Principles And Practice Of Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga

by Jayaram V

Most of our actions are meant either to attract attention or avoid attention. We cannot be like the flowers in the wilderness. Our desire for belongingness fuels our sense of self-esteem and wellbeing. We seek approval, acceptance, and appreciation through our actions. They are never free from expectations. Even when we help others, some ulterior motive lurks in the recesses of our minds. We cannot be free from expectations in our relationships. Those who are married know how their marriage may collapse if they do not pay adequate attention to their spouses or reciprocate their love, approval and appreciation. In the worldly life this is the socially acceptable norm.

However, on the spiritual path the rules are different. There, you have to set aside all your needs and expectations and learn simply to be. As a spiritual person you learn to pay attention rather than seek attention and perform your actions without any intention or expectations so that you can see life from a broader perspective as the play of God or Nature without the desire to control it or manipulate it. Karma yoga takes you closer to this ideal state and spiritual goal. In this essay we examine the factors and principles that are essential to the practice of karma yoga on the path of liberation.

Why karma yoga is important

Karma Yoga means the yoga of desireless actions as well as the active state (yoga) of being engaged in selfless actions. To be alive is to be active. No one can remain inactive even for a moment. If you are asleep or quiet, it does not mean you are inactive. Your mind and body are always engaged in some action. Simple acts such as breathing, thinking, eating, walking, moving the hands and legs, seeing, hearing, touching, smelling also constitute karma only. Whether such actions will have consequences or not depend upon the intention or the attitude with which you live and respond to your circumstances. For example, if you keep breathing polluted air or if you eat unhealthy food as if there is no tomorrow, there will be consequences. You cannot avoid them, even if you have good intentions.

Therefore, the actions which you perform in your life are very important. The law of karma states that actions will have consequences. Good actions will most likely result in positive consequences and evil actions will most likely result in negative or evil consequences. The statement is qualified with “most likely” because karma is a continuous mechanism. The actions which you might have performed in the past, whether in this life or in the previous ones, may impact the results of your current actions also. Hence, you can never be sure how your life or other people’s lives unfold or how they are shaped by karma. You may sometimes see evil people succeeding in their lives, while good people suffer from their good actions. While we cannot generalize why it happens, the answer is most probably it must be because of past karma.

The Bhagavadgita is essentially a book on liberation. However, it is primarily addressed to the householders and worldly people. Its main emphasis is upon the resolution of the problem of karma and finding an effective solution to remain unaffected by the impurities of mortal life and the world. The big question, which the scripture tries to answer, is how can you live in this world and yet remain free from all the intended and unintended consequences of your actions? Is there a safe way to live and remain free from the impurities of the muddy waters of life in which you are stuck, like a fish in the pond? How can you guarantee your liberation, while you pursue the four aims of human life and assist God in upholding Dharma for the order and regularity of the world?

These are important questions, only if you believe in karma and the idea of liberation. If you are lost in the digital Maya or in the illusion of social life on a network, you may not believe that they are existential issues. If you are an atheist, you can still benefit from the wisdom of the scripture to experience peace and happiness amidst a hectic life. As the world becomes increasingly chaotic, materialistic, atheistic and this worldly, people are going to experience extreme stress, confusion, loss of values and a great deal instability in their lives and personal relationships.

Karma yoga in today’s world

The materialism of the 21st century is appallingly dangerous to the wellbeing of the world. A few centuries ago, you would have been concerned mostly with what happened in your little world or to your family, neighbors, friends or local community. Nowadays, the boundaries of your world have been extended to the whole world, and even beyond to other planets, galaxies and alien worlds. If there is a shooting incident a few thousand miles from where you live, you will still feel concerned as you are bombarded with live images of that event followed by hours of discussions on television on why and how it happened, who were responsible for it and how such incidents could be avoided. Much of it may not be even relevant to your life, but you may still feel concerned if you become involved with it or truly believe that your life or the future of your country or society may be effected by it.

Thus, in today’s world it is very difficult to keep your sanity and carry on your life as if nothing is happening. Even if you go to a remote corner of the world on vacation, your cellphone follows you like your karma. In such an unstable and chaotic world, you cannot easily calm your mind or feel secure. Again, the irony is that in all these happenings our collective karma is at play. We have been paying the price for our collective actions. Our lives are shaped not only by our individual actions but also by the decisions we collectively make in choosing our leaders or letting certain things happen due to our ignorance, prejudice, preference or negligence.

It is in this context karma yoga becomes more relevant today than it was a few centuries ago. We cannot ignore our individual contribution to the chaos that manifest in our lives or in our society. We cannot just blame the leaders for their failures, for they are products of our collective will. We enable them with our knowledge, wisdom or stupidity. Therefore, if we want to live in peace and stay free from the afflictions of the mind, we have to pay attention to our thoughts and actions. We have to keep our desires under control, if we want our lives and the world to progress in the right direction.

The Bhagavadgita on karma yoga

The Bhagavadgita defines karma yoga as that state or condition in which a devotee of God performs his actions without selfish intentions and without any expectation or desire for their result. He lives for the sake of God and his eternal Dharma and performs his actions to help God perform his eternal duties and uphold Dharma, without which the world will fall into chaos and evil will gain an upper hand.

