The Meaning and Concept of Karma Yoga


by Jayaram V

In a simple sense, karma yoga means the yoga of actions, and in the context of the Vedic philosophies it means the yoga of obligatory duties. When we use yoga in conjunction with karma, it means state or condition. Obligatory duties mean those moral and religious duties that are unavoidable and obligatory for a householder to discharge his karmic debt to his parents, family, relations, community, teachers, the world, gods, celestial beings and the supreme being himself. Through his sacrificial actions and dutiful service, he has to clear his debt to all those who contribute to his birth, fate, existence, happiness and wellbeing. It includes his obligatory duty towards his own mind and body which support him and serve him. Most importantly, he has duties and obligations towards God also.

The concept of karma yoga is discussed in detail in the Bhagavadgita, which, historically, was an offshoot of the Upanishadic and the Vedanta philosophies. They emerged in the later Vedic period to counter the ritual and materialistic doctrines of the Mimansa which denied the existence of God and urged humans to achieve happiness through Vedic sacrifices (yajnas) only. In contrast, the Vedanta proposed a spiritual and theistic model, identifying Brahman or Isvara as the supreme being and the source of all, including the Vedas. Accordingly, it injected theistic and devotional elements into the practice of rituals as well as the earlier concept of karma yoga, suggesting that to avoid incurring sin and suffering in samsara, all actions and obligatory duties should be performed as a sacrifice or a selfless offering to the supreme being rather than to fulfill one’s selfish desires.

The Bhagavadgita, which is considered a scripture of true knowledge (Brahma Vidya), an Upanishad and a Yoga sastra, recognizes the importance of karma yoga in the life of a householder, and dedicates at least one fifth of the verses to explain it. In the third chapter it states that God originally declared two paths for humans, the path of knowledge and the path of actions. Then it explains the various ways in which karma yoga can be performed to attain purity and liberation. The meaning and significance of karma yoga and the various advanced ways in which it can be practiced for different ends are discussed below.

1. Karma yoga

Karma yoga is the practice of performing householder duties and sacrifices strictly as ordained by the Vedas to achieve the four aims of human life namely dharma (duty), artha (wealth), kama (pleasure) and moksha (liberation). They may be performed to fulfill desires or render service to gods and others to repay the karmic debt one owes to them, avoid sin or earn merit (punya). The Vedic tradition identities three types of karma, daily sacrifices (nitya karmas), occasional sacrifices (naimitta karmas) and wish fulfilling sacrifices (kamya karmas). Of them, the first two are obligatory for householders, and the last one is optional. As the Bhagavadgita declares actions shall be performed for the sake of sacrifices only. Otherwise, they will bind the beings. The sacrifices (yajnas) were created by Brahan because he wanted people to fulfill their desires through them and render service to others. He who does not practice them incurs sin. Thus, the essential purpose of karma yoga is to ensure that people perform their duties and abide in Dharma to earn good karma for themselves and ensure the order and regularity of the world. It injects the ideals of duty, purpose, cooperation and sacrifice in karma yogis, and helps them achieve peace and happiness here and hereafter.

Whether he knows it or not, every person upon earth who is engaged in householder duties and follows a certain religious or spiritual discipline in life is a karma yogi only. Many remain stuck in their duties and obligations or in their worldly ways and do not think about liberation. Only a few cultivate interest (jijnasa) and study further to acquire knowledge and discernment (buddhi) on the path of jnana yoga or sankhya yoga. Realizing their true identity, they perform actions without desires and attachments and strive for liberation (moksha), which is the the ultimate aim (paramartha) of human life. The concept of karma yoga which is propounded in the Bhagavadgita is derived mostly from the original Mimansa philosophy, except that it identifies Brahman with the Yajnas and makes him their ultimate presiding deity, declaring that the act of offering is Brahman, oblation is Brahman, the burnt offering is Brahman. Karma yoga in its basic form is not the best or ideal solution to attain liberation, since its primary focus is upon performing obligatory duties and sacrifices to achieve specific ends. It does not resolve the problem of karma or bondage unless one practice karma-sannyasa, which is explained next.

2. Jnana karma-sannyasa yoga

This is a more advanced and enlightened form of karma yoga in which a karma yogi abstains from wish-fulfilling sacrifices (kamya-karmas) and perform his obligatory duties (nitya and naimitta karmas) by giving up desires and attachments for the fruit of his actions. Since he gives the desire for the fruit of his actions (karma-phala), it should truly be called karma-phala-sannyasa. However, since karma in Sanskrit means both actions and their fruit, karma-sannyasa yoga is also appropriate. Further, since knowledge is the foundation for such practice, it is known as jnana karma-sannyasa yoga. Lord Krishna said in the Bhagavadgita that he revealed the utmost secret knowledge of this imperishable yoga to the seers of great antiquity but was subsequently lost, and he was teaching it again to Arjuna to restore it. In this yoga, you do not renounce actions but desires, knowing that karma does NOT arise from actions but from desires. Therefore, a karma-sannyasa yogi performs desireless actions (nishkama karma) without seeking the fruit or the result of such actions and offering such actions and their results to God or his true self as a sacrifice. By that offering, he achieves inaction in action (karmany akarma) and escapes from the consequences of his actions. He also succeeds in arresting the formation of karma and accumulation of sin and other impurities. Its continued practice also leads to purification as the past karmas begin to dissolve in the fire of knowledge and sacrificial actions. Therefore, this yoga is best suited for the karma yogis who aim to attain knowledge through study, and purity through sacrificial actions, renouncing their desires and attachments. By taking out the poison of selfishness, egoism, desires and attachments from their actions and by pouring their ignorance into the fire of knowledge, jnana karma-sannyasa yogis attains the predominance of sattva and stabilize their minds in the contemplation of the self to attain oneness. This yoga is best suited for householders who are interested not only in performing sacrifices and abiding in Dharma but also in cultivating knowledge and purity to know themselves and escape from suffering and bondage.

