From The Bhagavad Gita
(Commentaries by Swami Shivananda, The Divine Life Society, Rishikesh.)
The Blessed Lord said:
Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give, whatever you practise as austerity, O Arjuna, do it as an offering unto me.
–Gita, Ch.9, Verse 27.
He who is devoted to the path of action, whose mind is quite pure, who has conquered the self, who has subdued his senses and who realises his Self as the Self in all beings, though acting, he is not tainted.
-Gita, Ch.5, Verse 7.
“I do nothing at all,” thus would the harmonized knower of Truth thinks-seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing.
-Gita- Ch.5, Verse 8.
[Note: Commentary: The liberated sage or a jnani always remains as a witness of the activities of the senses as he identifies himself with the Self or Brahman. He thinks and says, “I do not see; the eyes perceive. I do not hear; the ears hear, I do not smell; the nose smells, etc.” He beholds inaction in action as he has burnt his actions in the fire of wisdom.]
The Blessed Lord said:
He, who does actions, offering them to Brahman (the Lord) and abandoning attachment, is not tainted by sin as a lotus leaf by water.
-Gita, Ch.5, Verse 10.
Yogis (Karma Yogis), having abandoned attachment, perform actions only by the body, mind, intellect and even by the senses, for the purification of the self.
-Gita, Ch.5, Verse 11.
The united one (the well poised or the harmonized) having abandoned the fruit of action attains to the eternal peace; the non-united only (the unsteady or the unbalanced) impelled by desire, attached to the fruit, is bound.
[Note; Commentary: ‘Santim Naitikam’ is interpreted as ‘peace born of devotion or steadfastness’. The harmonious man who does actions for the sake of the Lord without expectation of the fruits and who says, “I do actions for my Lord only, not for my personal gain or profit,” attains to the peace born of devotion, through the following four stages, viz., purity of mind, the attainment of knowledge, renunciation of actions, and steadiness in wisdom. But the unbalanced or the unharmonised man who is led by desire and who is attached to the fruits of the actions and who says, “I have done such and such an action; I will get such and such a fruit,” is firmly bound.]
The Blessed Lord said:
As the blazing fire reduces fuel to ashes, O Arjuna, so does the fire of knowledge reduce all actions to ashes.
-Gita, Ch.4, Verse 37.
[Note: Commentary: Just as the seeds that are roasted cannot germinate, so also the actions that are burnt by the fire of knowledge cannot bear fruits, i.e., cannot bring man to this world again for the enjoyment of the fruits of his actions. This is reducing actions to ashes. The actions lose their potency as they are burnt by the fire of knowledge. When the knowledge of the Self dawns, all actions with their results are burnt by the fire of that knowledge just as fuel is burnt by the fire. When there is no agency-mentality (the idea “I do this”) when there is no desire for the fruits, action is no action at all. It has lost its potency.]
The Blessed Lord said:
Neither agency nor actions does the Lord create for the world, nor union with the fruits of actions; but it is Nature that acts.
-Gita, Ch.5, Verse 14.
[Note: The Lord does not create agency or doership. He does not press anyone to do action. He never tells anyone: “Do this or do that.” He does not bring about union with the fruits of actions. It is Prakriti or Nature that does everything.
The blessed Lord said:
He who has renounced actions by Yoga, whose doubts are rent asunder by knowledge, and who is self-possessed- actions do not bind him, O Arjuna.
-Gita, Ch. 4, Verse 41.
[Note: Commentary: Sri Madhusudana Sarasvati explains Atmavanta as ‘always watchful.’ He who has attained Self-realisation renounces all actions by means of Yoga or the knowledge of Brahman. As he is established in the knowledge of the identity of the individual soul with the Supreme Soul all his doubts are cut asunder. Actions do not bind him as they are burnt in the fire of wisdom and as he is always watchful over himself.]
The Blessed Lord said: The world is bound by actions other than those performed for the sake of sacrifice; do thou, therefore, O son of Kunti (Arjuna), perform actions for the sake (for sacrifice alone), free from attachment.
-Gita, Ch. 3, Verse 9.
[Note: Commentary: Yajna means sacrifice or religious rite or any unselfish action done with a pure motive. It means also Isvara. The Taittiriya Samhita (of the Veda) says “Yajna verily is Vishnu” (1-7-4). If anyone does actions for the sake of the Lord, he is not bound. His heart is purified by performing actions for the sake of the Lord. Where this spirit of unselfishness does not govern the action, it will bind one to samsara however good or glorious it may be.]
