What is Karma Yoga?
The first 150-200 words may seem a bit heavy! But they had to be written so that what follows next could be appreciated by one and all. Hold on till the beginning ‘introductions’ and ‘definitions’ are done and I promise that you will get a lot of food for thought!
What is Karma Yoga?
The definition of Karma Yoga is pretty straightforward. It is understood as the ‘discipline of action’. It refers to achieving the ultimate goal of human life through the path of action. So, now arises the question as to what is the ultimate goal of human life? According to Sanathana Dharma (loosely translated as ‘the eternal law of righteousness’), the ultimate goal is the realization of the Truth. And what is this Truth?
The Truth is that all beings are part of the same ‘Being’. Just like there are hundreds of varieties of cells which constitute a single body (of an animal, bird or human), the hundreds of varieties of beings constitute a single ‘Cosmic Being’. This ‘Cosmic Being’ is termed as God, Consciousness, Energy, Spirit, Atma. Realizing this Truth that “I am a part of the cosmic whole” and living accordingly is the ultimate goal of life. In spiritual terms, this is called realization, moksha or freedom (from false identities that we have about ourselves). And achieving this realization through the path of action is Karma Yoga! This means that one ensures that every action one does benefits this cosmic whole and not just the 'individual'. This is akin to saying that the part of the body - hand, leg or eye for example - works for the benefit of the whole body and not just for itself.
What is Karma?
There are complete theses on what is Karma, how many kinds are there and how it affects beings. The endeavor of this article is not to go into those details. I just wish to share a few aspects of Karma which Bhagawan Baba mentions which will surely help us accept life better. Knowing these aspects helps us understand answers to some common questions like
“Why does bad happen to good people (and vice versa)?”
“What should I do when something unexpected, bad or/and evil is happening to me?”
“Why should I not rejoice in another's pain, even if it is of my enemy?”
Being born a Hindu and having had the great good fortune of spending years in the physical presence of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the concept of Karma came very naturally to me. It was as natural to me as Newton’s third law is for anyone who has passed high school -
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
From what we read from history, Sir Issac Newton was not just a scientist but a true seeker and a spiritualist. It is no surprise therefore that he worded his ‘scientific’ law in such philosophical words.Those words, according to me, are exactly the words of the law of Karma.
For those that are absolutely new to the term in this perspective, Karma is the fruit of the sum total of all actions one has done in the past and is doing in the present. It is the ‘reaction’ to ‘action’ done or being done. And the ‘past’ could refer to several lifetimes before the present according to what Bhagawan has said. Though Newton’s third law describe the law of Karma, it does not describe it in its entirety. There are subtle aspects of the law of Karma which Bhagawan Baba has explained so lucidly and in detail.
With that introduction, it is time to look into some of these ‘very interesting’ aspects.
The 4 aspects of Karma
1. As you sow, so shall you reap
This is very easy to understand. Swami says that if one sows a lemon seed, one cannot expect a mango tree from the act. He explains the same variously. He narrates the story of a shepherd boy who runs to his mother telling that there is an abusive demon in the hills who always speaks harshly to him. The mother then teaches him the concept of an echo and advises him to send out positive and love-filled words. The shepherd boy learns and is delighted. It is the same concept in the example of the mirror used while explaining the greatest secret in life.
So, that, I feel, is one important aspect of Karma - one always reaps what one sows. This is the point at which a dozen questions pop up in mind. And Swami knows that! That is why He explains another subtle yet profound aspect.
2. Different reactions occur in different time-frames
Swami explains this through a very simple example. He says that when a thorn pricks the foot, the hand immediately rushes to pluck the thorn out of the foot. The reaction is almost instantaneous. When one eats food, digestion happens in hours and energy is released for functioning. The reaction takes some time here. But when a seed is sown, it takes years for the tree to bear fruits. The reaction in this case takes a lot of time.
That is another important aspect of Karma. Though one always reaps what one sows, the time-frames for the different reactions vary and are very complicated to understand. The next aspect is the most beautiful one. It answers many questions and is a derivative of this second aspect.
