Neither overwork nor the giving up of work but detachment is the hallmark of the Karmayogi according to the Gita.
Since the time Sri Krshna spoke the Gita on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, it has remained one of the most important foundational texts of Hinduism. Its language is simple and its philosophy is wide and vast, covering different paths and yet uplifting them and still bringing something new and fresh into our spiritual worldview. Wise men and scholars have delineated the Yoga of Gita into some basic paths: Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma Yoga – where each one is often looked at as an independent path to one’s yogic development.
Karma Yoga, especially during the British rule, when many great Indian revolutionaries were attracted to the idea of service to the motherland, became perhaps the most widely used spiritual phrase/term to inspire a temperamentally flaccid nation into a severe and concentrated activity. Members of the Anushilan Samiti (Ōnūshīlōn sōmītī) would take an oath on the Gita dedicating their lives to liberating India from British rule. Service to the nation, service to mankind, and service for all was taken as the ultimate goal and practical manifestation of Krshna’s advice to Arjuna. Not only the youth but also the leaders and thinkers of the previous century, mostly, in a valiant attempt to enthuse a tamas-infected nation took recourse to highlighting the worker’s role in both social and spiritual life.
Even today, in colloquial terms we use Karma Yoga, or the adjective Karma Yogi, to refer to an individual who is essentially workaholic or someone with great time management skills who can get a lot of things accomplished, far more, than ordinary, or those who do a lot of selfless service for humanity. Appreciable no doubt, and very important as these things may be in enriching a human character, but we need to ask, is that all there is to Karma Yoga, or rather is there any difference between a terrific tireless worker, and someone who works in the mode of Yoga?
Probably the most important, arguably the only important, text that speaks of this path to liberation – for it is indeed a path of Yoga – is the Gita itself. The Gita, of course, is a Moksha Shastra, which means it gives greater primacy to spiritual enlightenment (a generic term for a range of rare spiritual states) over other cardinal aims of life. In the very first chapter of the text, Arjuna Vishada Yoga, we find a reluctant, pity-filled Arjuna refusing to fight against his relatives and Gurus while proffering various excuses and arguments as to why this war is sinful and against dharma, only to be rebuffed by Sri Krshna who then explains to him the secret of Yogic work, as also various other aspects of spiritual evolution.
A cursory and flawed understanding of Karma have led Indians to believe that this is a mechanical law of give-and-take, of action and reaction, of crime and punishment, and there is no escaping it. By this logic, Arjuna’s frank refusal is certainly valid, for killing, and that too powerful Gurus is surely an act that can bring about great Karmic repercussions. There was at least one famous popular spiritual Guru from Western India who believed that this was indeed what Arjuna should have done! Well, misconceptions about the Gita and reading all sorts of angles from text to suit and justify ones per-conceived notion is not a new thing, for even the great Acharyas have found support for their specific shade of Dharmik philosophy which is often in contradiction with others. And yet this particularly superficial suggestion that Arjuna should have dropped his weapons and left for a sanyasi’s life is probably the most absurd misrepresentation of this ancient philosophy of life and works.
But even before Sri Krshna goes on to clear Arjuna’s spiritual misgivings, he retorts to the warrior-hero’s, “I will not fight!”, by explaining how the latter’s words and actions do not match.
śrībhagavānuvāca: aśocyānanvaśocastvaṃ prajñāvādāṃśca bhāṣase, gatāsūnagatāsūṃśca nānuśocanti paṇḍitāḥ.
The Blessed Lord said: Thou grievest for those that should not be grieved for, yet speakest words of wisdom. The enlightened man does not mourn either for the living or for the dead.
In another verse in the same chapter we have Sri Krshna saying that he will disclose the secret of Yoga, after having explained Samkhya spirituality, wherein one can cast away the bondage created by karma.
eṣā te’bhihitā sāṅkhye buddhiryoge tvimāṃ śṛṇu,
buddhyā yukto yayā pārtha karmabandhaṃ prahāsyasi.