The Blessed lord said: As the ignorant men act from attachment to action, O Bharata (Arjuna), so should the wise act without attachment, wishing the welfare of the world.
-Gita, ch.3, Verse 25.
[Note: Commentary: The ignorant man works in expectation of fruit. He says, “I will do such and such work and will get and such and such fruit (reward).” But the wise man who knows the Self, serves not for his own end. He should so act that the world, following his example, would attain peace, harmony, purity of heart, divine light and knowledge. A wise man is one who knows the Self.
The Blessed Lord said:
Let no wise man unsettle the mind of ignorant people who are attached to action; he should engage them in all actions, himself fulfilling them with devotion.
-Gita, Ch.3, Verse 26.
[Note: Commentary: An ignorant man says to himself, “I shall do this action and thereby enjoy its fruit.” A wise man should not unsettle his belief. On the contrary he himself should set an example by performing his duties diligently but without attachment. The wise man should also persuade the ignorant never to neglect their duties. If need be, he should place before them in vivid colours the happiness they would enjoy here and hereafter by discharging such duties. When their hearts get purified in the course of time, the wise man could sow the seeds of Karma Yoga (selfless service without desire) in them.]
The Blessed Lord said:
He whose intellect is unattached everywhere, who has subdued his self, from whom desire has fled,- he by renunciation, attains the supreme state of freedom from action.
-Gita, Ch.18, Verse 49.
Thy right is to work only, but never with its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive, nor let thy attachment be to inaction.
Gita, Ch. 2, Verse 47.
[Note: When you perform actions, have no desires for the fruits thereof under any circumstances. If you thirst for the fruits of your actions, you will have to take birth again and again to enjoy them. Action done with expectation of fruits (rewards) brings bondage. If you do not thirst for them, you get purification of heart and you will get knowledge of the Self through purity of heart and through the knowledge of the Self you will be freed from the round of births and deaths.
Neither let thy attachment be towards inaction thinking “What is the use of doing actions when I cannot get any reward for them?”]
The enjoyments that are born of contacts are only generators of pain, for they have a beginning and an end, O Arjuna: the wise do not rejoice in them.
-Gita, Ch. 5, Verse 22
[Note: Man goes in quest of joy and searches in the external perishable objects for his happiness. He fails to get it but instead he carries a load of sorrow on his head.
You should withdraw the senses from the sense-objects as there is no trace of happiness in them and fix the mind on the immortal, blissful Self within. The sense-objects have a beginning and an end. Separation from the sense-objects gives you a lot of pain. During the interval between the origin and the end you experience a hollow, momentary, illusory pleasure. This fleeting pleasure is due to Avidya or ignorance. He who is endowed with discrimination or knowledge of the Self will never rejoice in these sensual objects. Only ignorant persons who are passionate will rejoice in the sense-objects.]
That pleasure which arises from the contact of the sense-organ with the objects, which is at first like nectar, and in the end like poison – that is declared to be Rajasic.
-Gita, Ch. 18, Verse 38
The contacts of the senses with the objects, O son of Kunti (Arjuna), which causes heat and cold, pleasure and pain, have a beginning and an end; they are impermanent; endure them bravely, O Arjuna.
-Gita, Ch. 2, Verse 14
He who sees inaction in action and action in inaction,
he is wise among men; he is a Yogi and performer of all actions.
From The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi
(Edited by David Godman)
Questioner: The Gita seems to emphasize Karma Yoga, for Arjuna is persuaded to fight. Sri Krishna himself set the example by an active life of great exploits.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The Gita starts by saying that you are not the body and that you are not therefore the Karta (the doer).
Question: What is the significance?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: It means that one should act without thinking that oneself is the actor. Actions will go on even in the egoless state. Each person has come into manifestation for a certain purpose and that purpose will be accomplished whether he considers himself to be the actor or not.
Question: What is Karma Yoga? Is it non-attachment to Karma (action) or its fruit?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Karma Yoga is that Yoga in which the person does not arrogate to himself the function of being the actor. All actions go on automatically.
