The Principles of Karma Yoga


These are the four practices; meditation on Truth (dhyana); (abhyasa) practice; actions for the Lord (matkarma); and giving up the fruits of actions (tyaga). I’ll read the verses from the Gita which lead up to these practices and then describe them.

“Those who ever contemplate the imperishable, the indefinable, the unmanifest, the omnipresent, and the unthinkable, the unchangeable, the immutable, the eternal – having restrained all the senses, always equanimous, intent on the welfare of all beings, they reach Myself.  But greater is their trouble, whose thoughts are set on the unmanifest; for the goal, the unmanifest, is very hard for the embodied to reach.

“Those who worship Me, renouncing all actions in Me, regarding Me as the Supreme, meditating on me with exclusive Yoga, for them, whose thought is fixed on Me, I become the deliver out of the ocean of sansara.”

“Fix thy mind in Me exclusively. Apply thy buddhi (higher mind) to Me. Thou should live in Me alone hereafter. If you are unable to fix your thoughts steadily on me, then by the Yoga of constant practice (abhyasa) seek to reach me. If you are not equal to practice either, then be intent on doing actions for my sake.”

“Even doing actions for My sake, you will attain protection. If you are unable to do even this, then take refuge in My Yoga and abandon the fruits of all actions, self-controlled. Better indeed is knowledge than mere practice; than knowledge is meditation more esteemed; than meditation, the abandonment of the fruits of actions – for, on abandonment, peace follows at once.

Shri Shankara’s commentary on these four practices: “Those who worship Me; regarding me as the Supreme; meditating on Me with exclusive Yoga.”

Shri Shankara says that Yoga here means samadhi.  First practice of dhyana, meditation. “Fix thy mind in Me, exclusively. Apply thy buddhi to Me.”  Shri Shankara says this means fix the mind in manas (the thoughts and purposes) in the Lord; and not merely thoughts and purposes, but also the higher mind called the buddhi, which investigates and inquires.  So, direct thy thoughts and purposes, and also thy enquiry, to the Lord.

“If you are unable to do this, to fix your thoughts steadily on me, then by the Yoga of practice”, and Shri Shankara says that will lead to samadhi acquired by such practice. In the final verse, it says, “Better is knowledge than mere practice”. Shri Shankara explains that practice can be practice on duality – the Lord is one and I am another. That will lead to practice on Truth, in which, Shri Shankara says, he will recognize in himself this Lord, ‘I am’.

Then the third one is actions for the Lord. Shri Shankara says this will mean you will do actions for the sake of the Lord only. From that, you will acquire a purity of mind. Then you will acquire Yoga or samadhi.  Then you will acquire knowledge, and then liberation.

Fourthly, if you are unable to do even this, then take refuge in the Yoga and abandon the fruits of your actions, still controlling the self. This is called tyaga.

Shri Shankara says that these are not meant to be simply preliminary to the others; but he’s to do as much as he can of each higher one and then complete his practice of that day by using the lower ones, which means that his life becomes more complicated. In the top one he’s simply meditating on Truth. Shri Shankara gives this as the stage of jnana-nishtha, which is a soaking in truth.

If he cannot spend his whole consciousness in this then, as much as he can, without formal practice, he throws his mind, his manas, and the buddhi, the reason, into the Lord. Then when he’s unable, Shri Shankara says, to attain that, then he must practice at a formal time every day and do the formal practice called abhyasa; which means he must make up his mind at a certain time every day that he will meditate and then he must do it. His meditation may be on duality, on the Lord in the universal form, says Shri Shankara, but for a long time that universal form will, so to say, be something universal, but somehow beyond the horizon.

But the time will come when the word ‘universal’ will mean something to him.  He will realize that if it’s universal, it must be in himself also. Then he will begin to be meditating on Truth. He’ll begin to be doing his formal practice on Truth. This will lead to a continuous meditation, as it were, on Truth. If he’s unable, Shri Shankara says, to take his abhyasa to the stage of samadhi, of unity with the object, then he should do as much as he can of throwing himself and his mind into the Lord. Then, in addition, he must do the formal practice. Then, for the rest of the day, he should act for the Lord; not doing actions for his selfish benefit, but acting for the Lord – following the scriptures and following the inspiration which he would receive from his attempts at practice and meditation.

