When teaching my World Philosophy course, I try to highlight the ways that Daoist notions of wu-wei, Stoic (and in particular, Epictetus’) notion of living in accordance with nature, and the Gītā’s idea of karmayoga are three ways to approach the union of contemplation and action.
To this end, I recently made a summary analysis of karmayoga for my students, serving as an appendix to my translations of the relevant portions of the Gītā. I provide it below for your consideration. Comments are welcome.
With karmayoga, the Bhagavad-gītā presents the reader with a notion of acting in the world which is meant to be revolutionary. It is said to bring peace even in the tumult of life’s struggles, and help one come to true self-knowledge and realization of the ultimate reality behind all things (brahman). Unlike ordinary action, it does not generate any karmic residue or entanglement. Karmayoga is the key to the Gītā’s teachings that action and meditation can be unified. Importantly, the very word yoga when usedby itself usually simply means karmayoga, especially in the early sections of the Gītā which introduce yoga as a practice.
What makes karmayoga so different from normal activity such that it is described as “inaction within action”(4.18) and the karmayogin is said to “do nothing at all” (4.20; 5.8-9) while performing various deeds? I would suggest three major components of the discipline that underscore its difference from ordinary action:
- a karmayogin is detached from the results of action,
- while motivated by a combination of dharma (role ethics), the spirit of sacrifice, a concern to maintain the world, and the quest for yogic self-discovery,
- and reconceptualizing reality in accord with yogic teachings.
Here, I will examine each of these in order.
1. The first major difference is that someone performing karmayoga is “detached from the results” (C.f., 2.47, 2.49, 2.51, 4.20, 5.12) and, consequentially, “free from duality” (2.45, 2.50, 2.57, 4.22, 5.3). Ordinary intentional actions are typically initiated and governed by desires or aspirations for certain outcomes thought to bring personal satisfaction. To say that the karmayogin is detached from results does not mean that she doesn’t care what happens in the manner of a sociopath. Indeed 18.25 explicitly says that it is of the nature of tamas to act with complete disregard to the outcome. What detachment means here is that such matters are out of the yogin’s control, and the value of the act is thus not derivative of her personal stakein the outcome. As 2.47 teaches, her entitlement is to work, but not to its results.
This detachment from results is what generates peace and freedom from duality. It is not that the yogin has been anesthetized such that they don’t feel anything. Rather, their motivation is no longer to squeeze the a specific result from an activity. They simply wish to surrender to doing what is right, while recognizing their lack of ownership over the outcome. Therefore whether the outcome is pleasurable/painful or brings fame/infamy or success/failure is irrelevant to them. They are not trapped in the duality of “good” and “bad” as they would be if they approached work through a pre-set attachment to a specific outcome. And because they don’t view work through such a lens, they achieve peace and even-mindedness (5.12), the very definition of yoga (sammatvaṃ yoga ucyate)(2.48).
The Gītā seems to refer to two different sorts of outcomes in the context of a karmayogin’s detachment. First of all, the immediate results of action. This is underscored by saying that a someone with steady wisdom is the same in “success or failure,” “honor or dishonor,” “pleasure or pain” and so on. A second meaning of “results” is the karmic seeds generated by actions. The Gītā accords with mainstream Indian religiosity by understanding that actions generally create the seeds of our future lives, which tend to be better if we act properly, and worse if we do not (18.12). But unlike the Vedic ritualists who are criticized in Chapter 2, a yogin is not trying to gain good karma or avoid bad karma through their actions. They are “off the karmic grid” so to speak; their actions don’t generate any karma at all (Cf. 2.38. 4.36-37. 5.7).
2. If one’s motivation is not personal attachment to specific outcomes, then why act at all? And if one is dispassionate toward the results of work, is there anything that he is concerned about? It seems clear that a concern advanced in Gītā scholarship, “how could one act if they are free from desire?” doesn’t seem that pressing when applied to karmayoga. The text explicitly presents four reasons for action that are supposed to motivate the yogin.
The first is merely to perform one’s dharma (2.47, 3.35, 18.46-48). A useful way to understand this motivation is with the notion of role ethics. We have various roles in life, like parent, child, teacher, student, citizen, community-member, etc., and doing what is right requires us to carry out the responsibilities that are entailed by these various roles, simply because they are our roles. Were one to ask, “Why are you taking care of that girl?” to answer “Because I am her father” is enough. Being a father entails various responsibilities, and if it is a role that I have, my duty is to carry out such responsibilities as well as I can. To do it for some selfish reason like “I want other people to respect me” is to be attached to the results of actions and to forsake genuine yoga. From the perspective of role ethics, surrendering to dharma is itself what constitutes success, and as seen above, not a specific personal outcome that one hopes to gain for oneself.
Another motivation is to act as a sacrifice. This is the major theme of Chapters 3 and 4. In 3.9-16, Krishna explains that sacrifice is a way to approach the world where one gratefully enjoys its bounty, within the bounds of dharma, and consciously reciprocates by giving back. To approach the world in this way is to participate in and perpetuate the cycle of sacrifice, and keep the world in balance. The culture of sacrifice includes virtues like gratitude, reciprocity, and a willing acceptance of one’s place in the larger whole.