Question: Is it non-attachment to the fruits of actions?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The question arises only if there is the actor. It is said in all the scriptures that you should not consider yourself to be the actor.
Questioner: So Karma Yoga is ‘Kartritva Buddhi Rahita Karma’ – action without the sense of doership.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes. Quite so.
Questioner: The Gita teaches that one should have an active life from beginning to end.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes, the actorless action.
Question: If one remains quiet how is action to go on? Where is the place for Karma Yoga?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Let us first understand what Karma is, whose Karma it is and who is the doer. Analyzing them and enquiring into their truth, one is obliged to remain as the Self in peace. Nevertheless even in that state the actions will go on.
Question: How will the actions go on if I do not act?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Who asks the question? Is it the Self or another? Is the Self concerned with actions?
Questioner: No, not the Self. It is another, different from the Self.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: So it is plain that the Self is not concerned with actions and so the question does not arise.
Question: I see you doing things. How can you say that you never perform actions?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The radio sings and speaks, but if you open it you will find no one inside. Similarly, my experience is like the space; though this body speaks like the radio, there is no one inside as a doer.
Question: I find this hard to understand. Could you please elaborate on this?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Various illustrations are given in books to enable us to understand how the jnani can live and act without the mind, although living and acting require the use of the mind. The potter’s wheel goes on turning round even after the potter has ceased to turn it because the pot is finished. In the same way, the electric fan goes on revolving for some minutes after we switch off the current. Prarabdha (predestined Karma) which created the body will make it go through whatever activities it was meant for. But the jnani goes through all these activities without the notion that he is the doer of them.
It is hard to understand how this is possible. The illustration generally given is that the jnani performs actions in some such way as a child that is roused from sleep to eat eats but does not remember next morning that it ate. It has to be remembered that all these explanations are not for the jnani. He knows and has no doubts. He knows that he is not the body and he knows that he is not doing anything even though his body may be engaged in some activity. These explanations are for the onlookers who think of the jnani as one with a body and cannot help identifying him with his body.
Question: I want to do Karma Yoga. How can I help others?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Who is there for you to help? Who is that “I” that is going to help others? First clear up that point and then everything will settle itself.
Question: That means ‘realise the Self.’ Does my realisation help others?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes, and it is the best help that you can possibly render to others. But really there are no others to be helped. For the realised being sees only the Self, just as the goldsmith sees only the gold while valuing it in various jewels made of gold. When you identify yourself with the body, name and form are there. But when you transcend the body-consciousness, the others also disappear. The realised one does not see the world as different from himself.
Question: Would it not be better if saints mixed with other people in order to help them?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: There are no others to mix with. The Self is the only reality. The sage helps the world merely by being the real Self. The best way for one to serve the world is to win the egoless state. If you are anxious to help the world, but think that you cannot do so by attaining the egoless state, then surrender to God all the world’s problems, along with your own.
Question: Should I not try to help the suffering world?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The power that created you has created the world as well. If it can take care of you, it can similarly take care of the world also. If God has created the world it is His business to look after it, not yours.
Question: Is the desire for Swaraj (political independence) right?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Such desire no doubt begins with self-interest. Yet practical work for the goal gradually widens the outlook so that the individual becomes merged in the country. Such merging of the individuality is desirable and the related Karma is Nishkama (unselfish).
Question: If Swaraj is gained after a long struggle and terrible sacrifices, is not the person justified in being pleased with the result and elated by it?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: He must have in the course of his work surrendered himself to the higher power whose might must be kept in mind and never lost sight of. How then can he be elated? He should not even care for the result of his actions. Then alone the Karma becomes unselfish.
[Note: Comments by David Godman: Practitioners of Karma Yoga, the Yoga of action, aim to evolve spiritually by selflessly serving and assisting others. Although it is spoken of highly in the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Ramana Maharshi generally discouraged his devotees from following this path since it presupposes the existence of an “I” who is going to perform the good deeds and ‘other people’ who are in need of assistance. He only encouraged it if he felt that particular devotees were incapable of following the paths of Jnana (knowledge), Bhakti (devotion) or Raja Yoga (meditation).
If an aspirant were unsuited temperamentally for the first two methods (Jnana and Bhakti), and circumstantially on account of age for the third method (Yoga), he must try the Karma marga (the path of Karma Yoga). His nobler instincts become more evident and he derives impersonal pleasure. The man also becomes duly equipped for one of the three aforesaid paths.
