The theoretical grounds and techniques of action in Karma yoga are clearly stated by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, with the only observation that the order in which these ideas are presented is not the most convenient for Western people. Briefly, the wise teachings of Krishna are:
1. One can not be without action, even for a second.
The first statement: “The human being cannot be without action” has an exclusively theoretical character, serving as preparation for the second statement: “inactivity shouldn’t be the goal”, which is of a practical nature and, as we will see further, it is addressed more to Easterners than Westerners.
We will proceed now to examine these aspects closely: In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna returns to them three times: – “not even for a moment can one be without action. Everything inevitably goes towards action”. “Even your physical life”, says Krishna to Arjuna, “cannot be maintained without a continuous action”.
And finally, “no incarnated being can renounce action totally. Action is inevitable”.
In other chapters from Mahabharata, Krishna is approvingly quoting one Brahmin who says to his wife: “In this world it is impossible not to act, even for a single moment” (Ashvamedhika). Different people living in all times recognise this truth. Even nowadays, the great sages reconfirm this truth. Sri Ramakrishna said: “No one can avoid action. The mere fact of saying ‘I am’ or ‘I am thinking’ implies already action. We cannot escape action; action is a natural law”.
Swami Vivekananda also says: “We cannot live even for one single second without acting”. Swami Brahmananda comes to the same conclusion: “Without action our existence would be impossible”. Swami Ramadas wrote: “To act is the very fundamental expression of the nature of our being, in the same way as the meaning of a flower is to spread its perfume. As such, we should act with wisdom. We cannot do otherwise, because it is impossible. Even if sometimes the human being is immobile and apparently inactive, his organs and his inner structures, the psyche, the mind, the intellect are always more or less active. The complete cessation of all actions is therefore impossible”. This is an obvious aspect that is revealed when deeply reflected upon. During the deepest physical immobility, thinking is still active, and even if we can partially stop it (which is very often only our imagination), the natural functions of the body (respiration, circulation, etc.) will not cease their activity. Sri Aurobindo says that even when the mental activity is stopped, in the brain there still occur certain “vibrations” that are perceptible and identifiable.
No matter what, even a total ‘inaction’ will not stop us from ‘acting’ and therefore modifying the course of what would have happened if we had acted in a normal way. This is because we can operate in a subtle way through our aura and thus manifest influences over our immediate surroundings through our inner attitude or intention. These influences, through resonance and induction, can for example make us happy or worried, and if they are very strong they can determine a sort of contagious emulation in people that are around us, which will have positive or negative effects upon us, changing our inner state accordingly.
2. One should not make inaction one‘s goal.
If inactivity is impossible then it is obviously irrational and erroneous to propose it as a goal in any form of Yoga. Krishna tells Arjuna: “Do not allow attachment to inactivity in any way”. To prevent any misunderstanding on Arjuna´s part, he is also adds: “Not through abstinence from actions will people enjoy non-action, not by renouncing actions will they attain perfection”. He continues by emphasising “Action is always superior to inaction”.
In Krishna‘s time, these revelations were directed towards several important Jnana and Raja yoga schools which were exaggeratedly emphasising as a necessary stage and even as a final goal of the spiritual discipline the complete cessation of all physical and even mental activities. This abnormal approach is not attractive today, except for small groups that claim certain phantasmagorical understanding of the teachings of Shankara and Patanjali. Actually, many people are inclined to believe that any activity, other than spiritual, is a necessary evil for which we should not allow more than a minimal time and save the rest for inner focusing, for meditation, worship, etc. This is why, the great contemporary sages have considered it necessary to remind us of the words of Krishna. For example, Tagore said: “In order to live harmoniously, we have to work; life and activity are tightly entwined”. “Who will be so insane as to always run away from the happy crowd looking for God only in the prostration of inactivity? “.
Swami Ramadas explains: “Yoga does not mean renunciation of action; on the contrary, it rises the action to the highest spiritual level” (The presence of Ram).
Swami Brahmananda, even while asking his disciples to meditate a few hours daily, he said: “I am asking, why are you so afraid of your work? If you really want to realise God then work perseveringly and wait. You should never totally abandon other activities” (Spiritual disciplines).
Sri Aurobindo continuously returns to a similar idea: “Work has a primary importance. Doings are necessary; Yoga of action is indispensable. The idea of abandoning the physical activity in order to accelerate the development of our mind is a fantasy of our mental ego” (Practical Integral Yoga). He also says: “To continue the physical activity helps us to keep the balance between the inner experience and the outer development” (Yoga Guide). Even so, sages of all times are also emphasising that the obligation to act more or less visibly ceases for those rare human beings who, upon reaching a high spiritual level, cannot objectively conform anymore. That is why, for Sri Ramakrishna, only the people which are not Sattva (pure, balanced) must obey to the imperatives of work in this world (Teachings of Ramakrishna). As such, the pure Sattva being, who is free of Tamas or Rajas has attained almost a superhuman level. Swami Vivekananda is referring to these people when he says: “There are nevertheless, exceptional beings completely content with the Self, beings whose wishes are beyond the Self, beings whose mind doesn’t wander away from the Self, beings for which the Self is everything; only these beings don’t need to work anymore. The rest of humanity is obliged to pass slowly, slowly through the world of activity. Karma Yoga shows us the principle, reveals to us the secret, and offers us a method to perform it in practice, with maximum efficiency”.