In other words, as a karma yogi you will not live for yourself, but for God. You will not be the center of your life, but let God be. However, you can be the center of your life only when you have conquered all your desires and passions and dissolved your identity in God. Karma yoga is the essence of divine centered living or the Hindu way of life for which Hinduism is known.

The culmination of karma yoga is the union with God and living upon earth like God himself. In Hindu spirituality, it is not blasphemy to believe that you are God or like God and live like him in a mortal body with your identity completely merged in God. Every incarnation of God upon earth exemplifies it. You may notice that in the Bhagavadgita also, when Lord Krishna speaks with unified awareness as God himself. When he was delivering that message to Arjuna, he did not feel any distinction between him and the Supreme Brahman. It is a state into which anyone can enter when their individual identities are fully dissolved. When you cease to exist as an individual in your own consciousness, God manifests there as your very Self.

The eight requisites for the practice or karma yoga

Karma yoga is at the center of divine life. Whether you purse knowledge, express devotion, engage in meditation and contemplation or stabilize your intelligence in sameness, they are essentially actions only, which may or may not produce consequences, depending upon your thoughts, intentions and attitude. You cannot practice any of these yogas, without engaging in actions. Thus, karma yoga is central to spiritual practice and liberation. In essence, it is “the Yoga,” the one and only. All other yogas are its limbs, which facilitate it. From the Bhagavadgita we learn that for the successful practice of karma yoga, which leads to liberation, the following are the prerequisites, limbs or the supports.

1. Faith

You must believe in God, in the idea of liberation and in the efficacy of karma yoga to resolve the problem of sin. No one can live in this world without committing sinful acts and without suffering from moral dilemmas. The solution is to engage in karma yoga with complete faith and prevent a certain downfall. Faith arises from the study of scriptures and spending time in the company of pious people. The Bhagavadgita suggests that to become perfect in karma yoga a devotee should approach men of knowledge, prostrate before them and know from them about actions and inaction. They should also cultivate virtues.

2. Right knowledge

Without right knowledge, you will continue to engage in selfish actions and keep accumulating sinful karma. You cannot practice karma yoga without having the right knowledge. You must know what leads to bondage and rebirth, and what leads to liberation and eternal freedom. You must also know that you are an eternal Self, not a mortal being a with a name and form, but God in a human body. For the true practice of karma yoga, knowledge is a prerequisite. Hence, the Bhagavadgita prescribes Jnana karma yoga, or the yoga of selfless actions with right knowledge as the right approach to engage in righteous actions.

3. Purity

Karma yoga cannot be practiced with an impure mind or a mind filled with impure thoughts and intentions. Purity means purity of the mind and body, purity of intention, thought and action. It is possible only when you have the predominance of sattva. All desire-ridden actions arise from the tripe gunas, namely sattva, rajas and tamas. They are responsible for binding actions, selfishness, egoism, delusion, and ignorance. With the predominance of sattva, one should transcend all the gunas and engage in desireless actions, keeping the mind and body free from impure thoughts, selfish desires and evil intentions.

4. Detachment

You drink a glass of fresh fruit juice today. You like it. The next day around that time, you will like having another glass. It is what we call attachment. Once you taste something, you want to have it again. Alternatively, if you had a bad experience, you would like to avoid it. It is also a form of attachment only. The Bhagavadgita says that these attachments ruin your chances of liberation. They keep you engaged in desire-ridden actions as you become caught between the duality of attraction and aversion. Your likes and dislikes not only limit you to certain aspects of life but also your chances of achieving ultimate freedom. They are also largely responsible for mental and emotional instability and feelings of worry, stress, fear, insecurity and anxiety. Because of them people lose their discretion and become further involved with the world by engaging in selfish and deluded actions. Hence, if you want to practice karma yoga or desireless actions, you must cultivate detachment and dispassion.

5. Renunciation

The Bhagavadgita gives a whole new definition to the idea of renunciation. It suggests that renunciation of desire is true renunciation. Sanyasa is a burden to those who take it seriously, and a luxury to those who misuse it for personal ends. There is no dearth of false and bogus Sanyasis in the world of Hindus. They come in all shapes and sizes and cause enormous spiritual damage both to the community and to the individuals. The Bhagavadgita states that Sanyasa should not be used as an escape from the burdens of life or to avoid responsibility. Inactions is not the solution to the problem of karma. If you want to resolve it, you must perform your actions with an attitude of renunciation. For success in karma yoga, you not only need right knowledge but also renunciation of desires. The combined used of knowledge, renunciation, and actions is called jnana-sanyasa-karma-yoga.

