The Yogi’s Karma Yoga

SwamiVenkatesBoth a renowned Sanskrit scholar and yogi, Swami Venkatesananda—like his master, Swami Sivananda—can be regarded as a sage of practical wisdom. You can also listen to these talks at swamivenkatesananda.org.

We are about to investigate Karma Yoga. The word “karma” means action. In light of what we have just about truth, or “oneness” being indivisible, some of you might find the notion of action problematic. For example, one might well ask if action means the creation or the perpetuation of duality? Equally puzzling to some is how action is possible in the indivisible oneness. Luckily for us, and for the Karma Yogis, everything is action. Hatha Yoga, asanas, pranayama, all of that, is action. Any mental activity, be it thought or spoken word, is action, and as action, is work. The work might be Yoga practice, or it might be business administration, but is work none the less.

Fortunately or unfortunately for us, there are not many texts on Karma Yoga. There are practically none. I hesitate to say none, because two texts do deal with Karma Yoga. One is Mimamsa, which is not really Karma Yogaas such, but was considered to be. The other text, the Bhagavad Gita, is frequently used by yogis. Since the Bhagavad Gita is considered the gospel of action, it’s frequently regarded as the gospel of Karma Yoga. In the Gita, you find a statement about action which has a remarkably realistic outlook on life:

“You cannot remain doing nothing even for a single moment.”
(Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, sloka 5)

Is it possible to do nothing. It’s not. To do nothing is an absurd expression. Perhaps you may not think of sitting idle, or lying down, or gazing at the ceiling as doing something, but they are all acts of doing. You have a body which is endowed with some energy, and as long as that energy is there, there is motion, and therefore, action. You are doing something all the time.

You remember our discussion of the spiral? Action appears to confirm the spiral movement away from the center. In fact, any action seems to be a movement away from the center. Why? We have fixed in our minds that motion itself is “movement away from” a particular point; that either one stays put, or moves away from point A to point B. For some strange reason, people don’t realize that space is non-divisible space, and that any movement within the infinite, stays within it, and doesn’t leave it. Thus, it is not understood that the glass jar moves without moving space. The space is not in the jar; the jar is in space.

And so, action itself seems to create a duality, a motion away from self. And what is more, there is not only motion, but side by side with this implied movement away from the center, there is motivation. It is motivation that keeps the whole thing going! The motivation is not only related to the motion, the motivation becomes the goal. And that goal is quite far away from center, where I started.

We can illustrate this with the sport of horse racing. You have the starting point, and at some point further down the line, you have the goal post or “finish.” You start. The karma, or action is the running. Where do you run to? You must reach that goal, the finish line. Our minds are unable to avoid these three: the starting point, action, and goal. Our whole life is goal motivated.

As we explore karma, we shall see that both action and motivation are fraught with many dangers. There could be “wrong movement” which might destroy us all. There could be “wrong motivation” which might destroy us all. To stop motion is not possible, as it is against nature. To remove motivation seems superhuman. And so, the yogis, in their wisdom, gave actions and provided motivations for their students. In fact, they gave those students an abundance of them.

For instance, very young children who are bubbling with energy might appear a little mischievous. They are not really being naughty. They are simply full of energy. They aren’t like us. They are bubbling with energy! Mothers who can see this abundance of energy, understand that they aren’t really being mischievous, and take the child, play with it, twirl it, give the child some way to vent the energy for fifteen minutes or so, and then the child tires. All that bubbling gets worked out. Becoming fatigued, the child usually lies down, and goes to sleep.

This plan is more or less what they carried out in Karma Yoga text, Mamamsa. They packed the student’s day from four in the morning till ten at night with such activity … that the student yearns for the clock to strike ten. Surely, there was no time for mischief!

