tasmad asaktah satatam/ karyam karma samacara asakto/ hy acaran karma/ param apnoti purusah. Bhagavad Gita 3.19
Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty; for by working without attachment, one attains the Supreme. —Translation by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
The path of the yogi is a hero’s journey, one in which we actively lead the way to counter suffering and nurture peace in the world. Action in Sanskrit is Karma, from the root kri, which means “to do” or “to act.” Karma Yoga is selfless action or service, the adherence to duty, dharma (that which supports and upholds), without selfish interest in the results of that duty. Karma Yoga is a central theme in the Bhagavad-Gita. In his book Gita Wisdom, scholar Joshua Greene writes: “The call to action is one of the Gita’s main teachings”; later, Greene observes, “Lord Krishna comes into the world to urge us to live fully and to let go of disengagement.” The teachings expressed in the Gita are a call to actively embrace responsibility and social action in life.
Often what stands in the way of our growth as spiritual beings is a fear of answering the call to action. Arjuna, the hero of the Gita, is faced with this dilemma. As a member of the Kshatriya, the warrior caste, Arjuna is one destined to protect others from harm. Yet confronting imminent battle leaves him traumatized, and he refuses to fight. Krishna tells Arjuna that his inaction is just as dangerous, for it leaves innocent citizens at risk. “Inaction,” he says, “can produce as much harm as reckless action.” And since the soul is by nature active, real yoga consists not in withdrawing but in engagement.
For the contemporary yogi, the path of action is an immediate, accessible way to practice yoga. It’s a common misconception that to be a yogi one must withdraw to a cave in the Himalayas, far from human contact. In fact, there are many opportunities to perform selfless action in the midst of our fast-paced, non-stop culture. Every action can be meaningful, whether it’s holding a door open for an elderly person, volunteering time at an animal shelter, buying a sandwich for someone in need, or choosing a vegetarian diet.
How can we know the right thing to do? Mahatma Gandhi gave the following criterion: “Whenever you are in doubt…apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?…Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.”
A truly selfless action is defined by the intention to benefit others and reduce suffering, without expectation for reward or result. When we do something, we’re not looking for someone to say “thank you” or to give us anything in return. We act because we know in our hearts that it’s the right thing to do. By understanding the law of karma (the law of cause and effect), we see how our experience of the world is defined by our past actions. The wisdom of the law of karma empowers us to act with love and compassion toward others to create the causes for our own future happiness.
Taking care of others destroys selfishness. When we think of the welfare of others as our motivation for action, we reconnect with our higher Self. The Gita defines the Self as an eternal, indestructible spark of the divine, the soul, whose true nature is love. Understanding our true nature will empower us to right action. When we become aligned with the higher Self, we stop thinking of ourselves as the doer, acting alone, and we begin to see ourselves as a divine instrument of love. Then, knowledge of how to act compassionately and courageously begins to awaken.
When faced with the extent of suffering, violence, and destruction in the world, our tendency might be to feel overwhelmed and unable to act. The teachings of yoga inspire us to embody our true identity as active, spiritual beings. Instead of withdrawing from challenges, we can approach every situation with the questions: How can I serve? How can I act to put this right? What can I do to enhance goodness? Letting go of disengagement, while acting tirelessly to serve others is the process of moving towards a real understanding of yoga, union.
[This was an essay I wrote for the Jivamukti Advanced Certification Exam in 2010. Many thanks to Jeremy, Joshua, Paul, Danielle and Narayani for helping me to formulate and edit my thoughts.]