What Is Karma Yoga?

difficult yoga posesThe Great Hindu Monk Swami Vivekananda immortalized the concepts of Karma Yoga across the world. However, even before the emergence of Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga was (and still is) an eternal truth of the Hindu way of life. Often people wrongly associate the concepts of Karma Yoga with Yoga in general. But this not right. While Yoga is a practice for both the mind and the body, by controlling breathing and harnessing the energy within, Karma Yoga is distinctly all about a code of conduct.

A discussion on Karma Yoga invariably starts at the battlefield of Kurukshetra where the Pandavas and the Kauravas, brothers, are faced with the undeniable reality of a war between them. Faced with the reality that he has to inflict injuries and possibly kill his own kith and kin, Arjuna, the Pandava prince surrenders to Lord Krishna, his friend, philosopher and guide and pleads the logic for this futile fight. What transpires as a result between Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and Arjuna has been immortalized in the texts of the Bhagwad Gita, the most revered of all Hindu scriptures. The Bhagwad Gita in itself is a part of the larger texts of the Mahabharata, the story of the Pandavas and Kauravas and their tussle that culminated in a bloody war at Kurukshetra.

During the course of Lord Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he explained the subjects of Karma Yoga, which has now been synonymized with the concept of Karma.

The Meaning

The literal meaning of the words ‘Karma Yoga’ is union by doing. The Sanskrit word ‘Kri’ meaning to do and the word ‘Yoga’ meaning to unify or unite thus translates into the process of action, and according to some Vedanta philosophers the effects of such action.

The Eastern Philosophy teaches that Karma or action and the effects of that action is what brings the myriad of emotions in human lives. It also teaches that the ultimate destination for the human soul is not pleasure and or happiness, but knowledge. It is a bit difficult to consume an unpalatable suggestion such as that, especially in an environment where consumerism and its effects are all encompassing. But the exponents of Vedanta do suggest that ultimate satisfaction is not something that can be attained by indulging in the pleasures of the material world.

What is Duty as Suggested in Karma Yoga?

tasmad asaktah satatam

karyam karma samacara

asakto hy acaran karma

param apnoti purushah

(Bhagwad Gita Chapter 3 verse 19)

Meaning – one should not be driven to one’s duty just by the motivation of the benefits that such actions will bring to one’s own self. If explained in a different way, it also means that the only way to attain unification with the supreme almighty is to do one’s duty selflessly and at the same time devote the outcome to that Supreme Divinity.

Stretching this discussion further, Lord Krishna has said in the Bhagwad Gita that the right way to identify one’s own self with the almighty, is to do what is one’s duty regardless of the outcome. While most discussions about Karma tend to revolve around Arjuna and Lord Krishna there are plenty of other such examples littered in the Mahabharata.

Karna, the eldest of the Pandavas fought against his own brothers at the battle. He was discarded by his mother at birth, and lived a life where he had to fight continuously for his identity.

Duryodhana the eldest of the Kauravas, accepted him as his best friend and welcomed him to his private circle. At the eve of the battle Lord Krishna appraised Karna of his true identity and how he has been wronged by his mother and then invited him to join his own brothers. But even after being informed of his true identity and that he will be fighting against his own brothers Karna refused to leave his friend.

His explanation was that he had received the trust and friendship of Duryodhana at a point when he was a relative no body. Now when his friend requires his to be by his side he cannot betray him. Karna’s self-less devotion to what he felt was his duty, regardless of personal benefits and regardless of the outcome is in direct spirit of Karma Yoga as explained in the verse above.

Purpose of Karma Yoga

But what is the real purpose of Karma Yoga and what inherent meanings does the word have? In Swami Vivekananda’s own words “The grandest idea in the religion of the Vedanta is that we may reach the same goal by different paths…” This means there are more than one ways of attaining spiritualism. It is in fact in this direction that Swami Vivekananda divided the path to attain spiritualism into four – work, love, psychology and knowledge.

But what is this goal that he refers to? In other words what is the purpose of Karma Yoga? Let’s look at it in this way. Swami Vivekananda explains that the world and everything in it has a tendency to disseminate far and wide in search for freedom. The pursuit of freedom is a natural urge that pulls matter away from its bonds and away from other matter. Look at the earth, it is pulled in by the natural gravitation force of the Sun. the moon, again, is pulled by the gravitation force of the earth. If these gravitational forces were not there they would have wandered away. The same way the human mind is in constant search for freedom. Freedom from oppression, freedom from social injustice, freedom from poverty and freedom from lack of knowledge. It is this lust for freedom that drives man to pursue the path to attain what his soul seeks. The path taken may be different by different men but at the end the goal, i.e., freedom is what they all seek.

It is the path that determines the legality of the process of attaining the goal of freedom. A spiritual person, devoted to the cause of understanding and spreading the word of Lord Krishna seeks freedom, but he does so for the purpose of attaining higher knowledge. That is something that is both legal and spiritual. A software programmer may be doing his job as a mean to an end; to attain his livelihood, but deep down he is only interested in higher material gains. He is obsessed with the ideas of materialism completely detached with the higher cause that can grant him spiritual gratification. That is legal too but is in no way spiritual. Again a person whose sole interest in life is to make money by whatever means possible, indulges in shady practices, even cheating, to muster wealth. That very man is, however, religious minded, going to the church every week. Would he be considered spiritual? No. Neither is the methods that he uses to make money be considered as legal. Deep down somewhere the principles of Karma Yoga also teaches one to free one’s self from the possessive concepts of ‘me’ and ‘I’.

Karma Yoga and Relation with Yoga

Unlike Yoga or Asanas where there is an exercise routine to be followed, Karma Yoga warrants that we follow a code of conduct. It is the code of self-less act in daily life through which one can attain spiritual and personal gratification of the highest form. To live a life where personal material appeasement becomes the only motivating factor is like a ticking bomb waiting to explode and bring misery to one’s life. The only way to avoid this is by indulging in self-less acts and follow a pattern that is summarized in the verse above.

This is however, easier said than done and it needs an immense control over the mind and its many indulgences. This is where Yoga comes in. Yoga, which means to unify, literally uses various breathing techniques in order to increase concentration and self-control. There are several good courses online that can help you increase your concentration. Like this method in which Kirtan is used along with Yoga to attain concentration.