Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part XVII

Philosophy of Karma-yoga

Continued from Part XVI

The epic war of Mahabharata was about to begin when Prince Arjuna requested Lord Krishna, his charioteer, to take the chariot in the midst of the warriors of both sides. Seeing his venerated elders like Bhisma, Drona and beloved kith & kin, he is overwhelmed and infatuated with utter grief and delusion. Then like a true saviour, Lord Krishna narrates the glory of the Jnan-yoga (Yoga of Knowledge) and Karma-yoga (Yoga of Selfless Action) and asks him to perform his manly duty of a Kshatriya by engaging self in the imminent war. As Krishna attached more importance to self-knowledge (Jnan) but asked Arjuna to resort to action (Karma), Arjuna, now even more perplexed, pointed out this contradiction and asked Krishna why he was pressing him to indulge in the dreadful act of war.

Lord Krishna explained the possible two lifestyles namely karma-yoga-nistha (social life) and jnana-yoga-nistha (secluded life). One can choose anyone of them as householder and monk, respectively, but there is no choice between Karma and Jnan (knowledge) and there is no conflict between them. One has to follow relevant Karma with purity and knowledge to discover the freedom that is one’s true nature. Of the two lifestyles, Krishna gave preference to the former (social life) because for a common person it is difficult to renounce everything to lead the life of a monk. For the very reason, the Karma-yoga is the most essential element for the harmony of the universe of which human beings are an important link with a definite role to play.

Krishna said that everyone must engage in some sort of action in this material world all the time. But the nature of action is such that it can either bind one to this world or liberate one from it. By acting for the pleasure of the Supreme Soul (God), without selfish motives, one can be liberated from the Law of Karma (action and reaction) and attain transcendental knowledge of the self and Supreme. He underlined the need of the performance of duty in a detached and dispassionate manner; and that the necessity for such action is not only for a wise person but also for God Himself for the good of universe. Thus laying emphasis on Karma-yoga, Krishna told Arjuna to go to war as his bounden duty being a Kshatriya in a desire-less manner irrespective of the outcome. If he fights war like a true Karma-yogi, he will achieve liberation whatever be the outcome of the dreaded war.

Thus the entire discourse between Krishna and Arjuna focused on Karma-yoga as the way of life and the most suitable means of liberation while touching upon other forms of yoga, spirituality and materialism. In the previous parts of the current series, Karma and Karma-yoga were briefly introduced and explained. In this episode, the author intends to analyse and explain philosophy behind the Karma-yoga as depicted in Hindu scriptures mainly Bhagavad Gita and its impact and importance for the human beings.

What is Karma Yoga?

Karma literally means action, work or deed but at spiritual level it refers to the principle of the cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) have the future impact on that individual (effect). As per Bhagavad Gita, Karma is also closely linked with the concept of rebirth as also the nature and quality of future life by leaving its imprints on the Self (Atman).Yoga is essentially a spiritual discipline and experience based on an extremely subtle science which focuses on bringing the harmony between body and mind for a healthy living of the practitioner. The term Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning ‘to join or unite’ and according to ancient scriptures the practice of Yoga leads to the union of the individual consciousness with the universal consciousness.

According to the modern science, everything in the universe is just a manifestation of the same quantum firmament and the person who is able to experience this oneness of existence is termed as a yogi having attained the state of freedom, spiritually referred to as nirvana or moksha in Hinduism. Approximate term for the same in the west is liberation or salvation. The goal of the yogic practice is to overcome all kinds of physical and mental sufferings and achieve the sense of freedom in every walk of life with complete health, harmony and bliss. Various attributes of a Karma-yogi such as the importance of controlling his senses, engaging in actions by restraining the mind and senses, remaining unattached and directing his organs to work have been explicitly detailed in the Chapter 3 of Bhagavad Gita.

In short, Karma-yoga is the total transformation of a person without any sense of ego, pride or ambition. The karma-yogi surrenders his actions to God as he performs them, with his mind fixed on Him, free from any expectations, attraction, attachment and mental botheration. The yogi remains unattached to the external stimuli and physical world, while engaging self in the contemplation of Brahman and identifying himself with Him. Having been able to withstand desire, he remains self-restrained and delighted as a true renunciant. By conducting self in this manner, he is able to get riddance of any selfish motive or action and indulges only in such actions which promote the welfare of the universe. A true karma-yogi is able to identify himself with the God and achieve salvation.

