Living Gita: 43: In Praise of Karma Yoga

Continued from Previous Page

vyavasaayaatmikaa buddhir ekeha kurunandana
bahushaakhaa hyanantaashcha buddhayo'vyavasaayinaam ll 2.41 ll
yaam imaam pushpitaam vaacham pravadantyavipashchitah
vedavaadarataah paartha naanyad asteeti vaadinah ll 2.42 ll
kaamaatmaanah swargaparaa janmakarmaphalaprdaam
kriyaavisheshabahulaam bhogaishwaryagatim prati ll 2.43 ll
bhogaishwarya prasaktaanaam tayaapahritachetasaam
vyavasaayaatmika buddhih samaadhau na vidheeyate ll 2.44 ll

On this path, Arjuna, your mind is resolute, with attention on a single-focus. On the other hand, the thoughts of the irresolute are many-branched and endless. The ignorant ones speak flowery words and argue for the Vedas that lead to repeated births and karmas and say heaven is highest and there is nothing higher. They are obsessed with numerous rituals that lead to enjoyment of pleasures. Such people whose interest is only in pleasures, prosperity and power, whose minds have been robbed by them, have no resolute minds and they are not able to attain samadhi.


Krishna praises Karma yoga further and says on the path of karma yoga your mind is resolute and you have a single focus. What you are doing in karma yoga does not matter, your focus is one: purification of the mind.

Ramana Maharshi says about karma yoga in his classic short work Upadesha Saram eeshwara-arpitam necchayaa kritam chitta-shodhakam muktisadhakam.’ In karma yoga work is done dedicated to God – eeshwara-arpitam – and it is done with the purpose of purification of the mind – citta-shodhakam. You do whatever life brings to you, or God brings to you, and not works chosen by you – nechchhaya kritam. The choice of the work is not yours but of the samashti, of the cosmos, of Existence. You have already surrendered your will so you do not make any choices but accept whatever comes to you.

Ancient India tells many stories of such acceptance and practicing karma yoga, perhaps the most famous of which is that of Dharmavyadha, the story of the butcher of Kashi that the Mahabharata tells us. The story begins with an ascetic who is making his morning oblations to the rising sun standing in a river. As he raises water in his palms to offer it to the sun, the droppings of a bird flying overhead falls into his palms. The ascetic looks up in fury and the bird turns to ashes midflight. He is amazed by his own ascetic powers. Power gone to his head, the ascetic goes on his rounds of bhiksha. Stanting in front a house, he addresses the lady of the house, “Bhavati! bhikshaam dehi”, “Oh Lady, give me alms.”

The lady ignores him completely and this time he raises his voice and says again “Bhavati! bhikshaam dehi”. He is ignored again. He remembers he is no ordinary ascetic but has just reduced a bird to ashes midflight. Raising his voice, in arrogance he shouts this time in a commanding voice, “Bhavati! bhikshaam dehi”. This time the lady turns around and says ‘Please wait. I am doing something. As soon as it is over, I shall give you bhiksha.” Then she adds, ‘And don’t think I am a little bird you can turn to ashes with your anger.”

That cools the ascetic down. How did she know about the bird? No one has seen it and he has told no one about it.

When the lady comes he is not interested in the bhiksha any more but wants to know how she knew about the bird. She asks him to go to Kashi and meet a man called Dharmavyadha there if he wants to know it.

In Kashi he asks everyone about a sage called Dharmavyadha but no one has heard of him. Eventually someone directs his steps to a butcher called Dharmavyada and it is from him that the ascetic learns the lady’s secret – karma yoga. “Just as I am doing the butcher’s job that has come to me with total acceptance and total dedication, the lady serves her husband unworthy of her with devotion accepting what life has brought her. That is karma yoga and there is nothing you cannot attain through karma yoga,” the butcher tells the ascetic. “The highest yogic powers, and everything else that you desire can be attained through karma yoga,” adds the butcher of Kashi in this strange story in which a butcher teaches yoga to an ascetic.

