Karma Yoga

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

This body is just an instrument, a machine, a medium through which one is able to perform actions and fulfil one's duties, just like a harmonium. A harmonium is a machine, a musical instrument. It does not produce a sound or tune by itself. However, when a player plays the harmonium, it produces beautiful melodies and tunes. If there is no player to play the harmonium, the tune is not produced by itself.

Similarly, the body is like a harmonium. It is a medium through which the melody of life is produced and through which a tune is produced in one's life. It unfolds sweetness, happiness and bliss. The energy that is used to keep this body functioning is the energy of the mind and emotions. To keep this instrument in good condition, healthy and energetic, one has to practise hatha yoga. To keep this instrument functioning, there is raja yoga for the mind and bhakti yoga for emotions.

Purpose of action

The next stage is karma, action, and human behaviour. Only through action and behaviour do disturbance and disorder arise in one's life. However, one can also free oneself from one's suffering through actions and behaviour. On the one hand, action and behaviour become the cause of bondage, and on the other hand they become the cause of liberation. Therefore, it is important to explain and understand action in yoga.

Right from the beginning, from when you are born until your death you perform action. The actions that you perform bind you to selfishness, to the world, illusion or maya, to infatuation, attraction and attachment. When action and behaviour bind you with infatuation, illusion and attachment, then your actions do not become the cause of your evolution, progress and growth. You come into bondage, for you are bound by limitation and restriction. The action that ties you to limitation becomes the cause of your pain. The behaviour that limits you becomes the cause of your suffering.

Sri Krishna has given this definition of karma in the Bhagavad Gita. He says that yogis perform action to free themselves from attachment and bondage and to attain atmashuddhi, purification of the self. When God has given this definition for karma, then what definition can human beings give? People do not have the right to define karma in another manner. People do not have the intellect to explain karma in another way. In the Bhagavad Gita it is said (5:11): Yoginah karma kurvanti sangam tyakatva atmashuddhayae – 'Perform actions for the purification of the self' (by renouncing infatuation, moha, attachment, asakti, and illusion, maya).

Two levels of action

This is the direction for life. Whatever actions you have performed until now have been performed with attachment. According to the words of God, yoga and Sri Krishna, you have to perform action to free yourself from attachment and to attain atma shuddhi. This is transformation of vision. It is modification of thoughts. It is the change in a person's thinking and intellect. As long as there is no transformation in the thinking pattern, thoughts and intellect, action can never become a medium of atma shuddhi.

The question that arises is how to perform action? Some people say to keep performing actions, though without the expectation of the fruits of action. This has also been said in the Bhagavad Gita (2:47): Karmanyaivadhikaraste maa phaleshu kadaachana – 'Your right is to work only, but never to its fruits'. This means that one should keep performing actions without expecting the fruits or results of the action.

This explanation of karma that people discuss is the primary school class of explanation. The primary school definition is: perform action but without any expectations of the fruits. The college level explanation is atma shuddhi: perform action for the purification of the self.

There is a difference in the approach of the primary class and the approach of the college level. Sri Krishna has explained both approaches in the Bhagavad Gita.

Aspirations are not needs

According to psychology, there are four types of mental states in a human being. One state of mind comprises desires, wishes and fantasies which are the ambitions and aspiration of life. Ambition is one form of expression of the mind. Ambition guides one's actions, and actions are performed to fulfil ambitions. In another state of mind one becomes aware of one's needs.

What are the needs? Physical need, mental need, emotional need, spiritual need. What is the requirement of the physical body? To be healthy. What is the requirement of the mind? To have sharpness of understanding and to be peaceful. What is the requirement of the emotions? To be balanced and to express the positive, and not the negative qualities. The need of action is to be able to connect oneself to the world through the medium of action. In that connection one does not fall into the hands of illusion and the grip of attachment. The need of action is to be united and perform one's duties, yet remain distant from illusion and attachment.

Desires are opposite to needs. Desires say, "Let me become a doctor or a famous and rich person." However, do you really possess that ability, capacity and strength to fulfil your desires? Therefore, first and foremost you have to give priority to the fulfillment of your needs. Only when your needs have been met, can you look towards your desires. The mistake takes place when you give priority to your aspiration and do not look at your needs. This is also where your effort, labour and hard work fail. You do not want to fulfil your needs, only your high aspirations. Therefore, it is important to bring about a change in your perception, thoughts and thinking pattern.

