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Karma Yoga

What are the Principles and Strategies of Karma Yoga?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Karma yoga is not a single thing but a set of strategies to help us on our path of spiritual growth while performing our day-to-day activities.

In general, we can say that those strategies help us adopt a prayerful attitude towards our actions. In these coming verses, we will see another approach. We can recognize Ishvara as the one who gives us the skill, power, and intelligence that we employ while we are involved in any action.

प्रकृते: क्रियमाणानि गुणै: कर्माणि सर्वश: |

अहङ्कारविमूढात्मा कर्ताहमिति मन्यते || 3.27||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 27 (In Sanskrit)

All activities are carried out by the three modes of material nature. Deluded by egotism, one thinks, “I am the doer.” ||3.27 ||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 27 (English Translation)

While we have control over our actions, the capacity to perform these actions was given to us.

All the parts of this mechanism are made from prakṛiti, — the material energy. It consists of three modes -goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and ignorance (tamas), which are not separate from, but a part of nature like waves are not separate from the ocean, but rather are a part of it. The body is a product of nature in just the same way. Hence, material energy is the doer of everything.

All the actions we perform are according to the laws of nature. To teach, our minds have to focus; our voice has to be coherent—all of these processes go on according to Ishvara’s laws.

On the other hand, the people who do not acknowledge Isvhara as the source of intelligence through which we can function in life are deluded. Someone who is deluded by pride believes that they are the sole agent of action. Due to Ishvara’s intelligent order, our brains function. The brain is complex not merely because of its billions of neurons, but these neurons are interconnected, forming billions of synapses. It is infinitely complex. That complexity is Isvhara’s glory. 

Every human being has been blessed with powerful minds. Yet there are so many who fail to acknowledge the mind or the brain as a blessing of Ishvara. These people’s minds are deluded by pride. Whatever we accomplish in life, we certainly don’t accomplish it on our own. 

Karma Yoga: How to be free from Karmas?

तत्त्ववित्तु महाबाहो गुणकर्मविभागयो: |

गुणा गुणेषु वर्तन्त इति मत्वा न सज्जते || 3.28||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 28(In Sanskrit)

O mighty-armed Arjun, illumined persons distinguish the soul as distinct from guṇas and karmas. They perceive that it is only the guṇas (in the shape of the senses, mind, and others) that move among the guṇas (in the shape of the objects of perception), and thus they do not get entangled in them.

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 28 (English Translation)

The principles of nature function according to its principles. Whatever happens, happens according to the laws of nature that are an expression of Ishvara’s intelligence. The ones who understand this and know about qualities and karma are not bound by their actions.

A simple way of understanding karma yoga is having a prayerful attitude towards our actions. A way to maintain this attitude is by acknowledging Ishvara’s blessings. Everything we do is given to us. There are plenty of people who work just to get by or for egotistical motivations. If we are grateful and shift our orientation to a prayerful attitude, whatever we do becomes a gift.

Karma Yoga: How to be free from suffering?

प्रकृतेर्गुणसम्मूढा: सज्जन्ते गुणकर्मसु |

तानकृत्स्नविदो मन्दान्कृत्स्नविन्न विचालयेत् || 3.29||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 29(In Sanskrit)

Those who are deluded by the operation of the guṇas become attached to the results of their actions. But the wise who understand these truths should not unsettle such ignorant people who know very little. || 3.29 ||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 29 (English Translation)

We don’t need to suffer to be driven to do better. We should always want to do our best and leave the rest in the universe’s hands.

Whatever we do, we are given the capacity to do it. But many do not recognize this fact and believe they are the sole agent of their actions. The most cited verse in the Gita on having control of our actions but not our results (2.47)  is often misinterpreted, and the second part of the verse is ignored. We should not assume that we are the author of the fruits of our deeds. We can act, but it is through Ishvara that we receive the results of our actions. 

For example, many Hindu doctors who incorporate this method of thinking understand the significance of this approach in their medical practice. They are clear that their job is to provide the best possible treatment while recognizing the outcome is not in their hands. 

