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Karm Yoga

Is It Possible For Someone to Simultaneously Practice Jnana-yoga And Karma-yoga?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

As we saw in the last post, Chapter 3 opens with Shri Krishna introducing two lifestyles: jnana-yoga and karma-yoga. The former represents those who have renounced worldly life. The latter represents those who are engaged in worldly activities.

In life, we must practice both lifestyles simultaneously. The two lifestyles of jnana-yoga and karma-yoga are not mutually exclusive. Karma yogis will be engaged in worldly activities with less time spent in their spiritual studies. Jnana-yogis will still be a part of their spiritual practice but in a secondary sense. 

Karma yoga allows living a life of full-time sadhana (spiritual practice). Some people conclude that the sannyasi (monks) have the advantage of living a life of full-time sadhana. They compare that to the karma yogis, whose sadhana is limited to a few hours a day to devote to scriptural study and meditation. However, this is a misconception.

When the karma yogi practices karma yoga, this transforms ordinary worldly activities into spiritual practice—so going to work, taking care of your home, etc., all become spiritual practices. The karma yogi, just like the sannyasi, can also lead a life of full-time spiritual practice. 

It’s Possible to Live a Life of Full-time Spiritual Practice While Engaged in Worldly Activities

The karma yogic attitude turns your everyday activities into prayer. Going to work becomes a form of worship, just like taking care of your home becomes a form of prayer. Karma yoga, first and foremost, is an attitude of maintaining a prayerful attitude towards your activities.

The sannyasi who has renounced the world still has to take some action as a minimum. Whatever actions a sannyasi does, he better adopt karma yoga while engaged. 

Is Your Attitude or Action More Important?

कर्मेन्द्रियाणि संयम्य य आस्ते मनसा स्मरन् |

इन्द्रियार्थान्विमूढात्मा मिथ्याचार: स उच्यते

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 6(In Sanskrit)

While restraining the organs of action, one who sits with his mind dwelling upon sense objects is deluded. He is called a hypocrite. ||3.6||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3 verse 6 (English Translation)

If you withdraw from the world yet bring a part of the world along with you, Krishna calls that hypocrisy. He calls this person one whose conduct is false (i.e., a hypocrite). Those who appear to renounce the world but are still in their minds continue to be engaged in worldly activities. This is not true renunciation. If this is the case, it would be better for them to engage in worldly activities to practice karma yoga.

यस्त्विन्द्रियाणि मनसा नियम्यारभतेऽर्जुन |

कर्मेन्द्रियै: कर्मयोगमसक्त: स विशिष्यते || 7||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 7 (In Sanskrit)

But one who restrains his senses with his mind, O Arjuna, practicing karma-yoga with  his organs of action, that detached person is superior. || 3.7 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3 verse 7 (English Translation)

It’s more important to control your senses than control your body. Managing your senses and engaging in worldly activities with the attitude of karma yoga is better than restraining the body but not controlling the senses.

When you act, you must recognize that you have no control over the results. This perspective leads to a kind of detachment concerning that action. The hypocrite controls his body, but not his mind. The person who excels controls their senses but still engages the body.

Karma yoga takes our inclination to be active and extroverted and encourages the natural tendency that all of your actions contribute to your spiritual growth.

Is It Still Necessary to Perform My Duties?

नियतं कुरु कर्म त्वं कर्म ज्यायो ह्यकर्मण: |

शरीरयात्रापि च ते न प्रसिद्ध्येदकर्मण: || 3.8||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 8(In Sanskrit)

You must perform action that is ordained because action is better than inaction. Even the maintenance of your body is not possible without action. || 3.8 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3 verse 8 (English Translation)

You must perform your actions of what your role is and the deeds that are required by you for the sake of fulfilling your dharma. If you work, you must go to work. If you take care of children, you must take care of the children. If you are like Arjuna, you must stay on the battlefield. 

You can perform your duties with the attitude of karma yoga. Through the practice of karma yoga, you become an emotionally mature person. Through interacting with other people, you become more emotionally mature. If you have no opportunity to be engaged in worldly activities and with other people, would you attain the same kind of emotional maturity you have today? Most people require this interaction with people for the sake of their inner growth. 

This emotional maturity is crucial for spiritual growth and becoming a solid person. If you live in a cave, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to live in a world to interact and grow emotionally. There is an advantage to not living in a cave but instead remaining engaged in conventional worldly life to have your rough edges softened. It is the best setup for spiritual growth. 

The pilgrimage of your body is not possible without minimum action. You have to work to feed yourself. If you are going to work to provide for yourself at a minimum, that work should be a form of sadhana. 

How Do We Offer Up Our Actions to The Greater Divinity?

यज्ञार्थात्कर्मणोऽन्यत्र लोकोऽयं कर्मबन्धन: |

तदर्थं कर्म कौन्तेय मुक्तसङ्ग: समाचर || 3.9||

Bhagavad Gita Chapte 3 Verse 9(In Sanskrit)

Except for action done as sacrifice, mankind is bound by karma. O Arjuna, as a sacrifice perform action without attachment. || 3.9 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3 verse 9 (English Translation)

As we know, no worldly activity can culminate in perfect peace and contentment. This completely changes your attitude towards karma to the extent that your goal no longer becomes what kind of karma will give you the best results; instead, your attitude will be redirected towards spiritual growth.

In this verse, we come to another aspect of karma yoga. This aspect is called Ishvara-arpana-buddhi (the attitude of making offerings to Ishvara). Many people pray as an offering unto Krishna. What exactly does the mindset of making an offering mean? 

Suppose there was a thief who was raised with this idea of Ishvara-arpana-buddhi. If he explained to the victims that he was following this attitude, in what sense would robbing a bank be an offering unto Krishna? 

The problem here is that the idea of offering action to the Lord can’t just be lip service. It’s not just words; it’s an attitude. There’s a metaphor to describe it: when you were a child, your parents gave you so much—shelter, clothing, food, education, and most importantly, love and care. As a child, you couldn’t give much back to your parents. 

As a grown adult, what is your attitude towards your parents? Instead of getting anything from your parents, you want to give it to your parents. As an adult, you have the opportunity to give back. 

This model can be applied to understand our attitude of offering unto Ishvara. Ishvara has given us life and powerful minds. If we are not spiritually more mature, we just receive whatever we are given. But when we become spiritually mature, we recognize how much Ishvara has given us. Once we realize this, it’s more natural to want to give back as an adult. A spiritually mature person recognizes the blessing we have received in life and wants to give back. 

How do we give back to Ishvara? He does not require anything, so how do we reciprocate in a meaningful way? 

For your parents, the best thing you can do is be a good person. In the same way, Ishvara wants you to be a good person—intelligent, loving, righteous, and dharmic. This means setting aside your own agenda and the following dharma consistently in all situations. This is what Ishvara wants.

What the Gita Teaches Us

Contrary to what some people may believe, it is not necessary to renounce the world to live a life of spiritual practice. We can approach our daily lives with a prayerful attitude. It is better to be engaged in worldly activities with the right mindset rather than not be engaged with a misguided attitude. We must continue to perform what is required of us, but our attitude towards these activities matters most. We can offer up our dharmic actions to give back to the world simply by being a good person.