The Essence of Karma Yoga

Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati

Karma yoga is the yoga of action, of performing one's duty. How can one possibly attain union or God realisation through one's work? By performing action one creates reaction and so the cycle continues. This debate of how karma yoga might liberate the soul from bondage has been continuing since the beginning of time. In the third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna's opening question, "If, O Janardana, you say knowledge is superior to action, then why do you enjoin on me this terrible action?" To this Sri Krishna answered, "The twofold path was given by me, O sinless one, to the world in the beginning - the path of knowledge to the discerning, the path of work to the active." (3:2) Most people think that if you want to attain realisation of God, it would be better to sit and think of him only. However, there is one problem here: the mind is like a monkey. When you try to control this playful trickster, it just jumps from one branch of thought to another. To train this monkey requires constant discipline, which is eventually integrated into one's nature.

Sri Ramakrishna gave an example: "Those who are enlisted as indoor patients in a hospital cannot get out of it until they are cured. After the cure is effected they have no need to be in the hospital. Similarly, beings that suffer from the ailment of ignorance are hospitalised in prakriti. They are being treated with karma for enlightenment. With the dawn of spiritual knowledge, they quit prakriti and become actionless." It is useless to try and attain God by forcing the senses to be quiet, for in not acknowledging the senses, desires and thoughts are suppressed. Similarly, by fulfilling these desires, one is pouring kerosene on a raging fire in an attempt to extinguish it. The most effective way to control the fire is by the yoga of action.

There is a story about two friends who went out one night seeking entertainment. As they walked, they met a pious man explaining the Bhagavad Gita to a gathering of devout listeners. One of the two friends suggested that they sit and derive benefit from the sacred discourse. The other, preferring more sensual enjoyment, walked away to a house of ill repute. After a while the first man thought he had made a mistake in choosing the holy assembly. All this time he was considering the pleasure that his companion was enjoying. The second man, on the other hand, was repenting his choice, and was dwelling upon the divine bliss that his friend must be sharing with the devotees. The first man was sitting in a house of God, desiring sensual bliss, and the second was craving for the divine, in a brothel.

This demonstrates the power of the mind. When you sit and try to meditate but the mind wanders, then you had better start performing action so the mind can be stilled. The Gita says, "That deluded man is a hypocrite who sits, controlling the organs of action but dwelling in the mind on the objects of the senses." (3:6) To restrain the sense organs in such a way is like applying the brake to the wheels of a locomotive while the throttle valve is fully open. To shut off the steam first, and then apply the brake, is the proper course. Anything to the contrary is disastrous.

Before having any realisation of God, one has to purify the mind. Just as you clean your room, so the mind has to be cleaned. Would you allow stray cows, goats or drunkards to intrude and wander around in your room? In the same way, the mind must be protected from these wandering strays, for they serve no purpose to mental, emotional or spiritual growth.

This purification process is done by karma, action. Of course it is useless working and working only for a selfish purpose, for your own self, or for material gain. Your work has to be performed as a duty in the service of God, and not for your own sake. Sri Bhagawan says: "He excels, O Arjuna, who restraining the senses by the mind, unattached, directs his organs of action to the path of work." (3:7) Then again, "The world is bound by actions other than those performed for the sake of yajna. Do therefore, O son of Kunti, earnestly perform action, for yajna alone is free from attachment." (3:9)

Man has to perform action just to keep the physical body together. But all work should be done with a selfless attitude. When you work and think, 'I will gain this, or I have learned that', you are not performing karma yoga. No! Karma yoga is to be done with the attitude of sacrifice. This leads to peace of mind. From this sacrifice, this yajna, the divine reveals itself. The desireless action is the sure way to reach actionless-ness. Since man was born into action, he cannot escape it. From the atom to the entire universe, all are engaged in activity, so it is impossible to renounce karma while living, entangled in prakriti. Therefore, make a reminder knot of this fact, the plunge into the discharge of your duties.