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Karma Yoga: Common myths PDF Print E-mail
Gita - Gita Articles

The comcept of sanyas must have changed after Krishna. Krishna proposed to Arjuna the concept of nishkam karma, a methodology whereby Arjuna could follow his swadharma and yet not be bound by the laws of karma. This is what we call karma yoga. This has created some misunderstanding, at least as I perceive it, and that is what we shall try to discuss today.

The destiny:
Every thing in life is predetermined. Is that so? If it is then why work? And some will answer that our working is also pre-determined. This concept of destiny has done much harm to our society and the country and therefore a proper understanding of these concepts becomes important.

Karma produces results. If we do not do karma there will be no results. Karma comes from an individual, but the result comes from the whole universe (samashti). And that is what makes the result so unpredictable. We can choose to perform a certain act, but cannot choose the result. A mountaineering team can choose to climb Mt. Everest. They can train hard, study the weather and experience of other climbers, but cannot guarantee that they will get to the top. There are so many other factors that affect the result.

So, how do we resolve the issue of predetermination of results? I really do not know whether all the results are pre-determined or not. But, if I have to speculate, I shall go with “what if” theory, which says that if the situations were such then this will be the outcome. The outcomes are predetermined but there are some freedoms to it. Arjuna is free to choose whether to fight or not, but if he chooses not to fight then the outcome will be different than if he chooses to fight. In my eyes that freedom is given to us. Krishna has been emphasizing that to Arjuna throughout Gita. Krishna is not deciding for Arjuna, he wants Arjuna to decide for himself.

It is like saying that if some one is sleeping on a railway track and if the train comes while they are still sleeping they will be run over by the train. They have the option of waking up before the train comes, but if they don’t, then their fate is pre-determined. This ‘what if’ theory does give some incentive for us to work. If the people sleeping on the railway track believed in the fate of being run over, why would they ever wake up? And this is happening with us all who believe in absolute pre-determined fate, the destiny. We can always explain away why India was enslaved for so many years. No, it was not India’s destiny, it was because we were sleeping on the railway track when the train arrived and we were run over. We need to wake up and be ready to take the train for a ride rather than be run over by it.

Sakam karma is bad
Krishna talks about nishkam karma being superior to sakam karma in Gita and we are ready to condemn sakam karma completely. If Krishna says that niskam karma is better then sakam karma must be bad. Krishna did not say that sakam karma is bad, but we are more than ready to come to that conclusion. Krishna is saying this to Arjuna who is at the peak of sakam karma. Krishna can see clearly that Arjuna is now ready to get into the concepts of nishkam karma. This readiness has to be understood. Arjuna is confused about who is going to die in this war. His confusion arises because of the thinking of the world of sakam karma. That confusion can be cleared by the superior theory of nishkam karma. And that is when Krishna gives him the teachings of nishkam karma.

Before this, the same Krishna had asked Arjuna to go to Indra and do Shiva’s worship for certain learning and acquiring weapons. The same Krishna had asked Arjuna to pray to Devi Durga before the start of the war. Arjuna had exhausted the sources of sakam karma and to be more effecive and to be more effective in the war, he is being taught the next best thing, the sakam karma.

No, in my eyes sakam karma is not bad in itself. Most of the Vedas have talked about sakam karma. Most of our lives in today’s world is based on sakam karma. When we are ready to jump then we can move to nishkam karma, but until then let us perfect the sakam karma. Of course, there is good sakam karma and there is bad sakam karma. Morality belongs to the world of sakam karma. When we talk about doing a yagya for the welfare of the whole world, we are talking about sakam karma, when we talk about eradicating malaria or small pox from the planet earth we are talking about sakam karma. Nishkam karma is great but sakam karma is not bad.

Nishkam karma is doing karma without expecting any results.

