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First Steps in Karma Yoga

Part 25 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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In the latter part of the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna has given us a perfect portrait of a man possessed of the true Brahmajnana, the knowledge of Brahman. It is far from that of a devoted warrior in the heat of battle. Wherefore Arjuna asks, protesting:

Arjuna said: If it is your conviction that knowledge is better than action, then why do you urge me to engage in this terrible action? With speech that seems equivocal you confuse my mind. Tell me surely this one thing: How should I attain the highest good? (3:1-2).

Buddhi means both intellect and intelligence. So Krishna is saying that intelligent insight, or jnana, is far superior to mere external action, or karma. But Arjuna protests that this emphasis on buddhi is confusing his buddhi! Emphasis on intelligence confuses his intellect! But he is not so confused that he does not understand that he needs to know the way to the highest good.

The two paths

In response Krishna begins:

The Holy Lord said: In this world there is a two-fold path taught by me long ago: knowledge, the yoga of the Sankhyas, and action, the yoga of the yogis (3:3).

Sri Ramakrishna often said that basically there were two yogas: karma yoga, the yoga of action, and mano yoga, the yoga of the mind–buddhi yoga, or jnana yoga.

For some reason through the intervening centuries people who are not correctly following either path insist that there is only one right or best way of the two, but Krishna is not really setting an either/or situation before Arjuna. Instead, he is speaking of two forms of emphasis–some develop better by focussing on knowledge (jnana yoga), and some develop better by focussing on action (karma yoga). But both engage in jnana and karma simultaneously–it is only in the degree of one or the other that the difference is to be found.

It is sadly true that through misunderstanding we find people who think that one should be cultivated to the complete exclusion of the other. This is not the intention of Krishna, as we shall see. After all, if each one leads to enlightenment, how can there be a “best”? In fact, how can they be exclusionary if they lead to the same goal?

Temperament is the deciding factor as to which of the paths to emphasize. It is really quite simple: we should take up the path that seems natural to us. And if further on down the path it seems natural to switch over to the other emphasis, that, too, is all right, for in some lives we have to take up more than one unfinished strand and complete them. It is natural for us to move in many directions throughout our life. Since there is only one God and therefore only one Goal, whatever we do will move us forward along the path. “In whatever way men resort to me do I thus reward them. It is my path which men follow everywhere” (4:11). “I am the Goal” (9:18).

In our evolution through many lives we take up many approaches that we do not complete for some reason. These remain unfulfilled, and it is necessary that we complete them or in some way combine and resolve them. So it is natural to be drawn to different attitudes and approaches at different phases of our spiritual development. A test of infants found that they instinctively knew exactly what they needed to eat at the time and would go right for those foods, including things with unpleasant taste. The same is true of our own heart. We know the way we should go, and to deny it is to deny our inner divinity.

How not to go about it

Not by abstaining from actions does a man attain the state beyond action, and not by mental renunciation alone does he approach to perfection. Truly, no one for even a moment exists without doing action. Each person is compelled to perform action, even against his will, by the gunas born of prakriti (3:4-5).

Here “activity” includes mental action, conscious and subconscious. The law of karma consists of two forces: the impulse to act and the certainty of reaping the consequences of all acts. It is both cause and effect. And it is underlain by a more profound law, the law of evolution. Evolution is effected by action–action that informs and improves, but action nonetheless. So action is an absolute necessity for all beings.

Krishna assures us that inaction is impossible–even for God, so why not for the godlike? When we are in a moving vehicle we may not want to move or see the need for it, but move we shall. In the same way, the moment we enter into relative existence, into prakriti, we begin moving and we never stop until we transcend relativity and attain the Absolute. Therefore the gunas of prakriti, sattwa, rajas, and tamas, combine to force us to act. In this matter there is no free will–we cannot choose to act or not. The only freedom we have is to decide how we will act. This is why all religions place such importance on virtuous or right action. Act we must, so we must act rightly.

Only those who erroneously suppose the inner and outer, the spiritual and the material, to be not only different but in opposition to one another, think that abstention from action is the way to perfection or that escape is liberation. This is why the Gita is so incredibly important. It shows that right activity is as necessary for inner enlightenment as the more obvious means such as japa and meditation.

In the next chapter Krishna will speak of “the royal seers (rajarishis).” The holy kings who administered kingdoms and yet attained the knowledge of Brahman are the ideal he puts before us. He does this for two reasons: 1) so we will not think that avoiding activity and involvement is the way to enlightenment, and 2) so we will not use our earthly responsibilities and ties as excuses for not exerting ourselves to the utmost in the pursuit of liberation. How many times have spiritual layabouts talked to me about how God had given them “all these responsibilities” and consequently they were dispensed from seeking God. It is just the opposite. God intends for us to seek and find him in the midst of those responsibilities–that is their purpose. They are not barriers or obstacles, but doors to pass through into higher life. One man actually told me that he could not look after his spiritual life because God had given him children whose spiritual lives he was to cultivate! Having nothing himself, he was going to supply them. He also overlooked the fact that God had done no such thing as “give” them to him–he had traveled all the way to Asia and adopted them. Sad that he would use them as pretexts for neglecting his own evolution. As Yogananda said: “Human beings are so skillful in their ignorance!”

The essence is this: since we are forced to act, we should act in a freeing manner, not in a binding manner.

What we are really thinking and wanting

Whatever we do, it is our inner intention and desire that determines the ultimate result. Krishna explains this:

He who restrains action’s organs while yet revolving in his mind thoughts of objects of the senses, is deluded, a hypocrite (3:6).

And we will see that what he really wants will eventually come to him. Then he will no longer be a hypocrite, unless he hides his involvement with them. Sometimes a “fall” is really a matter of honesty.

Sanatana Dharma is markedly different from other philosophies. They all threaten, cajole, and persuade people to join their ranks and “be good.” True Dharma, in contrast, says: “Study yourself carefully, and if you do not want what we have to offer, then do not bother–you will not get anywhere anyway. But when the time comes that you really want the higher life, come see us.” Sri Ramakrishna said that by always being truthful a person ascends to higher life, even liberation. There must be honesty in all things, including religion. Of course, there does come a pivotal moment, a midway point, where the individual must say: “I really want what is bad for me, but even more I want to rid myself of such a foolish ‘want.’ Henceforth I will cut it off and cultivate the right kind of ‘want.’” That is not hypocrisy, but liberating discipline, because he openly admits his inner desire. But it must be self-initiated, not an effect of any external factor, including another person.

We are the savior

The only savior we will ever have is ourself–our own creative will. Later Krishna will say: “The self can truly be a friend of the self” (6:5). This is because it is our will alone that creates our entire life in all its aspects. As a Buddhist text says: “I have nothing but my actions; I shall have nothing but my actions.” This is why Krishna also said: “Brahman is to be attained by him who always sees Brahman in action” (4:24). What you will is what you (really) want; what you want is what you (really) will. Hence, Krishna says:

He who by the mind controls the senses, and yet is unattached while engaging action’s organs in action, is superior (3:7).

When we really understand that every action has union with God as its core purpose and carry out each action with that perspective, then everything we do is genuine yoga, uniting us with God.

Perform your duty, for action is far better than non-action. Even maintaining your body cannot be done without action (3:8).

Liberating action

The world is bound by the actions not done for sake of sacrifice. Hence for sacrifice you should act without attachment (3:9).

Up and Doing should be our motto. But up and doing for God, for our Higher Self and the Supreme Self.

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: From the Beginning to the End

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

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Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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