Karma-yoga is considered to be the simpler and easier means for all to achieve the intended goal. Thus it is not only for spiritual aspirants but also for all worldly people, who have action as the way of life with a will and potential to deal with the challenges and distractions. Karma-yoga or the path of action as suggested in the Bhagavad Gita teaches people how to cope with the pains and pleasures alike without choosing and without escaping. It teaches people how to remain engaged in the process of living, however difficult and distasteful the circumstances may be. The concept Karma-yoga is in contrast to the popular belief that men should renounce their worldly things, go to a forest or some secluded place or cave away from the society and perform tapas or meditation in order to achieve self-realization.

According to the Bhagavad Gita, the selfish or desire-ridden actions bind men to their consequences and subject them to the cycle of birth and death. Also one cannot escape from Karma merely by shunning actions and responsibilities. Besides, involuntary actions such as breathing and digestion, being autonomous, cannot be wilfully controlled or regulated. Hence inaction or non-action is not a solution to escape Karma. Bhagavad Gita clearly says the liberation cannot be attained by abstaining from the work or by renouncing the work:

Na karmanam anarambhan naishkarmyam purusho ’shnute,
Na cha sannyasanad eva siddhim samadhigachchhati.

{BG: Chapter 3, Verse 4}

(One cannot achieve freedom from karmic reactions by merely abstaining from work, nor can one attain perfection of knowledge by mere physical renunciation.)

The Chapter 3 of Bhagavad Gita clearly provides that one could engage in the Karma-yoga through selfless actions as a way of sacrifice and service to God. It holds that the desire is an eternal enemy of the wise, which deludes the soul by over-powering the senses, mind and intellect. Therefore, a true karma-yogi endeavours to control his desire and senses through wisdom and discipline. As a person’s right is to his work only and not to the fruits, hence a karma-yogi would perform his duty without attachment by remaining even minded in all situations i.e. success and failure:

Yoga-sthah kuru karmani sangam tyaktva dhananjaya,
Siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva samatvam yoga uchyate.

{BG: Chapter 2, Verse 48}

(Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, O Arjuna, abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yoga.)

Karma-yoga as Essence of Human Life

As explained in the preceding section, the word Karma-yoga is a combination of two words – Karma and Yoga i.e. seeking Yoga (Union) engaging in Karma which in spiritual sense implies to the union of the Atman (Embodied soul) with Paramatman (Brahman or God). The same union in Hindu philosophy is referred to as Moksha (liberation or salvation). Lord Krishna finds no conflict in action and knowledge in Bhagavad Gita and His emphasis is more on Karma-yoga because in essence it is also an essential instrument of the social or common life which gets motion and momentum through Karma only. The real essence of the Karma-yoga is best narrated in the following Verses.

Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani

{BG: Chapter 2, Verse 47}

(You have the right to do your duty and action, but never to the fruits of your actions. Let the fruits of action be not your motivation, nor let your attachment be to inaction.)

Tasmad asaktah satatam karyam karma samacara,
Asakto hy acaran karma param apnoti purusah
{BG: Chapter 3, Verse 19}

(Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty; for by working without attachment, one attains the Supreme.)

In this case Lord Krishna practically teaches Arjuna that he should not be worried at all, no matter what is the outcome of the war. His current call of the duty is to fight, and therefore he must fight. He should not bother his mind as to who wins or loses and the same is not important. Even if he dies during the war for the righteous cause, he will attain heaven because he has correctly performed his duty (Karma). The correct action (Karma) is one that does not lead to bondage. What Krishna told Arjuna, philosophically the same doctrine is applicable to all living beings who should perform their duties by remaining detached from its fruits/results – the only way to escape bondage in this world.

Another old Hindu Text ‘Vishnu Purana’ too vindicates action and knowledge in somewhat similar manner in the following Verse:

Tatkarma yanna bandhaaya sa vidya ya vimuktaye,
ayasayaparam karma vidya’nya silpanaipunam.

(Sri Vishnu Purana: 1.19.41)

(That is action, which does not promote attachment; that is knowledge which liberates one from bondage. All other action is mere (pointless) effort/hardship; all other knowledge is merely another skill/craftsmanship.)