Sri Ramana Maharshi stressed that to be successful, the Karma Yogi must be free of the notion that he himself is helping others, and that he must also be unattached and indifferent to the consequences of his actions. Although he rarely gave Karma Yoga more than a lukewarm endorsement he did admit that both of these conditions would be met if all actions were performed without the ‘I am the doer’ idea. ]
-Gita, Ch. 4, Verse 18.
For, verily the true nature of action (enjoined by the scriptures) should be known, also (that) of forbidden
(or unlawful) action, and of inaction; hard to understand is the nature (path) of action.
-Gita, Ch.4, Verse 17.
He whose undertakings are all devoid of desires and (selfish) purposes, and whose actions have been burnt
by the fire of knowledge, -him the wise call a sage.
–Gita, Ch.3, Verse 19.
Having abandoned attachment to the fruits of actions,
ever content, depending on nothing, he does not do anything though engaged in activity.
-Gita, Ch.4, Verse 20
To one who is devoid of attachment, who is liberated,
whose mind is established in knowledge, who works for the sake of sacrifice
(for the sake of God), the whole action is dissolved.
-Gita, Ch.4, Verse 23.
(From The Bhagavad Gita ~Translated by Swami Shivananda, Rishikesh)
‘In that which is night to all beings,’ says the Bhagavad Gita, ‘men of self-control are awake; and where all beings are awake, there is night for the contemplative who see.’
The meaning of this passage is that to the unenlightened the supreme reality is like night; while trying to understand it they see darkness and confusion. But the enlightened are fully awake with regard to reality. Further, the physical world of names and forms is clear as day to the unenlightened, but the enlightened see in it the darkness of night.
An Upanishad says: ‘The self-willed Supreme Lord inflicted an injury upon the sense organs in creating them with outgoing tendencies; therefore with them a man perceives only outer objects, and not the inner self. But a calm person, wishing for immortality, beholds the inner self with eyes closed.’
[Note: From Katha Upanishad, Part II, Canto 1. “The Self-existent Lord pierced the senses outward and not within oneself. Therefore one sees the outer things and not the inner Self. Some wise man, however, seeking immortality, and turning his eyes inward, sees the indwelling Self.”
Swami Ranganathananda from Belur Math compared the out going tendencies of the senses to a barn door with hinges that allow the door to swing open in outward direction only.]
The worldly man directs his sense organs to the enjoyment of physical objects; but a spiritual seeker, by means of spiritual disciplines, turns his organs toward the inner self.
The mind is by nature pure and clear, and capable of reflecting reality. The impurities in it, which distort the image of reality, are created by desires and attachments. Being foreign to it, they may be removed; and this is effected through the practice of disciplines. Thus the unenlightened man becomes enlightened.
It is direct perception that gives an object the stamp of reality. God and the soul, which form the very basis of religion, appear unreal or vague to the unenlightened because neither of them is directly perceived, whereas physical objects appear real and clear because they are directly perceived. It is a commonly accepted view that direct knowledge is obtained through the senses, and indirect knowledge through the testimony of another – a man or a book. A person may sometimes have an intellectual idea of God or the soul, yet they are not vital to him because they are not proved by direct knowledge. There is, however, a possibility of deception in many so called direct perceptions by the sense organs. A mirage is perceived by the eye and yet it is not real. Any abnormal physical condition can distort a man’s view of external objects; for instance, a rise in the bodily temperature may conjure up many unreal visions, which appear to be directly perceived.
Be that as it may, direct knowledge cannot be repudiated by indirect knowledge. The apparent reality of the physical world cannot be negated by the mere testimony of the scriptures or the mystics, but only by the direct experience of another kind of reality, which Vedanta calls Brahman (the Supreme Reality). This direct experience can be obtained by spiritual disciplines, which in Hinduism are called Yoga. Christ said: ‘Seek and you will find; knock and it will open.’ Here he referred to spiritual disciplines and direct experience.
The real meaning of the scriptures becomes revealed to one who has practised spiritual disciplines. The scriptures of the different religions cannot be reconciled if one emphasizes only the letter and overlooks the spirit. For instance, Christianity, on the basis of the Bible, believes in the Trinity and regards Christ as the only begotten Son of God. Islam, on the basis of Koran, strongly upholds the unity of God and denies that He can ever beget a son. But it is often forgotten that the scriptures can only indicate the supramental reality, and never directly describe its true nature. According to the Vedas, a knower of Brahman transcends the scriptures.
