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How Are Offerings Central to Karma Yoga?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Rituals, deeds, or offerings are not what matters. Instead, it’s the attitude with which we approach everything we do. 

One of the many aspects of karma yoga is the attitude of Ishvara-arpana-buddhi. Such an attitude works to change our intention. Usually, our actions are driven by raga and dvesha. It’s as though we are slaves to these motivations. Karma yoga is a set of strategies to help us overcome that raga dvesha and gain this inner freedom. Further, to overcome raga and dvesha, we initially use these strategies of karma yoga and willpower. Later, when we are enlightened, we are free from raga and dvesha naturally without using our willpower. 

Shri Krishna uses the yajna ritual (sacrifice) to symbolize making an offering unto Ishvara. We should offer all our deeds to Ishvara, not through a ritual, but our intention. To dedicate our actions to Ishvara means to set aside our personal agendas and instead choose to follow dharma. By following dharma, we act in ways that are pleasing to Ishvara, and in this way we dedicate our actions to Ishvara by wilfully setting aside raga and dvesha

The food that is offered to Ishvara is sanctified, and as a result, free from sin. Similarly, if we dedicate our deeds to Isvara, those deeds become purified.

How Do Traditional Rituals Connect to Karma Yoga?

अन्नाद्भवन्ति भूतानि पर्जन्यादन्नसम्भव: |

यज्ञाद्भवति पर्जन्यो यज्ञ: कर्मसमुद्भव: || 3.14||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 14 (In Sanskrit)

Living beings are born of food, food is born of rain, rain is born of sacrifice, and sacrifice is born of action. || 3.14 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 14 (English Translation)

This verse expands on the importance of yajna. In modern times, we do not focus much on rituals. However, in ancient times, rituals were crucial in daily life. No one understood the laws of nature, and they would perform rituals to call onto the Gods for their blessings. 

The centrality of rituals is evident in this verse above. The sequence illustrates the cycle formerly believed. We exist because of food, food exists because of the rain, and rain exists because of rituals, and rituals exist because of karma. The sequence continues:

कर्म ब्रह्मोद्भवं विद्धि ब्रह्माक्षरसमुद्भवम् |

तस्मात्सर्वगतं ब्रह्म नित्यं यज्ञे प्रतिष्ठितम् || 3.15||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 15 (In Sanskrit)

Know (ritual) action to be born of the Veda and the Veda to be born of the imperishable (Ishvara). Therefore, the all-pervasive Veda always abides in sacrifice. || 3.15 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 15 (English Translation)

The Vedas provide the instructions for the performance of the rituals, and the Vedas are born of that which is eternal. The whole sequence is to show the importance of rituality and that there is a scriptural path that was laid out. 

We can consider that Ishvara-arpana-buddhi is as central to karma yoga as rituals were in that time. The scriptural basis for yajna carries over for karma yoga and the scriptural basis for Ishvara-arpana-buddhi. The attitude of giving back applies whether we perform rituals or not.

What About the Person Who Takes Without Giving Back?

एवं प्रवर्तितं चक्रं नानुवर्तयतीह य: |

अघायुरिन्द्रियारामो मोघं पार्थ स जीवति || 3.16||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 16 (In Sanskrit)

The cycle thus set in motion—one who does not follow it is sinful and self-indulgent. He lives in vain, O Arjuna. || 3.16 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 16 (English Translation)

The cycle continues for intelligent and pious people, but not everyone is intelligent or pious. One who does not follow this cycle is a sinner—such a person who receives life’s blessings without giving back, lives a sinful and self-indulgent life. The behavior of almost all human beings is largely determined by raga and dvesha, which is comparable to living the life of an animal. It’s not living up to the possibilities of human life. As a human, you can use your willpower to set aside raga and dvesha to follow dharma. Willpower is a human gift that animals do not seem to have.