Of importance is the fact that in the actual text of the Gita, the word Samkhya is almost synonymous with the path that gives spiritual uplift through knowledge, Jnanayoga, while Yoga refers to the path of action, Karmayoga, leading to the same goal. This may also be a reflection of how these terms were considered during the Sandhi of Dwapara and Kali when the great 18 day war happened which is certainly not the way we interpret these two terms today.
Then a few verses later we have the clearest and most profound statement of practical advice regarding karma yoga:’
karmaṇyevādhikāraste mā phaleṣu kadācana,
mā karmaphalaheturbhūrmā te saṅgo’stvakarmaṇi.
Thou hast a right to action, but only to action, never to its fruits; let not the fruits of thy works be thy motive, neither let there be in thee any attachment to inactivity.
yogasthaḥ kuru karmāṇi saṅgaṃ tyaktvā dhanaṃjaya,
siddhyasiddhyoḥ samo bhūtvā samatvaṃ yoga ucyate.
Fixed in Yoga do thy actions, having abandoned attachment, having become equal in failure and success; for it is equality that is meant by Yoga.
In the very next chapter Sri Krshna makes it clear that both Samkhya and Yoga, that is Jnana and Karma, are equally important ways to attain the same goal.
loke’smina dvividhā niṣṭhā purā proktā mayānagha,
jñānayogena sāṅkhyānāṃ karmayogena yoginām.
In this world twofold is the self-application of the soul (by which it enters into the Brahmic condition), as I before said, O sinless one: that of the Sankhyas by the Yoga of knowledge, that of the Yogins by the Yoga of works.
na karmaṇāmanārambhānnaiṣkarmyaṃ puruṣo’śnute,
na ca saṃnyasanādeva siddhiṃ samadhigacchati.
Not by abstention from works does a man enjoy actionlessness, nor by mere renunciation (of works) does he attain to his perfection (to siddhi, the accomplishment of the aims of his self-discipline by Yoga).
Thus the first basic criteria for karma to become Yoga is if one learns to work without any attachment to the results, and harbors no dislike for any kind of work. Not easy, but certainly no short-cuts are possible here and may take years or decades of sincere effort to accomplish this. At the initial unrefined stage of this sadhana, it does not matter how much work one does, or what kind of work one does – that is, whether it’s for greater social good, for oneself, or for the nation. What is far more important is what attitude the work is done with, even if the work may appear insignificant in our general scheme of things. It is also important to remember that like every other path, this too is a sadhana and requires time, effort and sincerity on the part of the seeker.
Our actions in ordinary life are propelled by egoistic feelings of liking or disliking or a sense of importance. Ego is not to be understood in the limited sense of pride, but rather as attachment to anything and this very attachment leads to disappointments when things do not turn out favorable. All this is ordinary and human, nothing Yogic in this. But to able to transform ourselves, such that we are neither vitally enthused when things go our way, nor psychologically depressed when they don’t and results fail, duḥkheṣvanudvignamanāḥ sukheṣu vigataspṛhaḥ, is the true making of a Yogi in action.
Once a seeker tries to act with the attitude specified in the Gita, eventually, s/he develops an automatic sense of detachment, an internal division occurs whereby the surface personality and its activities separate from the peace and detachment inside. One does not then feel that it is the individual who does the work, but rather the work is being done through him/her. There is no sense of possessiveness or attachment to the result, neither any disapproval for any work howsoever small or big, profitable or unprofitable it may seem to the ordinary consciousness. Samata, equanimity in work is, therefore, the first rule of Karma Yoga.
