Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Karma Yoga : Chapter 12 — Excerpts

This space within the heart is as vast as that space outside. Within it indeed are included both heaven and earth, as also fire and air, both sun and moon, lightning and stars. Whatever this one has here and whatever he has not, all is included in That.

–Chandogya Upanishad VIII.i.2-3

Karma Yoga is the path of Yoga that achieves mystical knowledge through the work done in day-to-day life, by doing one’s duty and work in such a way that the inmost knowledge comes through. Karma means "work," or "action." It is also used in a particular sense when defining the law of Karma, which states that we always receive the results of our actions: good results for good actions and bad results for bad actions. The description of such a law is also usually tied up with the ancient Hindu belief of reincarnation, in which it is used to mean that our Karma will determine the kind of body we get in the next life. But in the context of Karma Yoga, Karma is simply used to denote action. Karma Yoga is concerned with the correct way of doing work. It is based on the teaching that if we do our work in a dispassionate manner, we will be able to achieve an inner tranquility in life until, finally, we achieve complete liberation from all of life’s temptations and attain the inner mystical wisdom of the absolute. It sets out to teach what our duties are and how we should perform them to attain this sense.

Karma Yoga is the path to be followed by those who cannot or do not abandon a worldly life, yet are filled with the thirst to have mystical knowledge. If we live in the world, we are perforce bound to do work. We have to work simply to earn a living for ourselves and for those for whom we care. Our circumstance in society also leaves us with many duties at a social level. As long as we live in society, we are forced to do this work. Only when we can renounce everything will we be free from work. Karma Yoga teaches us how to do this work in such a way that, even by working, we are led closer to the truth of Brahman. Normally, when living in society and being engaged in its various activities, we find that life gradually pulls us down to the lower levels, and so we are not able to acquire true mystical knowledge. A thousand joys and sorrows pummel us every moment of the day, and we are torn apart by success and failure, by regrets for the past and forebodings for the future, and so on. It appears almost impossible to hold on to our search for true knowledge while at the same time living amidst such storms. But this ability can be gained through Karma Yoga.

Karma Yoga alone is sufficient to lead us to the path of mystical knowledge. But in practice, it is one of the four paths that are meant to be followed together by the aspirant. Karma Yoga acts as the base for the aspirants of all the other paths of Yoga also. Except for a small few, even those who follow the paths of Raja, Gyan, or Bhakti Yoga have to live in society and are unable to follow the path of strict renunciation. In that case, all their efforts would be in vain if they do not know the secret of work, as worldly duties are bound to lead them away from any inner knowledge. These paths demand that the aspirants keep a distance from life and are not suitable for the householder. It is also true that very few of us can feel that such a path of renunciation is actually necessary and not a retreat from our responsibilities. Through Karma Yoga, we can follow these paths even while living in society and performing our obligations. We can ensure not only that our personal and social duties do not lead us away, but that they in fact help us to acquire the truth.

This is the great strength of Karma Yoga: it promises realization to all. It elevates and ennobles life, and it shows us that there is no need to abandon the world and live in a forest in order to acquire knowledge. Because of Karma Yoga, the other paths of Yoga do not remain an exclusive preserve of ascetics, but are open to all.

Karma Yoga also says that when we work without attachment, we produce the best work. This is the most important aspect of Karma Yoga for our practical lives, because it gives us a guide to being the most efficient producer and supplier of work. Normally, when we are thinking of other things, we naturally cannot give full attention to work, and our work cannot be as efficient. But if we can avoid thinking of anything else, if we can avoid thinking even of how and why we are doing the work and how it will benefit us, and concentrate instead on doing whatever we are doing to the best extent possible, then the work that we produce is naturally of a far higher order. It is paradoxical that by not thinking of the results, we obtain the greatest results. We always want to produce the best work possible, but because we are unable to be detached from the work, we are led away from the path of Yoga, and we do not attain the success we are capable of.

In this principle, Karma Yoga differs from many modern-day coaches, who teach their wards to visualize the final point of success, of crossing the finishing line first and so on. In Karma Yoga, such visualization of the result is not advocated and instead, according to its principles, the trainee should concentrate on the particular training that he or she is receiving at that moment without thinking of the final result.

The teachings of karma yoga continue to reverberate throughout India, and it had another period of glory during the Indian independence movement, through the leadership of a true karma yogi, Mahatma Gandhi. He united the whole country by teaching that the movement was not just a political struggle, but a spiritual one. In his simple words, he taught the essence of karma yoga, that the means is important and not the end. He showed that the struggle was not just against the imperialism, but the individual struggle of each person against their own selves, against the evil in themselves, against their fear, anger and most importantly, hatred of the other, and the prime duty was to bring out the Sattvic nature of each.

