Aspects of Karma-Yoga

Karma Yoga(Yoga of Works), as outlined in the Bhagavad Gita, involves doing work not for one’s ego but as an offering to the Divine.  The principles of Karma  Yoga can be easily applied in the tranquil atmosphere of some spiritual retreat where one is surrounded by like-minded people but it is much more difficult to practice in a professional or business environment of today’s capitalistic society.   This post discusses some finer points of Karma Yoga based on the commentaries of Sri Aurobindo.

Nature of the problem

There are the two knots in our Nature that drive our work attitude that need to be broken – desire and ego-sense.  Their effect can be illustrated as follows:

Ego-sense: The ordinary man of the world works for his own ever-shifting reasons based on the peculiar turn of his or her personality.  Besides the need to work for food and clothing which are legitimate, one can also identify a few other reasons why people are motivated to work.  Some people work because it provides  meaning to their life and brings fullness into an empty life; the job defines the person’s sense of identity and improves self-esteem.  Others work for peer recognition and yet others work to please their boss and get a bigger bonus.  Then there are those who work because they are super-charged with  some ambition (“To be the greatest…”).

Desire: We crave for job-satisfaction which is elusive.  We want to work as we like and then relax the rest of the time.   This can create a clash between what we want and the external entity which assigns us the work(employer, etc).  When we do not like the work we are assigned, we may groan, sulk, revolt or even escape.  This clash can be  used as a means of disciplining our unruly vital persona through the practice of Karma Yoga.  This will be elaborated later.

Principles of Karma Yoga in the Gita

Equality, renunciation of all desire for the fruit of our works, action done as a sacrifice to the supreme Lord of our nature and of all nature, — these are  the three first Godward approaches in the Gita’s way of Karmayoga.

-Sri Aurobindo, Synthesis of Yoga, Self-Surrender in Works

The Gita, in order to break these two knots, prescribes three principles for practicing Karma Yoga.

Motivation (not desiring the fruits of our actions): In order to tame our desires, work is to be done without desiring the fruits of action.   This does not mean not accepting money for work, for instance, but rather not being perturbed by the growth or decline in finances.  It can be aptly described in the words of Jesus:  “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).  The successful application of this principle can bring about the following changes in the individual.

  1. Success in an endeavour will not lead to excitement.
  2. Failure leads to renewed effort.   Continued persistence brings about vital immobility.
  3. Recognition does not bring pride.
  4. Lack of recognition does not lead to resentment.
  5. Criticism does not lead to defensiveness of the ego.  Criticism is ascertained for validity and  used as feedback for future work.

Temperament of equality or equanimity:  To tranquilize our desire-soul, work must be done in the spirit of equality (equanimity) without regard to likes or dislikes.   One must be able to bear the shocks of life – the ups and downs.  Usually when people receive a shock in life, they reflect, deliberate upon it with others and then attempt to recover from it by convincing themselves that they will overcome this setback.  The Mother (Mira Alfassa) says this is not really equality; true equality is spontaneous, constant and invariable.   After prolonged periods of meditation, the inner being awakens and widens itself into the cosmic planes.  That is when we begin to observe the true equality within us.

There are certain semblances of an equal spirit which must not be mistaken for the profound and vast spiritual equality which the Gita teaches. There is an equality of disappointed resignation, an equality of pride, an equality of hardness and indifference: all these are egoistic in their nature. Inevitably they come in the course of the sadhana, but they must be rejected or transformed into the true quietude. There is too, on a higher level, the equality of the stoic, the equality of a devout resignation or a sage detachment, the equality of a soul aloof from the world and indifferent to its doings. These too are insufficient; first approaches they can be, but they are at most early soul-phases only or imperfect mental preparations for our entry into the true and absolute self-existent wide equal oneness of the spirit

-Sri Aurobindo, Synthesis of Yoga, Self-Surrender in Works

The practice of equanimity tames our unruly vital or life-force.  Our predilections and impulses are rooted in our vital (region of the heart) and our subconscient.   Instead of trying to escape unsuitable work, one can begin by doing all activities without dislike and with perfection.  This helps to tame our vital.  A vital which has been tamed is a very useful instrument in spiritual practice for it allows our intuition to work much more effectively without being hijacked by the play of passions and impulses.  As Sri Aurobindo explained in a letter to a disciple,

It is not that you have to do what you dislike, but that you have to cease to dislike. To do only what you like is to indulge the vital and maintain its domination over the nature – for that is the very principle of the untransformed nature, to be governed by its likes and dislikes.

-Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, Sadhana through Work

Attitude of consecration:  In order to break the ego-sense, work must be done as a consecration to the Divine.  The Karma Yogi tries to act consciously as an instrument for a Higher Divine Power.  In doing so, the Karma Yogi changes the motives  with which work is done.  This is important because the thoughts and desires we hold and act upon are constantly shaping our Future in the Mental worlds (See Cosmology).   These thoughts are a powerful force which shape our Destiny.  When we change the motives of our actions, we are also changing our consciousness and along with it, our Future.  This attitude of consecration, when combined with meditation, can bring out a shift in the center of consciousness from the surface ego to the inner psychic being.

Stages in the practice of Karma Yoga

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy. (Rabindranath Tagore)

Our evolving spiritual consciousness brings about changes in the practice of Karma Yoga as well and it is possible to identify three stages in this evolution.

Beginning of Practice: Initially, we use our will to consecrate every action to the Divine and use our discrimination to reflect on the correctness of our actions (See How to cultivate the state of witness-consciousness) Our sense of discrimination may be not perfect but we must allow it to grow through feedback, devotion and the practice of meditation.

Consciousness in work have to come by degrees, you must not expect to have it all at once; nobody can get it all at once. It comes in two ways, – first, if one practises remembering the Divine and offering the work each time one does something.  Secondly, by the meditation an inner consciousness begins to develop which, after a time, not at once or suddenly, becomes more and more automatically permanent. One feels this as a separate consciousness from that outer which works.

-Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, Sadhana through Work

Awakening of the Inner Being: When we learn to stay submerged in an Active Silence for long periods of time, it begins to awaken the true self within which comes forward to guide us in our daily life; this true Self informs us on what work has to be done and which people one can associate with (See How to Develop Intuition).  Work is now done with a feeling of bliss and the intermittent feeling of having the Divine behind us and above us.   Sri Aurobindo described this change of state in a letter

The reason of the difference of result between the two moods in work is that the first mood is that of a vital joy, while the other is that of a psychic quiet. Vital joy though it is a very helpful thing for the ordinary human life, is something excited, eager, mobile without a settled basis – that is why it soon gets tired and cannot continue. Vital joy has to be replaced by a quiet settled psychic gladness with the mind and vital very clear and very peaceful. When one works on this basis, then everything becomes glad and easy, in touch with the Mother’s force and fatigue or depression do not come.

-Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, Sadhana through Work

Enlightened or Liberated Being:   In this state, all guidance, even for the most mundane tasks, now comes from Above.   The task is completed with full concentration and with perfection without being daunted by obstacles, without being nervous of the prospect of failure, without being excited at the prospect of success.   No praise or recognition is desired and if it does come, it does not cause any excitement in the heart.  No insults or lack of recognition deter the Divine worker since Work is being done for the Divine and not for the anyone else.  When the task is done, no movement of pride arises in the heart and one merely moves to the next task.  All action is performed unaffected by the turbulence of the world-at-large.  Whether the stock market moves up or down, whether the country is rising or collapsing, the Karma Yogi regards everything with equality and continues his or her work untroubled by circumstances.  This state is aptly described by the Gita in 4:18 “One who sees action in inaction and inaction in action..” (See Gita 4:18 action and inaction.)

The Mother observes in the Agenda that it is in this state that one really begins to manifest the Divine Will, unobstructed and undeformed by our individuality.  Action becomes precise because one has become a channel transmitting the pure Divine Vibration.

…in many cases one may work consciously for long years without getting that precision in the result – the action enters a hazy atmosphere and makes a kind of stir, and out of it comes the best that can, but no more than that…. It is very important for the exactness of this action, so that it is only – ONLY – the purest divine Will (if it can be put that way), expressing itself with a minimum of admixture. Any individualization or personalization results in admixture. But the divine Will acts like this (direct gesture)…..All these attitudes the yoga recommends – beginning with action done as offering, then complete detachment from the result (leaving the result to the Lord), then perfect equanimity in all circumstances, all these stages which one understands intellectually, feels sentimentally, and has fully experienced – well, all this takes on its TRUE MEANING only when it becomes what could be called a mechanical action of vibration – at that point one understands why it must be like it is.

