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The science of karma yoga PDF Print E-mail
Gita - Gita Articles

The whole gist of life centers on karma. The virtual currency unit of the virtual bank samskara is karma. We have to develop the understanding of karma, nishkam karma, karma sanyas, and why does one do one or the other karma. A man is born with certain samskaras; his past pushes him to wards doing certain karmas and these karmas are then deposited in the virtual account. The silsila (process) continues. What is the way out? How do you reach the zero balance? These are all the areas we will explore in this chapter.


The first thing that must be understood is that no one lives without doing karma. It is not an option. It is not a possibility. Krishna in Gita says

Na hi kaschit kshanmaapi jatu tisthtyakarmkrit
karyate hyawashah karma sarva prakritijjairgunaih

There is no doubt that no human in any time period even for a moment can be without doing a karma; because the whole humanity is forced to do karma by the gunas of prakriti.

A child is born. The first thing he or she does is cry, the cry expands the lungs and then on he breathes. He lives. Krishna is saying that life is synonymous with karma. You live, you work (do karma). There is no way to escape. Man has freedom, he is independent but not as far as whether he can do karma or not. He can choose what karma to do but he cannot choose not to do karma. Arjun has the choice to fight or not to fight but by not fighting he cannot not do karma.

Earlier I said man could choose what he wants to do. However, that is not totally true. Most of the vital work (karma) is not left to the individual. The body breathes. This breathing is not left to the choice. Man might forget to breathe, he may just not want to breathe. Several such vital actions are not optional. The beating of the heart is not your choice. If you do yoga you may be able to control your breathing or heart but in doing so you have developed the integrity and the wisdom not to interfere in the nature’s process. The karma that is left to you is really not that important for the universe. It may be very important for you but for the existence it is totally immaterial.

So the question arises. If you have to do karma how can you ever achieve the zero balance that we talked about in our column on samskara topic. Normally what we understand by karma or work is a response, a pratikarma. Pratikarma is actually a pratikriya to karma, response or a reaction to another action. You go home and your son is angry at your. You are the father and you reply to that action of anger by your reaction of anger. Both you and your son make a deposit in the virtual account of samskara. These two karmas had their origin from a reason, it was a response to some reason and there was an expected result. The son must have been angry because of something and he is showing anger to get a response. Most of our lives we live doing pratikarma.

Karma is a different phenomenon. Karma is spontaneous. It is not a reaction or a response to another action (karma). When the son shows anger and no response arises inside you, then what comes out is karma. There is a young baby. You irritate him and he pushes your hand away. Instead of anger tremendous love arises inside you. You smile and hug that child and the child gives you a giggle. This is spontaneous. A young baby’s anger is authentic and so is its smile and the giggle. The identity of I has not developed. And the karma here has a different quality.

A man goes up to Gautam the Budha and spits at him. Budha wipes the spit with his shawl and asks the man if he had to say anything more. The man gets disturbed. This is not the response he was looking for. He had answers for why did he spit, he had answers if Budha’s disciples tried to restrain him. But, the man was puzzled. Budha clarified that he realized that the man was angry and did not have words to express and therefore he spit on Buddha. Buddha acknowledged that this problem of expression happened to him many times when he had difficulty expressing with words. The man further asked why Buddha did not get angry in response. Buddha was very clear. He said, “you are not my master.” Why should I react to what you do. I am not your slave. The next day the man came back again and this time he was crying and putting his head on Budha’s feet. Buddha again asked him if he had to say anything more. The man said I am asking for an apology and you are not saying anything. Budha said that again you have problem expressing with words and you’re using tears to express. I acknowledge that and want to know if you have to express anything more. As far as apology is concerned anger did not arise me in me yesterday and therefore there is no question of pardoning you. Karma in itself is spontaneous and comes out of a man who has akarma inside; he is silent inside. You throw a stone and no ripples arise. This karma of such a person does not get deposited in the account of the samskara similar to the no deposit of a baby’s giggle. Once you stop depositing karma all you have to wait for is the return of your deposited karma and the zero balance gets closer. This karma can be performed by Karma Sanyas, and Nishkam karma yoga. We will come back to it a little later.