If he finds that he cannot devote his life to acting for the Lord, then he’s to do as much as he can of the dhyana; he must do the formal practice as much as he’s able; he must make the actions for the Lord as much as possible. The other actions will be actions for himself, his family, and his possessions; but, when he does them, he must give up the fruits of those actions and dedicate those actions to the Lord. Then, Shri Shankara says, this will give peace, this giving up of the fruits.   But this is not meant that we should think ourselves incapable of doing the higher stages, and concentrate on the lower stages; because, he says, these are only to be done when the man is unable to fulfil the higher stages. He cannot know that, on any day, unless he has attempted them that day.

For the man in this stage, his day is a complicated one. He has to make different attempts, and gradually it becomes simpler, until it finally becomes one. The Truth meditation is to fix the buddhi, which determines, as well as the manas, the thoughts and purposes, on the Lord. The intellect is given to a man to exercise. There are schools of pure devotion, which say, “Throw your purposes into the Lord, throw your thoughts into the Lord. Don’t attempt to inquire. Don’t be inquisitive or curious”.  But the Yoga says, “No, the buddhi is given, and he should try to determine the nature of the Lord and the nature of himself.”  When he arrives at the stage of practising on Truth, then that will lead to jnana-nishtha, which Shri Shankara gives as the stage after knowing the Truth – it’s an intensification of the Truth. We can give some examples about this.

“Surely it’s enough simply to know and to have realized the truth?” But it need not be so and examples are given. A man came out of a prison where he had been very badly treated with some others. When he came out, he knew that he was free. He had committed no crime, because it was the misfortune of war that had led to it. When he came out, he found that he was free and he was with his friends; but for some days after he came out, every time he slept he dreamt that he was back – and he would begin to sweat and scream in his dreams. His friends would wake him up. For some time, he couldn’t do more than just doze and they stayed with him. Then when he was alone, he would begin to feel somehow that he was back in prison, and he would become in a very anxious state. Then his friends would talk to him and say, “No, you are here with us. You’re free.”

He was free from the very moment that he became free; but he was not, so to say, completely free in himself. If we like, we can compare this to jnana-nishtha, to becoming established in Knowledge – he had to become established in freedom. He was free, but he had to become established.  If he’s unable simply to feel, ‘I am free, I am free’ and be established in it, then he would have to do formal practice.  The formal practice can be, in the case of a man who can’t feel that the Lord is in himself at all, that he must worship the Lord.  And he’ll first worship the Lord as external and distant from him. This will be in abhyasa practice on the Lord in duality, because the Lord will be one and he will be another.  But this is the highest form of duality, and it’ll lead to the Truth.

Shri Shankara quotes the Gita, Chapter 15: “The yogis who strive see Him in the Self; but while their minds are yet unrefined, they will not see Him, in spite of their effort.” Shankara says, “The ‘yogis’ means those who are able to enter samadhi – they find Him in the form, ‘This I am’.”  We can say, “Well, the ordinary meditation gives Truth, it’s supposed to be Truth-bearing.”  Yes, it will give truth, but only on the level on which the man is meditating.  If he’s meditating on anything in maya or in duality, then it will give him the truth of that thing in duality.

In the Shakespeare play called, ‘Measure for Measure’, the Duke, who is the ruler, disguises himself as a friar. He solves the problems of the characters, even those who are condemned dead. Now, when he’s disguised, when we see the friar come on the stage, if we look very carefully, we shall see that it’s the Duke.  On the stage, even with the people he’s talking to, sometimes there are little clues in what he says, if they could follow them.  He says to the condemned man, “I’m here to give you religious consolation, but you must believe that your ruler will be doing something to get your release.” There are little clues, and if a man were to meditate on those very deeply, he might come to realize that the friar was none other than the Duke. That would be a truth, but it would still be a truth within the play.

