The Sublimation Of Work

By Gautam Saha - 12.9 2023


Many a times, we wonder “what bit of good have I done today ?” After all, everything said and done, life is pretty mechanical and also largely material. We follow the same working routines day after day, year in and year out, in whatever profession or calling we have chosen for ourselves, or had been pushed into or drifted into by the compulsions of need, convenience, location, education, ambition, or just innate personal proclivities. At times, to break the monotony, we go to a movie, or to the club or wherever we hope to find some pleasureable moments. Some of us have developed hobbies or inclinations which find expression in creative endeavours. But after the break or the holiday, we are back to the grind, in a manner of speaking.

Does this kind of “mechanical life” satisfy us emotionally ? Do we feel fulfilled in entirety ? Does the attainment of personal material milestones really endows us with permanent happiness or just plain contentment ? Is man’s intricate constitution and construction ‘designed’ in a manner that just the fulfillment of his rudimentary or more sophisticated material needs provides him with lifelong happiness ? Is life only the sum total of eating, sleeping, mating and defending ? If that is indeed so, then perhaps we might take satisfaction from the fact that man, being a social animal, is much more sophisticated than the other animals and smaller or lesser beings with whom we share this planet, and that we, as representative of man, have managed to wrest a greater portion of the resources of this planet for our own welfare, comforts, lifestyle and ‘sophistication’. We might even be tempted to repeat what George Orwell said in ‘Animal Farm’ : “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”.

Some of us have been subconsciously or consciously involved in voluntary honorary service to our immediate communities, groups, clubs, NGOs, humans or other creatures in distress, whatever, in our quest to do what we perceive will give us greater personal and emotional satisfaction than what we might get if we just focused only on meeting our own personal milestones for material needs, by pursuing our own professional or business goals, for profit. This is sublimation, in which a person attains greater satisfaction in goals which go beyond himself and enjoins sympathetic consideration for others, charity, nobility of thought, and a broader vision which sees one’s true happiness in the fulfillment of aspirations which go beyond one’s personal ‘interests’. And it is this sublimation which leads man towards his ultimate happiness and contentment in this material life.

Let us see what the Srimad Bhagavad – Gita ( 18.37 to 39 ) says about happiness :
“That which in the beginning may be just like poison but at the end is just like nectar and which awakens one to self-realization is happiness in the mode of goodness ( satt gunn ).
That happiness which is derived from contact of the senses with their objects and which appears like nectar at first, but poison at the end, is of the nature of passion ( rajah gunn ).
And that happiness which is blind to self-realization, which is delusion from beginning to end and which arises from sleep, laziness and illusion is said to be of the nature of ignorance ( tamah gunn ).”

Happiness in tamah gunn or rajah gunn is fleeting and unsustainable, as it leads, by definition, to misery.


In his story “How much land does a man need ?”, the great Russian thinker and writer Leo Tolstoy has shown very poignantly that at the end of this life, a man needs a patch of land just 6 feet by 2 feet, where he can be put to rest. Even though such a statement could be considered by some as gauche or insensitive, it is very telling of our own realities and a reminder of the ‘final destination’ in this life, as well as an opportunity to question ourselves about our own dearly held assumptions and plans for the future.

The Srimad Bhagavad – Gita (18.05) states :
“Acts of sacrifice, charity and penance are not to be given up but should be performed. Indeed, sacrifice, charity and penance purify even the great souls”.

The process of sublimation involves ceasing one’s endeavours for personal gain and transforming the same endeavours to reach for a goal which entails a benefit to “others”, those who are less fortunate, less accomplished or lesser endowed than us.

The Srimad Bhagavad – Gita further states ( 18.11 and 12 ) :
“It is indeed impossible for an embodied being to give up all activities. Therefore it is said that he who renounces the fruits of action is one who has truly renounced.
For one who is not renounced, the threefold fruits of action – desirable, undesirable and mixed – accrue after death. But those who are in the renounced order of life have no such results to suffer or enjoy.”

