By Pravrajika Vrajaprana
Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a nun at the Sarada Convent at the Vedanta Society in Santa Barbara. This essay appeared in the book Purity of Heart and Contemplation. The essay is posted in five parts.
For readings from Swami Vivekananda, go to Vivekananda.org.
Bhakti yoga assures us that the Lord lovingly accepts whatever we offer with devotion. But just as we can offer flowers and fruits, love and adoration, so we can offer our actions and their fruits. This is the sadhana of our third yoga, karma yoga. “Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give in charity, whatever austerity you perform—do that as an offering to me,” says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. “Thus shall you be freed from the bonds of karma bearing good and evil fruits. With the heart firmly set on renunciation, you will attain liberation and thereby come to me.”
Karma yoga is the path of dedicated, selfless action. The goal of karma yoga is to transform work into a sadhana, thus transforming karma from a bondage into a means for spiritual realization. While karma yoga is specifically meant for those with an active temperament, all spiritual seekers are advised to use the methods of karma yoga since every human being is continually engaged in action. Work is a necessity of the human condition; karma yoga teaches us how to transform work into a sacrament.
What does karma actually mean? The word karma comes from the verb kri, “to do,” and refers to both action and the effects of action. When the word karma is used in the West, it’s generally in reference to the law of karma—the law of cause and effect. Simply put, the law of karma says that an individual’s actions and thoughts produce both subtle impressions in the person’s mind (samskaras) and tangible effects, which will be experienced by that individual sooner or later. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Good actions and good thoughts reap pleasant results; bad actions and bad thoughts reap unpleasant results. According to the Hindu worldview, God doesn’t arbitrarily mete out punishments and rewards; he dispenses whatever results people have earned through their own actions.
By observing the human condition, Vedanta has formulated the sequence of events concerning karma as a kind of cyclic chain reaction: At ground zero we face, as a result of maya, ignorance of our true nature. Like the hunter-king, we’re suffering from amnesia. Ignoranceleads to desire(the God-shaped hole in the heart which we fill with all the wrong things); desire leads to action, karma. (The hunter-king, feeling dissatisfied, tries to do things—sell cloth or join the army—to assuage his misery.) Karma—that is, action and its inescapable effects—leads to rebirth. With rebirth comes the inevitability of death, limitation, suffering, bondage, and more karma.
This chain of cause and effect continues in an endless sequence until something intervenes to break the chain. The chain breaks when we are united with God. Breaking the chain of birth and death, sorrow and ignorance is the goal of every yoga, and each yoga has its own particular method of breaking the chain.
Karma is normally binding: This is why Krishna says that by dedicating action to God, one becomes freed from the bonds of karma. Why are we bound by action? Because action is coupled to desire.
Karma yoga purifies the mind by detaching desire from the work we perform. Freedom from desire is the criterion for attaining purity of heart, and to be free from desire, the connection between the will and desire must be broken. When we act, the will is always involved—remember the connection between my memory of coffee, my desire for coffee which instantly hooked my will and I stood up to get myself a cup of coffee. To sever this connection the will must be detached from desire and reattached to another, higher ideal.
If we stop working, will we then be freed from the bonds of karma? “By not engaging in action one does not attain egoless nonaction,” Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita. “By abstaining from external activity, one cannot attain perfection.” No one can remain truly inactive because even mental processes are a form of action. Even against our will, we are continually engaging in action and creating karma.
While karma means action or work, not all actions fall under the rubric of karma, however. For an activity to be karma, several factors must be involved: first, the action has to be done by a living being. Trains don’t have karma. Next, every action is prompted—whether we are aware of it or not—by some motive or desire. Desire provides the motivation for action and this is why desire and karma are so tightly interwoven. Finally, karma involves a moral sense: we not only act but feel responsible for our actions. When I break a window I know that I am the agent and that I am responsible for the damage.
Karma yoga breaks the powerful link between desire and action. This is done in one of two ways: either by working for work’s sake alone or by offering the results of our work to God. Either way the mind is purified by removing desire for the results of our actions. “To work alone you have the right, and not to the fruits thereof,” says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. “Do not allow longing for the results to be the motivating force of your actions and do not allow yourself to be attached to indolence.” This teaching is the real anthem of karma yoga, both for those who follow the path of the Impersonal as well as for those who worship a personal God.
The first method of karma yoga—work for work’s sake—is meant for those who relate to the impersonal Reality, Brahman. These karma yogis must train themselves to do good simply because it is good to do good. This must be their only motivation. Seeking no other reward, they must work with complete detachment—putting every ounce of energy and concentration into the means while being utterly indifferent to the results. Such yogis must have tremendous yearning for liberation (mukti)—that is, freedom from the wheel of birth and death. This freedom comes only when the bondage of karma is destroyed. As much as the devotee yearns for God, so must the karma yogi yearn for freedom from bondage.
