Karma Yoga

|| भगवद्गीतासारः ||

Karma Yoga

(M. R. Dwarakanath)



Introduction: In chapter II, Sri Krishna started his instruction of Arjuna in response to his despondency.  Chapter II is essentially the gist of the entire Gita; this is virtually all there is to know in a nut shell. There Krishna talked about Sankhya which is discriminative knowledge, and Yoga is the path to such knowledge; i.e. practice, performance etc. Gita teaches transcendental knowledge and how to gain it. One should not mistake Sankhya and Yoga with the Darshanas; they are orthodox philosophical systems based on the Vedas attributed to the sages Kapila (Sankhya) and Patanjali (Yoga.) The other orthodox philosophical systems are Nyaya (Gotama,) Vaishesika (Kanada,) Purva Mimamsa (Jaimini) and Uttara Mimamsa or Vedanta of Badarayana Vyasa. The discussion here of Sankhya and Yoga will be in the context of Vedanta or Uttara Mimamsa. What does Vedanta have to teach about right knowledge and right action?

The Sanskrit word for action is Karma. Action may be enjoined (विहितकर्म) or prohibited (निषिद्धकर्म.) Action (कर्म / प्रवृत्तिकर्म,) inaction (अकर्म / निवृत्तिकर्म) and bad action (विकर्म) all have consequences. Yet again, one can classify action as everyday actions (नित्यकर्म) occasional actions (नैमित्तिककर्म) and optional actions (वैकल्पिककर्म.) Finally, actions may be purposeful (काम्यकर्म) or altruistic (निष्कामकर्म.) The present chapter deals with actions and their consequences. It goes without saying that one should engage in enjoined works, desist from prohibited actions and choose to engage in optional works as appropriate for the situation. This is as true in the secular world as in the teachings of the Gita. One reaps rewards or sanctions accordingly.

The enjoined actions are beneficial and they include worship (यज्ञ,) charity (दान,) austerity (तप,) study (स्वाध्याय,) teaching (प्रवचन,) etc. Prohibited actions are hurtful or destructive such as: stealth (स्तेन,) greed (लोभ.) jealousy (मात्सर्य) etc. Actions have consequences. The fruits of actions may be desirable (इष्ट,) undesirable (अनिष्ट,) or mixed (मिश्र.) Further, the desirable could be of fleeting happiness (प्रेयस्,) or have long term benefits (श्रेयस्.) Gita teaches us the path to श्रेयस्, which is what Arjuna wants to know.

Karma Yoga: The third chapter begins with Arjuna asking Krishna about Sankhya and Yoga which apparently are opposed to each other. He gleans that Krishna regards knowledge to be superior to action (दूरेण ह्यवरं कर्म बुद्धियोगात्,) yet is urging him to engage in a terrible fight which is not merely action but may even be prohibited action! He certainly does not think fighting leads to श्रेयस्. This is not only the crux of Arjuna’s dilemma but it is the dilemma faced by humankind! Arjuna wants to know unambiguously what he should be doing for his श्रेयस्; he thinks he is getting a mixed message from Krishna. This should not suggest that Arjuna is a dim wit. He is on a battlefield and is under considerable pressure to sort things out. Further he may be asking a leading question for the benefit of all humanity as the Gita is not intended solely for Arjuna’s benefit. If Arjuna were unfit for this teaching, would Krishna have granted him the Cosmic Vision and repeatedly addressed him so endearingly? Krishna coaxes Arjuna to battle for the sake of world order (लोकसङ्ग्रह,) which is not the role for a dim wit! Finally in chapter 18, Arjuna declares that he now recollects and his delusion is gone! नष्टो मोहः स्मृतिर्लब्धा |

