : you
asangaha : attached
astu : happen
akarmani : inaction

As mentioned earlier, this shloka is probably the most known and oft-quoted shloka in the Gita. There are many chapters in the Gita that go deeper into the layers and layers of meaning packed into this shloka. Given the richness of this shloka, we shall try to understand it to the best extent possible. Since there are several messages in this shloka, let’s examine the teaching part by part.

Let’s start with the first half of the shloka. The message is as follows. Shri Krishna says that we have authority only over the actions performed by us, but never on the result. In other words, we do not have complete control over the outcome of any activity. As we grow older and spend more time in this world, we know this fact instinctively. But because we forget it, we tend to get disappointed when things don’t go our way, or get elated when things do.

Look at our own lives, we can take any number of examples to test this theory. Take a simple thing as catching a bus that has just arrived on the other side of the road. We run to catch the bus. But even in such a simple task, the outcome is not guaranteed. If we are able to catch the bus then all’s well. But there are several other outcomes that could occur. The bus may leave before we get to the stop. We could catch the wrong bus. Once aboard, we may not have the fare. Worst of all, we could get hit by a car while crossing the road.

Or consider a complex task as a surgeon performing heart surgery. Take the world’s best doctor trained at the world’s best college, in the surgery room of the world’s best hospital with the world’s best surgery team. Even with all these things, that surgeon will never have a 100% success rate.

The outcome of any action is like an equation where we provide some of the variables, but not all of them. In fact, we may not even know all the variables that end up determining the outcome.

So unless we logically convince ourselves that we do not have complete control over the result of an action, we will not be able to learn the main teaching the second half of this shloka. We will tackle that teaching in the next post.

Footnotes

1. “Phala” literally means “fruit”. Fruit of a result has a “seed” in it, which has the potential to generate yet another action.

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