Karma Yoga – the End of Karma

Rishi Nityabodhananda Saraswati, Australia

Karma means action, it stems from the Sanskrit root kri, to act. The law of karma says that when we perform any action, there will be consequences. The consequence of eating is to fill the stomach, then to digest the food, then to ingest the nutrients, then to excrete the waste and then to experience hunger for more food. Karmas start with the body which has to be fed, bathed, clothed and exercised. As long as there is a body these karmas will never be exhausted. Our lives are full of actions that we cannot get out of doing, no matter how much we would like to escape.

The ancient texts advise us to accept our lot in life and to perform actions without neglecting any part of life. This may be understood as completing our karmas. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advised Arjuna to act and, because he was a warrior, to fight. He tells Arjuna that karma yoga is working, not for the fruits of the actions, but for the sake of the actions themselves. According to Swami Niranjan, karma yoga was the first yoga laid down in the Upanishads as necessary in order to experience the state of perfection in yoga. Karma yoga is one of the main paths laid down in the Vedic tradition.

Results of past actions

Karmas are not blessings or punishments meted out by God. The law of karma says that if I drink ten glasses of whisky then I will suffer a hangover and a lack of mental clarity. God did not make me suffer. Perhaps he presented me with a choice of whisky or water, but the decision was mine.

As long as we keep the discussion on a gross level, the law of karma receives approval from the logical mind. It is only when we move into the more fascinating and unknown areas of ethics, morality and meritorious and sinful actions that understanding the law of karma becomes more difficult, simply because we do not know much about the subtle aspects of our universe and our personality.

According to the law of karma, everything we have achieved is due to efforts made in the past. Those who give support get support, those who trust are trusted. Friendship and faith will surround a person who has good karma. Such a person is not just lucky, for good karma is the meritorious reward for proper action. It is quite clear: as we sow, so shall we reap.

Our state of mind is the result of our past actions. A seed sown in the soil becomes a vigorous plant competing with others for nutrients and sunshine. In the same way we can plant a seed in the mind and fertilize it by liking or hating the idea, and even further by keeping company with those who either like or hate the same idea. Our state of mind is our karma and there is no action that does not result in the necessity for further action.

There is confusion regarding karma and karma yoga. Some understand it as physical work and not mental work. Many people tell me they do all their karma yoga at home. They have vast gardens to maintain and these take up all their time. Of course the result of acquiring large gardens is their maintenance. This is the karma of acquiring a garden; it may be a pleasant, rewarding activity in terms of health and happiness, but maintenance of one's own garden is not karma yoga.

Others confuse karma with kama. Kama means desire, not action. Getting kama is a matter of choice. Fulfilling kama is an endless task, similar to feeding a fire with wood in the hope that the fire will become satisfied and not want any more wood.

Interaction and reaction

Karma yoga is defined as any action performed with meditative awareness. Not only must the actions be observed consciously but also the attitude to the actions. Is the karma ego-centred as 99% of our actions are? In interactions with people this question becomes almost impossible to answer unless we look at the purpose of our interaction. For example, you are innocently doing your karma yoga work, peacefully and happily. Your heart is full of love and someone with a very disturbing angry vibration, but using politically correct and polite words, comes over and moves you to another location because of so many fantastic reasons. Your ego does not like humiliation, your work and peace of mind get disturbed. You acquiesce but to no avail, now you are like a pressure cooker about to go off and you cannot work.

What is the solution? Your intellect understands that the disturber's mood is off and the best solution is to walk away, but somehow you have accessed your own anger and you feel you have to give it back. As karma yogis, we have to act according to the dictates of our personality, providing the work does not suffer. Each person should study their own reactions look at the whole problem, pray for a solution and learn from their mistakes.

It is true that if we retire to a pleasant place away from prying eyes, busy bodies, and pushy competitive types, life can be very pleasant and for some time we will have escaped the effects of samskaras that are unpleasant. Retreating to a monastery has long been known as the ultimate escape from the woes of the world. By taking hold of the highest spiritual ideals aspirants like to forget responsibilities of the past. You can practise meditation and read holy books, and you may have very pleasant experiences, but you won't purify and exhaust samskaras. Ultimately you will have to meet your inner experiences or spiritually stagnate.