We should also understand a little about vikarma, a karma that should not be done. This is where it gets tricky and the krishna says that the gati of karma is mysterious. Killing is a vikarma, it is not the right karma. But, it is relative. In war it is allowed. The more you kill the more medals you get. In Hiroshima, aproximately 100,000 people died when the atomic bomb was dropped. There was celebration in the enemy camp. Why did Krishna say the gati or movements of karma is mysterious?

There is a war going on Indian borders with Pakistan in Kargil. And the saying goes, “Everything is fair in war and love.” Pakistan has been refusing to take back the bodies of their soldiers because they are stuck with their statement that the Pakistan army is not fighting in this war. The lines between vikarma and karma start getting blurry in this situation. One has to be aware of not only what you see but also of what you do not see. There is this famous puzzle that clarifies the point a little further. A Brahmin is walking by. He sees a cow running. He keeps walking when he meets a butcher carrying his big knife. The butcher asks the Brahmin if he has seen a cow going by. That was his cow and she had run out of his butchery. She is due to be killed, and he is going to kill the moment he finds the cow. The Brahmin is in trouble now. Lying is a vikarma and so is killing especially of a cow. He is in a bind. The butcher is telling the Brahmin that all he has to answer was yes or no. Did he or did he not see the cow. The Brahmin wants time to think. The question for him is not the cow but which vikarma to choose. The emphasis in the east is not so much on the karma or vikarma but more on the status of the subject behind the karma, the doer.

Talking about the doer, this is now time to address Karma Sanyas and Nishkam Karma. Again Gita is the main source of all understanding of karma and hence I will quote here from Gita. But before the quote let us analyze why Gita became the source of understanding of karma yoga. Krishna has a situation, a unique situation. The Mahabharata is on. The forces are ready to fight and the warrior Arjuna does not want to fight. He suddenly is caught up with his intelligence and futility of war. What all is bad about war suddenly confronts him in the battlefield. He is the best. Krishna is not teaching in the plains of Himalaya to sadhus and sanyasis. The situation is intense and outcome to be is crucial. He had to explain to Arjuna all about karma yoga to get him decide what was right for him. Many a times Arjuna has asked Krishna to tell him what is right. He wanted Krishna to decide for him. Krishna never obliged him for that. He instead chose to clear all the doubts and questions that he had. Ultimately Arjuna decided on his own. Coming back to the quote from Gita:

Sanyasah Karmayogasch Nihshreyyaskarawobhau
Tayostu karmasanyasat karmyogo vishishyate.

Karm sanyas and Nishkam karma yoga both are both good for liberation. But, of the two karmayoga is easier to follow and thus better.

It should be understood here that Krishna is talking to Arjun. He is a soldier and for a soldier Karma yoga is easier to follow than karma sanyas (some people call it renunciation-it does not reflect accurate meaning). The same may not be true for a painter or a poet.

Let us first take up the karma sanyas. The truth of karma sanyas is based on the realization of the fact that karma leads to nowhere. 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, has not taken us very far. 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.

It is like a child amongst adults. I recently went to a museum where several people came to visit. Amongst them were many children, children of the age of 4 and 5 years old. Adults were all listening to the guide and reading the writings on the plates. They appeared to be trying to appreciate the art and beauty of the paintings. They all looked interested. Watching the young ones was fun for me. They were running around. Sometimes just picking up pebbles and putting them back. At times they will go over the benches and other time under the benches. Energy was flowing out of them. There were no plans, no blue prints. They did not question whether there was value for money or whether or not the trip was enjoyable. They did not bother about the weather forecast or how they will be going back. If you analyze their karma, there is nothing to analyze. They are children. But there is much to learn. We are children for the existence. We stand on a piece of land and claim it is ours. We are willing to die for it. The existence looks at us and laughs. If it could talk in our language, it would say to us. Many others have made the same claim many times before. This realization by an individual is what makes the possibility of karma sanyas, the individual decides not to engage in the same karmas again.