The Mahabharata has several stories in which roles are reversed like this.

Bindumati is a prostitute whose story ancient India tells. She attains high spiritual powers through the practice of karma yoga as a prostitute.

As we shall see later, Krishna says in the Gita:

mayi sarvaani karmaani sannyasya adhyaatmachetasaa
niraasheer nirmamo bhootvaa yuddhyashva vigatajvarah
. BG 3.30

Surrrender everything to me [God] and with your mind focused on your inner self, expecting nothing, without attachments, fight, free from feverishness.

Though this is not the most famous verse in the Gita that speaks of karma yoga, it is the best summary of karma yoga. Surrender your actions to God and then do whatever you do with the aim of purifying your mind – that is having adhyatma-chetas, focus on your inner self. And do what you have to do with passion and full dedication, while having no goals to gain anything other than inner purity from the act.

This is what Krishna means when he says vyavasayatmika buddhi – mind resolutely focused on a single thing, in this case on inner purity. The butcher is doing butchering and making a profit from killing animals, but his focus is only on inner purity. The prostitute is earning her living by prostitution – but her aim is inner purity. The housewife is serving her husband with the aim of inner purity. What you do does not matter, you have only one aim: inner purity. That is the attitude of karma yoga, karma yoga buddhi, the vyavasayatmika buddhi of karma yoga.

Vyavasayatmika means nishchayatmika – determined, resolute.

You are an executive and as an executive you have many things to do. You do them with dedication and passion, but at the same time your focus is on inner purification, making your mind quiet, still and positive. You are a sales person, and if you are a karma yogi, above all you keep your aim as making your mind quiet, still and positive. You are a driver, a clerk, a gardener, a shop keeper, a teacher, a newspaper man and you keep your focus on keeping your mind quiet, still and positive – that is karma yoga. So your main focus remains the same – inner purification – whatever you do. That is what Krishna calls vyavasayatmika buddhi and says it is a single one – ekaa.

Whatever you do, you do it for the common good [lokasangraha] dedicated to God [with ishwararpana buddhi] for inner purification [chittta-shodhanam]. And you don’t choose what you want to do – whatever comes to you, you accept and do with this purpose [nechchhaya kritam].


Krishna has much to say about those who are obsessed with the ritualistic section of the Vedas, the karmakanda. He calls speech about ritualism pushpitam vacham, flowery words. Empty words that sound beautiful. So according to him, even when speech about ritualism sounds beautiful, it is all empty. Do this ritual, this will happen to you – empty words.

A great modern master said all religions starts with the living experience of great masters. But their disciples do not have the experience the masters have had, so they reduce their teachings to philosophy and the next generation reduces the philosophy into ritualism, by which time the rituals have become meaningless.

I have heard that a cat wandered into a Zen monastery. It was time for the evening worship and the master asked the disciples to tie up the cat since it was creating a lot of nuisance. Next day the cat came at the same time again and was tied up. This continued for a few days when the master died but the disciples continued to ties up the cat. Problem started when the cat died – disciples were running all over looking for a cat to tie up so that the evening worship could begin!

Anthony de Mello in his collections of spiritual stories talks about a desert country and the one fruit rule practiced there.

“In a desert country trees were scarce and fruits were hard to come by. It was said that God wanted to make sure there was enough for everyone, so he appeared to a prophet and said, “This is my commandment to the whole people for now and “The law was faithfully observed for centuries until scientists discovered a means for turning the desert into green land. The country became rich in grain and livestock. And the trees bent down with the weight of unplucked fruit. But the fruit law continued to be enforced by the civil and religious authorities of the land.

“Anyone who pointed to the sin against humanity involved in allowing fruit to rot on the ground was dubbed a blasphemer and an enemy of morality. These people, who questioned the wisdom of God’s holy word, were being guided by the proud spirit of reason, it was said, and lacked the spirit of faith and submission whereby alone the truth can be received.

