By Wes Annac, Editor, Karma Yoga Daily
Described in the Bhagavad Gita, karma yoga is a spiritual path centered on helping others as a form of meditation and a way to achieve enlightenment. Students of this path live a life of service, which balances their karma and gives them a purpose to pursue.
It might sound simple, but it’s a tough path meant only for those who can put their heart and soul into it. Meditation is easy once you get the hang of it; going out of your way to help people is not so easy.
Could you imagine the impact of millions of people doing something that even slightly resembles karma yoga? What do you think would happen if for one day, we stopped hating each other and tried to help each other thrive?
In my opinion, this is what we need. Not war, hatred, or political, racial, or religious division. We need love and selfless service on a global scale.
This is part 1 of a series on karma yoga that I’ll be writing for this blog. In this series, I’ll share as much available information on karma yoga as I can while giving my thoughts on what we read. We’ll be revisiting passages you may have read before if you follow the writings on this blog or in the Weekly Awareness Guide.
To me, they’re worth rereading. I love to read (and write) about karma yoga because its lessons help me to be a more positive force in my life while sharing some wisdom with anyone who wants to hear it. I can’t recommend this path enough for anyone looking to improve themselves or just be happier.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna explains that a little karma yoga can go a long way.
“If you can understand and follow [the method of the yoga of action], you will be able to break the chains of desire which bind you to your actions. In this yoga, even the abortive attempt is not wasted. Nor can it produce a contrary result.
“Even a little practice of this yoga will save you from the terrible wheel of rebirth and death. In this yoga, the will is directed singly toward one ideal. When a man lacks this discrimination, his will wanders in all directions, after innumerable aims.” (1)
“Work”, he tells us, “is holy when the heart of the worker Is fixed on the Highest”. (2)
Whatever we do, he recommends we offer it to the unknown.
“Whatever your action, Food or worship, Whatever the gift That you give to another; Whatever you vow To the work of the spirit… Lay these also As offerings before me.” (3)
He explains that renouncing action is difficult without karma yoga.
“It is hard to renounce action Without following the yoga of action. This yoga purifies The man of meditation, Bringing him soon to Brahman [God].” (4)
He tells us that the “yoga of action” removes a person from the fruits of their actions, leaving them “tranquil”.
“Let him who would climb In meditation To heights of the highest Union with Brahman Take for his path The yoga of action: Then when he nears That height of oneness His acts will fall from him, His path will be tranquil. “ (5)
These passages paint karma yoga as an advanced path that, although difficult, eradicates your karma and leaves you in bliss. Other paths are helpful in their own ways, but this one can seriously test your faith.
Can we help people without caring what we get out of it? Can we be selfless, or is it in our nature to be self-centered? Which is a more fulfilling way to live? Karma yoga will bring up these questions and more. Especially if you’ve hit a wall and feel like something in your life needs to change, they’re important questions to ask.
If you consider yourself spiritual, then selfless service as a path to enlightenment can motivate you. Although we’ll focus on the spiritual side of karma yoga for this series, you obviously don’t need spirituality to inspire you to help people. You can find that inspiration regardless of your beliefs or lack thereof. To be fair, though, it helps to have a belief in something.
Zarathustra tells us that “the teaching of goodness to mankind is more especially the doing of good works oneself.” (6)
Understandably, for followers of the yoga of action, he discourages procrastination:
“Do not put off for tomorrow any good work you can do today”. (7)
Sri Krishna explains that it’s better to renounce action (i.e. commit to meditation) or devote yourself to it than to shun it.
“Action rightly renounced brings freedom: Action rightly performed brings freedom: Both are better Than mere shunning of action.” (8)
“The wise”, he tells us, “see knowledge and action as one: 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.” (9)
He tells us that students of karma yoga see the body, mind, and senses as “instruments”.
“To the follower of the yoga of action, The body and the mind, The sense-organs and the intellect Are instruments only: He knows himself other than the instrument And thus his heart grows pure.” (10)
He describes the qualities of someone truly dedicated to the path.
“He who does the task Dictated by duty, Caring nothing For fruit of the action, He is a yogi, A true sannyasin. But he who follows His vow to the letter By mere refraining: Lighting no fire At the ritual offering, Making excuse For avoidance of labour, He is no yogi, No true sannyasin.” (11)
The Buddha explains the basic philosophy of most religions.
“Of what use are words of wisdom to the man who is unwise? Of what use is a lamp to a man who is blind? Hear the essence of thousands of sacred books: to help others is virtue: to hurt others is sin.” (12)
It’s that simple. If you want to excel spiritually or just feel better, the path is not so complex. It’s not even a path, despite that I’ve described it as such in this article. The only reason we talk about it in philosophical terms and give it a nice-sounding name is because that’s the best way to help people understand the value of selflessness.
Once you grasp it and incorporate it into your life, you lose the need for a belief system; even one that inspired you in the first place. You just do the work, with no motivation other than your desire for service, self-improvement, and/or spiritual evolution.
Jiddu Krishnamurti and other teachers have communicated this idea in far more eloquent ways. They tell us that the answers to our biggest questions live outside of the mind’s endless constructions. One of those constructions might be a path that inspired you to change your life. It was a bridge you no longer need that you can let go of yet still take inspiration from.
In the next part, we’ll hear from 19th century mystic Sri Ramakrishna (and other teachers) about service and the presence of God in everything. These passages will obviously have religious connotations, and like anything, I recommend taking what works for you and throwing out the rest.
As the Buddha said above, it all boils down to helping people and refraining from hurting anyone. This is a basic idea that nearly anyone of any faith or lack of faith could likely agree with.
- Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, trans., Bhagavad-Gita. The Song of God. New York and Scarborough: New American Library, 1972; c1944, 39.
- Ibid., 47.
- Ibid., 84.
- Ibid., 57.
- Ibid., 63.
- Duncan Greenlees, trans. The Gospel of Zarathushtra. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978, 11.
- Ibid., 113.
- Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, trans., Bhagavad-Gita. The Song of God. , 56.
- Ibid., 57.
- Ibid., 58.
- Ibid., 62-3.
- Juan Mascaro, trans. The Dhammapada. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 27.
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