PHILOSOPHY OF KARMA YOGA | Swami Abhedananda
Even wise men are deluded on this point, what is action and what is inaction. I shall tell thee the philosophy of work, by knowing which thou shalt attain to absolute freedom from all imperfections.
—Bhagavad Gita, Ch. IV, 16.
Those who understand the philosophy of Karma and act accordingly, are pure in heart and enter into the life of Blessedness.
In Sanskrit this philosophy of work is called Karma Yoga . It is one of the methods by which the final goal of Truth may be realized.
There are three other methods: that of love, that of wisdom, and that of concentration and meditation; but all these paths are like so many rivers which ultimately flow into the ocean of Truth, and each is suited to the mental and physical conditions of different individuals.
One in whom the feeling of worship is predominant will naturally choose the path of love and devotion; another, more philosophical, will take that of discrimination; a third will prefer the practice of concentration and meditation;
while those who have an instinctive tendency to work, who are neither philosophical nor able to concentrate or meditate, and who find it difficult to believe in a personal God, may, without worship or devotion, reach realization through the knowledge of the secret of right action.
Karma Yoga means literally 'skill or dexterity in work’, and it deals with all activity whether of body or mind. Recognizing that activity is an inevitable condition of life, that no human being can live without performing some kind of work, either mental or physical, it seeks through its teaching to show how this constant output of energy may be utilized to acquire the greatest spiritual enlightenment and to attain to perfection and absolute freedom.
This can be accomplished as we are told in the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gītā , by seeing in the midst of activity that which is beyond all action:
“He who sees activity in inaction as well as that which is above all action in the midst of the activities of mind, body, and senses, is wise among mankind, is a true Karma Yogi , and a perfect doer of all actions.”
—Bhagavad Gita, Ch. IV, 18.
Ordinarily we identify ourselves with the work that we are doing, and being driven on by the relentless necessity to act, we make ourselves like machines, labouring without cessation until at last we grow weary, discouraged, and unhappy.
When, however, we realize that there is within us something which transcends all activity, which is unchanging, immovable, and eternally at rest, then we accomplish our daily tasks without discouragement or loss of strength, because we have learned the philosophy of work.
There are five conditions necessary for the accomplishment of all mental or physical labour:
First, we must have a physical body, for it is the storehouse of energy. If we are without a body, we can do nothing on the physical plane. This body, furthermore, must be in good condition. If there is disease of any kind, it is unfit for right work.
Second, there must be present the sense of the Ego as the doer or actor. We must be conscious of the 'I’ who feels the impulse to work and proceeds to follow that impulse.
Third, we must have the instruments with which to work; these are many: there are the sense organs—the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and sense of touch; the five instruments of physical work—the hands, feet, etc.; and the internal instrument, the brain or mind-substance, with all its faculties—the power of will, cogitation, determination, memory.
Fourth, we must have the desire or motive to work; and
fifth, there must be some sort of environment. Without this last, senses, external instruments, and brain would avail us little. To hear a sound with our ears we must have the air; to see, there must be light and a medium to transmit its waves; while the body cannot move without space.
These five conditions are essential to every kind of work, whether good or bad; and in the practice of Karma Yoga we must be perpetually mindful of them, never confounding one with the other, but holding ever before us the body, its instruments, and the knower or self-conscious actor as distinct one from the other.
The results of actions performed under these five conditions are of three kinds:
1. those that are desirable because they help us to fulfil our aims in life, and bring us comfort and pleasure;
2. second, those which are not desirable; and
3. third, those which are partly desirable and partly undesirable.
It is not possible to escape some one of these results at every moment of our existence; since, as has already been said, the activity of our organism never ceases.
Practically speaking, there cannot be absolute rest of body or mind. Even when the body seems at rest, the mind substance continues in a state of vibration; and when here, again, all conscious activity apparently stops, as in the case of deep sleep, subconscious activity still goes on in the organic actions of the system, such as unconscious cerebration, digestion, breathing, circulation; for we are learning through the investigations of science that the unconscious mind extends over a much larger area than the conscious mind; also that all conscious activity first rises there.
