Is the Karmayogin a Moral Saint?

In his book Hindu Ethics: A Philosophical Study (1998), Roy Perrett defends what he calls “Hindu ethics” against a range of contemporary western objections. In the second chapter of the book, entitled “Saints and the Supramoral,” Perrett develops an objection that is meant to parallel Susan Wolf’s objection to western moral saint ideals. Perrett’s version of the objection might be interpreted in a number of different ways. In this post, I offer what I take to be the most straightforward interpretation of the objection, and provide a supplemental argument for its central claim. I’d love to know what you think. Is the karmayogin subject to a version of Wolf’s objection to western moral saint ideals?

Susan Wolf (1982) argues that the moral saint’s single-minded pursuit of the general welfare precludes the pursuit of non-moral ends for their own sakes. Typically, the moral saint does not indulge in diversions, develop hobbies, cultivate close relationships, or pursue personal goals more generally, since such pursuits are usually not the best means to improving the general welfare. The moral saint might pursue a non-moral end if it improves the general welfare. Wolf’s example is the person who cultivates their golf game to secure a donation to Oxfam. Even in this case, however, the moral saint pursues the non-moral end only because it contributes to the general welfare. Such a person does not indulge in diversions, develop hobbies, cultivate close relationships, or pursue personal goals more generally for their own sakes. A life entirely devoid of every such pursuit might seem deficient.

Initially, Perrett develops the parallel objection in the context of the Bhagavadgītā. He says,

the moral ideal presented in the Gītā is to become a kind of saint. But the single-minded pursuit of such a goal would involve giving up too much of what makes a life worth living; even if we could achieve such a standard, to do so would be undesirable (27).

It makes some sense to assume that the moral ideal that Perrett has in mind here is the karmayogin – the person who continues to perform their obligations in virtue of their class and stage in life (varṇāśramadharma), but without desire. The most straightforward version of this objection simply counts the karmayogin as a moral saint, who single-mindedly pursues the general welfare.

Kṛṣṇa’s injunction to act for the sake of lokasaṃgraha alone (eva) (3.20) might seem to support this interpretation. The most common translation of lokasaṃgraha, after all, is ‘welfare of the world’. In his commentary to BG 3.25, Śaṅkara explains lokasaṃgraha in terms of parānugraha – the benefit (anugrahaḥ) of others (para) – and repeats the claim that the wise person pursues this goal alone. “The benefit (anugrahaḥ) of others (para) alone (eva) is to be done (kartavyaḥ).” The point seems to be that the karmayogin acts only for the sake of the welfare of others.

If the karmayogin acts only for the welfare of the world, however, then the karmayogin – like the ideal western moral saint – single-mindedly pursues the general welfare. And if the karmayogin single-mindedly pursues the general welfare, then presumably they do not pursue non-moral ends for their own sakes. If this is right, then the karmayogin does not indulge in diversions, develop hobbies, cultivate close relationships, or pursue personal goals more generally – at least not for their own sakes. If Wolf is right, then a life entirely devoid of every such pursuit is deficient.

One seemingly obvious reply to this objection notes that the karmayogin pursues lokasaṃgraha by performing their vaṇāśramadharma as a householder. The householder, however, remains embedded in a close-knit community that includes parents, spouse, children, and friends. They pursue a vocation. They have time to pursue hobbies, diversions, and other personal goals. If the karmayogin acts just as the householder does, then the karmayogin, too, indulges in diversions, develops hobbies, cultivates close relationships, and pursues personal goals more generally. This implies that the karmayogin is not precluded from pursuing non-moral ends.

As Wolf points out, however, the fact that the moral saint might pursue non-moral ends does not imply that they pursue non-moral ends for their own sakes. The moral saint pursues such things – if they do at all – only because they contribute to the further end of improving the general welfare. This point might be made in the context of the karmayogin by saying that the karmayogin indulges in diversions, develops hobbies, cultivates close relationships, and pursues personal goals more generally, but only because doing so contributes to lokasaṃgraha. This is what it means to pursue lokasaṃgraha alone. This implies that the karmayogin does not pursue non-moral ends for their own sakes. A life entirely devoid of every such pursuit might seem deficient.

About Chris Framarin

Chris Framarin is Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. He is the author of Hinduism and Environmental Ethics: Law, Literature, and Philosophy (Routledge 2014) and Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy (Routledge 2009).

5 thoughts on “Is the Karmayogin a Moral Saint?

