It happens to be Bhagavad Gita Jayanti today, the day when Bhagavan Sri Krshna revealed the teachings of non-duality to Arjuna, an accomplished warrior, more than 3000 years ago. This was done in the midst of a battlefield on the eve of war just when Arjuna sees the futility of fighting the inevitable war and drops the bow unwilling to fight. He seeks refuge in Bhagavan and asks for Shreyas, the ultimate good also known as moksha which puts an end to all sorrow. Over 600 verses, the unchanging nature of the Atma and the way to live life is revealed to Arjuna. At the end of the dialogue Arjuna declares that his sorrow indeed has come to an end. He sees the importance of living his svadharma which was fighting the war as the prince of the land and righting the wrong that had been done over many years.
Sarvopanishado gaavo dogdha gopaala nandanah
Partho vatsa sudhirbhokta dugdha, gitaamrtam mahat
The Upanishads are the cows, the one who milks in Krshna, the joy of the cowherds, the calf is Arjuna, the partaker of the milk, the one whose mind is clear, and the invaluable, timeless Gita is the milk.
A cow does not wonder – should I be with the first bull I meet or the 10th?
But for a human being choices are involved because of free will. Every day we think about – What is the best thing to do in a given situation?
The Bhagavad Gita is for all of humanity. Human mind is a battlefield of conflicts between choices and hence choice between dharma and adharma.
The knowledge of Karma Yoga forms an important part of the Bhagavad Gita and so I thought we can celebrate these timeless teachings by focusing on how and when Karma becomes Karma Yoga.
Karma is often translated as action but it is not strictly correct. Rather, it is will based action which can be performed only by a human being and generates punya and paapa. Machines and computers can be programmed to perform many actions but it is not karma. Animals, whether killing or rescuing another animal perform kriya which is another word for action but it is not seen as karma because they do not generate punya or paapa. How do we know this? Through the Veda, which is a means of knowledge. There is no other way to know this and we have shraddha in the Veda.
Karma Yoga is both a disposition and a lifestyle. As a disposition towards karma and its results Karma Yoga frees you from the seeming limitations of the situation. As a lifestyle one pursues Dharma, Artha, Wealth and Kama, pleasure along with Moksha.
By highlighting a few points about when Karma becomes Karma Yoga I also clarify some myths about it.
Karma Yoga is not a special time or a special action: Some ashrams feature a slot for Karma Yoga. The schedule might read 2 – 3 pm Karma Yoga. What they mean is seva, loving service performed by the residents as their contribution without any payment. Karma Yoga is not a special time of action nor does it have to be done at a specific time of the day. Rather it is an attitude that can apply to all karma.
Shift from controller to contributor – When we perform karma we expect results. Karma becomes karma yoga when you continue to expect results but know that you are the contributor and not the controller of the results.
Shift from causation to co-relation – When one performs karma one wrongly believes that one calls all the shots. Naturally the results of all actions are in one’s hands. In different kind of karma such as applying for a job, bringing up a child, marrying the person you love or going on a vacation, we believe in causation – I cause the result as I have put in my best effort. The results must follow. However, when karma becomes Karma Yoga, we shift from causation to co-relation. Yes one has put in one’s best effort but who gets selected is a result of far too many co-related factors that are not in one’s control such as the situation of the job market, the criteria of the employers and there being equally good contenders for the job. We shift from causation to co-relation.
Shift from oneself to Bhagavan as karmaadhyaksha– When one performs mere karma one gets carried away with the shaktis at one’s disposal – the enormous capacity of the mind to think and make choices, the insatiable capacity to desire anything and everything and the capacity to perform a variety of actions. One wrongly and perhaps unthinkingly believes that we have created our own shakti-s.
However, when Karma becomes Karma Yoga I see that any karma done by me be it making a spaceship or being loving to my dog is because I have been blessed with shaktis – iccha shakti, kriya shakti and jnana shakti by Bhagavan. I did not and could not have invented it. I still understand and harness the many laws that govern the world but see that all laws and principles of nature are not just mechanical laws but laws presided over by Bhagavan.
In a beautiful location called Siddhabari in Himachal Pradesh, Swami Chinmayananda ji was wanting to build an ashram. The plans were drawn up for construction and it began in all earnest. However, the strong winds in the area would undo a lot of the work. It was a like taking a few steps forward and then retracing the steps backward with no progress being made. Frustrated, the people in charge asked Swami Chinamayananda ji for a solution. Recognising that any wind or rather Vayu is presided over by Vayu devata, Hanuman who is Vayuputra, the son of Vayu was prayed to. Hanuman is known for his devotion to Bhagavan Sri Rama, his valor and his enormous strength. Sure enough, with the blessings of Hanuman, the construction proceeded smoothly and was completed. In gratitude and to seek his blessings a beautiful murti of majestic Hanuman was made. And so Hanuman overlooks the entire retreat centre nestled in the heart of snow capped mountains amidst the pine trees. Yes, strong winds continue to blow but the beautiful retreat centre and all those who visit rest in the protection of Hanuman. This beautiful place is also the location where Swami Chinmayananda ji had his mahasamadhi, where the body was buried in the mid nineties. Just an aside – when a sannyasi is no more, we don’t say that the person has died. Instead we say that the person had his or her mahasamadhi which is not a special type of meditation but the person is one with Bhagavan. Does this instance then mean that we just pray to a particular deity and we will get the desired result? No. The results depend on the laws. Karma Yoga involves a reverential acknowledge of all karma being presided over by Bhagavan as the karmaadhyaksha and hence that we can perform any karma is a blessing of Bhagavan.
