Monday, January 16, 2012

Detachment in the Bhagavad-Gita

“When he [, the virtuous person,] renounces all desires and acts without craving, possessiveness, or individuality, he finds peace.” Bhagavad-Gita 2:71

“Always perform with detachment any action you must do; performing action with detachment, one achieves supreme good.” Bhagavad-Gita 3:19

"If you cannot take to this practice, then engage yourself in the cultivation of knowledge. Better than knowledge, however, is meditation, and better than meditation is renunciation of the fruits of action, for by such renunciation one can attain peace of mind." 12:12

"Disinterested, pure, skilled, indifferent, untroubled, relinquishing all involvements, devoted to me, he is dear to me. He does not rejoice or hate, grieve or feel desire; relinquishing fortune and misfortune, the man of devotion is dear to me. Impartial to foe and friend, honor and contempt, cold and heat, joy and suffering, he is free from attachment. Neutral to blame and praise, silent, content with his fate, unsheltered, firm in thought, the man of devotion is dear to me. Even more dear to me are devotees who cherish this elixir of sacred duty as I have taught it, intent on me in their faith" 12: 16-20

*I’m writing this blog because, in many ways, I don’t get it.  Why is detachment and dispassion such a focus in Hindu and Buddhist teachings?  Raised in a Christian, Western culture I was told to believe the opposite.  The central mindset and call to action is to worship and love--two very emotional, attached actions.  As I’m currently reading through the Bhagavad-Gita I’m forced wrestle with what ‘detachment’ means and how it can be helpful to our every day lives.

Broadly and summarily, religion are sets of ideas that help us navigate life and reality as we understand it.  Some of the worst maelstroms in life to avoid are:
  • Regret/Guilt/Shame--negative feelings about the past
  • Disappointment/Anger**--negative feelings about the present
  • Fear/Dread--negative feelings about the future

Christianity and many other religions tend to deal with these emotions through doctrines on:

  • Forgiveness-- “What’s wrong has been dealt with.”
  • Providence/Predestination-- “It was meant to be.” “It will all work out.”

One way of looking at it is that Hinduism/Buddhism tends to take a much more personal role in dealing with negative emotions.  It isn’t God that is the one that will fix everything nor is reinterpretation of the problem. We must be separating ourselves from the cause of the pain--desire.  On some level we’ll always be disappointed by reality, however you can’t be disappointed if you never wanted anything in the first place.  This is the Eastern solution--don’t desire, be detached and you can’t be hurt.

In many ways, I’m resistant to this thinking.  I want to feel deeply.  I want to love.  I want to be attached.  And I should.  But, I also need to learn from the wisdom of the ancients.  There is truth and power in detachment by:

  • Realizing that emotions are both involuntary and a choice.  They’re a choice in so far as we have the ability to reinterpret and refocus our minds.
  • Gain perspective.  Are we going to care 10 minutes, 1 month, 1 year, 10 years down the line?  What would this situation look like from someone else’s perspective?  From an aliens?  From a deity’s?
  • Strive towards objectivity.  Our emotions aren’t reality.  They’re but one possible interpretation of reality.  
  • Pain and loss are inevitable. Life is in Buddhist terms 'dukkha', often translated as suffering. Everyone you love will die, your material wealth is transient, life is disappointing. Spiritual maturity is making a transition from the dependence on the ephemeral outside world for happiness--relationships, material wealth, comfort--to an unshakeable internal state of blessed felicity. That requires one to disconnect one's self on some level from the pain and disappointment of life to make it through.

It is interesting, though, that even in the very first verse above, and other context verses, might be paraphrased as something like, “Don’t feel because it feels good to not feel.”  Or, “Don’t desire anything...Except desiring to not desire.”

Now, I know I have much to learn about Eastern philosophy and I’m sure there are solid apologetic explanations of the above objections, but even without having figured it all out I know that practicing detachment from negative emotions has improved my life.  I shall continue and hope to both grow in understanding and in constitutional fortitude to be able to.

Your feedback is welcomed.

