By Gregorian Bivolaru
Motto: "In a state of detachment perform what has to be done, no matter what it is, and never wish to assume the fruits of your doings."
Karma Yoga represents one of the four main classic forms of Yoga. Karma Yoga represents a starting point and is an essential part of the teachings of Bhagavad Gita, this serves as sufficient ground for its authenticity.
Like all other forms of Yoga, the main and final purpose of Karma Yoga is to facilitate and accelerate the spiritual evolution of its persistent practitioner. The main difference from other forms of Yoga is that Karma Yoga can be practised well from the very beginning, and can be applied all the time, all day long, because it is applicable to all human activities. Compared to Karma Yoga, the continuous daily practice of Bhakti Yoga for example is only available at a very high level of attainment and the practice of Jïana Yoga (with its main form Hatha Yoga) is restricted to specific periods of the day, for a specific interval of time. These arguments lead to the conclusion that Karma Yoga is an instantaneous form of Yoga for the daily life.
From the different traditional definitions of Karma Yoga, the most current and precise, though not yet complete, is the following: "Karma Yoga is the Yoga of deep and thorough fusion with the Divine, through any unselfish action". Karma Yoga starts from the fact that at any given moment of our daily life, even when we feel forced to act one way or another, we remain free to choose and we bear the whole responsibility of our actions. The use of any spiritual discipline - Yoga, or any other spiritual path - implies the existence of Â‘free willÂ’, both in directing oneÂ’s life and in the choice of the method for doing that. The main question to which Karma Yoga helps us to get an answer is: How and why should we choose between two or more courses of action at a given moment? Through persistent practice we can find out that Karma Yoga gives us more freedom, unbelievable as this may seem to the Western people.
Many contemporary sages, like Sri Ramakrishna or Sri Aurobindo, have shown that Karma Yoga is very well adapted to modern times and suitable for all human beings, even more so than Bhakti Yoga, which suits only those with intense religious inclinations (very rare nowadays). Karma Yoga suits all beings even better than Raja Yoga, which implies an intellectual effort beyond the possibilities of the common individual. Compared to Jïana Yoga, where a strong power of concentration and internalisation is required (currently a very scarce quality), Karma Yoga is easier to practice because it does not require all these talents. Moreover, Karma Yoga suits Westerners extremely well, who are always ready to act and more or less sceptical about the value of spiritual practices, that are taking people away from practical life in a materially oriented society.
I should also emphasise that the practice of Karma Yoga does not exclude the simultaneous practice of one or more of the other forms of Yoga, but will amplify their efficiency. This connection with other forms of Yoga is not essential, because even when practised alone Karma Yoga is sufficient in itself for bringing the highest state of spiritual attainment. Karma Yoga has also a great advantage that is not found in the other forms of Yoga. While Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, Tantra Yoga, Haöha Yoga and even Jïana Yoga, when practised incorrectly, without the careful supervision and guidance of a competent guru, can bring about seriousphysical or mental damage. Karma Yoga presents no dangers for its practitioner, even if its knowledge is based just on written teachings.
Regarding this aspect, we will further on quote several contemporary masters:
Swami Vivekananda: "On the Bhakti Yoga path there is the big danger that the receptive soul might start to mistake fleeting emotions for spiritual revelations and might interpret ordinary aspirations for the true spiritual aspirations" (Practical Yoga). "With few exceptions can we learn Raja Yoga without danger, unless directly guided by a genuine spiritual guru" (Foreword to Raja Yoga).
Sri Ramakrishna : "The Jïana yogi says: Â‘I am thatÂ’, but as long as we consider our body as being our immortal Self, this is ill-fated egotism. It will not help us to progress, but will lead us to ruin" (Teachings of Ramakrishna).
Swami Brahmananda: after his disciples were already purified by the practice of certain asanas and forms of praëayama, he told them: "Regarding the Haöha Yoga practices, avoid them if you don't want to support painful consequences. Haöha Yoga is a very dangerous path when practised in ignorance, without the guidance of a competent guru" (Spiritual disciplines).
We add here that the Karma Yoga system is almost free of metaphysical or religious concepts and, even in an advanced stage of practice, Karma Yoga does not require the help of any physical discipline and of any diet. However it stands to reason that the Karma yogi should do his best to stay healthy.
The main goal in Karma Yoga
Swami Vivekananda describes the ideal of Karma Yoga as follows: "The ideal human being is the one who amidst the deepest silence and the biggest solitude finds the most intense activity, and the one who amidst the most intense activity finds the silence and solitude of the desert." "The Karma yogi doesnÂ’t need to believe in any doctrine. He may not even believe in God, he may not ask himself what is the soul and he may not be attracted by any metaphysical speculation at all" (Practical Yoga).
However, because the spiritual masters from the Orient whose teachings we have inherited are all profoundly religious, it is not surprising that they interpret Karma Yoga from this perspective. Sri Ramakrishna says: "Karma Yoga is the spontaneous communion with God through action". From the perspective of Bhakti Yoga system, this interpretation can be seen as the revelation of the Divine through love and from the perspective of the Jïana Yoga system as the pursuit of the awareness of the Absolute Divine. Ramakrishna said also: "The supreme goal in Karma Yoga is the same as in all forms of Yoga: the realisation of the Supreme Eternal or the Impersonal Divine."
The efficiency of
the Karma Yoga system
Irrespective of the way we represent our spiritual goal, this can be attained through one of the forms of Yoga. Enlightenment (mokña), is defined in Hinduism as the communion with the Divine in all forms, the attainment of the divine plane of consciousness, the anchoring of consciousness in the Ultimate Truth, the attainment of a bigger freedom in life. Mokña can be obtained through all forms of Yoga, but it is more easily and readily reached through Karma Yoga. Regarding this here follows quotes from well-known sages. Swami Sivananda: "Many people believe that Karma Yoga is an inferior type of Yoga, but this is a great error."
Rabindranath Tagore: "Many of us wrongly think that action is opposing freedom." "We will never obtain a significant result by trying to reach the Infinite outside of the domain of action." "If we declare that we would like to realise Brahman (The Supreme Divine) during introspection only and that we leave Him out during our exterior actions, considering that we want to benefit from his presence only through the love that we feel in our hearts during prayer, without any other adoration for Him through other exterior modalities, or if we consider that only the contrary is true, then we are obstructing our work on the long way towards the Truth and we set ourselves for a pitiful failure" (Sadhana).
Sri Ramakrishna: "When performed without attachment the action becomes an easy way to obtain the real goal in life, which is communion with God."
Sri Aurobindo: "The detached activity is very often the only necessary instrument for the ineffable union with the Master of Creation." "To perform all activities in an intimate fusion and in deep communion with the Divine which is in us, in profound harmony with the universal around us and with the transcendental beyond us, not to let us be limited by our often separating and rigid human mind, not to be the slave of its ignorant or aberrant imperatives and of its narrow suggestions, this is Karma Yoga." (Integral Practical Yoga).
Swami Vivekananda: "Through detached activity the human being can easily get where Buddha got only through meditation and Jesus through love and prayers" (Practical Yoga). Even if this formulation may be shocking for some fundamentalist Christians, it shows clearly that for Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga is as efficient as Raja Yoga or Bhakti Yoga practised at their highest level.
Ma Ananda Moyi: "He who practices Karma Yoga will quickly realise Brahman (The Supreme) as Absolute Consciousness and will receive the grace of the Divine Mother" (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi).
For the careful student of the Hindu spirituality it is obvious that these are objective goals to be reached both in Jïana and Bhakti Yoga.
Swami Ramadas, who reached enlightenment through Bhakti Yoga, says: "Not by ceasing to act, but by acting completely detached can we effortlessly obtain the supreme state of beatitude and enlightenment" (Letters).
Swami Brahmananda, the spiritual son of Sri Ramakrishna: "We can obtain the Supreme Knowledge even if we only persistently partake in various activities consecrated to the Divine" (Monastic disciplines).
Ramana Maharishi, the intransigent Jïana yogi: "Action free of desire, with a total detachment from its fruits, is superior to the knowledge combined with practice" "The state in which the performance of the action is free of desire is the way which easily leads towards enlightenment." (Teachings of Ramana Maharishi).
As a conclusion here we can say that: if performed in the spirit of Karma Yoga any action, no matter how unimportant, can help us to advance towards Enlightenment.
