Karma and Bhakti Yoga – Two Sides of the Same Coin

Kate Dunbar, Canada, BYB Yogic Studies, 2006–2007

On my fifth or sixth day in Rikhia, after an emotionally super-charged day cleaning ‘thousands’ of rooms, I was asked to help with the prasad after dinner. Like a fragile zombie, I went, sat down in a lump and started packing. I had spent the last several days being told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and when to stop doing it. I was told to do things which seemed to have no purpose or apparent logic behind them. It all left me confused, angry, frustrated and, worst of all, it forced me to look straight into the dark eyes of my raging ego. There was nowhere to hide. This was karma yoga at its finest, and on that night I felt myself physically and mentally give up completely.

Like a robot I packed quickly, mechanically, while tears streamed from my eyes. I felt completely emptied. At one point I remember looking down at my hands. They were moving so quickly, with such precision and determination, despite the fact that the mind attached to them was absolutely silent (or absent, I’m not sure). I watched those hands as if they weren’t mine. And then I understood. These aren’t my hands. This work is not mine. I was one of many people sitting in that room with thousands of bags full of prasad to be given to total strangers. How could it be? How did I come to be there? The scale and the depth of what was going on around me, of which I was a part, fully dawned on me in that instant. I was awestruck at the power, the magnitude of the force behind it, and the capacity of the universe to give, give, give. Everything from prasad, to prana, to painful life lessons. In my moment of total surrender, I was able to understand. This is grace. This is bhakti.

Bhakti is surrender, total love for God. It acknowledges and works with human nature by developing and rechannelling the natural emotions towards a love of God and all beings. Karma yoga is selfless service characterized by an attitude of equanimity and non-attachment to the fruits of one’s actions. It too works with the natural human tendencies by placing importance on how the work is done rather than what work is done. These two forms are naturally related and both serve to enhance the other.

Chapter 12 of the Bhagavad Gita mentions the qualities of the ultimate bhakta – equanimity, renunciation of the sense of doership and non-attachment – all of which are cultivated through the sincere practice of karma yoga. One big question I’ve had about bhakti yoga is, how can one who does not have a deep sense of faith or an object of devotion actually practise bhakti yoga? Karma yoga is the answer. By remaining mindful of our actions, by constantly trying to observe ourselves when faced with the challenges to our egos, karma yoga slowly fosters the qualities of a bhakta and mysteriously brings us towards feelings of devotion. At the same time, the higher emotional states experienced by a bhakta further enhance one’s motivation and commitment to the practice of karma yoga. The two forms of yoga naturally grow together, although for most of us, perhaps westerners in particular, it is easier to begin with the yoga of action and gradually develop an understanding of bhakti yoga.

I have many questions and uncertainties about bhakti yoga. It is at once deeply familiar and natural for me, but also feels far away from where I am now. But I find great hope in my experiences with seva. And, with growing certainty, I feel that karma yoga practice is drawing the map that will take me back to the lost treasure of my childhood. For me, karma yoga is the tool that will gradually unearth the long lost bhakta within.