Each of these activities of mind, furthermore, is bound to produce some kind of result.
If, therefore, activity is inevitable and each action must produce its result, what can we do to make all such results harmonize with the highest ideal of life?
To search for that which, in the midst of our varied activities of mind and body, remains always inactive.
When we have found that and recognized it, we have understood the purpose of the philosophy of work, and can make our every effort lead us to the final goal of all religion, to the realization of Truth, and to the attainment of Blessedness.
If we cannot do this, we shall be forced to go on reaping the fruit of our actions and continue in the suffering and misery which we now endure.
By practising the teachings of the philosophy of work, on the other hand, we shall not only bring freedom to the soul, but shall rise above all law and live on a plane above motion.
From the subtlest atom up to the grossest material form, there is constant motion. Nowhere is there rest. One thing, however, moves not; one thing is at rest, and Karma Yoga explains what it is, how we may realize it and make ourselves one with it.
That something which is beyond all activity is called in Sanskrit Atman . It is the Knower in us.
If we use a higher discrimination and try to understand the nature of the Knower, by observing our internal processes while we are doing anything, we shall discover that the Knower is constant.
The reader knows that he is sitting and also that he is reading. In other words, he distinguishes two distinct objects of knowledge; but the consciousness with which he perceives them, remains the same. In like manner, the Knower of all these different activities of mind and body is always identical.
When we hear a sound, we know that we hear; when we see a light we know that we see; but is the knower of sight different from knower of sound?
No. That which knows the object of sight or the object of sound is always the same; it does not change. It was the same ten years ago and will be the same tomorrow.
The Knower of all the experiences of our childhood is just the same as the one who knows what we are doing now. If we study and realize this, we shall find that the Knower is unchangeable and not bound by the conditions which govern the changeable.
If it were otherwise, and if changeable and unchangeable were subject to the same conditions, not only would it be contrary to the established order of things, but must cause great confusion, since there would be no way of differentiating changeable from unchangeable.
That which is subject to time, space, and causation is changeable; while that which is beyond these is unchangeable.
Time, for instance, means succession , which is a condition of thought; and space means co-existence . The activities of mind, being either in succession or simultaneous, produce the ideas of time and space; they are conditions, or, as Kant calls them, ‘forms of thought.’
One thought following another gives us a conception of intervals which we call time ; while, when two ideas rise simultaneously, that which separates them is what we call space .
Thus, that which exists between the idea ‘me’ and the idea ‘sun’ we classify as space; yet it is purely a mental concept, having no existence outside the mind; for who knows any concrete thing designated ‘space’?
Hence, since these ideas of time and space are merely conditions of thought, they must be subject to change, because our thought is continually changing.
Anything which takes form in the mind and is conditioned by time and space must change; but the Knower, not being a condition of mind or limited by time and space, does not change.
A certain thought rises in our minds and passes, then another takes its place, to be followed again by still another; yet the witness or Knower of all these thoughts, whether of gross objects or of abstract ideas, remains the same.
The Knower, when identified with the changes of the mind, becomes knower and thinker.
Thinking is an activity of the mind substance; it is a vibratory condition of this substance; and when the Knower takes upon itself that condition, it becomes knower and thinker.
When it identifies itself with sense powers, and sense perceptions, it becomes knower and perceiver; and it becomes the conscious mover or the physical man when it is one with the conditions and activities of the body.
In this way, if we analyse our mental activities and study the nature of the Knower, we find that it is the permanent source of intelligence, above mind and beyond thought, that it is in reality neither thinker nor actor.
The Atman or Knower can have neither desires nor passions, for they are purely mental conditions.
When the Knower is identified with any mental activity, we feel, it is true, that we have desires and passions, but in reality we are only the Knower of desire.
When we are angry, the mind is put into a certain state of vibration which is unpleasant. At first we perceive that anger is rising in us; then gradually, as it gains strength, it covers the whole mental plane and reflects on the Knower.