The Specific Technique
in Karma Yoga
The theoretical grounds and techniques of action in Karma Yoga are clearly stated by Kåñna in the Bhagavad Gita, with the only observation that the order in which these ideas are presented is not the most convenient for Western people. Briefly, the wise teachings of Kåñna are:
One can not be without action, even for a second.
One should not make inaction oneÂ‘s goal.
Certain actions are obligatory, therefore we cannot escape them.
One should not desire the fruits (or the consequences) of oneÂ‘s actions.
One should not be attached to the action itself.
One should not consider oneself as being the author of the action.
Any action, regardless of its nature, will not enchain its performer, if it is done in this way.
In fact, we can say that Karma Yoga is the divine skill (wisdom and non-attachment) in actions.
Following this order we will analyse the elements of the Karma Yoga system:
One can not be without action,
even for a second.
The first statement: "The human being cannot be without action" has an exclusively theoretical character, serving as preparation for the second statement: "inactivity shouldnÂ’t be the goal", which is of a practical nature and, as we will see further, it is addressed more to Easterners than Westerners.
We will proceed now to examine these aspects closely: In the Bhagavad Gita, Kåñna returns to them three times: - "not even for a moment can one be without action. Everything inevitably goes towards action". "Even your physical life", says Kåñna to Arjuna, "cannot be maintained without a continuous action".
And finally, "no incarnated being can renounce action totally. Action is inevitable".
In other chapters from Mahabharata, Kåñna is approvingly quoting one Brahmin who says to his wife: "In this world it is impossible not to act, even for a single moment" (Ashvamedhika). Different people living in all times recognise this truth. Even nowadays, the great sages reconfirm this truth. Sri Ramakrishna said: "No one can avoid action. The mere fact of saying Â‘I amÂ’ or Â‘I am thinkingÂ’ implies already action. We cannot escape action; action is a natural law".
Swami Vivekananda also says: "We cannot live even for one single second without acting". Swami Brahmananda comes to the same conclusion: "Without action our existence would be impossible". Swami Ramadas wrote: "To act is the very fundamental expression of the nature of our being, in the same way as the meaning of a flower is to spread its perfume. As such, we should act with wisdom. We cannot do otherwise, because it is impossible. Even if sometimes the human being is immobile and apparently inactive, his organs and his inner structures, the psyche, the mind, the intellect are always more or less active. The complete cessation of all actions is therefore impossible". This is an obvious aspect that is revealed when deeply reflected upon. During the deepest physical immobility, thinking is still active, and even if we can partially stop it (which is very often only our imagination), the natural functions of the body (respiration, circulation, etc.) will not cease their activity. Sri Aurobindo says that even when the mental activity is stopped, in the brain there still occur certain "vibrations" that are perceptible and identifiable.
No matter what, even a total Â‘inactionÂ’ will not stop us from Â‘actingÂ’ and therefore modifying the course of what would have happened if we had acted in a normal way. This is because we can operate in a subtle way through our aura and thus manifest influences over our immediate surroundings through our inner attitude or intention. These influences, through resonance and induction, can for example make us happy or worried, and if they are very strong they can determine a sort of contagious emulation in people that are around us, which will have positive or negative effects upon us, changing our inner state accordingly.
One should not make inaction oneÂ‘s goal.
If inactivity is impossible then it is obviously irrational and erroneous to propose it as a goal in any form of Yoga. Kåñna tells Arjuna: "Do not allow attachment to inactivity in any way". To prevent any misunderstanding on ArjunaÂ´s part, he is also adds: "Notthrough abstinence from actions will people enjoy non-action, not by renouncing actions will they attain perfection". He continues by emphasising "Action is always superior to inaction".
In KåñnaÂ‘s time, these revelations were directed towards several important Jïana and Raja Yoga schools which were exaggeratedly emphasising as a necessary stage and even as a final goal of the spiritual discipline the complete cessation of all physical and even mental activities. This abnormal approach is not attractive today, except for small groups that claim certain phantasmagorical understanding of the teachings of Çankara and Pataïjali. Actually, many people are inclined to believe that any activity, other than spiritual, is a necessary evil for which we should not allow more than a minimal time and save the rest for inner focusing, for meditation, worship, etc. This is why, the great contemporary sages have considered it necessary to remind us of the words of Kåñna. For example, Tagore said: "In order to live harmoniously, we have to work; life and activity are tightly entwined". "Who will be so insane as to always run away from the happy crowd looking for God only in the prostration of inactivity? ".
Swami Ramadas explains: "Yoga does not mean renunciation of action; on the contrary, it rises the action to the highest spiritual level" (The presence of Ram).
Swami Brahmananda, even while asking his disciples to meditate a few hours daily, he said: "I am asking, why are you so afraid of your work? If you really want to realise God then work perseveringly and wait. You should never totally abandon other activities" (Spiritual disciplines).
Sri Aurobindo continuously returns to a similar idea: "Work has a primary importance. Doings are necessary; Yoga of action is indispensable. The idea of abandoning the physical activity in order to accelerate the development of our mind is a fantasy of our mental ego" (Practical Integral Yoga). He also says: "To continue the physical activity helps us to keep the balance between the inner experience and the outer development" (Yoga Guide). Even so, sages of all times are also emphasising that the obligation to act more or less visibly ceases for those rare human beings who, upon reaching a high spiritual level, cannot objectively conform anymore. That is why, for Sri Ramakrishna, only the people which are not sattva (pure, balanced) must obey to the imperatives of work in this world (Teachings of Ramakrishna). As such, the pure sattva being, who is free of tamas or rajas has attained almost a superhuman level. Swami Vivekananda is referring to these people when he says: "There are nevertheless, exceptional beings completely content with the Self, beings whose wishes are beyond the Self, beings whose mind doesnÂ’t wander away from the Self, beings for which the Self is everything; only these beings donÂ’t need to work anymore. The rest of humanity is obliged to pass slowly, slowly through the world of activity. Karma Yoga shows us the principle, reveals to us the secret, and offers us a method to perform it in practice, with maximum efficiency".
Ma Ananda Moyi talks in the same way: "we should never stay without doing something, or wait in a state of inertia for a state of pure and perfect being to appear". It is very useful to observe that even the greatest sages who have attained the highest state of spiritual evolution continue to act tirelessly.
As a last word on this point, in Mahabharata the king of the Gods, Indra, says: "people who criticise action are sinful".
Certain actions are obligatory, therefore we cannot escape them.
To this short, imperative indication Kåñna adds another, of a complementary positive nature. In the beginning of Bhagavad Gita, Kåñna says: "Perform the necessary action as I have indicated" (i.e., according to the Karma Yoga principles). And at the end Kåñna reminds us: "It is not necessary to renounce those actions which are correctly integrated and consecrated". It is important to discover what these Â‘indicatedÂ’ actions are, "which must be performed". It is possible that Kåñna refers here to certain special procedures, to certain Yoga techniques, to specific ways of purification and sublimation or to details pertinent to one or another form of Yoga. All these acts "must necessarily be performed" because, "they purify the blood" determining the refinement of the human being and to them Kåñna will refer further. Nevertheless, a further reading of Bhagavad Gita will show that Kåñna does not refer to these kinds of actions.
Nowadays, however, this principle obviously gets a different significance and in order to understand it better, we must refer to the competent opinion of contemporary sages.
For the fortunate ones who are guided by a true guru (not all those who call themselves guru-s are genuine!) the problem is very simple: they must follow as closely as possible the guidance of their spiritual guide in order to elevate themselves inwardly and grow spiritually. For those who donÂ’t have a guru we will refer to the teachings of the great Karma Yogi; Mahatma Gandhi. He said: "the law of activity is the law of life" and we know that for him Â‘the law of lifeÂ’ was the daily request dictated by his consciousness that was tuned in to the divine consciousness. He said: "God created the human being in such a way that he can get his daily food or his daily energy through his work or activity. The one who is eating without working or who is inertly waiting to receive without deserving it or without acting, is a thief".
Sri Aurobindo said: "We have to obey our Â‘social obligationsÂ’ in a detached state, but consider them as a true field for Yoga practice" (Integral Practical Yoga).
He considers that every activity is spiritual and useful for the one who performs it with the right attitude of detached integration. In his words: "we should perform all our actions with a detached attitude, in the right state of consciousness and with spiritual integration".
