Fundamentals of karma yoga

The path of karma yoga accepts the material world around us. It accepts that we must function in the world, but its aim is to utilize the objects, thoughts and actions that now bind each individual, in a constructive manner, to eventually transcend them, break the bondage and attain freedom and knowledge. It is done progressively by acting in everyday life, with hill awareness, to the best of one's ability. The aim is to become perfectly free in the fullest sense of the word; to become liberated and in tune with consciousness. Yet one cannot become free except by knowing, confronting, using and eventually transcending the limitations of the world. This is the purpose and realm of karma yoga. A butterfly cannot become free and able to fly immediately. First of all it must pass through the trauma and bondage of being a caterpillar. Eventually, the caterpillar skin is discarded and the butterfly is able to fly away to the bliss of freedom. It is the same with each human being; each person must fully experience and understand the world before being able to transcend it and know spiritual bliss and freedom.

One of the basic precepts of karma yoga is very simple, yet very profound: don't be attached to your actions and their consequences. Work then becomes play, it ceases to be work. Work is generally done with a motive and expectation of results or reward, whereas play is done for its own sake. It is from attachment, not the work itself, that we become unhappy and discontented. Work rarely harms anyone - it is the expectations, status, rewards and so on that cause the mental turmoil. Therefore an important rule of karma yoga is to do your work, but not to become identified with it. Regard the work and its consequences (the fruit) as something completely separate from yourself. Let us illustrate this with an example. Imagine that you have just spent six months writing a book. It is your brainchild and all your own hard work. You are very proud of it and it is a part of you. Then somebody comes along, picks up the book, reads a few pages and abruptly asks: "Which idiot of an author wrote this?" not knowing that it is you. As a result you are insulted and angry, because your pride has been wounded. There are mental reverberations and besides having a furious argument with the critic of your book, you end up unhappy and depressed for many days. The cause of the unhappiness is not really the critic, though of course he might have been a little more diplomatic; the cause lies with your attachment to the book, the fruit of your work and endeavour. If you had regarded the book as something completely different to yourself, then you would not have suffered any upset and anguish as a result of the severe criticism. If you had considered that the book is not you, that it is only an object outside your body and mind, and only the result of actions performed by you, then the emotional and mental upheaval would not have occurred. It is only a matter of identification; yet wrong identification leads to unhappiness, whereas realistic identification leads to harmony in life situations.

Attachment brings pain and misery, while detachment brings about calmness and contentment. Try and change your existing attitudes and develop this detachment in every aspect ofyour life. It is only a method. From it will come relaxation and eventually higher awareness. Then the detachment will transform itself into love for everything, not ego love for one's own advantage, but compassion. This will happen as surely as night follows day, for you will understand the deeper relationship existing between all people and things.

Karma yoga aims at reducing the control and influence of the ego, and at eventually eliminating it. This effacement of ego becomes much easier if one feels devotion to a cause, to a person or to a symbol of higher existence. Under these circumstances all one's actions are offered to the object of devotion whether it is a guru, deity or worthwhile cause. If these offerings or services are performed wholeheartedly, without thought of personal gain or advantage, then the individual will automatically perform actions selflessly. The ego motivated actions are reduced, for one's motives will be directed towards something outside oneself. One will automatically practise karma yoga.

This surrender of actions to something outside the ego is called bhakti yoga1. It is very powerful and is suitable for those people who are more emotional in their makeup. It is very closely related to karma yoga under these circumstances.

Not everyone, however, feels any obvious, overwhelming devotion to someone or something. If this is the case you should try to be aware of your actions. Act like a witness, an observer of all activities as though they are occurring outside yourself. Watch all thoughts and physical actions and reactions with a disinterested attitude. This is closely related to detachment and also leads to dissolution of the ego.

Anyone who is practising or is trying to practise karma yoga does not necessarily need to believe in any religion or in any higher existence. On the other hand, it is not necessary to discard personal beliefs if you have them. Only try to work selflessly, whether sweeping the floor, writing a book, conducting a scientific experiment or doing the household duties.

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