18. How to excel in action – Karma Yoga
The Bhagavad Gita is addressed not only to Arjuna, but also to each and every one of us. Krishna addressed Arjuna as Bharata in several verses. In Sanskrit ‘Bha’ means ‘light and wisdom’ and ‘rata’ means devoted. Bharata means the one who is devoted to the light of wisdom. Sages address all wise people as ‘Bharata’ and the land they live in is known as Bharat.
Bharat, spiritual India has no boundaries and shows her divine torch of wisdom to the entire world. Persians referred to the people living beyond Indus River as Hindus. Hence the word Hindu is not a religious identity but only a geographical identity.
From time immemorial this land is not defined by belief in one particular god or book. It is a land of followers of Sanathana Dharma (Eternal Truth) and seekers of spiritual wisdom, Truth and liberation. Hence seekers of any other faith also can follow Sanathana Dharma without having to undergo conversion rituals or disturbing their existing social relationships.
To relate to God is religion. But Sanathana Dharma is not an organized religion in the ordinary sense, because it is Eternal, and there is no founder or prophet. It does not accept the exclusive claim of any individual, however highly evolved, to the monopoly of Truth or path to reach God. It is a spiritual way of life with variations and combinations of concepts such as dualism or non-dualism, Saivism or Vaishnavism, monism or pantheism, Jnana Yoga or Bhakti Yoga. The path taken by a seeker may be a combination of two or more paths based on his nature and maturity.
Thus Sanathana Dharma appears to be a colourful fabric but the common thread in it is seeking the Supreme Being hence it is ‘unity in diversity’.
Spiritual life is not about withdrawing from active life and living as a recluse begging for alms. The Bhagavad Gita teaches us to run into problems head on and fight the evil and stand for the good. Self-realized persons such as Arjuna and Gandhiji embraced the society and strived to make this world a better place to live. Unfortunately we have the tendency to put great people on high pedestal and just worship them instead of learning from them as role models in daily living.
Just when India obtained independence, it was plagued with communal riots. Gandhiji was working restlessly even at the age of 78 until the day of his assassination. He toured many riot prone areas and facilitated peace process among warring communities. Men turned into beasts and indulged in murders, rapes, looting, burning homes and so on.
Gandhiji advised people that they should live like human beings and die like human beings instead of turning into beasts. He was also busy coordinating between the Prime Minster and Home Minister and other leaders. He was also active in helping the drafting of constitution for new born nation. Gandhiji didn’t have anything to gain from his activities, but he was working out of love for fellow human beings and a will to serve them. He summarized the Gita’s message in one phrase ‘nishkama karma’, which literally means ‘karma without kama’, or ‘selfless action’. Kama is not just ‘desire’; it is ‘selfish desire’. It is important to note that desire is the fuel of life. Without desire nothing can be achieved, let alone so stupendous feat as liberation, or something natural such as procreation and continuation of life.
Nishkama karma is not just philanthropic activity. Good works that benefit others still carry a substantial measure of ego involvement. Action without selfish motive purifies the mind because the doer is less likely to be ego- driven later.
If a man does something and then keeps thinking about it, ‘how much I have done for somebody,’ he is in the lowest level of the mind. He will inevitably suffer because he is expecting people to be nice to him in return for his deeds. If they praise, it may cause egotism and deviation from the path. If they are not nice to him, he will be disappointed and gives up working altogether.
The Bhagavad Gita (2:48) says yogastha kuru karmani – Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yoga. The Bhagavad Gita (2:50) also says ‘Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam’ – Yoga is excellence in action.
An individual‘s welfare is encompassed in the society‘s welfare. To function properly, a society needs teachers who guide people, leaders who protect people from internal and external enemies, farmers and entrepreneurs who create and distribute wealth, workers who serve the society. These four classes can be regarded as divisions of labour.
- Acharyas: Acharya is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘one who teaches by his conduct’. A teacher does not necessarily mean a person who teaches sciences or languages. There is a Sanskrit adage saying ‘Guru Sakshat Param Brahma’. A true teacher is the one who is self-realized (realized that he is not separate from Brahman) and guides other people to achieve such knowledge. Guru means one who removes ignorance.