-Mother’s Agenda, June 24, 1961

What work can be done as part of Karma Yoga?

What actions should be done as part of Karma Yoga?  Sri Aurobindo said no mental rules can be laid down for what action is Divine and what is not Divine.  It is only out of our ever-growing spiritual consciousness and our rising intuition that we must decide what work is suitable at any point in time.

As the light of each of these higher powers (of illumination which come through Yoga) is turned upon the human activities of knowledge, any distinction of sacred and profane, human and divine, begins more and more to fade until it is finally abolished as otiose; for whatever is touched and thoroughly penetrated by the Divine Gnosis is transfigured and becomes a movement of its own Light and Power, free from the turbidity and limitations of the lower intelligence.

-Sri Aurobindo, Synthesis of Yoga, Ascent of the Sacrifice

It is quite possible that new capacities of mental creation may open within us as a result of Yoga and this may require a change in profession or an enlargement of our line of work.  In all cases, one must be careful not to appropriate these newfound abilities to our ego (See Spiritual ego).  One must continue to do all activities as an act of consecration to the Divine.

Sometimes, even a period of withdrawal from the family, society and the world-at-large may be necessary because the inward growth of consciousness and awakening of the inner Fire requires a period of solitude.  Ramakrishna Paramahansa gave the example of the daughter-in-law to describe this state.

The blossom falls off as soon as the fruit appears.  Karma is the blossom and bhakti is the fruit. The daughter-in-law of the house cannot work much when she is pregnant; the mother-in-law gradually frees her from work. During the tenth month she almost doesn’t let her work.

(The Gospel of Ramakrishna, Section XI, Chapter 2 )

Further lights on Karma Yoga

These are some other aspects of Karma Yoga that need to be discussed here for completeness.

Conflict of principles: In the course of our work, one may also encounter some conflict in principles which may need to be resolved.   (e.g. the environment at work may require engaging in self-promotion).   It is not possible to offer any generic solution to such dilemmas.  It is possible that the principle we hold is wrong or the conflicting principle which is being imposed on us is wrong.  All such situations must be regarded as tests of the soul.   They come into our life because of who we are and because we have something to learn.   Sometimes we have to push back and forcefully reject and at other times we must accomodate or stay silent.  As the Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram remarked, “Outer circumstances are merely the reflection of who we inwardly are“.  As our consciousness changes, our Karma also changes and consequently,  the difficult situations that we are implicated in ease themselves.

Every person, all the events of your life are there because you have drawn them there. What you choose to do with them is up to you.

-Richard Bach

Doing everything with perfection: Sri Aurobindo and the Mother emphasized that it is the One Divine which has become the world.  Even the most “materialistic” Matter is also part of this Consciousness and must be treated as such.   In the words of Gita 2:50:  “yogah karmasu kaushalam“(yoga is skill in works).  Note that this does not imply one should become obsessive-compulsive!  These are some extracts from a letter Sri Aurobindo wrote to a disciple on this subject.

Of course the idea of bigness and smallness is quite foreign to the spiritual truth…. Spiritually there is nothing big or small. Such ideas are like those of the literary people who think writing a poem is a high work and making shoes or cooking the dinner is a small and low one. But all is equal in the eyes of the Spirit – and it is only the spirit within with which it is done that matters. It is the same with a particular kind of work, there is nothing big or small.

Wanton waste, careless spoiling of physical things in an incredibly short time, loose disorder, misuse of service and materials due either to vital grasping or to tamasic inertia are baneful to prosperity and tend to drive away or discourage the Wealth-Power.

There is a consciousness in each physical thing with which one can communicate. Everything has an individuality of a certain kind, houses, cars, furniture etc. The ancient peoples knew that and so they saw a spirit or “genius” in every physical thing.

-Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, Sadhana through Work

Working with colleagues: Sri Aurobindo & The Mother assigned work to all their disciples in the Ashram.   In the course of this work, Sri Aurobindo wrote a few letters explaining the attitude with which one must work with others.