For instance, Ahnika, (it literally means “Daily Routine”) is a small little Hindu book which prescribes the daily routine for religious Brahmans. That person gets out of bed between four and half-past four, and immediately begins what the text prescribes. In this case, it is prayers (like your Christian matin, yes?). This kind of thing may not appeal to you, but, regardless, the manner of the prayer is very beautiful. For example, in the prayer, the Earth is regarded as “Mother”:

“My nourisher, you gave to me, and nourished me,
and still, I am going to have to put my foot
upon you. Please forgive me.”

The entire day is one continual round of prayer and ritual. Breathing, brushing you teeth, cooking, saying grace before meal, and then the eating itself, every activity of the day is looked upon as ritual, so that there is never a moment when the there is not ritual and prayer going on. Their idea was simple: action is inevitable, so pack that action with (what they regarded as) “proper motivation.” They felt that “right action” and “right motivation” were sufficient to take the sting out of karma.

In ancient India, it was sufficient to say that the motivation for all this prayer and ritual was being able to go to heaven. That was, unfortunately, the mischief in it, because that meant that all the time, all the day long, there is always a motive: “Why am I doing this” Because I want to heaven. I don’t wasn’t to go to hell!” If you were to ask them what’s wrong with hell, they probably would only be able to answer “Hell is terrible. Heaven is wonderful.” It wasn’t until Krishna came along that understanding was emphasized.

Krishna saw that as soon as any motivation was allowed, and given some kind of privileged label like “right motivation,” the door is open to all kinds of mischief. For instance, you can kill your “enemy,” because it’s considered “righteous.” You might even receive a medal. The more you kill, the larger the medal. If you kill one man in the street, you’re hanged. If you kill ten men in “the field,” you’re promoted. If you kill one thousand, you are decorated. That’s called administration!). Our soldier is taught to feel that it’s all right to kill all those people, because “They are my enemies!”

But then, suddenly he may begin to think that all he needs to do to kill people, and “get away with it,” is to call them “enemies,” which is becoming a politician! Once he does that, there’s no problem.

Krishna saw this. He saw that as long as motivation was considered “right,” action will continue to be problematic. He understood that the mind can (and does) cook up a motivation for any thing at all, and make that motivation sound “right.” In which case, if one believes that right motivation justifies an action, and makes it right, the mind can always provide a motivation so that the action seems justified, or, is made into “right action.”

And so, it is in the Bhagavad Gita that Krishna not only helped to stop this trend, but actually provided a means to reverse it. He begins by throwing out the idea of heaven as motivating factor.  Of course, Krishna doesn’t say in so many words that heaven does not exist, but he does say not to look for it! You might even go so far as to say that Krishna is implying that going to heaven is useless! Why? As long as one is caught up in motivation, there is movement away from the center. As long as there is movement away form the center, one keeps wandering, confused, and without Yoga.

We keep coming back to this question: “How to get back to the center?” In asking that, we must also ask “How to discover what seeks, provides, and thrives, or takes advantage of motivation?” It is easy to tell someone that it is the ego that needs and seeks motivation, and that the ego provides, feeds and thrives on this motivation, but it is perhaps not so easy to see it. How does one see that truth? The discovery of this truth is said to be Karma Yoga; discovery in the purest and simplest sense. For once the truth is discovered, it is like a jar being broken. The jar covers, and seems to encapsulate. Once this idea, like the glass, is shattered, space is realized to be indivisible. The discovery merely means that which has covered the truth is shed. The discovery does not imply that something comes into being which was not there before. The jar breaks, the cover is shed, and which was forever one is seen to be indivisibly one from then on at all times. In Karma yoga, this indivisibility is discovered, and therefore, it continues to be so at all times, even during activity. Knowing that motion cannot be stopped, the motion remains without motivation. Finally, by the discovery of the truth of the indivisibility of consciousness, the motion in consciousness is also seen to be beyond self. That realization itself becomes the wellspring of pure selfless, or unselfish life, and of living.

