By Swami Bhajanananda
Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1979 through 1986 and has contributed many articles to various Vedanta journals. Swami Bhajanananda is an Assistant-Secretary and Trustee of the Ramakrishna Order. This article was first published in the February, 1986 Prabuddha Bharata and is the first of two installments; the second will appear on this site in April, 2002.
Abraham Maslow, a pioneer in humanistic psychology, has narrated a beautiful anecdote about a small American-Indian boy:
He was about seven or eight years old, and I found by looking very close that he was a kind of rich kid, in a Blackfoot way. He had several horses and cattle in his name, and he owned a medicine bundle of particular value. Someone, a grown-up, turned up who wanted to buy the medicine bundle, which was the most valuable thing that he had. I learned from his father that what little Teddy did when he was made this offer—remember he was only seven years old—was to go into the wilderness by himself to meditate. He went away for about two or three days and nights camping out, thinking for himself. He did not ask his father or his mother for advice, and they didn’t tell him anything. He came back and announced his decision.
How many grown-ups make decisions, even important decisions which may have far-reaching consequences in their own lives, in the way that little boy did? When confronted with difficulties, most people would rush here and there and try to influence this person or that, failing which they would either go about blaming the world or sit brooding over their misfortunes. What that boy did was to seek a solution to his problem in the depths of consciousness. Being small, his physical and mental capacities were limited, but he knew how to transcend his limitations. Abandoning all external help, alone in the wilderness, he just let the Great Spirit open the door of his heart to the source of infinite knowledge.
Many of the problems of life, especially existential problems like insecurity, unfulfillment, loneliness, meaninglessness, etc. have no lasting solutions in the external world. This, however, is not the only difficulty. A more serious difficulty is that our present state of consciousness is itself too limited and inadequate to solve the basic problems of life. It is this awareness that induces people to practice prayer, worship and meditation.
In critical situations some people may achieve a certain degree of transcendence through prayer or meditation and thus succeed in getting inner solace and strength to face the problems of life. But this kind of transcendence is usually a temporary experience and its beneficial effects wear off in a short time.
Is there a way by which we can attain permanent transcendence? The answer given by the saints, sages and mystics of all religions is that we can gain permanent possession of higher levels of transcendence by transforming our consciousness. This is one of the basic presuppositions of yoga, mysticism and spiritual life in general.
Human consciousness undergoes three types of transformation: transformation within the unconscious, transformation of the contents of the unconscious into the conscious, and transformation of the conscious into the superconscious. The first two types really belong to the province of moral life, and it is only the transformation of the conscious into the superconscious that is the chief concern of spiritual life.
The unconscious is the storehouse of impressions (samskaras) of past experiences, whereas the conscious deals with the immediate present. The unconscious is also the fountain-head of all good and bad instinctual drives, emotions and creative power. At the beginning of our spiritual life the conscious remains mostly under the control of the unconscious. As a result, we find that our actions and thoughts are to a great extent determined by our inherent tendencies and are going on more or less automatically. In other words, we have very little inner freedom and self-awareness. Much of the early struggle in spiritual life is to free the conscious from the hold of the unconscious.
As the conscious gets freed more and more from the hold of the unconscious, we feel great inner freedom, alertness and tranquillity, our work efficiency increases, and our creative urges find finer modes of expression. Many people remain satisfied with these improvements. They, however, remain conditioned by their present level of awareness. Spiritual life is an attempt to go beyond the limitations of our present state, and this can be achieved only by transforming the conscious mind and illuminating it with superconscious wisdom.
It should be noted here that the conscious and the unconscious are to be regarded not as inert chambers but as functional configurations of the self. They represent two different ways the self functions. If the ego is visualized as a tree, the unconscious will be represented by the roots and the conscious by the trunk. The transformation of the conscious means the transfiguration of the ego—the metamorphosis of the human self into the divine Self.
In the Vedas this has been described through the well-known imagery of the two birds. “Two birds of beautiful plumage, closely related and friendly, cling to the same tree. Of these one eats the fruit of different tastes, while the other looks on without eating. On the same tree (i.e., the body) the lower self grieves, being immersed (in worldliness), deluded and powerless. But when it sees the other (the higher Self), the adorable Lord, and His glory, it becomes free from sorrow.”
It is the light of the higher Self, the Atman, that transfigures the ego. There is a point of contact between the Atman and the conscious mind; it is known as the buddhi or heart. It acts as the center of control in spiritual life. The impulse for the transformation of the conscious must come from this center, and it will come only if the center is awakened. We may read books on meditation or listen to the talks of the wise but, unless the spiritual center starts functioning, our basic awareness will remain unchanged.
If the first struggle in spiritual life is to free the conscious from the hold of the unconscious, the next struggle should be to awaken the spiritual center. Once this higher center stars functioning, every action and thought will become a means of transforming consciousness. There are, however, several special techniques or processes, which accelerate this transformation and some of these are discussed below.
We generally tend to look upon work as a means of achieving something in the external world. Rarely do we regard it as a means of transforming consciousness and yet, this transformation is the central aim of karma yoga. The popular notion that karma yoga only means doing good to the world is not wholly correct. For one can do good to the world in various ways and with various motives. Our actions become karma yoga only when they are converted into a technique of transforming consciousness. This also implies that even actions done for one’s own good such as eating, dressing, cleaning, etc. can be done as karma yoga. The type of work one does is irrelevant to karma yoga; what is important is how the work transforms consciousness.