Online version of Bhagavad-Gita: 

*Please be fully aware that I’m a complete greenhorn concerning Eastern religions.
**Anger can be towards the past or future, too.

Post script:

Categories of things that one could be detached from, written to consider what contexts detachment might be helpful:

  • Relationships - As Shakespeare put it, "Tis better to have loved and lost [your mind through suffering a ridiculous amount of emotional pain and anguish] than to have never loved at all." Relationships are worth it. People are worth it. The pain is worth it. Don't detach.
  • Emotions - See above. What a shame and a loss if we can't fully experience all the fullness of the possible emotions that humans are capable. Tis a blessing even to sorrow. A friend, Sara, recently shared this quote with me by Antonio Porchia, "Man, when he does not grieve, hardly exists."
  • Reality - I'm going to go a head and say that life is better lived in reality. Perhaps that's debatable, but not for me (most of the time ha).
  • The experience of the moment - Detach from experiencing fully the moment? Living every breath? Every heart beat? Thought? Experience? NEVER!!
  • "Fruits of actions" - Much of what the Bhagavad-Gita refers to as needing to be detached from is the consequences of our actions. The author(s) are not the first I've heard this from. Bill Bright, a conservative Christian and founder of Campus Crusade for Christ put it like this, "Act in the power of the Holy Spirit and leave the results up to God." Things will not ever work out like we think they will. Those kinds of expectations are a sure fire recipe for disappointment. The Bhagavad-Gita advises us to not worry about that. Just worry about doing the right thing--our "sacred duty" or dharma. Beyond that things, by faith, just have a way of working out. :)
Perhaps the best summary (for me) is to be detached from expectations. Is there something you must have in order to be happy? Some thing? Some person? Some event? Then you're a slave to it. Detachment, of a certain kind, is freedom. If things go well, then all the more reason to be grateful and blessed. If they go poorly, how can we be disappointed if we had no expectation of how they'd go in the first place?

Post post script:

A Christian friend objected, "How is hope or faith different from expectations?" Where's the room for hope?  Must we be divorced from hope to not have any attachment to the fruit of actions?

Post post post script:

I like the word 'independence' better than 'detachment'.  It implies the ability to love and enjoy without being controlled and at the whim of life, which can be full of negativity and suffering.


  1. Ah. I remember this all too well. During my teacher training for yoga, this was a required text we had to read. I struggled. I still do.
    I knew vairagya (non-attachment) was what I didn't agree with. How could I call myself a yogi if i had this conflict? It's so deeply rooted in the science and philosophy of yoga.
    What was Lord Krishna thinking when he wrote this?
    Ok so I recently had a conversation about this because this isn't just the Bhagavad Gita, but other texts I've read within the past month have an all too similar taste. And these are modern texts. "Loving What Is" by Byron Katie (read it.. but it may piss you off) absolutely destroyed me. I was angry.. I had an all out brawl with this. Yet I kept being drawn to it. I figured it's what I get for being too damn attached. haha. Well this book-similar to the non-attachment idea hit hard the concepts of you can't hurt me only I can... Who would you be without a hurtful, jealous, insecure thought? How would that change how you love? Profound. Yes. I loved these thoughts. But i still can't wrap my brain around how others' actions shouldn't affect me, and if they do it's my problem. So then the only way to work through this would seem to be detached.
    I think being upset, confused, angry, offended about something is a great opportunity to go inside oneself. I discovered why I got so upset is because like Christianity, I felt I was being forced to believe something I didn't want or wasn't ready to believe. And even deeper, I was angered by the fact that this idea would make me an enabler putting up with shit that hurts because people can't hurt me.. only I can.
    It's been a grueling yet liberating discovery.
    Attachment in my definition can be seen just like anything else. There are 2 sides to this.
    Do i find attachment helpful in a relationship?
    I need the other person. Just like a newborn baby will die within a short period of time if they are not touched.
    Does my attachment bring me to my highest self or leave me stuck?
    Here is my example:
    I am attached to the love I have for my father. He is my father. I don't agree with him on many levels and he doesn't agree with me. I can not stop loving him (ive tried) but I can stop expecting or demanding him to believe I am right. So with that I detach. I am free to love him without the attachment of making him something he will never be.
    And boy does that bring me peace.
    It's just a word. I don't have to be intimidated or angry by it.
    This has spilled over into every area.
    The beauty of it all is we have a choice. There is nothing wrong with feeling deeply.. but where are those feelings leading us? Where do they come from?
    I struggle with depression. Ironic, I know. But i constantly need to keep my thoughts in check otherwise I get lost in them.
    Attachment or non-attachment, I take it even further. If we knew who we were, how would that change us?
    It's a great opportunity to remind ourselves of who we are.
    So then I don't have to figure out which side to be on. I am both.
    I am attached and sometimes I am detached. I am sad and sometimes I am happy.
    I eat meat and sometimes I don't.
    So for me, it lightens the load and dissipates the fear of a concept forcing me into another mold.