The practice of karma yoga becomes part and parcel of every spiritual aspirant's life. Our reactions to different objects, people, vibrations, jobs and interactions is a fascinating area of study. If our work is successful we become proud, or happy, if our work fails we have another reaction. The Bhagavad Gita says three main things about karma yoga:

  1. Work for the sake of the action not for the fruits. Or be equal in success and failure.
  2. Work with perfection and with efficiency. Or do the best job possible as fast as possible, but without too much obsession.
  3. Renounce attachment and doership. Or after you have finished the job leave it and understand that any success was God's doing and not yours. The same goes for failure because any failure is God's.

These are the classical guidelines to karma yoga and no doubt we aspire to emulate these. However, on reflection we discover samskaras, thoughts and feelings, and reactions. In the ashram we may be given grass raking, or pot cleaning, or potato peeling for our karma yoga. Whatever the activity usually we become aware of another aspect of the personality. We may encounter thoughts such as “I want to do something important, I want to be heard, I want to be influential.” This is a process of awareness of karmas and their different aspects. It is not the surface reactions that are important, rather it is the subtle reactions which need to be observed.

Service for others

To find relief from the burden of karma accumulated until now is the desire of every spiritual aspirant. Paramahamsa Satyananda has said that you have to remove the thorn with the thorn. How do you remove a thorn with a thorn? He says it is simple: by performing selfless service for others the selfish karma is exhausted. First we have to know what our karmas are, and if we can apply those karmas in a selfless way then we have a hope of exhausting them. Ultimately karma yoga is yoga, and in order to achieve purity of mind we have to develop a selfless attitude. It is our ultimate purpose and sooner or later we will get on that path more and more.

In chapter five of the Bhagavad Gita it says karma yoga, the yoga of action, is superior to non-action, and by performing actions selflessly the sadhaka can become detached from the fruits of action. This is sannyasa. Renunciation by the quality of detachment is not a decision, it is a point in the evolution of the personality from which the sadhaka can live without the fetters of attachment. The tool for removing these fetters is karma yoga.

The simplest form of karma yoga is to donate to worthy causes, to give your own money, which you are attached to, for the service of those whom you do not even know. After that you can collect money from others in order that the poor can find relief. After that you can perform some service yourself, giving not only your money but also your time, effort, energy and mind. Ultimately the highest form of karma yoga is to give your hopes and ambitions, your wants and your desires so that when others receive what they want and need you become satisfied and your needs are met in this way without creating ongoing or subsequent karma in you.

Performing karma yoga outside the ashram can be very confusing. We are all so much into “Do it yourself” that we hate to do anything with the help of experts. Australians love to tile their own bathrooms, build their own sheds and manage their own affairs completely. It is little wonder that people like to manage and organize their own karma yoga. But often it is not easy. Many take ruthless advantage of the good intent of karma yogis. Some karma yogis are so intent on performing selfless works that their ambition to succeed in this particular aspect of yoga blinds them to the possibility that their actions are not needed or suited. Everyone has heard of the young man who was so keen on performing his good deed that he insisted on helping an old lady to cross a busy road, despite her telling him not to bother. When they reached the other side she said to him “Thank you young man, but I really did not want to cross.”

The most frequent failure of karma yoga is due to the overwhelming need of those we serve. There are so few serving those who need it that the demands often completely drain the karma yogi, who can see no other way but to give up.

This is why institutions such as ashrams are such wonderful places at which to start our karma yoga. We may have high ideals about serving the poor, but without adequate training and organizational skills our plans come asunder. Coming under the administration of a charitable organization can be very rewarding. But it can happen in such places that people fired up with idealistic enthusiasm tread on the sensitivity of others in order to gratify ambitions and the personal need for recognition. In order to meet these demanding situations training with the guidance of a suitable teacher is necessary.

If we devote a part of our time towards selfless action, maybe an hour, a week, a year, a life, we become aware of our karmas, and this is the beginning of karma yoga. The practice of karma yoga leads to a unification of emotion with service. This is what is needed for peace and concentration.