Karma Yoga the yoga of action

The yoga of action, karma-yoga, has three elements:

(1) stoical endurance of changes in the world;
(2) performance of right actions without laying any claim to their further results (technically called ‘fruits’);
(3) practice of the profound samādhi meditation, in which mind is focussed and still, undisturbed by anything external or internal.

No efforts in yoga are ever lost, Kṛṣṇa tells him. (This is another piece of instruction which Arjuna does not really accept, as will appear later.)
The first element, brave endurance of the opposites like heat and cold, pleasure and pain, honour and disgrace, is a constant Gītā theme. It is shortly referred to in II.14:

It is the contacts with material things that cause heat and cold, pleasure and pain.

They come and go, impermanent as they are; do you endure them bravely

II.38 Then treating alike pleasure and pain, gain and loss, Success and defeat, be ready to fight.
Thus you incur no sin.

This is the element of karma-yoga called disregarding the opposites. It is just touched on in II.14, where the practice is, to endure them bravely But in the next verse the Gītā briefly indicated that it is possible to rise completely above them, by realization of the supreme Self. In that case, there is no reaction at all and the yogin is ‘fit for immortality’. It does not mean that he does not act: he does move out of the way of a falling tree, for instance. But he does not react, with panic or sighs of relief. Śaṅkara points out that this high state of total independence can be reached even by a warrior in a righteous battle – a battle ‘unsought’ and therefore defensive, as the Gītā explains.

In the first stage, however, it is not said that the yogin will not feel them; but he must practise keeping his mind even. How is it to be done? One way is to practise focussing the attention on the central line, as described in the Line of Light practice (p. 145). After continued practice, the central line becomes directly felt, and the edge of pain is blunted.

A second aid is to recognize that all these experiences are part of a divine purpose, and accept them as from the Lord. This does not mean not to move away from pain, or not to appreciate well earned rest, but when the pain, for instance, persists in spite of all our efforts, then to accept it as from the Lord, for our own good ultimately. In this teaching, acceptance does not mean to do nothing. The Lord sends the shower; we accept it, and he inspires us to put up an umbrella, as it has been pithily said.

A high form of this practice, for those who are willing to try it, is to look at the experiences, even painful ones, as ultimately imposed by Ātman, one’s own self.

As an example: after wartime service, a young man who had hopes of a career in scholarship had a severe stroke, from which he slowly recovered but with the loss of a good deal of eyesight. There was possibility of another stroke. He had practised yoga meditations for some years, and had heard about taking the hardship as imposed by his own Self. He could sometimes attain this, but found it difficult to sustain. Still, it helped him now. Unable to study hard, he managed to find other constructive activity. In addition, every six months he would make an effort at sustained study for a projected book; but after a week, headaches and a sense of risk and doom allowed him to stop without losing too much face to himself. His other activity prospered; he felt he was doing something for the world, and was partly reconciled to his condition. Then an ambitious plan for the future failed – a bitter disappointment. He inwardly addressed the Self: ‘How can you put this new disappointment on to me?’ In his meditations the reply was: ‘You must find my purpose in it.’ He felt like shouting at the Ātman: ‘You devil! torturing me like this!’ He became so angry that he did not care whether he died or not. He pursued the study now through the pain barrier, and in six months completed his first book. It was a considerable success, and laid the foundation for a career. Many years later, he remarked that now, looking back to that time, he felt his younger self shouting at him: ‘Why are you torturing me with this new disappointment?’ and his older self saying: ‘Without it, you would never have taken the risk. I approved of it then and

I approve of it now.’ The young self says: ‘I would have, I would!’ The Ātman says: ‘No, you wouldn’t. And we both know it.’ The young one growls: ‘You old devil!’ and the real Self says calmly and compassionately: ‘You young fool.’

If the aspiring yogin has managed, even a little, to make something out of the tragedies and seeming tragedies, he will look back later from the Ātmic standpoint, and say: ‘I approve of what happened.’ Often what has to be made from it is an inner realization of evenness-of-mind, an ocean in which the little waves which are now so turbulent soon become mere ripples.

39 The Sāṅkhya of the Self-knower has been described;
Now hear about the yoga of the man of action, which can free you from its bonds.

