How can one justify Gita’s “selfless actions” when these are done for self-liberation? Aren’t these two contradictory?

 The error lies in the interpretation of the word “self less action” and “Being unattached to results”. The common interpretation of ‘selfless’ seems to be ‘unselfish’ or ‘noble’ or ‘without expecting anything in return’. Or an ‘action done for the greater good, and not for oneself’. And we often agree because it sounds so ‘nice’…so ‘right’!

But Is ‘selflessness’ simply a matter of degree? If I think of 100 people instead of 1, I become more ‘selfless’? When do I become completely ‘selfless’? What if I am attached to this result for the ‘greater good’? Is that OK? Maybe the actual answer lies elsewhere.

There are 3 parts to understanding this.

The definition of ‘truth’ itself
People will give you a dozen answers, each with its own logic – some better, some popular, some agreeable. How would you discriminate between them? Truth cannot be a “code of conduct” , a list of ‘should’ and ‘should nots’ which seem ‘impractical’ at first, but ‘justified’ or ‘nobler’ if you look deeper. For example:

“One is not ‘entitled’ to the fruit of his actions”.

Says who? Lord Krishna? What if I am happy with whatever results I get, even if it is at the cost of the society? This means it’s not the ‘truth’ for ME. It’s a belief which I can choose to agree or disagree with. Somebody might explain that this might be a long term loss for short term benefit. But who says I 
should want long term benefit? Isn’t that a belief too?

Truth is not something noble you ‘agree’ you ‘should’ do. That’s a belief. Truth is something that you just realize, which cannot be subjected to further inquiry.

If I am still stuck in ‘should and should nots’ I have probably reached ‘nobler beliefs’ or ‘better justifications’, but not truths. For truth, all contradictions must vanish, and you should be left with an undeniable fact. Not depending on the authority of its source or style of delivery. With this aim in mind, let’s look at the key concepts…

About “Not being attached to the results”
The Gita verse is often misinterpreted to mean ‘You have the right to the actions, but are not 
entitled to its results’. So ‘do actions as a duty‘. Says who? And anyway, when I gain happiness out of my hard earned ‘corruption’ money, I might be happy enough. What if I accept this entitled ‘result’ whole heartedly and am ‘happy’ enough? How will you make me subscribe to this noble opinion?

The real meaning is:

“You have a CHOICE only in your actions. You do not have a choice in the results”

There is no subjective morality or commandment here. For example, do I want to roll the ball in the bowling alley? I have a choice in the action. I decide ‘yes’ and I roll it. Now the 
result(how many pins will be knocked down) depends not only on my throw, but also my muscles which depends on my lifestyle which depends on my past conditioning. It also depends on the quality of the floor, which depends on the money spent, which depends on thinking of the owner, on his past conditioning. It depends on the level of distractions and their influence over me(A juicy burger might distract me more than a pretty girl, which again depends on my past conditioning). It also depends on my anxiety(about the ‘future‘ result) which depends on my past conditioning too. So there are zillions of factors (past and future) influencing the result. But my action is already done!

So trying to ‘choose the result’ is pointless. Now that’s a fact. Not a noble commandment justified by a nobler justification(eg. it’s spiritually more valuable to do it for society than oneself) or a logical justification(it causes performance anxiety thus lowering your chances of success..because you are still ‘attached’ to the result).

Now do you still want to worry? Go ahead!! That’s your choice too. But its pointless. It will cause suffering. That’s all. If you realize you have no choice in the result, you cannot be attached to it. It’s a truth, not a moral opinion.

So then the question is NOT “What SHOULD we do then to eliminate suffering?”(seeking a path to a result) but more about “WHY do we keep doing this if it brings us suffering?”(seeking understanding, truth)

Quest for liberation
Yes, it is done for yourself. 
At the beginning. And yes, that is very much “selfish” in colloquial terms. Because it is done for relieving the suffering of yourself….YOUR ‘self’. At that point, your contradiction(that you have raised in your question) is very much true!!
But as you keep trudging the path looking for truths rather than commandments/arguments, you slowly 
realize that the problem does not lie in the ‘suffering’ – but in the ‘self’ who suffers. Being selfish is not ‘wrong’, it’s simply being ‘ignorant’.

Being ‘Selfless’ is not something you BECOME by earning Karma points and performing your ‘duties for greater good’. It is a REALIZATION that the so called ‘self’ you talk about is just a concept, an illusion. There is no ‘self’ really. Then how CAN you suffer, even if you WANT to? And even if you do, how can you take it too seriously?

Moving towards real transformation through ‘Self understanding’ rather than ‘Adopting nobler beliefs’
So I cannot tell somebody that they ‘SHOULD not be attached to results’ or to ‘BE selfless’ and ‘DO selfless acts’ or . Its not wrong. It’s silly. But if they 
realize they do not have a choice in the results, then they cannot be attached to the results any more. If they further ask ‘But why do we still worry?’ and realize that the ‘self’ seems to be the problem here, then they cannot keep seeking outwards any more, and turn their gaze inwards. The ‘real’ quest starts. If they further REALIZE there is actually no individual ‘self’, then their acts automatically become selfless. They see that this illusory self acts….but they know that it is illusory. THAT knowledge makes the action selfless. Saying ‘Selfless action will liberate me’ is like a 5 year old boy saying ‘Shaving will make me an adult’

In short:

  1. Why do we suffer? Because we are attached to the results.
  2. Why are we attached to the results? Because we think a) It’s subject to our choice b) They make us ‘happy’.
  3. Why do we act so irrationally? Because we forget results are not in our control, that happiness or sadness does not come from the things outside, and that there is no ‘self’ to suffer in the first place!
  4. Why do we not realize this? Because we never start to question our assumptions in point #2. We have identified with the ‘self’. We think it’s real. What we often call ‘seeking’ is ‘seeking what we think is ‘higher/better’(financially, socially, spiritually – as per our conditioning)’ and not ‘seeking the absolute/naked truth(regardless of its ‘level’)’.

So it’s OK to desire self liberation – not morally, but naturally! To relieve us from suffering But expecting and being attached to the results is silly. Keeps us stuck in suffering. Impedes us from progress. If our attachments are being proven illusory – Will we choose to be right or happy? 

If we choose the latter, as we progress, our understanding of the ‘self’ itself changes. Your chains drop. Liberation becomes inevitable. When the concept of the ‘self’ drops, your actions become selfless. Then of course your priorities, your approach, your values change and your decisions might change too! But that’s a side effect, not the cause.

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