This way of doing things produces an inner state that is equivalent to a state that follows a successful meditation. In fact for him, "action or activity is nothing else than another specific form of preparation, equally important as Yoga meditation."
Swami Ramadas also states "The action performed in a state of complete absorption (fusion) into the Supreme Eternal Centre of the universe is that which the sages call yogic action (The Presence of Ram).
In this case, the nature of the action becomes of a secondary importance. Here we can again quote Sri Aurobindo: "We can use any action or activity as a field or area, in which we exercise every moment in the wise spirit of the Bhagavad Gita" (Integral Practical Yoga).
Swami Vivekananda says about this: "Even the lowest or apparently inferior aspects of activity should not be despised" (Practical Yoga).
Sri Aurobindo insists: "It is absolutely untrue that physical activity has less value than the sustained mental activity; only the arrogance of the limited intellect can pretend this." The efficiency of the action that was firmly consecrated and that is performed through and for the Divine is directly proportional to the degree of divine offering. The manual action intentionally performed only for the Divine is superior to the mental activity intentionally performed only for our own egotistical evolution, for personal glory, or for transient mental satisfaction.
According to the Indian tradition regarding Karma Yoga, the choice of actions "which have to be performed" by a certain individual is determined by what in India is called svadharma (The appropriate law). While in the West, the religion, the morality and the law are made of rights and restrictions given in absolute terms, reserving the right for multiple exceptions, the Hinduism gives different rights and duties, sometimes contradictory, to the different groups of people within society. To name just one example: in the West there is an absolute principle preached by the church and applied in court: " thou shall not kill!" This principle is so strict that it has produced some extreme individuals and social groups that are categorically condemning euthanasia and abortion. To this strict imperative of Â‘not killingÂ’ there is a big exception: "During war do all your best to kill the enemy". And even this calls for an exception: "Do not kill the enemy if he is disarmed, if he surrenders, or if he is already a hostage". There are many other examples of exceptions. The traditional Eastern teaching has a different approach: it accepts that the Â‘dutyÂ’ (dharma) is not the same for all, but varies according to age, sex, social status, caste, etc. Thus, everybody has his own individualised duty, his own svadharma.
Here follows some significant examples: in India, people who belong to the caste of Brahmans must strive to be non-violent to such a degree that, with very few exceptions, all Brahmans are strictly vegetarians. Those belonging to the caste of warriors, kñatriyas, have as an essential duty to defend what they deem as being right, using violence if necessary. The head of the family must work to support those who are depending on him. The person who listens to the "divine call" and becomes sannyasin (disciple aspiring to enlightenment) and also the one who (according to a now discontinued tradition) has married his children, these two categories may not work anymore to earn their existence or to provide for others, and must exclusively live from begging when they pursue the spiritual realisation.
"All people" wrote Swami Sivananda, "must fulfil their duty according to the requirements of the social group to which they belong and to the stage of life (ashrama) in which they are" (Teachings of Sivananda). No doubt, this system could not be directly transposed in the West, because in the East the Hindu system of castes plays a very important role. For instance, in a few fishermen communities from the South of India, it is an obligation to throw the net with the left hand and it would be a great sin to throw it with the right hand, while in other fishermen communities in India the opposite must be done. Nevertheless, many problems and inner tensions could be easily solved if we abstain from following blindly and defiantly a very general and apparently absolute rule without filtering it through common sense and intelligent analysis.
It is not without interest to mention here the warning of eastern sages against what we often compliantly call Â‘dutyÂ’, even if in reality this could be only a well-disguised selfish desire. Referring to this, Swami Vivekananda says: "when an attachment is well rooted we often call it a habitÂ… when the attachment becomes chronic we proudly call it Â‘dutyÂ’ ... Those wishing truly to be Karma Yogi-s must eliminate this false notion of duty." (Practical Yoga).
More Eastern sages insisted on the necessity of devoting oneself with priority to what Swami Vivekananda calls: "the duty which here and now is the closest to us". Mahatma Gandhi explained this aspect in detail in his svadeshi doctrine: "A real adept of the svadeshi doctrine must have as first duty to devote his services and help to his closest neighbours. This will entail the exclusion and even the sacrificing of the interests of the rest, but this exclusion and sacrifice is just an appearance. Through its own nature, the help or service done for the close ones can never result in an obstruction for those that are far away, on the contrary. This is how things are both for the Universe and for the individual, and this is an infallible principle, which should be deeply understood. On the other hand, the one who lets himself be carried away by a Â‘faraway landscapeÂ’ and who will go to the end of the world to serve, not only will he see his ambition betrayed, but will also not fulfil his duties toward those in his immediate surroundings" (Letters from Ashram by Mahatma Gandhi).
But Gandhi admits in this direction several exceptions: "There can be situations in which the adept of the svadeshi doctrine will be asked to sacrifice his family on behalf of the universal service. This act of freely consented sacrifice constitutes the supreme service which we can bring to the universal family of mankind from this planet".
The Â‘indicatedÂ’ or Â‘recommendedÂ’ action may, on certain special occasions, even imply violence against somebody. Swami Vivekananda said: "The Karma yogi is the one who understands that the highest ideal is consecration full of ardour and non resistance; as such, the one who understands that this non resistance is the highest manifestation of the power we hold in us, equally knows that what we call Â‘resisting to evilÂ’ is also a stage on the path towards the manifestation of non-resistance. But before getting to this supreme ideal, the human being has the duty to oppose and resist evil". (Practical Yoga).
Mahatma Gandhi himself, the great preacher of non-violence, stated in this direction that "the one who remains the passive spectator of a crime is indeed, even from the judiciary point of view, a participant to that crime". All these ideas help us understand better why Sri Aurobindo wrote to one of his disciples: "Have no remorse for the time spent in activity and creative work" (Integral Practical Yoga). Swami Sivananda says the same: "The activity performed with completely detached ardour, is the key of Karma Yoga." (Teachings of Sivananda).
One should not desire the fruits (or consequences) of oneÂ‘s actions.
We are now going to explain the fundamental principle and the great secret of the Karma Yoga system; once engaged on this path, we willingly and unconditionally give up the fruits of our actions, and therefore we also give up the desire for selfishly enjoying the good consequences or the fear of supporting the bad consequences of our actions. This is the fundamental principle of "unselfish action through consecration to the Divine". This is what Kåñna firmly declares in the beginning of Bhagavad Gita: "You have the right to perform the action, but only to perform it, because from now on you should never again desire its fruits; the fruits of your action should never be the motive which sets you to work".
"Only the poor miserable souls are acting for the fruits of their actions or from the desire for those fruits, the constant object of their thoughts or activities". "The wise, by complete and profound union with the Divine, and by aligning their existence and their will with the Supreme Will, renounce totally the fruits that result from their actions".
Further on, Kåñna describes the consequences of this extraordinary, indeed Supreme, attitude: "Abandoning totally the attachment to the fruits of the action, the soul succeeds to instantly merge with the Divine (Brahman) and immediately feels an euphoric state of peace and force based on the almightiness and beatitude of the Divine (Brahman)". In the last chapter of Bhagavad Gita, this truth is summed up as follows: "A tyagin is one who thoroughly attained the perfect renunciation and about him we can say that he attained this Â‘beatific and almighty peaceÂ’ that comes from merging into the Supreme Absolute (Brahman) and which manifests in and through him permanently Â– such is indeed the one who has abandoned the fruits of action".
In the rest of Mahabharata, all other yogi-c wisemen support KåñnaÂ‘s teachings. In this direction, Manu says: "The only spontaneous and instant way to attain the Divine is that the mind should completely renounce the fruit of action". Likewise, Kåñna says: "The only true and appropriate action which can have eternal and infinite consequences is the one not motivated by any desire for its fruits or by the pursuit of any reward." The wise king Yudhishthira is more direct: "The one always wishing to collect the fruits of his moral excellence makes a pitiful trade with virtue".
All contemporary sages, without exception, agree on this point. Swami Ramadas says: "Karma Yoga is the complete renunciation of the fruits of our actions." Swami Vivekananda frequently returns to this theme: "Never be concerned with the fruits of your actions. Why should we be concerned only for the results?" "Renounce entirely all fruits of your actions." "Never look or wish for praises or rewards for anything you do". "The idea of finally obtaining something as a reward for our activity is considerably obstructing our spiritual evolution and often ends by bringing us suffering" (Practical Yoga).