Karma Yoga is, therefore, the action or activity of a perfected person, of an enlightened person. And yet, the steps towards this perfection are also regarded, by courtesy as Karma Yoga. Otherwise, Karma Yoga is not what we do. You may wash dishes without being paid, but you are not necessarily doing Karma Yoga, unselfish action. In truth, Karma Yoga exists only in the action of the enlightened person, in whose vision there is no division at all, and who has directly realized the indivisibility of consciousness and motion within it; within it, and therefore, not within me.

I think this is where many people have erred, not only in regard to Karma Yoga, but in regard to Yoga in general. They have treated Yoga as doing:
If I practice Hatha Yoga, what must I do
If I practice Karma Yoga, what must I do?
If I practice Bhakti … , etc., what must I do?

What they are really expressing by such a question is this: “By doing something, we hope that we become what we are supposed to be.” People have always tried this. In the Bhagavatam, you have a story about a young man who dresses up like an expectant mother (pillow around the waist, and in the garb of a woman). It’s obvious to us that dressing up like a pregnant woman won’t make anyone pregnant with child, especially a man! Such a process can’t be an external one. Likewise, the process of Karma Yoga must be internal. It must be from within outward. So that, it is the inner spirit, or the wisdom which comes first, if it is to come at all. Once that wisdom is there, the action flows. The master said “Be good, do good.” Notice he said “be good,” first!

Yet hope is what most people have. Why hope at all? It turns out that hope is merely a “cover-up” for hopelessness. A Karma Yogi has no hope; not because everything is hopeless, but because he knows that hope, like belief, is fictional. Isn’t that so? When you say: “I hope it is going to be good,” isn’t there another thought also (one which comes before): “I am afraid it’s going to be not so good … “. It’s only then that you say: “I hope it’s going to be good.”

A Karma Yogi, and for that matter, any yogi, looks for truth, for facts, and has no time for fiction. Hope, fear, belief, all of these, are not based on what is known for certain, and therefore, are not regarded as truth. In fact, they are regarded as lies.

Yoga students are often astounded to hear this kind of thing said bout hope. It might bring them some comfort to point out that on one level, hope does serve some purpose. For example, in the yoga text called the Chandogya Upanishad you find a statement to the effect that hope is to be exalted above all else. The text can say this, because, in the purely dualistic context in which this statement is made, hope can be regarded as the power that sustains everything in this world. That, no doubt, is what St. Paul had in mind when he made the now famous pronouncement:

“Now abideth these three,
faith hope and charity.
But the greatest of these
three is charity.”
(In some of the modern translations, you now find the word “love” substituted for “charity.”)

In a purely dualistic context, these three, faith, hope, and charity, are the powers that sustain the world. The yogi doesn’t deny that hope has that power. You can see how, in the case of illness, for example, a person’s hope keeps him alive for several years, where ordinarily, the illness would have killed another in just a few months. Some might call this kind of hope “obstinacy.” But hope, or whatever you wish to call it, has that power, that energy. Perhaps you might regard this as splitting hairs, but hope is not really what is called “will power.” Will power is aggressive, driving, masculine. Hope is really more feminine. And on that dualistic level, it has such a tremendous energy!

We’ve noted that the enlightened person is the living example of Karma Yoga. There is no need for hope in such a person. The Yoga aspirant, on the other hand, is trying to purify, trying to reach enlightenment. No doubt, there is, in that aspirant, a lot of hope. There is, for example, in the endeavor of cultivating the spirit of Karma Yoga, the hope that one day it will be there. That very hope keeps him going. Of course, that means that there is a motive, a motivating factor, and as such, it will not succeed. Enlightenment comes only when the motive is dropped. It’s one of those unfortunate things. If you have no hope at all, you do not enter, but, if you cling to hope, you do not reach.

What about faith? Faith is something different from hope. In order to see this, one must first distinguish between faith and belief. First, look at belief. What is belief? “Belief” is a statement that is made by someone in whom you have confidence, but which makes no sense to you at all, and which you accept because that person said it, and therefore, “it must be true.” On the other hand, faith is quite different.

