It is the nature of man to seek unity. To seek that which underlies the apparently known. I like to connect all my experiences. Weave them into a thread of meaning that could not have existed without me. That is how I know myself. We are all here to learn from each other.

A few things happened recently. I went to watch a production of Charandas Chor performed by the actors of the Naya Theatre of Bhopal, the company that was founded by the late Habib Tanvir. Then, I read about an organization that is promoting the arts as an agent of social change. Finally, I have started a project that aims to map a path through the collective shared memory of our generation. It is regarding this last that I started to watch an old Mahabharat episode on YouTube. I heard the familiar opening recitation of a Sanskrit shloka. I have heard it at least a thousand times in my life, because not only did I watch the Mahabharat every week when I was growing up, my flatmates and I in graduate school watched the whole thing again on laptops. Having heard the opening shloka a thousand times, today I realized that I did not know what it meant. This is a sign of our times folks. It is not too late to make amends so I Googled the meaning. It is the 47th verse of the second chapter of the Bhagvad Gita. I will reproduce it here in transliteration.

Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani

The meaning of the verse is—

You have the right to work only but never to its fruits.
Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.[1]


My heart was stilled by the beauty and profundity of the verse. I had to read it again and again. Why is this the opening verse of the 12 year epic series that captivated the imagination of an entire generation of Indians? More importantly, why do we not see it in their actions. Why has it not altered the history of the nation? Instead, the history of the nation is being made by what came later in the telecast. The display of macho strength, patriarchy, war-mongering, revenge, chest-thumping commentaries about the “naari’s sammaan” and the “kul ki maryada.”

Now, what does this have to do with the play I watched and with arts for social change? The play was performed by actors that have come out of the folk tradition in Chatthisgarh. These actors live in villages and small towns and while they are very experienced their cultural attitude is one of service and not performance. I don’t know them personally. I am not making a comment about their goodness as people etc. But it appears that when they are on stage, they work to serve the story. This means that they perform the actions required by the script whether or not they are feeling “personally inspired” in the moment or not. If the script requires them to laugh, they laugh, if it requires them to do a little jig, they do a little jig. They seem to be unconcerned by the result. The story flows merrily along with little or no anxiety shown by the performers. This is in sharp contrast to the modern, urban actor.
This person worries endlessly about how they are coming off. Their performance is riddled with anxiety about being “fake” or “not convincing.” The moment you attach yourself to “convincing” someone you have become attached to the result, you have lost the wisdom of the 47th verse of the second chapter of the Bhagvad Gita. You suffer from the delusion that you can somehow control the audience. You have become, if I am to indulge an exaggeration, a tyrant. It is a quality of scriptural text that it anticipates your questions and doubts. The next question in this case is, well, if we don’t have any control over the fruits of our actions, then why do the action at all? Well, first, because it is not your right to be attached to the fruit of your actions. It is your right only, to work. And further, do not become depressed and then attach yourself to inaction. In this second line, there is hope. We are being told implicitly, that there is virtue in this. It is good for us to keep working. That, that is the way. But the difficulty of our generation is that we don’t like to be told anything. We view it with doubt. We think it is an attempt to control us because we are so fearful. We do not trust that things may be told to us because they are good for us. And if we do allow ourselves to listen then we demand proofs and evidence and references. We are so blinded by the morality of scientific thought that we cannot trust our own hearts, intellects and bodies to be the vessels of experimentation with the truth. We have externalized completely, outsourced rather, the discovery of the purpose of life. We look for the meaning of the world in the world even though we know fully well that meaning is more subtle than what appears to us at the surface. It is no surprise that the theatrical and film world is blighted by depression, loneliness, insignificance all of it fueled by the delusion that somehow it is we who are the agents of transformation in the world.
“It feels fake. “
– The disgruntled actor.
This links us to the arts for social change agenda. It is a powerful idea, I think. The idea, broadly speaking, is to sensitize and expose people to techniques that help them to uncover the truth and meaning beyond surface appearances. In other words, to help them connect to their innate urge to find unity. The difficulty though, is compounded. The organization that runs the programs are sometimes headed by people who themselves are severely attached to the outcomes, the fruits. NGOs, while claiming to represent a counterpoint to the corporate rat-race, run their employees into the ground. Deadlines, fund-raising madness, field visits all in the service of good intentions. They do not take to heart the command of the Bhagvad Gita, that your right is only to work. You have no right to the fruit. So, to perform the duties is your only task. You must perform them efficiently, regularly and with all of your creativity and intelligence at work and attach not at all to the outcomes. When attachment does occur, you remind yourself of what you have been told. Here also, we run into the difficulty that no one likes to be told anything any more. Everyone knows far too much already. So, a creative, well-meaning, well-educated, passionate and sincere person is run into depression and anxiety by their own god-complex. That somehow, WE or I will make a difference. So the question we must ask is, if we have no right over the fruit of our labors, then who does? Who is it all for?
I want to make a difference.
 – Well meaning NGO worker.
In the Islamic tradition, the belief is that the purpose of man is to follow the command of Allah SWT. That all actions, all affection is directed toward Him. And further, that true, change and transformation is only possible through the power and will of Allah SWT. In Arabic, it is:
hawla wa lā quwwata illā bi Allāh

