Karma is a Sanskrit term. It means action or deed. Any physical or mental action is Karma. Thinking is mental Karma. Karma is the sum total of our acts, both in the present life and in the preceding births.
Karma means not only action, but also the result of an action. There is a hidden power in Karma or action termed ‘Adrishta’ which brings in fruits of Karmas for the individual. The consequence of an action is really not a separate thing. It is a part of the action and cannot be divided from it.
Karma, according to Jaimini Rishi, is the performance of Agnihotra and other Vedic rituals. According to the Gita, any action done with Nishkamya Bhava is Karma. Lord Krishna says: “Work incessantly. Your duty is to work but not to expect the fruits thereof.” The central teaching of the Gita is non-attachment to work. Breathing, eating, seeing, hearing, thinking, etc., are all Karmas. Thinking is the real Karma. Raga-dvesha (likes and dislikes) constitute real Karma.
Man is threefold in his nature. He consists of Iccha, Jnana and Kriya. Iccha is desire or feeling. Jnana is knowing. Kriya is willing. These three fashion his Karma. He knows objects like chair, tree. He feels joy and sorrow. He wills – to do this, or not to do that.
Behind the action, there are desire and thought. A desire for an object arises in the mind. Then you think how to get it. Then you exert to possess it. Desire, thought and action always go together. They are the three threads, as it were, that are twisted into the cord of Karma.
Desire produces Karma. You work and exert to acquire the objects of your desire. Karma produces its fruits as pain or pleasure. You will have to take births after births to reap the fruits of your Karma. This is the Law of Karma.
Karma is of three kinds, viz. Sanchita or the accumulated works, Prarabdha or the fructifying works, and Kriyamana or the current works. Sanchita is all the accumulated Karmas of the past. Part of it is seen in the character of man, in his tendencies and aptitudes, capacities, inclinations and desires. Prarabdha is that portion of the part of Karma which is responsible for the present body. It is ripe for reaping. It cannot be avoided or changed. It is only exhausted by being experienced. You pay your past debts. Kriyamana is that Karma which is now being made for the future. It is also called Agami or Vartamana.
In Vedantic literature, there is a beautiful analogy. The bow-man has already sent an arrow; it has left his hands. He cannot recall it. He is about to shoot another arrow. The bundle of arrow in the quiver on his back is the Sanchita. The arrow he has shot is Prarabdha. And the arrow which he is about to shoot from his bow is Agami. Of these, he has perfect control over the Sanchita and the Agami, but he must surely work out his Prarabdha. The past which has begun to take effect he has to experience.
Actions are of three kinds, viz., good, bad and mixed. Good Karmas make you a god or angel in heaven. Bad Karmas throw you in lower wombs. Mixed actions give you a human birth.
Every work is a mixture of good and evil. There can be neither absolute good work nor absolute bad work in this world. This physical universe is a relative plane. If you do some action, it will do some good in one corner, and some evil in another corner. You must try to do such actions that can bring the maximum of good and the minimum of evil.
The Doctrine of Karma forms an integral part of Vedanta. The Law of Karma is one of the fundamental doctrines not only in Hinduism, but also in Buddhism and in Jainism.
As a man sows, so he shall reap. This is the Law of Karma. It expounds the riddle of life and the riddle of the universe. It brings solace, satisfaction and comfort to one and all. It is a self-evident truth. Fortunately, the Westerners have also begun now to acknowledge its importance and veracity. The Americans have now full belief in this doctrine. Every sensible man will have to accept it. There is no other go.
A close study of this law gives encouragement to the hopeless man, to the desperate and ailing. Destiny is created by man’s thoughts, habits and character. There is every chance for his correction and improvement by changing his thoughts and habits. The scoundrel can become a saint; the prostitute can become a chaste lady; a beggar can become a king. This mighty law provides for all this.