You and your friend decide to go down to the lake for a swim. She goes in first, and she tells you that the water is too cold. She normally doesn’t tell lies. She tells you, “If you jump into the lake, you not only won’t enjoy it, but you might catch cold.” You believe her. Then you walk down to the beach, and rush into the water until you are knee deep. At that point, you know that it is very cold, and therefore, can see that what she said was true. At that point, you say: “I’ve got faith in her.”

Of course, at that point, you still don’t know whether you would get a cold if you jumped into that water. However, by the fact that even while knee-deep in that freezing water you are shivering, you now have faith in her. That is, you have a veiled experience; not a head-on collision, but a veiled experience of the truth. Then you have faith in her. If you jump into that water, and you have to be taken back home in a stretcher, then you know she was right, because there is direct experience, self-knowledge.

Faith like hope, has its own unique energy. This is why we have dwelled on the distinction between faith and belief. It’s important to be clear about this, because most often, in the religious community, people use the word “faith” where only the word “belief can be tolerated. They have no faith whatsoever. They speak of God, or whatever, but their words are empty. Belief has no power to sustain you.

What’s more, if your practice is based on belief, then when you inevitably find yourself in another camp, say a group which believes in “science” and they say: “Nonsense! Absolutely ridiculous!,” and you are exposed to their own brand of persuasion, you drop your Yoga beliefs, and your practice along with it.

Finally, although it may never be possible to say with certainty whether it is the goal that supplies the motivation, or the motivation that creates the goal, life itself teaches us in ways that slowly make it more and more evident that goal oriented motion is a trouble maker. Unfortunately, you can’t cancel something which has already arisen (a subject which we shall discuss when we come to the different types of karma). You probably know the famous example of this situation: an arrow having been shot from the bow, (or bullet from a barrel) can’t be recalled.

When we become aware of the facts concerning our life on earth, we must realize that we have already been caught in a spiraling motion away from the center of consciousness. All goal-orientated motion is spiral movement away from the center, and this is where we get caught, or hooked.

In our study of Karma Yoga (as with all the other Yogas), we must come back to our discussion of the spiral, the motion of kundalini energy, and its return to its own source, not merely because it’s good to have things repeated, nor merely to help with the much needed demythologization of kundalini as a mysterious mystical power which awakens for the yogi sitting in the icy caves of the Himalayas. We return to discuss it, because it’s there, functioning everywhere in our life, if only we would see it.

We can see that motion has a starting point. If that starting point is returned to straight away (not missed as in the case of the spiral), a circle is formed. Movement within a circle is complete unto itself, and is certainly not movement as we know it. If you have looked at car wheel spinning very fast, you have noticed that beyond a certain speed, it no longer looks like it is spinning. The wheel is completing the circle thousands of times per minute. Motion is only noticed when it spirals, only when it is movement away from the center. In fact, only spiral movement is seen, observed, felt, experienced.

The eyes open, and immediately one is caught in goal orientation. Like entering a sports field and immediately becoming aware of the goal posts, you enter life, and are given goals. Even if, right from infancy, your aim is total freedom, then the desire to remain free itself becomes your goal. It may be built right into your cells, your tendons. Minor spelling differences aside, this is what is called “a tendency.” It’s there, all the time!

You wake up, open your eyes, and it’s there. Discussions about the value of hope and whether or not hope is good or evil, do not change this simple fact: as soon as you wake up, you see your life is caught in the trap called “hope.” Unless you have the courage to see unreal as unreal, you don’t deserve the realization of the real. We must, therefore, discuss, what we may later discard as unreal.

From the YASODHARA YOGA TALKS – Swami Venkatesananda 1975
SOURCE: dailyreadings.com Copyright © 1997

For more information about Swami Venkatesanandaji, please visit:  swamivenkatesananda.org

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