How we can give our work meaning beyond the paycheck.

The hot, sweltering Dubai sun is raining fire. At temperatures close to 50˚ C (122˚ F), it takes more than a man to be out in the open. The cacophony of sounds from the grinding machines, the transformers, the air compressors, and the other equipment is jarring to the ear.

I am walking on the grounds of our fabrication yard, looking at offshore platforms at various stages of construction. Once completed, these gigantic structures will be placed onto barges, towed offshore, and installed in the sea with the help of huge floating cranes. Long pipes will be drilled through the platforms to great depths below the seabed to extract crude oil and gas from the bosom of the earth. This is man’s answer to satisfy his ever increasing need for energy. While carrying out this most challenging of enterprises, thousands of workmen, supervisors, and engineers work with great dedication, immaculate precision, and adequate caution.

Worker: Just an Economic Unit

I stop close to a welder welding together two pieces of steel. He is all covered up—helmet, gloves, welder’s goggles, face shield, and safety shoes. A cloth hides most of his face. As the steel turns red hot, drops of metal pour from the electrode and join the two pieces. White fumes rise, and the glare of the torch’s light is blinding to the naked eye.

The welder is an economic unit, and there are thousands of such economic units who turn bare pieces of metal into structures. These men are our workhorses. I turn to move, and he looks at me. I can’t see his eyes clearly, but something stirs in him and he smiles, a sad and tired smile. Maybe he understands what I’m thinking. Maybe not. But he has been born for this—working every day from morning till night. He probably doesn’t think about whether his life is meant for anything other than welding. Welding is all he knows. It brings him his money. He is happy that there is welding to be done and dreads the day when the work might cease.

He seems to have no choice. The smoke, the blinding spark, the heat, and the deafening noise that slowly and steadily rob him of his vitality are part of life. He and his colleagues seem completely conditioned by their work. And how much money do they make? Barely enough to survive another day.

The Meaning of Work

“Is work meant to be like this?” I ask myself.

To find an answer I turn to Srimad-Bhagavatam, the spotless Vedic literature that has an answer for every question that may concern us. I find a clear answer in the first chapter (1.2.8):

dharmah svanushthitah pumsam
vishvaksena-kathasu yah
notpadayed yadi ratim
shrama eva hi kevalam

“The occupational activities a man performs according to his own position are only so much useless labor if they do not provoke attraction for the message of the Personality of Godhead.” The venerable Suta Gosvami spoke this verse to a gathering of learned sages at Naimisharanya, on the banks of the river Ganges about five thousand years ago. Each of us performs work according to his position, Suta Gosvami tells us, but the work is just useless labor if it does not fulfill its main purpose: provoking our attraction to the message of the Lord.

God could have provided us with everything ready-made, but He gave us an opportunity to understand Him through our work. God is present in every atom of matter. Through our work we interact with nature, and thus we can know its workings. This should help us understand God, under whose direction nature works so perfectly. But because of our sinful tendencies, we like to exploit material nature and therefore can’t see the hand of Krishna in everything. Krishna works so wonderfully that He’s like an expert magician. He hides all that is there and makes us see things that are not there. This is maya, the Lord’s external energy, which keeps materially conditioned living beings in illusion. Krishna keeps us in illusion in response to our desire to enjoy in this world. Because we are spiritual beings, we can only “enjoy” this world while in illusion.

Work or action generally causes bondage to the material world according to the laws of karma. But when the same work is done as an offering to the Lord, it paves the way for ultimate freedom from material existence. This is karma-yoga, working and acting under the direction of the Supreme Lord for His satisfaction.

I see each worker engaged in making this gigantic platform according to his capabilities, but does his labor bring about an attraction to the message of the Lord? The workers probably have no knowledge of God. In absence of true knowledge, they may believe that God does not exist. Or they may believe that if He does exist, then He must be unkind. In His creation they have to labor hard just to subsist. Fortunately, by the great mercy of the Lord and His devotees, some of them may get enlightened about devotional service and become devotees. Only then can their hard labor bear the fruit for which it is truly intended.

Up on the Platform

I walk up the stairs of one of the platforms. It is a world in itself. I go on and around the various levels. Workmen are all over the place installing pieces of equipment and piping. Sparks fly, and in some places the noise is deafening. Workplaces are barricaded, and safety signs are everywhere. Engineers and inspectors minutely check on the work being carried out. There is no room for error.

The platform is full of all kinds and sizes of equipment that speak volumes of man’s ingenuity in harnessing nature and the great strides technology has taken. Every piece of machinery performs an important task, and everything is perfectly organized. A sense of fulfillment and achievement swells up in me as I see some of my designs working.

This platform will be able to produce millions of tons of oil and gas, allowing us to drive our cars, run our industries, and cook our food. Many people are being employed. A sense of satisfaction comes over me; all in all, the effort is worth it.

I climb the stairs to reach the top deck, walk to the edge of the platform, and look out on the blue sea. Alongside the quay lie anchored barges and vessels containing various structures and equipment. The soft splashing waves move them slowly up and down. The wind and the waves give a feeling of goodness. Seagulls soar above or float merrily on the sea. They chirp happily, oblivious of everything going on around them. The whole place appears so lively. Across the harbor, gantries load and unload containers from a ship at port.