When you write down your aspirations, ambitions, motivations and desires on one sheet of paper and on another paper your needs to live and spend a happy life, you can compare both lists, and decide what to do first. If you take the decision to fulfil your needs first, your actions will correspond by themselves. If you think that your aspirations should be fulfilled first and not your needs, your actions will take place correspondingly. Therefore, take the help of your intellect and pay heed to your needs first, and later pay attention to your aspirations.

Knowing one's SWAN

When the desires, ambitions and needs are seen clearly, then one must see how much strength one possesses for their fulfillment and attainment: mental strength, financial strength and social strength. One must also see where one fails. What is the limitation that manifests as a weakness in one's life? Here is an example: when a person goes for an interview, he becomes fearful and his mental clarity becomes vague. When he is asked a question he becomes so nervous that he is unable to answer properly. Nervousness is the weakness of the mind and brain. If one feels inferior in front of any person, and becomes depressed, at that time the inferiority complex that one experiences is a weakness in one's life, which is created by the mind.

In this manner one can make a list of what in English is called the SWAN principle. S means strength, W means weakness, A means ambition, and N means need. Everyone lives life with strength, weakness, ambition and need.

The life that one lives every day in the community, at home and in one's profession is influenced by these four states of strength, weakness, ambition and need. Actions are executed through them only, and even one's behaviour reflects them. Therefore, Sri Krishna says, Yoginah karma kurvanti sangam tyaktva atmashuddhaye – "Renouncing attachment to attain purification of the self." To renounce attachment it is necessary to become aware of one's strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs. Without being aware of them one will not be able to free oneself from attachment. One will not be able to go towards the purification of the self, atma shuddhi. This is the principle of karma yoga.

Karma yoga

Karma means your normal, day-to-day work in your life. To make your mind immune and free from the impact and effect of this karma is karma yoga. If you follow and make use of it in your daily life then you can achieve your aim and be successful. These are the words of Sri Swami Satyananda.

When I came to the ashram I was only four years old and I lived with my guru in the ashram. At the age of eleven I received diksha and was given sannyasa formally. He told me that I was born a sannyasin, yet for the world I had to be initiated officially.

One week after giving me diksha, Sri Swamiji told me to spread yoga throughout the world alone, without him. I went to the western world alone and for twelve years, from the age of eleven to twenty-three, I traveled the whole world conducting programs, spreading yoga, establishing yoga centres. The experiences I had were not from the domain of knowledge, rather from the domain of karma, doing righteous action.

I understood that whatever our gurus, our ancestors and our sages said was actually true: knowledge originates from inside human beings. It cannot be attained from the outside. Today we have information and knowledge; nonetheless when this entire universe was created, from where did knowledge come at that time? Human beings received knowledge, whether of art or science, from inside. Everything originated in the human mind; everything has been cultivated and brought out in the human mind. There is a saying: 'There is nothing new under the sun, everything comes from within'. This is true.

From tamas to sattwa

In life, the state of separation and union of Shiva and Shakti is called yoga. This union of Shiva and Shakti is not only an idea, a philosophy, religious belief or concept; it is a practical truth of life. The mind, intellect, emotion, action and body have to be balanced, managed, organized and controlled. Anybody who starts the journey on this path will one day attain the state of self-purification within and realize the nature of illumination, which is sattwaguna.

In Samkhya philosophy, tamoguna has been called sthitisheelatva, the firm, standing, immobile, definite, measured quality; rajoguna is called kriyasheelatva, the quality of action or the active quality; and sattwaguna is called prakashsheelatva, the quality of illumination or the illuminated quality.

Tamoguna indicates a state, for example, a building, a pandal or temple, which have a shape, a limitation, a frame, a posture and are fixed and firm in that state. Tamoguna has acquired a place and a definite, constant frame. When this fixed state or limitation breaks, then whatever was inside is liberated. Like the mind and soul, which are inside the body, are liberated after the death of the body.