  2. Hey Meh! Glad to read that you're struggling with this on such a deep level. I can always count on you for that--never letting an opportunity to grow go unseized. I posted some further thoughts in the post script above. I think it's important to distinguish different kinds of detachment. Some are good. Some rob us from the richness and full flavor of life. I still have much to learn on this subject. I hope I can figure out how to figure it all out. :D

  3. ok! so i've been reading more and this came to my mind!
    check it..
    I think I've been confused. It makes sense why I was so worked up by this particular topic.
    Detachment does not mean indifference. It means surrender.
    When I surrender it isn't because I don't care, it's because i do.
    I care enough to know that there are things that can impede my growth and healing. If I am indifferent to those things and just seperate I don't address anything really. In fact, I am more attached.
    If I acknowledge these things without ignoring them, I am able to see them for what they are and then release.
    There is nothing like meditation. This has helped me a great deal.
    I was taught that when I meditate I need to acknowledge that those thoughts may enter in and when they do, invite them in, breathe it in, and then let them go with your exhalation.
    Your thoughts effect you at a cellular level. Its proven. We have the power to kill ourselves.
    We also have the power to heal.
    If you connect your breath with your body then your mind follows. It begins to surrender. A constant surrender just like a constant breath in and then out. We need it to live.
    So I am not angry about this particular topic anymore. I have a completely new perspective on detachment.

  4. That's a really interesting interpretation. So, by being less attached to, we'll say, the things of this world you are freer to become more attached to the goal of becoming the best person you can become. And you're able to achieve that by trusting that abstaining from indulgence or by following a spiritual practice like meditation will yield spiritual or personal growth benefits. Is that accurate? Attached to the goal of growth? Having faith that a spiritual practice, like meditation, will get you to your goal?

  5. Yes. I just now read your post script. I'm not very good with directions so i skipped right over it. That is an excellent question from your friend.
    Ani DiFranco says it best in her song "Splinter".
    Also, i have Christianity to thank for providing me some framework in this area. Henri Nouwen was a huge influence in my life. He always said "stand erect in your pain".
    That sorta paints a picture of detachment for me. Pain doesn't go away but you can still be fully present and grounded.

  6. Connected, but disconnected. Present but absent. Attached yet detached.

    Thanks for the song and author recommendation!!

  7. I don't know how, but ended up on this blog. I have myself struggled with questions like 'Who am I as a Hindu. What does it mean to be a Hindu?'. Luckily there is no such thing as Hinduism and my exploration lead to what is the central one line belief of this ancient philosophy - 'Relentless pursuit of truth' and secondly the more important one 'Everyone has to find its own truth'. Also as given in the Bhagvad Gita as Sri Krishna said 'I know you already know all these truth, but in the daily chaos of life you have forgotten it. So I am just refreshing your memory'.
    A simple psychologist will tell us the virtues of having this great ability to 'delay gratification'. The ability to concentrate on the job at hand rather than the obsession with the end result. Because the more you think about the end result the less likely you are to be able to competently do the job at hand. Therefore in Gita, the wise folks say 'Do not think about the fruit, but the thought of not wanting the fruit should not dissuade you from doing your task/Karma' You got to do what you got to do :). you can't run away from your Karma. The english dictionary has two separate words 'Uninterested' and 'Disinterested'. As any professional will tell you, you are expected to do your work with 'Disinterest' and not just being 'Uninterested'. Also, if I remember correctly I thought at one place Gita said 'You have to be attached and detached at the same time' :).