The essence of the above verse is that every action should be done with a feeling of detachment without any selfish motive. Every action should be undertaken with an attitude of duty and responsibility and neither for any name or fame nor entitlement or accomplishment. A person shall be called knowledgeable who understands this truth which takes the him (soul) on the path of liberation from the vicious cycle of birth and death. Only this realization is true knowledge, everything else is mere guile in the disguise of skill or craft. Therefore ‘detachment’ is the key word for the emancipation from the bondage of samsara or world.

Thus in the context of Karma-yoga, ‘any action or activity which will not create any new sense or impression on the subconscious mind having the potential to entrap it into a bondage and which will not increase the account of merits and demerits or lead to any new bondage around the soul, is Karma commensurate with the word Karma-yoga. Consistent performance of such Karma in a detached and dispassionate manner shall be known as Karma-yoga and one who realises this fact is said to have achieved ‘knowledge (Jnan)’ that takes the person to the path of liberation.

Being A Karma-yogi

This aspect is meticulously explained by Krishna in Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2, Verses 40-53). He narrated to Arjuna that while indulging in unattached action, a person neither experiences the loss of efforts nor suffers with the fear of opposite results which ultimately save him (or her) from the terrible cycle of birth and death.

Nehabhikrama-nadsho ’sti pratyavayo na vidyate,
Svalpam apyasya dharmasya trsayate mahato bhayat.

{Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2 Verse 40}

(In this path (of disinterested action), there is no loss of effort, nor is there fear of contrary result; even a little practice of this discipline saves one from the terrible fear of birth and death.)

One who pursues this yoga has a determinate intellect directed towards the only goal, while the intellect of the undecided i.e. ignorant person driven by desires, drifts in many directions after numerous worldly aims. Person seeking eternal bliss through self-realisation must be above all worldly enjoyments and the means of attaining such enjoyments; he should be free from all opposites like pleasure and pain gain and loss, and so on so forth.

There are more reasons for becoming a Karma-yogi. A person can choose action but he has no control over the result which is dependent on the laws of Karma. Many known and unknown factors in the world too influence the result which one cannot avoid. Notwithstanding above, inaction is not an option for any solution; one may hope for the best according to own understanding but should be ready for the worst too. When a person acts with this appreciation, he is neither passionate nor perturbed with the consequent success or failure. A Karma-yogi is not overwhelmed with emotions because he is never caught by surprises or unawares; and actually this equanimity in action is the real yoga. The Karma-yogi achieves a tranquil mind with a natural inclination towards Self (soul) shedding false notions towards worldly attributes; and his realization of the Self-consciousness paves way for liberation.

Karma Yoga in Contemporary Times

In the 21st Century, the human race is experiencing materialism at its extreme. Due to their hyper actions, age old glaciers are melting, oceans are expanding and natural objects and resources are fast depleting. Consequently, the harmony of the nature is getting disturbed globally leading to an erratic climate and if this situation is not improved, the time is not for when the very existence of life on the planet will be imperilled. It is not in the distant past when the material life of human beings was centred around own family, friends and community.

Now these boundaries are fast disappearing with him being at play with the entire world and humans are now expanding their wings even to reach to other planets, galaxy and alien destinations. Humans have tapped technologies that connect them with the people and events across the planet and incidents that occur thousands of miles away from their place reach them without any loss of time. The purpose of narrating all this is that the human race has more reasons for attachment and delusion in the world today than they used to have few hundred years back.

For illustration, mobile devices like smartphones and tablet computers, and applications like Facebook and Whatsapp keep a person connected with not only his (or her) near and dear ones but also to a whole lot of people, objects and diversions at the same time. To put it on a lighter veins, the smartphone follows the man everywhere exactly like his Karma. While many people, even if they are not able to fully comprehend it, agree that the materialism is against the Self-development and spirituality is the best course for seeking harmony and peace in this highly volatile and unstable world. However, the alleged developments are posing newer threats and challenges in the path of seeking sanity and purity of mind. In fact, now human life is driven not by own actions but through a collective action of the complex society.

In other words, the Samsara or Maya at play around the human beings has increasingly become more enticing and tempting. In the these circumstances, the Karma-yoga has become more so relevant and necessary lest the human race will individually and collectively fall prey to the moral and spiritual decay and decline. Such decay and decline may result in a phenomenal growth of the negative virtues and energies becoming ultimate cause of the destruction of the world. One cannot simply blame society for the rot and escape personal responsibility for the materialistic upheaval and mayhem. Hence it is clear that if we want to live in peace and tranquillity individually and/or collectively, we must feel responsible, pay attention to our thoughts and actions, and endeavour to put break on our desires that lead us to more and more bondage.

