Karma Sannyasa and Dhyana: The Yoga of Renunciation in Action and Meditation

Swami Maheshananda Saraswati

Which is better, serving in the world or seeking wisdom in seclusion? Or is it possible to combine both of these into one process? Quite often those who seek wisdom in seclusion tend to live an inactive life. This is because the initial romance with experience in the path of meditation is likely to make aspirants one-sided; they incline to forsake the path of action. There are many controversies created regarding the right path by such so-called 'yogis'. "Should I ever return to activity in the world? Should I not rather confine myself wholly to secluded meditation?"

But the truth is that the cosmic law compels everyone to activity. The Bhagavad Gita shows us the right path: karma sannyasa and dhyana - the path of performance of right actions without desire for their fruits plus meditation on the highest consciousness through yoga. This is termed as superior to the life of meditation without outer activity. It gives us a chance to work out our karmas by employing our material desires in the service of God. With such a positive and creative attitude the mind becomes engaged in pure activities. God does not take into account the sin or virtue of individuals. We ourselves by our actions reap the results of our good and bad karma owing to the proper use or misuse of our free will. God has given us free will, so our duty is to strengthen it and follow the path of freedom, not the path of delusion and suffering. People suffer just because they do not open the eye of spiritual perception; they are immersed in the ever-changing outer world.

True renunciation is more naturally and easily attained through inward discipline of the mind through yoga, which primarily depends on meditation. Meditation is that scientific technique which brings the aspirant closer to his inner being, to the source of joy, peace, knowledge and wisdom. It creates harmony and balance at internal and external levels so that we remain balanced in the ups and downs, praises and insults, successes and failures of life, and attain perfection in all our actions and endeavours.


Karma is the primal seed of desire that guides the destiny, thoughts, actions and behaviour of every individual. Activity is the very breath of human existence. Living organisms cannot live even for a moment without action. Everyone is made to act helplessly by the impulses born of prakriti (nature). Without work life cannot be sustained. Cosmic existence is based on dynamic activity. It is necessary for any social order.

The law of karma

Just as we have the law of causation as the foundation of all the physical sciences, we have the law of karma in the moral and spiritual dimension. According to this law, all our karmas bear fruit without exception. For good karmas there are positive and pleasurable experiences, for bad karmas there are experiences of pain and suffering. "As you sow, so shall you reap." Our karma decides the fruits, similar to the universal law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Our present life is the result of our past karmas and our future life will depend on our present karmas. If we see people living a happy life, it is due to good karmas done by them in the past. Similarly, for those experiencing pain and suffering in this life, it is due to their bad karmas in the past. In a nutshell, every individual is responsible for his destiny. He has choice and free will. Those who stay in harmony with the cosmic laws can live in peace and bliss.

Types of karma

Although there are many different classifications of karma, we will take into consideration the following two only.

Sakama karma: Karmas done with selfish desires, for personal attainment, propelled by passion, infatuation and sensual gratification. These lead to bondage because they are ego-centred.

Nishkama karma: Karmas done with selfless motives for the welfare of others. The motive is to give, give, give and not take, take, take. These do not cause bondage, rather they bring inner peace, wisdom and joy.

The relevance to our life process

For worldly people life is a continuous struggle and sacrifice. Ceaseless activity in the turmoil of life takes its own toll. Life appears as a series of painful experiences due to the various kinds of stress we have to experience. No one is spared this whirlpool of stress and it is difficult to know how to escape. Stress seems unavoidable, reaching into one's work environment, social affairs and home life and even intruding on one's sleep. There may be many causes of stress, physical, psychological, social, environmental, etc. Often these factors work together.

In the work environment we often have to face anxiety, worry, conflicts, etc., due to lack of cooperation from friends, family members, co-workers, lack of security, feelings of loneliness, weak social structure, change in the moral values of modern society, religious conflicts, etc.

If this is the reality of life, then it becomes increasingly important to analyze and train the internal process of our being so that we become creative in the external world and attain to a state of tranquillity at the same time. Our mental-emotional life needs detailed analysis, understanding and systematic organization. Only then can we master our potential and function effectively and harmoniously in the external world, for all things happen within before they are expressed externally.

If we are to live life happily, we need to be aware that others are also striving to attain happiness. Consideration for others is a primary requisite for finding happiness and building a good society. We have to go to the root of the problem, the fundamental cause, and analyze our duty in life, the way to live harmoniously, living and coping with the world in a practical way.

