I studied chapter 3 in the Bhagavad Gita some years ago through the guidance of Prasad Rangnekar, a Yoga teacher from Mumbai, India. I remember that I felt it all made so much sense then, and I believed I understood what it meant for me. Throughout the years, I have revised this chapter a couple of times, reading commentaries from Yogananda, Sri Swami Satchidananda, and Iyengar still feeling that “I got it”.
One of my sangha members asked recently if we could discuss Karma Yoga during our meetings, and I gladly accepted since I felt I could contribute with what “I have learned” so far. So, I started revising Ch2 and Ch3 in the Gita, as well as my notes, just to realize that the more I read, the more I try to wrap my head around it, and the less I am sure I truly understand and am able to internalize these teachings. I remember my teacher saying that Karma Yoga is the path for people like you and me, people who are engaged in the world, but the more I read about its main principles, the more they seem to me as almost impossible to follow in our modern world.
Take selfless action as an example (Gita, ch.2 v47 & 50 among others in ch3 and other chapters in the same book). The only role I play in life that I didn’t choose was to be the child of my parents, other than that, I chose to study to become a teacher and thus, I chose to apply for the teacher job I eventually got, I chose to marry my husband, I chose to have children, I choose my friends, I don’t necessarily choose who I work with, but I choose to interact or not with them outside our duties at school. So where is the selflessness in all this? I can choose to leave my job, I can choose to leave my family, I can choose to not meet my friends anymore. I can make new choices that will lead me into new roles.
Choosing these roles is probably part of human nature, and the drive to stay active. One could even argue that I believe I chose these roles, but maybe they all are part of my karmic bondage. Indeed, Krishna does tell Arjuna that it is not possible to take part in this world without action:
One cannot achieve freedom from karmic reactions by merely abstaining from work, nor can one attain perfection of knowledge by mere physical renunciation.Bhagavad Gita, ch3 v4
There is no one who can remain without action even for a moment. Indeed, all beings are compelled to act by their qualities born of material natureBhagavad Gita ch3 v5
So, here Krishna is telling us that part of living this life is to be active. Everything we do and don’t do is an action, but we need to choose the “right” action. The action that will help us grow spiritually, and eventually liberate us from our bondage to the material world.
Work hard in the world, Arjuna, but for work’s sake only. You have every right to work but you should not crave the fruits of it. Although no one may deny you the outcomes of your efforts, you can, through determination, refuse to be attached to or affected by the restults, whether favorable or unfavorable.Bhagavad Gita ch2 v47
Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, O Arjun, abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yoga.Bhagavad Gira ch2 v48
So, “right” action is the one that does not bring distress to our mind, and that helps us keep a balanced mind. Since we cannot control the consequences of our actions, all we can do is control the intention behind our actions and how we perform them. If the result is in our favor, we should be thankful and move on, if not, we should also be thankful and move on. Keep the mind stable. On the other side, we can also explore the idea of acting mindfully to avoid harming others because how can our mind be calm if we know we acted mindlessly or, even worse, with the intention to hurt? I guess these are just two sides of the same coin: the intention behind the action.
I once read in one of B.K. S. Iyengar’s books that Karma Yoga is “contained in the Yamas, the Niyamas, Asana, and Pratyahara” which are four of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. I don’t know if this connection is correct according to tradition, but I like it.
Yamas and Niyamas are useful in the path of Karma Yoga because they give us guidance. The Yamas (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.30) are non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteaya), continence (brahmacharya) and non-greed (aparigraha). Ahimsa is an important aspect of the life of any Yogi and also in other Indian traditions such as Jainism and Buddhism. Only this one would keep us on the right track for the rest of our lives, I think. The Niyamas (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.32) are purity (sauca)- both physical and mental, contentment (santosa), study which leads to the knowledge of the self (svadhyaya) zeal (tapas) and resignation to God (isvara pranidhana).
The way I see it, the Yamas are values that we can have at the base of our actions to make sure we have control of our intentions, and the Niyamas are to be used internally to stop the need to act to get something in return. If we practice contentment, if we keep our mind and body healthy and we focus our attention on what will help us grow spiritually, we will eventually stop craving for external gratification. This sounds so inspiring and beautiful but requires a lot of self-discipline and constant checking in with ourselves.
Pratyahara is the practice of restraining the senses, and in the Bhagavad Gita, we do learn about the importance of having control of the mind and senses in order to be on the path of Karma Yoga.
Those who restrain the external organs of action, while continuing to dwell on sense objects in the mind, certainly delude themselves and are to be called hypocrites.Bhagavad Gita ch3v6
But those karm yogis who control their knowledge senses with the mind, O Arjun, and engage the working senses in working without attachment, are certainly superior.Bhagavad Gita ch3v7
In this context, we have five organs of action (karmendriyas) which are feet for locomotion, hands for dexterity, rectum for excretion, genitals for reproduction and mouth for speach; and five sense organs (jnanendriyas) which are the ears, the eyes, the nose, the tongue and the skin. In addition comes the mind or manas because as we read above, we not only have to work with controlling our actions by gaining control over our senses, but we also need to work with the mind to ultimately detach from the need for physical reward.
I am unsure how Iyengar connects Asana to Karma Yoga, but I have learned that the meaning of Asana in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is to sit steady, basically, in preparation for Pranayama, Dharana, Dhyana and ultimately Samadhi which are the remaining eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.
So, Karma Yoga encourages us to act in a way that allows us to keep a balanced mind which in turn will allow us to act more skilfully and eventually liberate us from. the “wheel of karma” which is basically being reborn over and over again to continue paying our karma and, if not acting skillfully, creating more karma…
One who prudently practices the science of work without attachment can get rid of both good and bad reactions in this life itself. Therefore, strive for Yoga, which is the art of working skillfully (in proper consciousness).Bhagavad Gita ch2 v50
Now, Krishna told all this (and more) to Arjuna to help him make the right choice right before the most important battle of Arjuna’s life. How would this apply in other areas of Arjuna’s life? How does this apply to my life? How does this apply to your life? It would be interesting to hear how you apply these principles in your own life. I will try to share in future posts.