If the audience were to meditate very deeply, they would see behind the friar, the duke; and behind the Duke, they would see the actor – but that would be going beyond the play, going beyond the duality of the play. We can see that the investigation, the vichāra, can be taken deeper and deeper. In the end, the man must give up meditating on duality; and, when he’s brave enough, begin to meditate on this, ‘I am’.  The Lord is within the Self’.

Then the actions for the Lord called matkarma, acting for Me – the Gita, Chapter two says, “The undisciplined man has no buddhi. The higher mind is not operative.” The undisciplined man has no bhavana, which means efficient force. The word means making something to be, to come about. “He, who has no efficient force, has no peace. For him without peace, how can there be bliss?” It’s meant not to suppress, or destroy any of the feelings of man, but to discipline them and give them an effective and a proper manifestation.

An efficient force – people can say, “Oh, when a strong feeling comes, all the little talk about considerations of this and that and discipline, all that goes by the wind.”  As HG Wells said, “When the real gale blows, what can stop?” There are people who feel this. They may also feel, if they read a spiritual book, profoundly moved, and they may say, “Yes, I would like to give a lot of my life…  But one has to think of the family.”  Their friend might say, “Now is the time for the great gusts of feeling, which sweeps over all consideration?”

That would mean the feeling has no efficient force. It only upsets and destroys the life. The aim of Yoga is to discipline it and give it efficient force. In the same way the intellect is meant to be devoted to determining the nature of the Lord and the nature of the Self. This is the efficient force of the intellect. The intellect, if it’s undisciplined can say, “All the spiritual paths are finally one.  Now for instance, if you take the mantras and the Shiva Samhita (‘kreem, kreem’) and you compare them with some of the names of God in the Koran (Kareem…), well, it doesn’t quite correspond to the last one; but if we started soon enough, perhaps we could put it all together – one enormous sort of outline.  It would take many years, and in the meantime, I wouldn’t have to do any practice.”  This would be the intellect without efficient force. The purpose of the Yoga is to give the intellect efficient force, to enable the buddhi to become efficient at grasping the point, instead of evading the point.

In the art called Judo, at the beginning, when they practice one of the techniques, they practice in a pair; and one man gives the other an opportunity, and he throws him. Then this one gives the opportunity, and he throws. The idea is that they should mutually have the chance to practice.  Sometimes you meet one who says, “Oh no, no.  I don’t want to be thrown by anyone who can’t throw me. I’m very competitive.” You say, “But this is just a practice.  Later on, you can be competitive, but this is to learn technique.” “Oh, no.”  Well, he seems alright, a strong piping spirit; but later on in a contest, he’ll break his toe.  The teacher will say, “Let’s strap it up after the next bout. Where’s the fighting spirit?  Now’s the time for the fighting spirit.”  “Oh, you can’t expect me to go on.”

The purpose of discipline is not to destroy the fighting spirit, or to destroy the feelings, or to destroy the intellect, but to make them bhavana – an efficient force.

‘Matkarma’: to do actions for the Lord. We’re given some of the actions for the Lord to do in the scriptures; but our teacher often said, “Every man must be able to go into meditation every day into a silence. In that silence, he will receive an inspiration as to the things he should do and create.”  ‘In that silence’ – without that inspiration, we shall pick and choose among the different things in the scriptures, or among the different things which are possible for us to do, and we shall feel all the while, ‘I am working for the Lord’. One of the Free Church of Scotland ministers was approached by another minister of a different church, who said, “No, we shouldn’t quarrel. Really, we’re both doing the Lord’s work. Aren’t we?” The first minister said, “Yes, we’re both doing Lord’s work.  You in your way and I in His.”

I always feel we are working for the Lord, but in fact, there may be something very different behind that. In Japan, there is a sect, which specializes in doing very humble, menial work. The founder was a young official of quite some standing.  The conflict of interest between big business and labour was so acute, that he felt he couldn’t go on with it and he began to meditate in the Zen style. Finally, he meditated continuously for three days and nights; and he decided he must give up his property, and he must go around serving people in the most humble way, without taking any money for the service.  Well, he nearly died, but in the end, people began to give him food.  He used to specialize in cleaning out the dirtiest houses and especially the lavatories. They don’t have flush toilets there and cleaning out lavatories was something nobody liked to do.