The policy of the Gītā is initiated here: first the direct path of knowledge is described, and then – for those who hearing it fail to respond – a more gradual path is given.

40 In this course of yoga, there is no waste of effort, nor ever any harmful effect.
Even a little of the practice saves one from great fear.

41 Here, O son of Kuru, thought is one-pointed and decisive:
Endlessly branching out are the thoughts of the indecisive.

This is the second element of karma-yoga, namely samādhi, where thought is one-pointed and unwavering, identified with the object of the concentration. The one-pointedness is not only the meditation state: when meditation has been practised regularly, the dynamic latent impressions (saṃskāra-s) laid down produce a continuous calm stream of ideas of the truth reached in samādhi. The conclusion reached, or decision taken, does not waver after coming out of that state.

Many-branched are the thoughts of the indecisive. An important factor in training in chess thinking is, not to go over an analysis more than once. Suppose a position where the opponent has moved, and now there are four reasonable replies that might be made. Beginners and medium-strength players look at them in turn, and make a decision: on balance, this one looks the best. When about to make the move, suddenly the thought occurs, ‘but perhaps that other one might be better if I analysed it again.’ Then still another thought comes, and often the thinking becomes quite confused. The final result is an impulsive very bad move, rejected almost at the beginning for a good reason that is now overlooked. Endlessly branching out into doubts and reservations are the thoughts of the indecisive.

The aspiring champion trains himself to look properly at each alternative, and then to stick to his decision firmly. He will not always have found the best move, but at least he will make a reasonable move.

And he will not waste his mental energy uselessly.

Still, possibilities are endlessly branching out, so how can one stop the anticipatory thinking also from branching out? How does one know: ‘Stop calculating now and stick with the present estimate’? The indication is, that the thinking becomes circular, and pointless. It is true that possibilities are endless, but there is a limit to sensible thinking. When, with no new facts, endless doubts begin to arise, when excuses begin to appear for not going through with a decision already made, that is the time for buddhi to silence the whisperings or ravings of instinctive mind (manas) and emotional mind (citta). When the regimen prescribed by the doctor becomes irksome, manas will say: ‘After all, he may not be right. The treatments prescribed by doctors 100 years ago now look silly, even harmful; in 100 years’ time, this treatment of today may look equally silly, even harmful. Perhaps I should trust my own inner feeling.’ Buddhi says: ‘No! we have taken the decision on the best advice available, and we stick to it. Silly inner feelings are what got us into this bad state of health in the first place, and we don’t trust them now. In this yoga thought is one-pointed and decisive.’

It may be added here that the whole idea of self-control and tranquillizing the mind is opposed by some theories of today (some of them based on deliberate misreading of Freud). It is said that feelings should be respected, and expressed, not slighted and repressed. There is a fantasy that if everyone acts freely on impulse, it will be Paradise. In fact, the strong, the beautiful and the cunning would finally get everything, leaving others destitute. The Gītā shows that there is no lasting happiness without control of impulse, feeling and thought. Acting on impulse sometimes gives instant satisfaction, but it also lasts only an instant and is followed by a reaction in the form of depression. Many of the talented and persuasive Joyous Vitalists, like Jack Kerouac, and Jack London in former days, died early of alcohol poisoning.

Feelings too are of various kinds: they must be controlled. If inordinate attachment is not controlled, fear and anxiety will not be controllable either. In the Permissive Society, anxiety and depression are endemic, as is shown by the doctors’ prescriptions, and widespread use of harmful drugs (including alcohol).

There follow three verses (42–44) on the after-death states promised by the Veda-s for those who perform the sacrifices. These ceremonies included feeding the poor, and donations to learning, and had some social meaning. But they were for the restricted personal benefit of the sacrifices and as such are dismissed by the Gītā. The states of heaven and hell are as real as the present world – that is to say, based on illusion but with some coherence. The experiences in them are the results of actions here, good and bad. Hell can be compared to agonies of hospital treatment to someone who has shattered his body by drug abuse or fighting; a heaven has been humorously compared to being permanently drunk in a night club on an apparently unlimited expense account. All these states are passing, and ultimately sources of suffering because they are restrictions.

47 Your right must be to the action alone, never to its fruits,
Let not the fruit 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.