As for comparison with others, one ought not to do that.  Each one has his own lesson to learn, his own work to do and he must concern himself with that, not with the superior or inferior progress of others in comparison with himself.

To take advantage of what is good in others, keeping one’s eye always on that, and to deal tactfully with their mistakes, faults and defects is the best way; it does not exclude firmness and maintenance of discipline, even severity when severity is due; but the latter should be rare and the others should not feel it as if it were a permanent attitude.

It [disciplining the subordinates] has to be done in the right spirit and the subordinates must be able to feel that it is so – that they are being dealt with in all uprightness and by a man who has sympathy and insight and not only severity and energy. It is a question of vital tact and a strong and large vital finding always the right way to deal with the others.

(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, Sadhana through Work)

Even the smallest meanest work became
A sweet or glad and glorious sacrament,
An offering to the self of the great world
Or a service to the One in each and all.

(Savitri, Book VII, Canto VI)

Further reading

  1. Sri Aurobindo.  Synthesis of Yoga, Yoga of Works
  2. Sri Aurobindo.  Essays on the Gita
  3. Sri Aurobindo.   Letters on Yoga.  Sadhana through Work

Related Posts

  1. Four Powers of Intuition
  2. Vidyas in the Upanishads
  3. Sharing spiritual experiences with others
  4. Mental formations: powers and perils
  5. Gita Chapter 6, Verse 5 – uplift the self by the self
  6. Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 69 – Inversion of day and night
  7. Gita Chapter 4, Verse 18 – action and inaction
  8. Man shall not live by bread alone
  9. Vedic Vak: illustration of Para Vak
  10. Types of meditation
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14 thoughts on “Aspects of Karma-Yoga

  1. Pingback: Triple movement of Integral Yoga (Witness, Consenter, Enjoyer) « Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  2. Pingback: Equanimity as the foundation of Integral Yoga. « Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  3. Pingback: Sri Aurobindo on lawyers | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  4. ipi

    … If you can’t as yet remember the Divine all the time you are working, it does not greatly matter. To remember and dedicate at the beginning and give thanks at the end ought to be enough for the present. Or at the most to remember too when there is a pause. Your method seems to me rather painful and difficult, — you seem to be trying to remember and work with one and the same part of the mind. I don’t know if that is possible. When people remember all the time during work (it can be done), it is usually with the back of their minds or else there is created gradually a faculty of double thought or else a double consciousness — one in front that works, and one within that witnesses and remembers. There is also another way which was mine for a long time — a condition in which the work takes place automatically and without intervention of personal thought or mental action, while the consciousness remains silent in the Divine. The thing, however, does not come so much by trying as by a very simple constant aspiration and will of consecration — or else by a movement of the consciousness separating the inner from the instrumental being. Aspiration and will of consecration calling down a greater Force to do the work is a method which brings great results, even if in some it takes a long time about it. That is a great secret of sadhana, to know how to get things done by the Power behind or above instead of doing all by the mind’s effort. I don’t mean to say that the mind’s effort is unnecessary or has no result — only if it tries to do everything by itself, that becomes a laborious effort for all except the spiritual athletes. Nor do I mean that the other method is the longed-for short cut; the result may, as I have said, take a long time. Patience and firm resolution are necessary in every method of sadhana. …

    Sri Aurobindo
    (Letters on Yoga; Part I; PP 529-530)

    Reply
  5. Sandeep Post author

    From the satirical Onion magazine

    All Of Area Man’s Hard Work Finally Pays Off For Employer

    SAN DIEGO—Following seven straight years of long hours at the office and sacrificed weekends and holidays, all of account manager Sam Hemstead’s hard work and single-minded devotion to Pinnacle Automotive Insurance has finally paid off for CEO Charles Pardahee, Pardahee said Friday.

    [...]
    “When Sam’s wife filed for divorce and eventually won custody of his two daughters, he completely threw himself into his job in an attempt to cope as his life fell apart all around him,” Pardahee said. “That was great, because it allowed me to drastically scale back my workload and spend even more time with my wife and children.”

    read more at

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/all-of-area-mans-hard-work-finally-pays-off-for-em,26957/

    Reply
  6. huta

    but then why does one keep getting off track (from work) so frequently inspite of wanting to do it ? the will is there for a while and absent for a long or that the will is there but its difficult to get down to doing the work despite all favourable conditions?