Ma Ananda Moyi talks in the same way: “we should never stay without doing something, or wait in a state of inertia for a state of pure and perfect being to appear”. It is very useful to observe that even the greatest sages who have attained the highest state of spiritual evolution continue to act tirelessly.
As a last word on this point, in Mahabharata the king of the Gods, Indra, says: “people who criticise action are sinful”.
3. Certain actions are obligatory, therefore we cannot escape them.
To this short, imperative indication Krishna adds another, of a complementary positive nature. In the beginning of Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says: “Perform the necessary action as I have indicated” (i.e., according to the Karma Yoga principles). And at the end Krishna reminds us: “It is not necessary to renounce those actions which are correctly integrated and consecrated”. It is important to discover what these ‘indicated’ actions are, “which must be performed”. It is possible that Krishna refers here to certain special procedures, to certain Yoga techniques, to specific ways of purification and sublimation or to details pertinent to one or another form of Yoga. All these acts “must necessarily be performed” because, “they purify the blood” determining the refinement of the human being and to them Krishna will refer further. Nevertheless, a further reading of Bhagavad Gita will show that Krishna does not refer to these kinds of actions.
Nowadays, however, this principle obviously gets a different significance and in order to understand it better, we must refer to the competent opinion of contemporary sages.
For the fortunate ones who are guided by a true Guru (not all those who call themselves guru-s are genuine!) the problem is very simple: they must follow as closely as possible the guidance of their spiritual guide in order to elevate themselves inwardly and grow spiritually. For those who don’t have a guru we will refer to the teachings of the great Karma yogi; Mahatma Gandhi. He said: “the law of activity is the law of life” and we know that for him ‘the law of life’ was the daily request dictated by his consciousness that was tuned in to the divine consciousness. He said: “God created the human being in such a way that he can get his daily food or his daily energy through his work or activity. The one who is eating without working or who is inertly waiting to receive without deserving it or without acting, is a thief”.
Sri Aurobindo said: “We have to obey our ‘social obligations’ in a detached state, but consider them as a true field for Yoga practice” (Integral Practical Yoga).
He considers that every activity is spiritual and useful for the one who performs it with the right attitude of detached integration. In his words: “we should perform all our actions with a detached attitude, in the right state of consciousness and with spiritual integration”.
This way of doing things produces an inner state that is equivalent to a state that follows a successful meditation. In fact for him, “action or activity is nothing else than another specific form of preparation, equally important as Yoga meditation.”
Swami Ramadas also states “The action performed in a state of complete absorption (fusion) into the Supreme Eternal Centre of the universe is that which the sages call yogic action (The Presence of Ram).
In this case, the nature of the action becomes of a secondary importance. Here we can again quote Sri Aurobindo: “We can use any action or activity as a field or area, in which we exercise every moment in the wise spirit of the Bhagavad Gita” (Integral Practical Yoga).
Swami Vivekananda says about this: “Even the lowest or apparently inferior aspects of activity should not be despised” (Practical Yoga).
Sri Aurobindo insists: “It is absolutely untrue that physical activity has less value than the sustained mental activity; only the arrogance of the limited intellect can pretend this.” The efficiency of the action that was firmly consecrated and that is performed through and for the Divine is directly proportional to the degree of divine offering. The manual action intentionally performed only for the Divine is superior to the mental activity intentionally performed only for our own egotistical evolution, for personal glory, or for transient mental satisfaction.
According to the Indian tradition regarding Karma Yoga, the choice of actions “which have to be performed” by a certain individual is determined by what in India is called svadharma (The appropriate law). While in the West, the religion, the morality and the law are made of rights and restrictions given in absolute terms, reserving the right for multiple exceptions, the Hinduism gives different rights and duties, sometimes contradictory, to the different groups of people within society. To name just one example: in the West there is an absolute principle preached by the church and applied in court: “thou shall not kill!” This principle is so strict that it has produced some extreme individuals and social groups that are categorically condemning euthanasia and abortion. To this strict imperative of ‘not killing’ there is a big exception: “During war do all your best to kill the enemy”. And even this calls for an exception: “Do not kill the enemy if he is disarmed, if he surrenders, or if he is already a hostage”. There are many other examples of exceptions. The traditional Eastern teaching has a different approach: it accepts that the ‘duty’ (Dharma) is not the same for all, but varies according to age, sex, social status, caste, etc. Thus, everybody has his own individualised duty, his own svadharma.
Here follows some significant examples: in India, people who belong to the caste of Brahmans must strive to be non-violent to such a degree that, with very few exceptions, all Brahmans are strictly vegetarians. Those belonging to the caste of warriors, kshatriyas, have as an essential duty to defend what they deem as being right, using violence if necessary. The head of the family must work to support those who are depending on him. The person who listens to the “divine call” and becomes Sannyasin (disciple aspiring to enlightenment) and also the one who (according to a now discontinued tradition) has married his children, these two categories may not work anymore to earn their existence or to provide for others, and must exclusively live from begging when they pursue the spiritual realisation.