The Doctrine of Karma only can explain the mysterious problem of good and evil in this world. The Doctrine of Karma only can bring solace, contentment, peace and strength to the afflicted and the desperate. It solves our difficulties and problems of life. It gives encouragement to the hopeless and the forlorn. It pushes a man to right thinking, right speech and right action. It brings a brilliant future for that man who lives according to this universal law. If all people understand this law correctly and discharge their daily duties carefully, they would rise to sublime heights in the ladder of spirituality. They will be moral and virtuous and have a happy, peaceful, contented life. They can bear the burden of Samsara with patience, endurance and strength of mind. There will not be any room for complaint when they see the inequalities in birth, fortune, intelligence, capacities, etc. There will be heaven on earth. All will rejoice even in suffering. Greed, jealousy, hatred, anger, passion will vanish. Virtue will reign everywhere. We will have a glorious Satya Yuga now with peace and plenty everywhere. Blessed is the man who understands and lives in the Law, for he will soon attain God-consciousness and become one with the Law-giver! Then the Law will no longer operate on him.
Karma Yoga is consecration of all actions and their fruits unto the Lord. Karma Yoga is performance of actions dwelling in union with the Divine, removing attachment and remaining balanced ever in success and failure.
Karma Yoga is selfless service unto humanity. Karma Yoga is the Yoga of action which purifies the heart and prepares the Antahkarana (the heart and the mind) for the reception of Divine Light or attainment if Knowledge of the Self. The important point is that you will have to serve humanity without any attachment or egoism.
Action of some kind or the other is unavoidable. You cannot keep quiet without doing anything. What binds you to phenomenal existence or Samsara is not the action but the idea of doership and enjoyership. Karma binds when it is done with a selfish motive, with the expectation of fruits. But when action is done without the expectation of fruits, it is liberating. If you act as an instrument in the hands of the Lord, as a participant in the cosmic activity of Nature, without expectation of fruits, that Karma will not bind you. Karma, then becomes Karma Yoga. Work unselfishly. Feel that you are only an instrument and that the Lord is working through you. Surrender the actions and their fruits to the Lord. You will be freed from the bonds of Karma and enjoy peace.
The practice of Karma Yoga prepares the aspirant for the reception of knowledge of the Self. It makes him a proper Adhikari (aspirant) for the study of Vedanta. Ignorant people jump at once to Jnana Yoga, without first having a preliminary training in Karma Yoga. That is the reason why they fail miserably to realize the Truth. Various impurities lurk in the fourfold mind (Antahkarana). The mind is filled with likes and dislikes, jealousy, etc. They only talk of Brahman. They indulge in all sorts of useless controversies, vain debates and dry, endless discussions. Their philosophy is only on their lips. In other words, they are lip-Vedantins. What is really wanted is practical Vedanta through ceaseless, selfless service. Selfless service is the only way to remove the impurities lurking in the mind.
Two things are indispensably requisite in the practice of Karma Yoga. The Karma Yogi should have non-attachment to the fruits of actions. He will have to dedicate his actions at the altar of God with the feeling of Ishvararpana. Non-attachment brings freedom from sorrow and fear. Non-attachment makes a man absolutely bold and fearless. When he dedicates his actions at the Lotus Feet of the Lord, he develops devotion to God and approaches Him nearer and nearer. He gradually feels that God works directly through his Indriyas or instruments. He feels no strain or burden in discharge of his works now. He is quite at ease. The heavy load which he felt previously on account of false notion has vanished out of sight now.
The practice of Karma Yoga does not demand that you should possess enormous wealth. You can serve with your mind and body. If you find a poor sick man lying on the road side, give him some water or milk to drink. Cheer him up with sweet, encouraging words. Put him in a carriage and take him to the nearest hospital. If you have no money to pay for the carriage, carry the patient on your back and see that he is admitted into the hospital. If you do service like this, your heart will be purified. God is more pleased with such sort of service for the poor helpless people than with the service done by rich people with pomp and vanity.
If any one is suffering from acute pain in any part of the body, at once shampoo the affected part very quickly. Feel, when you massage, that you are shampooing the body of the Lord (Virat). Repeat your Ishta Mantra or any name of the Lord while shampooing. Pray also from the bottom of your heart: “O Lord! Remove the pain of this man. Let him rest in peace. Let him possess good health.” Feel, when you massage, that the energy from the cosmic source, Hiranyagarbha, is flowing continuously through your hands. Some neophytes are afraid their energy will be depleted by massaging another person. This is a serious mistake. The more you give, the more yu will get. You will be in tune with the cosmic energy or the Infinite. This is the divine law.
