Action Not Dependent on the Motive Force of Desire

It is a major axiom for the practitioner of Karma Yoga in particular that the seeker must loosen the attachment to the fruit of works and the impulsion of desire as the motive force of action. And while this is certainly true, Sri Aurobindo points out that the formulation is too simplistic in several ways. First, even in the ordinary life in the world, while desire is certainly a strong impeller to action, it does not constitute the entire mechanism of what drives an individual to carry out any particular work or action. “The major part of the work done in the universe is accomplished without any interference of desire; it proceeds by the calm necessity and spontaneous law of Nature. Even man constantly does work of various kinds by a spontaneous impulse, intuition, instinct or acts in obedience to a natural necessity and law of forces without either mental planning or the urge of a conscious vital volition or emotional desire. Often enough his act is contrary to his intention or his desire; it proceeds out of him in subjection to a need or compulsion, in submission to an impulse, in obedience to a force in him that pushes for self-expression or in conscious pursuance of a higher principle. Desire is an additional lure to which Nature has given a great part in the life of animated beings in order to produce a certain kind of rajasic action necessary for her intermediate ends; but it is not her sole or even her chief engine….It helps us to rise out of inertia, it contradicts many tamasic forces which would otherwise inhibit action.”

Understanding the partial role of desire, even for the ordinary actions of life, is a key to responding to the objection that arises in the practice of Karma Yoga that without desire there can be no call to action and thus, no “work to be done” by the advanced practitioner.

From the side of the practitioner who has systematically cultivated the yogic standpoint, action takes on a new motive force; namely, the carrying out of the action of the Divine. “Others are obliged to obey a personal choice or motive, but he has to learn to act with an impersonal or a universal mind or as a part or an instrument of an infinite Person. A calm indifference, a joyful impartiality or a blissful response to a divine Force, whatever its dictate, is the condition of his doing any effective work or undertaking any worth-while action. Not desire, not attachment must drive him, but a Will that stirs in a divine peace, a Knowledge that moves from the transcendent Light, a glad Impulse that is a force from the supreme Ananda.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 12, The Divine Work, pp. 254-255