3. Action and reaction are a definite combo, but they can get vastly separated in time
As the previous point showed, reaction times can greatly vary. Now suppose, one performs an action A for which there is a reaction A*. This A* may be delayed by 3 months say. Suppose in 3 months time one performs action B and then, since the 3 months are up, he/she receives A*. The person now makes the grave mistake of assuming that A* is the reaction to B! That brings on confusion.
So, a thief commits a robbery and obtains a getaway car to make an escape. Immediately, we say, “He did evil and was rewarded with a getaway car”. The mistake here is in assuming that the getaway car was the reaction for his robbery. NO! The robbery is B here while the getaway car is A*. In a similar manner, we can understand a good act receiving an apparently bad reaction. Thus, though action-reaction is a combo, they are often separated in time.
Now, does that not make it clear why a good person seems to get punished while a bad person seems to get rewarded? It also inspires us that irrespective of what happens to us, good or bad, we must only do good. We do not know what we have sown in the past but we can at least ensure that we sow only good seeds for the future!
4. There is no escape from action/reaction
Bhagawan Baba has reiterated what Lord Krishna says in the Bhagvad Gita that action is inevitable. Every moment of our lives we are performing action. The only time we cease to perform action is when we die! This in turn means that every moment of our lives, we are constantly generating reactions, good and bad, which we have to experience in the future or in future lives.
This makes it appear as though we are caught perpetually in this action-reaction cycle. How do we break out of it?
Breaking out of the action-reaction cycle
The underlying logic to break free from the so called clutches of Karma is expounded beautifully by Baba in HI discourses:
Karma as such has no capacity to bind; it is the conceit, 'I am the doer' that brings about the attachment and the bondage. Again, it is the desire for the fruit of action that produces the bondage. For example: the zero gets value only when in association with a digit. Karma is zero; the feeling of 'doership' when associated with Karma breeds bondage. So give up the sense of ‘I’ and the Karma that you do will never harm you.
Bhagawan Baba presents us with Karma Yoga as the solution to break out of this cycle. He defines four types of action or Karmas. And they are present as a hierarchy.
a. Action for action sake - Sadly, most of us are stuck in this. We do our work at our workplace because we need the money. Or we work at home because we have no other choice. We do not enjoy it and therefore errors, mistakes, carelessness and callousness creep in. No explanation is needed to say that this kind of action is not desirable.
b. Action done with dexterity - (Yogaha Karmasu Kaushalam) Here, the person involved in action seeks to do it with dexterity and finesse. He/she seeks the rewards of doing a job well - a raise in salary, appreciation from peers and superiors, better career growth etc. Though this is a better form of action, it suffers from a major disadvantage. Since it is based on expectations, when things don’t go the expected way, there is disappointment, frustration and anger.
c. Action done with dexterity without expectation - (Karma Phala Tyaga) In this kind of action, the person involved performs to his/her best for being the best. There is no expectation of any kind of reward from others. Satisfaction is taken as a reward. Swami says that though this form of action is higher than the previous two, there is the danger of one losing motivation. It leads to questions like, “Why am I doing this? The whole world thinks of me as foolish. What am I gaining ultimately?”
d. Pure action - (Pavitra Karma) According to Baba, this is the highest form of action- that which constitutes Karma Yoga. Every action is done to please God/Atma/the Spirit. One puts in his/her best and gets the reward that the Lord is pleased. Thus, all actions are done not only selflessly without any expectation of any reward, but are also dedicated to God as an offering unto Him. And this dedication is to the Lord who is the indweller of all beings.
And here comes the beauty of engaging in this kind of action or Pavitra Karma. Swami says that once all actions are dedicated to the Lord, in love for Him, God accepts the fruits of the actions along with the actions. Thus, one is able to break free from the chains of action-reaction.
Well, how much ever is written about Karma, learning happens only in an experiential manner. Hundreds of doubts may still arise. But if we are sincere and wish to enjoy the benefits of such Karma Yoga, let us dive into pure action - action with love, truth and understanding - and dedicate it to our dear Lord! Let our expectation be only to bring a smile on His face. That will happen and that smile will ensure that the smile on our face is never erased.
And that, one only has to experience! I speak with the deepest conviction based on my experience.
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