Here it is necessary to clarify what the word “karma” really means. In science any movement that involves the expenditure of energy is considered work. It is in this sense that a waterfall, motorcar, stomach or lung is said to be “working.” This, however, is not what “karma” really means. Work to become karma must have three components: a conscious agent (karta), action, which has a moral implication and an effect (karmaphala) which is the fulfillment of a desire (ishta-sadhyata). The only English word, which connotes all these three aspects of karma, is perhaps “labor.” Karma is goal-oriented work done by an agent who owns, or has the obligation to own, moral responsibility for his or her actions. Sri Ramakrishna’s parable of the brahmin who killed a cow but claimed that it was his hand which did the crime and that, therefore, the sin belonged to the presiding deity of the hand, Indra, illustrates the importance of the agent. The agent who owns moral responsibility is the ego.
Why does the ego do karma? To fulfill its needs. Human beings have a hierarchy of needs—physical, physiological, emotional, intellectual, social, creative and spiritual. The lower needs like food, clothing and shelter are called “basic needs.” The higher needs are called “values.”
The hierarchical nature of needs has created a major problem for humanity: it calls for total fulfillment. The satisfaction of biological needs alone cannot bring complete fulfillment. There is within us the urge to seek and express higher truths, to share love, to create beautiful things and to experience higher forms of happiness. This has been called “self-actualization”—a term introduced by Goldstein and Karen Horney and popularized by Abraham Maslow.
Millions of people in the world are unhappy not because of lack of food and clothing, but because of failure in self-actualization. The human creative urge seems to reach no end. Said Paul Tillich: “Man’s productivity moves from potentiality to actuality in such a way that everything actualized has potentialities for further actualization. This is the basic structure of progress.”
It is with the hope of attaining fulfillment that people do work. But most people find that work brings them only partial fulfillment; it may satisfy some of their physical or social needs, but it does not touch the core of their being, the true Self. They find work mostly a horizontal movement: if their aim is to earn money, work enables them to get more and more of it; if their aim is to get fame, work enables them to get more and more of it.
Doctors, engineers, social workers and businesspeople find that their work only enables them to move further in their own fields, and that this progress takes them away from the core of their true being, alienates them from their true Self. Work can bring higher fulfillment only if it enables them to move vertically upward and realize the higher levels of being and ultimately the true Self.
This upward movement can be effected only through a transformation of consciousness. Can work bring this about? Work produces two types of change: a subjective one and an objective one. It changes the object of work: a carpenter produces changes in a block of wood, a farmer produces changes in the land, a doctor produces changes in the body of the patient, and so on. The objective changes alone are usually noticed and regarded as work.
But work has also a subjective effect: it changes the consciousness of the worker. However, this inner change is often so small that it is seldom noticed. Why is it that the inner changes produced by work are so small? Why is it that people find that even after doing work for several years they have derived little inner spiritual benefit from their work? This is one of the fundamental problems of life to which karma yoga addresses itself.
In ordinary work almost the whole of mental energy is directed towards seeking the results of work, and little of it is used consciously to deal with the mind and its problems. Therefore karma yoga prescribes as the first step the freeing of the will from attachment to the fruit of work. That is why karma yoga is often described as nishkama karma. But the renunciation of the fruit of work is only the first step in karma yoga.
The second step is to deal with the ego. The clinging of the ego to the fruit of work is egoism. When egoism is given up, what remains of the ego is simple “I”-consciousness. This self-awareness can be intensified by cultivating the attitude of an inner witness while one is engaged in work. When the ego is isolated and sufficient self-awareness is built up, one gains tremendous inner strength.
The primary reason why the work that people do does not produce any significant transformation of consciousness is that they lack this inner power born of self-awareness. The ego is not free to deal with itself. There is not enough self-awareness to check the automatisms of the unconscious. There is not enough self-awareness to be focused upon different parts of the mind and bring about necessary changes there. Another reason is that work is seldom done as an expression of the soul’s creativity or, in the words of Swami Vivekananda, as a manifestation of the potential divinity of the soul.
It is the outer objects that draw out work from most people, not the inner creative urge. Many people find it difficult to work without some external stimulus or incentive. It is of course true that people have their own specific fields of creative activity like scientific research, music, painting, dance, business enterprises, but any work can be done creatively if there is enough dynamism in the soul. Uncreative work done mechanically without self-direction will not produce any significant transformation in the worker.
When properly done, karma yoga transforms consciousness in different ways. It creates new good samskaras which counteract and check the activity of impure samskaras already present in the mind. It gives a higher direction to instinctual energy and sublimates lower instincts into higher sentiments. It enables us to understand the workings of the ego, especially its tentacles of egoism and selfishness, which are put forth when the ego is brought into interpersonal relationships through work.
The most important way karma yoga brings about transformation is by opening the ego to the stream of universal life. Other than the simple “I”-consciousness everything else that appears as ego and egoism is the creation of the society of which the person is a part. The very structure of the ego has been determined by the experiences of love and hate and fear gained from childhood.
When through karma yoga we free ourselves from this triangle of attitudes and reestablish a new spiritual relationship with others, it will radically transform ego-consciousness. As a matter of fact, karma yoga brings into existence a new, purified, liberated, spiritual ego open to universal life.
Such a liberated ego alone can offer all work as worship to the Supreme Self who is all-pervading and is the ultimate source of all activity in the universe. This worship is a participation in virat-yajna, cosmic sacrifice of the Divine which, as the Bhagavad Gita assures us speedily transforms the conscious into the superconscious.