Ultimately, as this detachment – detachment, not inaction – becomes settled in the consciousness, a philosophical outlook towards all actions develop within such a yogi. S/he becomes capable of seeing large lines of forces, of how events in the world are governed by magnificent ancient archetypal forces, of various hues, who use humans as vehicles to fulfill their unique desire for play in the world of men, without having to actually incarnate here. For there is no man who has achieved something significant in the march of human history who is not an instrument of one or the other being or force, sometimes of an occult nature. Our innate egoism and the sense of appropriation make us easy instruments. We love to believe that we are the masters of our works and convictions, safely unaware of the worlds that interplay and interfere with ours. But once a Karma Yogi can sense what drives humans to do what they do, s/he automatically becomes less attached to work and this gives him/her a powerful capacity for output. For, whatever can be done in an excitable and agitated state of mind, can always be done better and sharper in a calmer state of being. Eventually, as this sense of philosophical detachment grows into a constant state of inner realization, the Yogi develops an organic intuition about life and action, what is to be done and what is not to be done, and to what extent. This then is a kind of enlightenment in action, the state which Sri Krshna describes as seeing action in inaction and inaction in action.
karmaṇyakarma yaḥ paśyedakarmaṇi ca karma yaḥ,
sa buddhimānmanuṣyeṣu sa yuktaḥ kṛtsnakarmakṛt.
He who in action can see inaction and can see action still continuing in cessation from works, is the man of true reason and discernment among men; he is in Yoga and a many-sided universal worker (for the good of the world, for God in the world).
Such a man is a force in this world, for whatever he may choose to do, or rather is driven to do, will have a long-lasting impact on this world. The seeker then is a perfect instrument for the Divine to accomplish great tasks, which to our short-term and limited human vision may or may not make rational sense but which, inevitably and eventually, establishes Sanatana Dharma more firmly in the world. For rationalists, this may be difficult to comprehend, but the development of a true intuition, or any such supernatural faculty, is a perfectly acceptable idea in the parlance of sadhana and spirituality of India. This, then, is real Karma Yoga. Not social service, good as it maybe in its own merit, whether of a secular or religious nature, but action inspired and guided by the Divine so that even if such an individual were to engage in drastic and violent activities, s/he would not incur any sin. This is the advice Sri Krshna gives to Arjuna when the latter refuses to fight, justifying his state of sentimentalism, using the logic of sin incurred in killing relatives and gurus. There is potentially negative karmic implication in certain acts, but it is negated when we act through detachment with an evolved consciousness, irrespective of the nature and scope of the external activity.
This is the one aspect of Sanatana Dharma which has been neglected over the last few centuries, especially with the thrust towards asceticism and monastic escape coupled with the general degradation of ordinary life under attacks from violent alien cultures and ideologies. Moreover in the fight for intellectual and spiritual space against other Indic faiths like Buddhism and Jainism – a tit-for-tat Karma is the fulcrum of their worldview – and Sanatana Dharma, we too have uncritically absorbed the idea of an endless karmic give and take making us fearful, reclusive or constrained in our actions. But this is not what the Gita told us. Pusillanimity has cloaked itself in a mad rush for misunderstood sattva. We forget that the message given to the race was that of samata (equanimity) and that the Yoga of Karma is as important as those of Jnana and Bhakti, for one compliments the other. The goal is to go beyond the trigunas, not merely remain happy and content in Sattva, which may be as damaging as Tamas in a long enough run, and to act for the greater benefit of Sanatana Dharma. For, true Dharma is not only in the transcendental samadhis of the world-renouncing Yogis but also equally in the enlightened path of action shown by Avataras like Krshna and Rama.
Of course like any other form of Yoga, Karmayoga also requires tremendous inner change. To act in a far-reaching and powerful manner while being free of karmic debt is the essence of Karma Yoga. In the absence of the latter condition of being free of karmic repercussions, all actions will lead to reactions and violent actions may have violent reactions.
A young spiritual aspirant was traveling in a remote area of the Himalayas, sometime in the first half of the twentieth century. He lost his way and ended up trapped in a hole under terrible weather conditions. Desperate and hopeless, he cried out asking why God has put him in this misery. And then he heard a voice replying, “When you act, do you think you are doing the work, or God? And if you believed you were the originator of your actions, why blame God for your misery now?”
Decades later he went on to became an enlightened Yogi.
Banner Image By Vincent van Gogh – Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22009540