I’ve been thinking a bit about the Bhagavad Gita recently–partly because I’ve been studying Sanskrit (as I mentioned in a previous post), and have been looking toward reading the Gita in the original Sanskrit, since I teach it so much and because it’s one of my favorite books. One passage in particular on a recent reading (which echoes a major theme of the Gita in general) struck me as not too different from something we find in the Analects (on certain interpretations):
2.47: (Barbara Stoler Miller trans.) “Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action; avoid attraction to the fruits and attachment to inaction!”
This strikes me as a Confucian point. One acts in certain ways (adhering with 禮 li, “ritual”, for the Confucian) out of a desire to see a thriving society, but this desire itself and the resulting actions are not wholly results-based, such that it is only the realization of a thriving society that leads the good Confucian to act. Rather, it is because it is central to being human to act in the manners prescribed by li, and thus anyone who adheres to li simply for the utilitarian goal of bringing about social harmony is missing something important about li and how we should pursue virtue. This, I take it, is the point behind Analects 14.38, in which a gatekeeper asks Zilu, on hearing the name of Confucius:
是知其不可而為之者輿？“Is this the one who knows that it can’t be done but still attempts it?”
We can assume that the ‘it’ here is the establishment of the dao, the creation of the thriving society Confucius aims at. As we see from the quote, however, if we take 14.38 seriously and not simply as a jab at Confucius (and I think we should take it seriously, otherwise why would the compilers of the Analects have included it?), it advocates Confucius’ dogged determination to reestablish the 先王之道 (the way of the sage kings), even while he knows, it suggests, that this is an impossible task. One interesting thing this does is to suggest an answer to Zhuangzi’s attack on the Confucians. Zhuangzi (and presumably others like him, such as the proto-Daoists in Analects 18.5-7) chides Confucius for wasting his energy engaging in the fool’s errand of trying to reestablish the way of the sage kings, not realizing that there is no way to bring back what has gone (see Jie Yu’s speech in Analects 18.5, duplicated in the Zhuangzi, for an example). Confucius’ answer in the Book 18 passages, as I’ve argued elsewhere (see this earlier post for more) suggests that being fully human requires that one make the attempt to bring about a thriving society–that the junzi does not adhere to li simply to bring about such a society, but to fulfill one’s potential as a human being.
This strikes me as very similar to what is advocated in the Gita. We should, Krishna instructs, avoid attachment to the consequences of our particular actions. We should not, then, act to bring about the thriving society simply in order to bring about the thriving society, but we should do it because it is our dharma (sacred duty), and performing actions in accord with our dharma (also understood as devotion of one’s actions to Krishna, as the “universal spirit”) perfects us as human beings–a perfection that the Gita understands as total freedom from existential suffering. Thus, even if we fail to achieve the results of our actions (if Arjuna fails to win the battle and the righteous war of the Pandavas is lost, or Confucius fails to establish the way of the sage kings), we have not failed in our central project–that of self-cultivation.
In the case of the Analects, this process of self-cultivation more explicitly involves the community and the conception of oneself as in some sense constituted by one’s place in the community, while in the Gita one’s social roles (fixed by caste) are not central to one’s identity as a person (or spiritual identity, if you will). Still, the two texts seem close to each other on the point of the exemplary person’s motivations.