Now, if every one realized that it is not worth staking claim on a piece of land and followed the path of sanyas (renunciation) then how would the world run. The balance will be maintained as long as there is no counterclaims. But it is easy to disturb the balance. A situation like in the past when Mahabharata happened or now when the India Pakistan disagree on Kashmir is more of a practical question in real life. Renunciation is not the answer. Krishna knew that it is not worth staking claims on a piece of land but he also had to balance the counterclaim of the Kauravas. Arjun actually was trying to do the renunciation. He did not have the realization but was choosing to leave the battlefield. This is where Krishna interjects the notion and details of Nishkam Karma Yoga.

Nishkam karma does not focus on karma, it focuses on what result is anticipated of a particular karma. Karma Sanyas wants you to understand the futility of doing any karma. It wants you to be aware of the dream like status of any karma. It is often useful when you face a situation that looks critical to you. It is quite upsetting and you do not know how to handle it. You can look back and find a similar situation in your life in the past. Those are just like dreams and all that is left is memories. Nishkam karma wants you to forget about the result. The expectation of results and desires are inter twined. You develop a desire, you go for an appropriate action and you get a result. Nishkam karma says that you stay in the middle, no desire, no results. Just the karma.

Krishna in Gita goes on to make the point about the results of a karma. He says:

Karmanyewadhikaraste ma faleshu kadachana
Ma karmaphalheturbhurma te sangostwakarmani

You have a right to perform the karma but not to the fruits of action. You should not be desirous of the result and you should not be interested in not doing your karma.

This sutra is the key to nishkam karma. You have the right to do the karma but not to the result. This does not mean tht there is no result. And this also does not mean that there is no path to get results. Karma is the one that brings the results. This sutra simply means that Desire for the result is not the path to the result.

I do the work, the karma. Work flows from me. The result comes from the whole, the samasti. There may be divine hands in the production of the result. You may have heard quite often that a certain person is lucky. He made less effort in the work but got results much more than expected. The luck factor actually is that unseen hand that either compounds the results to make you lucky or reduces the results to make you unlucky. The importance is on the trust, the trust on the existence or to the Parmatma. When the trust is total the unknown provides all the results. This has to be understood. When the shradha is total, the trust is absolute it is the Parmatma’s responsibility now to give the results, the results happen. This is sometimes referred to as you do karma in samarpan to the Parmatma. You become the flute through which the Parmatma is playing the tune; you become another expression of the same Nishkam Karma.

Even if you do not believe in Parmatma, if you do not have your focus on the result all you have is your karma and the total energy goes to the karma. The result has to happen better and total as well. The other thing that is interesting is that people who have too many desires are the ones who do the least karma. And then it is not a surprise to know that these are the people, the people full of desire that end up getting the fewest results. And these are the people you will find complaining against God. They are never happy

Most desire and result oriented karma are done to achieve happiness, but in the end the happiness seems to be eluded all the time. Happiness in desire result oriented karma is always in the future. The present is unhappy. The happiness is in the future. The truth is that you will always be in the present and future will always be in the mind. Once you start being happy in the present the future has to bring more happiness. You do not depend something else to come and give you happiness. How many times you have been on vacation. The dream was to go to the perfect vacation. Hawaii was the dream. Now you are in Hawaii. You go to check in and find that the hotel does not have the room that you wanted. Suddenly you are miserable. You raise hell. You make your point, make phone calls and before you know it is not only you who is unhappy but your family and the hotel employee, all are unhappy. No, it is not the room or the meals or the manners, as if it is you who is looking for the unhappiness. The dream vacation has come but you have the habit and momentum of remaining unhappy. Nishkam karma is based on this realization, that the expectation of results of karma is the cause of unhappiness. Does it mean that there should be no planning? Planning and expectation of results are two different things. Planning, budgeting or forecasting is different than the painful desire and expectations that drive your being and literally inhibit you from giving your full energy to the work.