Lacking the power to separate ourselves from the mental condition, we become identified with the wave of anger and we say: ‘I am angry.’
At the outset we saw anger as a state of mind, but by degrees it becomes inseparable from the Knower in us until at last we imagine ourselves one with it.
In this manner, when the Knower comes to be identified with the conditions of the mind, of the organs of work, and of the body, we appear to be doers and seek the results of our work.
When we are identified with the body, we feel pleasant and unpleasant sensations in the body. Environmental changes produce certain effects upon our system and we fancy that we are one with these effects, and that they cause us pain and suffering; but in reality these changes do not affect the Knower of sensation.
If we can learn this lesson of dissociating the Knower from all changes of body and mind, and never confounding our mental and physical conditions with the immutable Being within us, we have made a great stride towards realizing the ideal of the philosophy of work.
To accomplish any work there must be present knowledge, the object of knowledge and the Knower.
For instance, before we can go from one place to another, we must be conscious of the act of going; such knowledge is indispensable, and the object of knowledge—that is, where we are going— is equally necessary, while neither can exist without the Knower.
Knowledge, again, is of three kinds:
First, the knowledge of the thing or of the sense object, not as it is in reality but as it appears to us.
We have the five objects of knowledge: sound, colour, odour, savour, and touch. These we can perceive with our five senses and through these channels we acquire this first stage of knowledge.
We learn that things exist around us, but such knowledge being limited, we do not arrive at an understanding of these things as they really are.
We say ordinarily, for example, that we hear a sound or see a colour, locating sound and colour outside of us.
If, however, we analyse the nature of sound or of colour, we find that sound is nothing but vibration of air carried by the auditory nerves to the brain where we perceive the sensation, which when projected outside, becomes external sound.
Similarly it can be shown that the colour we see is not in the object or in the luminous rays which emanate from the object, but is caused by ether waves in a certain degree of vibration. That vibrant ether coming in contact with retina and optic nerve produces a kind of nervous stimulation which results in the sensation of colour in the brain.
By projecting these sensations outside of our bodies we locate them on distant objects and then say that we see this or that colour.
Again, if we are going to some place, we may think that we are walking toward the north at the rate of two miles an hour; but our knowledge of this fact is only relatively correct, for to estimate our speed accurately, we must know all the conditions which affect our walking.
How can we say that we are moving northward at a speed of two miles an hour, when we know that the earth is rotating on its axis from west to east at the rate of twenty-five thousand miles in twenty-four hours, or over one thousand miles an hour?
Again, it is whirling round the sun at the rate of eighteen miles per second, or sixty-four thousand eight hundred miles per hour; while the sun and the whole planetary system are travelling with a tremendous velocity in a grand, far-sweeping spiral motion around some other centre.
Such being the facts, how imperfect is the knowledge which makes us think that we are moving towards the north. In reality there is neither north nor south.
From our standpoint we may seem to be walking at the rate of two miles an hour, but our speed will be increased a thousand fold in another direction when we take into consideration the diurnal motion of the earth and its annual revolution round the sun.
Furthermore, it can be shown that from the standpoint of the universe we are not moving at all. Since the whole universe is in reality a unit, where will it move? It cannot move anywhere.
Therefore as a part of it we are not moving and can go nowhere.
Thus by proper analysis we have been carried from the first to the second kind of knowledge—from the limited knowledge of the conditions under which the body seems to be moving, to the higher knowledge of the conditions as they actually are, and not as they merely appear to be.
From this we may pass to the third or highest kind of knowledge, which reveals to us the unity of existence. With the help of this knowledge we learn to look at things from the standpoint of one absolute Reality which is the eternal Knower of the universe.
The moment that we think that our body is a part of the universal body, our mind not separate from the cosmic mind, and that our souls, being parts of one universal Soul, are most intimately connected with one another, all activity assumes a new meaning for us, and it becomes impossible for us to act from selfish motives or to do wrong.
