The question of what works are to be done by the spiritual seeker is one that has been the focus of attention throughout human societies over time. The “materialist denial”, as Sri Aurobindo elsewhere frames it, denies that there is any other life, meaning or significance than the outer material life and we see therefore, from this viewpoint, an emphasis on works for individual enjoyment or aggrandisement through success in worldly life. Obviously, this approach to works does not answer the question for the seeker. On the other extreme of the spectrum we see the “refusal of the ascetic”, which renounces all outward action possible. There are varying extremes to this approach which, after all, cannot ever be one hundred percent effective as long as we live and breathe on the earth. Some will hold that an ascetic abandonment of all worldly aims, with just the practice of meditation, and basic needs of the bodily life, is the right approach. There are distinctions to be made between these two ultimately opposite formulations as well.
Neither the Gita nor Sri Aurobindo accept the two extreme formulations. The Gita’s emphasis on the inner renunciation as being the essential point allows a more liberal understanding of the nature of the “work to be done” than any formula based solely on external renunciation. “But the more liberal and comprehensive solution was evidently to continue the three most sattwic activities, sacrifice, giving and askesis. And these certainly are to be done, says the Gita, for they purify the wise. But more generally, and understanding these three things in their widest sense, it is the rightly regulated action…, that has to be done, action regulated by the Shastra, the science and art of right knowledge, right works, right living, or regulated by the essential nature, … or, finally and best of all, regulated by the will of the Divine within and above us. The last is the true and only action of the liberated man…. To renounce these works is not a right movement….”
There are various forms of renunciation of works, based on the influence once again of the three Gunas. For instance, “A renunciation with attachment to inaction…would be equally a tamasic withdrawal. And to give them up because they bring sorrow or are a trouble to the flesh and a weariness to the mind or in the feeling that all is vanity and vexation of spirit, is a rajasic renunciation and does not bring the high spiritual fruit….”
True liberation therefore must be able to take up all works needed in the world while inwardly renouncing the fruits of those works and any “self-regarding principle.”
Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 19, The Gunas, Mind and Works, pp. 478-479