Participation without complicity

“I participate in this system, so I’m complicit in it.” All the cruelty, the racism, the poverty, the abuse of power in US capitalist patriarchy–this is my fault too? The guilt can crush us.

TL;DR: no, it isn’t our fault. It is ours to do something about, while participating. Participate in the system to fill our responsibilities, not to maximize our own gain; try to make it better; and the bad karma of unjust suffering is not ours.

This comes from the Bhagavad Gita, “a classic of Indian spirituality,” translated by Eknath Easwaran. (amazon). If we want to renounce the patriarchy, there are two ways:

To refrain from selfish acts is one kind of renunciation, called sannyasa; to renounce the fruit of action is another, called tyaga.

Bhagavad Gita, 18:2

Opting out, becoming a hermit or a monk, avoiding all participation out of distaste for the system — that’s sannyasa, and it isn’t helpful. Krishna recommends tyaga instead.

As long as one has a body, one cannot renounce action altogether. True renunciation is giving up all desire for personal reward.


Renouncing the fruit of action is a theme throughout the Gita.

You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, not should you long for inaction.

Bhagavad Gita, 2:47

Ours is the work itself, not the profit that it generates. Ours is the work in front of us: the ways we can support our families, the ways we can help our community, the ways we can nudge our political system toward health. Do it because it’s there, because it’s in front of us. Not to get rich, not to get famous, not for what’s rightfully ours 😒.

This is the opposite of Ayn Rand, of “the creator deserves every benefit from his creation.” It is the opposite of capitalism-as-morality, where making money is a virtue. We create something in a system, we succeed in a system, and taking all the resources generated–instead of helping sustain that system–makes us leeches.

This is the opposite of results-oriented accountability. If I do my work well, will my company succeed? Maybe. Will we make the sales numbers we projected for this quarter? Maybe. There are waaaaay more factors involved that I don’t influence. With tyaga, I can do my best. I can care about the outcomes, look at them to inform future efforts, but not judge myself on the results. Most outcomes I can’t measure anyway. And the important ones won’t happen this quarter.

If I’m focused only on measurable results this quarter (maybe because my job depends on it), then there’ll be all kinds of other consequences I’ll ignore, that will sneak back to bite us later. Maybe I’ll promise functionality we don’t have yet. In engineering, I’ll leave a bunch of messy code and bugs behind to close a ticket faster.

The Gita says that if we work with our eyes on the reward, if we covet all the profit we can generate, then all those bad consequences are our fault. Much of the suffering will fall on other people, which makes bad karma for us, I suppose.

Those who are attached to personal reward will reap the consequences of their actions: some pleasant, some unpleasant, some mixed. But those who renounce every desire for personal reward go beyond the reach of karma.


We work within a system, and if that system is cruel and racist and worsens poverty, that is not our fault. That bad karma doesn’t stick to us, unless we’re working the system for our own reward. Working at an unethical company (almost any company) to support yourself and to get better at what you do–that’s okay. The fruits that do come to us (like our salary) we can share with charities. The energy that we have left over (when we don’t have small children) we can share with those working to make the system a little kinder.

Isabel Wilkerson points out that Western culture’s legacy of slavery and killing is ours. It’s something we were born into, not something we chose. Like a house we inherited that’s structurally unsound, it is ours to fix. We do inherit the consequences of those who came before us.

So let’s keep working, in whatever ways we can, to make the world better for future generations. And if our work seems in vain, that’s OK. Ours is the work, and may the rewards fall to those who come after.

If you’re looking for renunciation through revolution, then let’s work toward that… patiently. Let’s spread some seeds of diversity, of systems thinking, of competent government. When it is not about us, not about our lifetimes, more options are open.