Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga is the path of action. It is a means of preparing oneself for the attainment of moska, self-realization, which is the final goal of life in Hindu tradition (Rao 45). The concept of Karma Yoga has long been acknowledged in Hinduism, but it was not until the emergence of the Bhagavad Gita, a text dealing with the concepts of religion within one’s daily life, that it was viewed as a path toward self-realization. The Bhagavad Gita is based upon a scene in the epic Mahabharata, in which Arjuna is faced with the dilemma of obeying his dharmic duty to fight his cousins, the Kauravas, for rulership of the kingdom, or to ignore dharma, and renounce into a peaceful life, in which he may strive for moksa. Krsna, who identifies himself as the manifestation of god, advises Arjuna to enter battle (see Rodrigues 227-236). Traditionally, moksa was cultivated in the final stages of life, in which one renounces their life within society, to live as a forrest-dweller and samnyasin (see Rodrigues 148-159). This conflict, to choose between a life within a society or a life in which one may become liberated, is resolved in the Gita. The Gita teaches of there being more than one path to reaching the Absolute, the God-head, to attaining moksa (Sivaraman 188). Krsna teaches Arjuna of three paths to liberation: Jnana Yoga, the path of trancedental knowledge, Bhakti Yoga, the path of loving devotion, and Karma Yoga, the path of action. These paths may be undertaken by a person at any stage in life; therefore the Gita teaches of cultivating a renouncer attitude, without being a renouncer. Transforming the notions of karma and yoga, the Bhagavad Gita presents the notion of niskama karma, acting without interest or desire in the results of one’s actions, and applies it to yoga as a path of spiritual development, preparing an individual for pursuing moksa (Rao 48). The teachings of Karma Yoga are inspirational to ways of life. One exemplifier of such inspiration is Mahatma Gandhi, a political activist responsible for transforming both Indian and African societies (see Rodrigues 252-253). Karma Yoga is more than a path preparing one for moksa, it is a way of life both for individuals, as well as society.

Karma, in its original sense, is the “law” of cause and effect (Sivaraman 181). It is the notion that every action that one takes in the world, both of physical (act) or mental (thoughts, feelings) nature, leaves an impression on both the cosmic and human realms of the world and thus bears a consequence or result (Sivaraman 181). Karmic consequences, good or bad, are attached to the individual, and therefore determine their current, and future conditions (Sivaraman 181). Therefore, karma refers to the performance of deeds, which include specific caste duties, sacrifices and rituals that maintain the order of the world. The Hindu concept of spiritual re-birth lies within karma, as those who possess good karma may be subjected to a better rebirth, which includes being re-born into a higher caste (Sivaraman 181). Therefore, the original concept of karma suggests that human beings are attached to life in the world, and so, should act in a manner reflective of their desire to live a content life, and improve their place of re-birth (Sivaraman 181).

The notion of karma was reformed through the Bhagavad Gita. Karma refers to the performance of actions as a result of a motive, which is either egoistic or nonegoistic. Such actions do not bear consequences on the individual, as the result of any action is determined, and produced by god, and thus should be attributed to god (Singr 56). According to the Gita, it matters not what results come of any action, what matters is the motive behind each action (Sighr 71). Niskama karma, acting in the world disinterested in the results of such actions, and without desire for certain outcomes, is the reformed karma of the Bhagavad Gita (Rao 48). Embracing niskama karma in life while examining the motives behind each action one takes constitutes Karma Yoga (Singr 71).

Hindu philosohpy, specifically Sankhya philosphy, speaks of the dualistic nature of reality. Reality is composed of two entities: Purusa (the self) and Prakrti (the non-self) (see Rodrigues). Purusa is the soul within beings, and represents truth. Prakrti, on the other hand, is a force, it is our nature. Prakrti manifests as the buddhi (intellect), ahankara (ego) and manas (inner feelings of the heart and mind) of a being. According to the Gita, Prakrti is responsible for all action, while Purusa is unaffected by all that takes place (Singr 46). Ignorance is said to be the cause of all sorrow, and its force is bestowed upon a being when they identify themselves as the doer of action. Attaching actions, and results to the self feeds the ego self, motivating future actions and causes suffering when results of an action are un-agreeable (Edgerton 165). Ignorance binds the soul to the physical being, and blinds a person from seeing truth, from discriminating between Prakrti and Purusa. Moksa is thus, unattainable while in a state of ignorance (Singr 118). Karma Yoga allows a person to overcome ignorance through the purification of the mind (Rao 46).

