Hinduism and the Theory of Motivation

Hindu marriage

by Jayaram V

Motivation is what drives or inspires people to perform specific actions or indulge in specific behaviors and attitudes to achieve or gain something. It may arise either from an inherent condition or an external situation. Motivated behavior gives you a sense of purpose and direction in life. It keeps you engaged in tasks that seem to enhance your value, status, esteem, or self-worth. Motivation also makes life purposeful and fulfilling.

Your actions speak louder than your words. You may hide your motives and true intentions behind a clever set of words and covert behavior, but your actions and emotion can betray them in a flash to a keen observer. If you want to know people and their true agendas, you have to examine not only what they say and do but also why they do it.

Since motivation is the main driving force if you want to truly understand people, you must discern their true motives and hidden agendas to know why they engage in certain behaviors, habits, and attitudes, prefer certain things, or become stuck in certain thoughts, beliefs, and behavioral patterns. You succeed in doing it only when you have a clear mind (buddhi) that is free from desires and passions.

People differ in their motivation. What you consider trivial may be a life mission for someone else, and what you hold in esteem may be held in contempt by others. Such individual differences arise in people because of the differences in their perceptions and motivation.

If you want to understand motivation, you need to understand its main source. You have to know from where it is coming, and how it is shaping your life and behavior. You have to examine the various influences that impressed upon your mind and left their own marks. It is a tedious process, but it is worth trying because it can help you to disengage yourself from negativity and self-defeating behavior.

If you rationalize your actions or live in self-denial, you will not be able to know the forces that are at work in your life. It will prevent you from clearly knowing the truths about yourself or perceiving the world. If you are honest to yourself, you have a better chance to penetrate through the veil of your self-induced illusions and see yourself as in a mirror. Then you will understand the forces behind your actions and behavior, and the destiny they are creating for you. By knowing the motives behind your actions you can also unmask your hidden motives and behavior, and improve your thinking and actions.

Modern theories of motivation

In the last two centuries many modern theories of motivation emerged in response to the growing problem of employee unrest and dissatisfaction with working conditions and to know how to make work seem less strenuous, more rewarding and fulfilling. Psychologists and behavior scientists from various backgrounds tried to identify the factors that contributed to job satisfaction and increased employee participation in promoting and achieving organizational goals and interests. In doing so, they focused upon the deeper causes that motivated human behavior based upon the understanding that human motivation was largely guided by unconscious factors. Another important feature of the motivation theories of modern psychology was that they focused mostly upon the physical and psychological needs of humans and their propensity to seek rewards and avoid punishment. Therefore, they prescribed material rewards such as monetary gain, status, authority, and good working conditions to encourage desired behavior and avoid the prospect of loss and suffering for its opposite.

Motivation from the perspective of Hinduism

While the modern theorists focused upon the physical and psychological aspects of human motivation, the ancient seers and philosophers of India approached it from a much broader perspective envisioning humans as role players in the play of God. As early as the Vedic times, the seers of India probed into human behavior to understand the forces that drove people to indulge in specific actions, behavior, goals, and attitudes, and their implications to human life, suffering and salvation. They identified the following four major motivating factors, which they believed satisfied the most basic needs of humans and contributed to their peace and prosperity as well as the orderly progression of the world and society.

  • Dharma (righteous actions)
  • Artha (wealth)
  • Kama (sexual desire)
  • Moksha (total freedom to be)

From this evidently the seers thought about not only the materialistic aspirations of humans but also their spiritual and ethical concerns, beliefs and values. They understood behavior as the play of karma, duality, desires, and modes of Nature. Their view of motivation is summarized in the following statements.

1. Life itself means movement and activity (chaitanyam). Beings cannot live without performing actions. No one can escape from them. It is the inviolable law of life that everyone has to perform actions to be alive and aware.

2. All actions are motivated by desires. Even gods are not free from them. The Vedas affirm that the worlds exist because of desire.

3. Beings are subject to desires because they are imperfect and incomplete. By seeking things through actions, they try to make up for their lack of perfections and completeness.

4. Only Isvara or Brahman (Supreme God) is not motivated by any desire or need to perform actions because he is complete and perfect in all respects. Still, he performs actions with indifference to keep the worlds going.

5. Desire-ridden actions (or motivated actions) are responsible for human suffering, karma, bondage, and rebirth.

6. As far as karma is concerned, both actions and inaction that arise from desires will have implications to the destiny of individuals.

7. Desires arise because of the continuous and repetitive interactions of the senses with the worldly objects. It results in attraction (raga) and aversion (dvesha) to the dualities (dvandas) of life, which in turn lead to attachments (or clinging) and desire-ridden actions.

8. Human desires, intentions, and motives may also arise from their past lives since dominant desires and habitual thoughts accompany the departing souls as latent impressions into their next birth.

9. Essentially, what causes karma is not action but the desire for the fruit of one's actions. Therefore, one should not renounce actions but the desire for their fruit or result.

10. One can escape from the bonds of karma and the problem of rebirth by renouncing selfish desires and motives in performing actions, and by living selflessly for the sake of God to manifest his will and divine qualities. God, the Creator, is the source of all actions. Hence, all actions should be rightfully offered to him in the sacrifice of life with the spirit renunciation. Only then the final liberation or complete freedom is possible.

Actions that lead to freedom and eternal life

Thus, unlike the proponents of modern secular theories of motivation which aimed to drive performance and productivity, the Indian philosophers approached the subject of motivation for different reasons. They advised people not to engage in selfish and profitable enterprise to benefit from the economics of prosperity and mass production, but to free themselves from any motivation to be selfish or self-centered. According to them human beings should disengage from the desire hidden in actions to ensure the order and regularity of the world and their spiritual Wellbeing. They should live without any personal or selfish motive because motivated actions were the cause of karma, suffering and rebirth. The best way to secure peace, prosperity, and happiness upon earth was by renouncing the very motivation to be selfish and expressing the will of God through dutiful, righteous living.

The Hindu theory of motivation is well explained in the Bhagavadgita and several other scriptures. According to them, the best motivation that does not bind people or delude them is that which arises from devotion to God rather than to material rewards. One should be motivated by the four major aims of human life that were listed before but in that process should remain God-centric rather than egocentric and selfish. Beings are subject to desires because they are incomplete and deficient in several respects, which drives them to engage in selfish actions to make themselves complete.

For example, gods cannot make food for themselves while they possess supernatural powers, humans cannot control their destinies or regulate their world without the help of gods while they have the power to nourish the world and the gods, and demons cannot overcome death without taking birth as humans and achieve salvation. Such deficiencies and weaknesses motivate beings to indulge in desire-ridden actions to seek things and help themselves. They trap the beings in their respective spheres of life and prevent them from being free. To be free, they must overcome the desire to seek things and must cultivate indifference, dispassion and detachment through renunciation. Thus, renunciation of selfish desires, drives and motives that are hidden in actions while pursuing the goals of life is the key aspect of the theory of motivation in Hinduism.

The scriptures want people to be free from motivated actions because they increase human suffering and lead to rebirth. The senses play an important role in creating attraction (raga) and aversion (dvesha) to the sense objects and worldly phenomena. Both motivate people to indulge in selfish and self-promoting actions and remain bound. When a person is freed from the very desire to be, to do, or to have, he is freed forever from death and rebirth.

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