“Anything done for personal sense gratification is a cause of bondage. The conclusion is that everyone should be engaged according to the particular mode of nature he has acquired, and he should decide to work only to serve the supreme cause of the Supreme Lord.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 18.47 Purport)
Question: I’ve heard it said that if you follow your occupational duties, your work doesn’t carry any sinful reactions. What does that mean exactly? Isn’t all work the same?
Prasadam is known as karma-free food. Karma is a Sanskrit word that means “work.” The more elaborate definition is any action taken that has a subsequent reaction related to the body. Elaborating further, the body is the material covering to the soul, which represents the identity of the individual. If I say that I see someone, it means that I see a spirit soul. Though the soul is finer than the subtle elements of mind, intelligence and ego, its presence can still be noticed. Just as we know that it is windy outside based on the movement of the trees, we know that soul is within our vicinity by the autonomous motions of the material covering known as the body.
The development of that body happens through karma. First there is the appearance. Time facilitates this with the event known as birth. Then there is subsequent growth, the release of byproducts, and eventual decay. Death is the end, the refreshing of the cycle, if you will. Death doesn’t have to wait for decay. It comes immediately after birth sometimes. In the modern age, the knife of death even comes at the child within the womb.
Prasadam is food that is free of the consequences to fruitive work. Does this mean that there won’t be any effect on health? If I eat pizza from a restaurant, isn’t that the same as cooking at home and offering it before a picture of the Supreme Personality of Godhead? The nature of the reaction is different. The physical makeup is no different and the health ramifications may be the same. But the difference is with the future development of the body. One side has karma, while the other is free of karma, i.e. there is no rebirth.
Work is the same way. If you follow your occupational duties, you are free from sinful reaction. An easy way to understand this is to see what happens to a soldier fighting for one’s nation. A soldier must kill. They do so reluctantly, but nevertheless with full vim and vigor. Killing is part of the job. If they don’t defend against aggressors, who will? It is easy to sit back in the comfort of one’s living room and pretend like the world is a safe place, but the reality on the outside is quite different. Aggressors are everywhere, and they are eager to make subjects out of the weaker, innocent members of the community.
The soldier does not get punished for killing, provided they follow the orders of the commanders in the military. A thief who kills, however, does get punished. The act is the same in both instances. One person ending the life of another. Yet the reaction within the society is different.
Work according to one’s occupation can be thought of in the same light. If you do your duty as a laborer, you aren’t implicated. The implication is known as sin, and the definition of sin is anything which continues rebirth. Thus even pious deeds can keep one implicated. The pious receive ascension to the heavenly region, but eventually they return to earth, where they must take birth again. Thus there is still a trace of sin. The work is considered pious, but there are implications.
If one follows their occupational duties with detachment, even if they do a poor job they are not negatively impacted. This is because they are following their nature. They are not driven by false ego into the occupation of someone else. Shri Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita that a person should not take on an occupational duty foreign to them, even if they can do it perfectly.
śreyān sva-dharmo viguṇaḥ
kurvan nāpnoti kilbiṣam
“It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly. Prescribed duties, according to one’s nature, are never affected by sinful reactions.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.47)
Prasadam is karma-free because the effort put into it is free of sinful desire. The work is what determines the nature of the outcome. The best course is to always work for the pleasure of the Supreme Lord. He is above karma, and so naturally any work done for Him would be above karma as well. The devotees go to the office, serve others, defend against aggressors, and perform priestly duties. They can be found in any occupation, but since they are always Krishna conscious, they do not develop any further karma. Regardless of the type of work they do, rebirth stops for the soul who is always conscious of God the person.
One from restaurant, other prasadam the name,
But is not food in each instance the same?
From the nature of work difference comes,
Rebirth when with sinful desire done.
Like soldier killing under higher orders went,
Absolved, not like thief who to prison sent.
Devotees of the Lord in any occupation to find,
Not implicated since keeping Krishna in mind.