Shift from oneself to Bhagavan as karmaphaladata – If you are merely performing karma you see yourself solely in charge of the results. When things go your way, life is great. There is much celebration and jubilation. When situations don’t go your way, there is a constant experience of anxiety and frustration. Any amount of practicing mindfulness meditation and managing your emotions don’t help and cannot help. Why? Because the fundamental assumption of you being responsible for the result, has not changed. However when Karma becomes Karma Yoga, we see that Bhagavan presides over the material and intelligence of all the laws. Hence the results of karma, karma phala are shaped by the giver that is Bhagavan. This is not an abdication of responsibility but rather a correct understanding of all the contributing factors in a given result largely shaped by the karma phala daata, the giver of results. Hence karma Yoga is permeated by the recognition of Bhagavan in all our karma. There is no Karma Yoga without Bhagavan.
Shift in goal orientation – If you are merely performing karma you are seeking pleasure, wealth and perhaps a place in svarga too after life in line with ragas, cravings and dveshas, aversions. The world is neatly and conveniently divided into all that you like and move towards and all that you dislike and hence avoid. Nothing wrong with these absolutely valid pursuits. Still, wealth and pleasure are limited. Our ragas and dveshas constrict our thinking and their very intensity may make us go against Dharma. A case in point is Dhritarashtra, Duryodhana’s father who although being the king, because of his blind love for the son, did not stop his son from tricking his cousins or initiating the war against the Pandavas. Why? Because his raga for his son was so intense that he was willing to perform adharma. Everyone wants to be rich and in fact needs some money to live. But if the raga, binding desire is for a lot of money then the means don’t matter – any quick way such as dealing in drugs, prostitution or child pornography is ok because one wants huge amounts of money at any cost.
However, when karma transforms to karma yoga then your goal is moksha. Karma becomes a means to fulfill your ragas and dveshas with an understanding of Bhagavan shaping your karmaphala and the law of Dharma. We seek to align our karma stemming from raga and dvesha to Dharma. Yes we would like to earn a lot of money but we align our desires to ethical practices not because of hell and eternal damnation but because Dharma is a manifestation of Bhagavan. And so, the goal of Karma Yoga is not karmaphala, the results of karma but moksha. As a disposition, karma yoga gives me a sense of relative freedom in all situations rendering my mind to think clearly with cheerfulness and peace also referred to as antah-karana shuddhi. This prepares me for the teachings of self discovery of oneself as absolute freedom. Any karma is limited and cannot give one the limitless which one already is.
Shift in view of oneself – If you are merely performing karma you will judge yourself on the basis of events and situations. This event was a success. I am successful. I dropped out of college because of difficult circumstance and hence a failure. Our judgements about ourselves and others on the basis of events in our lives create much suffering.
However, when karma changes to karma yoga you stop defining yourself by the outcome of events. You see yourself as a nimitta, an instrument for karma to come through you given your abilities and skills.
Karma is not a burden for you but a privilege and an opportunity for contribution. Seeing the ever present connection to Bhagavan you are a devotee.
Shift in responsibility – If you are performing merely karma, you become over responsible or under responsible because you are causing the results one way or the other. However when karma changes to karma yoga you take responsibility for your actions recognizing your capacity to do karma as a blessing and the results too as a blessing. As a devotee all karma is an act of worship
Shift in competence and acceptance – If you are merely performing karma you will soon reach burnout where there is an experience of exhaustion, listlessness and no motivation because more is a mirage with no end in sight. However, when karma changes to karma yoga then you have a clear sense of priorities – clarity about your responsibilities in different relationships and hence your karma. You continue to do your best with a growing understanding of Dharma and learn to be efficient in doing things the right way and effective in doing the right things also referred to as kaushalam. Your readiness to accept is present even before the results of your karma come. Why? Because karma phala are shaped by Bhagavan and hence they are prasada, a gift. This is samatvam.
Shift in resistance – If you are merely performing karma there is much resistance to ourselves, situations and people. When Karma changes to karma yoga then our resistance drops. We see that situations and people are a result of the matrix of karma and we learn to flow