Being the same in success or failure does not mean slackness in action. Throughout the Gītā, the word in these passages is ‘kārya’, which means ‘what ought to be done’. It is sometimes translated ‘duty’, but there is some difference. In kārya the sense is that the action is done for its own sake, not under compulsion, nor to get some personal advantage. It is done with enthusiasm and zest, as actualizing the cosmic purpose in one small area, but not for personal gain. The karma-yogic skill in action is not indifference to the action: it is indifference to fruits.

Śaṅkara makes this a central verse of the Gītā. Arjuna does not have an option, he cannot chose between the paths of Knowledge and of Action, namely between jñāna-yoga and karma-yoga. He is simply not qualified for the path of Knowledge; he would not be able to follow it, inasmuch as he is still subject to grief and illusion. His qualification is for action alone. The word for qualification is adhikāra, which means something like a proper role, a qualification, with the added sense that it ought to be done as fitting, as a proper duty.

Then three important points are given about the actual performance of yogic action as distinct from ordinary action of the world:

1.No claim on the fruits of the action. For instance, no feeling of injustice if it is successfully done, but someone else reaps the benefit.

2.The motive for action is not to be connected with fruits. This is not the same as (1). To do an act of charity to get self-satisfaction would not be yogic action. A test would be, that the act is immediately forgotten by the giver.

3.‘Not be attached to inaction,’ This very important half-line is to rule out a common mistake. The mistake is: to confuse acting yogically without being attached to the fruits, with making sure there is no attachment to fruits by doing nothing, so that there are no fruits. Nearly everyone at some time makes the slip of glossing over careless action, or inaction, by thinking: ‘After all, I am a yogin, I am not working for results.’


The yogin does work for results. But they are not the reason why he undertakes the action, nor does he have any claim on them. He does the action because it ought to be done, whether it succeeds or not; he is not elated if it comes off, nor cast down if it does not. But he always acts as efficiently as possible to bring about the best result. Later in chapter III, the Gītā will say that the ideal action is ‘yukta’, namely well-directed, and Sankara glosses this word as meaning efficient and well chosen.

All this is summed up in verse 50, which also links up with the next verses on sitting-in-meditation samādhi:

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 an art of skilful actions.

In II.48 yoga was defined as evenness of mind, and here it is further described in regard to actions, as a skill and an art. How is that evenness to be attained, so that it will inspire skilful action? The next verses describe yoga in itself, namely samādhi meditation. It may be noted that the word ‘yoga’ and associated words such as ‘yukta’ come many times in the Gītā text, and in most cases Śaṅkara glosses them by ‘samādhi’ or associated words such as ‘samāhita’.

52 As your mind gets through the tangle of delusion,
You will get sick of all you have heard and what you are still supposed to listen to.

53 When your mind, bewildered by the traditional lore,
At last comes to stand motionless, immovable in samādhi,
You will have attained yoga.

This is a passage with wide meaning. To study the holy texts is a sacred duty, like giving in charity and virtue generally. But if it is done without meditation, it leads to a kind of frustration. Reading the lives of the saints, for instance, without practising meditation oneself, is humorously compared to counting the money in someone else’s pocket. In the same way, virtue practised without inspiration leads to contradictions. Feed the starving, heal the sick: does this include feeding and healing mass murderers? What about their future victims, when they are fit and strong again? Mother Teresa of Calcutta remarked that social service done without prolonged periods of prayer in silence is good work, ‘but it is not Christ’s work’.

The translation should if possible reflect the situation: something has been done with enthusiasm, but is finally found to be pointless by itself, as Śaṅkara says. ‘Get sick of’ is a harsh colloquial phrase, but it is meant to mirror a harsh direct experience of disillusion. It was used by Dr Shastri of this situation.