What is the form of the mind and soul? It is of illumination, sattwaguna. As long as the soul is in bondage with the body, it is confined to the body, conditioned and contained. The inner soul is not free from the bondage of the body, and that is tamas.

Rajoguna is called kriyasheelatva as it indicates action, kriya. According to Tantra, Samkhya, Yoga, Vedanta and our tradition, the journey of life is from tamoguna to sattwaguna. Philosophers say that the journey of life is the union of the individual soul with the supreme soul. People do not know and have never experienced either soul or supreme soul yet they moved forward with this belief that there exists a soul inside that is an inseparable part of the supreme soul. There is no experience, only belief. To transform this belief into reality a practical path is required.

The path is by deep thinking and ensuring that the journey must be from the state of tamoguna to sattwaguna. This journey towards sattwaguna requires the helping hand of rajoguna. Returning to Munger from Kathmandu, a vehicle for transportation is required. This vehicle of transportation is rajoguna where action is taking place, be it an airplane, a four-wheeler, a bus. The journey is from one point, the starting point, to another point, the ending point, which is the goal, aim and destination.

The starting point is tamoguna and the ending point for life is sattwaguna, and in between one takes the help of rajoguna. Rajoguna has a relation with human beings for it introduces action. The effort one makes, the tools one adopts, be they in the form of spiritual practice or of action in the material world, can be a medium to take one from tamoguna to sattwaguna. The person who lives in this world without duplicity and deception, who is simple, natural and light-hearted, can attain sattwaguna quite easily.

A bucket with holes

About forty years ago, when I was ten years old, I was traveling with my guru. At that time there were no water bottles. One had to fetch water from the well. It was summer, and we were trying hard to find a well for water. Finally, we located one. The vehicle stopped and I ran towards the well. A bucket and rope were there. I lowered the bucket into the well and pulled it up, however it was empty. Again I put the bucket into the well, made sure that it was down in the water and then pulled it outside, again it was empty. There was a hole in the bucket and by the time it came up, every drop of water had escaped through that hole. I went to my Guruji, told the whole story and asked for another bucket. With the help of the other bucket we drank water and moved ahead. The story ends here.

Some time later my guru asked me to tell another person something that he would have to do. The other person did not follow the order. He did not believe that it was the guru's order, and instead thought that I was saying it without guru's instruction. I was young in age and status at that time. I came back to Guruji and explained that the other person was not listening to me, "He does not believe that it was your order." Guruji replied, "It is because his mind has a hole."

At that time I did not understand what he meant, yet now it is crystal clear. You read a lot, you know a lot, yet do you follow that? At the time of the Mahabharata war, Sri Krishna went to Hastinapur with a proposal for a peace treaty and tried hard to convince Duryodhana. Duryodhana replied, "I know dharma, righteous action, well; however, I do not have any intention to follow it. I also know adharma, unrighteous action, well and I cannot free myself from that adharma."

You too have gone through lots of scriptures, literature, holy texts, and modern education. You have read, known, and understood. Despite that, when the right time comes in your life, do you follow those teachings? Probably not, for you have no faith in yourself to succeed. Why do you have no faith? There is a hole in your mind. The same has been mentioned by Sri Rama. The people who have holes in their mind cannot assimilate any teaching, ideal or tradition. Such a life is always empty.

Duty and karma

The first requirement is that those holes in the mind and in life must be closed and rectified. Then whatever one is imbibing will remain in the mind and not flow out. Karma is not only working and performing action through the external senses. It involves whatever one does for internal transformation, to balance oneself, and for purification. Whatever one does externally is a duty. Externally performed action is duty related to family, world, and so on, something which one must do.

You say, "I am doing my karma." Actually you are performing your duties. Until today you have not done your karma. If you want to do karma, then start the process of inner transformation that will lead to self-purification, control and balance. Do your duties outside and perform karma inside. This yoga is called karma yoga, an explanation given by our sages, saints and gurus.

When you combine hatha yoga, raja yoga and bhakti yoga with karma yoga you can make your life beautiful and you are able to rise to a higher dimension in your life. This is the process of complete yoga.

7 June 2014, Kathmandu, Nepal