Two Paths: Krishna proceeds to tell Arjuna that there are two paths that apply to people with different tendencies. Some are contemplative by nature and others more dynamic. One size does not fit all and under all circumstances. Arjuna is on the battlefield and he is enjoined by duty to a certain path. The two paths of knowledge and action are not exclusive but complementary. When the path of knowledge is mentioned, the emphasis is on knowledge but is accompanied by action. There cannot be 100% knowledge and 0% action. Krishna says: न हि कश्चित्क्षणमपि जातु तिष्ठत्यकर्मकृत्। Similarly, one cannot be engaged in action without knowledge; that would amount to running a fool’s errand! It is action that leads to cleansing the mind and thence to knowledge. There can be no freedom from action without action! Action includes not only physical action but also mental action. One may not be physically passive while harboring desires in the mind. The body and mind have to be in harmony. The mind should restrain the freewheeling senses. Action performed without ego and without any expectation of a reward, but with the spirit as an offering to the Lord (ईश्वरार्पण बुद्धि) does not cause bondage. Inaction is not possible nor is it ever recommended except for a person in a state of Samadhi.

Worship / Sacrifice: यज्ञ: यज्ञ means sacrifice or worship. There are 5 great sacrifices: भूतयज्ञ, मनुष्ययज्ञ, पितृयज्ञ, देवयज्ञ and ब्रह्मयज्ञ. These are intended to express our heartfelt gratitude to fellow creatures, to mankind, to our ancestors, to the deities and to the supreme or the sages – who have given us succor in various ways and bestowed knowledge on us. This is Thanksgiving at its best! Worship or sacrifice arises out of work done with purer impulses. From sacrifice come the rains, from rains food, from food arises creatures thus completing a full cosmic cycle. Breaking this cycle by non-performance is sinful and a life wasted. (In the context of modern times it is repaying society for all the benefits reaped from society. This is maintaining the eco-system!) The gods are pleased by the sacrifice and in turn they shower us with desired gifts; thus mutually propitiating each other. If we enjoy the bounty given us without offering it to the gods, we are no better than thieves. It is taking without acknowledgement. On the contrary, we should partake of only the हुतशेष or what remains after the sacrifice. This purifies the soul; this is श्रेयस्. The creation hymn speaks of how man, the creatures, the sun, the moon etc. were born out of the primordial sacrifice. Even as in the primordial sacrifice, we should offer our work as a sacrifice without ego or attachment to the fruits of such work. The very word sacrifice implies that no return is expected! Krishna’s message to Arjuna is to do his duty and not shirk from it. However, this work has to be sincere and offered as a sacrifice without seeking any return – निष्कामकर्म with ईश्वरार्पण बुद्धि. This type of action is non-binding; it is Karma Yoga. The action that is regarded by Krishna as inferior is action desiring the fruits thereof – काम्यकर्म।

Selfless Action: निष्कामकर्म is the path to knowledge. Just because rewards for actions should not be expected, it does not mean one can rest in inaction. For one who is in deep meditation, who is self satisfied and rooted in Brahman, physical action is not possible but it is not inaction. It is mental action which is the right action. Such a person has neither need for action nor a need to refrain from action. He depends on none for creature comforts and pleasure. So Arjuna is instructed to continue to discharge his duty without any attachment; it poses no impediment to release.

Role Models: लोकसङ्ग्रह: Lord Krishna says that there is no reason for Krishna himself to be engaged in any activity whatsoever for his own benefit. He needs to gain nothing. However, he constantly engages in work both to set an example to the world about the importance of action and also to prevent the world falling into disorder and chaos. This is altruism at its best! Krishna makes no special provision for the learned to not engage in work. What is true for the non-enlightened is also true for the enlightened. He gives the example of Janaka Maharaja who though an enlightened sage as well as king, engaged in work to highlight Kshatriya Dharma. This is a direct nudge to Arjuna who also being a Kshatriya should follow his Dharma, engage in battle and protect the virtuous. It is not Dharma for a Kshatriya to shirk battle however unpleasant it may be physically or emotionally to him.

