karmaṇy evādhikāras te mā phaleṣu kadācana mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te sańgo ‘stv akarmaṇi
You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.
There are three considerations here: prescribed duties, capricious work, and inaction. Prescribed duties are activities enjoined in terms of one’s acquired modes of material nature. Capricious work means actions without the sanction of authority, and inaction means not performing one’s prescribed duties. The Lord advised that Arjuna not be inactive, but that he perform his prescribed duty without being attached to the result. One who is attached to the result of his work is also the cause of the action. Thus he is the enjoyer or sufferer of the result of such actions.
As far as prescribed duties are concerned, they can be fitted into three subdivisions, namely routine work, emergency work and desired activities. Routine work performed as an obligation in terms of the scriptural injunctions, without desire for results, is action in the mode of goodness. Work with results becomes the cause of bondage; therefore such work is not auspicious. Everyone has his proprietary right in regard to prescribed duties, but should act without attachment to the result; such disinterested obligatory duties doubtlessly lead one to the path of liberation.
Arjuna was therefore advised by the Lord to fight as a matter of duty without attachment to the result. His nonparticipation in the battle is another side of attachment. Such attachment never leads one to the path of salvation. Any attachment, positive or negative, is cause for bondage. Inaction is sinful. Therefore, fighting as a matter of duty was the only auspicious path of salvation for Arjuna.
This shloka/couplet from The Gita has always intrigued me as it is very difficult to imagine working without being attached to results. So as and when I find a new explanation, I feel interested.
Yesterday while watching a TV channel, a lady explained this concept very nicely. She gave the example of her kid who had planted a sapling in their house garden. After some days, that kid came to her and asked- Why is the sapling not growing? She asked- Are you watering it daily, giving fertilizer and ensuring it gets sunlight. Kid said yes. She asked- how do you know it is getting right amount of air, water, light etc. The boy replied- Daily, I shake it vigorously to check if the roots are strong and solid. The lady explained this as an over-attachment/curiosity/concern about the results. The boy was so concerned with the results that he was unknowingly doing exact opposite of what he wanted. By disturbing the roots daily, he was hampering the growth of the sapling, which was not what he wanted. Lady explained how similar attachment impacts the results, and we get what we did not want. Another example she gave was the desire of a man to buy scooter for his family. He was always troubled and worried about arranging finances for buying the scooter. One day finally he bought a scooter, and was happy for a few days. But he realized that he needed a car for him and his family. Same worries and troubles came back. I was thinking how she will tell, desires never end and one desire comes after the other. She however had a different take. She said the happiness that came to him after buying the scooter was not resulting from possession of a scooter or fulfillment of his desire. Instead it was the absence of desire for those few days. Since he had bought scooter, he had no desire for some days, no attachment, so he was happy. Till another desire of buying a car occupied his mind.