Krishna says that an individual has rights to do whatever karma he wants to but he has no rights or control over what result he is going to get. In other words results also depend upon other factors. If I am preparing for a competition, I can do my best. The result of who will win between my opposition and me depends at least on how the other player prepares and how we play on that particular day. Now, that does not mean I should not prepare. I have to do my preparation. If I know that results depend upon other factors, some of them possibly out of my control, then I would not waste a lot of my time worrying about it. I, in that situation, would be able to give all my energy and attention to the preparation for the competition. This is the secret about not expecting a given result, but in my view this is only a small part of what nishkam karma is all about.

Let us take it one step further. If I care about my success in the result, then I may obtain success by preparing for the competition or hurting the preparation of my opponent or even blackmailing him for a win in my favor. This is another advantage of not worrying about the result. An individual who is not so much focused on the result will find it hard to succumb to such lower acts. Does that mean that he should not be aware of such methods, just in case the opponent decides to play those tricks? No, Krishna would not allow that. A person who is ready to go on the path of nishkam karma has the awareness where he can easily figure out what the opponent is going to be up to and take necessary actions to prevent that.

The focus of nishkam karma has to be on the karma and not so much on the results. A person doing nishkam karma happens not to worry about the results, because he knows that it is not in his control. But, he prepares for the best. A planning is necessary. If there is a war going on and Arjuna has to fight, he has to plan a strategy on day-to-day basis. If I have to get to Delhi from New York, I have to call a travel agent to book my flights. Yes, flights may get cancelled or the plane may crash. But, one thing is sure and that is if I do not book the ticket, I will not get to Delhi.

Krishna simply says that we have to drop the attachment and the expectations and start accepting the situation as it presents to us. We also have to plan and respond to what life has to offer. We shall explore more of nishkam karma in our future columns. For now, let us change our focus from the result-oriented understanding of nishkam karma to a karma-oriented understanding.

Karma sanyas means no karma
I have several friends who are willing to say that it is better to do seva than be a Saadhu or a Swami. A man who is not doing mundane karma is taken to be a liability simply because we do not see their contributions. What for example is Buddha doing? “Sitting under a tree and doing nothing” is hard to understand. It is easy to understand contributions of a mother Theresa, but it is hard to understand the contributions of Mahavira who is walking naked in a forest begging for his food. But, at a deeper level, Buddha and Mahavira have been contributing much more than somebody spending his or her lifetime in the service of poor. Buddha goes on to say that you can really do service only when you have known yourself. And this is hard for us to comprehend.

Let us take up the issue of karma sanyas. The truth of karma sanyas is based on the realization of the fact that the usual mundane karma ultimately leads to nowhere. The person can see that by building a house, getting married, having children and gathering belongings has taken him nowhere towards the realization of his self (Atma) and the parmatma. You keep coming back and getting entangled in the same rut and at the end, you carry the garbage of bodily experience, the samskara, only to return back to start all over again. This realization drives you towards the Sanyas from this routine mundane Karma. It is a result of certain kind of awakening. The awakening is similar to drawing a line in water. No mark is left in the water. The line is obliterated the moment the hand that draws the line moves forward. In reality whatever we do is nothing more than drawing line in the water as far as existence is concerned. All our actions in the past, in this life and previous lives, have not taken us anywhere. It is the awareness that actions do not take you anywhere that leads to the sanyas from karma. It appears that the person has renunciated, it appears that the person has stopped working. But in fact the actions have dropped from such a person. Even this person eats, drinks and walks. The difference is in the quality and the status of the subject behind. He is the awakened one. He does not engage in the same kind of karma. We do karma for ourselves where as the awakened one engages in any karma for others out of compassion. Mahavir lives on, not because he has any clinging to life, but because the universe wants him to live. He in fact used to put conditions to his living and the whole existence used to meet those requirements. He worked even on the animals to get them further in the search of truth. There are sayings that animals used to come to him in his teachings. This is a result of compassion, the karma flowing out of his being for the benefit of the existence.

Let me say it again. Sakam karma is not selfish action, nishkam karma is not selfless action and karma sanyas does not mean doing nothing. Sakam karma is not always bad, nishkam karma is not limited to not expecting results and destiny is not absolute. We shall get back to our discussion of Gita shlokas from the next column.

Krishnam Sharanam Gacchami

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