Karma Yoga is the “discipline of detached activity” (Singr 71). Action is seen as inescapable, it is in the nature (prakrti) of beings to act helplessly, but it is in their power to control such actions (Deutsch 39). Prakrti is composed of three gunas (elements): rajas (passion), sattva (illuminous) and tammas (obstruction). The gunas are the controlling force over all action. Rajas, as the Gita teaches, is the “enemy”, as passion is thought to masque knowledge. Manas and buddhi, the mind and the understanding of a being, are impacted by rajas, as passion becomes internalized and seen as stemming from the self (Deutsch 39). In the epic, Mahabharata, Krsna teaches Arjuna that the mind is greater than the senses, reason is greater than the mind, and it is the being himself who is greater than reason (Deutsch 39). Through the practice of Karma Yoga, a person becomes able to examine and conceptualize the nature of action, non-action and wrong action, beginning to work at understanding the “way of action” (Deutsch 39). A being is seen as detached when they are able to truly discriminate the soul from the gunas of prakrti, understanding its separation from action (Singr 66).

The path of Karma Yoga is followed physically through detached action within the world, and mentally through the conditioning of the mind, appreciating the nature of action and the power within oneself to control the forces of prakrti. Yajna (sacrifice), is the technique used within Karma Yoga to lead one towards self-realization (Deutsch 163). The followers of Karma Yoga give up their lower self, their ego self containing desires and attachments, in light of their higher, spiritual self, their soul (Deutsch 164). The being is sacrificed for the soul. When a person chooses to follow the path of action they must concentrate their attention on the divine, their actions are expressions of the divine power that lies within their being. The actions a person takes should be selfless, having no underlying desire, not even the desire to achieve moska (Singr 103). Yajna is performed by taking selfless actions within the world, sacrificing the ego-self, as a being redirects involvement in its actions away from the results and toward their spirit (Singr 103).

The path of Karma Yoga leads a being through four stages of karma. Initially, karma influences the actions one takes for selfish reasons, such as desires and attachments. The actions begin to be motivated from the being’s enlightened desire to know their true self. Next, as one discovers the power of their own being, actions are determined by their personal dharmic law. Finally, actions are taken for the goodness of the action, they are disinterested and are the essence of a being’s true self (Singr 74). The stages of karma are steps in cultivating the essence of Karma Yoga. Through Karma Yoga, a being purifies their mind, and prepares itself to enter the path of knowledge (Rao 50).

Acting for the social good is an essential characteristic of Karma Yoga. The emergence of the path of action has led to the development of many social programs such as Rama krishna mission hospitals, as well revolutions within society (see Rodrigues 251-252). Mahatma Gandhi was a political activist who encompassed the essence of Karma Yoga. Gandhi’s life was characterized by detached action, for the benefit of others and for society. As the reality of social injustice came to his awareness, Gandhi set out on a journey to evoke change. Basing his life on the notion of niskama karma, and karma yoga, Gandhi created the concept of satyagraha (holding fast to the truth), and applied this to political activism (Cherian 86). Mahatma Gandhi reformed societies of South Africa and India through the concept of Karma Yoga, taking action for just causes without being concerned of the consequences such action might relay on an individual. It is through Gandhi’s active, non-violent resistance to social injustice that such societies began to change (Cherian 86).

The path of action purifies the mind of a being, and in so prepares it for attaining the transcendental knowledge characteristic of moksa (Rao 50). Karma Yoga can be adopted at any stage in life, and with so, can be viewed as a lifelong journey toward spiritual development, and ultimately the journey toward moksa. To embrace the path of Karma Yoga, one must take actions in the world, despite their results, and examine these actions with respect to their underlying motive and their nature, attributing the results of such actions as determined by god (Singr 63). To practice this path of action, one must sacrifice their ego-self, and focus their involvement in action on their true-self (Singr 73). Complete detachment from the results of action is the goal of Karma Yoga (Rao 49).

References and Further Recommended Readings

______ (1944) The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Franklin Edgerton. Ed. Walter E. Clark. New York: Harvard UP.

______ (1968) The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Elliot Deutsch. Canada: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada Limited.

_______ (2003) Hindu Spirituality: Volume Two. Ed. K.R. Sundararajan and Brithika Mukerji. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd.

Cherian, Kenneth M (1984) The Life of Mahatma Gandhi: Book Review. Journal of Religious Thought 40.2: 86-90.

Rao, P (1992) The place of Morality in Karma Yoga. Darshana International 32.4: 45-50.

Rodriques, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The e-Book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Singh, Balbir (1981) Karma-Yoga. New Jersey: Humanities Press Inc.

Sivaraman, Krishna (1989) Hindu Spirituality. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Related Research Topics



Bhakti Yoga

Jnana Yoga

Mahatma Gandhi

Dharma, Dharmic Duties

The Bhagavad Gita

The Mahabharata

Yajna Rituals

Sankya Philosophy

The Stages and Goals of Life in Hinduism



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Article written by Patricia Eyolfson (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.