Karma Yoga – The Yoga of Action

When you think of yoga, you may always come up with an image of a person performing various poses, supported by breathing exercises, mudras, and meditation. But what if you get to know a yoga that doesn’t involve anything from the above?

A yoga where you only have to do daily chores such as sweeping, vacuuming, washing dishes, feeding pets, etc. Apart from this, it also consists of your mental activity, thought, imagination.

This is what Karma Yoga entails.

By performing the right action with the right attitude and surrendering the outcomes to the supreme power, you are practising karma yoga.

What is Karma Yoga?

The word Karma is derived from the Sanskrit root word “kru” which means “performing an activity” or simply “movement”. Thus, in a broader sense, every single activity (physically or mentally) that you perform in your life comes under karma.

Karma Yoga is the art of performing actions in a selfless manner and without any expectation of the outcomes. It’s called the “Yoga of Action”.

In Hindusim, four paths are defined for the attainment of spiritual liberation.

  1. Karma Yoga (Path of action)
  2. Jnana yoga (path of wisdom)
  3. Bhakti yoga (path of devotion)
  4. Raja Yoga (Royal path of meditation)

Of these four paths, karma yoga emphasizes doing ‘selfless work’ according to one’s dharma (moral duty), not on the consequences of results. A karma yogi treats ‘work (karma)’ like prayer where he doesn’t attach himself to the fruits or personal consequences of karma. Such intention of karma purifies the heart and mind which helps in preparing the Self to attain enlightenment.

The philosophy of Karma Yoga has been beautifully laid out in the Bhagavad Gita, where it has been said that karma yoga is one of the practical ways to attain self-actualization and liberation from suffering.

It is human nature to expect results out of each work or action that we perform on a regular basis. This desire for expectation binds us to the world. However, when we are performing the work selflessly, with a detachment to the outcome, we are truly following the path of Karma Yoga.

We will be acting as an instrument to fulfil God’s plan and will be performing our actions as a service to society. We will be on the path to freeing ourselves from our karmic debts.

Who is a Karma Yogi?

A Karma yogi is one who aims to relieve themselves from the bondage of karma. When this chain of karma is broken, he is also released from the cycle of birth and death. In simple words, when someone performs karma selflessly in the path of God, they are called Karma Yogi. 

A karma yogi has the following characteristics:

  • They do not possess ego, greed, anger, and lust.
  • They will never expect any outcome from their work.
  • They should never perform a duty for applauses, praises, admiration, name and fame, or gratitude.
  • They should be humble with spotless character.
  • Their words should not contain any harshness and should be fearless.
  • They must possess a large heart, be tolerant, merciful, and sympathetic towards others. 
  • They must be leading a simple life and have a calm and balanced mind.
  • Their happiness will come from others’ happiness. They should look at everyone equally.
  • They should be able to adapt themselves to others’ behavior, environment, and way of life.
  • Irrespective of color, caste, creed, religion, status, etc. they should be able to mix with everybody. 
  • They must believe in the words of the scriptures, the teachings of their guru, God, and themselves. 

There have been some great Karma yogis that have worked selflessly and have simultaneously led an extremely simple life. Even though they received name and fame for their work, it was not their intention and had a pure heart.

Mahatma Gandhi was one such karma yogi, who worked towards the freedom of India. He gave up his personal life and worked tirelessly towards the welfare of India. He was a humble man who wore simple clothing and spoke with gentleness. 

Another wonderful example of a karma yogi is Mother Teresa. She came from a foreign land and settled in India. She was devastated by the plight of the poor and dedicated her life to helping them in any way she could. She always remained faithful to her duty, wore a simple white and blue saree, remained humble, and never spoke ill of others.

Perhaps the biggest karma yogis of all were Lord Krishna himself who preached the Bhagavad Gita for the wellbeing of society. He was the manifestation of karma. From being the King of Dwarka to Arjuna’s charioteer, he performed his duties to the best of his abilities.  

When he was the friend of Sudama, he remained humble and loyal, he never deterred from his work as a cowherd, he freed the women slaves from Narakasura (a demon), never showed off his wealth. There are a ton of stories that will show that he was and will remain the true example of a karma yogi.

The Laws of Karma

Karma yoga is based on the fact of laws of karma. If you are a believer of a particular religion or a non-believer, you must have a belief that every action you do comes back to you in some way. If you do good karma, you will receive its merits sooner or later and the same is true vice versa.