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      We go off track because the mind doesn’t have the concentration to persevere while the heart craves for social exchange, gossip, internet browsing and other distractions. Only in times of great stress do people drop all distractions and focus their effort on finishing the task at hand, otherwise they work fitfully in phases.

      At the same time, it is also true that most people find it difficult to work at the same pace and intensity all the time. Creative people especially need to tune into a higher inspiration before they can produce anything significant. One has to learn to manage time efficiently by shifting to less demanding tasks when the mind is not working at full strength. Also see, How to increase willpower

      As I am writing this, I also realized that it is easier to give advice to others on this topic than to follow it :-)

      Every time I see a comment by you, I am reminded of another Huta who passed away recently. You might like to read about her here
      http://auromere.wordpress.com/2011/10/06/the-story-of-a-soul/

      Reply
      1. huta

        yes I know of Huta the one you are talking of and actually it was when i was searching for her book white roses that I bumped into your blog! so the first article i read was about her on this blog and that is why i took up her name .

        but coming back to work what you say is very true and I am fed up of doing work a short while and staying off it a longer much much longer while and do wish to maintain a constant pace but seems very ambitious :(

        Reply
        1. Sandeep Post author

          You have to examine what debilitating tendencies are dissipating your concentration.

          1. Environment: Do you exhibit some general restlessness due to the frenzied environment or inclement weather ? Sometimes a change in work setup can break up unproductive lines of thought. Find a new seating arrangement where you can focus.

          2. Family: Are there any pernicious habits you have inherited from your parents or other family members? Do you give up too easily, are you quickly distracted or irritable, do you have frequent spells of laziness because your parents did so?

          3. Friends: Do you have friends who waste your time by chatting about trivial things? Restrict conversation only to important information exchange rather than shallow and superficial discussions of this type – “you are like this and i am like that, what do you like to eat, etc”.

          4. Food: The mind is influenced by the body. Examine if your diet (e.g. hot and spicy or sweet and soporific) is causing the mind to feel enervated. People who eat too much usually feel sleepy after lunch! On the other hand, those who play sports follow strict dietary rules to squeeze maximum performance out of their body.

          5. Television sucks mental energy based on my personal experience. Reduce television time or just eliminate it. Reducing internet gadget usage is a whole new challenge which has arisen in the last decade. I wish these devices came equipped with automatic timeouts to log you out after a predefined interval.

          Frequent physical exercise can also help the mind feel invigorated for more productive work.

          Reply
  7. mike

    Yes, l’ve actually felt the need to dissociate myself from certain friends because of the useless talk about mundane things and also because there is nothing Spiritually in common.

    Of course there is always:
    IMPROVE YOUR MEMORY WITH SMART DRUGS like Pramiracetam

    By Dr. James Howenstine, MD.
    February 2, 2010
    NewsWithViews.com

    What Are Smart Drugs (Nootropics)?

    Pramiracetam can produce the following results:

    • Improve intelligence and memory
    • Reduce anxiety and aggressive behavior
    • Improve learning capability
    • Increase will power
    • Improve long term memory
    • Enhance the function of neurotransmitters
    • Increase the number of receptors for acetylcholine

    There is generally little toxicity and few to no side effects in patients taking Pramiracetam therapy.

    Reply
  8. huta

    Thanks Sandeep :) these aspects need probing and I never thought of this dimension.
    @Mike isn’t meditation better than medication? :)

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Reconciling Family life with Yoga | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  10. Sandeep

    Man Still Trying To Find Right Work-Anxiety–Life-Anxiety Balance

    Lamenting that there are only so many hours in the day to devote to his various stresses, local Epione Medical Instruments sales manager and father of two Dale Humphrey told reporters Friday that he continues to have difficulty striking a proper work-anxiety–life-anxiety balance.

    [...]

    Humphrey told reporters that he dreams of the day when he has a 50/50 work-anxiety–life-anxiety balance, but said he’s so consumed with work putting him on edge that he just doesn’t think it’s possible.

    Read more @
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/man-still-trying-to-find-right-workanxietylifeanxi,34348/

    Reply

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