Well, now there’s a great sect, and they are all specialized in cleaning out the lavatories, and they have such contempt for the people who don’t. They say, “Oh, these people, they’re studying, they’re doing this and that, they’re meditating, they’re praying. Let them clean up – they’re so famous for their arrogance.” – because that doesn’t spring from their own meditation, from their own inspiration. The founder had the genuine inspiration; but the others simply follow his inspiration.  It must come every day, fresh and fresh, the inspiration as to what is to be done.

‘Tyaga’ is to give up the fruits of action; to be able to do actions – and the man is still doing them for himself, though he’s not expected to do anything unrighteous, but he is still engaged in prosperity and in carrying on very actively the social life – but he’s meant to give up the fruits. It’s not meant to give them away, but he’s meant to give up the feeling of attachment to them. One can say, “Well, that’s easy. If you keep them, you just say, ‘Well, I’m not attached to them.’”  People say, “Oh, well, in the old days, they used to do great sacrifices, but now they just meditate that they’re giving away a lot of money.”  That was held to be equal to the sacrifice, but we can give an example from physical life, which can sometimes be more vivid than simply mental manipulations.

When people play tennis, they throw the ball up and they hit it; and they hold onto the racquet tightly.  But when the professional is going to train a youngster, one of the things he has to get them to do, in serving, is to throw the racquet, so to say, at the ball.  This is something they can rarely do – they hold onto it tightly, and the wrist is very stiff.  So they get on the tennis court one morning, just the two of them, and he collects an enormous parcel of racquets. He says, “Now stand up there and throw the racquet across the court.”  At first, they can’t do it, but finally, they just manage to give it a little throw.  After some time, the coach will see they’re able to throw the racquet right across the court.” He says, “All right, now it’s enough. Now you can hold onto it but hit the ball as if you were throwing the racquet and then just catching it at the last minute.”

Well, if we like, we can see in this a little bit of the idea of a pure heart. The people give, and the racquet leaves their hand.  But really they’re holding onto it, and it only goes a little way. There’s a great proprietorial interest in the gift and what happens to it – making sure that everybody knows who gave it.  But when people can really throw away then, whether they hold onto it or they let it go, they still have the feeling of throwing it lose. Well, it’s a physical example; but it’s something that can be seen, and if we like, we can take it as an example for Yoga.

There is a way of living in possessions, and even a very rich man can have it, who doesn’t have any clinging to his possessions.  It makes a great difference to his enjoyment of them, as our teachers say. Shri Shankara says, “Those who strive, endowed with Yoga, will see Him within the Self.” Repeatedly, he says, “He’s seen plainly within the Self. He’s seen by all within the Self.”   We can say, “It’s useless just saying that.  We all know that He’s not seen. In any way, do materialists see him in themselves? Does a materialist like Bertrand Russell see him in the Self?”

He doesn’t practice Yoga, but perhaps he does have some experience. He speaks of certain experiences. One he had, which seemed to be a sort of universal truth, which was not subject to analysis. He says afterwards, “I went back to analysis, but that experience of universality did change my life.” But Shri Shankara says that those who don’t practice Yoga, don’t see Him in spite of serious efforts.  It means that he is not clearly seen as he is.  There is a much more frequent and a much stronger experience, that Russell speaks of.  He felt it when he met the novelist, Conrad.  “I felt – though I do not know whether he would’ve accepted such an image – that he thought of civilized and morally tolerable human life, as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava, which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.”