A Karma Yogi should be absolutely free from lust, greed, anger and egoism. Even if there are traces of these Doshas, he should try to remove them. He should not expect any kind of fruits for his actions herein and hereafter. He should not have any desire for name and fame, approbation, thirst for applause, admiration and gratitude. He must have a spotless character. He should try to possess this gradually. He should be humble and free from hatred, jealousy, harshness, etc. He should always speak sweet words. How can a proud and jealous man, who expects respect and honour from others, serve others ? He should be absolutely fearless. A timid man is absolutely unfit for Karma Yoga. He is fit to assist his wife in cleaning utensils in the kitchen in the morning and in washing her clothes in the evening.
A Karma Yogi should have large heart. He should be free from crookedness, meanness, miserliness and selfishness. He should be absolutely free from greed, anger and egoism.
A Karma Yogi should have an amiable, loving social nature. He should be able to move and mix with everybody without distinction of caste, creed or colour. He should have perfect adaptability, tolerance, sympathy, cosmic love and mercy. He should be able to adjust with the habits and ways of others. He should have an all-embracing and an all-inclusive heart. He should always have a cool and balanced mind. He should have presence of mind also. He should have equal vision. He should rejoice in the welfare of others. A man who is easily irritable and who can easily be offended for trifling things is absolutely unfit for the path of Karma Yoga. He should have all the organs under perfect control. He should lead a very simple life. He should bear insult, disrespect, dishonour, censure, infamy, disgrace, harsh words, heat, cold and the pain of diseases. He should have absolute faith in himself, in God, in scriptures and in the words of hid Guru. If he leads a life of luxury, if he wants everything for himself, how can he share his possessions with others ? He should burn his selfishness to the very root. Let me remind you the words of the Gita: “Restraining and subduing the senses, regarding everything equally, rejoicing in the welfare of all, these alone come to Me.” Such a man becomes a good Karma Yogi and reaches the goal quickly.
By doing selfless service you purify your heart. Egoism, hatred, jealousy, ideas of superiority and all the kindred negative qualities will vanish. You will develop humility, pure love, sympathy, tolerance and mercy. Sense of separateness will be annihilated. Selfishness will be eradicated. You will get a broad and liberal outlook on life. You will begin to feel oneness and unity. Eventually you will obtain knowledge of the Self. You will realize One in all and All in one.
Generally people are impatient and they expect Siddhis after doing a little service. The real Karma Yogi who serves people with humility and Atma Bhava (seeing God in every face) becomes a real ruler of the world. He is honoured and respected by all. The more service you do with Atma Bhava the more power, energy and capacity you get. Practice this and feel.
If you really want to grow in the spiritual path you must do all sorts of service daily till the end of your life. Then only you are safe. Do not stop doing service when you have become a famous Yogi. The spirit of service must enter every nerve, cell, tissue and bone of your body. It must become ingrained in you. Then only you will become a real, full-blown, practical Vedantin. Is there any greater Vedantin or Karma Yogi than Lord Buddha ? He still lives in our hearts, because that spirit of service was ingrained in him and he spent his whole life in serving others in a variety of ways. He is indeed a magnanimous soul, one without a second. You can also become a Buddha if you apply yourself diligently to selfless service with the right mental attitude.
In the practice of Nishkama Karma Yoga, there is no loss of effort. There is no harm. There is no transgression also. Even a little of this practice can protect you from great fear of rebirth, of death with its concomitant evils. You will reap the fruits of Karma Yoga, viz. Jnana. There is no uncertainty here. The path of Karma Yoga eventually leads to the attainment of Bliss of the Self.
May you all attain purity of heart through constant selfless service. May you all shine as dynamic Karma Yogins radiating joy, peace and bliss everywhere. May you all rejoice in the welfare of all beings. May your minds be fixed in the Lord while your hands are in the service of humanity. May you all understand the principles and techniques of Karma Yoga. May all your actions become offerings unto the Lord. May you all attain Kaivalya Moksha through the practice of Karma Yoga in this very birth.
- The Divine Life Society of Maryland’s November 1998 Newsletter. This issue focuses on Karma Yoga with articles by Swami Sivananda, Swami Chidananda and Swami Krishnananda and verses from the Bhagavad Gita on Karma Yoga.