Another interesting thing follows as a shadow of Nishkam karma. Once there is no interest for a result there is no frustration. When there is no interest in the result no work is small and no result is too small. There becomes socialism in real sense. Not indifference, but a steady state of happiness in whatever the result is. A deep acceptance arises inside. The acceptance of whatever may happen in result is so fulfilling that the individual gets to the steady state of happiness; some call it anand and others call it bliss. Have you wondered about the fact that all misery arises from not accepting the isness. The wife is trying to change the husband and the husband is doing the same. They both have done research about each other before marriage, every thing has been figured out. Happiness is bound to happen. Then the marriage takes place. The next thing you know is that change has to happen. You can experiment it any day or every day. Decide that today you will accept everything as it comes. This does not mean that you do not take appropriate action. Let us take the worst-case scenario. Your house is on fire. If you do not accept it to the extent that you go mad you cannot take any action. Take a deep breath and then accept the fact that the house is on fire. In medical terms it is said that you may fall into denial phase especially if you hear a bad news typically “you have cancer.” However, once you accept the fact that the house is on fire, after you have taken a deep breath, you can try to get the support services available to deal with the fire. It is quite obvious in this instance that the appropriate action is to accept and then respond. But, in smaller situations at home, the ones with your son, the one with your daughter, you fail to realize that taking a deep breath is the trick for success.

Nishkam karma yoga is the preferable one not only for Arjuna but also for most of the people of today. The reason in both is the same. Arjun was an extrovert and today’s world is mostly extrovert. Sanyas of karma is not natural to an extrovert personality. An extrovert is interested in the karma, he does not see the futility of karma easily. It may be easier for him to see that the results can be more than he can ask for and that his productivity may increase if he does not waste his energy in influencing or manipulating the results. If you go back to the Upanishadic times, the equations were different. A king in those times will go to a begger (bhikhari) Brahmin and touch his feet for his blessings. The introvert was on the top and the extrovert respected the quality of his interiority. Things are totally different today. Even the Swami today is known by his association with a politician. The extrovert is at the top now. The sadhus are valued because of the ministers company they keep but not vice versa.

Another reason why this yoga is of more value in today’s world is that this gives an alternate theory to the age of competition and productivity, frustratrations and burn outs. James Moore has written a book entitles The Death of Competition.. In this truly epochal work of business strategy, Moore boldly demonstrates that for many vibrant companies the future is now; that today’s great enterprises no longer compete for product superiority or even industry dominance. He thinks that what matters now, and from now on is total system leadership. Beyond the death of competition lies the advent of something new and better. But what is it. Moore envisions a future characterized by organized chaos. Now, time is not very far when the writers will soon be seeing the benefits of Nishkam karm yoga. Organized chaos is very close to unpredictable results. Focus on the karma not on the result. The question of competition does not arise.

Competition has its good points and its limitations. I feel that there has to be several tiers of systems and understanding suited for different level of existence. Arjun was the one who could be a candidate for Nishkam karma yoga. His excellence would flourish under these circumstances. Bhim may be a different story. For him a challenge by Duryodhana may produce a better result. Remember, Krishna, Buddha or Ram cannot be produced by the method of training or competition. They are unique flowers. Patanjali and Einstein also are in similar boat. Competition can produce average the superior is out of their reach. People like Tiger Woods (the champion golfer) have noted this point too. He feels and teaches others to think to produce their own best rather than compete with others. Why be limited by the limitations of others. One has to excell with yourself. This in many terms is similar to doing karma according to your swadharma that we talked about earlier.

Sakam Karma
Before we get in to the details of individual samskaaras, let us explore some basic facts that will help us understand about samskaras. In the earlier part of the book we explored among other things Nishkam karma. Here we will try to take up the sakam karma that we did not bring up earlier. Sakam karma simply means that you do a karma with the result in mind. Result is not in your hands. So, how or why should you bother about it. Keep doing the karma.