The two verses on samādhi apply to both karma-yoga and knowledge- yoga, but there is a distinction as regards what it is centred on. The calm concentration of the karma-yogin is directed to some element in his yoga, such as independence, or evenness of mind; or the One Thought of verse 41. This last will be some aspect of what Dr Shastri used to describe as the established Master Sentiment – often some aspect of God. All these are facts-within-the-world: there is an independence deep in the heart, there is an evenness also. Then supporting and controlling the world are the great manifestations of the divine. They cannot be seen clearly until samādhi is attained. But after it has been practised for some time, they begin to show themselves, though not perfectly clearly, even through the veil of the world-experience, when it is thin. When it thickens, the yogin practises samādhi again. The same applies to the knowledge-yoga. Until consciousness of time and place are transcended, Brahman, the Ātman-Self, is not seen. But when it has been seen in samādhi, it can be seen outside samādhi, when body and mind are active. There is a description of the state in IV.24, when the actions of the remaining body-mind have taken on the character of an offering into the sacred fire of Brahman, the universal Self:

The act of offering is Brahman, Brahman is the offering itself; it is put into the fire of Brahman by Brahman;

He whose samādhi realizes action to be Brahman, will go to Brahman.

In verse 54 Arjuna asks about the steadying of Knowledge. He knows from experience of life that even clear Knowledge can be clouded or disturbed by past associations, though they are known to be unreal. How is it to be recognized that the Knowledge has been stabilized? He asks for a description of what a man of steady Knowledge is like externally. How does he speak, how does he sit, how does he move? (He clearly has some doubts about Kṛṣṇa as a model. The point will be looked at later, under the section called Arjuna’s Disbelief.) Disregarding the slight, Kṛṣṇa answers:

II.55 When he gives up all desires in the mind,
And is satisfied by himself in the Self alone,
He is said to be one whose Knowledge has been steadied.
When his mind is not disturbed by sorrow,
And he has lost the desire for joys,
Without hankerings, fears or anger,
The sage is said to be firm in Knowledge.
When he has no desire for anything,
And when something good or bad comes to him,
Neither delights in it nor repels it,
His Knowledge has been steadied.
And when he withdraws his senses from objects,
As a tortoise withdraws all its limbs into itself,
His Knowledge is steadied.

Why does the Knowledge have to be steadied? In his commentary on II.17 and elsewhere, Śaṅkara explains that the idea T am not the body- mind; I am the true Self’ is still an idea. It is founded on truth, but the expression in words or thoughts is an affair of the mind. The mind is now pure and clear, so that truth can be reflected in it. But it is not truth itself. The thought ‘I am Ātman’ is not Ātman. Ātman has no need to think: it knows everything already, because it is everything and also transcends everything. The thought in samādhi (‘I am Self’) destroys illusion of identity with limited body-mind. So it destroys itself also, since the very thought is part of the mind. ātman, the universal Self, alone remains.

But the Knowledge-idea has to be steady before it dissolves in Atman. It can be disturbed by a sudden rush of sense-impressions and memory-associations.

60 The impetuous senses can carry off the mind of even a Knower,
Though he is struggling to control them.

61 Then let him sit and make samādhi on the Self, and so restrain them.
As his senses come under control, his Knowledge is steadied.

The Gītā says repeatedly (for instance in V.23, or here in II.70) that such impacts from the senses continue as long as life lasts, but they can be controlled. The karma-yogin controls them by meditating that they are illusory, and sources of suffering in the end; he also practises overruling them by rousing his Master Sentiment. The Knowledge-yogin does it by samādhi on the Self.

Much more serious is the case where people allow themselves to meditate on the sense-objects themselves, even though they may restrain the actions of desire. It may be very difficult to disentangle the mind from cherished fantasies. Still, as the Gītā promises, it can always be done by one sufficiently disillusioned, and determined to change.

In the final state of steady Knowledge, such sense impacts make almost no impression at all:

70 Just as the sea remains ever undisturbed, though the rivers are endlessly pouring into it,
So is the sage at peace from desires,
But not the one who lusts after them.

71 He who moves about without desires or longings,
With no self-interest and no feeling of limited ‘I’
He goes to peace.

72 This is the state of Brahman;
Once attained, delusion is no more.
If one finds this even with his last breath,
He goes to Brahman.

This chapter summarizes the highest teachings. No God apart is described; Self is one. Even the karma-yogin is expected to find strength in himself: within him, as within all, is the one Self, the Lord infinite in power and infinite in daring, as Chapter XI will describe him. Sankara however softens the presentation by bringing in some of the elements of devotion to a Lord felt as separate, which will come in later chapters.

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