The prophets use inadequate human speech to describe what is beyond mind and speech; they also shape their teachings to suit the requirements of the place, time, and the understanding of their devotees. Therefore in order to understand the real meaning of the scriptures or the teachings of the prophets, one must acquire inner experience through the practice of spiritual disciplines. If the prophets of different religions were to meet, they would certainly say that they were proclaiming the same truths; but the gibberish and the grimaces of their fanatical followers never come to an end.
The Hindu philosopher, unlike Plato, is not content with a merely intellectual understanding of reality; for such an understanding is not of much value in times of practical need. Reality must be directly known, and the knowledge of reality should then be applied in daily life. The Sanskrit word for philosophy is Darsana, which means ‘seeing’, and not mere love of knowledge. What is the use of philosophy if it does not enable a man to commune with reality? And has one who communes with reality any further need of philosophy? The ultimate goal is direct communion with the spirit, and this communion is made possible through spiritual discipline.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishan: ‘Under what compulsion does a man commit sin, in spite of himself, and driven, as it were, by force?’
Krishna replies: ‘It is desire, it is wrath, which springs from rajas.’ Know that this is our enemy here, all devouring and the cause of all sin.’
The direct manifestation of rajas is the insatiable fire of desire, which envelops knowledge and is the foe of wisdom. Under the pressure of rajas, a man harbours greed, lust, and anger. Rajas attacks a person through the senses, and the mind, and the understanding, veiling knowledge and deluding the embodied soul. Stern spiritual disciplines are necessary to control rajas.
As has been stated before,
in Hinduism the general name for spiritual disciplines is yoga, which means, literally, union of the individual self with the Supreme Self, and also the method of this union.
There are different kinds of yoga suited to different temperaments. The kind of yoga that is applicable to a man is determined by his innate tendencies. Though there are as many minds as there are human beings, yet the Hindu psychologists speak of four general types; active, emotional, introspective, and philosophical; and for each there is an appropriate yoga.
It is true that each mind contains some of the four traits, one particular trait is dominant and this dominant trait indicates the type of the spiritual discipline a person should pursue.
Work when performed as a spiritual discipline is called Karma Yoga. It is the predominant topic of the Bhagavad Gita, though the book deals with other Yogas as well. The purpose of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita is to solve a moral problem. Krishna, an avatar, was the teacher, and Arjuna, a warrior, the disciple. There was a bitter quarrel between two royal families of cousins. The family to which Arjuna belonged was the more righteous. Truth and justice were at stake, and Arjuna was determined to defend them. At first Krishna and the other wise men tried their utmost to make a peaceful settlement, but on account of the intransigence of the other family, they failed. War became inevitable.
Among the combatants on both sides, Arjuna found brothers, uncles, teachers, sons, nephews, and friends- to whom he was bound by a thousand ties of love, respect, and affection. Clearly foreseeing that the destruction accompanying the war would be followed by family disintegration and social chaos, he was reluctant to accept the responsibility, and said to Krishna that he would like to retire from the battlefield, go into a forest, and lead the life of a religious mendicant. Confused, he asked Krishna to show him the path of duty.
Arjuna’s dilemma was caused by his confusion about the two ideals, which, from time out of mind, have moulded the Hindu pattern of life. These are the disciplines of action and renunciation, distinctly laid down for two types of mind. The discipline of action is followed by the majority of men, who believe in social obligations and who do not explain away the world and the individual ego as unreal. They seek happiness here and hereafter. But a few persons who realise self-knowledge to be the supreme duty of life and who are convinced of the transitory nature of all material experiences either on earth or in heaven follow the discipline of renunciation, and seek liberation from bondage to the phenomenal world.
Both disciplines are necessary to preserve the social stability; but their spheres must not be confused. Arjuna obviously was not ready for the discipline of renunciation because he was conscious of his duty to society and was still attached to his relatives and friends, whose death he anticipated with sorrow. Certainly he had not attained that spiritual elevation from which one sees the illusory nature of worldly values, good or evil. He talked about renunciation only as an escape from the unpleasant duties of life.
