Karma Yoga Decoded

Online link : http://www.speakingtree.in/blog/karma-yoga-decoded
Karmayoga is generally translated and understood as ‘path of action’, yoga of action. People have different notions as to what constitutes karma yoga.  Some think that a person engaged in action throughout the day is a karma yogi. According to this yardstick even those who put in many hours of hard work in illegal activities like gambling and smuggling or those who work for hours on end motivated by greed for maximum profits or more power would be considered karma yogis! Doing a lot of karma (actions) for many hours a day may be a part of karma yoga but is not its essential nature.

There are others who believe that karma yoga means skilfully performing actions.  This would mean that a person who skilfully picks the pocket of another can be considered a karma yogi! There is a story of two skilled pickpockets who fell in love and got married.They were very happy when they were blessed with a son. They hoped that he would be even more skilled at picking pockets than they were. To their horror they found the child would not open his fist! How would he be a pickpocket they wondered? Finally when he did openhis fist they found it in his little hand the gold ring worn by the nurse, who had assisted with the delivery! Skilful from birth! This story may be an exaggeration but it demonstrates  an important point  – to do things skilfully or with dexterity is no doubt an important part of karma yoga, but merely doing things skilfully does not make one a karma yogi.

Another popular notion about karma yoga is that actions should be performed without any desire for the fruit of action. Others question this and ask, “If all actions are to be done without desire for the fruits of action, how will there be any karma?  Is it only to fulfil desires that actions are performed?” Or they say that there prosperity happens only because of desires, so no desires mean no prosperity.  They dismiss karma yoga as impractical.

It is true that there can be no action without a desire or without some motive but, why should desire only be for a materialistic gain?  Actions can also be performed to achieve a higher purpose.  One generally tends to ask, “What will I gain materially from this action?” But I can also ask “How can this action bring material benefit for somebody else?” There will be a material benefit but for someone else, not me.  As far as I am concerned, I should only ask, “Will this action lead to purity of mind?”

When 8 or 10 people are working for the same material gain, it is not possible for them all to get it. Only one or perhaps two of them can obtain the object desired. This can lead to a fights, conflicts, competition, struggle, and pain. But suppose each one of them works with the attitude that he wants to gain only purity of mind, a non-material objective – it can be gained by all of them at the same time. Conflict arises only when everyone seeks material gain and all covet the same thing.

In karma yoga also there is a desire but not for material comforts and enjoyment. Or even if it is for material gain it is to benefit somebody else, not the doer.  There are many householders who work hard for the benefit and prosperity of their children. Their gain is the joy they feel when their children accomplish great goals. There is no material gain. This demonstrates that action does not always have to be motivated by material goals.

There are two aspects to any action. The first is to perform the action efficiently, perfectly. However perfectly an action may be performed there is always room for improvement. Hence the saying, ‘The largest room in the world is the room for improvement!’ The second aspect is the attitude with which the action is performed. Perfection in action is rather difficult but perfection in attitude is possible. If we perform actions with the right attitude, then however small or big the action, it will become great.  This is beautifully illustrated by the famous squirrel in the Ramayana, who out of love for Sri Rama tried to help the monkeys build the bridge across the ocean. The squirrel first wet itself in the water, then rolled in the sand and shook off the grains of sand on the bridge. This irritated the monkeys but Sri Rama understood the squirrel’s desire to assist in this great endeavour.

So only right actions (performing one’s obligatory duties) performed with the right attitude can be termed as karma yoga; otherwise it is merely karma, action.