  1. Thanks for the post on the parallel between the western concept of the moral saint with her single-minded pursuit of the ‘general welfare’ and of that of the karmayogin who in the pursuit of lokasamgraha, might engage in non moral ends but not for their own sake, but for furthering the end of the general welfare itself. The question arises at this juncture is the performance of the varnashrama dharma to be considered non moral ends, or not? According to surama dasgupta in the ‘Development of moral philosophy in india’ , Indian life has dualism embedded into it: the unchanging, eternal soul which mediates upon the true nature of the brahmana and the petty immanent self which is caught up in mundane complexities of material existence. Dharma, she avers, consists at least in the Mahabharata of both performing the varnashrama dharma and in the pursuit of loka Yatra( general good) even if the latter requires flouting of scriptural injunctions. In dasgupta, therefore, there is a clear distinction between varnashrama dharma and Lola Yatra: they are not necessarily synonymous. In your account on the other hand, the varnashrama dharma is itself a non moral end. The confusion therefore is whether the dualism of Hindu way of life treats performance of varnashrama dharma as a moral or a non moral end for general welfare?

  2. I suspect the karmayogin indeed is a moral saint of the sort Wolf is talking about – and that the ideal would be defended by a certain degree of bullet-biting, that we shouldn’t have diversions, and that for our own sakes. I think the point comes out a bit more clearly when we look at Buddhism and Jainism, where the ideal person is the monk – who is quite explicitly not supposed to have diversions. Because our personal concerns or diversions get us trapped in suffering. And I’ve always thought of the Gītā as advocating, basically, that one be a householder on the outside and a monk on the inside.

    Such an ideal is articulated in most Buddhist texts, at least. I think that Buddhists (especially householders) in practice tend to tacitly accept that there is more to life than the cessation of suffering (which I take to be a more defensible position overall). Spiro’s kammatic/nibbanic Buddhism distinction gets at some of this point.

  3. I imagine the notion of “karmayogin” that is being spoken of, in the context of the Gita, has to do with the idea that no karmic fruit accrues to actions done without passion. If not, then my further point is moot.
    Reading the Gita, in its historical context, offers the clearest clue to this apparent absurdity of nishkama karma – the Gita is attempting to craft a middle path that swings through the seemingly irreconcilable positions of efficient ritual action incumbent on all aryas (a Vedic position), versus that of moksha, seen as fully discharged karmic debt (perhaps a non-vedic idea after Bronkhorst et al). I believe Perrett makes a similar point in one of his introductory books on Indian philosophy (that I cannot now recall – and since I am not a professional philosopher, I can avoid the onerous task of looking it up).
    The further enterprise of defining such action and the actor that undertakes it seems to me fruitful as an exercise in philosophical speculation alone. I find it hard to believe that it was modeled on anything in the real world.

  4. Let’s look at the idea of Karmayogi holistically. The theme that religions & BG offer is to first fix our North; the goal & purpose of life; & the role of “work” ie our daily thoughts-actions, in helping us grow towards or away from the goal of life. So, in & thru our daily Earnings & Enjoying we need to remain on critical path of ethics & dharma, to Perfection.
    In our own way & pace this is what we’re all trying. We believe that life is a continuous journey & we get many lives to learn & try for highest. We fail & we try again. Problem comes when in this one life we try to sort out things. A householder alone creates wealth for society and looks after all. He has full liberty to enjoy & earn thru ethics. But schooling must establish us in dharma, not just the 3R’s of today

  5. Chris, great post! I’ve been thinking about karmayoga a lot lately, and I think that on the whole, your comments are spot on.

    So much of this involves just how much we want to pack into what a karmayogin is exactly. Here, as in your earlier work, you carefully focus on the question of motivation. To me, two things that are important that are also (i), the recognition that one’s own agency is in a way derivative and dependent, and (ii) the centrality of the metaphor of sacrifice for it.

    Let’s focus on ii.

    Pivoting from 3.9, which stresses that work that is yajñārtha is non-binding, we get a synopsis of sacrificial culture in 3.10-16. Here, what I take away is that there are virtues of sacrifice like gratitude, reciprocity, and humility, and all of these help perpetuate the world through the reciprocation of humans, gods, etc.

    While, indeed, the karmayogin is supposed to go beyond sacrifice for material goods, the culture of sacrifice is the bedrock of karmayoga, and this includes the virtues just listed. So, while one does transcend “dualities” by not investing in the outcomes of action, those things under fortune’s sway, one still does work with valor, gratitude, a deep sense of dependence, and in that sense is not so anti-worldly that there is no scope for the concerns of the moral saint.

    These are hastily written, but they are programmatic ideas I have that speak a little to your concern.

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