Swami Brahmananda said to his disciples: "If you truly wish to act correctly, you must never forget two main principles: in the first place a profound respect full of attention for the action to be done and in the second place a total indifference or detachment for its fruits. This is what we call the biggest secret in Karma Yoga" (Spiritual disciplines).
Ma Ananda Moyi explains: "As long as we only hide the desire of stepping forward and being known, there is no Karma Yoga, there is just the pleasure of acting for our own satisfaction. We act then only for selfishly enjoying the fruits of our action or for the prestige that it can bring to us. If, before we act, we renounce completely the fruits of our action this instantly becomes Karma Yoga" (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi).
The broader meaning which she gives here to the desire for the fruits of the action, is also shown in the following words of Sri Ramakrishna: "To act only for your own material interest is degrading". (Teachings of Ramakrishna). In fact, the continual pursuit of the results or fruits of the action, even if we do not directly take advantage of them, is equally a manifestation of selfishness. Swami Sivananda says: "How can an egoist person practice Karma Yoga? As long as he does not make the effort to go beyond his selfishness, this spiritual path is impossible for him".
The same idea is formulated by Sri Aurobindo: "Karma Yoga cannot exist without the intense desire to abandon selfishness, the rajas guna dominance, the desire for the fruits of action - which are all true seals of ignoranceÂ…. Action performed in the spirit of Karma Yoga is just as efficient as the highest realisation in Bhakti Yoga and it is similar to the attainment of success in contemplation" (The Yoga guide).
For the successful practice of Karma Yoga we must therefore "free ourselves of any selfish goal, regardless of what that is" (Integral Practical Yoga). Sri Aurobindo further analyses the conditions for this to be accomplished: "The only action which instantly unites us with the Supreme and is rapidly purifying us spiritually, is that action which we do in a state of perfect detachment, with no personal reasons, without looking in any way for notoriety or for the ephemeral honours of this world, without setting forth our personal goals, individual intentions, vital greed or physical preferences, without feeling vanity, without wishing to compel recognition or to find prestige; this is in reality the action that the Divine is doing through us by a sort of clearly felt inner imperative".
"All actions done in a selfish spirit, no matter how good they may seem to people from the ignorant world, are not of any use for the true aspirant to Yoga" (Yoga guide). "Any action performed with keen attention and harmoniously integrated, conceived with the intention to be a genuine offering to the Divine, free of desire for its fruits, free of selfishness, done in a balanced state of mind, with a complete inner equality both in success and failure. This action being carried out mainly for the love of the Divine and not for gaininglater rewards, compensations, or some personally desired result, having the very intense awareness that all actions belong to the Infinite Divine Power. This is the instantaneous way of spiritual elevation and self offering through Karma Yoga".
As one can expect, the writings of Mahatma Gandhi are filled with the same ideas, only that he presents them a bit differently: "the continual satisfaction lays in the sincere effort of performing (the action) and not in the success. The complete effort is, with anticipation, the expression of complete victory" (Ethical religion). And as usual, he draws upon his personal example as being instructional: "I have just very imperfectly realised my intense desire of profoundly melting into the Divine; I have ardently wished to be just a boulder of clay in the Divine hands of the Creator, so that I could serve much better, without being interrupted at all by my ego" (Young India).
Regarding this attitude he later gives a metaphysical explanation, which we should deeply reflect upon: "The human being should not exploit the results of his actions. Acting permanently in this way, will give a constant empowerment granted by the Divine". (Quoted by Mahader Desai in "Gandhiji in the villages of India").
When acting to obtain a result (a frequent occurrence) it is obvious that, before everything else we think about the possible results of our action, which we even try to predict, according to our intelligence: the pleasure or the advantages which the action will bring us or those who interest us. Nevertheless, we have all experienced many cases when the results were not what we had hoped for (indeed that is what happens most often), being sometimes entirely opposite to our expectations.
We seldom consider the long-term results of our actions. When we are enjoying a delicious and luxurious lunch for example, or when we offer cookies to a child it is not often that we think of the possibility of indigestion. If we recommend to someone a certain title for reading, we do so, hoping that by reading the book some change will emerge in him, which will bring about an enrichment of his soul or even a positive transformation of his ideas. But even in these situations, our predictions are far from becoming true in all cases. As such, almost always we are incapable to completely and accurately predict the results of our actions in the long run. No matter the care or attention with which we raise a child we will never know beforehand if he will turn to be good or bad or how will he use the faculties which we are developing in him or how will he use the knowledge we teach him. In fact, as Swami Vivekananda rightly observed: " We can never accomplish something which does not have some good results and, similarly, there is no action which does not do some harm somewhere Â… There is no action which will not simultaneously determine, on different levels, both good and bad fruits" (Practical Yoga).
With the exception of people who reached the state of wisdom, no matter how smart we are or we think we are, common sense and our life experience obliges us to admit that our predictions about the results of our actions are almost always incomplete and uncertain. According to our inner attitude and temperament we find that the results (the Â‘fruitsÂ’) of our actions are for the greatest part ultimately determined by the Divine will or by fate (in other words by Karma) these results being in extremely few cases totally determined by our intentions or our firmly focused will.
As a conclusion, we can say that the desire for the fruits of action is not as fulfilling as we may think it is and the rule given in Bhagavad Gita and Karma Yoga is not as far out as it may look at first sight. Understanding this we must find out if there is a wise, preferable purpose to action.
The desire to obtain the fruits of action is obviously just one aspect of desire in general. Regarding this, yoga considers desire as the most terrible obstacle on the path of inner evolution.
In Bhagavad Gita, Kåñna speaks about this in forty-two sütras (aphorisms), from eleven different chapters. He is full of compassion for these "souls of desire". He talks about these "poor slaves of desire" and he continuously insists upon "the necessity of being completely free of desire". For him, desire is one of the "gateways to hell, the destroyer of souls". And in his description of "demonic souls" he is doubtlessly referring only to the greed for the fruits of action when he says: "Enchained, devoured by anger and greed, constantly busy to collect ever greater profits through dishonest ways for serving the satisfaction of their transient pleasures and the fulfilment of their desires, they almost always think: Â‘Today I have fulfilled this desire, tomorrow, no doubt I will fulfil another; today I have obtained this richness, tomorrow, for sure, I will obtain even moreÂ’." Kåñna also speaks about the eternal enemy of knowledge which, disguised as selfish desire, is a consuming fire. And, in his vision, a person "must completely renounce selfish desire, with no exception", if he is pursuing the "path of becoming one with the Supreme Divine Brahman". This is why Kåñna insists that the aspirants towards enlightenment should "abandon, with no exceptions, all desires born of selfishness". But he doesnÂ’t deny that it can be quite difficult "to always overcome this enemy, named selfish desire, which is so difficult to attack".
In another chapter from Mahabharata, Kåñna explains to the king Yudhishthira: "About the person who selfishly desires all the good things of this world, being entirely and always attached to the fruits of these selfish desires, we can say that he already bears Death in his mouthÂ… The complete restrain of selfish desires is at the root of all true virtues". We consider it unnecessary to emphasise again that in Mahabharata all other sages are repeating the same warning. And the same holds true for the modern sages; it is sufficient to quote only a few on this idea.
Sri Ramakrishna: "The heart which has only burned in the fire of selfish desires can in no way stand the influence of elevated spiritual feelings or experiences" (Teachings of Ramakrishna). And also: "Nobody can enter the Heavenly Kingdom if he holds on to even the slightest trace of selfish desire".
Sri Aurobindo is dedicating an important part of his letters addressed to his disciples to the techniques that will allow them to get rid of "ego and selfish desires". He says: "Problems and suffering fall upon the human beings because they are filled with selfish desires for things or states that cannot exist permanently and which, willingly or not, they will loose and even when they would obtain them they will ultimately bring deception and will be unable to fully satisfy them for ever" (Answers). He adds: " If the selfish desire is not completely mastered, how could we walk fast and easy on the spiritual path? Because liberation shows up instantly after the loss of ego and selfish desires".
Ma Ananda Moyi observes that "often enough, we selfishly tend to satisfy one wish through another one, which results in the fact that desires cannot disappear and also the tendency to desire in human beings will not disappear". (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi). Because of this, she was directing all those coming to see her to replace selfish wishes with detached desires. She said: "You are the ones who are always creating selfish desires through your thoughts, and you are also the ones who can destroy them, by firmly and detachedly thinking the opposite".