It is when, on account of our imperfect knowledge, we identify our true Self, the Knower, with the limitations of mind and body, that we become selfish and are ready to do the things which bring us suffering and misery.
If, however, we remain conscious of the oneness of the universe, of the laws that govern mind and body, of the relation which one soul bears to another, and of the various planes existing in the universe, we cannot make any mistake whatever.
The light of true knowledge dispels the darkness of ignorance which is the cause of selfishness, and reveals the true nature of the Knower which is above all activity.
That knowledge is the highest which brings us into conscious harmony with the universe, which makes us realize that the Knower is separate from the object known, and that nothing in the universe can ever exist without depending upon the existence of one universal Knower, which manifests through each individual form.
This highest knowledge of oneness kills the idea of separateness and resolves the multiplicity of phenomenal objects into that underlying Reality which is one.
The phenomenal objects of the universe, such as sun, moon and stars are in truth like so many eddies in the vast ocean of matter in motion.
Apparently they are separate from one another, but they are closely connected each with the other by the undercurrent of that primordial energy, which manifests itself as the various forces of nature.
The sum total of this energy in the universe is neither increased nor diminished, but is eternally one. It is also inseparable from the infinite Being, which is the source of existence and consciousness.
Being deluded by appearances, we get the idea of separateness and see one body as distinct from another; but when we go below the surface and seek that which produces variety, tracing it back to its final cause, the eternal energy, we inevitably arrive at the knowledge of oneness.
This is the problem which every individual will have to solve. It has been solved already thousands of times by the best thinkers and philosophers of the world, but their solution cannot bring satisfaction to others.
If one person has realized the oneness of existence, he will possess true wisdom, freedom from all delusions, and unbounded peace of mind; another, however, cannot gain the same result until he has risen to a like realization.
With the attainment of this highest knowledge of oneness all questions will be answered, all doubts will cease; but it is impossible to make the unawakened mind grasp what this means, for to understand, one must have experienced it for himself.
The first kind of knowledge, as has been already said, is the most limited. It is the knowledge of the fleeting appearance of sense objects as reality.
Animals know their food, they hear sound, they smell, taste, and feel the changes of the weather; but that is all.
They do not understand the causes of their sensations; their mind does not function on a plane higher than that of the senses, hence they know nothing of the things imperceptible to the senses.
Those who are living on this plane of sense perceptions are like animals. They do not believe in the existence of things which cannot be revealed by the senses; they cannot differentiate matter from spirit, soul from body, or the knower from the object known; consequently they always identify themselves with their mental and physical activities.
The majority of people in every country have not as yet advanced beyond this first stage of knowledge; and it is for this reason that they are so narrow in their ideas, so selfish, so intent on seeking the comforts of the body and the pleasures of the senses without thought of others. Many are still even below the higher animals in the matter of faithfulness, devotion, and care of their young.
Such knowledge, however, is in reality ignorance; and the philosophy of work strives to lead us out of this state of darkness to that of the highest enlightenment, by which we may recognize the true relation of the individual to the universe, and ultimately realize the goal of unity.
Ordinary people are as unconscious of this oneness as they are of the fact that they are carrying a weight of fifteen pounds to every square inch of the surface of their bodies. Think what a total weight this means!
So great, indeed, that if the body were put into a vacuum, where this atmospheric pressure would be no longer exerted, it would immediately burst. Yet people bear this burden day after day without knowing it until they try to climb some steep ascent.
So it is with the knowledge of their true nature. Having no realization of it, they believe that they have learnt everything, because they have learnt to care for the body; but the wise man laughs at such primitive conceptions of life.
At every step we meet this ordinary knowledge, which is based on some particular idea, narrow and limited in scope, with no element of higher knowledge in it; and it is this ignorance which is the cause of all of our mistakes.
To avoid them, we must continually ask the question: Who is doing the work? Spirit, mind, senses, or body? Who is the worker?
If we wish to put the philosophy of work in practice, we must keep this thought constantly in mind.
