Coveted practice of ‘Nishkam Karma’: Prospects for post-COVID-19

Monday, 18 May 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Clinging on to power without giving up has become a phenomenon in political, business and other spheres creating much distress to many. What is far more enriching is to do what you can do wherever you can to whoever is in need with least expectations in return


The phased relaxing of the lockdown has begun. The silver lining in the dark cloud of a COVID-19 has started to emerge. The new way of behaving with physical distancing is slowly becoming the order. Whilst all these happen on the surface, the inner transformation in us is much required as an insight emanated from the lockdown. It is the shift towards ‘letting go’, in consciously moving from ‘ego’ to ‘eco’. Today’s column is not about COVID-19 updates but a coveted awakening required among all of us. It is about a delicate balancing of two Es, namely, being ‘ethical’ and ‘effective’. 

Ethics in post-COVID-19 pandemic

Ethics is difficult to define in a precise way. In a general sense, ethics is the code of moral principles and values that governs the behaviours of a person or a group with respect to what is right or what is wrong. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, says the golden rule of ethics. Post-COVID-19 pandemic will be a testing time for ethics where the balancing of employer expectations and employee aspirations will be extremely challenging. 

Focusing more on business ethics, it is the capacity to reflect on values in the corporate decision-making process, to determine how these values and decisions affect various stakeholder groups, and to establish how managers can use these observations in a day-to-day company management. A code of ethics is a formal statement that acts as a guide for making decisions and acting within an organisation. Richard Daft, a well-known management author speaks of a four-way test, which is globally advocated by Rotary International. 

1. Is the decision truthful?

2. Is it fair to all concerned?

3. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

4. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

The answer should be ‘yes’ to all above questions, in order for the decision to be ethical. The reality of being ethical is that the response should always be ‘digital’. Either you are ethical or unethical, and there is no half way. The challenge in this respect is to engage employees whilst ensuring that they are guided to be ethical and effective. 

In search for an enduring response to the dire need to be ethical and effective, the twin terms, Nishkam Karma and Sakam Karma makes much sense. These terms were introduced to the management circles by Chakraborty, a management researcher from Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIMB). 

Nishkam Karma

Nishkam Karma is a term derived from the revered Hindu text, Bhagawad Gita. It literally means detached involvement. Performing work, accepted on the basis of agreed remuneration, with little calculation or comparison with others, or concern for additional personal recognition, gain or reward during or completion of the work. A verse in Bhagavad Gita enunciates the principle of Nishkam Karma as: “Thou hast a right to action, but only to action, never to its fruits; let not the fruits of thy works be thy motive, neither let there be in thee any attachment in inactivity.”

Nishkam Karma can also be described as self-less or desire-less action, which is performed without any expectation of fruits or results. This is the central tenet of Karma Yoga path to Liberation, according to Hindu texts. Now it has found place not just in business management, management studies but also in promoting better business ethics as well. Its modern advocates press upon achieving success following the principles of Yoga, and stepping beyond personal goals and agendas while pursuing any action over greater good, which has become well-known since it is the central message of the Bhagavad Gita.

In Indian philosophy, action or Karma has been divided into three categories, according to their intrinsic qualities or gunas. Here Nishkam Karma belongs to the first category, the Satvik (pure) or actions which add to calmness; the Sakam Karma (self-centred action) comes in the second rājasika (aggression) and Akarma (in-action) comes under the third, tāmasika which correlates to darkness or inertia.

I came across a text titled, ‘summer showers in Brindavan’ which further upholds the virtues of Nishkam Karma. 

“Man can be described as a conglomeration of thoughts and ideas. Every little thought becomes an integral part of his life. The quality of feelings one has, determines his future. Therefore, he must install sacred ideas in his heart. The fostering of pure thoughts will promote the spirit of selfless service in our hearts. Nishkama karma uproots the bestiality in man and confers divinity on him. Selfless service is a more exalted means of spiritual progress than such other ways as meditation, bhajan and yoga. This is so because when we undertake meditation, japa, or yoga, we do so for our own benefit and not for the good of others. These are aimed at subjugating one’s individual desires and securing happiness for oneself. What we should aspire for is the attainment of the good of others without any desire for personal gain.”

