Krishna reveals to Arjuna one of the major principles of Hinduism and Buddhism:
You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself—without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. (BG 2:47-48)
One of the major reasons for our suffering is that we live in an imaginary world of “deserving” and “undeserving,” or we have unfulfilled expectations for our hard work and suffering. The fact is, we just don’t have that much control over what happens to us.
Because we operate with the illusion of control, we often connect even our most virtuous actions to our self-interest: We expect thanks, or social approval, or some kind of cosmic benefit. You may have heard this poem by Kent Keith (sometimes attributed to Mother Theresa):
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
…The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
This reminds me of a parable Jesus tells in the Bible that is much neglected, because it offends our egalitarian sensibilities:
Would any of you say to your servant, who had just come in from the field after plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come! Sit down for dinner’? Wouldn’t you say instead, ‘Fix my dinner. Put on the clothes of a table servant and wait on me while I eat and drink. After that, you can eat and drink’? You won’t thank the servant because the servant did what you asked, will you? In the same way, when you have done everything required of you, you should say, ‘We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.’ (Luke 17:7-10).
We prefer the parables of Jesus where servants get a reward, like the Parable of the Talents, because we prefer a theology of deserving (even though I think we do not hear it the way Jesus’s audience would have). But life is not about earning reward.
Krishna is going to revisit the principle of non-attachment later, and we will dwell on it some more. But I want to lift this principle up here to help Christians understand karma. We tend to associate karma with Hinduism without similarly associating the principle of non-attachment. We hear all about reincarnation and polytheism and karma, because those are different from Christian doctrines. The idea of karma gets particularly skewed because we think of it in terms of poetic justice and schadenfreude (just Google videos of “instant karma”).
But karma is a teacher, not a judge. Humanity’s obsession with deserving is a trap. Non-attachment is the escape. And in Christianity, as long as we’re thinking of salvation as some kind of reward, we are stuck in the same trap. God—and the Kin-dom—don’t operate according to our notions of deserving.
Holy Advocate and Judge, free us from theologies of deserving, punishment, and reward.