Karma Yoga: The Path of Selfless Action

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To follow the path of Karma Yoga it is essential to dispel the thought that we’re the doers. The idea that we are the driving force behind our actions only fuels egoism.

Karma has become a popular word. It is often used in conversations worldwide, usually referring to reward or punishment for our actions. But the Sanskrit word ‘Karma’ means action, and it refers to the action itself. In yogic philosophy, Karma forms part of Karma yoga, one of the four main paths of yoga, leading to liberation.

What is Karma Yoga?

It’s an undeniable truth that our existence is the sum total of all our actions. Even the most sedentary person performs hundreds of activities every day. So how does Karma –action, become Karma Yoga? When our actions become altruistic. In The Bhagavad Gita. Lord Krishna said to Arjuna, “Any action undertaken must be unfettered by the desire of owning the fruits of the action. Actions when free from ego and attachment, liberate the mind from anxiety and stress, leaving space for more creativity.” Our deeds can help us grow spiritually and pave the way for self-realisation if they are performed selflessly.

The Principles of Karma Yoga

Duty and the Fruits of Action

Most of us are so focused on our rights that we forget about our duties. We enact multiple roles throughout our lives: parent, child, sibling, citizen, student, employee, etc. Some roles are forced upon us and some we adopt at will. Either way, while performing the duties that come as part of the role, our focus should be only on performing the activity to the best of our ability, without any expectations.

It’s a tough task to do our absolute best without the expectation of any reward or glory. We are human after all, and as humans we crave for attention, fame, and fortune; reward and recognition, or at least some form of appreciation for the deeds we do.

When we don’t receive the reward we expected, we become agitated and feel let down. This disappointment causes mental disturbances – such as anger, sorrow, fear, etc.– that lead us away from the path of self-realisation.

In Karma Yoga, it is not just the actions that count, but even the thoughts. Even our thoughts and the intention behind them carry energy, and will inevitably create a result.

 

The Three Stone Masons

The story of three stone masons readily comes to our mind. One day, a traveler witnessed three stone masons working on a site. The first mason was huffing and puffing well before noon. The traveler approached the mason and asked what he was doing. The mason explained he was breaking stones and complained about how unpleasant, difficult and demanding his work was.

The Second mason constantly mumbled to himself. When asked the same question, the mason replied he was building a wall and complained his salary was too low for his work.

The third mason was so focused on the job at hand, he didn’t even notice the traveler. When asked the same question, his answer was he was building a temple.

While the first two masons were performing karma, the third mason was performing Karma Yoga. Not because he was building a temple, but because he was fully focused and his intention was selfless. That is Karma yoga.

 

Ego and Detachment

To follow the path of Karma Yoga it is essential to dispel the thought that we’re the doers. The idea that the self – you, me, and we – are the driving force behind our actions, only fuels egoism.

Involving ego into our actions gives rise to such thoughts such as – ‘Do I like doing the work or not?’ ‘How will the action affect me?’ ‘Will it boost or harm my image and standing?’ etc. The more we attach ourselves to karma, the further we deviate from the path of Karma Yoga.

The basic concept of Karma Yoga is action without the involvement of the ego. To detach our ego from our actions, one must learn to control the ego, and gradually let it go. If we allow our egos to dominate our deeds, it will mask our mind’s vision and impede spiritual growth sooner or later.

Some confuse the term ‘detachment’ with ‘lack of interest.’ Detachment or acting without attachment is to carry out a task in an impartial manner. Ordinarily, if you give too much importance to an action and get too attached to the deed, you expect the result to pan out the way you wanted. This too gives rise to egoism.

The Gold Mountain Test

In the Mahabharata – the ancient epic from which emerged The Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna, “What makes Karna a better person than me?” Sri Krishna called both Arjuna and Karna and gave them a mound of gold each, which they were to distribute to the poor in the village by the end of the day. 

Arjuna broke the mound piece by piece, and personally handed a pot of gold to each villager, a task which took him several weeks to complete.

Karna, on the other hand, sought the help of a few honest and hardworking villagers. Entrusted the task of breaking and distributing the gold to them and left the scene. By the end of the day each villager had a pot of gold in the house.

Krishna then said to Arjuna, “You got attached to the task; felt everything must be done by you so that you can get the credit.” Commenting on Karna, the Lord said, “He focused only on completing the duty; never got attached personally and did not expect or desire anything in return.”

The Unique Nature of Karma Yoga

If the ultimate truth is one; why then are there multiple ways of reaching it? This is not an uncommon question. Even identical twins raised in the same environment think differently and have a different approach to life. The Bhagavad Gita offers the margas or the four main paths of yoga to accommodate people with different temperaments, giving them an approach to self-realisation that’s closer to their thought process. Krishna termed the four paths as Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga.

Karma Yoga is the only yoga which influences all the other paths of yoga. It is said we can’t truly practice any type of yoga without touching upon Karma Yoga – the path of selfless action.

Every deed we do and every thought we have is a form of action, and without the selfless action of Karma Yoga, we can’t practice any other form of yoga appropriately. We need selfless devotion to follow the path of Bhakti, the ability to self-analyse without bias to walk the path of Jnana yoga, and the capacity to remain mindful at all times of our actions to pursue the path of Raja yoga. In a way, the practice of Karma Yoga will benefit and is sometimes considered indispensable for the progress in the other paths of yoga.

Walking the Path of Karma Yoga

A Quest for Inner Peace

At the root of selfless action is the quest for inner peace. Developing inner peace helps cut through the veil of the Kleshas that prevent us from realising our true self. Only when there is inner peace, can we expect to achieve external peace. To develop inner peace, we need to introspect upon our actions and qualities, working on our spiritual growth. We need to identify our negative qualities, control our emotions – aggression, fear, anxiety, euphoria, etc. and focus on developing our positive qualities.   

Work to Improve Ourselves

The idea of selfless action doesn’t always mean neglecting oneself and working only for the betterment of others. Working on oneself, strengthening the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects can only mean we are equipping ourselves to practice selfless action.

When we focus on improving our positives – thoughts, words, and actions – we grow our inner light. Over time, through meditation, this inner light will radiate outward and have a positive impact on the lives of all around us.  

Developing Complete Awareness

Are we truly aware of the things we do? Sometimes, we may be alert of the deeds we perform, but we’re hardly fully aware or interested in the task. This can be blamed on the agitated mind that prevents us from fully understanding our actions.

When we develop complete awareness, our focus, mind, heart, and soul, get involved in everything we do. Our heart is in the duty performed, and not focused on the result or the consequence of the outcome. Only through meditation and constant practice can we develop complete awareness.

Seva – Serving Divinity by Serving Others

Karma Yoga teaches us that we can reach Divinity by the practice of Seva – selfless service.  Serving others, especially, the poor and needy, without expecting anything in return will lead to self-discovery and ultimately to Divinity. Through Seva one can increase awareness, learn detachment, develop love towards others, and understand the concept of spiritual self-surrender.