Sakam Karma as the opposite

The opposite of Nishkam Karma is termed as Sakam Karma meaning attached involvement. As Chakraborty elaborates, it means performing work, accepted on the basis of agreed remuneration, with anxious comparative calculation vis-à-vis others, for additional personal recognition, gain or reward during or on completion of the work. 

Commenting on the Indian scenario, he states the following: “The 1980s have been often described as the ‘greedy decade’. A similar phenomenon began in India in 1990s, initiated by the stock-exchange-banking mega scam. Several highly ranked chairmen and CEOs of companies, chief justices, vice chancellors, chairmen of State Public Service Commissions, senior bureaucrats and other important public figures came under a cloud, having been involved in unethical practices.” 

It by no way means one has to leave the worldly affairs in becoming an ascetic. As Sri Aurobindo aptly pointed out, “action done with Nishkam Karma is not only the highest, but the wisest, the most potent and efficient even for the affairs of the world”. A desirable scenario would be to see the engaged employees becoming detached, yet continuing to be involved. A simple example could be, a bank manager devoting himself/herself for the achievement of the given objectives, in a whole-hearted manner, without thinking of what one would get in return. The opposite of this will be another manager working hard on a personal agenda, aspiring to get the next promotion early. 

Comparing the two involvements 

The differences between Nishkam Karma and Sakam Karma is shown in the table 1. As it clearly depicts, what we see is a clear comparison between ‘green’ vs. ‘greed’. 

Detachedness reduces greed and increases your tendency to be ‘green’. It means having a greater consciousness towards the nature. It conserves your psychological energy by reducing backbiting, undercutting, tale-carrying and other negative behaviours prevalent in a typical workplace. As perfection is the aim, managers can gear themselves for continuous improvement rather than narrowly focusing on winning always in any manner. COVID-19 pandemic has amply shown us the impermanency of life and the folly of fighting for things that we could carry beyond death. 

There is a French saying that you should know when to leave a party. I have seen many managers struggle to give up their authority and associated perks. Seeing your successor taking your job to a greater height is somewhat difficult to some of us. Training the ones with potential, developing one’s successor or sharing one’s experiential knowledge with youngsters are the actions some are reluctant to do. They all boil down to attachment. 

The acid test here is the ability to be ‘detached’ yet getting involved. The much-published statement by former US president John F. Kennedy goes as “ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do to the country”. Such an approach is very much relevant to a wide variety of institutions, in order to build employees who are ethical and effective. It resonates the needed rationale when the ramblings of the general election are looming large. 

Way forward 

As we often observe, post-COVID-19 pandemic requires people-centric leaders. They need to demonstrate the balancing of being ethical and effective. In essence, the authentic leaders have to demonstrate more Nishkam Karma than Sakam Karma in their words and deeds. What is being demonstrated by the healthcare workers with the fitting support of the military and other officials in battling COVID-19 is a vibrant demonstration of Nishkam Karma. 

“Root of suffering is attachment”, so said Buddha. The concept of Nishkam Karma, in my view, is much relevant and applicable to Sri Lankan leaders in all walks of life with its refreshing invitation. Clinging on to power without giving up has become a phenomenon in political, business and other spheres creating much distress to many. What is far more enriching is to do what you can do wherever you can to whoever is in need with least expectations in return. 

It is worthwhile to reflect the relevance of ‘detached involvement’ without diluting the much-needed commitment to rebuild the ailing economy as a happy and healthy nation. That is the coveted process needed in navigating towards post-COVID-19 prosperity. 

(The writer can be reached through [email protected], [email protected] or

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