This complete detachment and freedom from the fruits of action is for us quite hard to grasp, especially in the beginning, because usually when we act we do so for a selfish wish, in order to get a result or a pleasant fruit which should be favourable or at least agreeable to us. Even in those actions that we say are Â‘selflessÂ’, it seldom happens that we donÂ’t wish for anything at all in exchange. If, for instance, when giving a present to a child or when helping a poor person, the recipient doesnÂ’t even say "thank you", we are, very often at least slightly surprised.
Also, most of the time we are tempted to think that if we should expect nothing in return for our completely detached actions, then it is useless to continue them. But from the teachings of the Karma Yoga system we have seen that this is a misunderstanding. What should then be our purpose?
Obviously, there are "certain actions integrated into the Divine harmony and therefore indicated" about which we have already spoken, but even so, they cover only a fraction of our activities. The fulfilling of our svadharma gives us a larger scope but it is still not enough. The best answer to this is given by Gandhi who was performing all actions that he considered to be righteous and strictly necessary according to the highest necessity (ideal) of the moment, without caring for the results, a fact which did not make him an easy partner in his negotiations with the British authorities. In such a situation someone told Gandhi: "If you are going to do what you have informed us, the consequences will be catastrophic both for India and you personally". His answer was "This doesnÂ’t interest me at all". This is "the highest ideal of the moment"- meaning, that we do in a state of detachment that which is right in that specific situation, about which we have a feeling of duty, to be open to the mysterious "inner voice" of consciousness, to have a detached desire to be the best possible vehicle or channel for the manifestation of the Divine, to align our intention with the cosmic will. All these are leading to salvation if we: "offer completely our actions and their fruits to God" as Kåñna says in Bhagavad Gita. In this direction, Swami Ramadas said: "we can easily and instantly discover God in us if we offer him totally, through a thorough and sincere consecration, the fruits of all our actions" (Letters).
Ma Ananda Moyi goes even further when she says: " the ancient prayer Â– Â‘God, please make my heart free of thirst for resultsÂ’ - is still the result of a hidden inner wish to get a result. But as long as we aspire with all our heart, passionately, to become able to perform actions without lust of result we can be sure that, with the help of the Divine we will attain this state. As long as the ego will exist or will dominate, inner conflicts will burst out from time to time, even if we will try to perform detached actions. These conflicts appear because the ego still binds us to the fruits of our actions and, consequently, drives us in a specific direction" (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi).
We should never be attached to action itself
If we shouldnÂ’t be attached to the fruits of action, then logically the question arises if it is necessary to be attached to the action itself when we decide to accomplish it. The answer of Bhagavad Gita is clear: "As those who do not know, act with attachment, similarly those who truly understand, know that they must act without any attachment."
To a visitor who was very pious, but attached to an important social activity, Sri Ramakrishna gave the following prayer: "Regarding the little work which I still have to do, please God, help me to have the strength to accomplish it without attachment" (Teachings of Ramakrishna). Informed by one of his disciples Â– who just returned from a travel abroad - about the prevalent state of spirit in the West, Ramakrishna said: "The excessive attachment to action that exists in the U.S.A. and in the U.K. is to be condemned because it will shortly bring about spiritual decadence".
Ma Ananda Moyi gives clear details in the same direction: "If for a certain reason the slightest resentment appears, then the action cannot be considered without attachment. LetÂ’s suppose that you do the biggest part of a work and then, for some reason, you must abandon it and let somebody else take over. This other person will bring the work to completion and will receive the merit for the whole work. If this will even slightly bother you how could we then say that this was a detached action? No doubt that the desire that someone should be grateful to you is still existing in you. In the middle of any action, at any moment, in any circumstances, you should be ready to detachedly obey to any necessity of the moment. Suppose that you are very hungry and, at the moment you bring some food to your mouth, somebody is asking you to go somewhere. In that right moment you should happily abandon the food and detachedly fulfil the request. Such an attitude reveals the one who is firmly anchored in a state of happiness that doesnÂ’t belong to this world.
When we are approaching the permanent inner state where no effort is necessary, to be punished or rewarded for a mistake that rises during the performance of our task is of complete indifference to us. Then we are just detached instruments that are offering themselves to the hands of God. The body is then acting as a detached instrument and we are detachedly looking at the action as spectators. Then we realise with lucidity the great number of tasks that we can accomplish through the intermediary of this body. This state gives us a huge energy and high efficiency. The total non-egotistical action is filled with beauty, leading to the state of beatitude, because it is not motivated by any selfish desire for self-satisfaction. As long as the obstacle represented by our ego is not overcome, even if we think that we should act detachedly, we will not be able to do so and will often be hurt and suffer (because we desire at least some of the fruits of our actions). This will bring about at least a change in the expression of our eyes and of our face, and this significant aspect is easily visible and perceptible in our entire way of being" (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi).
Just like desiring the fruits of an action is only a form of selfish desire - even if this is one of the most difficult to overcome - the selfish attachment to the action itself is also one of the many forms of attachment, maybe the most subtle. In Bhagavad Gita, Kåñna considers as selfish attachment to the activities of this world, not only the attachment to action, but also attachment to a thing, a being, a place, attachment to a home and even attachment to understanding. He stresses that "only the one who has renounced all selfish attachments is not bound any more to sin", "only that person will instantly discover the infinite happiness which exists in the Supreme inner self".
Sri Aurobindo shows that "all selfish attachments perturbs or hinders the spiritual work" (Answers). He insists: "If we select as spiritual path only the Yoga of action then we can remain in saàsara (even after we reach the highest attainment) but this will be with free consent and saàsara will be then considered as our field of free action (at that level of accomplishment there is no obligation to act). In his inner self, the yogi should always be free of all bindings and selfish attachments" (Practical Yoga). Swami Vivekananda reveals that in most cases, even when unaware of it, the selfish attachment "appears only when we expect a certain reward" (Practical Yoga). This situation is common both for the selfish desire for the fruits of the action and for the fear of the fruits of action.
One should never consider oneself the author of the action
Karma Yoga goes even further. The next stage is about authorship: we shouldnÂ’t selfishly consider ourselves the authors of the detached action that we are performing. But we observe that there is not always a clear answer about who the author is in reality.
In Bhagavad Gita, Kåñna explains: "When actions are performed by the guëas (specific modes of nature), the human being who is led astray by the ego is thinking: Â‘I am the one who is actingÂ’." At the end of the text Kåñna gives more details: "The five causes of action are: the body, the author, the five instruments, the many types of effort and finally, the destiny (karma). These five elements make all the efficient causes which determine the form and the result of each action performed by no matter who in this world with his mind, with his speech and with his body".
Swami Ramadas is categorical in this direction: "Even to think, egotistically, that we are the authors of our action is totally false" and he repeats this affirmation many times (Letters).
In Mahabharata, other sages who approached this theme are not less categorical than Kåñna when talking about the true causes of action. In this way, Prahlada says it straight to Indra: "The one who selfishly considers himself the author of his actions, be they good or bad, is endowed with a vicious intelligence. In my opinion, such a person is ignorant and does not know the truth at all" (Shanti).
When Kåñna talks about a devotional practice that involves the mental recitation of a famous sacred prayer from Rig-Veda, he explains: "The person reciting the gayatri-mantra doesnÂ’t consider himself the author of this action, nor the enjoyer of this action, nor the one who bears its consequences".
For Bali, according to what he is telling to Indra, the true almighty author of action and the one making the action possible is none other than the Supreme Divine Self: "That you selfishly consider yourself as the author of action, O! Shankara, this attitude is the root of all pains and sufferingsÂ… I am not the author of action, you are not the author of action. God, the Divine, is the author of all actions, only he is in reality the Omnipotent".
The same idea comes forth from Swami Ramadas: "In fact, God is always the unique author of action" (Letters). He adds: "God is the one pushing us to action and He is also always the one acting in and through us." (Letters). Sri Aurobindo also says: "It is a great secret of the spiritual practice (Sadhana) to know how to do all things through the Infinite Power of God, which is behind or above us, instead of doing everything only by a selfish effort" (Yoga Guide).
Otherwise, he is always warning his disciples against the temptation of considering themselves anything else other than a simple instrument through which the action is done: "Transform yourself into the detached instrument of the action performed through you" (Answers). "You must always act as a complete detached instrument in the activity which you are performing". For Sri Aurobindo one should even guard himself against the "arrogance of being an instrument".
