The Bhagavad Gita tells us, “In karma-yoga no effort is ever lost, and there is no harm. Even a little practice of this discipline protects one from great fear [of birth and death].” The cycle of birth and death in yoga is called Samsara. In the Tibetan tradition it is called the wheel of life, or the six states of existence. Karma yoga is a just one path to help a yogi escape this cycle of the wheel of life.
The path of Karma yoga involves complete devotion to one’s work. The term ‘work’ is used loosely here to incorporate not just what you do to earn a living but also endeavors you enter into, whether they be building an empire or weeding your garden. We attempt to commit fully to our work so that we might lose our identity and remain selfless. We let go of the self to achieve the Self, which is connected to all things and does not experience reality dualistically.
Karma is a direct opposition to the Abrahamic religios views which state that ‘faith’ must be used as all human drama (including human action) are the will of God. In this view, there is no choice to be made, and no cause to effect because God’s will is already determined. The karmic view is that we must suffer the consequences of our actions, not as a punishment for the Abrahamic ‘sin’ we have committed but because all action has a reaction, more like the laws of science. This concept is called causality. It goes all the way back to Aristotle’s teachings in the Western world. It is defined as the relationship between cause and effect or the principle that everything has a cause. Karma means ‘deed’ or ‘act’ in Sanskrit. There is a neutral law of cause and effect in play within the laws of Karma. Karma is not fate, but a deterministic way of choosing to grow spiritually. If we plant hatred, or acts of hate, we will simply rap what we sow. If we plant acts of love, we reap in kind.
Further, The inescapable law of kamma (Pali, but coming form the Sanskrit karma) pledges that all our actions — whether it be of body, speech, or mind — have consequences in line with the skillfulness or lack of skillfullness of that action. Though the effect of our actions is not always immediately apparent, we can observe this law in our own lives. The Buddha and other yogic sages taught that our actions have effects that extend far beyond our present life, determining the quality of rebirth we can expect after death: this is the law of karma in action.
The six states of Samsara are broken down into ‘realms of existence.’ These can be seen as metaphoric descriptions of our perspectives depending on where we vibrating energetically on our spiritual paths. These are described as follows in yogic and Tibetan Buddhist texts:
Naraka-gati (Sanksrit) – This is considered the lowest and worst realm characterized by great aggression.
Pret-gati (Sanskrit) – This is called the realm of the hungry spirit and is characterized by emotional neediness, craving and eternal starvation.
Tiryagyoni-gati (Sanskrit) – This is the realm of most animals or livestock. Every sentient being in the Universe is considered to have awareness, it is just a matter of how much. Animals have only just enough awareness, so they are stuck in a place of ignorance and servitude.
Asura-gati (Sanskrit) – This is the level of anger and jealousy, war, fight for power, and a struggle between the good and evil aspects of ourselves. Most humans are not stuck in this realm according to scriptures, but they can easily slid back to this level without mindfulness.
Manusya-gati (Sanskrit) – This is also often called the human realm. There is still a struggle between good and evil but every one of us have an opportunity for enlightenment. Some of us do not realize that this is possible due to our fixations and attachments.
Deva-gati (Sanskrit). This is the realm of heavenly beings filled with pleasure; according to scripture, the deva hold godlike powers; some reign over celestial kingdoms; most live in splendor and joy; they live for countless ages, but even the Deva belong to the world of suffering (samsara) — for their powers blind them to the world of suffering and fill them with pride — and thus even the Deva grow old and die; some say that because their pleasure is greatest, so too is their misery.
At first gland this may seem to be an easy endeavor, but most of us attach a system of reward to our work, be it money or success or notoriety. Usually we expect some kind of return on our work. It is rare that we can conduct any action with complete selflessness. Good deeds are not really karma yoga, although they come close. Good deeds done with the expectation that you will build good ‘merit’ still have an attachment to an outcome. True karma yoga is done with no attachment whatsoever. You do the best job you could possibly do without incentive or reward. Swami Satyananda Saraswati tells us, “ Non-attachment with the work and becoming the perfect instrument of the super consciousness in this manifested universe is the ultimate aim of Karma Yoga.”
