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True Essence of Karma Yoga

Today I have chosen a topic that is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. You may wonder as to why I am calling it misunderstood. When I talk with people, discuss in on-line forums I often find that it is not understood at all or understood in a wrong way. I am going to explain my experiences and opinions about Karma Yoga and how to achieve it in daily life.

Since our birth to death we do some sort of actions. These actions include working for our employer, house hold work, eating, digesting food, sleeping and even breathing. These actions or deeds are called as Karma. From this definition of Karma is is clear that no body on this earth can be saved from doing Karma. As mentioned in Bhagvat Gita, even if you pretend not to do any action that itself is an action!

Broadly the actions we perform can be categorized in three ways:

  • Tamasik Karmas
  • Rajasik Karmas
  • Sattvic Karmas

Tamasik Karmas are those that trouble others. Earning money by theft or cheating others is an example of Tamasik Karma.

Rajasik Karmas are those that are done with strong material desire in mind. Working hard for the sake of promotion is an example of Rajasik Karma.

Finally, Sattvic Karmas are those that are done selflessly. Helping poor and needy, spiritual practices fall under this category.

Karmas are like seed. If you do Tamasik Karma it will yield the same kind of fruits. On the same line if you saw the seeds of Sattvic Karma you will get corresponding results. This can also be explained with the example of electric battery. In an electric circuit current flows from the positive pole of the battery, passes all the hurdles of the electric circuit consisting of resistors, coils etc. and finally reaches to the negative pole. The same law is true for your Karmas also. If you perform some wrong karmas, they are bound to come back to you. Similarly, if you perform any good actions they will also come back to you in one form or the other. This also explains why all the religions on the earth advice to behave good with others. That is why Yoga gives so much of stress on Yamas (non-violence, truth etc.) and Niyamas (contentment, austerities etc).

Now comes the tricky part. People often summarize Karma Yoga like this - "Perform your actions but do not expect fruits". This statement is undoubtedly true but many interpretate it wrongly (at least in my opinion). People often confuse the word "fruits" with "goal" or "expectation". They mean different things. Let me explain how.

Let's take few examples. We all eat food. Why? To meet our hunger. So when we eat food we definitely have goal in mind that we want to meet our hunger. We study for exams. Why? Because our goal is to pass the exam. We follow Yoga practices. Why? For self-realization (I know there can be many other reasons to practice Yoga but I am taking the highest goal that a Yogi has).

Now think honestly (it is important to be honest while answering the next questions) and answer these questions:

  • If you do not set any goals for the actions will you feel motivated?
  • Will you have clarity in mind about what you are doing?
  • Will you not feel void in the absence of any purpose for your actions?

If your answers are honest and practical then you will realize that setting a goal for your actions is not only important but essential. Without any proper goal your actions can be directionless. You may wander away from your path. Even an advanced Yogi has goal of self realization. So in summary your actions do have some goals or expectations and there is nothing wrong in that.

Now the important part. Though you have goals and expectations for your actions you should not crave for the results. We often say - "I did thing X so I must get result Y". But have you taken into account your past Karmas? It is something like this - As per the law of science if you increase temperature to 100 degrees the water starts boiling. This rule is true. But what will happen if you try this in a room that is already warm and what will happen if you try the same thing in a room where temperature is below 0 degrees? Of course, in the first case water will take say 10 minutes to boil where as in the later case it may take 20 minutes to boil. Why this difference? Because the environment, the conditions were different. Same thing happens with our Karmas. You did a good deed today but what if you have done hundred wrong actions in your past life or past births? Can you expect fruits immediately? Certainly not. Let me tell you a small story that explains this further.

Once upon a time the great Muni Narada was going to Lord Vishnu. On his way he came across one Sadhu who was engaged in his mortifications and rituals. He requested Narada to ask the Lord Vishnu when he will get mukti (liberation). Agreeing to his request Narada went ahead. Further on his way he came across a house holder who was worshiping Lord Vishnu. He also requested the same thing to Narada.

Days passed by. When Narada was returning back he went to the Sadhu and told him that "You are going to liberated after four births". Hearing this message the Sadhu started crying. "Oh! I practiced so hard still the God has given be four more births." He became frustrated and with heart filled with disappointment left the place.

Then Narada went to the house holder. He pointed to a tree near by and said - "You will be liberated after you take births equal to the number of leaves this tree bears". Hearing this the house holder was very happy. He cried with joy - "What? I am so fortunate that I am going to be liberated in such a small time. God is great!". Suddenly Lord Vishnu himself appeared there and said - "My son. I am very pleased with you. You will get liberation right now!".

This attitude matters. Both were having goal of reaching God but their attitude made the difference. One was expecting fruits or results as per his terms where as the other was expecting them as per God's terms. That is very important. You should not crave for the things. God will give you the fruits at right time.

Another thing that is often confused is - Karma Yoga always means social work like helping poor and needy. That need not be the case always. If you can help poor and needy go ahead and help them. Certainly a good thing. But even doing your daily activities (office works as well as house hold works) with such an attitude is part of Karma Yoga. If you look around you will find many opportunities to apply Karma Yoga.

The true understanding of Karma Yoga lies is Ishvarapranidhana or surrendering everything to God. Have some goals and work towards them. More importantly cultivate the habit of offering all your actions, goals and their fruits to God. If you are offering something to God won't you like to offer good rather than bad? So, you have a reason to give up your Tamasik or Rajasik Karmas and nurture Sattvic Karmas. If you practice this in your daily life you will find that day by day you become calm, self-content. You start doing your job with interest and with whole heart. You may set a goal of promotion or salary rise so that you have motivation for doing excellent job but you will never crave for it. If you get promotion you will offer it in the holy feet of God, otherwise you will say - "God doesn't think it is right time for me to get promoted. Let me do my job with more vigor." and you will move on. This is in my opinion the true essence of Karma Yoga.

So to summarize - "Perform your actions wholeheartedly, have some goal so that you don't wander on your path and let God give the fruits as per His terms. Whatever you do and get in return surrender it in the holy feet of God."


Bipin Joshi is a software consultant, an author and a yoga mentor with more than 22 years of experience in classical yoga system of India. He is an internationally published author and has authored or co-authored more than ten technology books for Apress and WROX press. He has been awarded as a Most Valuable Professional by Microsoft. He has also written a few Marathi books including Devachya Davya Hati and Natha Sankentincha Danshu. Having embraced yoga way of life he also teaches Kriya and Meditation to selected individuals.

बिपीन जोशी लिखित देवाच्या डाव्या हाती आणि नाथ संकेतींचा दंशु या पुस्तकांची आपली प्रत आजच विकत घ्या. त्यांच्या अजपा योग मार्गदर्शनाविषयी अधिक माहिती येथे उपलब्ध आहे.


Posted On : 18 Jan 2007


Tags : Yoga Hatha Yoga Mantra Yoga Laya Yoga Raja Yoga Chakras Kriya Yoga Ashtanga Yoga Courses