Swami Vivekananda gives a surprising formulation: when offering something from God to someone, "you are in reality only the intermediary agent who transports money or any other present" (Practical Yoga).
We also quote here the words of Swami Brahmananda to his disciples: "Before starting your activity, fervently remember God and offer him all your thoughts. Do the same thing from time to time during your activity and also when you have finished." (Monastic disciplines). The offering made to the spiritual guru can even replace the offering towards God. In the words of Swami Brahamanda: "Think that all activity which you have to perform is that of God. If you can work, understand and keep in mind this idea, then your detached work will not bind you anymore".
I close these considerations with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "The most elevated form of adoration consists in the accomplishment of GodÂ’s work, obeying to the moral law and serving humanity unselfishly and with abnegation." (Religious ethics). When we follow this principle - that we should never selfishly consider ourselves the authors of action - we are acting through non-action. Then the eternal spark of Divinity in us (known in India as the Supreme Self, Purusha or Atman), who is a detached witness, observes and - without partaking - accomplishes the action with detachment through the agency of the active elements in us. Kåñna refers to this truly divine attitude, in a famous aphorism from Bhagavad Gita: "The one who during the detached action can find inaction and who simultaneously can see the action continuing even after it has stopped, that one is, amongst many, the one of right judgement and of discernment; he is indeed in [the state of] Yoga and he is the universal worker endowed with many paranormal capacities (siddhis)".
A warning is necessary here. It often happens that we think or imagine that we are Â‘inspiredÂ’ to perform something or even that we are Â‘guidedÂ’ to a specific action, coming thus to the conclusion, true or false, that we are not at all the author of that action" in the meaning given by Karma Yoga. This is a very dangerous trap, very often present on the path of spiritual realisation. To avoid falling into this trap it is necessary to ask ourselves (as lucidly and objectively as possible) if this impression, which we lightly call "intuition", is merely a disguise for a personal desire. This desire can be very honourable, but we are talking here about Karma Yoga and about following this spiritual path in full honesty. Here, one incomplete but useful criterion is to look, if the activity that we would like to start contains any remaining traces of selfish personal attachment, as previously discussed.
Any action, regardless of its nature, done in this way, will not enchain its performer
Kåñna says in Bhagavad Gita: "The one who is in the state of Yoga (i.e., is united with the Supreme by the perfect practice of Karma Yoga) even if he acts, because his actions are detached they will not bind him". This is what Swami Vivekananda also says: "If we are attached to our activity, this will not serve our soul in any way"(Practical Yoga).
Swami Sivananda says: "The action done without attachment, therefore with a good mental attitude, without the hope for any profit, with indifference towards a possible success or failure, will not add a new link to the existing [karma-ic] chain" ( Teachings Of Sivananda).
This is what Sri Ramakrishna meant when he said: "The Jïana Yogi can act without any attachment and therefore his actions will not be harmful for him" (Teachings of Ramakrishna).
For understanding even deeper this fundamental principle of Karma Yoga we will take a look at the Hindu metaphysical perspective where the belief in successive lives and the law of Karma is self-evident.
To summarise this theory, we can say that the life, which each one of us is living now, is not a single event, but one link in a long chain of successive lives in which the eternal element in us, (called Atman by the Indians), is continuously reincarnating.
The law of Karma is nothing else than the law of action and reaction - all actions performed in any one of these lives will accurately determine certain effects: if not immediately, then in one or more of our future existences, thus bringing forth a manifestation of the Karma that was accumulated in previous lives. But the goal of evolution is to reach the point where all Karma is exhausted, so that the eternal element in us (Atman) is no more obliged to create new bodies.
All Eastern sages, old and new, affirm that what creates a new Karma for us is not the action itself, but the spirit (i.e., the inner state) in which that action is performed. Swami Vivekananda says about this: "All actions that you selfishly perform for yourself, will inevitably bring you their fruits, and there will be no choice for you but to eat them Â… But all actions, regardless of their nature, that you do in the spirit of Karma Yoga will for ever remain without effect upon you" (Practical Yoga). Consequently, the practice of Karma Yoga offers us the possibility to act without creating new Karma. This is what Sri Aurobindo refers to in the following quote: "Not the outer form of activity in itself, but the consciousness and the will firmly directed toward the Divine which is behind the action, are in fact the essence of Karma Yoga".
In the Karma Yoga system it is necessary to dissociate three elements which we, generally, never separate:
The intention of the action - which, if we act selfishly, is the only one who creates karma;
The action Â– which, by itself, cannot create karma;
The consequences (results) of the action, upon which, most of the time, we do not have any control no matter what our predictions or expectations may be.
How can we transpose this theory to Westerners, who most of the time do not accept the idea of multiple reincarnations? If we apply the Karma Yoga technique correctly, we are not worried about the consequences of our actions any more, because they do not depend of us anymore. This makes all selfish remorse and egotistical regrets disappear automatically. From here an important conclusion can be drawn: when we start practising Karma Yoga, we must, completely and unconditionally, give up any claims for any merit, even for those actions whose consequences or fruits are good.
Because we are fully responsible for our selfish intentions only, we can say that the goal (intent) of our actions and its materialisation in selfish actions are the factors which create in us selfish habits and tendencies, thus moulding our character. This is the result of karma and this is valid even if we believe in a unique existence. This is even more striking if we admit, like almost all religious followers, that after death we will collect the gratification or the punishments that we deserve according to our actions during life.
Karma Yoga is the divine skill (wisdom and non-attachment) in actions.
Swami Vivekananda has clearly emphasised that Karma Yoga gives us maximum freedom. He says: "Karma Yoga is an ethical and spiritual system whose goal is to make us obtain Enlightenment through altruism and completely detached good actions" (Practical Yoga). For him, "Karma Yoga is the full realisation, through selfless activity, of this unbound freedom which is the goal of any human nature". He also adds: "The Karma Yogi is asking himself: why do we need another motive for action other than the blissful love that is born out of this freedom?" He explains this as follows: "For some people it might be a difficult aspect to understand that nothing in the Universe has full power upon you as long as you donÂ’t allow that power to freely influence you. Through complete detachment you can always overcome or defeat the power held by anybody or anything upon you." The state of not fearing the possible negative consequences of an action and the state of not being egotistically attached to the positive consequences which we expect from that action, is creating a deep inner peace and a great freedom of spirit which allows us to act in total objectivity. This is what Swami Vivekananda calls "to act in full freedom".
This is why Kåñna makes the following statement in Bhagavad Gita: "Yoga is the divine ability (skilfulness) in actions". He later returns to this idea by saying that he "holds dear to his heart" the one who is "skilful in all his detached actions, the one who does not selfishly desire anything and who is pure, being detached of anything that might happen. Thus, he is not affected by any result because he has already completely renounced all selfish initiative in no matter what action".
Swami Vivekananda arrives at the same conclusion: "Karma Yoga makes a science out of the detached action; it teaches us to permanently use to the best of our ability all the divine, beneficial forces which are always active in the universe". (Practical Yoga) He also adds: "Karma Yoga is deeply knowing the secret of completely detached action". He expresses the same idea once more, but in other words when he says: "When we do not think in terms of our egotistic Â‘IÂ’ and we do not involve it, we realise the best detached action" (Inspired Conversations). A well-known example of ego involvement with negative consequences is the Â‘stage frightÂ’ state.
Swami Ramadas says: "The action of the Karma Yogi quickly takes him very far in his spiritual evolution and its effect lasts a very long time. This action leaves in the entire world a permanent and profound beneficial effect." (The presence of Ram).
Karma Yoga and
the sense of responsibility
We have seen that, broadly speaking, the Karma Yoga system can be resumed in four principles:
Do not consider any detached action as being without importance, negligible and incompatible with the role we may think we have to play in life as Karma yogi-s.
Do not egotistically desire or fear the results of your completely detached actions, which you accomplish as divine instrument.
Do not egotistically attach yourself to the action while you detachedly perform it.
Neither during an action nor afterwards should you consider yourself the author of that action, but the instrument through which God manifests.