Krishna characterised this attitude as ‘lowness of spirit, unbecoming a noble mind, dishonourable, and detrimental to the attainment of heaven, which every warrior covets.’ He advised Arjuna to plunge into action and fight in a spirit of non-attachment: ‘He who sees non-action in action, and action in non-action, he is wise among men, he is yogi, and he is the doer of all actions.’ ‘He who is free from the notion of egotism, and whose understanding is undefiled- though he slays these men, he really slays them not nor is he stained by the result of slaying.’ This non-attachment is the secret of work as a spiritual discipline.
[Note: Compare, for instance, where a judge, in accordance with law, carries out his duty as a judge and passes a sentence of death upon some criminal, and the state executioner carries out such death sentence.]
Mere karma or action is different from karma yoga, or action as a spiritual discipline. Karma is what is done, a deed. Activity is seen everywhere, both in physical nature and in man. Nature is active; for one sees activity in the stars and the planets, trees and rocks; space itself is vibrating. And there is something in the very makeup of man- the spirit of rajas – which drives him into action in spite of himself. His body is active when he is awake; his mind is active, both in the waking and dream states; and his heart, lungs, and other organs are always active, even in deep sleep. The body cannot be kept alive if one remains inactive. The preservation of the social order, too, demands constant and vigilant action. Even religious disciplines, such as prayer, worship, and meditation, are forms of activity. Though actionlessness may characterize a certain form of spiritual experience, it cannot be attained without previous practice of the discipline of action.
By means of action, according to Hindu philosophers, one promotes a harmonious relationship between men, and deities, and subhuman beings, and thus keeps the ‘wheel of creation’ moving. All created beings are interdependent and sustain one another by their actions. Thus action has a cosmic significance. He who ignores the cosmic significance of action and works only for his selfish purpose lives in vain. ‘He who cooks only or himself eats sin.’ According to the Bhagavad Gita, when the Lord in the beginning created men, He planted in them a propensity for action and gave the mandate that they should not only multiply by work but also thereby fulfil desires for happiness.
When work is done without any desire for personal gain it becomes spiritual action. Such work is utterly different from the mechanical action seen in the inorganic world, or the instinctive action seen in the inorganic world, or the instinctive action at the infra-rational level, the egocentric action of an average person.
Ordinary karma has a binding quality. It creates and leaves behind subtle impressions, which at a future time and under favourable conditions become the causes of new actions. The new actions likewise create another set of impressions, which in their turn become the causes of yet other actions. So man works impelled by necessity; he has no freedom. Now the question arises as to how one can avoid the bondage of the causal law and work as a free agent. The solution lies in karma yoga.Karma yoga is the secret of action. It gives the worker evenness of mind in gain and loss, success and failure.
How is one to acquire evenness of mind? There are two elements in all voluntary actions. First, there is the immediate feeling of pleasure or pain arising from the contact of the senses with their objects; and second, the longing for the result which generally provides the incentive for action. The sensations of pleasure and pain, though inevitable, are impermanent; therefore calm souls endure them without becoming distracted. Even when sensations are pleasant one should not be attached to them, because after they disappear one misses them, and if they persist too long one feels bored. As regards the result, it should not be the incentive for action. The illumined person does not work for a result. ‘To the work alone,’ the Bhagavad Gita says, ‘you have the right, never to its fruit. Do not let the fruit of action be your motive; and do not be attached to non-action.’
This is the meaning of the statement that your left hand must not know what your right hand does. Every action, following the causal law, will surely produce its fruit; why long for it? ‘Wretched are they who work for results.’ If an action is done without attachment to its fruit, evenness of mind is sure to follow. Action should be natural and spontaneous, prompted by the exigencies of a situation. When you see a needy person, you should spontaneously help him if you are capable, without taking into consideration what you may gain in return. A karma-yogi may even participate in a war to protect law and order, provided he is unselfish and free from greed and passion.
It is not renunciation of action itself, but renunciation of the longing for the fruit, that is the secret of karma yoga. As long as a man remains conscious of his social obligations or sees wrong being done to others, he cannot remain inactive. It is true that at an advanced stage of spiritual progress one gives up all actions and remains absorbed in contemplation, thereby enjoying real peace. But mere abstention from action is not spiritual non-action, which is experienced when one forgets oneself in the contemplation of God.