I walk back and climb down the stairs. The scene is the same—people all over the place laboring hard to construct the platform, to make money. Some will make a lot, some a little. The company will calculate success in terms of profit. A strange feeling of uneasiness overcomes me. Is making money the only aim in life? What has been the purpose of my life? Building these offshore platforms?

For most of us, our jobs take away almost all our time and energy. We believe that our jobs provide us with our basic need for money, and they may also give us power and position. But is that all that life is for? Should we spend the rest of our lives working for temporary rewards?

The endless cycle of making money and spending it in sense gratification is unsatisfying to the soul. Each of us is essentially a spiritual soul encased in a material body; unless we satisfy the soul, we will not be happy. We see that even the most materially successful person is frustrated. The real meaning of life is athato brahma-jijnasa: one must inquire about the Absolute Truth.

Even from a worldly perspective we can see that work is unsatisfying because of systematic exploitation. Those who do the hard work are unlikely to enjoy the fruits; someone else will. Just as a man exploits another man and a country another country, maya exploits all souls in this world. The exploiter and the exploited are all stuck within the cycle of exploitation, the roles reversing with time. We need to get out of this cycle.

“There’s no point in working hard like asses,” I think. “The true success of work is to get delivered from it, not to get stuck in it.”

I keep walking down the stairs. My knees hurt—warning signals that time is running out for me; my body is aging. My most valuable instrument, the body, is wearing down. Some years back, I could go up and down the platform without fatigue or pain. A chill overcomes me. Then a question strikes me like lightning: “Is my life wasted?”

A Human Life Wasted

The words of the great sixteenth-century Bengali Vaishnava saint Narottama Dasa Thakura ring in my mind:

hari hari! vifale janama gonainu
manushya-janama paiya, radha-krishna na bhajiya,
janiya shuniya bisha khainu

“O Lord, I have simply wasted my life. Even though I obtained the human form of life, I did not worship Radha and Krishna. Thus I have knowingly drunk poison.”

I walk back toward my office, shutting my mind out from everything around me. I want to focus on my spiritual life. A sense of urgency overcomes me. Like a desperate man, I start to take stock of my devotional life. I ask myself: Is my chanting of the holy names good enough? Why am I not getting the real taste for chanting? Why is my chanting done as a routine chore, like any other activity? Why does my soul not cry out for the Lord? Why am I so attached to this humdrum life?

The Lord is willing to give us permanent residence in His spiritual abode. Only a fool will not be interested. I resolve to take devotional service more seriously.

As Kali-yuga, the present degraded age, expands, opportunities to chant the names of the Lord will diminish. Thanks to Srila Prabhupada, we have the chance now. Let us make the best use of this opportunity and not wait for another life. Who knows what kind of a body or in what situation we will find ourselves in our next life? Better to sacrifice everything in this life, become fully Krishna conscious, and go back home, back to Godhead.

The Principle of Yukta-vairagya

Srila Prabhupada and his predecessors exemplified and expounded on yukta-vairagya, the principle of making spiritual progress by engaging material things in the service of Krishna. Today’s Vaishnavas do not live in secluded places but prefer to live where they can preach the glories of the Lord. The topmost level of spiritual consciousness is developed not by dissociating oneself from the world but by using everything in the service of Krishna. True Krishna consciousness means working for the satisfaction of Krishna, not rejecting work. By engaging everything in the service of Krishna without personal desire, one can save oneself from material contamination and be situated on the transcendental plane.

By working efficiently on the material plane but not over-endeavoring, we can find invaluable time for devotional service. We can set aside a sizeable portion of our income and time to spread the unadulterated message of Krishna. We can chant the maha-mantra sincerely, avoiding all offenses, associate with the devotees, study the scriptures, remove all unnecessary entanglements from our life, follow the rules and regulations of a regulated life, and lead a life in harmony with nature. There is no need to change our jobs, but we need to change our consciousness.

I walk into my office, and a notice for another meeting pops up on my computer. I pick up my files and walk to the meeting, where everybody is smiling at the progress the company is making and the great job they are doing. I am unable to share their optimism and their sense of achievement and success. I feel lonely. I go through the proceedings mechanically. I am lost internally in my world, in the hopelessness of my insufficient spiritual life.

In the evening at home, as I sit in front of the altar, I pray to my Gaura-Nitai deities to help me in my spiritual life. I pray for the mercy of my spiritual master, who has shown me the path to the Lord. I thank all the devotees who introduced me to Krishna consciousness and because of whom I am still there. I am grateful for the wonderful institution ISKCON that Prabhupada founded and for how beautifully his disciples and followers are carrying on his work all over the world. For a sincere soul desiring to go back home, back to Godhead, our acharyas left a wealth of information and clear instructions on how to do that. We have only to follow them and not engage in mental speculation or unnecessary research.

I stand humbled, resolute to make an improvement in my devotional life. I also look back on so many other days when I had resolved to put more enthusiasm into my spiritual life but could not sustain it. After all life has its own way of unfolding; I am carried away by the storms of time. I am unable to hold steadfastly on to the lotus feet of the Lord, who is the source of our life and all that be.

There is hope, however. Hope that someday I will lose all attachment to worldly affairs. Hope that someday the Lord will shower His mercy on me and that I will become purified by devotional service. Hope that someday He will take me, as His eternal obedient son, into His eternal abode.