ONE of the significations of the word “Yoga” is “Dexterity in work.” To render this meaning still more specific, the Sanskrit term “Karma,” derived from the root verb “Kri,” to act, is added. Taken in its literal sense, therefore, Karma signifies action, and refers to all actions whether of mind or body. Wherever there is activity of any kind, it is Karma. In this sense devotion, love, worship, meditation, concentration, discrimination are all Karma; as are also, for the same reason, eating, drinking, walking, talking, or performing any organic function.
Again, every action, as we are aware, is followed by reaction. No action can be separated from its result, as no cause can be absolutely disconnected from its effect. Consequently the secondary meaning of Karma embraces all reactions or results of actions. The chain of cause and sequence, known as the “law of causation,” is also called Karma; and every action of body and mind is governed by the law of Karma or of action and reaction. Being subject to this natural law, we have been working in this world from the beginningless past, and reaping the results of our efforts, whether pleasant or unpleasant, good or evil.
When, furthermore, we consider that the effect of each action leaves its impression on the mind-substance, which impression becomes the seed of a fresh action of a similar nature, we understand the third meaning of the term. In this sense the word Karma includes the accumulated results of past actions or rather the seed forms of future activities.
Hence the character of an individual, which is the aggregate result of the works of his previous life may be called Karma. In the same way, the future life will be the sum-total of the results of the mental and physical actions of the present life.
Karma Yoga is, therefore, that branch of the Science of Yoga which discusses the three ideas conveyed by the word “Karma,” explains the philosophy of work, describes the method by which the individual soul can extricate itself from the wheel of action and reaction, and having escaped from the irresistible law of causation by which every one is bound, can attain to perfect freedom, fulfill the highest purpose of life, and thus through right action alone reach the ultimate goal of all religion. It is the path best fitted for those who believe in no creed, who are not devotional, and who do not care to worship or pray to a personal God.
Karma Yoga teaches that the cause of the suffering, misery, disease, and misfortune, which overshadow our earthly life, lies in our own actions. We reap the fruit of that which we ourselves have sown. These causes are within us. We should blame neither our parents nor any evil spirit for our sufferings, but should look within ourselves to discover the source thereof. This branch of Yoga likewise describes the secret of work, by knowing which we can remove all causes of bondage and suffering, and enjoy freedom, peace, and happiness both here and after death. It tells us that every action inspired by the motive of desire for results attaches the soul to these results, and consequently becomes a source of bondage. The secret of work consists in working for work’s sake and not for fruits. If this principle be applied to the actions of our daily lives, then every work done by us will help us to advance toward the perfect emancipation of the soul. Whoever performs his duties understanding the secret of work, becomes truly unselfish and eventually gains knowledge of his real Self, which is immortal and divine.
According to Karma Yoga, the true Self when it becomes identified with the limitations of the mind and the physical form, appears as “ego,” “doer,” or “actor,” and performing work from various motives, remains attached to its results. We thus feel as one with our body and endeavor to enrich the narrow, limited self or “I” by getting something from that which is “not I.” This imperfect knowledge of the “Self,” or rather this ignorance of the true “Self,” is the cause of selfishness.
From selfishness in turn proceeds all that desire for results which forces us to live and act like slaves. Karma Yoga shows us the way by which we can become conscious of our true Self, and, by widening the range of the limited “ego,” can make it universal. When we have accomplished this, we shall live in the world working not from selfish motives, but for humanity, yet with as much interest in heart as we had when we worked for ourselves. Nor shall we then seek the comfort and pleasure of this little personality which is now the chief center of our interest and effort, but shall strive for the good of all.
Anyone who wishes to become a true Karma Yogi should clearly understand the philosophy of work and should remember that every action of body and mind must produce some effect which will eventually come back upon the doer; and that, if there be the smallest desire for result, it will be the seed of future action of a like nature. He should also realize that every action produces similar reaction. If the action be in harmony with the moral and physical laws which govern our lives, then the reaction which comes back upon the actor will bring only that which is good,–peace, rest, fortune, health, and happiness. If, on the contrary, these laws are violated, then the result will be evil, producing restlessness, discomfort, loss of fortune, disease, and unhappiness.
A traveller in the path of Karma Yoga should not even think evil of another, because in the attempt to injure others we first injure ourselves. Every thought puts the mind-substance in a certain state of vibration and opens the door to the influence of such minds as are in the same state of vibration. Therefore when we cherish evil thoughts, we run the double risk of affecting other minds and of being influenced by all evil-minded persons holding similar thoughts, nay, we expose our minds to all the evil thoughts that have been thought in the past and stored up in the mental atmosphere of the world. A corresponding result comes from the holding of good thoughts. This is the reason why evil-doers grow worse and worse every day, and the doers of good deeds become better and better.
A Karma Yogi should realize that there is one Being, or one Spirit, in the universe. Seeing this same Being or Spirit in all living creatures, he should recognize the rights of all and should not injure anyone either mentally or physically. Such a Yogi is truly unselfish; he is a blessing to the world and to humanity.
He who wishes to practice Karma Yoga should abandon attachment to the fruit of his labors, and learn to work for work’s sake, keeping in mind the idea that by his work he is paying off the debt which he owes to parents, to society, to country, and to all mankind. Like a wet nurse he should take care of his children, realizing that they do not belong to him, but that they are placed in his charge in order that he and they may gain experience and unfold their latent powers and feelings.
A true Karma Yogi, furthermore, is he who recognizes that his real Self is not a doer of action, but that all mental and physical activity is merely the result of the forces of nature. Therefore he never claims that any work, whether good or bad, has been done by his true “Self.” He lets his mind, intellect, and sense-organs work incessantly, while in his soul he holds steadfastly to the idea that he is the witness-like Knower of all activity, mental or physical. In this way he frees himself from the law of Karma and escapes from all the results of work which bind ordinary workers. Neither does he count success or failure in his daily life. He does his best in each effort put forth by him, and after performing his duty to the utmost of his ability, if he meets with failure he does not grieve, but, saying within himself that he did all that he could under the circumstances, he maintains his calmness and enjoys peace of mind even in the face of defeat.
The aim of a Karma Yogi is to live in the world and act like a master, not like a slave. Ordinary mortals implicitly obey the masters of desire and passion, following them without question or discrimination. But he who chooses the path of Karma Yoga seeks absolute control over desire and passion and directs the force manifesting through these channels toward the highest ideal of life–freedom of the soul.
In fulfilling all the duties of life the Karma Yogi takes refuge in love, making it the sole motive power behind every action of body and mind; and whenever he performs any duty, it is always through love. He understands that sense of duty is bondage, while work done through a feeling of love frees the soul and brings peace, rest, and, in the end, everlasting happiness.
All the great spiritual leaders of mankind, like Sri Krishna, Christ and Buddha, were Karma Yogis. They worked for humanity through love, and showed by their example how perfect freedom can be attained by right work. Buddha did not preach the worship of a personal God, but he established the truth that those who do not believe in a personal God and who are not devotional, can reach the highest goal of all religions by the path of Karma Yoga (From the Teachings of Swami Abhedananda)