How should hopes and expectations be dealt with?
Swami Niranjanananda: Exponents of karma yoga say that one should strive for the completion of an action, each action being a creative expression, done with perfection and without expectation of a result. However, the realities of life show that no one is evolved enough to deny the results, the fruits of action. Whenever there is any action, there is a natural craving for a better outcome or result. Even though it is said not to expect results and to keep on doing one’s duty, in reality everyone expects results. It is one thing for Sri Krishna to say in the Bhagavad Gita (2:47) that one has the right to perform karma but not the right to its result. However, as a normal individual one cannot make that statement – with what authority would one say it? A human being expects results, even a spiritual aspirant expects results. If one does japa, one wants to have an experience; if one practises meditation, one wants darshan.
It is not wrong to expect results, but hankering after and obsession with the result is wrong. With obsession, suffering and pleasure come. When pleasure comes, an individual is attracted towards what is pleasurable. Sukhanushayi ragah – one is attracted to those conditions, situations and objects through which happiness and pleasure can be experienced. That is called raga or attraction. Alternatively, one feels aversion, dwesha, towards conditions which cause suffering; one does not want to suffer because one is fearful of suffering. Dukhanushayi dweshah – there is rejection of the conditions which cause suffering. The hankering is for the result which is pleasing because it is believed it will make one happy, but if the result is seen as displeasing, one avoids it.
Both success and failure have to be accepted. Often when there is failure one says it was the will of God and when there is success one says it was one’s own doing. This indicates a tamasic frame of mind, as the person is not willing to take responsibility for his actions. Just as day and night are accepted as natural events of life, success and failure are also natural events of living.
One may have the expectation of a benevolent, auspicious and fruitful result, but one should not hanker after it or be obsessed with it. If there is obsession, creativity and awareness are lost, and one acquires tunnel vision. Looking at the world through a pipe gives limited vision. In obsession, the mind focuses only on one thing. In depression, people think gloomily; in elation, they think only of happiness. All these states indicate tunnel vision.
When a person performs a karma, he should do it well. Whatever he has to obtain in return, he will get. If he drinks water, his thirst is bound to be quenched. It doesn’t take a bucket of water, one glass will suffice. The circumstances come and go, and expectations are always there in one form or another. What needs to be handled is attachment to a result. Karmas have to be performed with awareness and without paying attention to gain and loss. Being able to balance oneself between gain and loss is the highest balance of life.
Whether one’s efforts succeed or fail, one must assume the attitude of a witness and allow the state of samatvam, equanimity, to come into one’s life. That state has been called yoga. When the mind is balanced and contented, one feels happiness. One may continue to have expectations, but not be obsessed with them. When one expects a result, it becomes the goal and purpose of life, which enables one to make an effort.
If the expectation is renounced and one says, “Whatever has to happen will happen,” no one will be able to walk the path due to too many diversions. Therefore, whoever comes into this world should walk with an expectation, but success or failure should not lead them astray.
How can a sattwic expression of action be achieved?
Swami Niranjanananda: In order to achieve a meditative process in karma yoga, there has to be awareness of the gunas, which are the aspects, qualities or nature of the phenomenal world. These aspects have been divided into three categories: tamasic, meaning a state of inertia or ignorance; rajasic, meaning a state of dynamism and activity combined with full ego involvement; and sattwic, meaning simplicity and equanimity in action.
Simplicity in action is the sattwic karma that the aspirant is trying to evolve. In the course of his growth he begins from the tamasic pattern or frame of mind. Tamasic actions are deluding in nature. They are performed for self-satisfaction and many times harm another individual. They are actions with a limited vision and concept and are subject to the state of ignorance or avidya.
On a higher level the next form of action is known as rajasic.
These actions are performed for the fulfilment of a personal desire with ego, effort, drive, motivation and expectation of a result which is self-satisfying. Most of the world population works on the rajasic level of karma. To go one step beyond the rajasic nature should be the main thrust of a positive ashram type environment, where karma is done without any dislike, hatred or disturbed feelings, and where the karmas or actions flow from one state to the next. Such karmas uplift the whole group; they do not just satisfy or fulfil the ambitions of one individual.
Actions done without any kind of expectation, hatred or dissipation of mind, and which flow from harmony to dedication to compassion and to the integration of one’s personality, are known as sattwic. It is this sattwic karma which has to be evolved and striven for. Once one is able to strive on this path, one can achieve different states of awareness and realization.
The final statement that the yogas make is to live karmically, trying not to reject the karmas, or to build upon them. The statement, ‘Live karmically’, is not only yogic. In different traditions such as Tao, Zen, Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity, the same concept of flowing with life has been emphasized. Generally, what happens is that instead of flowing with life, there is struggle. If there is struggle in anyone’s life, one can be assured that the karmas are not sattwic but rajasic. If there is struggle in the mind, thoughts or beliefs, one is living under the influence of rajas. At the time of struggle, actions originate from the ego, which superimposes itself upon one’s ideas and beliefs and therefore upon one’s actions. The aim is to flow with the karmas that come in life, flow with the nature of life, with total awareness and detachment.
What are the results of overcoming ego and becoming the non-doer?
Swami Niranjanananda: Once the ego is eliminated, the concept, feeling or idea comes that ‘I am not the doer; God is the doer’. The same sentiment has been stated in Sanskrit: Na ham karta, Hari karta, Hari karta hi kevalam. The meaning is simple. It is the knowledge and wisdom that no one is the thinker; someone is guiding the thoughts. No one is the actor; someone is acting through the individual. No one is the performer; someone is performing through the individual. The one who is performing is the cosmic self, Hari. This is the knowledge of a jnani, it is the feeling of a bhakta and it is the life of a person who acts, a karma yogi. The same is expressed in the Bible (John 10:29–30):
My Father and I are one, but my Father is greater than me.
It is a beautiful concept that my Father and I are one; there is no distinction between the two, ‘I’ do not exist as an individual, as I have merged myself into the divine consciousness. But in the same sentence it is also said that still my Father is greater than me, and is the one who acts. There is no sense of ego identity here. Na ham karta – ‘ I am not the doer ’ . Hari karta – ‘the supreme consciousness is the doer’. Hari karta hi kevalam – ‘It is He only who performs through me’. It is a statement of total surrender of the karmas. It is saying, “Let Your will be done.” When this kind of total surrender happens on the level of karma, without any identification of the ego, self, senses or expectations of gain, one experiences purity of mind, action, speech and thought. This state of purity ultimately takes one to unknown dimensions. This is the whole concept of perfection in karma yoga, as actions become pleasant. The idea of work or action is not normally pleasant, but when action becomes a joy and light, there is complete involvement and the difficulties are not felt along the way. Karma yoga is emphasized in the vedic, tantric and yogic traditions to overcome the difficulties in attitude, thought and action. According to these systems, one should not escape from life but escape into life. That is karma yoga.
—5 October 2014, Ganga Darshan, Munger