Unfortunately now-a-days many teachers draw hefty salaries, but seldom teach. They mostly indulge in earning additional money through private tutoring, money lending, real estate transactions, life insurance business, and so on. Since parents and teachers have great influence on young minds, they become bad role models for our future generations.
The following is an excerpt from Gandhiji‘s life.
A woman was upset that her son was eating too much sugar. No matter how much she chided him, he continued his habit. Totally frustrated, she decided to take her son to see the boy’s great hero Gandhiji. She approached him with great respect and said, “sir, my son eats too much sugar. It is not good for his health. Would you please advise him to stop eating it?”
Gandhi listened to the mother carefully and told her, “please go home and come back in two weeks.”
The woman looked perplexed and wondered why he had not asked the boy to stop eating sugar. Anyway she took the boy by the hand and went home.
Two weeks later she returned, boy in hand. Gandhiji looked at the boy and said, “boy, you should stop eating sugar. It is not good for your health.” The boy nodded and promised he would not continue this habit any longer.
The boy’s mother turned to Gandhiji and asked, “sir, why didn’t you tell him that two weeks ago?”
Gandhiji smiled and said, “two weeks ago I myself was still eating sugar.”
Gandhi lived in such integrity that he would not allow himself to give advice unless he was living by it himself.
A teacher situated miles away, can influence the spirit of the pupils, by his way of living. A cowardly teacher would never succeed in making his pupils courageous. A stranger to self-restraint could never teach his pupils the value of self-restraint. I would be wasting my time, if I were a liar, and teach others to tell the truth. I saw therefore that I must be an eternal object-lesson to the pupils living with me. They thus became my teachers, and I learnt that I must be good and live straight, if only for their sakes. -Gandhiji
2. Leaders: When someone does something selfish or deceptive people say, Oh, look, he is playing politics’. But that is not what politics really is. And it is not an evil profession, either. Politics means activities involved in the governance of a group of people, usually a local body, state or country. Whether politics is noble or evil depends upon the person practicing it.
Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means. Spirituality that has no bearing on and produces no effect on everyday life is an ‘airy nothing. –Gandhiji
His advocacy of spiritualization of politics was not intended to mix politics with religion. It was rather, a passionate appeal for moralizing the culture and practice of politics. Gandhi’s concept of religion transcends the rigid framework of a sectarian approach. He said that it binds one to the truth within and purifies actions. As a practical person he always tried to strike a balance between the political realities on the ground and his moral ideological pursuits.
In the field of politics there is an urgent demand for new leaders; a demand which indicates nothing less than an emergency. Now a days many politicians have become corrupt and mere power brokers. They protect corrupt officials and exploit weaknesses of voters through money, liquor, playing caste divisions and so on.
A true leader leads people towards the common good. He even sacrifices his life for the sake of serving and protecting people. As Gandhiji rightly said, the antidote for bad politics is not ‘no politics’, but ‘good politics’. Hence there is a dire requirement for people with noble ideals to enter politics and serve the people, irrespective of winning and ruling. Democracy is not a spectator sport, but participatory sport. So every citizen should actively participate in it instead of just voting once in every five years.
Either acting alone, or by associating with like-minded people as a political party or NGO, one can fight for people‘s problems through channels such as Right to Information Act, Public Interest Litigation (PIL), Sathyagraha etc.
3. Entrepreneurs: Gandhiji said “the earth provides enough to satisfy every man‘s need but not every man‘s greed”. Greedy businessmen thought and acted in terms of profits alone instead of thinking and acting in terms of human equations! The real businessman must regard himself as a trustee, whose duty is to manage the business in such a way that it will work hardship on no individual or society. Making goods and services available to the customers at a fair price, paying reasonable wages to the workers, paying taxes promptly to the government etc are the responsibilities of an enlightened businessman. Entrepreneurship is also important for the wellbeing of society because being a provider of employment is better than being a seeker of employment.
A businessman, who is aware that the same soul as in him also resides in all other beings, cannot cheat his customers or the government. However, many businessmen may think that it is very difficult to be truthful in today‘s realistic situations. As a starting point, such men may progress spiritually, by being generous and contributing to righteous and philanthropic activities.
