Karma Yoga

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

What is the importance of karma yoga as discussed in the Bhagavad Gita?

Lord Krishna's favourite subject was karma yoga because he believed that everybody is subject to the influences of karma. He has stated in the Bhagavad Gita that those who can understand the path of karma and karma yoga understand the secret of the yogas and the secret of life.

Karma yoga is a very dear subject not only to Lord Krishna but to all yogis around the world. Everybody performs karma through the senses, mind, emotions and physical interactions. Life without karma would be non-existent. So, we can say that the karmas in life are two sides of the same coin. If one side of the coin represents life, the other side represents those actions inherent in life.

Through karma we are able to understand our own life, improve the quality of life and transcend life. It is for this reason that Lord Krishna has said it is one of the most closely guarded secrets. It is like saying that a fish which lives in water gets thirsty for water. Similarly, a human being living in the realm of prakriti performs all the actions, all the karmas, yet does not know the meaning, the relevance and the purpose of the karma.

Since nobody is free from the effect of the karmas and it is the karma which changes the mentality, personality, viewpoints, thoughts, and behaviour of every person, one should make an effort to understand karma from the right perspective. If performed unconsciously and in association with ego and desires, karma becomes the cause of bondage and suffering. But the same karma when it is freed from ego and desire leads one to mukti, liberation. However, in order to reach this point, the beginnings of karma yoga, it is necessary to become immune to the effects of action and reaction or cause and effect.

How does one become immune? By involving oneself in karma with awareness, with conviction and by being the seer, the observer of the karma. How does this karma affect my attitude? What kind of thoughts does it create in me? What kind of emotions does it create in me? We are not immune from the effects of karma now, but when we become immune it means that we have perfected karma yoga. When we are able to work perfectly without the association of craving, without the association of ego, or desire, without being concerned if it is good or bad, when we try to perform that action with awareness, with perfection, with a sense of duty, then that becomes karma yoga.

It is possibly the most simple yet, at the same time, the most difficult path to follow. We all live in our own little well. When we try to come out of that little world, we encounter situations which are unknown to us, which do not conform with our beliefs, ideas or previous experience. It is something totally new. This makes us feel uncertain and insecure because we don't have control over the situation. We climb back into our own world of ideas and karma yoga fails there.

Although it is an easy path, when the practice of karma yoga begins to transform the human personality and the personality encounters its own limitations, it becomes a very hard process. One can perfect hatha yoga in no time, one can even perfect raja, kriya and kundalini yoga in no time, but karma yoga takes a lifetime to perfect. It is a different dimension, a different aspect of human personality. But once karma yoga is perfected there is nothing else which remains to be known. So, always remember that karma yoga is a process by which we can develop immunity to all the fluctuations of mind, immunity from the effects of ego and find our centre, find our balance.

If you can be where you are and accept things as they are, in that personal adjustment with the environment, with the conditions, states, different forms of behaviour, mentalities, attitudes and actions, you experience a very deep feeling of santosha, contentment, which is the achievement of karma yoga. We spend perhaps 80 percent of the day involved with karma and 20 percent thinking about how to escape from it, to be free from it. By adding the component of awareness and the will to do it with the proper attitude, intention and mentality, karma yoga becomes a process of natural and spontaneous meditation. So, instead of shying away from the karmas, identify with them. That identification will improve our mind, expressive will, level of energy, stamina and prana and lead to the ability to understand situations and discriminate between them, vijnana, as well as contentment.

Right till the end of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna has emphasized the aspect of karma yoga over and over again. The only way to salvation is the perfection of karma yoga, not running away from or isolating ourselves from the world, from the karma.

Ganga Darshan August 1998