Karma sannyasa Yoga

Literally speaking karma-sannyasa means the practice of renouncing all duties and sacrifices and taking vows to become a renunciant or an ascetic (sannyasi). However, the Bhagavadgita recognizes that no one can ever be free from actions even for a moment. Even the most austere and reclusive sannyasis cannot avoid actions altogether. They still need to engage in them to practice self-purification, perform austerities, observe rules and restraints (yamas and niyamas), restrain and withdraw their senses, concentrate and contemplate upon the self, and engage in actions which are necessary to keep their bodies alive. Therefore, it suggests that adept yogis (yuktas) should cultivate detachment from their minds and bodies, abide in the true self and become passive witnesses to their own actions, knowing that the self does not performs actions nor causes them to happen. By that austere practice, they conquer their minds and senses and become established in themselves. Since, they mentally detach themselves from their actions, renouncing egoism, doership and ownership and do not actively participate in them or induce them, it does not matter whether they offer the fruit of their actions to God since they cannot offer what they have given up. Thus, karma-sannyasa yoga is a step ahead of jnana karma-sannyasa yoga. By detaching themselves from their bodies and their actions, the karma sannyasis see themselves inactive amidst actions. Thus, they practice true renunciation, which is not giving up actions but entering the state of inaction in action, which is also the state of the self.

Historical origin and development of karma yoga and related concepts

The origins of the concept of karma yoga can be found in the Vedas themselves and in the Mimansa philosophy, which was the earliest of the Vedic philosophies (Darshanas). It was originally a practical, atheistic and materialistic philosophy which revolved around the concept of karma and yajna and denied the existence of a creator God or the role of any divine entity in creation. Subsequently the Mimansa school branched out into two, Purva and Uttara Mimansa. The original Mimansa, which drew its doctrines from the ritual of part of the Vedas (karma kanda) became known as Purva (earlier) Mimansa and the other, which derived its philosophy from the knowledge part (jnana kanda) as Uttara (later) Mimansa. For our convenience, we call the former as Mimansa, and the latter as Vedanta. The Bhagavadgita affirms this division in the third chapter, where Lord Krishna says that he declared two disciplines in the past for the benefit of the world, the yoga of action for karma yogis and the yoga of knowledge for jnana or samkhya yogis.

The Mimansa philosophy derived its philosophy entirely from the ritual portions (karma-kanda) of the Vedas. It was essentially a ritual philosophy which equated karma yoga with the performance of the Vedic sacrificial rituals (yajnas), strictly according to the procedures as ordained by the Vedas. According to them the Vedas were inviolable, uncreated and eternal, and so were the yajnas which they recommended for various purposes. They identified three types of sacrifices or karmas, which were meant to help humans fulfill their desires and attain happiness here and hereafter namely the daily sacrifices (nitya karmas), the occasional sacrifices (naimitta karmas) and the wish-fulfilling sacrifices (kamya karmas), which were meant to fulfill one’s desires. Of them, the first two were obligatory, and the third one was optional. They were to be practiced strictly according to the procedures (vidhi) as laid down in the Brahmanas, ensuring that one steered clear of the prohibited methods and procedures (nishedha).

Thus, for the Mimansikas, karma yoga meant performance of obligatory duties to fulfill one’s desires and ensure the orderly progression of the world. Karma was the means, yajna was the support and Dharma was the goal. With the practice of Dharma, one also achieved the other three aims and secured happiness and fulfillment. The Mimansa held that yajna was a divinity in itself and required no other support or divinity for its existence. The model of yajna pervaded every aspect of human life, be it birth, speech, breathing, eating, digestion, initiation, study, marriage, sexual union, conception, procreation, death or transmigration. The yajnas had the power to create things, preserve things, conceal and reveal things, and renew or destroy things. Through them, humans could attain supernatural powers to create or alter their destinies, secure wealth and happiness, control Nature, summon gods, overcome death and suffering, dissolve their sins or secure a place in heaven.

This early concept of karma yoga underwent change as the Upanishadic philosophy developed and the Vedanta philosophy emerged as a counter to the atheistic and purely ritualistic ideas of Mimansa. One can see this development in the attempt by some Upanishads to declare ritual knowledge as ignorance (avidya) and an obstacle to achieve liberation. The seers of the Upanishads also internalized the ritual methods and transformed them into yogic methods such as breathing practices (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), the austerity of tapas, concentration, contemplation, the idea of devotional self-sacrifice (bhakti) etc. The Vedanta philosophy was spiritual and theistic, whereas the Mimansa was materialistic and atheistic. It identified Brahman or Isvara as the supreme being, the source of all and the ultimate presiding deity of all yajnas, and the yajnas themselves as his aspects or powers. Accordingly, it injected theistic elements into the earlier concept of karma yoga, superimposing the idea of yajna on all actions, and suggesting that to avoid sinful consequences, suffering and bondage to samsara all actions and obligatory duties should be performed as a sacrifice or offering to the supreme being rather than to fulfill one’s desires. Such early developments and the growing emphasis in Vedic doctrines upon spiritual practices rather than ritual practices can be found in the earliest Upanishads such as Brihadarnyaka, Chandogya, Katha, Svetasvatara, Mundaka, Prasna and Isha Upanishads.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page