4. Servants: Gandhiji performed tasks such as weaving, sweeping dust and cleaning lavatories in Ashram. Thus he demonstrated that there is dignity in labour and there is no shame in being a servant. Whatever occupation or field of action we are in, we can perform it the way Gandhiji had conducted his legal career.
So far as I can recollect, I have already said that I never resorted to untruth in my profession, and that a large part of my legal practice was in the interest of public work, for which I charged nothing beyond out- of-pocket expenses, and these too I sometimes met myself. I had thought that in saying this I had said all that was necessary as regards my legal practice. But friends want me to do more. They seem to think that, if I described however slightly, some of the occasions when I refused to swerve from the truth, the legal profession might profit by it.
As a student I had heard that the lawyer’s profession was a liar’s profession. But this did not influence me, as I had no intention of earning either position or money by lying.
My principle was put to the test many a time in South Africa. Often I knew that my opponents had tutored their witnesses, and if I only encouraged my client or his witnesses to lie, we could win the case. But I always resisted the temptation. I remember only one occasion when, after having won a case, I suspected that my client had deceived me. In my heart of hearts I always wished that I should win only if my client’s case was right. In fixing my fees I do not recall ever having made them conditional on my winning the case. Whether my client won or lost, I expected nothing more nor less than my fees.
I warned every new client at the outset that he should not expect me to take up a false case or to coach the witnesses, with the result that I built up such a reputation that no false cases used to come to me. Indeed some of my clients would keep their clean cases for me, and take the doubtful ones elsewhere.
It would be a good head-start if people start contributing to the society at an early stage. During student years a person can participate in programs such as NSS (National Service Scheme), NCC (National Cadet Corpse), blood donation camps, relief camps during natural calamities, tree plantation and other volunteer services. Such programs provide a person with valuable experiences in communication skills, leadership skills and personality development and empower self-esteem.
According to the law of karma, we reap what we sow. If we act bound by Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic natures, they bind us with attachments, and we wander away from our real goal. For instance if we accumulate wealth due to Rajasic nature, we are bound by the cycle of life and death until we lose attachment with such wealth. If we commit evil deeds because of Tamasic ignorance, we have to bear the consequences to learn life‘s lessons.
Once a person asked Gandhiji “How can we serve God when we do not know God?” Gandhiji answered as under.
We may not know God but we know His creation. Service of His creation is the service of God. We can but serve that part of God‘s creation which is nearest and best known to us. We can start with next- door neighbour. We should not be content with keeping our courtyard clean; we should see that our neighbour‘s courtyard is also clean. We may serve our family, but may not sacrifice the village for the sake of the family. Our own honour lies in the preservation of that of our own village.
But we must each of us understand our own limitations. Our capacity for service is automatically limited by our knowledge of the world in which we live. But let me put it in the simplest possible language. Let us think less of ourselves than of our next-door neighbour. Dumping the refuse of our courtyard into that of our neighbour is no service of humanity, but disservice. Let us start with the service of our neighbours. –Gandhiji
Karma yoga can be started with small activities such as participating in an annadana event (donating food to the poor). Volunteer to be the first to serve food in every one‘s plate and be the last to eat and fill your own stomach. While travelling in a bus or train, offer your seat to a fellow passenger. Such small acts lead to bigger acts.
Also try a number of things which you think you are good at. Some genuine well-wishers may pull you down, because they don’t want you to get in to dangers. Some naysayers may judge you and ridicule you. But listen to your inner voice.
Every person has a set of unique strengths, gifts and talents. Some times you may need to get education and training again. For the time being ignore what you are not good at. Find your strengths, your gifts and talents, and develop them!
Once you discover your field of action, your life takes on a whole new meaning and you can’t wait to wake up each day!
One may wonder, ‘can we abstain from performing karmas?’
We learnt that performing karmas make people get entangled with their results. So to escape from the bondage of karma, few people may try to renounce active life and become monks. But, no man can abstain from doing karmas, because tasks such as eating and talking also constitute karmas. Hence we, who want to achieve liberation, should continue doing karma with detachment to the results as instrument of God and service to mankind.
In God’s creation even earth worms recycle soil to support plant growth. If life gives us only lemons, we must make the best lemonade and provide the best service to customers. Karma Yoga can be as simple as that!