The second method of karma yoga is meant for those who feel drawn toward a personal aspect of God: here the devotee offers the results of all actions to the Chosen Ideal. This raises the question: When a devotee acts for the sake of pleasing God by offering the results of actions to him, doesn’t this constitute desire? Wouldn’t even a holy desire such as this be a spiritual impediment since the nexus between desire and karma reinforces our bondage? No, because any karma which is done as an offering to God produces purity of heart and becomes a path to freedom, not a cause of bondage. With purity of heart comes the ability to meditate, to pray, to work, without pulls from the mental cellar—thus freeing the mind to run straight to God without any impediment. Thus the “desire” for God and the “desire” to serve him through action are powerful tools in spiritual practice, not obstacles. This desire leads to attachment to God which creates detachment from that which pulls us away from God.
For the karma yogi inspired by devotion, the goal is to work with no personal motivation since every action and every thought is an offering at the altar of the beloved Lord. This karma yogi has, as had Brother Lawrence, “no other care… but faithfully to reject every other thought that he might perform all his actions for the love of God.” Brother Lawrence is a sterling example of the second type of karma yogi: “…with him the set times of prayer were not different from other times; that he retired to pray, according to the directions of his superior, but that he did not want such retirement, nor ask for it, because his greatest business did not divert him from God.”
For all karma yogis, work is worship. Whether one is sitting in the shrine or working on the septic tank, the subjective feeling is the same. It’s all worship. No work by itself is either menial or lofty: when work becomes a prayer, every action becomes noble.
I know an elderly monk who for many years was stationed in our hospital in Benares. Especially in the hospital’s early years, the conditions were very difficult; there were only a handful of monks to look after a vast number of extremely ill patients. No equipment, no supplies, scant funding and little sleep. This monk would cleanse and bathe the patients every day, wiping away their excrement with his own hands. One day as he went from patient to patient, the pail containing the excrement got increasingly heavy, so by the time he finished one round, he found it easier to bear the weight by carrying the pail on his head. A brother monk, seeing him with his rather unseemly load, said to him in a joking way, “Are those the temple’s worship articles you’re carrying on your head?” To which the monk immediately shot back, “Yes, as a matter of fact, they are!” This is the attitude of a true karma yogi: all work is holy.
What distinguishes karma yoga from other yogas is its two-pronged movement: first, inward to the divine source, then outward to service and action. While other yogas take the mind and focus it inward, karma yoga takes the mind inward only to have it go outward again—this time for worship in the form of work. This two-part movement distinguishes karma yoga from social work. Unless the mind is purified and drawn inward first—the spiritual battery charged, so to speak—the outward activity can easily devolve into ego-driven social activity. In order for the work to be transformed into worship rather than mere activity, the inwardness and alertness produced by meditation needs to be present at all times.
During the past century, Hinduism has taken on a new dimension by emphasizing social service as karma yoga. This movement was spearheaded by Swami Vivekananda in the late nineteenth century, and during the twentieth, this ideal was accepted and embraced by other traditions within Hinduism. While Hinduism has always proclaimed the divinity of the soul and the oneness of existence, it was Vivekananda who linked this philosophy to social service: to worship God one should serve humankind, the living God standing before us. “The yogi who sees me in all things and sees all things in me, never becomes separated from me, nor do I become separated from him,” says Krishna in the Gita. “The yogi who, established in unity, worships me who dwells in all beings, that yogi abides in me.” If the highest expression of yoga is seeing God dwelling in the hearts of all, then true worship is offering service to humankind.
On a more personal note, as a monastic member of the Ramakrishna Order, karma yoga’s dual emphasis on meditation and service has particular meaning since the motto of our Order is Atmano mokshartham jagaddhitaya ca—”Liberation for oneself and service to humanity.” This is the pattern upon which we aspire to build our lives, from the inside out.
One of the great strengths of karma yoga is that it doesn’t allow us to compartmentalize spirituality into one separate cubbyhole while allowing the rest of our life to stumble along in its own way. One of the most serious issues in spiritual life is that of integration: our life should be such a seamless whole that our actions automatically and naturally reflect our religious convictions.
Karma yoga insists that our active life be a natural extension of our contemplative life. Just as during meditation the spiritual aspirant tries to prevent the mind from wandering, so does the karma yogi keep her or his mind alert and engaged—either in the Atman or directed to a personal form of God—while performing every action. External activity doesn’t provide an excuse to let the mind wander; it needs to be controlled just as much during work as during meditation. “One way to recollect the mind easily in the time of prayer, and preserve it more in tranquillity,” Brother Lawrence said, “is not to let it wander too far at other times.”
The goal of the karma yogi is the same as the bhakti yogi and the raja yogi—to live in oneness with the divine. Through the path of work, the karma yogi uses everything at his or her disposal to bring the mind back to its divine center. The result is complete communion.
Concerning Brother Lawrence it was said:
It was observed that in the great hurry of business in the kitchen he still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even, uninterrupted composure and tranquillity of spirit. “The time of business,” said he, “does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were on my knees at the blessed sacrament.”
This is the goal of every karma yogi—to make the method so perfect that the means and the end become one. Through purity, detachment, and love, the goal of perfect freedom is reached. “The wise see knowledge and action as one,” says the Bhagavad Gita. “They see truly. Take either path and tread it to the end. The end is the same. There the followers of action meet the seekers after knowledge in equal freedom.”