According to the Gita Theory of Action, the philosophical basis of Gandhi’s approach to nonviolence, inaction is not possible for the human being as our thoughts themselves are actions. In effect, the decision not to act is a kind of action in itself. Since inaction is impossible, human beings must focus on how to act in any given situation. They must choose not just what actions to undertake, but with what attitude or mindset. Actions that are motivated by personal gain (phalam, fruit) will always be of lower quality than those where the motive is selfless. We can become attached to the fruit of our actions not only in terms of the concrete outcome but also in terms of the fame, or social standing that we personally gain. On the contrary detached action is undertaken in service of a selfless goal and without entanglement in subtler personal benefits.
Detachment, along with renunciation, may be the most important concepts in the Gandhian approach to nonviolence. The only way to break the pervasive power of violence is to be willing to suffer the consequences of an opponent’s violence with neither retaliation nor acquiescence. This sometimes requires an extreme capacity for endurance (tapas) and single-minded focus on the goal no matter the personal adversity as a result, up to and including the ultimate sacrifice. Naturally, this leaves no room for attachment to personal gains, or, paradoxically, even for attachment to victory, because even that will compromise the quality of one’s otherwise selfless action. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. warned against triumphalism, for this reason. In practical terms, lack of detachment at the point of success can antagonize one’s opponents, whereas the true goal of nonviolence is to win over the opponent.