“In churches sermons were frequently delivered in which those who broke the law were shown to have come to a bad end. Never once was mention made of the equal number of those who came to a bad end even though they had faithfully kept the law or of the vast number of those who prospered even though they broke it.

Nothing could be done to change the law because the prophet who had claimed to have received it from God was long since dead. He might have had the courage and the sense to change the law as circumstances changed for he had taken God’s word not as something to be revered, but as something to be used for the welfare of the people.

“As a result, some people openly scoffed at the law and at God and religion. Others broke it secretly and always with a sense of wrongdoing. The vast majority adhered rigorously to it and came to think of themselves as holy merely because they held on to a senseless and outdated custom they were too frightened to jettison.”

Rituals are like that. They had meaning at one time but now they have been reduced to ... just rituals. What is most disturbing is the fanaticism with which we cling to outdated, meaningless rituals. One of my relatives refused to talk to me for twenty years because I refused to stick to certain rituals. Most religious quarrels are about religious rituals and not about more important things In Gulliver’s travels two countries fight for generations about which side of an egg to break – the larger one or the smaller one!

The Upanishads have no respect for rituals nor does Krishna or the Gita.

Ritualism is endless and day by day it becomes more and more narrow and fanatical. Recently when there was a death in my family, since I was away and could not go because of the covid times, my sister did the rituals. The priest was so elaborate that a simple ritual that earlier took half an hour took three full hours. Surprisingly, all were very happy – how systematically he does it all, they said, comparing him to the earlier priest who did a similar ceremony in half an hour!

Religion has nothing much to do with rituals but most people understand religion as rituals. Recently I met a priest of another religion who, when he learned that I am a Hindu, asked me, “What are the rituals of your religion?” He wasn’t very familiar with Hinduism. I wanted to tell him that in my religion rituals did not matter much – you may do them or you need not do them. But he was a young man who did not know much about religion and I did not feel like getting into a detailed discussion with him.

Professional priests make rituals as elaborate as possible. I have a Hindu friend who is a priest and another who is a ritualist. Both of them go into endless details of rituals and the smallest variation in rituals is pure horror for them. This is what Krishna speaks of as abhikrama nasha and pratyavaya, both of which terms we discussed in the previous article. As we saw, Krishna says that there is neither abhikramana dosha nor pratyavaya dosha in karma yoga.

Get into the world of rituals, you get confused. That is what Krishna means when he says the minds of those who follow rituals are many branched and filled with numerous confusing thoughts.

Also, Krishna is not rejecting rituals altogether. Done in the right spirit and with understanding, they can be beautiful. What Krishna is against is confusing them with religion, taking them for religion, thinking religion is nothing but rituals. And of course, he is against fanatical adherence to rituals, saying this is how things could be done, there is no other way of doing them. One should have a free, liberal, enlightened attitude towards rituals. Then they can make religion, and life, richer. Rituals are like ornaments on a woman – they can beautify her but ornaments are not the woman.


The word Krishna uses to describe ritualistic people is avipashchitah - ignorant ones. They speak in flowery words about the pleasures of heaven as though there is nothing higher than them.

One can easily get bored with pleasures unless sorrow too comes every now and then – it is only in comparison with sorrow that a pleasure is a pleasure. And in the heaven they describe too, there are the same problems as here on earth. Some will be more powerful depending on the amount of punya they have, some will be less, which will lead to jealousy. Nahusha’s story tells us he became Indra, had power over all the gods, they obeyed him completely, he enjoyed thr pleasure of all the drinks, food and music of heaven, all the sights of heaven, had all the apsaras in his bed, and was still unhappy because he did not have Indrani in his bed. Stories tell us of Urvashi becoming angry because she wanted to have Arjuna as her lover but couldn’t because he refused her on ethical grounds saying she was once the wife of an ancestor of his, Pururavas, and hence like his own mother. In her anger, she curses Arjuna to become a eunuch for a year. Which story tells us anger is there in heaven, desire is there, frustration is there, the need for vengeance is there, all that create misery on earth are there. How can heaven then be a happy place?