Karma sannyasa and dhyana

"Work for the sake of work without any motive" is all very well in theory. But when we endeavour to put it into actual practice, we will encounter countless difficulties at every step. Only those who make sincere efforts and attain the knowledge that directly flows from the centre of consciousness alone can do unselfish, motiveless action. If those in a state of mental-emotional confusion that leads to serious internal conflict try to attain this, then when the case becomes un-resolvable they will lose all incentive and motivation and become desolate. The purpose of life will then remain unfulfilled. The concepts related to the topic as explained in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita (the reference text) give all the systematic efforts and practices necessary to organize the internal life so that human beings can attain a state of tranquillity in the midst of activity and thus become useful to themselves and others.

Thus the basic aim should be to perform actions with meditative awareness from moment to moment. This requires the following:

  • Awareness of the centre of consciousness,
  • Understanding, training and mastery of one's internal states, and
  • Skilful and selfless performance of actions in the external world.

There are two areas of life that have to be looked into. One area is that of action and the other is that of meditation. Although they appear as two opposite processes, one of external activity and the other of inner passivity, yet they form a complementary pair.

Karma sannyasa, though literally translated as renunciation of action, actually means renunciation of the fruits of action. It aims at becoming the perfect instrument of the supreme consciousness in the manifest universe. Our perfection is limited by our whims and ego. Renunciation is actually related to the idea of giving up the sense of doership in all actions. He who works, having given up attachment, resigning his actions to God, is not touched by sin, even as a lotus leaf is untouched by water.

The Bhagavad Gita requires us not to renounce work, but to do it, offering it to the supreme in which alone is immortality. When we renounce our attachment to the finite ego and its likes and dislikes and place our actions in the eternal, we attain true renunciation that is consistent with free activity in the world. Such a person acts not for his fleeting finite self but for the self that is in us all. Outwardly renouncing action and mentally dwelling on the sense objects is hypocrisy. When actions are motivated by selflessness, it leads to freedom of expression.

There are a few indispensable requisites for attaining perfection when following this path. It is here that dhyana or meditation plays the key role. Dhyana is the system of training the mind in a unified way. It helps us to free the mind of all its complexes, fears and confusion, thus helping us to use our creative potential to its fullest capacity. With the help of dhyana we learn to discipline our mind, train our senses, regulate our emotions and keep our intellect working in the light of pure consciousness. We also develop the right attitude of surrender, which leads to right action, using our will power and at the same time remaining unattached.

The prerequisites for perfection in action are as follows:

Equanimity: It is important to keep a balanced mind in success and failure; otherwise we swing from one state of mind to another, from optimism to pessimism. A true renunciate is one who neither hates nor desires and is free from the idea of duality.

Non-attachment: It is not possible for embodied beings to renounce action, but it is possible to renounce the results of action. The expectation and desire for the fruits of action should be abandoned. This leads to tranquillity, efficiency and peace.

Egolessness: He who is free from the feeling of ego and is not swayed by the feeling of good and bad walks the path of righteousness and righteous action. One must strive to eliminate the feeling of doership. One has to be simple, sincere and desireless. All actions will be motivated by selflessness and thus there will be the experience of inner freedom and joy of expression in the outer dimension.

Surrender to God: The real aim of karma sannyasa is to light the fire of spiritual knowledge that can dispel the darkness and reduce all our past impressions to ashes. For this, devotion to God or a higher aspect of consciousness is absolutely essential. When one offers the fruits of action to God, he attains everlasting peace and bliss. One who has no faith, love, or devotion toward the indweller, the controller, the governor, and the fountain of light and life within has to suffer in doubt, misery, pain and grief. Inner light is more important than all the lights that shine outside. It purifies the mind, the intellect and the senses and only then can we attain to our real wealth in the form of courage, mental and emotional clarity, love, profound knowledge of discrimination, peace and bliss. It purifies our heart and then all our actions become a form of worship and meditation. Then one is free from temptations, desires and delusions. To attain this state is the highest aim of dhyana. Then "Thy will be done" does not appear as an impossibility, but becomes a reality. We gain our original childlike innocence and purity and become fit to be called the children of God in the real sense.

The benefits of following the path of the yoga of renunciation in action and meditation are:

Curing of mental and emotional problems: These problems cannot be removed by doing nothing or living in seclusion, but by the yoga of renunciation in action and developing meditative awareness, which leads to spontaneous discipline of mind.

Resolution of inner conflict: With the attitude of surrender and equanimity one can easily overcome inner conflicts. It also helps to develop the ability to analyze, examine and accept or reject the thousands of thoughts that come forth, in the light of true discrimination and nonattachment.

Transformation in personality: This path helps develop efficiency, productivity and perfection. Also when one starts working with the attitude of surrender, as an instrument of the divine will there can be no anger or frustration. This helps in the expansion of awareness in every dimension of our life.

Creative output: With the attitude of offering all our actions to God we develop a more positive and vibrant personality. Creativity, compassion, a sharing attitude, dignity of labour, etc. become spontaneous expressions, leading us to live in tune with the cosmic rhythm and harmony.