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Karma Yoga, fallen warrior pose, Virabhadrasana

As a yoga student, I used to believe that Karma Yoga merely involved going to a spiritual or educational institution and doing the assigned daily tasks. Subsequently, I saw studios advertising open positions for yoga teachers who were okay to work without compensation – I thought, with some misgivings, that too was Karma Yoga. But then one experience shook me to the core.

A few years ago, I had gone to a reputed Ashram in South India to pursue a Teacher Training program, and as a part of the curriculum, all students had to engage in Karma Yoga duties. We were thus split into groups, though surprisingly not randomly, but by nationality and then assigned Karma Yoga tasks, as per our “cultural background.” And so in the wisdom of the Ashram’s management, karma yoga tasks such as taking attendance or assisting at the café or bookstore were reserved for the westerners, serving tea was for the Iranians, and the majority of Indians were put up to cleaning toilets, sweeping dorms and serving food. I had performed ‘Karma Yoga tasks’ in the past, but this situation and mindset pained me deeply. I even approached the Director, a Westerner, to share my concerns about the authenticity of Karma Yoga allocation but it fell on deaf ears. Politely yet firmly, having shared my disconnects, I left soon after.

This just cemented my belief that Karma Yoga was being used merely as a tool for suppressing people’s spirit with the general dictum –  ‘it is your duty, you must do it no matter how you feel about it.’ People were literally playing Gods and telling others what they should do – isn’t that what India’s caste system was and we are still bearing the consequences. And it was disappointing to see remnants of it still being practiced in this day and age, at an Ashram where I had gone seeking knowledge.

But the silver lining was that this is how my studies of Karma Yoga truly began. The confusion I felt, and the total disregard for fundamental human values that was being demonstrated in the name of Yoga led me to pursue the Bhagavad Gita. And what a revelation it has been to study this concept and appreciate how far removed the beautiful philosophy of Karma Yoga is from the balderdash we’ve made of it today. So for the benefit of anyone else who has felt similarly confused, frustrated or lost, I’ve created this Q&A, which articulates my own journey and the answers I was seeking. I hope you will find it helpful.

What is Karma?

Any action done by us is Karma. In Hindu Philosophy, every action will bear fruit in the future, which can be good or bad depending on the nature of our action. The fact that it will bear fruit is inevitable, but ‘when’ that will happen is not known to us.

So what’s wrong with that? Seems like a fair system.

It is indeed a fair system, and we are accountable for every action that we commit. All these actions get stored in our Karmic account and as explained earlier, could bear fruit at a much later date, thereby settling it. But the number of actions we commit in one life are so many that it would take hundreds of years for them to get settled. Thus we are reborn again and again to settle our previous debts. But in every life, we end up creating even more karmas, which creates the endless vicious circle of death and rebirth.

Ok, I understand, so what is Karma Yoga then?

Karma yoga is the technique through which we can continue to act in this life but not create any bondage through our actions. It literally makes all our actions ‘null’ – thus whatever we do in the spirit of Karma Yoga, neither increase nor decrease our karmic account. It is essential to understand that the goal is not to increase our good karmas but to reduce all our karmas to zero.

What if I just stop acting and do nothing, is that Karma Yoga?

It’s not physically possible; we would still be breathing and thinking. As long as the mind is active, we are creating karmas with every motivated thought.

What if I even stop thinking?

If you can do that, then you’re already enlightened :

So how exactly is Karma Yoga practiced?

Karma Yoga is practiced by doing whatever we do (1) selflessly, (2) to the best of our capacity, (3) without expectations or anxiety over results and (4) as a dedication to the supreme consciousness.

What if I decide to steal food and money for sick kids, with sincerity, and without any expectations and dedicate it to God?

Every action is not Karma Yoga – only that act which is for the greater good of the universe is considered worthy. Stealing is a non-virtuous Karma.

How do I know what type of actions are worthy or unworthy?

The only right action is the one that is aligned with Dharma. All other actions are called Adharma and take us away from the path of Karma Yoga.

What is Dharma?

Dharma is an ancient concept that is often translated as ‘duty’ but is more like an inherent characteristic. For instance, the dharma of a glass is to hold water, of a pen is to enable writing, of trees is to sustain life and of fire is to purify things. Similarly, each one of us is born with some specific inherent characteristics which make us uniquely predisposed to certain skills. That’s our purpose in life – our individual Dharma.

It is also important to note that Dharma is always for the greater good and not for the individual entity. The sun does not shine for itself, the glass doesn’t hold water for itself to drink and the pen does not write to satisfy its creative instincts. Dharma is in following our individual purpose, fulfilling our duties and abstaining from prohibited actions. It requires us to do what we’re good at and that which benefits the world at large and doing it without expectations.

How does one even act like a Karma Yogi?

Like a musician who works for the sake of creating the best and the most beautiful music he can. He does not do it for his or her own entertainment or to gratify his ego with fame, money or success.

This is confusing. Am I a bad Karma Yogi if I’m passionate about my project or work?

As long as we understand that the only right we have is to ‘act’ and not to the results, it’s Karma Yoga. But if every failure disappoints us or every success exhilarates us, then we have failed. Or if the quality of our action is motivated by the rewards then too we’ve missed the point. A Karma Yogi is beyond all this.

That sounds like I need to be disinterested in what I do…

We only need to be disinterested in the results after having put in our best effort. We need to work with full commitment and dedication at all times. Without which we cannot do justice to the task at hand. The path of yoga is of balance and equanimity – not extremes. Neither the person who works too much nor the one who works too less can attain enlightenment. A yogi is not pulled into extremes; he is not one to starve himself or to eat too much. He strives for a balanced state of mind.

So how do I motivate myself to do my best, if I’m not supposed to crave success and hate failure?

We stay motivated by the knowledge that everything we do, is taking us to our ultimate liberation and is not entangling us further in this material world. We are motivated by the prospect of enlightenment. The highest state the human mind can achieve is possible through Karma Yoga. If spiritual success is not our goal, then Karma Yoga is not practical for us.

What is the benefit of this practice?

The goal of all humans is enlightenment. To reach enlightenment one has to control the mind and being a karma yogi helps us do that. Once we’ve controlled the mind even our meditation practices improve manifold. Karma yoga is a necessary condition for householders to progress towards enlightenment. Though there are some exceptions such as those who have a lot of spiritual karma flowing over from their past lives like Ramana Maharishi or Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. But ordinarily, Karma Yoga is the most accessible method to be free from the bondage our daily actions create.

This was great, thank you.

(Decided to throw that in since I have pretty much been talking to myself this whole time :). Hope you found this helpful.)

You have a right to perform prescribed action but you are not entitled to the fruits of that action. Do not make the rewards of action your motive and do not develop any attachment for avoiding action.

~ Bhagavad Gita 2.47


An edited version of this blog has been published by Elephant Journal, click here to read.

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