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The Goal of Karma Yoga

Part 45 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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For some inexplicable reason, throughout the ages in both East and West the idea has prevailed that spiritual people do not engage in practical matters, that to really be spiritual is to be incapable of skill or efficiency in any kind of material activity, or even in the maintenance of material objects. Some years ago we had a phonograph record of religious music whose cover was a hazy photograph of a monk holding a rosary and looking at it blankly (contemplatively?). One of our members pointed to it and said: “Before I came to the monastery I thought that was what monastic life was like.” Both members and visitors have expressed to me how surprised they were that in the monastery we actually work instead of sitting around talking profound philosophy. But Sri Ramakrishna, speaking of this kind of misunderstanding, used to say: “If you can weigh salt, you can weigh sugar,” meaning that a person competent in spiritual life will be competent in material life–and often the other way round, though not always.

The idea that spiritual people are fluff-headed drones sitting around wondering where their next mystical experience is coming from is absurd. Whether this silly image comes from lazy monastics and fake mystics or from those who hope spiritual people will be too stupid or impractical to see through them and their material ways, I have no idea, but it has been around much too long and accepted by people much too intelligent to believe such mythology. That nonsense was around in Krishna’s time, so he addresses it in this sixth chapter of the Gita.

Yogi and monk (renouncer)

The Holy Lord said: He who performs that action which is his duty, not caring for the action’s fruit, is a renouncer and a yogi, not he without sacrificial fire and sacred rites (6:1).

First, a bit of Sanskrit. Sannyasa means renunciation, and in modern times is applied to monastic life. It literally means “total casting aside.” A sannyasi(n) is a renunciate, a monk, who has totally cast aside all that which would bind him. It is not the negative rejection or giving up that characterizes monastic life or renunciation in the West. Rather it is a freeing of oneself from the ties that bind. The Hindu monk does not consider that he has sacrificed or denied himself anything. Rather, he considers that he has freed himself from that which would hinder his Self-realization. It is a joyful, liberating thing.

In his autobiography, Paramhansa Yogananda tells of a great saint, Nagendranath Bhaduri, and gives the following telling incident:

“‘Master, you are wonderful!’ A student, taking his leave, gazed ardently at the patriarchal sage. ‘You have renounced riches and comforts to seek God and teach us wisdom!’ It was well-known that Bhaduri Mahasaya had forsaken great family wealth in his early childhood, when single-mindedly he entered the yogic path.

“‘You are reversing the case!’ The saint’s face held a mild rebuke. ‘I have left a few paltry rupees, a few petty pleasures, for a cosmic empire of endless bliss. How then have I denied myself anything? I know the joy of sharing the treasure. Is that a sacrifice? The shortsighted worldly folk are verily the real renunciates! They relinquish an unparalleled divine possession for a poor handful of earthly toys!’

“I chuckled over this paradoxical view of renunciation–one which puts the cap of Croesus on any saintly beggar, whilst transforming all proud millionaires into unconscious martyrs.”

Krishna is using sannyasa and sannyasi in the pure sense of a renouncer, whether monastic or non-monastic, pointing us to the interior disposition that is absolutely essential, whatever our external situation. Being a yogi, a sannyasi, is a matter of that disposition, of the right intention, in all moments of our life. Simply doing nothing is neither yoga nor sannyasa. This does not mean that the solitary or enclosed life is invalid, for the true hermit or world-renouncer is intensely active inwardly and necessarily active outwardly at least minimally for the simple subsistence of his life.

That which they call renunciation, know that to be yoga. Without renouncing selfish purpose no one whatever becomes a yogi (6:2).

There we have it. The yogi must be a sannyasi and the sannyasi must be a yogi.

The yogi’s path

For the sage desirous of attaining yoga, action is said to be the means. For him who has already attained yoga, tranquility is said to be the means (6:3).

Karma yoga is necessary for the aspiring yogi, for the same positive kind of detachment and inner calm essential for karma yoga is also needed for proficiency in meditation. The fact is, karma yoga trains us for meditation and meditation trains us for karma yoga. In essence they are the same thing, for both are psychological in character.

When he is truly attached neither to sense objects nor to actions, and has renounced all purpose (sarva sankalpa), then he is said to have attained yoga (6:4).

Sarva sankalpa sannyasi–“having cast aside all sankalpa.” Sankalpa is a strong exercising, or resolution, of the will based on some desire. So here, too, we see that desire is the serpent beneath the rose, the root of the whole trouble, whatever form it takes.

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Getting There

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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

Visit our e-library page for Free Downloads of this and other ebooks in various formats.

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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