Karma Yoga

  1. Karma Yoga in Bhagavad Gita
  2. What is Karma Yoga?
  3. What are the characteristics of Karma Yoga?
  4. Karma Yoga in Daily Life
  5. Karma Yoga Examples
  6. Principles of Karma Yoga
  7. Karma Yoga Benefits
  8. Karma Yoga Quotes
  9. Karma Yoga By Swami Vivekananda
  10. Karma Yoga of Hinduism

Karma Yoga in Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita, which is regarded as an Upanishad, lays down 4 paths for spiritual liberation namely, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Raja Yoga respectively. These are for a spiritual seeker to attain liberation. The boundaries amongst the four are negotiable and a seeker typically has elements of all the four paths in his journey. If someone is a Karma Yogi, it just means that Karma yoga is the dominant trait, although traces of other paths would very much be present.


What is Karma Yoga?

Karma Yoga is the path to liberation via unselfish action. We know that human beings need food to survive. With the help of modern medicine, we can even estimate the quantity of nutrients that an average human should consume daily so that s/he can live a healthy life. Then, have you wondered, why we have not come up with a complete nutrition mix which the person can consume every day? If at all we have, why do we still take all the trouble to prepare and consume innumerable varieties of complicated dishes? The answer is simple. Every human has a different taste. One can never have a one-size-fits-all formula, that appeals to everyone. These preferences are so strong that I’m reminded of Kellogg’s upma and Domino’s paneer pizza, whose very existence testifies the importance of the need to cater to customer preferences.


Ancient Indian rishis have fully acknowledged this fact. Everything that this civilization has produced, is essentially a method to help one attain his spiritual goal. Be it literary works on devotion, works on yoga, medicine, architectural works like temples or rituals- everything ties up to this single goal, of helping one realize oneself.

Every spiritual seeker has a different appetite, different levels of capabilities and a different bent of mind. So, the best thing that can be done is to prepare a thali (a plate full of varied dishes), so that the customer can mix and match dishes and create something unique, that s/he loves the most. Hinduism also is in fact a thali of multiple methods to reach the same ultimate goal. The Bhagavad Gita enumerates 3 (or 4 rather) broad methods to this effect.


Following is a brief description of each of the paths:

  • Karma Yoga or the Path of Action (Karma-mārga): To attain self-realization, purity of mind (chitta-shuddhi) is an important trait to do possess. Performing action, being attached to it, leads to bondage. Therefore, Karma Yoga emphasizes the importance of performing action with the right attitude (selflessness or social good) to develop purity of mind.
  • Bhakti Yoga or the Path of Devotion (Bhakti-mārga): This path lays emphasis on devotion to a personal God. In this context, God is personified, and the devotee has a very intimate relationship with his personal God. When a seeker submits his will to that of the God, he eventually let’s go of his ego and develops purity of mind.
  • Jnana Yoga or the Path of Knowledge (Jñāna-mārga): For people who have already developed a great level of purity of mind, this path advises knowing the nature of one’s self and deep contemplation. Not everyone is eligible to take up this path.
  • Raja Yoga or the Path of Meditation (dhyāna-mārga): This path is sometimes added to the list, whose reference lies in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Adi Shankara considered it to be an integral part of Jnana yoga itself. This however represents that method focusing on meditation to control one’s mind with the help of breath & diet control etc.

Lord Krishna elaborates the way of action or the Karma Yoga in the third chapter of Bhagavad Gita that contains 43 verses.

According to Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita, Karma yoga is the spiritual practice of "selfless action performed for the benefit of others".
Manuscript image of Srimad Bhagavad Gita (Karma Yoga by The Cowherd)

What are the characteristics of Karma Yoga?

Karma means action. Yoga, in this context can be construed to be ‘the path’. This is the path recommended to a typical spiritual seeker, who is engrossed in modern-day activities like education, profession etc., is entangled in relationships/family and wants to advance spiritually. It advises the seeker to perform action, and not to abstain from it, being conscious of the fact that the efforts need not translate to commensurate results.