Materially speaking thus, it is in our own interest to sublimate our activities and renounce the fruits of our endeavour, which clearly points the way to charity or charitable work. Lord Krishna states in the Srimad Bhagavad – Gita (16.10 and 11) :
“The demoniac, taking shelter of insatiable lust, pride and false prestige, and being thus illusioned, are always sworn to unclean work, attracted by the impermanent. They believe that to gratify the senses unto the end of life is the prime necessity of human civilization. Thus there is no end to their anxiety.”

While on the subject of sankhya yoga, (6.01 and 02), the Lord states :
“One who is unattached to the fruits of his work and who works as if he is obligated, is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic – not he who lights no fire and performs no work.
What is called renunciation is the same as yoga, or linking oneself with the Supreme, for no one can become a yogi unless he renounces the desire for sense gratification.”

Those uninitiated into the spiritual knowledge of the Srimad Bhagavad – Gita might consider Arjuna as a very gifted and talented warrior (like Bruce Lee or Dara Singh or an Indiana Jones of ancient times), who ‘killed’ so many enemies on the battlefield. But in reality, Arjuna was fighting for a cause beyond his own personal needs or wants. In fact he came into the battlefield very reluctantly and initially refused to pick up his weapons. His eventual entry into the battle was an act of yoga, which went beyond consideration of his own feelings or likings. To say that he was a warrior merely ‘fighting’ in the battlefield would be superfluous. He was a true yogi who was convinced by what Lord Krishna had stated in (18.7 to 9):
“Prescribed duties should never be renounced. If, by illusion, one gives up his prescribed duties, such renunciation is said to be in the mode of ignorance ( tamah gunn ).
Anyone who gives up prescribed duties as troublesome, or out of fear, is said to be in the mode of passion ( rajah gunn ). Such action never leads to the elevation of renunciation.
But he who performs his prescribed duty only because it ought to be done, and renounces all attachment to the fruit – his renunciation is of the nature of goodness ( satt gunn ), O Arjuna.”

Arjuna automatically becomes a role model for those amongst us who have certain cherished ideals, and have mountains of difficulties to overcome ( including the limitations of our own thinking ) before attaining significant breakthroughs or success.


One may ask, out of the multitude of individuals who do voluntary charitable work for a cause beyond the fulfillment of their own personal needs, what contribution can one individual make, that will make a significant difference to society, one’s country, etc. ? To use a cliché, it is the little drops of water which create a large body of water such as the ocean. Little by little, individual endeavour, when pursued with sincerity and commitment, creates giant systems and eventually transforms whole communities or countries ( which provides the satisfaction and happiness for which an individual volunteers his time, efforts, money, etc; ). When Professor Muhammad Yunus, of Chittagong University, initiated his research project for delivery of micro credit to the most backward sections of Bangladeshi society in 1976, namely widows and poor single women with children in tow, little did he realize then that the Grameen Bank, which he had founded, would become the role model and initiator of similar models in other developing countries such as India, and would transform Bangladesh’s rural landscape in such a way that would earn him a Nobel Prize in later years. His subsequent removal from the chairmanship of the bank was a sordid affair, which reminds us that while we should provide support and leadership, and should work hard to create and sustain organizations, when those organizations attain maturity, we should hand over and move on in renunciation, and not try to hold on, which in any case would not be an act of charity, and which would be the cause of our own subsequent unhappiness or anguish.

The whole idea is to practise charity for a worthy or noble cause and not for one’s self aggrandizement. According to the Srimad Bhagavad – Gita ( 17.20 to 22) :
“That gift which is given out of duty, at the proper time and place, to a worthy person, and without expectation of return, is considered to be charity in the mode of goodness ( satt gunn ).
But charity performed with the expectation of some return, or with a desire for fruitive results, or in a grudging mood, is said to be charity in the mode of passion ( rajah gunn ).
And charity performed at an improper place and time and given to unworthy persons without respect and with contempt, is charity in the mode of ignorance ( tamah gunn ).”

Hence the Srimad Bhagavad – Gita, the crown jewel of India’s spiritual wisdom, and spoken by Lord Krishna Himself, openly advocates and fully endorses charity in its noblest form ( in satt gunn ).

Gautam Saha