Can work set us free?

8 min readApr 20, 2023


In the 1930s, the German phrase Arbeit Macht Frei, at several gate posts of the concentration camps, meant “Work sets you free.” Historically, it had a gory connotation with a lot of similarities in the present-day context. People in the corporate world and business world work in long shifts. The underlying factor that propels people to work is the hidden intrinsic motivation that someday work will set them free. In this setting, “free” implies meeting basic necessities to the ever-expanding grandeur vision of a luxury life that includes a posh villa, a high-end car, a sleek handset, and the endless laundry list.

This vision has translated into an unfortunate reality, courtesy of the flexi-interest rates cum long-term credit policies. The unfortunate reality is that we are now in a debt trap, and the heightened risk emerging from competition and recession puts the job at the mercy of the market. That might sound too critical on our part for affluence. Certainly, when our freedom is at stake, it adversely impacts our long-term physical and mental well-being. There is less merit in eulogizing the all-good life with lots of goods but stuck in the debt trap.

What motivates us to work

In the process of working hard, people depreciate their physical and mental faculties of perception so badly that eventually they burn out! Such a hapless lifestyle can be perceived when people vent their stress at work by talking behind their boss, yelling at their spouse, and hurting their kids, yet continue working at the same job. And there is a virtual banner in front of their desk, “Work will set me free!” which primarily intends to materialize the ever-expanding grandeur vision of luxurious life. But the level of stress involved in the process often results in a weekend (sedative) party. Such a lifestyle calls out for some serious soul-searching on our part. American social reformist Frederick Douglass states, “I did not know that I was a slave until I found out that I can’t do things that I want to do.”

The compulsion to do a job fueling deficiency (basic) needs constitute only 50% of an individual need based on the famous Maslows Motivational Model. If the focus is meeting only 50% of the needs, we end up taking jobs/businesses solely to feed our snowballing deficiency needs. The unintended outcomes range broadly from a grinding 80-hour work week, increase in competition, meager time for spouse/kid, the dilemma about unpaid hours, loss of job due to family, and other anxieties. By extension, the adverse consequences of such a lopsided lifestyle, which aims at fulfilling only 50% of deficiency, have an overbearing impact on every family.

Still, people continue dreaming: Work will set them free, once they attain their dreams! The situation is not that different from the inmates in the concentration camp, where people were forced to carry huge sacks of salts, or rocks from one camp to another. Many residents, if not all, were under the presumption that such work would set them free, if they toe the line with the prison guard. In reality, the concentration camps were labor extermination camps, and the meaning of “freedom” implied death. In our context, the pilling amount of debt and ever-expanding grandeur vision of life acts as shackles for an indefinite period of time.

Analyzing deficiency and growth needs

In the 21st century, thanks to the global reform movements, we have a greater degree of liberty and social justice systems than in the concentration camps, which recognize the sovereignty of every individual. When we accuse the strenuous work culture, we sound like victimized people. In some sense, such accusations might be necessary to deal with policy violations. However, our perspective on work doesn’t transform much. As Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to Bhagavad-gita (3.9), “Since one has to work even for the simple maintenance of the body, the prescribed duties for a particular social position and quality are so made that purpose can be fulfilled.” If our purpose is to fulfill 50% deficiency need, then we miss the other essential half that constitutes growth need.

The illustration presents deficiency needs such as physiological, social, relational, and esteem needs. And growth needs comprise cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualization and transcendence. Unless we extend our vision toward growth needs, work isn’t going to set us free because working in a deficiency zone obscures our intrinsic spiritual inclination, which can be tapped only through venturing into the zone of growth need. If we structure our jobs and businesses around fueling growth needs, there is a high chance of integrating our vocation with transcendence. But it is quite difficult to overcome our conditionings when we have given up an objective and critical analysis of our hidden talents that are naturally embedded within our psychophysical interiority.

CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Warren Buffet says, “Look for the job that you take, if you didn’t need a job.” The quote origins from a growth-centric ideology that stimulate thought to identify our natural giftedness. And that begs the question: Is there a way to detect the latent potential? One of the major regrets of people on their deathbeds is the guilt of failing to venture out on the path of growth need exercising their inner giftedness. But for many, the growth potential goes along with them into the coffin.

The holistic approach to work includes a proper assessment of deficiency needs and growth needs. The bridge to elevate from deficiency to growth is through constant refinement and fine-tuning of creativity, mapping our propensity and proficiency. Hailing from an agri-based economy, we see bovine animals saddled with a yoke to plow the field. It appears work has bound the animal rather productively. Did the work set the animal free? Probably, yes — in meeting their deficiency need. Slavery is optimal until someone is directionless because they are elsewhere engaged productively.

What is out movitation to work?