In the Chapter 4, Krishna uses sacrifice as the crucial metaphor for the liberating insight that, when applied to dharmic action, transfigures both the action and the agent into brahman (4.23-4). Speaking of the “sacrifice of insight” as opposed to the mere sacrifice of goods (4.33), he suggests that it has the capacity give the individual a complete transformation of experience, upon which, they realize that all beings are identical with one’s self, and united in God (4.35). This transformation is underscored when Krishna says that the act of sacrifice itself transfigures “material” things, such that they go from being sources of bondage to sources of liberation (3.13, 4.31). My reading of this deeper notion of sacrifice is that it is still centered on virtues like gratitude, reciprocity, and willing acceptance of one’s place in the larger whole. But when informed by knowledge of the deep self, sacrifice takes on a fuller, existential sense, which is identical with yoga itself. Here, the yogin understands that his own self is grounded in the ultimate reality (4.35), and his sense of dependence, gratitude, and holistic participation are informed by that vision.
With this identification of yoga and sacrifice, some passages come close to bhakt-yoga (self-sacrificial, loving devotion to the personal Lord), as taught later in the Gītā (Chapters 7-12). A yogin is said to be “devoted to me (Krishna)” (2.61), to “resign all of their actions unto me (Krishna)” (3.30), and to “resign their actions unto brahman” (5.10). Culminating this line of thought is the final verse of Chapter 5, “One who recognizes that I am the enjoyer of all sacrifices and penances, the Great Lord of all people, the dear friend of all beings—that person attains peace” (5.29).
With this understanding of sacrifice, we can see why the Gītā is so critical of those who practice Vedic sacrifices only from a desire to gain some good result for themselves by means of ritual (2.42-46). While such people do participate in sacrificial culture and their acts are consistent with dharma, their motivation is nevertheless self-centered and they are utterly attached to the results of action. Therefore, their sacrifices can never blossom into genuine karmayoga.
The notions of sacrifice and reciprocity blend into to a third motivation, to maintain the world. Krishna notes that even someone utterly self-realized, with no selfish interests, still has a reason to act: they seek to maintain or preserve the world (3.20, 3.22). Engaging in one’s dharma and perpetuating the reciprocal relations which support the social (and cosmic) balance of things prevents the world from collapsing. A yogin is motivated to act in order to prevent such a collapse. This is a world-affirming reason to act in yoga. One should care about the world although they recognize that they have have no control over the success of their actions, and therefore, they are dispassionate toward the results. To underscore that a yogin is not merely fixated on their own personal liberation, the Gītā stresses that even after someone is enlightened, they are still “devoted to the welfare of all beings” (5.25).
A fourth, and final motivation to act is to achieve yogic self-discovery. One acts in karmayoga for the same reason that an inactive yogin sits and meditates: to purify their mind and to discover the deep self. The earliest verses on karmayoga claim that holding fast to one’s duty while tolerating the various troubles that arise as one does so leads one to liberation (2.14-15). The core insight here is that performance of one’s duties in life forces them to inevitably confront hardships and challenges. If one refuses to run away from such challenges and hardships, but rather trains one’s mind not to be disturbed by them, they overcome the pull that the external world has on them. The Gītā provides a vision of yogawhere this quest for purification animates one’s actions. “With the body, the mind, the intellect, and even with the senses, yogins engage in action, without attachment, in order to purify their hearts (5.11).” The desire for self-realization, and even for the peace and joy that come with it (5.23-24) are not mundane attachments to the outcomes of action, so long as one approaches them without a false sense of control over the process.
What all of the four possible motivations above (dharma, sacrifice, maintaining the world, and yogic self-discovery) have in common is that in each case, the yogin is not motivated by a personal desire to appropriate the results of action. Each of the four possible motivations lead one to perform their roles in life, with vigor, commitment, and purpose, but without selfishness. In all four cases, one’s actions are fit to be transfigured into yoga.
3. While the first two elements of karmayoga are largely about motivations and affective states, the third is about cognition. Karmayoga involves a reconceptualization of reality in accord with yogic teachings. Early on, the Gītā suggests that a sage experiences a different world from the mass of people: “What is night for ordinary people is the time of awakening for the self-controlled, and the time of awakening for ordinary people is night for the sage who truly sees” (2.69). This radical shift has two major aspects: a re-seeing of oneself, and a re-seeing of the world.
Those who aren’t yogins, who are not practicing karma-yoga, tend to see themselves as crucially and fundamentally enmeshed in the fluctuations of the world. Changes in the world produce changes in them. Because of this, their happiness is dependent on the luck of having favorable fluctuations, and they mistakenly try to assert control over fluctuations that are beyond their influence (3.27-8). They are trapped in the duality discussed above. Yogins, on the other hand, understand that their deepest essence, the true self, is buoyant and above the fray. Action arises by the confluence of many factors, and only one of which is an individual self (18.15). In ignorance, someone only focuses on themselves, their desires, and their agency, as centrally important within action. But someone who is wise recognizes that there are many other forces operative, and their personal agency is derivative and partial (18.14-16). Much of the changes that occur in the world are carried on through the fluctuations of matter operating independently of the individual’s influence (5.8-10; 5.13, 14.19, 14.23). They also recognize that each person’s essence is the deep self, standing aloof from its current conditions of embodiment. This is why yogins have “equal vision” toward various beings in various states of embodiment (5.18).
At its roots, the self is grounded in brahman or God (4.35) and a yogin acts as informed by that deep connection (5.10, 5.19, 3.30). The Gītā underscores that such a transformation of vision is not something that is merely believed or hoped for in a future life. When self-knowledge is internalized through lived karma-yoga, it is said to be realized as direct experience. “Those whose minds are settled in equanimity have conquered the material creation while still in it. As brahman itself is balanced and faultless, they are situated in brahman” (5.19).