The highest joy is known as Samadhi, which comes when the mind is completely still and there is not a single thought in it.

Indian wisdom says ananda, happiness, is our nature and it is our mind that prevents us from experiencing it. When the mind becomes still, in other words when the mind ceases to be because a still mind is no mind, we experience the happiness that is behind i. To experience happiness all we need is a still mind, just as to see a coin lying at the bottom of a pool all we need is for the water to become clean and still.

The Upanishads also tell us that the ananda we can have through the fulfillment of our desires is limited, not unlimited. The Taittiriya Upanishad in its famous ananda mimamsa asks us to imagine a young man, perfectly healthy, educated and cultured, and to whom the entire earth with all its wealth belongs. Then the Upanishad tells us that the highest happiness he can experience is but an infinitesimal part of the man who is free from desires.

Flowery words of the karma kanda of the Vedas mislead people. They believe that through aishwrya – prosperity and power – ananda comes. They are wrong. Ananda has nothing to do with prosperity or power. If your mind is still, you are in ananda. Ananda is stillness of the mind.

In the science fiction book Dying Inside, Robert Silverberg describes the happiness inside the heart of a simple Austrian farmer. A man has the ability to feel what others are feeling by entering their hearts and this is what he feels when he enters the heart of the farmer.

“David … slides down through dense layers of unintelligible Deutsch ruminations, and strikes bottom in the basement of the farmer’s soul, the place where his essence lives. Astonishment: old Schiele is a mystic, an ecstatic! No dourness here. No dark Lutheran vindictiveness. This is pure Buddhism: Schiele stands in the rich soil of his fields, leaning on his hoe, feet firmly planted, communing with the universe. God floods his soul. He touches the unity of all things. Sky, trees, earth, sun, plants, brook, insects, birds—everything is one, part of a seamless whole, and Schiele resonates in perfect harmony with it. How can this be? How can such a bleak, inaccessible man entertain such raptures in his depths? Feel his joy! Sensations drench him! Birdsong, sunlight, the scent of flowers and clods of upturned earth, the rustling of the sharp-bladed green cornstalks, the trickle of sweat down the reddened deep-channeled neck, the curve of the planet, the fleecy premature outline of the full moon – a thousand delights enfold this man. David shares his pleasure. He kneels in his mind, reverent, awed. The world is a mighty hymn. Schiele breaks from his stasis, raises his hoe, brings it down; heavy muscles go taut and metal digs into earth, and everything is as it should be, all conforms to the divine plan.

“Is this how Schiele goes through his days? Is such happiness possible? David is surprised to find tears bulging in his eyes. This simple man, this narrow man, lives in daily grace.”

In Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, there is a similar description, though not of happiness but of beauty.

“He looked around, as if he was seeing the world for the first time. Beautiful was the world, colourful was the world, strange and mysterious was the world! Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green, the sky and the river flowed, the forest and the mountains were rigid, all of it was beautiful, all of it was mysterious and magical, and in its midst was he, Siddhartha, the awakening one, on the path to himself. All of this, all this yellow and blue, river and forest, entered Siddhartha for the first time through the eyes, was no longer a spell of Maya, was no longer the veil of Maya, was no longer a pointless and coincidental diversity of mere appearances, despicable to the deeply thinking Brahmin, who scorns diversity, who seeks unity. Blue was blue, river was river, and if also in the blue and the river, in Siddhartha, the singular and divine lived hidden, so it was still that very divinity’s way and purpose, to be here yellow, here blue, there sky, there forest, and here Siddhartha. The purpose and the essential properties were not somewhere behind the things, they were in them, in everything.”

Siddhartha is experiencing the world for the first time through a mind that has become still and this is what he experiences!

The Upanishads and the Gita would completely agree with Robert Silverberg and Hermann Hesse and say such happiness and such beauty are possible, but possible only when our mind is still, when it is not tormented by desires, when we are a-kamahatas, not victims of kama.

Heaven in any case is a myth.