Before answering that, lets straighten our position in the evolutionary cycle. As mentioned in the purport to Cc. Madhya.19.138, our position is privileged:

jalaja nava-lakshani
sthavara laksha-vimsati
krimayo rudra-sankhyakah
pakshinam dasa-lakshanam
trimsal-lakshani pasavah
catur-lakshani manushah

There are 900,000 species living in the water. There are also 2,000,000 non-moving living entities (sthavara) such as trees and plants. There are also 1,100,000 species of insects and reptiles, and there are 1,000,000 species of birds. As far as quadrupeds are concerned there are 3,000,000 varieties, and there are 400,000 human species.”

The human species is considered the cream of evolution. If we are living in a bovine (deficiency-need) mindset, then we need to reevaluate our motivation to work and even question our motivation to work — if we are not sliding down in the evolutionary cycle. It is good to work “productively” but without much freedom if we are ignorant of our talents. But it is worse if the freedom to express is restricted by the yoke of ignorance.

Queen Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, prays to Krishna (Bhagavatam 1.8.35), bhave ‘smin klisyamananam avidya-kama-karmabhih: the desire that stems from ignorance binds the living entity by execution of fruitive work. Hence the motivation to work is obstructed by the veil of fruitive outcome. As such, every time we don’t see a sweet carrot hanging to a goal, we lose motivation to work. Such a fruitive (sweet carrot) mindset stems from meeting the deficiency need, which draws us into the mysterious web of karmic reactions that further entangles us for a lifetime.

Hence, learning the subtleties of karma becomes critical to elevate our consciousness from a deficiency mindset to a growth mindset.

  • Akarma: When the intention behind the action is done as an offering to Lord, thats technically called akarma. Ultimately, such types of activity result in freedom from karmic reactions.
  • Karma: When the intention behind an activity is driven by a fruitive result thats called karma.
  • Vikarma: When the intention behind an action is to hurt oneself or to hurt others is called vikarma.

Akarma-The endgame of work

By setting proper expectations from work, it becomes easier to be more decisive, considering our vulnerability of getting trapped at the lower rungs of the motivational hierarchy. When we voluntarily choose transcendence as the endgame behind work, we increasingly tend toward meeting the growth needs through akarma. Thus the saddling impact of work transforms into a redemptive act in terms of contributing back to society — and most importantly to the Supreme Reality Lord Krishna. Otherwise, when we are stuck meeting the deficiency need — we stay puzzled in vicious cycle of pa-varga (based on the Sanskrit alphabetical chronology). Srila Rupa Gosvami in his Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (2.1.205) has laid out the concept of pa-varga:

All five elements in the pa-varga might have a critical ring to them, describing stating the reality of a materially engrossed lifestyle. But there is a deep underlying message that Rupa Gosvami wants to convey. He is alluding to the big picture beyond the cyclicity of bondage (work, party, rest, and repeat). He is pointing towards the greater cause for which this human species has been availed — to free oneself from the pa-varga and aim towards transcendence. Is it possible to attain freedom from the karmic cycle? Certainly. Srila Rupa Gosvami is advising us to engage in work that is favorable to align our consciousness with the Supreme Lord and disengage from activities that adversely affect our consciousness (Cc. Madhya 22.100). Such a favorable disposition toward work results in akarma that unshackles us from the limiting ever-expanding grandeur vision of materialistic life. Put simply, akarma equips our vision toward a devotional-centric lifestyle that focuses on simple living and holistic thinking.

Work that will set you free

At the peak of the motivational hierarchy is transcendence, which has a deeply devotional meaning. It suggests the ultimate transcendental goal towards which one should be devoting ones act. The alignment of our work begins by integrating our lives around the wisdom-based experiential texts like the Bhagavad-gita, which calls out to us to work in the mood of devotion. Here is one such statement in Lord Krishnas divine words: “surrendering all your works unto Me… free from lethargy, fight”(Gita 3.30).

Initially, Arjuna was driven by the deficiency-centric mindset, evaluating personal discomfort to fight or to withdraw. This resulted in a seizure, right at the onset of the epic Mahabharata war. But the Lord of Great Mystics, Krishna, doesn’t speak a single verse in the Gita discussing the war strategies, nor any secret archery tips. Instead, the entire 574 verses delivered by Lord Krishna to Arjuna are replete with wisdom or a bridge from deficiency-need to growth-need by drawing Arjuna to the path of devotion in executing his duty, thus, approximating transcendence in the motivational model.

Pertinently, as we work in the spirit of devotion to Lord Krishna, the source of transcendence, our activities find fulfilment. In the Gita, Arjuna learned that one who accepts work (driven by growth-need) as devotion transcends karmic reactions, while those obsessed with work (driven by deficiency-need) are lost in the cyclicity of karma (Gita 18.58). As we resume our work in consciousness of the Supreme Lord Krishna, such activities transpire into devotion, drawing our hearts closer to the Lord, even while speeding through a busy life, scaling a startup, or running for government.