He was very conscious of the various forms of passionate madness to which men are prone, and it was this that gave him such a profound belief in the importance of discipline.  “Conrad, once said to me, ‘I have never been able to find, in any man’s book or any man’s talk, anything convincing enough to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.’ In all this, I found myself closely in agreement with him. At our very first meeting, we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually we both reached the central fire. It was an experience unlike any other that I had known.  We looked into each other’s eyes, half-appalled and half-intoxicated to find ourselves together in such a region.  The emotion was as intense as passionate love, and at the same time, all-embracing.  I came away bewildered and hardly able to find my way among ordinary affairs. His intense and passionate nobility shines in my memory, like a star seen from the bottom of a well. I wish I could make his light shine for others as it shone for me.” Well, it was a mystical experience, but it was a mystical experience in the form of fear; and you noticed the terms he uses, ‘fire’, a ‘fiery death’.

Now he later, in 1961, wrote a very revealing letter about this meeting with Conrad. He says that it corresponded to something which periodically overwhelmed him all his life. “As for the strange sympathy between Conrad and myself, I cannot pretend I have ever quite understood it. I think I have always felt that there were two levels – one, lack of science and common sense; and another, terrifying subterranean and periodic, which in some sense, held more truth than the everyday view. You might describe this as a satanic mysticism. I have never been convinced of its truth, but in moments of intense emotion, it overwhelms me.  It is capable of being defended on the most pure intellectual grounds. For example, by Eddington’s contention that the laws of physics only seem to be true because of the things we choose to notice. The experience with Conrad while it lasted was too intense for analysis.”

Well, these are things that people don’t generally talk about, but Russell is very frank and not afraid. From that man, Conrad, he recognized first a great nobility, but also a terrifying experience, a mystical experience, which he found for himself, and which he described as a satanic experience.  But the Yoga would say that this is an imperfect and frightening vision of what is divine.  There is a frightening side as described in chapter 11 of the Gita, but because the intellect and feelings of the disciple have been prepared and have been trained, he’s able to see the divinity beyond the frightening experience of the Lord as time.   Are there other experiences in life? Yes, there are. This also is from Russell. It’s from an essay called, ‘How I Write’. It’s very revealing for people who are starting in Yoga.

“When I was young each fresh piece of serious work used to seem to me for a time, perhaps a long time, to be beyond my powers. I would fret myself into a nervous state from fear. I would make one unsatisfying attempt after another; but, at last, I found that such fumbling attempts were a waste of time. It appears that after first contemplating a book on some subject, and after giving serious preliminary attention to it, I needed a period of subconscious incubation, which could not be hurried and was, if anything, impeded by deliberate thinking.  Sometimes I would find, after a time, that I had made a mistake and that I could not write the book I had in mind.  But often I was more fortunate having, by a time of very intense concentration, planted the problem in my subconscious.  It would germinate underground until suddenly the solution emerged with blinding clarity, so that it only remained to write down what had appeared, as if in a revelation.”

If we piece these things together, we can see that this is the yogic process of intense concentration. Then, what he calls ‘subconscious incubation’ is simply a word to dismiss the problem.  Why should it incubate?  One would expect that in the subconscious it would simply dissipate; and use of botanical analogies, like seed and plant, what do they mean in the case of an idea? A seed is just a replica of the tree; but this is not a question of a seed. This is not a replica of something that he’s already thought of – what is going to come with blinding clarity is something new.  But the problem is dismissed and he never shows any interest in it. In his book, Analysis of Mind, which he wrote long after this technique had become known to him, he shows no interest in this point.

Now yogically this is a crucial point in psychology, the psychology of inspiration. Our teacher said, when the psychology is known, we will find the creative state is the state of deep sleep, not the waking state.  This is a manifestation of the Lord in everyday life, but one doesn’t have to be writing a book. Our teacher said the inspiration is just as manifest in some very small thing – in a person’s handling of a small situation the inspiration can be just as great, and the effect also can be very great, as in writing or producing some apparently great external work.

Our teacher said, in every man, there is the Lord within, Who is constantly prompting, constantly there’s an inspiration, raining down on the causal body of man.  And, as that causal body becomes purified, he’ll become more conscious of the inspiration. The inspiration will change the view of the world.

In this illustration, people are asked to say, how old is she? Most people see it as a pensive old lady, but some people see it as a young girl of say, 24 or 25.  After time, it’s possible to see both. If we see the old lady, there is the head cloth and the face is bent forward with the eye and nose pointing down and a thin mouth. If we see the young girl, her face is turned away. We see her cheek bone, hair and her ear, with a black ribbon around her throat.