The last three points, if misunderstood, can easily lead to a state of total lack of interest (which is a manifestation of selfishness!) towards the action that has to be done. In this case we will perform that action superficially, hastily, "it doesnÂ’t matter how", because now we donÂ’t feel responsible anymore. This is exactly the opposite of what Karma Yoga is in reality. In fact Karma Yoga puts a bigger responsibility on its practitioner. This is obvious in two ways:
The difficult responsibility of choosing from among all the existing possibilities the one which answers best to the highest divine ideal of that given moment. It is impossible to escape from this responsibility or hide from it, behind a dogma or a law;
The obligation to perform, with all your might and in a perfect state of detachment that particular action that was chosen. This implies that, from time to time during that action it is necessary to set aside moments of reflection, andconsecration to the Divine. These moments are necessary in order to accomplish well these two conditions.
As Sri Aurobindo was writing to his disciples: "Laziness must be eradicated, of course, but sometimes it is obvious for me that you went too far in the opposite direction. It is necessary to act completely detached, with all the energy then offered by the Divine, but it is equally necessary sometimes to not act at all" (Practical Integral Yoga). "Too much uninterrupted work is sometimes altering the quality of action, regardless of the experience and the enthusiasm of the one who does it".
The characteristic difficulty of the Karma Yoga System
We should never imagine that the perfection and the wonderful inner realisation made possible through the Karma Yoga system are easy to attain. Even the correct intellectual understanding of its rules and of their correct application is not easy at all. Kåñna says in Bhagavad Gita: "Regarding what detached action and inaction are in fact, even sages are sometimes uncertain and some of them are mistaken. We must understand well the concept of detached action, wrong action and inaction. A great wisdom is necessary here because the path of actions is often very complicated".
Sri Ramakrishna regularly talks about the difficulties in the practice of Karma Yoga: "Nishkama karma (the action that is detached of the selfish desire for its fruits) is very difficult" (Teachings of Ramakrishna). "The total unselfish action is very difficult, especially in our time. To act with no egotistical attachment is extremely difficult". And Swami Vivekananda observes with a certain disappointment: "The person who can act completely detached for five days, or even for five minutes, with no egotistical motive whatsoever, without thinking at all to the future, to the rewards of Heaven, to gratification, to punishments or to any other things of the sort, will instantly become a powerful spiritual giant." (Practical Integral Yoga). Sri Ramakrishna told his disciples to think as follows: "I imagine that I accomplish my deeds with detachment, but I do not know for sure to what extent this is an illusion and if I donÂ’t actually act somewhat attached. I do charity acts not knowing if in this way I am trying in fact to step forward in the eyes of people." (Teachings of Ramakrishna). And Sri Aurobindo says: "Karma Yoga is a rapid path, simpler than the Yogic meditation, with the condition that the mind is not fixated upon Karma, but exclusively upon the Divine" (Integral Practical Yoga).
Ma Ananda Moyi adds: "The action that is totally consecrated to God is much more valuable than the action performed under the impulse of our own desire. The former brings about the divine fusion that will lead to Enlightenment, and the latter has as goal the selfish pleasure that will lead to more and more experiences in this world. The only true action is the one who reveals the eternal fusion between the human being and God; the other actions are useless, undignified to be called Â‘actionsÂ’ and because of that we can say that they are not at all actions". (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi)
Combining Karma Yoga
with other forms of Yoga
The practice of the Karma Yoga system can be combined with the practice of other forms of yoga, especially Bhakti Yoga, Haöha Yoga, Raja Yoga, Laya Yoga. This is one of the main themes of KåñnaÂ‘s teachings exposed in Bhagavad Gita. On this subject I will give several quotes:
"Abandon and offer all your works to the Divine." "No matter what you do, do it detachedly as an offering to me. This way you will be free of the good or bad results which are making chains of the selfish action." "Do all your actions detached, driven only by your love for me." "The one who is at the root of all beings and who permeates the entire Universe - only by adoring Him through activity done with detachment, can a person easily obtain perfection".
For Sri Aurobindo, Karma Yoga is most efficient when "we abandon our own will and our selfish desires to the Divine will". (Practical Integral Yoga)
Sri Ramakrishna was telling those who came to consult him: "pray to God to send you His grace and the strength to accomplish your duties with detachment, without hoping for any inner or outer gratification and without fear of a punishment in this world or another". (Teachings of Ramakrishna).
Significantly, Kåñna insists upon the important role of spiritual knowledge and intelligence (in other words Jïana-Yoga) in the practice of Karma Yoga: "This is the intelligence about which you heard in Samkhya; listen now to what Yoga is teaching you: if you are in the state of Yoga through this intelligence, O Son of Pritha, you will eliminate forever the slavery of action". He goes on to say that Karma Yoga completes very well any other type of Yoga, among which are Raja Yoga, Tantra Yoga, Haöha Yoga, Laya Yoga, Bhakti Yoga.
For Sri Aurobindo "the activity done in a completely detached state of mind, as a form of spiritual training is a strong way in any form of Yoga".
Swami Ramadas states: "Without Karma Yoga the practice of Jïana-Yoga and Bhakti Yoga, Haöha Yoga, Tantra Yoga and Laya Yoga is only an extreme spiritual selfish glorification" (Letters).
Every authentic spiritual path, every religion, every important philosophical system are all expressing in specific forms the fundamental effort of the human being towards Liberation. Consciously or unconsciously, everything in this Universe evolves faster or slower towards the same essential goal.
This Universe, even though it is gigantic, is just a part of an infinite existence. Restrained to a certain form which is subjected to space, time and determination (causality) we are perceiving parts of this Universe with our mind and senses (we can see it, feel it, touch it, hear it), we can draw it from our imagination, we can perceive its subtle force of influence and we can describe its specific principles and laws of manifestation.
The Universe that we perceive, on the background of which our existence unfolds, is reflected in our mind as being finite and limited. This reflection is, in essence, our mental creation. Beyond the limits of this mental creation, in other words beyond our usual mental possibilities, the laws and principles that operate in the objective Universe are having almost no correspondents. In this way, for the wise man it is clear that the fundamental law of action and reaction is perfectly plausible and becomes operative in the limits of "our Universe".
Beyond its limits our existence is not subjected anymore to this law, because the law of causality does not go beyond the borders of this Universe created by our mind. Thus, it is clear that our existence in this Universe is helplessly subjected to the law of causality (karma).
In this Universe, limited by our own perception, there is from a certain point of view, apparently no free-will, because will, being something that we try to know through our limited resources of "our Universe", is itself conditioned in its manifestation by space, time and causality. As such, everything that is subjected to the law of causality cannot be completely free because it is influenced by other factors and becomes in its turn a cause.
Nevertheless beyond the limited sphere of this Universe conditioned and limited by our mind, an Absolute Principle is manifested. The manifestation of this Principle is analogous to the manifestation of the human will. This Principle, being beyond the action of the law of causality, is absolutely free from all the laws of the Macrocosmic Harmony.
It is normal to conclude that in order to attain this complete Freedom we must be entirely capable of going beyond the borders of our limited and conditioned Universe. This going beyond is in fact a movement of alteration from our limited level of consciousness to the sphere of supreme eternal essential values, which are infinite and perfectly free. This movement of alteration which gives complete freedom requires a certain inner change based upon knowledge, understanding and elevation above everything that is limited, false, ephemeral in us (all these make our Ego).
For really transcending our Ego it is necessary to know its sphere of manifestation. All that generates new bonds in our being and fixates us in this Universe, represents the field and domain of action of the Ego. Our senses, thoughts, body, mind, attitudes, prejudices and concepts are all of them bearing, in a greater or lesser degree, the imprint of the Ego.
Karma Yoga, through altruistic and completely detached action, is teaching us how to suppress these tendencies that are permanently stretching their tentacles upon us and which are manifesting themselves through our basic selfishness. By gradually renouncing all forms of selfish attachments, by permanently and effortlessly controlling our mental processes, by acting completely detached and never being motivated by selfishness, by striving to offer in full sincerity all the results of our activities to the Divine, offering to Him permanently our small and ephemeral "Ego", by always being attentive and aware, open and yielding to all phenomena and states that are manifesting in and through us, we will begin to gradually attain this supreme Freedom, because from the moment we leave the Supreme Will to act through us and guide us in all we do, we are instantly getting out of the incidence of the laws of "our Universe" and therefore we resonate with the Supreme Harmony, which is God.
The great yogi Swami Vivekananda says the following in his book about Karma Yoga:
"Who can live or breath even for an instant if the Almighty does not want it?"