    If only it was so simple to reconcile....I guess its a life long journey to figure out ones own truth :).

  8. Wow. I find your idea of the difference between 'disinterest' and 'uninterest' very /interesting/! Can you elaborate? Would it be something like this: 'uninterest' is something like apathy and 'disinterest' is something like freedom from results, but not from obligation to do the right thing, enjoy life, and concentrate on being faithful in the process of living the holy life?

  9. I believe that Lord Krishna told Arjuna this when Arjuna was to fight a battle and on the opposite side, he had some love ones. Arjuna was thus, reluctant to fight the battle however not doing so would bring about horrible consequences.

    "These worlds would collapse if i did not perform action; I would create disorder in society, living beings would be destroyed. As the ignorant act with attachment to actions, Arjuna, so wise men should act with detachment to preserve the world" (Bhagavad Gita, Book 3)

    I hope the context help!

  10. thanks RoHini! It's a fascinating story! Part of me does not like the violence of the story, but another part of me understands that the story is about much more than war. It's about duty and doing the right thing regardless of consequences. At least, that's how I interpret it. Any other thoughts?

  11. The essence of the teachings of the Gita is similar to what Shakespeare wrote- "All the world is a stage". According to the philosophy, our life is predestined. We are mere actors on a stage set by a supreme power and are delivering dialogues pre- written by the same power. An important teaching of the philosophy is to shun our ego. We must not attach so much importance to our action so as to feel that it will lead to some substantial outcome- good or bad. When it comes to relationships, we should not be disappointed or hurt because equations will keep changing as said by Lord Krishna, "Change is the law of the Universe".

  12. Very well said, Kritika, and I love those quotes. :)

  13. Hmmm... I dont know why I landed up here... but maybe some purpose. So the idea of detachment is the core of both Hinduism & Buddhism and is the only way to attain Nirvana. Anyone who still has any kind of attachment to the human world can not not attain Nirvana (his/her soul can not be 100% free). There is concept of Maya in Hinduism, which describes human world as "illusion". The moment you choose to feel (even happiness) you will bound into the worldly affairs and with every feeling you will get deeper into it. The fact that feeling or attachment is a choice and one can give away shows that life can be lived peacefully in a parallel space. Every human has certain duties to perform (towards your parents, towards your children, spouse or work) basically your Karma. Hinduism says its your highest priority to perform these duties honestly (however, do not feel pride or honour or satisfaction that you did) it should be like breathing... you breath without even paying attention that you are breathing. To end it all there is a concept of Parmatma (Ultimate Soul). This is like a ball of energy and each soul is a part of it and the goal is to remerge into it, however if the soul still has attachment to the human life it can not do so and hence can not be truly free and the suffering of the soul goes on. If only it made any sense to you :P

  14. Highly informative and well written! Thank you anonymous friend!

  15. Detachment is to the fruit of the actions not to the very action itself! Most Hindus do not read properly and all these Gurus and Swamis wearing saffron robes think they are detached . They need to get their butts moving and get their hands dirty working. These people have hijacked the message of scripture. Do not ever trust them. Read it to yourself.
    Jesus Matthew 6-19 jesus says "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.". In Matthew 16:24 , Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

  16. So, do the right thing? Concentrate on living a holy, giving life and you'll in the process lose attachment to the things of this world? Is that how you see it?

  17. Here is the best translation of Bhagvadgeeta

  18. The word used by Buddha is 'tanha' which translates to craving and not desire. And detachment is not indifference. It is acting with knowledge that nothing is permanent.

    1. 'Craving' and 'impermanence' are both very helpful ways of framing what detachment is all about. Thanks so much for the comment! Great stuff!


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