This cause and affects relationship is nothing but the law of karma. There are 12 universal laws that can help you know how karma works. These are:

  1. The Great Law of Cause and Affects – The basic law of you shall reap what you sow. In a general context, karma is always associated with this law.
  2. The Law of Creation – You need to take action to create something for yourself and others rather than wait for it to happen.
  3. The Law of Humility – Be humble enough to accept that your current reality is the result of your past actions.
  4. The Law of Growth – Charity begins at home. If you want to change the world, first work on changing yourself.
  5. The Law of Responsibility – Take responsibility for your actions. Whatever happens in yoru life is because of the past choices you have made.
  6. The Law of Connection – Your past, present, and future are always connected. The action you have performed in the past and will perform in present will shape your future.
  7. The Law of Focus – Instead of multitasking, focus on one thing at a time to obtain better results.
  8. The Law of Giving and Hospitality – Practice what you preach! Your actions will depict your beliefs.
  9. The Law of Here and Now – Whatever has happened in the past, there is no point dwelling on it. Live in the present to create new experiences and dreams.
  10. The Law of Change – Learn from your experiences to stop the cycle of history from repeating itself.
  11. The Law of Patience and Reward – Have the patience to know the result of your karmic deeds. Everything takes time.
  12. The Law of Significance and Inspiration – Even the slightest contribution you make to the world can be of great significance and inspiration to others. Remember this law as a motivation and morale booster.

What is Karma Yoga in Bhagavad Gita?

Karma yoga is illustrated in chapter three of the Bhagavad Gita.

Krishna introduced the concept of karma yoga when Arjuna is on his chariot having the dilemma of fighting in the great Mahabharat war and asked the right and wrong of going against his family.

Krishna replies:

na karmaṇām anārambhān naiṣhkarmyaṁ puruṣho ’śhnute
na cha sannyasanād eva siddhiṁ samadhigachchhati
na hi kaśhchit kṣhaṇam api jātu tiṣhṭhatyakarma-kṛit
kāryate hyavaśhaḥ karma sarvaḥ prakṛiti-jair guṇaiḥ

Translation – A person does not attain freedom from action by abstaining from action; nor does he attain fulfillment merely through renunciation.

Because, no one ever remains even for a moment without doing work. For all are made to work under compulsion by the gunas born of Nature.

Thus, there is no one on this earth who is not doing an action. Even when you are thinking, you are performing an action. If your thoughts are pure and you perform the service from your heart, you will be able to attain moksha.

Bhagavad Gita 3.4

In another verse, Krishna states, 

tasmād asaktaḥ satataṁ
kāryaṁ karma samācara
asakto hy ācaran karma
param āpnoti pūruṣaḥ

Translation – Therefore, without being attached to the results of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.

Bhagavad Gita 3.19

The essence of karma yoga according to Bhagavad Gita can be summed up as below:

  • Karma yoga is selfless service or service performed in the interests of serving God.
  • God uses us as its instruments to perform the action, so one should serve the result of action to God only.
  • God is the center of life for a karma yogi and his actions are a path to unify with God.
  • If you perform karma with selflessness, you will accrue merits.
  • Human doesn’t stay still so it is impossible for them to stay away from impurity. One can attain liberation if they surrender the result of their service to God.
  • Embracing everything that comes your way is the way of Karma yoga.

Principles of Karma Yoga

The concept of Karma Yoga can be explained in the key principles that have been described below:

1. Right Attitude

Your attitude while doing a job is what determines whether the job is liberating or binding. If the job you are doing requires a ton of effort, it is binding on you. Whereas, if the job is done with love, you are practising karma yoga in its true sense and liberating yourself from the karmic debt. Your work should be a form of worship.

As Swami Sivananda has said, “Give your hands to work and keep your mind fixed at the Lotus Feet of the Lord.”

2. Right Motive

Additionally, the intention behind your work also decides whether you are accumulating on your karma or getting it removed. If you are doing something with an intention of getting a favorable result or benefit, you will be counted amongst selfish people. 

If your intention is pure and selfless, you will be able to surrender yourself to the path of divinity. The intention or motive is the deciding factor that adds to our karmic debt or releases us from it.

3. Do Your Duty

With the right attitude and right motive in our hearts, we should selflessly perform our duty. Duty has two connotations here.

The duty in relation to Karma Yoga is the Dharma or righteousness. Another understanding is that as per the environment, the duty that can be performed at a particular moment is the best we can do.

Whatever the case may be, you should keep in mind that performing your duty will free your soul of the karmic debt and non-performance will bind you. Nothing is small or unworthy in the path of attainment of God and liberation. 

4. Do Your Best

Whatever duty you perform, you should always strive to give your best. When you have the right intention and attitude, your actions also depict the joy you have while performing your duty. If you feel you can perform better or use better ways, use them to release yourself from the bondage. 

Never hold back yourself from the fear of judgment or criticism.

You may feel that no one is watching, but your karma debt will be accumulating in hindsight if you are sloppy or performing the duty with selfish motives. Do your work in a way that you spread maximum happiness and goodness and minimum sorrow or evil. Only if you acquire merits will you be able to preach the same.

According to Swami Sivananda, “You can elevate others only if you have elevated yourself.  A prisoner cannot liberate other prisoners.”

5. Give Up Results

To become selfless, you should not attach the expectation of a favorable outcome to any job you do. Your detachment from the action, thinking of yourself as the instrument of God, will make you acquire merits and relieve you of the bind.