6. Discernment

A few centuries ago, there used to be a community of robbers in Northern India, who would worship a goddess and seek her blessings to loot and kill innocent and unsuspecting travelers. On the surface, the Bhagavadgita seems to give a license to evil doers to engage in such selfless or desireless evil actions. However, it is untrue. The seekers of liberation should not indiscriminately apply the principles of karmayoga to any action which they may consider worthy, without giving it a thought. They cannot use karmayoga to engage in evil actions or promote adharma because their actions may impact the lives of others and disturb the order and regularity of the world. The purpose of karmayoga is to do God’s duties upon earth and serve the righteous aims of creation. Hence, the scripture recommends the cultivation of discernment (buddhi). It rightly recognizes the importance of buddhi yoga in the practice of karma yoga.

7. Self-absorption

The scriptures may tell you that you are an eternal Self. They may present to you the idea of liberation or the need to cultivate purity and virtues to achieve liberation. However, how can you be sure that they are telling the truth? Faith is helpful in the beginning to start your spiritual journey, but at a later stage you may have to validate your beliefs to know whether you are progressing in the right direction and whether the knowledge which you learned is reliable. Karma yoga cannot continuously be practiced, on the mere promise of the scriptures, without the firsthand experience of the Self. Hence, a Karmayogi, while not engaged in obligatory duties should also practice concentrated meditation (samyama) to reach the deepest core of his being and experience self-absorption. The practice is described in the Bhagavadgita as atma-samyama- yoga which helps a karmayogi to continue his effort with equanimity and dispassion.

8. Devotion

Devotion comes in the end as the final fruit of karma yoga. The yoga of devotion is the culmination of prolonged spiritual effort in the life of a karma yogi who has acquired right knowledge and cultivated detachment, renunciation, discernment and self-absorption, while he is engaged in desireless actions. One may worship God out of fear, greed or desires. However, it does not qualify as pure devotion. Pure devotion arises from the predominance of sattva where the devotee has dedicated himself to the service of God through karma yoga, having acquired right knowledge, renounced desire for the fruit of his actions, cultivated right discernment and stabilized his mind in the contemplation of God through the practice of meditation and contemplation.

The eight principles of karma yoga

From the Bhagavadgita we discern that the practice of karma yoga rests upon certain fundamental principles or spiritual truths. They are stated below.

1. Desires are responsible for our suffering. Karma arises from desires, not form actions. Whoever thinks that actions produce karma is mistaken. It is desire-ridden actions which bind the beings upon earth to the cycle of births and deaths. One should therefore avoid desires, but not actions even if they are distasteful or painful to perform.

2. You cannot neglect your duties and responsibilities nor escape from them. You are not meant to live selfishly, irresponsibly or frivolously. Life is a great opportunity to experience the joy of being alive, being useful and experience the miracle of peace, happiness and awareness in a frail, human body. Do not make it an entirely selfish pursuit. Bring your spirituality into your actions. Make it a part of your living and being, and let your spirit or God hold the reigns of your life as your charioteer.

3. No one can escape from actions, howsoever one may live. Existence rests upon actions. Creation itself arises from the actions of God and thrives upon the collective actions (karma) of all beings. One should never abandon one’s duties and obligations, however difficult life may be, since they all arise from God only.

4. When you are in deep trouble and have no hope or solution in sight, you may better seek the guidance of God, as Arjuna did. If you sincerely pray with devotion, you will surely find help or guidance or both as it happened to Arjuna. In the Bhagavadgita you have the assurance of God that he never abandons his devotees and always reciprocates their love.

5. Renunciation (Sanyasa) is not a license to escape from duties and responsibilities of life or the problem of karma. Doing so would be selfish and evil. True renunciation is the renunciation of desires for the fruit of one’s action, surrendering to the will of God as the source of all. One should never renounce actions.

6. Your life is not just about you. You should consider it in the larger context of God’s eternal duties upon earth. You are here to represent him and unfold his plan for the world, without taking credit for any actions which you may perform. Therefore, engage in actions as if you are serving a bigger cause, not for yourself, and let the results take care of themselves.

7. Do not believe that God does not exist because you cannot see him. It is what deluded people think. They cannot recognize him even when they see him in physical form because of their ignorance of evil nature. The wise ones know it and engage their minds in his contemplation. They remain absorbed in his thoughts as they perform their actions with a sacrificial attitude.

8. In performing actions, one should follow the example of God. Although he is complete and free from desires and attachments, still he engages in actions for the sake of creation to uphold Dharma and the order and regularity the worlds. He is the perfect role model for karma yogis to follow.

The essence of karma yoga is that you should wish to live upon earth in the service of God and as an upholder of Dharma. If you let God’s will manifest through you, without letting your desires or intentions interfere with it, you will not suffer from the consequences. You have the freedom to live your life according to your will or vision. However, in that case you will have to take full responsibility for your life and actions and accept whatever consequences that may arise from them.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Introduction to Hinduism
Know the richness, diversity, history and traditions of Hinduism, the oldest living religion of the world

Brahman
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Selected Upanishads
Translation of 14 Upanishads. Length: 32 pages

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
Translation of one of the largest Upanishads Length: 206 pages.

The Chandogya Upanishad
Translation of the Chandogya Upanishad. Length:218 Pages

The Bhagavadgita Complete Translation
With Word to word translation and commentary. Comprehensive and unique.
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