‘He who restrains the organs of action but continues to dwell mentally on the objects of the senses deludes himself and is called a hypocrite.’
[Note: From the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, verse 6.
“He who, restraining the organs of action, sits thinking of the sense objects in mind, he of deluded understanding is called a hypocrite.”]
Therefore, for an active mind, it is positively harmful to renounce obligatory action on the false pretext of cultivating the attitude of non-action. Furthermore, the relinquishment of duty for fear of inflicting physical suffering upon oneself or others does not bring about the desired fruit of spiritual non-action. One must not shun a duty because it is disagreeable, nor become attached to it because it is agreeable. But if an active person cheerfully performs a duty because it is to be done, and renounces all attachment to its result, he obtains the fruit of renunciation, namely, inner peace.
Hinduism recommends total renunciation of the world for the attainment of the highest good. But true monastic life, however desirable, is not easy; genuine monks are few and far between, and false monks are a real nuisance to society. Therefore Hinduism asks average men to perform their duties as householders and at the same time preserve the spirit of renunciation. What is needed is not renunciation of action, but renunciation in action. The ordinary duties of life should not be abhorred, but selfishness must be suppressed.
The eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita explains various factors of karma-yoga, such as knowledge, the doer, understanding, firmness, and happiness. The doer’s knowledge, without which he cannot perform any voluntary action, should be characterized by an all-embracing sense of unity in the midst of diversity. Likewise, the doer himself should be free from attachment and egotism, endowed with fortitude and zeal, and unruffled by success or failure. Right understanding is that by which he can discriminate between good and evil, bondage and liberation, work and rest. Right firmness is accompanied by unswerving concentration and control of the mind and senses. Right happiness may be like ‘poison’ at first but is like ‘nectar’ in the end; it is born of direct self-knowledge and acquired by steady practice.
[Note: From the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 18, verse 37.
“That which is like poison at first but in the end like nectar- that pleasure is declared to be Satvic, born of the purity of one’s own mind due to Self-realisation.]
And lastly, action itself, in order to have a spiritual meaning, should have a bearing upon the social welfare and be performed without attachment and aversion.
To summarize the secrets of karma yoga:
First, give up brooding over the fruit of action. Brooding begets attachment; attachment, the desire to possess; frustrated desire, anger; anger, delusion; delusion, self-forgetfulness; and self-forgetfulness brings about ultimate destruction.
Second, do not be a beggar. Give all you can but never ask for the fruit. It is not work that wears one out but constant thinking about its fruit.
Third, pay as much attention to the details of work as to its ultimate goal. Once you have a mental picture of the glorious goal you expect to attain, you may for the time being drop it from your thought and be busy about the dreary details. Idealize the real, then you will realize the ideal. The real cause of failure in our various undertakings is to be found most often in our carelessness about the details.
Fourth, one should remember that there is no such thing as a perfect action; every action contains an element of perfection, just as fire contains smoke; the imperfect element of the action cannot affect the doer if he is totally unselfish. A judge, in condemning a criminal to death, does not incur sin.
From what has been said it will be noticed that one can practise karma yoga without believing in a conventional religion or God, or adhering to any creed. Simply through unselfish action one can gradually attain to the state of inner peace and freedom which is reached by a religious devotee through love of God or by a mystic through contemplation. ‘Be good and do good’ seems to be the essence of the teaching of Buddha, who cut himself away from the dogmas and creeds of the popular Hinduism of his time. But the goal is more easily reached by average persons if their actions are inspired by certain religious beliefs make non-attachment easier to practise.
Broadly speaking there are two kinds of religion: one, the dualistic, associated with the Personal God, and the other, the non-dualistic with impersonal reality, though it may be argued that the latter cannot properly be called religion. Dualists aim at self-realization through philosophical discrimination. Action performed in the right spirit can help both dualistic and non-dualistic aspirants to realize their respective ideals.