Once you are detached from the results of the job, you will never judge a job in terms of inferiority or superiority. Remember that your karma is always working. 

You need to realize the fact the supreme power is the doer and actor. For humans, it is only their Gunas or qualities that are playing. Do your work only for work’s sake and let go of the outcome.

6. Serve God or the Self in All

The realization that all of us are the same and have been created by one supreme power is extremely important. This realization will make you see everyone with equal eyes and have the same amount of love for all of them.

Understand that it is our duty to serve everyone equally as we all are bound by one source. Your actions should depict humility and humbleness towards your duty. Even if your duty towards someone may seem insignificant but it can create a huge impact in their lives. Hence, be ready to serve anyone anywhere.

7. Follow the Discipline of the Job

Whatever job or duty you are performing, you should do it with enthusiasm and sincerity. Understand the underlying requirements of each job (from age, skills, time to emotional and physical energy and will) and perform them with your best intentions. Do not forget that each job teaches you something new, so be ready to be a student at any stage in your life. 

Difference between Karma Yoga and Kriya Yoga

One another familiar yoga form called kriya yoga is sometimes compared with karma yoga. Kriya yoga is the concept that came from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras whereas most references to Karma Yoga came from Bhagavad Gita.

To postulate the Kriya Yoga, Patanjali took reference from the principles of Karma Yoga hence it can be said that Kriya yoga is a subset of Karma Yoga.

The word Kriya translates to “ritual action” hence Kriya Yoga is also known as the Yoga of Ritual Action. Karma means “action” or “duty” and is also called the Yoga of Action or duty.

Through Karma Yoga, you can connect with the divine by ego-detached action and service. In Kriya Yoga, you unify with the divine through austerity (tapas), self-inquiry (swadhayaya), and dedication of one’s works to God (ishwara-pranidhana). 

Kriya Yoga involves the yogi practising pranayama, mudra, and chanting to achieve enlightenment. In Karma Yoga, daily activities such as going to your job, cooking food, cleaning the dishes, taking kids to school, and even brushing your teeth can form a part of this yoga practice. The deeds should be done without the expectation of favourable results.

How to practice karma yoga?

Practising Karma Yoga should not be confused with only performing service to others nor should it be confused with social service.

To understand how to practise karma yoga, have a look at some simple ways which you can imbibe in your day-to-day life.

1. Self-service is the best service

It is always said that change begins at home. If you want to change the world, begin by changing yourself. Do every task with full awareness and you will find ways and means to change the way you live. 

Even if you are doing household chores or job-related tasks, take on the journey to nourish and nurture yourself. However, never be critical of yourself. If you are not healthy in mind and body, you will not be able to help others.

2. Appreciate and respect the nature

It is not only humans that you should respect and be appreciative of. The nature that surrounds you should also be taken into consideration. This nature has been bestowed upon us by God and it becomes our duty to protect and conserve it.

The smallest of actions, such as closing your tap while brushing, can be significant in conserving water. Likewise, respect what is around you and never take it for granted. Pay gratitude to nature for sustaining us by providing us with our lifeline – oxygen.

3. Make a contribution as a human

The word contribution doesn’t only include a monetary contribution or volunteering your time. You can also contribute by being a listener or just being there for someone in pain or anguish. Share someone’s happiness and celebrate their success. 

Help an injured stray animal or a blind person cross the road. If you see an elderly struggling, present yourself to their service. Just be human to other humans, animals, and nature.

4. Be compassionate

Each person has some struggles in their lives or is suffering from some ailments. And when your life is full of struggles, it is natural that the behavior of people also changes. They become rude and angry. 

If you come across such people, never respond to them in a negative way. You never know what the other person is going through. Try and understand their plight and offer comfort. A smile can go a long way in relieving someone of their stress. 

5. Perform your work as a form of meditation

When we meditate, we are only focused on the action of meditation. We remove all sorts of distractions to calm our minds. In a similar manner, if you are performing a task, immerse your mind into it.

If you are cooking, do not make plans for the coming day, think about a past incident, or imagine the outcome of your cooking. Just be present at the moment and enjoy the process of cooking. Once you build this habit, it will be easy for you to be detached from the results of your duty. 

6. Always have a positive attitude

Needless to say, people always get attracted to a person who has a positive attitude towards himself and life in general. You can cheer people who are having a bad day or say thank you if someone has done something for you. Just like a smile or a laugh, it is contagious. Remember that being positive will also bring you joy and genuine happiness.

Conclusion

Karma yoga is selfless devotion to God through your actions. Perform every action with a pure heart and mind so that you can spread some positivity and bring about a change. If you are putting effort or feeling stress from your duty, you need to reflect upon yourself and ask, am I a Karma Yogi in the true sense?

2 Comments

  1. Jones Lorna October 7, 2019
    • Ashish October 8, 2019

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