In the verse above, we have a counter case. Imagine a doctor who doesn’t acknowledge that the outcome is in Ishvara’s hands. The doctor administers treatment and feels confident that the patient will survive. If the patient dies, how will that affect that doctor? People who think this way are bound by the deeds they perform. They experience bondage to a life of suffering by failing to recognize that the outcome is in Isvhara’s hands. 

However, persons with knowledge should not disturb the minds of the persons without knowledge. This means that the wise should not force their thoughts onto ignorant persons by saying, “You are the soul, not the body, and hence karma is meaningless; give it up.” Rather, they should instruct the ignorant to perform their respective karma, and slowly help them rise above attachment. In this way, after presenting the distinctions between those who are spiritually wise and those who are ignorant, Shree Krishna gives the sober caution not to unsettle the minds of the ignorant.

If you observe a family member or friend acting in a non-spiritual way, they believe I am the sole agent and author of my deeds. You cannot start to lecture them. They are not ready to hear that. Before we can receive these teachings, we have to be prepared. To be ready requires a high level of spiritual maturity and the recognition that no amount of worldly effort can attain a level of perfect peace and contentment. 

Many people believe they can attain perfect peace and contentment if they work hard enough. If someone has this conclusion, no one can shake their opinion loose—they have to learn it for themselves. 

We all have to learn the hard way that no amount of effort in life will culminate in a world of perfect peace and contentment. One who has understood these spiritual teachings should not disturb those foolish people who do not entirely understand worldly life.

Karma Yoga: How Do We Become Free From Bondage of Karma?

मयि सर्वाणि कर्माणि संन्यस्याध्यात्मचेतसा |

निराशीर्निर्ममो भूत्वा युध्यस्व विगतज्वर: || 3.30||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 30(In Sanskrit)

Performing all works as an offering unto Me, constantly meditate on Me as the Supreme. Become free from desire and selfishness, and with your anger departed, fight!

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 30 (English Translation)

We can become free from bondage through karma yoga. With the attitude of karma yoga, you develop a prayerful attitude. Acknowledging that Ishvara is the one who empowers you to do all actions naturally, you will feel a sense of prayer and gratitude. That prayerful sense is the source of karma yoga.

With these strategies of karma yoga, one becomes free from desire and possessiveness. With that attitude, recognizing Ishvara as the source of all our skills and abilities leads us to become free from want and possessiveness.

ये मे मतमिदं नित्यमनुतिष्ठन्ति मानवा: |

श्रद्धावन्तोऽनसूयन्तो मुच्यन्ते तेऽपि कर्मभि: || 3.31||

ये त्वेतदभ्यसूयन्तो नानुतिष्ठन्ति मे मतम् |

सर्वज्ञानविमूढांस्तान्विद्धि नष्टानचेतस: || 3.32||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 31-32(In Sanskrit)

This doctrine of mine — people who constantly follow it, full of faith, free from criticism, are released from (the bondage) of karma. Whereas those who reject this and do not follow my teachings, being confused about all kinds of knowledge, lacking discrimination, know them as lost. || 3.31-32 ||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 31-32 (English Translation)

Those who trust that using daily activities as a form of spiritual practice will be freed from the bondage of karmas. Those who follow these spiritual teachings will no longer be slaves to raga or dvesha

Most people are slaves to the compulsions of our minds and hearts and believe they need something for their wellbeing, or they need to avoid something for their wellbeing. Spiritual teachings can free one from that bondage of raga and dvesha to pursue a path of enlightenment. 

The consequence of not rising above conventional worldly behavior and being a slave to raga and dvesha is destruction. Your life is destroyed in the sense that you continue to live a life of suffering. You never come to a place of perfect peace and contentment.

What the Gita Teaches Us

Karma yoga is not a single attitude to adopt but a set of strategies to live by. The approach introduced in the above verses involves acknowledging that we are not the sole agent of our actions. Our capacity to perform any action is a gift from the universe. Knowing this helps us perform our daily activities with a grateful attitude. We should not force others to acknowledge the teachings of karma yoga and let them come to their own conclusions.