“All people” wrote Swami Sivananda, “must fulfill their duty according to the requirements of the social group to which they belong and to the stage of life (ashrama) in which they are” (Teachings of Sivananda). No doubt, this system could not be directly transposed in the West, because in the East the Hindu system of castes plays a very important role. For instance, in a few fishermen communities from the South of India, it is an obligation to throw the net with the left hand and it would be a great sin to throw it with the right hand, while in other fishermen communities in India the opposite must be done. Nevertheless, many problems and inner tensions could be easily solved if we abstain from following blindly and defiantly a very general and apparently absolute rule without filtering it through common sense and intelligent analysis.
It is not without interest to mention here the warning of eastern sages against what we often compliantly call ‘duty’, even if in reality this could be only a well-disguised selfish desire. Referring to this, Swami Vivekananda says: “when an attachment is well rooted we often call it a habit… when the attachment becomes chronic we proudly call it ‘duty’ … Those wishing truly to be Karma Yogi-s must eliminate this false notion of duty.” (Practical Yoga).
More Eastern sages insisted on the necessity of devoting oneself with priority to what Swami Vivekananda calls: “the duty which here and now is the closest to us”. Mahatma Gandhi explained this aspect in detail in his svadeshi doctrine: “A real adept of the svadeshi doctrine must have as first duty to devote his services and help to his closest neighbours. This will entail the exclusion and even the sacrificing of the interests of the rest, but this exclusion and sacrifice is just an appearance. Through its own nature, the help or service done for the close ones can never result in an obstruction for those that are far away, on the contrary. This is how things are both for the Universe and for the individual, and this is an infallible principle, which should be deeply understood. On the other hand, the one who lets himself be carried away by a ‘faraway landscape’ and who will go to the end of the world to serve, not only will he see his ambition betrayed, but will also not fulfill his duties toward those in his immediate surroundings” (Letters from Ashram by Mahatma Gandhi).
But Gandhi admits in this direction several exceptions: “There can be situations in which the adept of the svadeshi doctrine will be asked to sacrifice his family on behalf of the universal service. This act of freely consented sacrifice constitutes the supreme service which we can bring to the universal family of mankind from this planet”.
The ‘indicated’ or ‘recommended’ action may, on certain special occasions, even imply violence against somebody. Swami Vivekananda said: “The Karma yogi is the one who understands that the highest ideal is consecration full of ardour and non resistance; as such, the one who understands that this non resistance is the highest manifestation of the power we hold in us, equally knows that what we call ‘resisting to evil’ is also a stage on the path towards the manifestation of non-resistance. But before getting to this supreme ideal, the human being has the duty to oppose and resist evil”. (Practical Yoga).
Mahatma Gandhi himself, the great preacher of non-violence, stated in this direction that “the one who remains the passive spectator of a crime is indeed, even from the judiciary point of view, a participant to that crime”. All these ideas help us understand better why Sri Aurobindo wrote to one of his disciples: “Have no remorse for the time spent in activity and creative work” (Integral Practical Yoga). Swami Sivananda says the same: “The activity performed with completely detached ardour, is the key of Karma Yoga.” (Teachings of Sivananda).
4. One should not desire the fruits (or the consequences) of one‘s actions.
We are now going to explain the fundamental principle and the great secret of the Karma Yoga system; once engaged on this path, we willingly and unconditionally give up the fruits of our actions, and therefore we also give up the desire for selfishly enjoying the good consequences or the fear of supporting the bad consequences of our actions. This is the fundamental principle of “unselfish action through consecration to the Divine”. This is what Krishna firmly declares in the beginning of Bhagavad Gita: “You have the right to perform the action, but only to perform it, because from now on you should never again desire its fruits; the fruits of your action should never be the motive which sets you to work”.
“Only the poor miserable souls are acting for the fruits of their actions or from the desire for those fruits, the constant object of their thoughts or activities”. “The wise, by complete and profound union with the Divine, and by aligning their existence and their will with the Supreme Will, renounce totally the fruits that result from their actions”.
Further on, Kåñna describes the consequences of this extraordinary, indeed Supreme, attitude: “Abandoning totally the attachment to the fruits of the action, the soul succeeds to instantly merge with the Divine ( Brahman) and immediately feels an euphoric state of peace and force based on the almightiness and beatitude of the Divine (Brahman)”. In the last chapter of Bhagavad Gita, this truth is summed up as follows: “A tyagin is one who thoroughly attained the perfect renunciation and about him we can say that he attained this ‘beatific and almighty peace’ that comes from merging into the Supreme Absolute (Brahman) and which manifests in and through him permanently – such is indeed the one who has abandoned the fruits of action”.
