Karma yoga is the yoga of action or work; specifically, karma yoga is the path of dedicated work: renouncing the results of our actions as a spiritual offering rather than hoarding the results for ourselves.
Karma is referred to both action and the result of action. What we experience today is the result of our karma—both good and bad—created by our previous actions. This chain of cause and effect that we ourselves have created can be snapped by karma yoga: fighting fire with fire, we use the sword of karma yoga to stop the chain reaction of cause and effect. By disengaging the ego from the work process, by offering the results up to a higher power—whether a personal God or to the Self within—we stop the whole snowballing process.
Whether we realize it or not, all of us perform actions all the time since even sitting and thinking is action. Since action is inevitable, an integral part of being alive, we need to reorient it into a path to God-realization. As we read in the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s most sacred scriptures:
Whatever your action,
Food or worship;
Whatever the gift
That you give to another;
Whatever you vow
To the work of the spirit. . .
Lay these also
As offerings before Me.
All of us tend to work with expectations in mind: we work hard in our jobs to get respect and appreciation from our colleagues and promotions from the boss. We clean our yards and make them lovely with the hope that our neighbors will be appreciative if not downright envious. We work hard in school to get good grades, anticipating that this will bring us a fine future. We cook a splendid meal with the expectation that it will be received with plaudits and praise. We dress nicely in anticipation of someone’s appreciation. So much of our lives is run simply in expectation of future results that we do it automatically, unconsciously.
This, however, is a perilous pattern. From a spiritual viewpoint, all these expectations and anticipations are Trojan horses that will bring us misery either sooner or later. Misery is inevitable because our expectations and desires are unending and unappeasable. We will live from disappointment to disappointment because our motivation is to gratify and enlarge the ego; instead of breaking the bonds of karma, we are forging fresh chains.
No matter whether we are devotional, intellectual or meditative by temperament, karma yoga can easily be practiced in tandem with the other spiritual paths. Even those who lead a predominantly meditative life benefit from karma yoga, for thoughts can produce bonds just as effectively as physical actions.
Just as devotees offer flowers and incense in their loving worship of God, so can actions and thoughts be offered as divine worship. Knowing that the Lord exists in the hearts of all creatures, devotees can and should worship God by serving all beings as his living manifestations. To paraphrase Jesus Christ: What we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for the Lord himself. “A yogi,” says the Bhagavad Gita, “sees Me in all things, and all things within Me.” The highest of all yogis, the Gita continues, is one “who burns with the bliss and suffers the sorrow of every creature” within his or her own heart.
Jnanis take a different but equally effective tack. They know that although the body or the mind performs action, in reality they do no work at all. In the midst of intense activity, they rest in the deep stillness of the Atman. Maintaining the attitude of a witness, jnanis continually remember that they are not the body, not the mind. They know the Atman is not subject to fatigue or anxiety or excitement; pure, perfect and free, the Atman has no struggle to engage in, no goal to attain.
The point of all the yogas is to spiritualize our entire life instead of compartmentalizing our days into “secular” and “spiritual” zones. Karma yoga is particularly effective at this since it won’t allow us to use activity as an escape. By insisting that life itself can be holy, karma yoga gives us the tools of everyday life to cut our way to freedom. To quote again the Bhagavad Gita regarding karma yoga:
Thus you will free yourself from both the good and the evil effects of your actions. Offer up everything to Me. If your heart is united with Me, you will be set free from karma even in this life, and come to Me at the last.