A Karma-yogi is expected to engage in actions without selfish motives or expectations. Lord Krishna advised Karma-yoga for the common man leading a normal social life as the best option for attaining the eternal bliss because the routes of Jnan-yoga or even Bhakti-yoga are far more difficult due to the requirement of leading the life of a monk or ascetic. According to Krishna, our texts (Vedas and Upanishads) have outlined our Dharma in the form of duties and actions. Though it is not always easy to stick to the prescribed Dharma (i.e. Karma with righteous approach) but due endeavour and practice in the right direction can certainly improve and change our thoughts and actions. A Karma-yogi is able to identify himself with God only by conquering and relinquishing worldly desires and passions.

Fundamentals Karma-yogi is Expected to Know

Going by the experience of delusional Prince Arjuna when pitted against own elders, kith and kin during the epic war and Lord Krishna’s emergence as saviour in those delicate and difficult moments, the following fundamental points emerge which every Karma-yogi and right-minded person should know and take in cognizance in his life:

(a) It is the desire-ridden Karma of the human beings that leads to bondage in the world and consequent vicious cycle of the birth and death. Therefore, it is important to control and avoid desires.

(b) Everyone has come to the world with some assigned responsibilities and duties. Therefore, he should not try to escape it; instead, he should avoid selfish pursuits and try to cultivate spirituality through actions.

(c) The entire universe exists through actions, like the creation itself is the action of the Supreme Soul. In other words, actions are God-assigned and one should not be weary or hesitant of actions in right perspective.

(d) Acquiring the true knowledge is necessary for the performance of right actions. True knowledge is one that takes you away from bondage.

(e) Right actions and knowledge are necessary for the human beings to get freedom from the vicious cycle of the bierh and death.

(f) Knowledge needs guidance. This guidance can come from scriptures, right teacher (Guru) or even God. While Lord Krishna rescued Arjuna from delusion, He also said that He never abandons his devotees in need.

(g) Renunciation should not be linked with a sanyasi or monk alone. Even a social person, who has learnt to discharge his duties and responsibilities without any selfish motive or attachment, has achieved renunciation.

(h) Spiritual living does not seek renunciation of actions; it seeks only renunciation of fruits of such actions.

(i) Life has no selfish goals. A person’s life must be visualised as a larger vision of God’s scheme and eternal duties assigned to him in the world. Hence while discharging these duties, one should never forget God and following the path of liberation.

(j) Like Lord Krishna said that He is complete, all-encompassing and free from desires and attachments, yet He is constantly engaged in creation, upholding Dharma, and the order, regularity and continuity of the world. Same way every person must indulge in the sphere of his actions dispassionately with right knowledge.

(k) The regular meditation and devotion are the ultimate stages of Yoga, which every person should endeavour to achieve by cultivating the identified eight limbs of Yogic life and three gunas with the predominance of sattva.

Practicing Karma Yoga

Actions are the part of life and Karma influences every sphere of life including birth and death. Irrespective of the fact whether a person leads a social life as Grihastha (householder) or solitary life as a monk or ascetic, everything essentially involves different kinds of actions. When Karma is combined with yoga, it becomes a spiritual and divine discipline of Self-realization. For a true practitioner of the Karma-yoga, this knowledge is a sort of prerequisite. This is the reason why Karma-yoga is defined as the yoga of selfless actions with knowledge and considered as a right approach towards the path of liberation. As derived from Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu Texts, Yoga is the central theme of divine life with certain requisites or limbs briefly explained as follows:

Faith: The first and foremost limb is the faith in the divine (God). Unless one has an unclenching trust in the Supreme Soul, he would always be sceptic and shy away from the thought of liberation. Faith is established through adherence to Dharma, reading or listening scriptures, learnings from a teacher (Guru) and company of the pious and knowledgeable.

Knowledge: The next limb is the right knowledge. The person must understand what kind of actions lead to bondage and consequent vicious cycle of the birth and death. He must know that right Karma is action with unselfish motives in a detached and dispassionate manner without being influenced by the favourable or unfavourable outcomes.

Integrity: It is the virtue of being pure and honest with strong moral principles. It is important because the mind and body must be clear in thought and action, and free from ignorance, selfish motives and delusion. Such condition of desire-less action is achievable with the predominance cultivation of sattva guna.

