Karma Yoga and Karma SanyAs

                                          Karma Yoga and Karma SanyAs

 Part 1


An ordinary educated Hindu or a religious minded Hindu, even though he has not read Bhagwad Gita, is asked about Gita. In all likelihood he would say that it teaches mankind to work without attachment. He may or may not be very familiar with the term Karma Yoga, yet if he is pressed further, he may add that work without attachment means work without attachment to the fruit of work. Indeed, he is not off the target. The point is that karma yoga is the essence of Gita for most of the Hindus.  Even so, if a person reads it, then he comes across another term, i.e., Karma SanyAs. Though the term karma yoga is etched in the Hindu psyche, karma sanyAs is a relatively unfamiliar term for most of them. This article is an attempt to delve into karma yoga and karma sanyAs and also appreciate inter se similarities and dissimilarities.

   Karma Yoga


One essential ingredient of Karma Yoga is that our right is not over the results of action.  A common sense explanation of no-right- over- result is that we do not have complete control over the result. There are five causes responsible for any action to happen. They are right place of work, doer of work, various tools of work, different efforts and lastly the destiny. The five factors are invariably behind any work, physical, verbal, psychological, just or unjust. Even if a single component is missing then the work is not accomplished. In such a situation, one who thinks only oneself as the doer and has right over the result is ignorant and foolish.  We think we are doers but we are just one of the five factors necessary for any work to fructify. If other four are not available then work is unaccomplished. It is worthless if one shoulders the burden of doer-ship, let alone responsibility of result of action, whether success or failure.

Yoga means equipoise, evenness of mind towards success and failure, towards virtuous or evil results. Such a mind is free from attachment to the fruit of action. Ignorant people perform actions because of attachment to results; wise men work sans attachment. A doubt may arise that detachment to the result of action may cause lack of motive for work. It is not so if the difference between detachment to the work and detachment to the fruit of work is appreciated.  While working, there is always a danger to get caught in the bonds of samskArs. To avoid this, we ought to give up the hope of success in every action that we undertake, instead endeavour to remain neutral towards success and failure. Renouncing results of action does not mean physical renouncement of work; it is mental detachment to fruits of action. At a practical level, one should enjoy the action rather than expecting to enjoy the success of action. In simple terms one should be action-oriented and not result-obsessed. The Gita uses the words “yoga-sanyAsta-karmanam” in verse 4.41.   It refers to renouncing the results of action while engaged in action.  It means transcending the action.  A yogi performs obligatory work, i.e., performs his duty, without being dependent on the result of the action. He is superior to one who only seemingly lives in austerity. A yogi is also superior to person who has mastery over scriptures and rites Therefore, Arjuna is advised to become a yogi.  There are three types of action.  When a person discharges obligatory duties without being attached to fruits of action and without any like or dislike then it is sAttvik action. An action done with selfish motive, arrogance and lot of efforts is rAjasik action. Action embarked upon without considering the consequences, harms to others, without assessing one’s own ability and because of delusion is tAmsik action.

Necessity of Action

Another essential ingredient of karma yoga is that one should not entertain any thought of not doing action. It is also so because it is not possible to not act. The gunAs, namely, sAttvik, rAjasik and tAmasik of which mind-body complex is constituted would compel one to act.  Not doing anything is also an action, albeit passive.  A person should not give up the natural work, i.e., work determined by nature even if it appears defective because all works are enveloped by defects as fire is enveloped by smoke.  Work determined by nature refers to such work  as one is born with. Any work is constituted of three gunAs and one’s natural work is determined by the three gunAs constituting the mind- body complex. There will be defect in a particular combination of gunAs because no combination is perfect. Even if there is defect in the work determined by one’s nature, it should be performed. Doing work contrary to one’s nature is fraught with danger. Conversely not acting as per the dictates of one’s nature is equally fraught with danger. Therefore Arjuna is exhorted to engage in war as he belongs to a warrior clan. The Lord warns that if under the influence of ego Arjuna resolves not to fight; such a resolve will not succeed as nature will force him to act. One should keep doing work as dictated by one’s nature in a selfless manner without being attached to results of action.  By doing such work in a sustained manner,  one’s nature will rise from tamsik to rAjasik to sAttvik over a period of time spread over one or many lives.