Then we should next ask: What special work must we do to attain to the realization of the Knower?
First of all, we must train our minds. We must open our eyes to the conditions under which we work; and when we have learnt to distinguish between the knower and the actor, we shall find it easy to apply this knowledge to our everyday life.
We must remember that the five conditions already described are absolutely necessary for any kind of work; but they can in no way influence or affect the Knower.
Intellect, mind, body, and senses exist in relation to it and cannot be active if cut off from it; but they are perpetually changing, while it is unchangeable.
He who realizes this—that all things on the mental or physical plane exist only so long as they are in relation to the Atman , the absolute source of life and knowledge, sees that one which is inactive in the midst of all activity, and becomes a right worker. Such a person attains to perfection through his work.
Let the body work, then, while we remember that it is the mind and the sense organs which are working, and that we are in reality the Knower, the Atman . Anything else is not permanently connected with us.
We have taken this body for the time being and are using it for the fulfilment of the highest purpose of life; but through ignorance of the fact that our true Self is above all physical conditions; we have identified ourselves with our material instrument.
Not realizing that we transcend all activity, we have imagined ourselves one with our mental modifications and our organic functions; and having fettered ourselves with desires, we are struggling to satisfy them.
When, however, we recognize that these desires are not permanently related to the true Self, that they exist in mind only, and that we can use them as a means of attaining to perfect freedom, then they will cease to bind us and we shall find rest and peace in the midst of our troubles.
If anger or hatred or desire surge up within us, we have only to separate ourselves from that mental change and it will vanish.
If passions arise, we have only to remember that we are the witness-like Knower of passion and it will subside.
It is when we forget that we are the Knower, and become identified with anger, passion, or hatred, that we fall under their dominion. By studying the conditions under which we perform all work, we can separate our true Self from those conditions and be happy.
Then we work without considering results; but the moment that we think of gaining some specific end, we delude ourselves and work ignorantly, for the knowledge possessed at that time is partial and imperfect.
Perfect knowledge reveals the Knower which is above all activities and the reality which underlies all phenomenal objects; understanding this, we live in the world and labour, without being enslaved, like ordinary workers, by desire for work or for its results.
To the outsider we may appear to be like other workers, but our mental attitude is different; and though we may outwardly resemble them, we are not, as they are, affected by the tasks which we perform with our body, mind, and senses; nor are we prompted by selfish motives.
Wise men work ceaselessly, being conscious at the same time that they are not working, allowing the body and mind to act, but seeking nothing in return.
According to the philosophy of work, all those, moreover, who do not assert the self, who are free from attachment, endued with energy and perseverance, unaffected by success and failure, and who constantly do their work unmoved by desire for or aversion to the fruits of their actions, are, like these wise ones, true spiritual workers.
Those, on the other hand, who are passionate, ambitious, easily affected by joy or grief, gain or loss, are ordinary workers of the world. They are never happy, but are always disturbed, anxious, and uneasy.
Beneath these is still a third class of workers, the lowest of all. It includes those who are heedless, foolish, arrogant, dishonest, indolent, procrastinating, and depressed in spirit; who act without regard to the loss or injury which they may inflict upon others; and who are ever ready to deprive their fellow-beings of their rights or prevent them from gaining their livelihood.
Such workers are looked upon as criminally selfish, as well as wicked; yet all their wickedness, selfishness, attachment, and passion proceed only from ignorance of their true Self, who is the unattached, witness-like Knower of all things, and who remains unchangeable in the midst of the changes of mind and body.
Such is the fundamental principle of the philosophy of work, and those who comprehend it, understand that which made all the great spiritual workers of the world declare:
'I am one with the eternal Truth’
or as the Hindu philosophers express it:
'I am Brahman, I am He, I am He .’
They who keep this idea constantly before the spiritual eye, will obtain unbounded happiness in this life; and when change comes to the body, they will not perceive it, so intense will be their realization of the fact that they are above all change.
Such persons have learnt the secret of work. They are peaceful, blessed, and the true workers of this earth.