Agency of the Soul: जीव कर्तृत्व Krishna says: अहङ्कारविमूढात्मा कर्ताहमिति मन्यते. What does this mean? Is this non-doership absolute? Krishna says: an egotistical person, deluded by the workings of nature, thinks of himself as being in-charge! He is merely an instrument for carrying out actions that are predestined by our nature. निमित्तमात्रं भव सव्यसाचिन् | If every action is preordained, are we mere automatons? Do we not have moral obligations and accountability for our actions? What about free will? (Some eminent neuroscientists take the extreme view that human beings are not responsible for their actions because of the deterministic nature of brain processes. On the other hand the ancient Greeks had a strong sense of personal agency; the Chinese less so. The Chinese viewed Harmony as the important principle and placed emphasis on collective responsibility. The western idea of personal responsibility is inherited from the Greeks.) The way out of this difficulty is to realize the soul is not an absolute agent and there are many forces that are driving our actions. We should realize the truth, not become egotistical or get attached to the actions. Our actions are driven by likes and dislikes; this passion has to be steadfastly curbed. Instead, one should earnestly fix one’s mind on the Lord and dedicate all works to him without desire or mental reservation. Krishna implores Arjuna to fight with this attitude. Those who earnestly follow the teachings of the Gita do not become bound by the actions. The wise understand and they set an example to the rest. However, those who neglect the teaching are destined to fall. One should strive hard to overcome the natural dualistic tendencies that pull one towards likes and dislikes. These tendencies are just too powerful to overcome easily.

It is better that we discharge our own duties well even if it be not glorious, rather than try to do another’s duty which may appear glamorous. Often we see in the workplace and elsewhere people belittling the work of others as being trivial or inconsequential while regarding their own work as superior, hard and invaluable! There is no accounting when doing another’s job. Gita tells us to mind our own business first!

Sin: पाप Arjuna inquires about how one is driven to commit sins even if involuntarily. Is it all the brain state? Krishna responds that Rajasic qualities give rise to desire and when desires go unfulfilled, it leads to anger which is inimical to the soul. Desire veils proper understanding like the smoke veils fire, dust veils a mirror and the womb veils the embryo. The three similes draw attention to three different levels of veiling. Smoke does not stick to fire like dirt to the mirror. The womb covering the fetus is the strongest form of veiling. When knowledge is so covered by insatiable desire, the senses which act as gateways to desire delude the soul. The key then is to control the senses. The senses are the gateway to the body, greater than the senses is the mind, intellect is greater still and greater than the intellect is the self. The senses can set off a chain reaction. This recalls to one’s mind the Upanishadic statement:

इन्द्रियेभ्यः परा ह्यर्था अर्थेभ्यश्च परं मनः।

मनसस्तु परा बुद्धिः बुद्धेरात्मा महान् परः ॥

महतः परमव्यक्तमव्यक्तात् पुरुषः परः।

पुरुषन्न परं किञ्चित् सा काष्ठा सा परा गतिः॥

Summary: This chapter teaches us that inaction and sloth are absolutely unacceptable. Inaction is both impossible and a non-starter. Worse would be engaging in prohibited actions. Even action with desires is certainly preferable to inaction. However, it is better when action is motivated by duty and altruistic tendencies. It is best when action is selfless and the fruits, whether good or bad, are offered to the Lord without seeking the results for oneself. This Karma Yoga! Ishavasya Upanishad proclaims:

ईशावास्यमिदं सर्वं यत् किञ्च जगत्यां जगत्।

तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा मा गृधः कस्य स्विद्धनम्॥

कुर्वन्नेवेह कर्माणि जिजीविषेच्छतं समाः।

This universe is pervaded (thus owned) by the Lord. You enjoy by renouncing and never covet other’s wealth. Working thus should you live a hundred years! This too is Karma Yoga.


Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation (SVBF) is established as an international extension of the ancient Sri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri, Karnataka State, India. It is incorporated as a non-profit religious and charitable organization in the USA. The Foundation functions under the direct guidance of the Jagadguru Shankaracharya, His Holiness Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamigal of the Sringeri Sharada Peetham.

3 Responses to “Karma Yoga”

  1. Satish Hosanagara says:

    Excellent article, glad to find essence of karma all in one place.

  2. Jyotsna says:

    नमस्करोमि ।
    उत्तमं लेखनम् । बहव: धन्यवादा: ।
    भवदीय़ा, ज्योत्स्ना

  3. Padmanabha.C says:

    Bhagavan’s says to include (yoga) something to all our actions (karma), thereby making it an inclusive action. That something is an attitude of eeshwara anugraha, and while receiving the result (phala) we should have prasaada budhdhi.

    om tat sat

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