The purpose of the human life is to attain freedom; freedom from the cycle of birth and death. Since action entails samskArs, it may be mistakenly inferred that abstention from work will not entail samskArs. Not doing action also results in creation of samskArs  because non-action is tAmsik. Man is the product of evolution during which ego-centric tendencies are  acquired which is the cause of bondage. To get freedom, one should selflessly perform sacrifice, charity and austerity. Obligatory duties should not be given up. If they are abandoned because of delusion then it is tAmsik renunciation. Abdication of work because it is painful or for fear of physical stress is rAjasic renunciation.  No benefit accrues out of such renunciation. Obligatory work performed as duty and by renouncing attachment to its result is sAttvik renunciation. Sacrifice, charity and austerity should be performed without attachment because they purify the mind.


 Removal of Attachment

Controlling the mind is as difficult as controlling the wind. Attachment arises because of untrained mind and uncontrolled sense organs and we often fall prey to desires. By nature, sense organs are driven outward to respective sense-objects. There is relationship of attraction and repulsion between the sense organs and their respective objects. This relationship is inbuilt in the nature. Though it is natural, it causes bondage as it is not permanent. As such one should eschew being influenced by sense organs.  Firstly the mind should be trained and then sense organs can be controlled by the mind.  Then it will be possible to withdraw the senses from the objects of senses just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs from all sides. Then wisdom becomes stable and one is in a detached state of mind.  By controlling the mind, energy is conserved and redirected towards sAttvic thoughts and actions. Then excellence is achieved.



One thought on “Karma Yoga and Karma SanyAs

  1. Dear Bimal

    Thanks for your post. If you don’t mind, I will provide a provocative response.

    It is a frequent refrain from Vedantins, that we have a duty to action but to do so without desire for the fruits of such action. It is almost a cliche in our circles and provides a convenient excuse to continue our participation in a human-made (and therefore egoic, and therefore inherently selfish / evil) system in an ‘automatic’, unthinking way, saying to ourselves that we have no desire for the results.

    The purpose of human life is, as you say, to achieve freedom. Full stop. It surely is to be free of all illusions, whether societal or ‘personal’.

    Socrates, a proto-Vedantin, said the unexamined life is not worth living. If we are going to act, to say that we are pursuing karma yoga, we need to think carefully and deeply about what right action is, rather than just following what genetic and environmental circumstances have landed us is.

    Let’s do a thought experiment. If you are born in Nazi Germany, as a soldier in a concentration camp, what would karma yoga be? Step back a bit and say you are the procurement clerk for the military in Germany, then what is karma yoga? Step back again, and say you are a shopkeeper in Germany, what would karma yoga then be?

    Then step into today, where US multinationals and military rule the world. You are a drone operator ordered to strike targets in Afghanistan – what is karma yoga? You are an engineer working for a naval research institute, enhancing the military capability of the country – what is karma yoga? Or you work as a manager in the hierarchy of a multinational, which is part of a system that has enriched the top 1% at the expense of the 99% – what is karma yoga then?

    You may or may not agree with the implicit value judgements in the above. But we all tend to follow the conditioning that we have received since birth, from our parents, our schooling and our work environment. Is following action, due to one’s unexamined conditioning, freedom?

    My point is that we talk rather facilely about karma yoga, without actually thinking deeply about what right action really entails. And karma yoga, I’m afraid, needs that depth of engagement. The unexamined life really is not worth living.

    That I think is why, at the deepest level, our sages have prescribed sannyasa – because they have had the insight that any action in this world is inherently corrupt. The concept of karma yoga is a stepping stone to teach detachment and renunciation – but, if we are at the level of karma yoga, we need to be prepared to engage at that level and discuss what ‘right’ action is. If we blithely take it to mean automatically continuing in the groove of wherever our accident of birth has placed us, I would submit that we are sorely mistaken.

    This is the essence of why Vivekananda focused on karma yoga (for India’s freedom from colonialism):
    “The karma yogi is the man who understands that the highest ideal is nonresistance, and who also knows that this nonresistance is the highest manifestation of power in actual possession, and also what is called the resisting of evil is but a step on the way toward the manifestation of this highest power, namely non-resistance. Before reaching this highest ideal, man’s duty is to resist evil evil; let him work, let him fight, let him strike straight from the shoulder. Then only, when he has gained the power to resist, will nonresistance be a virtue”

    Kind regards,

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