But, the real world does care about the results. You cannot not do karma. Karma always produces results. Results are not in your hands. For example, let us look at Mahabharata. Kaurav and Pandav are fighting. Duryodhana has a stronger army. Bhisma Pitamah, Dronacharya, Karna and many such well-trained warriors are on his side. It is impossible to defeat one of them. How can any one defeat all of them? They trained Arjuna and all. They were fighting for a result. On the other side, Arjuna was well trained. He spent one year doing tapasya to please Shiva to gain more powers. Krishna himself was his sarathi. Hanuman was on his pataka. He has done a good training and in the beginning of the war he goes numb. He does not want to fight. He is ready but not quite ready. Krishna introjects. Arjun has achieved every thing possible by his sakam karma. He has gone through rigorous training. He has done his Tapasya for power, he has got the support of devtas (and so did Karna). Now what is left. Krishna now gives him the ultimaate sutra of Nishkam karma. To excel he not only needs the readiness by training and the divine hand but also a full 110 percent of his fighting skills. This is only possible if Arjuna can take his mind off the possible results. There was no calculable possibility of Pandavas winning to start with. If he just went by equations, he would not have been able to fight fully because there was no predictable victory for the pandavas. Krishna has been Arjuna’s sakha (friend) long before Gita happened. He could have told Arjuna about nishkam karma before, while Arjuna was training. No, that was not the time. Arjuna had to have the training. He had to go through the rigors of life. Once he was ready to take off, the ultimate formula was given.

In the real world and in real life, life does not start with Nishkam karma. That is a possibility. That is the best. So how does sakam karma work? Let’s look at the shloka that is the cornerstone of Nishkam karma again:

Karmanyewadhikaraste ma faleshu kadachana

You have the right to the karma but not to the result.

This shloka does not say that you do not get a result when you do karma. You do karma and you get result. That is why I would like to say that this shloka is not only the key to Nishkam karma but also fundamental to the Sakam karma as well. There is an unknown factor between the karma and the result. The same karma does not produce the same result even for the same person. For a different person the result of the same karma can be totally different. If you change the time and space results can be dramatically different. Results are unpredictable. There is no reproducibility. You can call it the luck factor, the divine hand or whatever you want.

And this is where, I feel, Hindus made the breakthrough. Not every one can surrender to parmatma and do the Nishkam karma. That is ideal but not in everyone’s grasp. So, there are techniques developed which may influence the results. The danger of these techniques is two fold. The techniques (may have been lupta today) can be misused for causing bad outcome by a mischievous mind. The technique is a technique. Ravana can use mantra and tapasya to get the same powers that anyone else can. When he gets those powers to influence results and outcome, he uses it the way he wants to. It is like the atomic weapon falling in to the hands of a Hitler or a Stalin. Its destructive powers are the same.

The other risk is that if mantras, and tapasya can get the desired result why bother making an effort to do the karma. It can lead a whole generation to become lazy. Complacency can arise. There are a lot of Swamis and Sadhus in India. They will do the pooja for you. They will chant the mantra for you so that you can become the mananger of a company. Some swamis are instrumental in making Prime Ministers as well. The whole thing has become politicized. People claim and blame that politics has been criminalized. Sometimes I wonder if the danger is that every thing including crime has been politicized. This is dangerous. The work, the karma is missing. You have to do the karma. You have to give your fullest. And then work on other techniques to enhance the effect.

Many technologies were developed on these lines. We seem to have lost the keys and in some instance the locks themselves. The significance of astrology, mantras, the temples, statues, temples, places of pilgrimages (tirtha) have all been debased or lost over hundreds of years. There are many keys in life, which can open doors of treasures, even today, but unfortunately we neither know anything about these treasures nor about the locks, which may be opened. And, if we do not know either about the treasures or the locks, then what is left in our hands cannot even be called a key. It can only be a key if it opens a lock. The key has left a sort of lingering fragrance in the unconscious mind of man. The samskara carries it on. It can be worked on and found, a rediscovery is possible and is the requirement and call of the time.

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