To maintain this Sattvic nature of the struggle, he developed his own unique forms of political protest through peaceful means, by non–cooperation, hunger strikes and Satyagraha. In this the prime object was not to destroy the enemy but to strengthen oneself, to be invulnerable to the enemy and thus to weaken him. In a country like India, a mere political struggle would not have evoked the raw emotions that Gandhiji’s spiritual teachings brought about, and it united the whole country irrespective of age, caste or religion. Through this, India showed once again the hold that spiritualism has on the country even in modern times.

Karma yoga must not be seen solely as a path connected to religion. Through the ages and in cultures around the world, the methods of karma yoga have been understood and followed by great personalities in their achievements.. The need for total absorption in the work itself and the strength that can be derived from it has been understood by scientists, philosophers, artists like musicians, painters, sculptors, etc. from time immemorial. Hence this is not a special secret of yoga but a universal truth. It is only that in Hinduism these methods have been employed in spirituality also to attain a mystical end.

Karma yoga is the path for the people of action, the practical people. In the doctrines of the other yogas, a worldly life is inimical to further knowledge, and it bars those living a worldly life from their spiritual goals. The only way to a spiritual end would be through a complete abandoning of worldly life. But karma yoga shows that the same goals can be attained through a worldly life. It shows us how to tackle the infinite diversions that affect a practical life, and how to fulfil our duties and responsibilities in such a way that work itself leads us to realization.

The effort is to do perfect work, but not expect anything from it, and hence not get attached to it. Once the work is finished, we should be able to rise up from it without thinking about it any more. When we can live in the world in such a way, our minds become free from the passions and torments that drag us down. Work itself becomes a meditation, and through work we attain our liberty.

Karma yoga by itself can lead us to realization, but it also forms the underpinning for those who follow the path of Bhakti, Raja yoga and Gyan yoga, for fulfilling their duties. Even yogis have to do work as long as they are alive, and hence karma yoga is essential for all. This path shows us how to use the world with all its diversions to work out our way to spiritual goals. It is thus immensely strengthening, both for the individual and society, and shows that the life of a practical man is no less spiritually rewarding than that of a philosopher.

In all these injunctions, the question naturally arises as to what our duty is, what is the sort of work that we should be doing.

Karma yoga says, our duty is whatever is enjoined and we find in our particular position and situation in life. But often enough in life, we find that our duties in different spheres clash with each other. Sometimes a particular act which is appropriate in one situation might turn out to be wrong in another, or the duty enjoined by society in a particular sphere might seem unacceptable to us. These are everyday problems faced by all in society because of its conflicting nature, and it is difficult then to know how to act. Karma yoga lays down a general rule to guide us in all such situations, which is to perform that action which is Sattvic and to avoid that which is Rajasic or Tamasic


Sattvic actions are those which are purely unselfish, and it is this which should be our guideline. When we faced with several courses of action, we should study each of them and find out if it is impelled by passions, fear, indolence, etc. or whether it will lead to falsity or deception of others, and reject all such actions.

Again, that action in which we have no selfish considerations, which is honest and principled, should be our course of action. No action can be called correct or incorrect in itself, it is only the attitude in which it is done that is the determining factor. Since all actions have both good and evil results, it cannot be said that any action is greater or smaller than others.

A true karma yogi, who acts without hankering for the results, will automatically be guided into taking the correct path as he or she will not be influenced by things like passion or anger. As long as we are acting out of Satva, whatever course of action we have chosen is the correct one. It is actions guided by Tamas or rajas that are the actions to be avoided. Hence the need is not to analyse so much the work that we are doing but to analyse ourselves, to see whether we are doing the work in the proper way. When something is done in a Sattvic spirit, then we cannot do anything wrong. But when we are doing something with a Rajasic or Tamasic attitude, then we are definitely taking a wrong course, and need to change.

Hence, karma yoga is not without its moral guidelines. But this is different from that of other religions. Hinduism does not have the ten commandments of Christianity or the moral guidelines of the Koran. It recognises that such strict rules would not be applicable for all persons at all times.

Karma yoga instead shows us how to achieve moral guidelines by changing our personality. It tells us, not what to do, but how to do it. It teaches us to have always a Sattvic attitude, free from cruelty, lust, anger, etc. If we can maintain Sattva, then we will automatically know what action to do in a particular situation. Moral evil in Hinduism is not that which goes against the guidelines of particular texts but that which goes against a Sattvic character and follows tamas or rajas.

Sattvic people can never do anything evil, they will always do that which is morally right, since they will not be blinded by hunger, anger, selfishness, etc. They will refrain from evil even when all the forces of society are forcing them to do it. Nor again will they shirk from doing anything which needs to be done, even when all the world is against it. This is the message of the Karma Yoga.

When we know how do things in a larger context, we will know how to do the individual things also, and be guided into making the correct decision at each step.

back Chapter 12 next

Index / Introduction / Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Biblio

* People who read this also read:

* To read more on Advaita Vedanta and Yoga and its harmony with modern science and reason, you can go through my book on Amazon:

Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

The Circle of Fire: The Metaphysics of Yoga

// //

Home Book Discussion Excerpts Reviews Contact Us
Articles Author Info Discussion Forum Live Chat Blog