In the rest of Mahabharata, all other yogi-c wisemen support Krishna‘s teachings. In this direction, Manu says: “The only spontaneous and instant way to attain the Divine is that the mind should completely renounce the fruit of action”. Likewise, Krishna says: “The only true and appropriate action which can have eternal and infinite consequences is the one not motivated by any desire for its fruits or by the pursuit of any reward.” The wise king Yudhishthira is more direct: “The one always wishing to collect the fruits of his moral excellence makes a pitiful trade with virtue”.
All contemporary sages, without exception, agree on this point. Swami Ramadas says: “Karma Yoga is the complete renunciation of the fruits of our actions.” Swami Vivekananda frequently returns to this theme: “Never be concerned with the fruits of your actions. Why should we be concerned only for the results?” “Renounce entirely all fruits of your actions.” “Never look or wish for praises or rewards for anything you do”. “The idea of finally obtaining something as a reward for our activity is considerably obstructing our spiritual evolution and often ends by bringing us suffering” (Practical Yoga).
Swami Brahmananda said to his disciples: “If you truly wish to act correctly, you must never forget two main principles: in the first place a profound respect full of attention for the action to be done and in the second place a total indifference or detachment for its fruits. This is what we call the biggest secret in Karma Yoga” (Spiritual disciplines).
Ma Ananda Moyi explains: “As long as we only hide the desire of stepping forward and being known, there is no Karma Yoga, there is just the pleasure of acting for our own satisfaction. We act then only for selfishly enjoying the fruits of our action or for the prestige that it can bring to us. If, before we act, we renounce completely the fruits of our action this instantly becomes Karma Yoga” (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi).
The broader meaning which she gives here to the desire for the fruits of the action, is also shown in the following words of Sri Ramakrishna: “To act only for your own material interest is degrading”. (Teachings of Ramakrishna). In fact, the continual pursuit of the results or fruits of the action, even if we do not directly take advantage of them, is equally a manifestation of selfishness. Swami Sivananda says: “How can an egoist person practice Karma Yoga? As long as he does not make the effort to go beyond his selfishness, this Spiritual path is impossible for him”.
The same idea is formulated by Sri Aurobindo: “Karma Yoga cannot exist without the intense desire to abandon selfishness, the Rajas Guna dominance, the desire for the fruits of action – which are all true seals of ignorance…. Action performed in the spirit of Karma Yoga is just as efficient as the highest realisation in Bhakti Yoga and it is similar to the attainment of success in contemplation” (The Yoga guide).
For the successful practice of Karma Yoga we must therefore “free ourselves of any selfish goal, regardless of what that is” (Integral Practical Yoga). Sri Aurobindo further analyses the conditions for this to be accomplished: “The only action which instantly unites us with the Supreme and is rapidly purifying us spiritually, is that action which we do in a state of perfect detachment, with no personal reasons, without looking in any way for notoriety or for the ephemeral honours of this world, without setting forth our personal goals, individual intentions, vital greed or physical preferences, without feeling vanity, without wishing to compel recognition or to find prestige; this is in reality the action that the Divine is doing through us by a sort of clearly felt inner imperative”.
“All actions done in a selfish spirit, no matter how good they may seem to people from the ignorant world, are not of any use for the true aspirant to Yoga” (Yoga guide). “Any action performed with keen attention and harmoniously integrated, conceived with the intention to be a genuine offering to the Divine, free of desire for its fruits, free of selfishness, done in a balanced state of mind, with a complete inner equality both in success and failure. This action being carried out mainly for the love of the Divine and not for gaining later rewards, compensations, or some personally desired result, having the very intense awareness that all actions belong to the Infinite Divine Power. This is the instantaneous way of spiritual elevation and self offering through Karma Yoga“.
As one can expect, the writings of Mahatma Gandhi are filled with the same ideas, only that he presents them a bit differently: “the continual satisfaction lays in the sincere effort of performing (the action) and not in the success. The complete effort is, with anticipation, the expression of complete victory” (Ethical religion). And as usual, he draws upon his personal example as being instructional: “I have just very imperfectly realised my intense desire of profoundly melting into the Divine; I have ardently wished to be just a boulder of clay in the Divine hands of the Creator, so that I could serve much better, without being interrupted at all by my ego” (Young India).
Regarding this attitude he later gives a metaphysical explanation, which we should deeply reflect upon: “The human being should not exploit the results of his actions. Acting permanently in this way, will give a constant empowerment granted by the Divine”. (Quoted by Mahader Desai in “Gandhiji in the villages of India”).
When acting to obtain a result (a frequent occurrence) it is obvious that, before everything else we think about the possible results of our action, which we even try to predict, according to our intelligence: the pleasure or the advantages which the action will bring us or those who interest us. Nevertheless, we have all experienced many cases when the results were not what we had hoped for (indeed that is what happens most often), being sometimes entirely opposite to our expectations.