“The phrase may be translated word-by-word as:

lā = no, not, none, neither
hawla = change, alteration, transformation, movement, motion
wa = and
lā = no, not, none, neither
quwwata = strength, power, potency, force, might, vigor
illā = but, except, if not
bi = with, to, for, in, through, by means of
Allāh = Arabic name for the Supreme Being

Progress is only achieved through change and transformation… and spiritual progress requires the highest degree of change and transformation. We may wish to change, but we alone do not have the power to make such changes. Such change and transformation can only occur through the tahwīl (transformation) of Allāh. That is to say, true change and transformation can arise only through the awesome and glorious powers of Allāh.” [3]

The meaning of this bears great consequence in our lives. What is being said is that we cannot even change ourselves! Without the will and of Allah SWT who has control and dominion over all things. So, we must never expect to be able to change the world without His help. And to seek His help, we must remember Him. Dhikr, the Arabic word for the rememberance of Allah SWT. A highly recommended practice in the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
It is in the nature of man to become attached to what he strives for, whether it be personal transformation or the transformation of society. This attachment causes frustration. But this attachment is a delusion, a flight from our purpose, which is to act without concern for the result. On stage and in life. The way out of this attachment is dhikr, remembrance. To remind ourselves, of the message brought to us by the noble Bhagvad Gita and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). That change and transformation are not caused by us. But to those who false arrogate to themselves the powers of change and transformation, those who are now laughably investigating “social engineering,” this is a message of despair. That we don’t control anything. But for those who can humble themselves before Allah SWT, who can find it in themselves to obey, for them this is humility. This is mercy, mercy for ourselves. That we can take ourselves off the hook. That we can believe in the justice of Allah SWT, which is perfect. That when we strive in His cause, when we perform the actions He has ordered us to, He will reward us in this life and in the Hereafter.
So the next time the self becomes too much on to you, repeat the shloka, repeat the words of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), take them to heart and be gentle with yourself. Inshallah, you will find yourself endowed with strength and vitality and then you can continue on your quest without fear.
It is beyond the shadow of doubt that I am a fallible man who possesses but partial wisdom so may Allah SWT forgive me my errors of judgment. For indeed, Allah knows best. May His blessings be upon all of you.

  1. http://www.swamivivekanandaquotes.org/2014/05/bhagavad-gita-chapter-2-verse-47.html
  2. Mahabharat, Episode 49-54, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjELJsDOVtU
  3. Wahiduddin’s Web, https://wahiduddin.net/words/tahwil.htm


The Outside is the Inside

I recently heard a talk by the Dalai Lama where he talked about compassion and he said that every human being is no different from us in one way, that they want happiness and not pain. One way to bring a deep appreciation of this that I found effective is to try and experience what it is like to be this other person. Not developing a sense of pity or kindness through this empathy but just see what it is like to be this other person. What it is actually like in their daily lives. Their happiness, their frustrations, their constraints and more importantly, their guilt and anger. The quality of mind that is required for this is curious yet integrated, not a mind that is jumping outside of itself, as we will see this is not possible. Deepening this awareness of the the other has helped to realize that everyone truly does their best. Another way to say it is that they had no other choice. Another way to state the same thing is that their guilt and anger was the same as ours. Guilt and anger are exactly the same no matter in which consciousness they manifest. In this universality of affliction, we are all the same. This is what truly unites behind the facade of causality, separateness, intentions, identities and injustices. The sum total of their lives including their intentions and actions is complete in itself and they could not possibly stand outside of themselves, just as we cannot. If we try to stand outside ourselves, well then there we are, the outside is now the inside because we are there. In this way, every person is locked to their karma.

Saif Ali is an actor and writer based in San Francisco.