True Karma Yoga

Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Once a shoe and a lump of halwa (a kind of confectionery) approached a sage and placed before him their grievances. The shoe said, “O adorable sage! Listen to my pitiable lot. I carry my master day and night over dirty, stony and thorny surfaces. On account of his weight I constantly wear out. But my master does not have the courtesy to take me into his house. He always leaves me outside the door. I am not able to bear this insult. My master does not appreciate my service even a bit.”

The sage said, “O beloved shoe! You are indeed a great karma yogi. You serve your master at great personal sacrifice. You protect his feet from thorns and stones by covering them. You endure all kinds of hardships. You are truly an embodiment of sacrifice. All glory to you!

“But you do not seem to have correctly understood the meaning and technique of karma yoga. A karma yogi should perform his work in a spirit of divine worship, without the least expectation of any personal gain, not even appreciation for the work he does. When he is attending upon someone, a karma yogi should feel that he is serving the Lord in that person. Far from expecting appreciation from the person served, the karma yogi should be thankful to the person for having given him an opportunity of serving the Lord in him.

“Do not feel that you are serving your master’s feet, but feel that you are serving God in the master. God is in all forms. All are manifestations of God only. Further, shun honour and respect. A karma yogi should treat honour and dishonour alike. He should maintain balance of mind under all circumstances. If you continue treating all work as the worship of God Himself, expecting no fruit, not even recognition, and treating honour and dishonour, pain and pleasure, gain and loss alike, you will doubtlessly earn God’s supreme grace and enjoy eternal bliss. Therefore, now continue your work of service in the manner I have advised.”

The lump of halwa then laid its complaint before the sage. It said, “O revered sage! Kindly listen to my pathetic tale. I look appealing and sweet-smelling in the sweetmeat shop. No passer-by goes away without casting a fond glance at me. People like me so much that my aroma or the very mention of my name makes their mouths water. No important feast or festival takes place without my presence. But alas! A strange transformation takes place in me after I have been eaten by people. Several hours after I am consumed, I am discarded in a changed form, very dirty and foul-smelling. People now shun me. They spit on the ground or close their nostrils when they see me. I am unable to bear this insult.”

The sage replied, “O beloved sweetmeat! You too are a great karma yogi like the shoe. With your nutritive elements, you serve those who eat you. You sacrifice your beauty, sweet aroma, honour and your very form itself in order to nourish and sustain people and satisfy their palate. What an embodiment of selfless service you are! But do not weep over the change that comes to your physical form, for you are not this physical form. You are neither the beautiful, attractive halwa nor the foul-smelling excreta. You are an embodiment of the spirit of true selfless service. This spirit lives through the ages and is sought as an ideal by great souls. It is unaffected by the changes and impurities of the physical form. Identify yourself not with the material form, but stand as a witness of its functions and continue to serve people with your nutritious and taste-giving elements. Service done without the idea of agency, and as a witness, is the ideal of a karma yogi. It is an immortal ideal that will make you very happy. The identification with the physical form is the root cause of suffering and sorrow.”

Thus comforted, both the shoe and the lump of halwa returned to their respective abodes, serving the people as instructed by the sage. They did not complain thereafter.