It is obvious that as long as you are alive, you cannot stay without performing karma. But is it possible that although actions happen, yet there is no bondage of karma? Why look far – see the life of Sri Krishna himself. Did he stay engrossed in samādhi all his life? On the contrary, his life was full of diverse, colourful actions. He had to deal with one or the other troublemaker all through his entire life, right from his childhood – be it the demon Bakāsur, or his uncle Kansa, followed by a succession of enemies in his adulthood. There were occasions when he had to physically fight his enemies. And then, there were the times when he had fled the battlefield, and hence he was also known by the name ‘Rancchoddās’ – Sri Krishna could do that too! For if his wisdom guided him to flee the battlefield, then that is precisely what he did with no compunction whatsoever.

It doesn’t matter what Sri Krishna did or didn’t do, because for him karma was just a make-believe game. It is a fact that all actions performed after attaining the discerning knowledge of what the truth is and what the untruth is, are no more than part of a mirthful play. That is why Sri Krishna’s physical presence on this earth is referred to as his leelā, which means divine play. What merit or demerit, heaven or hell, bondage or liberation, ignorance or knowledge! For Sri Krishna everything was just a play, be it frolicking with the gopis or romancing Rādhā or marrying Rukmini, relating the Gīta to Arjuna, or getting his entire clan destroyed by instigating infighting amongst his descendants – it was all no more than a play to him.

Whatsoever he did, he did with love and wisdom, with no regrets. Sri Krishna was the embodiment of the supreme consciousness, flawlessly perfect and complete in the real sense of the word. And he performed all his life’s actions with detachment, being firmly established in the absolute truth, securely rooted in the eternal, indestructible, omnipresent existence. Such an attitude towards actions, such karma performed without any underlying selfish desire, without any expectation of getting anything in return is known as nishkāma karma.

Such a person has no desires left, none whatsoever – not even the desire for yoga-ks ̣ema, meaning there is no desire even for safeguarding the attainment of that which is unattainable. In the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna says that for such evolved beings, who have transcended all duality and are firmly established in their true nature, the Lord takes on the responsibility of their yoga-ks ̣ema. They need not worry about anything.

You have the choice to perform actions. And how you perform those actions is also up to you. But, says the Lord, you cannot dictate the fruits of those actions – it is not in your hands. Hence don’t perform actions for any desired result. Furthermore, the Lord adds that don’t think on the lines of why should I perform any action if I am not going to receive the desired fruit of the action? This too is inappropriate. Just perform your duties without any expectation of appreciation and without any desire for the fruit – neither gross nor subtle. Simply forego attachment to the result of your actions. Don’t think about hether an action will result in success or failure, for this too is an attachment to the action, the karma. Failure or success should not stop you from doing your duty, your karma. Do all actions without any analysis of its likely fruit.

But, a very common grievance is, ‘I did so much for the other person but what did I get in return?’ Or, ‘I will do such-and-such thing for you, provided you remember this and return the favour later!’

I will narrate a story that is often quoted in this context. Once a sage saw that a scorpion had fallen into a pool of water. The poor creature was writhing in pain and was desperately trying to get out of the water. The sage compassionately picked it out and was just about to place it on dry ground when the scorpion stung him. The resultant pain made the sage’s hand quiver and the scorpion dropped from his hand, back into the water. Nevertheless, the sage calmly repeated the process to help the creature, but the scorpion stung him yet again. And this kept on happening with the sage’s every attempt to help the scorpion. Meanwhile a well wisher passing by, who had seen the entire drama, remarked to the sage, ‘Why are you bothering to help this creature when it is repeatedly biting the very hand that is helping it?’ The sage responded, ‘See my dear fellow, it is the scorpion’s nature to sting and it is a sage’s very nature to be compassionate. And if a scorpion cannot forego his nature, can a sage abandon his?’ This is a perfect example of nishkāma karma.

Extracted from ‘Karma Unraveled’ by Anandmurti Gurumaa