We are all familiar with the world of advertisements. Use this soap, and your skin will glow like the moon. Use this toothpaste and you will feel electrified by freshness. Use this drink and you will have endless energy. Wear this dress, you will look like Miss World. But you know they are advertisements and don’t take them literally. Speech about heaven and its pleasures, in Krishna’s words, is pushpitam vacham, flowery words that mean no more the advertisements do.

The world tells us if you have a bigger car, if you have a bigger house, if you have a more beautiful spouse, if you have a better paid job, you will be happy. These are cosmetic changes, all superficial, they do not touch your insides and hence do not contribute to happiness except momentarily.

It is the asuri man who lives for external goals. The daivi man lies for internal aims. The asuri man does not find joy in life, only kicks, whereas as the daivi man finds lasting happiness. So cultivate the inner world and not the outer world.

Aim at making the mind calm. One way of making the mind calm is meditation. As the mind becomes calm through meditation, in the words of the Gita, you attain the highest joy.

yatroparamate chittam niruddham yogasevayaa
yatra chaivaatmana atmaanam pashyann-aatmani tushyati ll 6.20 ll
sukham aatyantikam yattad buddhi graahyam ateendriyam
vetti yatra na chaivaayam sthitashchalati tattwatah ll 6.21 ll
yam labdhwaa chaaparam laabham manyate naadhikam tatah ll 6.22 ll

“When the mind mastered by yoga attains quietude you see your own self by yourself and you rejoice in yourself. There is a joy that only the pure intellect can understand, a joy that is beyond the senses, and once established in it, you never move away from the truth. And having attained that, you do not consider any gain higher than that.”

Another way to reach the same goal is through the practice of karma yoga. Do what you do with ishwararpana-buddhi. Dedicate your work for the common good. Work not to gain for yourself something from it but to give others.

The secret of happiness is giving, not getting. An individual who lives to give finds joy. A couple who give each other rather than demanding from each other finds happiness. A family who gives finds happiness. A society that gives is a happy society, not the one who constantly demands from the world, from others.

The giver finds happiness, not the taker.

Trees, rivers and cows do not have free will. But we can learn a lot of things from them. A popular Sanskrit verse says:

Paropakaaraaya phalanti vrikshaah paropakaaraaya vahanti nadyah
Paropakaaraaya duhanti gaavah paropakaaraartham idam shareeeram.

Trees produce fruits for the good of others, rivers flow for the good of others, cows yield milk for the good of others, and this body too is for the good of others.

It is a question of attitude. Those who believe we should live for others find happiness and those who believe we should live for ourselves end up lonely and unhappy. The Gita says it is a sin to cook for oneself alone – we should share whatever we have with others.

That is called the spirit of sacrifice, the yajna spirit.

Live in yajna spirit, teaches the Gita. And it also teaches: yajnaarthaat karmano’nyatra lokoyam karmabandhanah – the world is bound by actions other than those performed in the spirit of sacrifice.

Continued to Next Page  


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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Views: 3803      Comments: 2

Comment Dear Shelly Sharma,
Thank you for the appreciation and the alternate meaning suggested. A lot of things depend upon how we look at it. Yajna of course can be seen as sharing - as when Krishna says parasparam bhavayantah shreyah param avapsyatha. But the meaning of sacrifice in the sense of making sacrifices for others also suits in most contexts, especially in the context of karma yoga and of leadership.

Satya Chaitanya
06-Dec-2020 21:56 PM

Comment Excellent interpretation of Karma yoga. But is yajna really equalent to sacrifice?
I heard a mythologist ones say, "Vedas are the seed, and Mahabharata the fruit and Bhagavad-Gita the seed of that fruit." Viyaad gita or the buctcher's gita was written before the Bhagavad-Gita I suppose.
But is yagna, sacrifice or exchange: the constant give and take one has to participate in consciously or unconsciously or subconsciously. Tree takes from nature and gives back a lot in exchange. Pure give-take

Shelly Sharma
06-Dec-2020 01:39 AM

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