Karma-Yoga Action

In karma-yoga defined by Śakara in II.39 commentary, there are three elements: (1) calm endurance of opposites, (2) yogic action, (3) samādhi practice. The first of these can be roughly summed up as Independence, and was looked at in a previous chapter. This chapter is concerned with the yogic action, from which karma-yoga takes its name.

Yogic action is presented, in the Gītā and in Śakara, in slightly varying ways:

  1. abandonment of, or evenness of mind towards, results good or bad;
  2. dedicating, or consigning or depositing, results of actions, to God or Brahman;
  3. dedicating, etc. the actions themselves to God or Brahman;
  4. having no personal motive for actions;
  5. giving up attachment to action as such;
  6. giving up attachment to inaction.

It may be asked, why is inaction brought in? In the yogic analysis, even one sitting still, thinking ‘Now let me be happily at ease’, is still classed as acting. His choice is itself an action, and it soon changes. In a modem analogy, the safety catch has been put on, but the gun is still loaded and still in the hand. He is still a marksman.

The Gītā text mainly recommends actions based on traditional virtues such as those listed at the beginning of XVI: such actions are to be done without any personal motive of outer gain or recognition, or even inner self-satisfaction. Self-controlled action, uprightness, purity, generosity are typical. It has been noticed how many of them consist in restraining one’s own life, rather than direct interference with the lives of others. To set a good example of independence, and not injuring others, is most important in the Gītā ethics.

Apart from no greed for fruits, there is to be no attachment for action itself. Some people simply want to keep busy, without any personal interest in the particular results, though they often work hard. It is sometimes bossiness (as Dr Shastri remarked), but more often a way of asserting personal significance. It is not yogic action; it is motivated by a fear of becoming nothing.

II.47 Your right must be to the action alone, never to its fruits;
Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor be attached to inaction.

48 Set in yoga perform your actions, casting off attachment; be the same in success or failure:
This being-the-same is called Yoga.

If there is no motive of getting fruits, and one is not to lay any claim to the results of hard work, how will any action ever get started, let alone finished properly? Superficial reading of such texts can lead to superficial work. Some may feel that it means not to care whether one cleans the floor or not. Or if one does clean it, dirty patches can be left, because one is not supposed to be ‘working for results’.

But this is not what the text says. It says: not to be attached to results, whether in anticipation as motive, or afterwards as some fruit; it does not say the work is not to be done. To leave dirty patches on the floor is not ‘cleaning it without attachment to results’; it is simply not cleaning the floor. A clean floor is not the ‘fruit’ of cleaning; it is the final stage of the operation itself. The fruit would be that others notice and appreciate it, or do not notice and immediately walk over it with muddy feet – a bad fruit. The yogin is to practise evenness of mind in both cases. In the second case, it is not a question of compressing the lips and saying nothing. Evenness of mind is an inner serenity that works hard but beyond that, does not care.

How can such things be achieved? It is a reasonable question. The answer is, that the skill has to be learnt by degrees, like any other skill. Yoga is skill in keeping the mind even. The yogic control of thought is first practised in everyday things: it is not a question of screwing oneself up to face grand successes or shattering disasters. At the beginning, the best practice occasions are simply physical jobs consisting of repetitive movements. What would normally be regarded as boring tasks, in fact. Cleaning or polishing largish surfaces, copy-typing, adding endless columns of figures, walking along a dimly-lit road on a dark night. These are favourable times for practising inner control.

Suppose there is a wide floor of stone squares to clean in about an hour. The cleaner makes a rough time-plan; then begins. When he is scrubbing one stone, a yogin does not think: This is the fifth one in the row; ten more to do here’, and then ‘nine more’, ‘eight more’, up to ‘Now the next row’. If some such thought comes up, he mentally throws it away. This is not too difficult to do, if he looks at the movement of the brush and begins to appreciate it. Similarly with irrelevancies like wondering what the others are doing, or wishing he were elsewhere, or memories, or anticipations. They drop away as he feels into the scrubbing movement.