" God is the almighty Providence that is eternally active. Each force of manifestation belongs only to Him and it surrenders only to Him. God is ALL and He is present in ALL. We can only worship Him. Thus, do not strive to collect for yourself the fruits of your work, but perform detachedly the good for the sake of the good. Only then will you truly obtain the perfect detachment. Only then the terrifying handcuffs created by the senses and the mind will be broken and only then will our complete Freedom be re-attained. This Supreme Freedom is the essential goal of the Karma Yoga system."
Offering help to others
from the perspective of the Karma Yoga system
Love, truth, well-being, detachment, complete bliss, freedom, beauty, equality, in one word: wisdom - this is not only a moral code but ultimately the supreme goal of the human being, because they are containing an extraordinary powerful manifestation of his spiritual force received through ineffable resonance from God.
The huge self-mastery required by the altruistic action done according to the Karma Yoga system is simultaneously the expression and the proof of a tremendous spiritual force, which the yogi can manifest, as he considers necessary according to his free will.
To know to whom should you give help, when and what kind of help and - very important - to know how should you give it, how much and the ways through which this help will reach its target Â– so that it doesnÂ’t generate new binding effects or karmic consequences - represents the clear proof of a wise, detached action, completely integrated in the Divine Harmony. Only in this way will your detached action, born out of a deep understanding of the divine necessity, gradually transform into a gigantic freedom to manifest your spiritual force bestowed upon you by God.
Swami Vivekananda says in his book about Karma Yoga: "To physically help others with detachment, satisfying only their physical needs is indeed a great deed; but it is good to know that the most precious help is the one given for an extremely long period of time. If by an hour of detached action you cover the needs of a man for one month -- this is a big help; if this help will cover the manÂ’s needs for one year then this is a huge help indeed. But if the man can be helped forever, in eternity, only this will of course be the biggest divine help which can ever be given to man".
He adds: "The true spiritual knowledge is the only form of help which can annihilate forever all our sorrows. Any other knowledge will only temporarily satisfy our needs. Only with the help of the true knowledge of the spirit will the roots of suffering be forever destroyed. This is why the spiritual help offered to a human being is the greatest help which can ever be offered."
The one who offers to people true Spiritual Knowledge is the greatest benefactor of mankind. And we see that always the most powerful and appreciated men were those who helped mankind in its spiritual needs because the Spirit alone is the base for the activity of the whole creation.
The man who is spiritually healthy and strong can easily be strong in all kinds of ways, if he so desires. As long as a man has not yet obtained the spiritual force neither his physical nor psychic or mental needs can be satisfied in the right way".
These statements lead us to the understanding of the following aspects:
The only true help is that which shows man how to help himself and others to eliminate for good the sufferings and miseries generated by selfishness and ignorance.
This help should always be given by directing man towards a direct knowledge of himself. Only this inner knowledge will allow him to integrate in the right and wise way the play of manifestation. This inner knowledge will confirm the existence of his spiritual nature, and this will help him to break free of the chain of causality by gradually eliminating selfishness and ignorance, which are at the root of his sufferings.
For thoroughly and efficiently giving this help in a detached way, the Karma Yogin must posses this superior divine knowledge in himself, at an experiential level. Only if this condition is fulfilled can the yogi be a true model for the others. "If a blind man will lead another blind man, then there is a big danger of both falling into an abyss" says Jesus.
Sometimes by rigidly trying to apply certain laws or wise principles of action, we arrive at an inner form of inflexibility, which is just a manifestation of a dogmatic attitude. In this way we may hinder ourselves, from a spiritual point of view, by a painful obsession of integrating everything according to the book, unconsciously bringing forth again and again the biblical aphorism: "the letter kills and only the living spirit gives life".
Knowing to detachedly and instantaneously give the right help at the right moment, beyond any endless theories or analysis, represents the living proof of a real inner spiritual realisation. In this state becomes even more clear the idea that "Detached action is clearly superior to inaction".
As such, we should always try to balance our detached help with the concrete circumstances of the moment and of the being involved, paying great attention to the following elements:
What is the most important aspect or problem that must be solved in that given situation when we try to detachedly give help to a person;
What is actually the most urgent problem with which the respective person is then confronted;
How should our detached effort and support (which comes from the Divine) be directed and focused for the removal or at least the diminishing of the cause that generates at that moment the biggest suffering in the respective person.
This detached support, this help coming from God through us, this offering of ourselves as instrument for the divine manifestation (when we have the necessary spiritual level) can even become a complete offering of our being as a divine channel for detachedly helping others. This is mostly the case of the great spirits of this planet, like Jesus, or of some great spiritual teachers like Buddha or Ramakrishna whose entire lives were a continuous sacrifice detachedly offered for helping and spiritually awakening millions of people.
"The only solution for the total and final removal of the worldÂ’s sufferings consists of giving to the people the spiritual knowledge through which the spiritual accomplishment becomes possible. Ignorance is the source of all misfortunes. When people will see the Divine Light of the Spirit, when they will be spiritually pure and strong, only then their suffering will disappear for good" said Swami Vivekananda.
This continuous attitude of giving detached help, of altruistically serving others, has at its roots a profound spiritual and almighty reality, which is in fact Love. The profound knowledge of the Self opens the doors to a divine, heavenly realm where everything which is good, true and beautiful becomes possible. "When love becomes infinite, the impossible becomes easily possible", says an Eastern proverb.
When true love exists, our being becomes profound and instantly expanded in the blissful infinite. Then we are embracing the Divine Realm that is permanently embracing us. In those moments of embracing expansion we perceive the surrounding beings as being part of ourselves and then their suffering, transferred to us, is torturing us as well. Their helplessness and powerlessness is calling us to remove it, because in that state we are able to help. Through complete empathy, through a deep identification with the others at the level of Atman, we spontaneously come to embrace everybody at the level of consciousness. We then become simple and natural in everything we do and think. By feeling this way, we realise that the others are becoming a part of us and this makes our giving stronger and our detachment complete because now we realise that in fact God is offering everything through us.
Being most of the time filled with love and compassion, our actions will also be filled with love and compassion. This completely detached action filled with divine love and released from all selfishness will gradually bring us an infinite bliss. The divine, detached help that we are now giving to others is in fact our own happy being, our own existence freed from conditionings.
Becoming in this way a divine triumphant force, loving now in a divine and detached way, our power of action becomes infinite. This is the moment when we feel omnipresent and when everything feels as being in us, because our whole being has already become a divine channel for the force which is surrounding and impelling the one who needs help. In this state we know for sure that this circumstance is favourable both for us and for him and that our divine help which manifests itself in and through us will faultlessly reach its target.
The thoroughly divine, blissful state which we are experiencing when this divine help is manifesting through us and reaches its target, is generating the alchemical miracle of our own transmutation, sublimation and inner transformation. In essence, by detachedly helping others we are simultaneously helping ourselves. In such enlightened moments we understand the words of Jesus: "The one who has will be given more". In this state we experience an amazing inner richness, a feeling of complete fullness and spiritual fulfilment which is overwhelming and which makes us recognise God in everything around us.
To be able to help others detachedly is a divine privilege granted to us only when we fully deserve it. An intense state of gratefulness toward the Divine then grows in us. Blessed is the one who receives the divine help as well as the one who offers that which is offered to him by God.
Be always deeply grateful to the Divine for being able to detachedly manifest love, compassion, charity, generosity and justice. Because you are offering what in fact the Divine, in its infinite kindness, is offering through you a hundred fold, and through it you are becoming pure and perfect.
By thoroughly understanding that in fact the whole manifestation is impregnated by the divine kindness, love and intelligence of the Supreme and by understanding that all external circumstances are generated to offer to man the possibility of knowing God in all that exists, how could we then still hold in us doubt, suspicion, lack of trust, hatred, ignorance and suffering?
By constantly acting this way we realise that nothing in this Universe is dependent on us, because in fact we have nothing. Not even a beggar depends on our charity. Nothing and absolutely no being ever depends on our help; in fact all is coming from God. These ideas will help us remove that painful and subtle form of Ego, which leads us to think that in fact the wellbeing of others depends only upon us and that without our support, love and spiritual force they will continuously suffer.
Especially for the wise one, God is the profound wisdom. God is infinite love in continuous action, which is only manifested in and through us.
Let’s open our mind and soul as wide as we can for letting ourselves be penetrated entirely by the Love and Wisdom of God, for coming to know how we can serve Him in eternity, becoming one with Him for reaching thus the Supreme Liberation.