According to the Sankhya philosophy, nature has three traits (gunas), namely, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Tamas is represents darkness or inactivity whereas Rajas stands for activity, and Sattva the equilibrium of the two, i.e., getting a control of both. Each human is composed of these three traits; for instance, we display the Tamas trait when we’re lazy, sit idle, are inactive, bound down by certain ideas. But sometimes the tendency for action dominates. For instance, when we’re angry, indulge in a fight, or are restless, we display the Rajas trait. Thirdly, when we feel like meditating, speaking truth or doing something noble, we display the Sattva trait.

One of these traits is generally dominant than the others. The dominant characteristic in one person could be that of inactivity, dullness, and laziness; that of another could be activity, power, manifestation of energy, and that of the third could be sweetness, calmness, and gentleness. This is true not only for humans but also for everything else in nature, plants, animals etc.


One’s tendencies are determined the mixture of these traits. For instance, one person may be naturally more restless than the other. Another may be naturally lazy. Even if one tries to behaviorally change these tendencies, these still linger in the mind. It’s pointless to contravene these forces. What’s advisable is to realize that all our actions are governed by these traits of gross nature (prakriti) and shed our sense of doership while performing action. Some lighter thoughts can be forcefully overcome by the mind. But some dominant and gross underlying tendencies can be overcome only by indulging in those with the right attitude. Whatever has providentially been assigned to us (which could be education for students, household chores for a homemaker, a corporate job for a professional or anything else for that matter), needs to be discharged without being attached to it. As we just realized that our actions are determined by gross nature, it’s pointless to worry over it. So, what does the essence of Karma Yoga teach us? Attitude.


Well, if one is advised to shed the doership, one could argue that it would be better to therefore renounce all action and turn an ascetic. Lord Krishna preempts Arjuna against this idea too. It’s because, for someone who isn’t mentally eligible for ascetism, it’s not the right course of action. Ascetism requires extremely high levels of dispassion and maturity. Sri Ramana Maharshi, is said to have once told a disciple who sought Maharshi’s permission to sit idle (or quit active life), “Try sitting idle.” It means, one who is premature for ascetism simple can’t renounce action. A famous example given to this effect is that of scraping coconut. If a coconut is tender, one can’t grate it fully, however hard one tries. Whereas, if it’s dried in the sun, the ‘meat’ separates from the shell by itself! Ascetism just happens when the candidate is mature enough and not the other way round. There are countless examples of men taking up monkhood and return to worldly life due to various reasons. The same Krishna on one hand advised Arjuna to indulge in action whereas on the other advised Uddhava to take up sannyasa. These spiritual teachings are personal. It’s based on what the pupil deserves and what suits his current level in his spiritual pursuit.


For commoners like us, we can summarize this chapter thus: Discharge your duties without any sense of doership.

According to Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita, Karma yoga is the spiritual practice of "selfless action performed for the benefit of others".
Manuscript image of Srimad Bhagavad Gita (Karma Yoga by The Cowherd)

Karma Yoga in Daily Life

Let’s now look at an imaginary example to illustrate the application of these concepts in our daily life. Suppose there’s an IT professional. He’s disappointed with many things at work. Let’s say, he doesn’t like his boss, is unhappy with the pay and is also concerned about his growth prospects. Someone who is spiritually uninitiated would assume that he could change the course of his life if he really wanted. He might try upskilling himself (perhaps learn a new coding language), lookout for better jobs and might even succeed in finding one. And you might wonder what was preventing you from doing the same thing, if life was really in your own hands.


Let’s look at the scenario in greater detail now.

  • You assumed that his life changed towards the better.

It’s very much possible that he is unhappy with his new job also, although he got a higher pay. He might have got a terrible boss. He would have been staffed on a project that he doesn’t like. There are innumerable reasons that could still make him unhappy. Your feeling could just be driven by ‘grass greener on the other side’ phenomenon.

  • You wished you were successful like him.

You should never aspire for what others are able to do. Even if the other person was indeed happy with his new role, there’s no guarantee that you’d achieve a similar success. You’re in your current job due to some karmic cause (prarabdha); let it work out itself. When the karmic balance is settled, it’ll go away by itself.

  • You believe he controls his own life.