We seldom consider the long-term results of our actions. When we are enjoying a delicious and luxurious lunch for example, or when we offer cookies to a child it is not often that we think of the possibility of indigestion. If we recommend to someone a certain title for reading, we do so, hoping that by reading the book some change will emerge in him, which will bring about an enrichment of his soul or even a positive transformation of his ideas. But even in these situations, our predictions are far from becoming true in all cases. As such, almost always we are incapable to completely and accurately predict the results of our actions in the long run. No matter the care or attention with which we raise a child we will never know beforehand if he will turn to be good or bad or how will he use the faculties which we are developing in him or how will he use the knowledge we teach him. In fact, as Swami Vivekananda rightly observed: ” We can never accomplish something which does not have some good results and, similarly, there is no action which does not do some harm somewhere … There is no action which will not simultaneously determine, on different levels, both good and bad fruits” (Practical Yoga).
With the exception of people who reached the state of wisdom, no matter how smart we are or we think we are, common sense and our life experience obliges us to admit that our predictions about the results of our actions are almost always incomplete and uncertain. According to our inner attitude and temperament we find that the results (the ‘fruits’) of our actions are for the greatest part ultimately determined by the Divine will or by fate (in other words by Karma) these results being in extremely few cases totally determined by our intentions or our firmly focused will.
As a conclusion, we can say that the desire for the fruits of action is not as fulfilling as we may think it is and the rule given in Bhagavad Gita and Karma Yoga is not as far out as it may look at first sight. Understanding this we must find out if there is a wise, preferable purpose to action.
The desire to obtain the fruits of action is obviously just one aspect of desire in general. Regarding this, yoga considers desire as the most terrible obstacle on the path of inner evolution.
In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna speaks about this in forty-two sütras (aphorisms), from eleven different chapters. He is full of compassion for these “souls of desire”. He talks about these “poor slaves of desire” and he continuously insists upon “the necessity of being completely free of desire”. For him, desire is one of the “gateways to hell, the destroyer of souls”. And in his description of “demonic souls” he is doubtlessly referring only to the greed for the fruits of action when he says: “Enchained, devoured by anger and greed, constantly busy to collect ever greater profits through dishonest ways for serving the satisfaction of their transient pleasures and the fulfillment of their desires, they almost always think: ‘Today I have fulfilled this desire, tomorrow, no doubt I will fulfill another; today I have obtained this richness, tomorrow, for sure, I will obtain even more’.” Krishna also speaks about the eternal enemy of knowledge which, disguised as selfish desire, is a consuming fire. And, in his vision, a person “must completely renounce selfish desire, with no exception”, if he is pursuing the “path of becoming one with the Supreme Divine Brahman“. This is why Krishna insists that the aspirants towards enlightenment should “abandon, with no exceptions, all desires born of selfishness”. But he doesn’t deny that it can be quite difficult “to always overcome this enemy, named selfish desire, which is so difficult to attack”.
In another chapter from Mahabharata, Krishna explains to the king Yudhishthira: “About the person who selfishly desires all the good things of this world, being entirely and always attached to the fruits of these selfish desires, we can say that he already bears Death in his mouth… The complete restrain of selfish desires is at the root of all true virtues”. We consider it unnecessary to emphasise again that in Mahabharata all other sages are repeating the same warning. And the same holds true for the modern sages; it is sufficient to quote only a few on this idea.
Sri Ramakrishna: “The heart which has only burned in the fire of selfish desires can in no way stand the influence of elevated spiritual feelings or experiences” (Teachings of Ramakrishna). And also “Nobody can enter the Heavenly Kingdom if he holds on to even the slightest trace of selfish desire”.
Sri Aurobindo is dedicating an important part of his letters addressed to his disciples to the techniques that will allow them to get rid of “ego and selfish desires”. He says: “Problems and suffering fall upon the human beings because they are filled with selfish desires for things or states that cannot exist permanently and which, willingly or not, they will loose and even when they would obtain them they will ultimately bring deception and will be unable to fully satisfy them for ever” (Answers). He adds: ” If the selfish desire is not completely mastered, how could we walk fast and easy on the spiritual path? Because liberation shows up instantly after the loss of ego and selfish desires”.
Ma Ananda Moyi observes that “often enough, we selfishly tend to satisfy one wish through another one, which results in the fact that desires cannot disappear and also the tendency to desire in human beings will not disappear”. (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi). Because of this, she was directing all those coming to see her to replace selfish wishes with detached desires. She said: “You are the ones who are always creating selfish desires through your thoughts, and you are also the ones who can destroy them, by firmly and detachedly thinking the opposite“.
This complete detachment and freedom from the fruits of action is for us quite hard to grasp, especially in the beginning, because usually when we act we do so for a selfish wish, in order to get a result or a pleasant fruit which should be favourable or at least agreeable to us. Even in those actions that we say are ‘selfless’, it seldom happens that we don’t wish for anything at all in exchange. If, for instance, when giving a present to a child or when helping a poor person, the recipient doesn’t even say “thank you”, we are, very often at least slightly surprised.
Also, most of the time we are tempted to think that if we should expect nothing in return for our completely detached actions, then it is useless to continue them. But from the teachings of the Karma Yoga system we have seen that this is a misunderstanding. What should then be our purpose?
