(Last Updated on : 04/09/2013)
Karma yoga is the first step in the spiritual discipline (sadhana
) which is to be adopted for moksha
. Karma yoga can serve as an aid to jnana yoga
which secures the realization of the self. It can also serve as a direct means to self-realization since the practice of karma yoga in the prescribed manner includes in it the jnana yoga. The term karma
bears different meanings. In a general sense it means action or any activity. It also refers to the merit and demerit (punya and papa) acquired as a result of the performance of good and bad deeds respectively. It is also understood as the observance of the prescribed religious acts and in this sense the term is used in the present context. Yoga
means upaya or method to be adopted to achieve a goal. So the compound word karma yoga means a specific religious act adopted as a means or upaya for self-realization.
There are several religious duties laid down by the sacred texts. The Bhagavad Gita
has enumerated the following as illustrative - (1) worship of God (devarchana) (2) performance of the sacrifice (yaga) in the consecrated fire (3) control of the sense organs (indriya-samyama) by arresting their outward movement towards external objects (4) control of the mind (manas-sarityama) (5) giving away the money earned in a righteous way in charity (dana) either for the worship of God or for performance of homa or to deserving persons etc. (6) observance of austerities (tapas) in the form of performance of prescribed rites such as fasting (7) visiting holy religious centres and bathing in sacred waters (punyatirtha-punyasthana-prapti) (8) recitation of the Vedas and study of the teachings of the sacred texts (svadhyaya tadartha jnanabhyasa) and (9) practice of breath control (pranayama
). It is not necessary that all of these religious duties have to be observed for the purpose of karma yoga. Any one of them, depending upon the capacity and choice of an individual, adopted as a sadhana or religious discipline can become karma yoga for self-realization. Each one of these acts is called yajna
in the Gita thereby implying that it is to be performed with the spirit of a sacrifice (yaga) for the sole purpose of self-realization.
Requirements for Karma Yoga
There are several important requirements to be fulfilled for a successful performance of karma yoga by an aspirant. In the first instance, he should acquire adequate philosophic knowledge about the true nature of jivatman and Paramatman through the study of the sacred texts under the guidance of a qualified preceptor (guru). The need of such knowledge is obvious because without knowing the true nature of the self, one cannot strive for its realization.
The second important requirement is that a person performing karma yoga is required to observe without fail all the other religious duties which have been laid down by the sacred texts, in accordance with one`s varna (caste) and asrama (stages of life). These duties are generally called karmas. These karmas are of three types- (a) nitya or those prescribed religious duties which are mandatory and to be performed unconditionally (b) naimittika or those prescribed rituals which have to be observed necessarily but only on certain occasions or for certain specific purposes and (c) kamya or those which may be performed only when one desires to attain some specific result such as heaven or wealth. The first two are obligatory duties because the non-performance of them will result in sin. The third one is purely optional. These duties vary in accordance with one`s caste and the stages of life. Anyone who embarks on karma yoga should necessarily observe the performance of nitya and naimittika karmas as auxiliaries to the spiritual discipline.
The third requirement, which is the most important one, is that the religious act which is adopted as a sadhana for the purpose of self-realization should be performed without any attachment either to oneself, or to the karma itself or even to the result arising from it.
Karma Yoga and the need for Renunciation
There are three factors involved in the performance of karma yoga emphasising a spirit of renunciation. The first one is the renunciation of egoism in the form that `I am the doer of the act` (kartitva-tyaga), the second is the renunciation of selfish attachment to the act, viz., that `it is my act` (mamata-tyaga), and the third one is the renunciation of the desire in the fruit accruing from the deed, viz., that `I am reaping the benefit for my purpose` (phala-tyaga).
Thus says the Bhagavad Gita, "You have a right only to (do) the karma and never to its fruit; you are not to think that you are the cause of it." It teaches the disinterested performance of karma as a duty for duty`s sake. This is the highest ethical ideal upheld in the Bhagavad Gita. When an individual seeking moksha undertakes the performance of the prescribed karma as a sadhana for liberation from bondage, it is imperative on his part to develop this sense of renunciation.
It is not an easy task to follow this ideal. It is natural for an individual, being influenced by an attachment to the physical body, to have the egoism, the feeling that he himself is the agent of the action. It is also natural to be influenced by a desire for the result when an activity is undertaken by him. Constant and sincere effort is, therefore, needed to get over these factors. Two practical suggestions have been made in the Gita in this regard. The first one is to ascribe the doership to the three qualities or gunas
- sattva, rajas and tamas- which are inherent in the mind. All things in the universe, both physical and psychical, are said to be the products of prakriti
which is constituted in the three gunas. These gunas influence all our thoughts and physical activities. So what is responsible for a particular act is the influence of the gunas more than the individual self.
The second suggestion is to put the responsibility of the action on Ishwara or God who is the inner controller of all human beings. According to the Visistadvaita Vedanta, God is the indweller of all sentient beings and as antaratma, He controls all the activities of human beings from within. The Gita also reiterates the same truth. The individual self (jiva
) is absolutely dependent on God and the very capacity to act (kartitva) is also endowed by God. By realizing this truth, it will become easy to develop the spirit of renunciation in the performance of a religious act as a part of karma yoga.
The disinterested performance of karma, which is known as niskama karma, as a divine service for the pleasure of God, has the advantage of securing the grace of God. It also gives mental tranquillity and inner purity of mind which are essential requirements for performing the meditation on the self. This helps the aspirant to realize the goal of self-realization in an easier way than pursuing the rigorous path of jnana yoga.
In view of it, karma yoga is considered better than jnana yoga and it can serve as a direct aid to atmavalokana, the vision of the jivatman, which is the goal of jnana yoga. In a sense karma yoga includes in it an element of jnana yoga since true knowledge of self (atma jnana) is involved in the practice of karma yoga. Even jnana yoga will need karma yoga as an aid to it. The two are interrelated. But it is easier to practice karma yoga as it takes less effort and time to realize the goal because of the divine grace showered on the individual in response to the disinterested performance of karma.
Results of following Karma Yoga
The practice of karma yoga leads the aspirant to a state of steadfastness in self-knowledge. The Gita describes him as a sthitaprajna and extolls him as the ideal person. He has conquered the senses and mind, which cause attachment to worldly pleasures and thereby further bondage. He enjoys such a state of mental tranquillity that neither joy nor sorrow affects him. He neither develops hatred towards others nor any attachment to any because he has conquered the two unethical mental qualities of kama
or desire and krodha or anger. Being immersed in the delight of the self-knowledge, he enjoys perfect peace of mind (santi). He thus becomes the fittest person for the practice of jnana yoga to attain the direct vision of the self or even the practice of bhakti yoga
to attain God-realization.