How would you ever ascertain whether what happened was due to destiny or his free will? There’s a popular story of Swami Vivekananda in which, while on a train journey, he tried to test destiny. He vowed that he wouldn’t put any effort to have his meal. If he was destined to have one, he thought, let the meal come to him by itself. And behold, when the train stopped at a certain station, a stranger ran up to him and served a full meal. The stranger, a devotee of Lord Rama, had a vision of the Lord the previous night, in which the Lord instructed him to serve food to this monk at this very station. Unbelievable, but true. Life just happens. Do not delude yourself with a false sense of ownership. Only when you fully let go of your ego, will you be able to watch life happen by itself.

  • You might feel like quitting the job and doing something else.

This job has naturally come to you. It’s your duty to discharge your responsibilities in a sincere manner. You really can’t avoid action. Even if you quit, you’ll easily succumb to the forces of the 3 gunas and find yourself busy doing something else very soon. Remember, actions are done by the gross nature. Just shed your doership.

  • You’re demotivated to work.

Once you shed your ownership, you develop a sudden sense of peace within. It’s one big revelation! Everything that you hitherto thought was a problem, isn’t indeed one. Your boss, the monthly paycheque, your colleagues, family and everything else ceases to bother you anymore. You start performing your job with utmost sincerity and dedication. Your only motive is the welfare of others (the client or your company). You strive continuously to improve yourself by brushing up your coding skills, learning new skills etc. Someday, another company may call you up and offer you a job. Or your current company itself may give you a promotion. But it stops mattering to you anymore. You stop seeking validation from outside as you feel a sense of fulfilment within. You’re at peace. Lord Krishna, in chapter 2 of the Gita says, this dexterity/excellence at work is called Yoga!


Karma Yoga Examples

Lord Krishna himself cites the example of king Janaka, the great old ruler of Mithila, who also was the father of Sita. A politician will be the last person to have a peaceful night’s sleep. If king Janaka, despite being a successful king, was able to remain in a state of samadhi throughout, it is really possible for folks like you and me. That’s why this example is chosen by Krishna. If one understands the fact that actions are governed by the gross nature, one automatically lets go of ownership. If one doesn’t fall pray to senses by overcoming all sensual distractions with the help of a strong-willed mind, one succeeds. In the very first chapter of the Gita, Lord Krishna concedes that controlling the mind is indeed difficult. But incessant practice enables a man to eventually succeed.


Principles of Karma Yoga

Here are 10 condensed principles that sum up Karma Yoga.

  1. Always discharge your duties well
  2. Shed your sense of doership/ownership
  3. Don’t aspire for others’ action (life/lifestyle/work)
  4. Your actions are governed by nature
  5. Renounce all actions unto the Lord
  6. Don’t get attached to your actions
  7. Perform action for others’ sake, not yourself
  8. Don’t be idle; action is superior to inaction
  9. Don’t let attachments and aversions sway your actions
  10. Desire is your greatest enemy

Karma Yoga Benefits

The following are the benefits of practicing Karma Yoga:

  1. Excellence at work
  2. Overcoming insecurities
  3. Work becomes worship
  4. Escape from idleness/inactivity
  5. Productive benefit to the society
  6. Satisfaction/Contentment
  7. No more competition, peer-pressure
  8. Spiritual progress
  9. Peace
  10. Bliss

Karma Yoga Quotes

प्रकृतेः क्रियमाणानि गुणैः कर्माणि सर्वशः ।
अहङ्कारविमूढात्मा कर्ताहमिति मन्यते ॥ ३-२७॥
श्रेयान्स्वधर्मो विगुणः परधर्मात्स्वनुष्ठितात् ।
स्वधर्मे निधनं श्रेयः परधर्मो भयावहः ॥ ३-३५॥
काम एष क्रोध एष रजोगुणसमुद्भवः ।
महाशनो महापाप्मा विद्ध्येनमिह वैरिणम् ॥ ३-३७॥

Verses from chapter 3, Srimad Bhagavad Gita

Karma Yoga By Swami Vivekananda

Here’s the link to a book that compiles Swami Vivekananda’s lectures and writings on Karma Yoga that’s available for free online: http://www.yogebooks.com/english/vivekananda/1896karmayoga.pdf

Karma Yoga of Hinduism

Karma Yoga: the Path of Action, a talk by Swami Sarvapriyananda
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