In my last article, we examined some of the philosophical background behind hatha yoga—the yogic discipline that has become most popular in the West. Besides hatha, however, there are a variety of other spiritual practices that pertain to yoga, many of which go unrecognized as such by Western observers. In this article, we will look at the first of these—karma yoga, or the yoga of action.
Karma yoga, acting on your personal dharma (duty) without expecting anything for your actions. Photo from Flickr.
Probably the most famous Hindu scripture outside India is the Bhagavad Gita, which is a chapter from the much longer epic entitled Mahabharata. The Mahabharata, several times as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, tells the story of a great war between two families—the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Bhagavad Gita is a particular climax in the action, when one of the Pandava princes, Arjuna, finds himself about to commence a battle between his own forces and those of his enemies. Arjuna is hesitant, however, because he has family and friends and men he admires on both sides of the conflict, and he freezes before the horror of sentencing so many of them to die by giving the order to attack.
His charioteer, however, is Krishna (who has been made famous in the West by the Hare Krishna movement and George Harrison’s songwriting). Krishna is the avatar, or incarnation, of the great God Vishnu—the sustainer of the universe—and it is from him that Arjuna learns the path of karma yoga.
The word “karma” comes from the Sanskrit root kri, which means “to do”. Although it is best known in the West as describing the results of action—the aftereffects of our decisions that pursue us through this life and the next—in India, it carries this meaning alongside the more fundamental meaning of action itself. Remembering that “yoga” is “connection”, karma yoga offers the means of connection to God through action—a far cry from the contemplative stillness of hatha!
The clever reader will remember the goal of the hatha practitioner, through samadhi to achieve kaivalya and to recognize that he is, himself, brahman—the one, true, absolute reality. This reality is unchanging and eternal, putting the faces of mortal men and women on and off at will in its self-actualization. Thus, when Arjuna says “I will not fight,” Krishna smiles and reminds him “…we all have been for all time: I, and thou, and those kings of men. And we all shall be for all time, we all for ever and ever. … Interwoven in his creation, the Spirit is beyond destruction. No one can bring to an end the Spirit which is everlasting. For beyond time he dwells in these bodies, though these bodies have an end in their time; but he remains immeasurable, immortal. Therefore, great warrior, carry on thy fight. Precisely because the sage may learn in the practice of hatha yoga that he is himself the Spirit that pervades all things, the warrior can know, says Krishna, that what he is and what his enemies are is the same and is imperishable. Thus, he need have no reservation about doing his duty as a warrior, secure in the knowledge that not only all outcomes but all reality rests in God.
Arjuna, however, remains uncertain. It seems to him that this vision lends itself to the contemplation of the hatha yogi more than to the bloodshed of a warrior. But Krishna will have none of his doubting. Arjuna is a born kshatriya—a member of the warrior caste—and it is not his place to question the duty that that enjoins upon him. Men are brought to confusion and to wrong-doing not because they take this or that action, but because they concern themselves for the outcome of that action. They do something to be rich, or to be famous, or to be powerful, or to be respected, or even to be pious, and think that happiness will be found in attaining their result. In doing so, however, they have only allowed their little egos to blind them to the reality of their true nature as Spirit, and set up unrealizable phantasms as the objects of their hopes. The only true path of wisdom, says Krishna, is “beyond gains and possessions [to] possess thine own soul. … Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. … Do thy work in the peace of Yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or in failure. Yoga is evenness of mind – a peace that is ever the same.” (2:45, 47-8) Thus, when one has learned to act for the pure rightness—the pure joy—of acting and to accept whatever may come of it as from God, one has attained connection with God through action.
For Arjuna, this meant the unleashing of a volley of arrows. For subsequent generations of Hindus, it has as often meant service in maintaining temples, feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, and other such acts of charity prized in themselves as selfless exercises of duty, and not for any reward, even the reward of being known to be dutiful, that may come from them. The counsel that brought death to many on the battlefield in that distant day of Krishna’s teaching has brought life to many more with equal equanimity, remembering always, as Krishna said, that “The wise grieve not for those who live; and they grieve not for those who die – for life and death shall pass away.” (2:11)
It was from that knowledge that Arjuna took the heart to see to its end the mission with which life and destiny had entrusted him by surrendering the ownership of his actions to God, in the form of Krishna, to whom they truly belong. In doing so, he took the first step toward the last form of yoga we will consider. First, however, before we leave Krishna and Arjuna to commence their battle, Krishna has somewhat to say of the yoga of contemplation, too, and that will be our topic next time.