To fail to use your willpower and allow yourself to be dragged about by raga and dvesha is to live the life of an animal. It is to throw away what is unique and special about human life. Karma yoga uses your will to overcome the compulsivity of raga and dvesha. At first we use willpower to overcome these compulsions, but eventually, when we become enlightened, we are free from raga and dvesha without using our will.

How Does an Enlightened Person Respond to Any Situation?

यस्त्वात्मरतिरेव स्यादात्मतृप्तश्च मानव: |

आत्मन्येव च सन्तुष्टस्तस्य कार्यं न विद्यते || 3.17||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 17 (In Sanskrit)

But one who revels in atma alone, a person satisfied with atma and content with atma alone, for him there is nothing to be done. || 3.17 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 17 (English Translation)

That person who is not driven by compulsivity, and has discovered their innate divinity, is content in oneself alone. 

Conventional behavior is that we are driven by raga and dvesha to seek objects of pleasure and content. Generally, we always feel that something needs to be done for the sake of our contentment and inner peace. You feel a sense of incompleteness. And based on this sense, you are compelled to pursue something that can remove that incompleteness. The inner incompleteness is the root of raga and dvesha that entails a life of continual seeking without ever finding lasting peace and perfect contentment. 

For the enlightened person, there is nothing that needs to be done. This person has done everything that needs to be done. They feel a sense of utter completion, contentment, and arrival at the place they always wanted to be.

नैव तस्य कृतेनार्थो नाकृतेनेह कश्चन |

न चास्य सर्वभूतेषु कश्चिदर्थव्यपाश्रय: || 3.18||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 18 (In Sanskrit)

For him, there is nothing to gain through action nor through inaction, nor upon all that exists has he any dependence.|| 3.18 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 18 (English Translation)

For the enlightened person, there is no object to be gained through effort and action. Nor is there anything to be accomplished through inaction. There is nothing you have to do and nothing you have to avoid doing. This person’s contentment also does not depend on external factors.

When your contentment or inner peace doesn’t depend on anyone or anything, that allows you to be content and comfortable in any situation you find yourself in. Generally, we seek comfortable situations and avoid uncomfortable situations. An enlightened person does not need to seek out or avoid any situation.

Can We Perform Any Duty Without Attachment?

तस्मादसक्त: सततं कार्यं कर्म समाचर |

असक्तो ह्याचरन्कर्म परमाप्नोति पूरुष: || 3.19||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 19 (In Sanskrit)

Therefore, being detached, always perform the required action, because by performing action with detachment, a person attains the highest. || 3.19 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 18 (English Translation)

We can perform any task without attachment, and we should always follow through with what needs to be done. The karma yogi is still driven by raga and dvesha, and therefore, still needs to exercise willpower to avoid being dragged about by compulsivity. We must always follow dharma. Do not perform acts casually, but do them well. We must fulfill our duties and serve them with good intention. Additionally, we must perform these actions without attachment. Set aside your own personal agenda for the sake of following dharma.

Imagine Monday morning you get up to go to work. What is your intention in going to work? Karma yoga is not a shift of what you do but a change in intention. There is a difference between a karma yogi and someone who merely does karma (karmi). The karmi goes to work Monday morning for their paycheque, a sense of satisfaction in doing the work, getting a raise, climbing the corporate ladder, etc. On the other hand, a karma yogi goes to work Monday morning for one reason: dharma. If your motivation is to fulfill your duties through dharma, you are distinguished as being a karma yogi and not a karmi. 

Free from attachment means not driven by raga dvesha, but using your will to overcome raga-dvesha and follow dharma. Karma yoga eventually leads you to enlightenment. You continue to do the same things but without the same motivations. 

What the Gita Teaches Us

While rituals may not be as prevalent today, their significance still stands. The importance is not on the rituals themselves, but rather the attitude in which we perform all acts central to the performance of rituals. An enlightened person engages in regular life activities, but they are not driven by compulsivity. Instead, they follow dharma and do not experience attachment to the outcome of their actions.