Complete and Incomplete Action

by CT on June 9, 2014

When reading the Bhagavad Gita, among the teachings on human action we find a lesson which could not be more contrary to “common sense” as it is conceived today:

“The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results.” (Bhagavad Gita,  45 –  translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, 1972)

A translation into Spanish may help here for the sake of comparison:

“El mundo está aprisionado en su propia actividad, salvo cuando los actos se cumplen como culto de Dios. Debes pues realizar sacramentalmente cada uno de tus actos y quedar libre de todo apego a los resultados.” – quoted by Aldous Huxley, “La Filosofía Perenne”  – translation by C. A. Jordana, 1999.

A conventional reading may emphasise the religious aspect of this text, i.e. the reverential and ritual modality, under which actions could be “dedicated” to god or the gods. In this sense, the lack of attachment to the results–as required by the Gita–, could be assimilated to a form of renouncement and distancing from the world, or to a “lack of interest” in the benefits or advantages that action may bring to the individual.  Renouncement and disinterested action are after all part of religious institutions in the East and the West.

That wouldn’t be necessarily a wrong interpretation, but there are others. A different approach could be, for example, to assume that the Gita is saying that the “results” are not important per se, but only the sacramental attitude of the actor (the individual). In this sense some people would assert that the Gita is not only demanding “lack of interest” in any advantage or benefit, but actually preaching some form of “indifference” towards the results.

This could then be seen as a call to withhold judgement about the results, which could then be “good” or “bad” in moral terms

Again this would be a valid reading, albeit tinged by a “modern” form of cynicism which probably was very far from the thoughts reflected in these scriptures. Huxley alerted against such a reading by suggesting that the Pali text could not be seen as a justification of cruelty or violence.

A third reading which is is also possible assumes that the ancient text recommended “lack of purpose” i.e. the delivery of actions without a particular objective or direction– but it is evident that the Gita is actually calling for a “higher” purpose in action, a dedication to the divine and not the absence of intention.

Beyond these interpretations, I think that the statement quoted above should be read as an invocation to pursue “Complete Action.”

By Complete Action I mean a consequent flow, articulation and linkage  of purpose with action. In this sense, the call for sacramental action does not need to be understood as “ritualistic dedication” to god or the gods, but  as a demand of action which is not focused on the “material” or “objective” end of human activity, but keeps a full connection with the “instrumental,” the  “subjective” and the “personal” modalities.

Action focused on the “objective” would be perhaps effective, but meaningless. Action limited to the “instrumental” and “objective” modes would be purely technological. Action comprised of the “subjective,” the “instrumental” and the “objective” would be subsumed within consensual belief.  And only action which fully combined the “personal” (the contextual value of the human person as an autonomous being), with the other three aspects or modes of being would be “sacramental, or, better: it could be called “sacramental” because it would be complete.

The proposed reading incorporates elements of alternative interpretations  (mentioned above); for example, in a complete articulation of action we could still say that there is no “attachment” to the results– not in the sense that the results are not desired, but as a consequence of the fact that “results” without the complete frame of the Person, the Subject, the Agent and the Object are undesirable.

Equally so, within the norms of Complete Action we could speak of “sacramental” dedication—not as ritual or institutional practice, but as commitment to completeness, and in some cases perhaps as a poor imitation of the completeness people subjectively expect from “divine” action.

Even the questionable and cynical reading of the text (the one that would be “indifferent” to the moral quality of the results) may have a role to play in the formula I am proposing here: after all, no matter how “indifferent” to the moral quality of the results, fully articulated action, “sacramental” in the sense indicated, may not produce morally erroneous results for the simple reason that it would be strongly anchored not only on the particular Person but also on the universal Subject (i.e. the social-subjective mediations) and hence would correspond to the moral and religious context of a specific period.

A consequence of this understanding is that error and deviation, misery and cruelty arise always from Incomplete Action.

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