Obviously, there are “certain actions integrated into the Divine harmony and therefore indicated” about which we have already spoken, but even so, they cover only a fraction of our activities. The fulfilling of our svadharma gives us a larger scope but it is still not enough. The best answer to this is given by Gandhi who was performing all actions that he considered to be righteous and strictly necessary according to the highest necessity (ideal) of the moment, without caring for the results, a fact which did not make him an easy partner in his negotiations with the British authorities. In such a situation someone told Gandhi: “If you are going to do what you have informed us, the consequences will be catastrophic both for India and you personally”. His answer was “This doesn’t interest me at all”. This is “the highest ideal of the moment”- meaning, that we do in a state of detachment that which is right in that specific situation, about which we have a feeling of duty, to be open to the mysterious “inner voice” of consciousness, to have a detached desire to be the best possible vehicle or channel for the manifestation of the Divine, to align our intention with the cosmic will. All these are leading to salvation if we: “offer completely our actions and their fruits to God” as Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita. In this direction, Swami Ramadas said: “we can easily and instantly discover God in us if we offer him totally, through a thorough and sincere consecration, the fruits of all our actions” (Letters).
Ma Ananda Moyi goes even further when she says: ” the ancient prayer – ‘God, please make my heart free of thirst for results’ – is still the result of a hidden inner wish to get a result. But as long as we aspire with all our heart, passionately, to become able to perform actions without lust of result we can be sure that, with the help of the Divine we will attain this state. As long as the ego will exist or will dominate, inner conflicts will burst out from time to time, even if we will try to perform detached actions. These conflicts appear because the ego still binds us to the fruits of our actions and, consequently, drives us in a specific direction” (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi).
5. One should not be attached to the action itself.
If we shouldn’t be attached to the fruits of action, then logically the question arises if it is necessary to be attached to the action itself when we decide to accomplish it. The answer of Bhagavad Gita is clear: “As those who do not know, act with attachment, similarly those who truly understand, know that they must act without any attachment.”
To a visitor who was very pious, but attached to an important social activity, Sri Ramakrishna gave the following prayer: “Regarding the little work which I still have to do, please God, help me to have the strength to accomplish it without attachment” (Teachings of Ramakrishna). Informed by one of his disciples – who just returned from a travel abroad – about the prevalent state of spirit in the West, Ramakrishna said: “The excessive attachment to action that exists in the U.S.A. and in the U.K. is to be condemned because it will shortly bring about spiritual decadence”.
Ma Ananda Moyi gives clear details in the same direction: “If for a certain reason the slightest resentment appears, then the action cannot be considered without attachment. Let’s suppose that you do the biggest part of a work and then, for some reason, you must abandon it and let somebody else take over. This other person will bring the work to completion and will receive the merit for the whole work. If this will even slightly bother you how could we then say that this was a detached action? No doubt that the desire that someone should be grateful to you is still existing in you. In the middle of any action, at any moment, in any circumstances, you should be ready to detachedly obey to any necessity of the moment. Suppose that you are very hungry and, at the moment you bring some food to your mouth, somebody is asking you to go somewhere. In that right moment you should happily abandon the food and detachedly fulfill the request. Such an attitude reveals the one who is firmly anchored in a state of happiness that doesn’t belong to this world.
When we are approaching the permanent inner state where no effort is necessary, to be punished or rewarded for a mistake that rises during the performance of our task is of complete indifference to us. Then we are just detached instruments that are offering themselves to the hands of God. The body is then acting as a detached instrument and we are detachedly looking at the action as spectators. Then we realise with lucidity the great number of tasks that we can accomplish through the intermediary of this body. This state gives us a huge energy and high efficiency. The total non-egotistical action is filled with beauty, leading to the state of beatitude, because it is not motivated by any selfish desire for self-satisfaction. As long as the obstacle represented by our ego is not overcome, even if we think that we should act detachedly, we will not be able to do so and will often be hurt and suffer (because we desire at least some of the fruits of our actions). This will bring about at least a change in the expression of our eyes and of our face, and this significant aspect is easily visible and perceptible in our entire way of being” (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi).
Just like desiring the fruits of an action is only a form of selfish desire – even if this is one of the most difficult to overcome – the selfish attachment to the action itself is also one of the many forms of attachment, maybe the most subtle. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna considers as selfish attachment to the activities of this world, not only the attachment to action, but also attachment to a thing, a being, a place, attachment to a home and even attachment to understanding. He stresses that “only the one who has renounced all selfish attachments is not bound any more to sin”, “only that person will instantly discover the infinite happiness which exists in the Supreme inner self”.
Sri Aurobindo shows that “all selfish attachments perturbs or hinders the spiritual work” (Answers). He insists: “If we select as spiritual path only the Yoga of action then we can remain in samsara (even after we reach the highest attainment) but this will be with free consent and samsara will be then considered as our field of free action (at that level of accomplishment there is no obligation to act). In his inner self, the yogi should always be free of all bindings and selfish attachments” (Practical Yoga). Swami Vivekananda reveals that in most cases, even when unaware of it, the selfish attachment “appears only when we expect a certain reward” (Practical Yoga). This situation is common both for the selfish desire for the fruits of the action and for the fear of the fruits of action.