Well, now these two things are in the picture, and the same thing can be seen in two different ways. In some sense, the life of sattwa will change the same circumstances.  There will be a different consciousness.  But the yogic consciousness is not to be in one or the other, but to appreciate the skill of the artist, who has put both into the one picture. If he appreciates that then, so to say, he’ll be above those gunas.  He’ll be above the pensive depression, and he’ll also be above that other face and head; but he will appreciate how both of them can fit in, and the skill of the artist.

Then our teacher said, when the man is in this state of jnana-nishtha, and that is itself the liberation, then there will still be actions to the other people.  But, in his own consciousness, there won’t be a man doing separate actions – and the action, and the object of action, and the actor. This is explained in the verse in the  Gita, IV, 24. “Brahman is the offering. Brahman is the oblation. By Brahman is the oblation poured into the fire of Brahman. Brahman, verily, shall be reached by him, who is in the Brahman-karma-samadhi.”

Action there, all action in the world, is compared to the sacrificial action which is found all over, not just in India; where, on the fire, they pour the fuel and the fire blazes up. Then again he pours. You would say normally this is an action. There is the man doing it; there is the oil which is poured in; there is the fire, the blazing up and there is the ladle.  But it says here, ‘Brahman is the offering. Brahman is the oblation.  By Brahman is the oblation poured into the fire of Brahman.’ This is called the Brahman-karma-samadhi. This, Shri Shankara explains, as meaning that the work, the action is Brahman.

It refers to him who has the samadhi with Brahman as action.  He says,  “His action will appear as such externally, but to him it ceases to be action, in the case of the wise man in whom the idea of Brahman has replaced all idea of duality.”  We can say, “Well, what would it be if the man is not acting – what is going on? Why is it that he is seen to be acting?”  Our teacher often said, these are not actions by the individual, these are cosmic impulses. They don’t concern the individual, but they are manifestations of the cosmic will. One can feel, “It might be alright for the cosmic will to manifest if the person had a lot of things for it to manifest with; but how is the cosmic will going to manifest through someone whose life is desolate, whose life is a desert? How will it manifest there?”

Now the Japanese rock garden, Ryoan-ji is just sand and rock, which is what a desert is, but it’s the most famous garden in the world, and hundreds of people come to see this garden every day.  There are rocks placed, and very fine sand, which has been very, very carefully raked.  Just around the rocks it’s raked and it looks almost like little ripples of water. If this garden is contemplated for a time, it produces in people a peace and a will. There are no flowers. It’s been said, the garden itself is the flower. It’s compared to the personality of a realized man who manifests no outer accomplishments of any kind; but the Lord, so to say, positions and places those things. One feels, “It’s just a few rocks put in the sand – anyone could do that.”

But no. If you see one of these gardens which has been made by less skilful man, you will find, when you look at it for a long time, a feeling of tension develops. There’s a feeling that something is not quite right, although one can’t say what it is.  But this garden can be looked at for a very long time. It said that it’s most beautiful when it’s covered with snow. It’s given as an example; and the priest at this temple explains, well, he says it’s not an explanation, but, if you wish you can listen: he says there must be something hard and soft, like these rocks, in the personality –  something which is absolutely unaffected and unshakeable by anything. Yet that extreme hardness of the rock is rounded. Those rocks don’t have jagged edges on which anyone could cut themselves. The sand is the softest thing, it’s very fine, white sand.  That too is a powdered rock; but the sand, although it’s so soft, has been raked and very carefully disciplined. Part of the beauty and effect of the garden comes from that.

Well, if we wish, we can take it that, in a realized man, although there seems to be no ‘flowers’, the Lord will arrange things – so that the personality, even with no words and no after-manifestation, will make a deep spiritual impact on his surroundings. It is said of the gardens with flowers, you take a flower and take it home and enjoy it, but it fades. From this garden, the man has, in his heart, a flower that never fades.

© Trevor Leggett



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