Detachment: It is the most difficult part in life to act without attachment. For instance, what he (or she) really enjoyed eating or watching or doing today, he would like a repetition of the same tomorrow, and quite often at the same time. This is what we call attachment and one needs to get rid of this according to Bhagavad Gita. These attachments are the biggest hurdle in pursuing the path of liberation. A difficult thing to practice but a Karma-yogi must endeavour to remain detached in his actions i.e. he must take pleasure and pain or charm and reversion with the same dispassion for his mental and emotional stability.

Subtlety: Being subtle or sensitive in approach is important to take right action. During my government service, I have often noticed people on the face being spiritual by constantly offering prayers to God or deity of his choice but are resorting to many corrupt practices in their day-to-day life (action). A true Karma-yogi shall not indulge in evil doings or acts that fall in the category of adharma (unrighteous deed). In the path of spirituality, there is no place for adharma or unrighteous deeds. A combination of Buddhi (intellect) yoga with Karma-yoga helps in such case.

Renunciation: According to Bhagavad Gita and some other Hindu scriptures, the abstention or eschewal from desires is the true renunciation by the Karma-yogi. In the present Hindu society, there are many instances where the person claims to be Sanyasi having renunciated the world but in effect they have created empires of real estate, wealth and lustful activities. Recently, some such so-called Sanyasin have even been prosecuted and punished by the law for the heinous acts like rape and murder. This is no renunciation; according to Gita, even while living a social life, one can renunciate by sharing the burdens and responsibilities of life taken as duty without any selfish motive, desire or attachment.

Meditation: Meditation is an advanced state of Yoga where the practitioner is able to pay focussed attention to any object or abstract thought of pure and pious nature. Meditation or self-concentration is necessary to navigate the deepest core of own being and experience self-absorption. The concept is that when someone focuses his (or her) mind on an object, the mind tends to be transformed into the shape of that object. Therefore, when one focuses on the divine or pious thoughts they become reflective on his own body, breath, senses and mind. The meditation is an effective tool to see the purpose of life clearly and perceive reality beyond the illusions.

Devotion: Like the situation of the Sanyasin as referred to under ‘Renunciation’, if a person offers prayers to God out of some fear, favour or desire, this is no devotion. The true devotion comes with the predominance of sattva in the person in the service of God by acquiring right knowledge, subtle mind and body, detachment, renunciation and self-absorption. In a way, devotion is akin to Samadhi, the ultimate stage of Yoga, where the mind and intellect stop wandering, and experience real consciousness and bliss.


If we take a typical human life, the most of his actions are set against certain goal or objective at various stages of life and the success or failures of these actions are measured through the result thus obtained. Such goals or objectives are reflection of the human desires. Besides, many actions are undertaken because of the human cravings of self-esteem and higher place in the society by seeking recognition or appreciation through these actions. The entire worldly life revolves within the boundaries of these precepts. In the spiritual sense, when we talk of the bondage, we are actually referring to this category of actions; according to Bhagavad Gita and common Hindu belief, the accumulated Karma following such actions leads the soul to the vicious cycle of reincarnation.

On the other hand, the spiritual path is entirely different. The person pursuing this path learns to act without any expectations in return. He practices to set aside the cravings of all the worldly attractions and attachments and discharges his duties and actions selflessly in the service of God. In other words he learns to pay attention rather than to seek attention. By conducting in this manner, the Karma-yogi gets increasingly closer to the awareness of the true nature of Self and God. Thus Karma-yoga with sustained efforts and practice can achieve the same end which an ascetic or monk pursues through Jnan-yoga which is very slow and difficult path.

While narrating the glory of the other forms of Yoga, Lord Krishna recommended Karma-yoga as the best course for the common people with a social life. Krishna himself is considered as the greatest Karma-yogi of all times in Hinduism. To that extent, Bhagavad Gita is the most credible and popular spiritual text for the Grihastha and worldly people seeking liberation. The crux of the Karma-yoga remains that every soul must engage in worldly actions without being affected with the impurities of the material life. This may appear difficult but it is not impossible. The main issue lies in realization of the true happiness and prosperity. Since birth the human child is taught and put in a race by elders in the family and society to compete for high material position and wealth in the world while, according to scriptures, the real happiness and prosperity lies in spiritual accomplishment. If one has faith, Karma-yoga has potential to offer him the complete synergy of thought, actions and consequences in his life.

Continued to Part XVIII


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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