In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, preceptor to Arjuna, explores concepts that can be a stretch for Western minds. For example, in the last post in this series we focused on the interplay of the three gunas, the underlying forces of nature: sattva (tranquility), rajas (passion), and tamas (dullness). The Gita illustrates how the gunas energize our attachments, defining our everyday experience and binding us to the objects of our desire. Our attachments are sometimes pure (sattva), at other times impure (tamas), and often somewhere between (rajas).
The Gita assures us that it is possible to cultivate sattva, thereby increasing tranquility, and ultimately even to transcend sattva to find peace beyond the boundaries of nature’s turning wheel. This, says the Gita, is the fundamental aim of yoga. To fulfill its promise the Gita offers four paths: karma yoga (selfless action), bhakti yoga (devotion), raja yoga (meditation), and jnana yoga (wisdom). In this fifth post in the series, we will focus on the path of karma yoga.
The Path of Selfless Action
The path of karma yoga is a path of selfless action and of compassion toward the suffering of others. Karma yoga is apparent in acts of seva, selfless service. The act of volunteering, for example, captures the spirit of karma yoga and turns it into a visible behavior. It is the spirit of karma yoga that prompts you to help with the dishes when everyone else has gone home, raise funds to carry on the work of a charity, or offer your time to coach a child’s athletic team.
The theme of karma yoga lies at the heart of Krishna’s message to Arjuna. Whenever action is prompted by a spirit of karma yoga, Krishna tells him, attachment to the fruit of action is weakened and bondage to self-centered desire is mitigated. Action of this kind is supported by three specific motives:
Karma yoga is apparent in acts of seva, selfless service.
- First is action motivated by necessity. When a baby is born, for example, the need to act as a mindful parent awakens. Similarly, farmers feel the importance of caring for the land and providing food not only for their families, but also for the larger community. For Arjuna, as a prince, it is important to fight for and protect the people he serves. Thus Krishna encourages him to fight against evil. Such actions are dharma, yours to do. And it is doing such actions for their own sake, without attachment to the outcome—success or failure, victory or defeat—that marks these acts as karma yoga.
- Next comes action that is virtuous. Action of this kind is motivated by faith in simple goodness. Virtuous actions can be recognized as those guided by the five yamas (restraints) of yoga: non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, sensory moderation, and non-grasping of possessions. For example, by sharing objects we consider to be our possessions, we reduce the powerful sense of clinging that binds us to them.
- Finally, generosity—charitable action done without expecting anything in return—lies at the heart of karma yoga. It promotes praiseworthy purposes and serves the community. Generosity can be in the form of money, or it can be giving our time, energy, skills, or friendship. Krishna encourages Arjuna to be charitable when the urge arises—giving to the right recipient, at the right time, and at the right place (verse 17:20). Giving of this sort brings the spirit of karma yoga to life.
Krishna’s Teachings on Karma Yoga
A single verse from the second chapter of the Gita, verse 2:48, is a wonderful illustration of the importance of karma yoga in Krishna’s teachings. In Sanskrit it reads:
yogasthah kuru karmani
sangam tyaktva, dhananjaya;
siddhyasiddhyo samo bhutva
samatvam yoga ucyate.
Translating this into English, it reads:
Staying within yourself, do your actions
Renouncing attachment, O Conqueror of Wealth (Arjuna);
Be the same in success or failure,
For equanimity is yoga, it is said.
The verse begins with the compound yoga-sthah. The word sthah is related to the English word stay and is often translated in this compound as “staying in yoga” or “fixed in yoga.” But how does a person really go about doing what Krishna suggests? If we slightly change the translation to read “staying within yourself,” as we have done above, we gain further insight. By translating the word yoga in this way, the verse offers some additional meanings for us. Here are four examples:
- Stay within your understanding of what makes a particular action wise or unwise.
- Stay tuned to your inner vision rather than wobbling from it.
- Stay calm in the face of stressors that drive you away from your inner center.
- Stay attentive to the quality of your actions.
“Staying in yoga” means staying attentive to the quality of your actions.
These and similar meanings supply a more personal understanding of yogasthah.
The first line continues with two words that clearly show Krishna is presenting a lesson on karma yoga. The word kuru is the imperative form of the verb meaning “do.” The word karmani is a plural noun—“actions.” Kuru karmani means “Do your actions!” How? By first sensing what it means to stay within yourself, and then acting. Without actually using the term dharma, Krishna has captured its essence. Action performed with mindfulness of our inner purpose and its value is dharma. Krishna admonishes, “Stay within that inner sense of purpose and do the actions that are yours to do!”
What else makes an action dharma? In the second line of the verse, Krishna advises Arjuna to practice sangam tyaktva. The word sangam means “selfish attachment.” Tyaktva is a gerund (a verb that has become a noun) that means “renouncing.” Together these two words create the phrase “attachment renouncing.” Krishna is saying that the way to perform actions is by renouncing (tyaktva) attachment (sangam) to the fruits of action. It is selfish motivation that binds, and renunciation of attachment that ultimately frees us from the turning wheel of karma. “Action is yours, but not the fruits of action,” Krishna reminds us. This is the essence of the path of karma yoga.
“Action is yours, but not the fruits of action,” Krishna reminds us.
Krishna maintains this tone in the third line. He chooses a dvandva, a pair of opposites, to further amplify the karma yoga theme. He advises Arjuna to react with an even temper, without attachment to the outcome of the actions he must soon perform in battle. Krishna tells Arjuna to be (bhutva) the same (samah) in success or failure (siddhya-siddhyo).
This leads to a statement that summarizes the path of karma yoga. In the fourth line of verse 2:48 Krishna states, “sameness (samatvam) is yoga, it is said (ucyate).” The verse beautifully captures the spirit of karma yoga:
Remaining attentive to your inner guide, perform your actions,
Renouncing attachment to fruits, O Conqueror of Wealth;
Remain even-minded in success or failure,
For equanimity is yoga, it is said.
Every Reading Provides More Insight
Keeping the nuances of Krishna’s teachings in mind is not always an easy task. But with the motives inspiring karma yoga practice for guidance, the teachings of the Gita can blossom anew with every reading. Chapters two, three, and four are particularly rich in references to karma yoga. A fresh reading of these chapters will provide new insight and the opportunity to awaken Krishna’s inspiration yet again.
Before the next post in this series, in which we will examine the practices of bhakti yoga, perhaps you will find time to have another look at Krishna’s advice on karma yoga. You might contemplate how karma yoga makes life’s actions more meaningful and transformative.