The Essence of Karma Yoga

The Essence of Karma Yoga July 6, 2022

Karma Yoga is known as the yoga of cause and effect or the yoga of sowing and reaping, but it is really the yoga of action. Karma means action, and for every action, there is a reaction.

Work Without Attachments

Karma Yoga is an attitude toward daily life. The goal of Karma Yoga practitioners is to be active and yet remain free from the results of their actions. They serenely accept the effects of their previous actions and devote their current actions to service.

Swami Vivekananda had a supreme understanding of Karma Yoga. He told his students to work relentlessly and yet not to be attached to their work so that the mind could remain free. He explained that poverty, riches and happiness are all fleeting and temporary; they are not our essential nature, which is not disturbed by misery or success. According to Vivekananda, Karma Yoga is a way of achieving freedom through selflessness and good deeds.

No Need for Deep Philosophy

Karma Yoga practitioners need not believe in God, ask piercing questions about the nature of the spirit, or think about philosophical or existential concepts. They have jobs to do and should simply fulfill those jobs without attachment to the outcome.

Doing Good

In his books, Vivekananda poses questions about the good we can do in the world. He says that because of the fleeting and ever-changing nature of the world, we can never do permanent good or induce permanent change. Therefore, Karma Yoga practitioners should simply work for the sake of work, perform good deeds and selflessly serve, even though the fruits of their labor may be temporary.

Buddha appears to have been a true Karma Yoga practitioner and aptly said:

“I do not care to know your various theories about God. What is the use of discussing all the subtle doctrines about the soul? Do good and be good. And this will take you to freedom and to whatever truth there is.”

Four Types of Reaction

According to this yogic philosophy, the world is in perfect equilibrium. Energy taken from one place will resurface in another. All actions produce reactions, and all effects have causes.

There are four kinds of actions that produce different types of reactions.

Sanchita Karma – A collection of effects from previous lives and the subconscious mind.

Prarabdha Karma – Also known as fate or destiny. The collective reactions or effects of previous actions surface in current life. According to yogic interpretation, this explains why some people are ‘lucky’, and others can be ‘unlucky’ and why little children can show robust character early in life.

Kriyamana Karma – Refers to present actions driven by will and desire. It explains how people can affect their future with their actions.

Agami Karma – Instant reactions related to current actions, for example, when a person touches a hot stove and gets burned or goes through a tense period and gets a headache.

Karma Yoga and Reincarnation

The idea that everything in the world is in a state of equilibrium and moves to restore balance does not only presuppose that we reap as we sow in this life but also assumes the existence of reincarnation. Even though most religions and philosophies make room for some afterlife, the concept of reincarnation is often met with skepticism and rightly so. There is little evidence to support the claim. Being very practical and earthbound myself, I cannot say with any certainty that I believe in reincarnation, but it is a fascinating philosophy. The concept is highly theoretical and cannot be proved or disproved.

Still, in his book, Yoga Holistic Practice Manual, Yogi Shanti Desai lists nine reasons why understanding and even believing in reincarnation can be beneficial.

1. We are never too old to attempt something new as age is no barrier because life is continuous. We learn new spiritual lessons and grow in wisdom as we grow older.

2. No spiritual effort is ever wasted. Lord Krishna teaches that devotees on the spiritual path are reincarnated into a pious family and a spiritual environment. They inherit good health, have a zeal for spiritual enlightenment, and continue their spiritual journey.

3. We can realize that we are responsible for everything in our life and have created our present situation. We can stop blaming our parents, society, and various situations for our problems. This realization gives deep relaxation. We also can forgive ourselves for making mistakes in the past because we realize that those mistakes were learning experiences.

4. As we become responsible we can take charge of our lives and improve its quality. We stop hoping for someone else to help us and we don’t expect miracles. Instead, we realize that we can create our own miracles. For example, people who want to lose weight or stop smoking are successful only when they decide to take charge of their own life. No self-improvement program will help until one takes charge and assumes responsibility for its success.

5. Belief in reincarnation removes the fear of death as we consider death to be part of our total life. It can be thought of as a long night for the soul to rest. Like night and day, death and life cycles go on naturally. There is no fear.

6. It gives us understanding that there is no escape. Drugs, alcohol, etc. allow you to hide from the fact of life only temporarily. Suicide is not an escape as life will not end nor will it improve until we improve it ourselves.

7. We learn to be aware of our thoughts, words, and deeds because we realize that with each thought we are producing karma – positive or negative. We should channel our thoughts in a positive direction, avoiding negative thought patterns. These thoughts will become reality in time. We should learn to perform good deeds without becoming discouraged because no one can take away our reward. What we earn will come to us, and we should prevent producing bad karma because we cannot escape punishment for them.

8. We also learn to escape karma by reducing our mental attachments. By letting go of the feeling of doership and working as an instrument of God, we don’t register karma in the memory of our biocomputer. As one evolves, reincarnation is experienced as a conviction. The realization comes to us that the world is in perfect balance and completely systematic.

9. Reincarnation increases our love and tolerance for others. Each soul is at a different level of evolution and we should not expect others to be any different. We should remember that we have gone through such experiences ourselves to come to our present level of understanding. It is normal for kindergarten children to learn the alphabet, second graders to read, and high school students to write essays. The world is a school and we are students in different grades learning different lessons. We learn to see the spark of God in everyone in spite of the different human masks they are wearing.

p.s. People can practice most aspects of Karma Yoga without believing in reincarnation.

Doing Nothing is Also an Action

All actions produce reactions. Sitting around doing nothing is an action in itself and can have both good and bad consequences. Attitude is what matters most. A person can cut another person with a knife for two reasons. One kills, the other saves with a surgical operation. The action, cutting with a knife, is the same, but the purposes are very different. Karma Yoga practitioners strive to be forces for good, instruments of love and light, working for the sake of work, doing for the sake of doing, and letting go of the outcome over which they have no control.

Gudjon Bergmann
Author, Coach, and Columnist

p.s. I have taught yoga since 19998, studied with Yogi Shanti Desai and Sri Yogi Hari, and am registered at the highest level with Yoga Alliance. This article was curated from my book titled Know Thyself: Yoga Philosophy Made Accessible

Picture: CC0 License

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