6. One should not consider oneself as being the author of the action.
Karma Yoga goes even further. The next stage is about authorship: we shouldn’t selfishly consider ourselves the authors of the detached action that we are performing. But we observe that there is not always a clear answer about who the author is in reality.
In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains: “When actions are performed by the gunas (specific modes of nature), the human being who is led astray by the ego is thinking: ‘I am the one who is acting’.” At the end of the text Krishna gives more details: “The five causes of action are: the body, the author, the five instruments, the many types of effort and finally, the destiny (karma). These five elements make all the efficient causes which determine the form and the result of each action performed by no matter who in this world with his mind, with his speech and with his body”.
Swami Ramadas is categorical in this direction: “Even to think, egotistically, that we are the authors of our action is totally false” and he repeats this affirmation many times (Letters).
In Mahabharata, other sages who approached this theme are not less categorical than Krishna when talking about the true causes of action. In this way, Prahlada says it straight to Indra: “The one who selfishly considers himself the author of his actions, be they good or bad, is endowed with a vicious intelligence. In my opinion, such a person is ignorant and does not know the truth at all” (Shanti).
When Krishna talks about a devotional practice that involves the mental recitation of a famous sacred prayer from Rig-Veda, he explains: “The person reciting the Gayatri-Mantra doesn’t consider himself the author of this action, nor the enjoyer of this action, nor the one who bears its consequences”.
For Bali, according to what he is telling to Indra, the true almighty author of action and the one making the action possible is none other than the Supreme Divine Self: “That you selfishly consider yourself as the author of action, O! Shankara, this attitude is the root of all pains and sufferings… I am not the author of action, you are not the author of action. God, the Divine, is the author of all actions, only he is in reality the Omnipotent”.
The same idea comes forth from Swami Ramadas: “In fact, God is always the unique author of action” (Letters). He adds: “God is the one pushing us to action and He is also always the one acting in and through us.” (Letters). Sri Aurobindo also says: “It is a great secret of the spiritual practice ( Sadhana) to know how to do all things through the Infinite Power of God, which is behind or above us, instead of doing everything only by a selfish effort” (Yoga Guide).
Otherwise, he is always warning his disciples against the temptation of considering themselves anything else other than a simple instrument through which the action is done: “Transform yourself into the detached instrument of the action performed through you” (Answers). “You must always act as a complete detached instrument in the activity which you are performing”. For Sri Aurobindo one should even guard himself against the “arrogance of being an instrument”.
Swami Vivekananda gives a surprising formulation: when offering something from God to someone, “you are in reality only the intermediary agent who transports money or any other present” (Practical Yoga).
We also quote here the words of Swami Brahmananda to his disciples: “Before starting your activity, fervently remember God and offer him all your thoughts. Do the same thing from time to time during your activity and also when you have finished.” (Monastic disciplines). The offering made to the spiritual guru can even replace the offering towards God. In the words of Swami Brahamanda: “Think that all activity which you have to perform is that of God. If you can work, understand and keep in mind this idea, then your detached work will not bind you anymore”.
I close these considerations with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “The most elevated form of adoration consists in the accomplishment of God’s work, obeying to the moral law and serving humanity unselfishly and with abnegation.” (Religious ethics). When we follow this principle – that we should never selfishly consider ourselves the authors of action – we are acting through non-action. Then the eternal spark of Divinity in us (known in India as the Supreme Self, Purusha or Atman), who is a detached witness, observes and – without partaking – accomplishes the action with detachment through the agency of the active elements in us. Krishna refers to this truly divine attitude, in a famous aphorism from Bhagavad Gita: “The one who during the detached action can find inaction and who simultaneously can see the action continuing even after it has stopped, that one is, amongst many, the one of right judgement and of discernment; he is indeed in [the state of] Yoga and he is the universal worker endowed with many paranormal capacities (siddhis)”.
A warning is necessary here. It often happens that we think or imagine that we are ‘inspired’ to perform something or even that we are ‘guided’ to a specific action, coming thus to the conclusion, true or false, that we are not at all the author of that action” in the meaning given by Karma Yoga. This is a very dangerous trap, very often present on the path of spiritual realisation. To avoid falling into this trap it is necessary to ask ourselves (as lucidly and objectively as possible) if this impression, which we lightly call “intuition”, is merely a disguise for a personal desire. This desire can be very honourable, but we are talking here about Karma Yoga and about following this spiritual path in full honesty. Here, one incomplete but useful criterion is to look, if the activity that we would like to start contains any remaining traces of selfish personal attachment, as previously discussed.
7. Any action, regardless of its nature, will not enchain its performer, if it is done in this way.
Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita: “The one who is in the state of Yoga (i.e., is united with the Supreme by the perfect practice of Karma Yoga) even if he acts, because his actions are detached they will not bind him”. This is what Swami Vivekananda also says: “If we are attached to our activity, this will not serve our soul in any way”(Practical Yoga).