Dualists should realize that God alone is the real doer, and that man is an instrument in His hand. They should work for God’s satisfaction, and see God in all living beings. Service to men is a form of worship. A devotee of God feels blessed that God has chosen him as one of His instruments. To him success or failure is beside the point. He considers himself a sword in God’s hand, and lets God use him in any manner He likes. He feels a joy in being made, a joy in being used, a joy in being broken, and a joy in being finally thrown aside after his mission is fulfilled. As a result of selfless action, the devotee’s heart is purified. It becomes free of ego, lust, and greed. The pure man sees in his own heart, and in the hearts of others as well, vivid reflections of God. ‘He treats all beings alike and attains supreme devotion to God.’ Infinite compassion flows from his universal heart. The Lord says in the Bhagavad Gita: ‘By devotion he knows Me, knows what in truth I am and who I am. Then, having known Me in truth, he forthwith enters into Me.’
A follower of non-dualism, too, can attain self-realization through action. At the outset he should practise discrimination between the Self and the non-self. He should realize that the Self is the immortal spirit, the serene witness of the activities of the non-self, whereas the non-self, consisting of the body, sense organs, mind, and ego is the doer, the instrument of action, and the enjoyer of fruit. The Self is the unchanging infinite, and the non-self the mutable finite. It is obvious that the Self and the non-self, spirit and matter, are as different from each other as light and darkness. Yet on account of Maya the Self identifies itself with the non-self and regards itself as both the actor and the enjoyer of the fruit of action. Thus the pure and the ever free Self becomes a victim of the pleasure and pain of the phenomenal world. The goal of non-dualistic spiritual discipline is to separate the Self from the non-self and to enable it to realise itself as the witness of the activities of the non-self.
A non–dualist practising karma yoga should perform work in the light of discrimination between the Self and the non-self. He should keep in mind that though a deluded person thinks he is the doer, it is really the non-self, which is the agent, the instrument of action, and the enjoyer of the fruit. The sensations of pleasure and pain, through contact with agreeable and disagreeable objects, are natural for the senses. The wise man remains the witness of their appearance and disappearance without coming under their control. To him all actions are the ‘preoccupation of the senses with their objects,’ of nature with nature, of gunas with the gunas. (Guna is quality born of nature: Read page ‘Satttwa, Rajas and Tamas’).
The Self or spirit, by its proximity, animates insentient nature and itself look on as one unconcerned. It acts like a lamp, whose light enables a man to perform either a good or a bad deed and experience an appropriate result, while remaining itself the unconcerned witness. ’”I do nothing at all,” thinks the non-dualist, for in seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting; in walking, breathing, and sleeping; in speaking, emitting, and seizing; in opening and closing the eyes- he is assured that it is only the senses that are busied with their objects.’ Working without attachment, he remains ‘untouched by sin, as a lotus leaf by water.’ He thus dwells happily in the body, the ‘city of nine gates,’ neither working nor causing work to be done, though outwardly appearing to be active. He sees non-action in action. Even when the body and mind are intensely active, he sees the Self as the actionless spirit immersed in peace; this is the real non-action of an illumined soul.
The result of such discipline is purity and serenity of mind. The man of pure mind engages in hearing about the Self, reasoning about the Self, and lastly, contemplating the Self with unwavering devotion. In the depths of contemplation, he realizes his inner spirit as identical with the supreme spirit of the universe. He experiences the oneness of existence. ‘With the heart concentrated by yoga, viewing all things with equal regard, he beholds himself in all beings and all beings in himself.’
The enlightened person sees God manifested both as the One and as the many. He communes with the One in the silence of meditation, and with the many through work. Thus to him the farmyard, the laboratory, the battlefield, or the market is as proper a place for communion with God as the temple, the cloister, the mountain cave, or the monk’s cell. But this lofty attitude cannot be maintained unless a person has become firmly rooted in the oneness of existence.
Karma yoga can be an effective spiritual discipline for persons who seek knowledge of God or knowledge of the Self. The result in either case is purification of the mind, followed by love of God or knowledge of the Self. In the final stage all actions drop away, and the devotees are completely absorbed in their respective ideals. For a dualist there remains a slight distinction between himself and God, though the ordinary notion of ego associated with the idea of possessiveness has been transcended. In self-realization complete unity is experienced. Afterwards both the dualist and the non-dualist can resume their outer activities for the welfare of the world. Even then they practise daily communion with God or with the Self. Christ, after his hard work of spiritual ministration during the day, retired in the evening from the multitude to commune with his Heavenly Father. As the lives of illumined souls have been completely transformed by the knowledge of truth, their actions are free from the slightest trace of selfishness. It is such actions that confer lasting blessings upon mankind.
(By Swami Nikhilananda
Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore)