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Karma Yoga

What is The Best Way to Do Our Work | What is Karma Yoga?

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To answer this question, we can take a look at the mostly widely quoted verse of the Gita, that defines what Karmyoga is:

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन |
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि || 47 ||

You have command over your actions but never over their results. Do not consider yourself to be in command of results, nor should you be attached to inaction.

||Bhagvad Gita 2.47||

Karma Yoga

Often this verse is mistranslated to say you have the right over your actions, but you have no right towards the results of your actions. In Sanskrit, the proper interpretation describes one as having a scope of authority over their actions, or that one’s actions are an area over which they have control. 

In short, we have control over the actions we take, but we do not control the outcome of those actions.

The compulsion to run towards what we want (raga) and run away from what we don’t want (dvesha) is based on a false sense of compulsion. We assume we can get what we want and avoid what we don’t want. We assume we are competent to create the desired result. The verse, however, says otherwise. You have competence with regards to your actions, but no competence to produce the desired result. But we all labor under the false illusion that we are in charge of our lives. All it takes is a sudden illness or traffic accident, and suddenly we get brought to our senses that we’re not in complete control of our lives.

With this in mind, the best attitude to adopt when completing work is to recognize our own limitations—specifically,  that we have no control over the results of our actions. This is the first step towards breaking free from compulsivity. We are in control of the effort we put into our actions, but the rest is up to Ishvara.  

For example, if a surgeon performs an operation, they recognize that they are not in control of the surgery’s outcome. They may say a prayer afterward stating they’ve done the best that they do, and saying the rest is in Ishvara’s hands. That attitude introduces a prayerful dimension into everything we do. Suppose these teachings sink into your mind to such an extent that you are constantly alert that whatever you do, the results are not in your control. You will constantly have a sense that you are doing the best you can in work and everything else. 

Even After Making an Honest Effort at Something, Why Don’t I Get What I Want?

No matter where you are, whatever you do, you can do the best you can in the present moment. The level of effort you give is up to you, but the results of your actions are in the hands of the laws of nature, or Ishavara’s orders. If you give your best at something, the final results will always be in Ishvara’s hands. This is why you might not always get your desired outcome even if you give something your best.

When you take action, there could be other factors involved that impact the outcome.

For example, if you drop a pen, gravity is involved. Winds may always play a factor. Just as gravity is one force acting on the pen, wind could be another force acting on the pen. However, the wind might be a factor we don’t anticipate, while gravity is always something you take into account. Hidden variables such as wind may be present without us being aware of them. 

For example, crossing the street to catch the bus has four possible outcomes based on hidden variables. One is you cross the street and catch the bus (you get what you want). Another is you cross the street and your friend is in the car and offers you a ride (you get more than what you want). A third possibility is the bus pulls away as you cross the street (you get less of what you want). Fourth, you attempt to cross the street and you get hit by a car (you get the opposite of what you want). There are hidden variables in every situation that prevent us in advance of knowing the exact outcome. 

Imagine yesterday you hurt someone emotionally. And that person comes to you the next day to cause you physical harm. This hidden variable is brought about by the person’s own action. The action yesterday of hurting someone emotionally had a delayed consequence. These delayed consequences are a part of the doctrine of karma. The result of the action is not merely based on the law of nature, but also on the laws of karma

In both cases, the laws of nature of Isvhara’s laws. The laws of karma are also Ishvara’s laws. Ishvara gives you the result of your actions based on the laws of nature and the laws of karma

Have the intelligence and humility to know that once you have committed action, the results are not in your hands. Don’t think you are the master of your life. Of course, you are in control of your actions and decisions. But that’s where your control ends. The rest is in Ishvara’s hands.  

If Everything is in Ishvara’s Hands, Why Should I Bother Making an Effort?

If whatever is going to happen is in Ishvara’s hands, then some may believe that it makes no difference whether they act or don’t act. Why not just remain passive? This is the misinterpretation of the doctrine of karma that Krishna wants to warn Arjuna about. If you don’t take action, then nothing at all will happen. There are two factors involved: one of making an action, and the other of the laws of Ishvara

For example, the outcome of dropping a pen involves two factors. The first is the action of holding the pen and dropping it (prayatna or human effort), while the second involves the laws of nature or karma. The outcome, then, is the result of both effort and the divine. How do these two factors conspire together to give the result of an action?

Suppose you are standing across a river, and you want to swim to the other side. You jump into the river and you start swimming towards the direction, but due to the current you know you will not go straight across, but rather diagonally. The result is due to the effort of your swimming (prayatna), the other is due to the force of the current which represents one of those hidden variables (daiva).

If you were attached to inaction, recognizing there is a current might deter you from swimming across the river. This is a mistake, taking no action means you will never reach your destination. Whereas by taking action, you can still reach your destination. The fact that there is a current in the river doesn’t prevent you from reaching your goal, but you have to account for that factor and make adjustments accordingly. The doctrine of karma means the outcome of the situation is the result of your effort and hidden variables which can include laws of nature or laws of karma. But whatever those are, you are able to make adjustments and reach your goal. You are not helpless.

If There Will Always Be Other Factors Involved, Does It Mean I Will Never Be Able to Achieve My Goals?

To continue with the river example, imagine someone jumping in the river did not realize there was a current. If this person assumes they are doomed and fails to make an effort to swim whatsoever, the current will carry them straight down. Krishna says to not be passive. Don’t imagine yourself as helpless. We can still take action to bring us closer to our goals.

There may always be hidden variables or forces of nature and karma that we cannot anticipate. But when we sense the forces of nature and karma, we are able to adjust. Similarly, in life, we can learn to sense the force of karma and adapt.

Suppose you jump in the river and you feel the force of the current and you begin to panic. You are not sure what direction to swim in. It might be helpful to take a few moments to relax and respond better after taking a moment. Just as in life, when something unexpected happens, such as a health crisis, too often we respond with anxiety and confusion. That anxiety and confusion prevent us from thinking clearly and acting appropriately. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a few moments of prayerful reflection to understand that the outcome of the situation was not in your hands in the first place? 

If we can compose ourselves and reflect on the fact that it’s all in Ishvara’s hands. With this reflection, you would probably find yourself composed. And as a result, you can choose a healthier response to the situation. 

What the Gita Teaches Us | Definition of Karma Yoga

The Gita teaches us that the best mindset to approach any situation is to recognize that we do not have complete control over the outcome of our actions. While we can make decisions on how we act, we cannot guarantee results. There will always be hidden variables that are outside of our control. That being said, this recognition does not mean that we should not try at all. Rather, we should try our best and learn to adapt to hidden variables that arise with composure. This is in a nutshell what Karma Yoga is.