Swami Sivananda says: “The action done without attachment, therefore with a good mental attitude, without the hope for any profit, with indifference towards a possible success or failure, will not add a new link to the existing [karma-ic] chain” ( Teachings Of Sivananda).
This is what Sri Ramakrishna meant when he said: “The Jnana Yogi can act without any attachment and therefore his actions will not be harmful for him” (Teachings of Ramakrishna).
For understanding even deeper this fundamental principle of Karma Yoga we will take a look at the Hindu metaphysical perspective where the belief in successive lives and the law of Karma is self-evident.
To summarise this theory, we can say that the life, which each one of us is living now, is not a single event, but one link in a long chain of successive lives in which the eternal element in us, (called Atman by the Indians), is continuously reincarnating.
The law of Karma is nothing else than the law of action and reaction – all actions performed in any one of these lives will accurately determine certain effects: if not immediately, then in one or more of our future existences, thus bringing forth a manifestation of the Karma that was accumulated in previous lives. But the goal of evolution is to reach the point where all Karma is exhausted, so that the eternal element in us (Atman) is no more obliged to create new bodies.
All Eastern sages, old and new, affirm that what creates a new Karma for us is not the action itself, but the spirit (i.e., the inner state) in which that action is performed. Swami Vivekananda says about this: “All actions that you selfishly perform for yourself, will inevitably bring you their fruits, and there will be no choice for you but to eat them … But all actions, regardless of their nature, that you do in the spirit of Karma Yoga will for ever remain without effect upon you” (Practical Yoga). Consequently, the practice of Karma Yoga offers us the possibility to act without creating new Karma. This is what Sri Aurobindo refers to in the following quote: “Not the outer form of activity in itself, but the consciousness and the will firmly directed toward the Divine which is behind the action, are in fact the essence of Karma Yoga“.
In the Karma Yoga system it is necessary to dissociate three elements which we, generally, never separate:
The intention of the action – which, if we act selfishly, is the only one who creates karma;
The action – which, by itself, cannot create karma;
The consequences (results) of the action, upon which, most of the time, we do not have any control no matter what our predictions or expectations may be.
How can we transpose this theory to Westerners, who most of the time do not accept the idea of multiple reincarnations? If we apply the Karma Yoga technique correctly, we are not worried about the consequences of our actions any more, because they do not depend of us anymore. This makes all selfish remorse and egotistical regrets disappear automatically. From here an important conclusion can be drawn: when we start practising Karma Yoga, we must, completely and unconditionally, give up any claims for any merit, even for those actions whose consequences or fruits are good.
Because we are fully responsible for our selfish intentions only, we can say that the goal (intent) of our actions and its materialisation in selfish actions are the factors which create in us selfish habits and tendencies, thus moulding our character. This is the result of karma and this is valid even if we believe in a unique existence. This is even more striking if we admit, like almost all religious followers, that after death we will collect the gratification or the punishments that we deserve according to our actions during life.
8. In fact, we can say that Karma Yoga is the divine skill (wisdom and non-attachment) in actions.
Swami Vivekananda has clearly emphasised that Karma Yoga gives us maximum freedom. He says: “Karma Yoga is an ethical and spiritual system whose goal is to make us obtain Enlightenment through altruism and completely detached good actions” (Practical Yoga). For him, “Karma Yoga is the full realisation, through selfless activity, of this unbound freedom which is the goal of any human nature”. He also adds: “The Karma Yogi is asking himself: why do we need another motive for action other than the blissful love that is born out of this freedom?” He explains this as follows: “For some people it might be a difficult aspect to understand that nothing in the Universe has full power upon you as long as you don’t allow that power to freely influence you. Through complete detachment you can always overcome or defeat the power held by anybody or anything upon you.” The state of not fearing the possible negative consequences of an action and the state of not being egotistically attached to the positive consequences which we expect from that action, is creating a deep inner peace and a great freedom of spirit which allows us to act in total objectivity. This is what Swami Vivekananda calls “to act in full freedom”.
This is why Krishna makes the following statement in Bhagavad Gita: “Yoga is the divine ability (skillfulness) in actions”. He later returns to this idea by saying that he “holds dear to his heart” the one who is “skillful in all his detached actions, the one who does not selfishly desire anything and who is pure, being detached of anything that might happen. Thus, he is not affected by any result because he has already completely renounced all selfish initiative in no matter what action”.
Swami Vivekananda arrives at the same conclusion: “Karma Yoga makes a science out of the detached action; it teaches us to permanently use to the best of our ability all the divine, beneficial forces which are always active in the universe”. (Practical Yoga) He also adds: “Karma Yoga is deeply knowing the secret of completely detached action”. He expresses the same idea once more, but in other words when he says: “When we do not think in terms of our egotistic ‘I’ and we do not involve it, we realise the best detached action” (Inspired Conversations). A well-known example of ego involvement with negative consequences is the ‘stage fright’ state.
Swami Ramadas says: “The action of the Karma Yogi quickly takes him very far in his spiritual evolution and its effect lasts a very long time. This action leaves in the entire world a permanent and profound beneficial effect.” (The presence of Ram).