Why is karma yoga essential on the spiritual path?
Swami Niranjanananda: Karma yoga is the yoga of action or work. Its aim is to bring about integration, harmony and union through action. It is a yogic path that is open to everyone, for all have to work and perform various activities, whether physical or mental. In fact, it is most suitable for the modern activity-oriented world and is ideal for those who find it easier to do something rather than nothing, which is everyone, for nobody can do absolutely nothing, it is impossible. There must always be some form of action, even if it is sleeping, daydreaming or trying to do nothing. Through karma yoga one can start to practise yoga twenty-four hours a day, using one’s actions as a means to gain higher awareness.
The significance of karma yoga is usually overlooked by newcomers to yoga, and even by people who have been practising other forms of yoga, such as raja yoga and hatha yoga, for many years. The regular practice of yoga techniques for a fixed time every day brings many benefits. However, one should try to practise yoga throughout the whole day, which is possible through karma yoga. Asanas, pranayama, meditation techniques and so on bring wonderful results, experiences and knowledge, but the inner experiences obtained during these practices must be related to everyday life.
Karma yoga can lead to exactly the same experiences as other forms of yoga. There is no doubt about this, but it is difficult for most people to appreciate this point as other paths of yoga seem more ‘yogic’. There is a tendency to think that work cannot possibly be yoga, and of course mere work is not yoga. Karma yoga implies something far greater and more profound than work. It implies selfless, concentrated action with awareness.
Karma yoga is an important technique for growth and progress along the spiritual path. It helps to bring peace and equanimity into one’s life. In itself, it leads directly to higher awareness and knowledge, even though these experiences bear little relation to the actual work being carried out. It is the inner experience that is important, and this cannot be conveyed by words.
Swami Satyananda, like his guru Swami Sivananda, affirms and emphasizes the importance of karma yoga in order to know the experience of meditation. He proclaims, “A person should do one task at a time. Total absorption in any work will gradually train the mind to forget its usual fickleness and unsteadiness. If one plunges into the work at hand with undivided keenness and attention, one will derive great help in meditation.”
The motto of karma yoga is to give, give and give. The prevailing motto in the world is the opposite, namely to take, take and take more. It is this latter attitude that prevents progress in spiritual life and the experience of meditation. All the great spiritual teachers throughout history preached that all actions and thoughts that are motivated by personal gain should be reduced and eventually eliminated. Of course, this takes time and cannot be done overnight, yet it is absolutely necessary if one is to eliminate the power of the ego, the obstacle or the veil which prevents the influx of higher consciousness.
Why is karma yoga important for every yoga practitioner?
Swami Niranjanananda: Yoga has always been considered as a series of practices to be done away from the situations of normal social life: in a classroom environment or in a retreat in the company of ‘spiritual beings’. People have thought that if they practise a yoga technique, they will achieve a certain result. This thinking has made people believe that yoga is a mechanical process leading to self-awareness. It is necessary for the aspirant to move away from this way of thinking and make yoga a part of the natural expression. Only then can yoga become a process leading to self-realization.
If a person practises yoga as a technique to feel good, he will definitely feel good for a little while. If yoga is practised in order to relax, one will definitely relax. If yoga is practised to connect with oneself internally, that will also become possible. But whatever the attainment may be, it will be momentary, a transitory phase. When one has to confront life’s realities, tensions and frustrations again, the effect of yoga will take a back seat.
It should be understood, therefore, that the real experience of yoga happens through karma yoga. Even if a person practises hatha yoga, raja yoga, kundalini or kriya yoga, he will have to combine it with karma yoga in order to have a rich experience of the process. Hatha yoga, raja yoga, kundalini yoga and kriya yoga are yoga practices, whereas karma yoga and bhakti yoga are states of mind achieved through yoga practices. If one looks at karma yoga in this manner, it becomes a much more intensive process than raja yoga. Karma yoga is not just hard physical work, like sweeping the grounds. It is the yoga of adjusting the mind to the circumstances in which one is involved. With acceptance of a situation, the responses become different.
Raja yoga involves alertness and awareness during the practice, but karma yoga is not a one-hour yoga practice; it involves awareness of the mind twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. The balance, harmony and non-reactive state of the mind have to be maintained and then the action becomes karma yoga, whether one is sitting quietly in a chair in meditation or is involved in dynamic work. The practice of karma yoga gives one the understanding of objectivity. Later on, this understanding which one gains outside is transferred into the mind, so that the practice of meditation gives better results.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna told Arjuna that karma yoga is the most misunderstood yoga. People associate it only with action and the right attitude during performance, but that is not the essence of karma yoga. Karma yoga is the ability to adjust to situations and circumstances with a positive, dynamic and optimistic frame of mind. It is being able to observe, analyse, channel and control the reactions, the whims of the emotions, the acceptance or rejection of ideas, and maintain inner balance all the way through.
The aspirant needs to look at karma yoga and bhakti yoga as states of mind which have to be achieved, rather than as practices which have to be perfected. In this way, whatever one attains is for a lifetime. It must become part of one’s nature, character and expression, part of one’s life in total.
Some people have the idea that karma yoga has no relevance in their lives, that it is only hard work. Some think that karma yoga is only service to guru, God or humanity.
Some think of karma yoga as selfless service or selfless action. None of these definitions represents the real spirit of karma yoga, as karma is an integral part of one’s personality and life. Karma has been translated as ‘action’ or as ‘cause and effect’, but these definitions are incomplete. The whole of life is karma; a person without karma does not exist.
If a spiritual aspirant practises true yoga at all in his life, it is karma yoga. Karma yoga is not going to the fields and working until blood and sweat run; that is only one aspect. The true spirit of karma yoga means that every action, whether physical, social or intellectual, is analysed. This includes the thoughts, the analytical and the critical processes of the mind, the emotional feelings of anger, frustration, depression, anxiety, hatred and greed, as well as the spiritual experiences of harmony and attuning with the self. Everything is observed, experienced and transcended.
The spirit of karma yoga is total involvement in the fulfilment of commitments, obligations, duties and dharma. If yoga can be seen as a life process, every action will become part of karma yoga, every understanding will be part of jnana yoga, every feeling will be a part of bhakti yoga, every effort one makes will be part of raja yoga and every experience one may have will become part of dhyana yoga.
—18 March 2012, Paduka Darshan, Munger