There are usually several stages of development in karma yoga. In the initial stage, the ego is still strong. Without being consciously aware, the practitioner is usually still very attached to the outcome of his labors. He does not do the work for the sake of the work. In the very least he wants praise, if not money. It is difficult to disassociate from the ego at this stage. As one continues their practice of Karma yoga, the work begins to be for a higher power, and so becomes spiritual, by nature of its existence. With great practice the mind enters a complete state – one of acceptance, that is not disturbed or excited while the work is done. It is very much a state of meditation. The actions begin to come from a higher consciousness, instead of the ego. They are spiritually directed. The Bhagavad Gita says: ‘The world confined in its own activity except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore one must perform every action sacramentally and be free of your attachments to the results.’
In Jainism, there are considered to be eight types of karma. The term tattvas is used interchangeably in yogic circles and talked about in many yogic texts. Tattva is a Sanskrit term defined as ‘thatness, principle, reality or truth. Tattva is an aspect of reality conceived as an aspect of a deity. Depending on the yogic philosophy you consult there are any number of tattvas, all enscoping the full experience of reality. There are an innumerable amount of karmic actions, but they can be divided into eight (Ashtakarma):
• Jnanavaraniya or Knowledge Obscuring Karma
• Darshanavaraniya or Perception Obscuring Karma
• Mohaniya or Deluding Karma
• Antaraya or obstructing Karma
• Vedaniya or situation conferring Karma
• Aayu or life span determining Karma
• Naam or physique determining Karma
• Gotra or status determining Karma
Whether we believe in these categories of karma, or the law of Karma itself, we cannot escape the cause and effect of a physical manifestation. If we drive too fast, we might crash our car. If we plant turnip seeds, we can’t expect to grow bananas. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.”
Swami Sivananda describes five karma yogas one can participate in The Practice of Karma Yoga. These can be put through your own spiritual or cultural lense and acted upon accordingly:
1. Deva Yajna—offering sacrifice to the gods.
2. Brahma Yajna—Teaching and reciting the scriptures.
3. Pitru Yajna—Tarpan or offering libation of water to the manes or forefathers.
4. Manushya Yajna—feeding the poor or the hungry and the guests.
5. Bhuta Yajna—feeding birds, animals and fish.
These actions are also described in the Bhagavad Gita, “For a sage who is seeking Yoga, action is called the means, for the same sage, when he is enthroned in Yoga, serenity is called the means. When a man feeleth no attachment either for the objects of the senses or for actions, renouncing all formative will, then he is said to be enthroned in Yoga.” Ch. VI-3 and 4. In order to make one’s practice in Karma yoga truly simple, start with practicing any act, even washing the dishes, with no expectation of reward. Do not wait for your family members to praise you. Just wash the dishes, nothing more. Or, you can give something to someone anonymously, so that there is still no expectation of getting something back, excepts perhaps through the cloudiness of an ego-driven mind. Be like clear water and give as if a ripple of your actions will benefit all humanity, and eventually you, but you will not wait for that ripple to reach shore.
Finally, the Gita tells us, “Free from attachment, not egoistic, endued with firmness and enthusiasm, unaffected in success and failure, that actor is called pure (Sattvic). Passionate and desiring to attain the fruit of actions, greedy cruel, impure, moved by joy and sorrow, such an actor is said to be passionate (Rajasic). Fickle, cheating, vulgar, stubborn, malicious, indolent, despondent and procrastinating, such an actor is said to be dark (Tamasic).” Gita: Ch. XVIII-26 to 28. Karma yoga is a way to surrender the self. It is the eradication of actor and action. It is the Absolute state such that no separate self exists to complete the action. There is only the contiguous, continuous state of all-knowing, ever-present is-ness. This is the aim of all yogic paths, including Karma Yoga.