One of the pleasures of the seaside is to watch the waves coming in, over or around a little rock or post. A small patch of foam is created, each time similar but with a slight difference. People can sit for a good time, enjoying the beauty and variety of the patterns. Now, the same thing is going on with the movements of the scrubbing brush, and as the scrubber enters into the movement, he begins to enjoy the beauty and variety of these patterns. The mind becomes serene, and the movements easier. As the natural texture of the stone shows itself, the worker can feel that something is being revealed in himself also. He moves on to the next stone, not with any feeling ‘that’s another one done’, but as naturally as a new wave comes when the previous one has fulfilled itself.

If all goes well, he will one day feel that the brush is moving itself, so to say; it moves faster and more effectively. There is a unity of scrubber, scrubbing brush, soap-and-water, and stone. The senses become sharper: things are brighter, and there is a brightness within. When this happens, the state of samādhi is coming near.

XIV.11 When all the gates of the senses radiate the light of knowledge,
Then Sattva should be known to be asserting itself.

The above verse is a riddle to those who do not practise. The senses are both those of perception and those of action. When they begin to become radiant, things are seen as they are, not merely as means or obstacles to something else. Movements become lively but also precise and gentle. The effect is noticeable even in an aged or crippled body; just to see such a one working, gives inner peace.

Sometimes, however, a first experience creates excitement; mind is disturbed, personal egoism revives, and with it the feeling: ‘This is mine, and I can do it again.’ It may take months before the necessary freedom from attachment returns. But even one experience gives an insight into a secret of yogic action.

It is referred to in one of the short cryptic Gītā phrases:

II.50 He whose mind is thus held in yoga of evenness, casts off here the vice or virtue of actions;
Therefore devote yourself to yoga: yoga is the art of skilful action.

The last line is literally: ‘in actions, yoga is skill (kauśalam).’ The word kauśala means not only dexterity, capacity, and adroitness; it has also a sense of auspiciousness, benefit, things going well, and so on. It can mean something like a secret, as when it is said: ‘the secret of politics is: good timing.’ The translation as ‘art’ gives a hint at both senses. But here it refers to experiences in karma-yogic action; it is not a question of words.

As in the case of the opposites, the Gītā basically sets the aspiring yogin to find within himself the power to make efforts. ‘Arise, and engage yourself in yoga’ (IV.42). It is only later that the Gītā gives the methods of devotion to an external Lord for those who cannot yet find power within themselves. And as before, Śakara softens the austerity of the instructions by recommending the karma-yogin to practise also devotion to the Lord. In the case of actions, it is to dedicate the actions, or the fruit of actions, to the Lord. True, the Gītā itself in III.30 has directed the karma-yogin to ‘cast all actions on Me’, but the ‘Me’ there refers to the supreme Self of the yogin. It is not till V.10 that the Gītā says ‘setting all your actions in Brahman’, which is repeated in XII.6 and XVIII.57, with the word ‘casting’ (samnyasya), namely renouncing. By Chapter XII,  the devotional practice of the Gītā is in full flood, and Śakara refers it back to karma-yoga from the beginning.

Dedication to the Lord makes it easier to become free from anticipations or fears connected with results. In a crisis, a subordinate faithfully carrying out the instructions of a respected superior feels inner relief; he has cast the responsibility for ultimate results on to the superior. Free from meaningless worry, his work becomes efficient.

In the field of yoga, depositing the actions or their fruits in devotion to the Lord makes the mind calm, and opens the possibility of seeing the Lord in the action itself.

Chapter XII verses 10 and 11 make a distinction between consigning actions to the Lord, and consigning their fruits. The first is to devote the whole life to a divine purpose: to move, eat and sleep for that alone. The second is to have worldly concerns for oneself and family and work for them also, but to be prepared to accept the results of those efforts as from the Lord. This too cannot be done except by practising yoga to some degree, as the text itself says.

The actions of the karma-yogin are aimed at thinning the veil hiding the divine. When action becomes purified of associations, there will be tiny glimpses of light in everyday routines.

© Trevor Leggett

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