All great yogis, saints and sages are karma yogis, for they perform perfect actions, without the slightest hint of egoism. It is not necessary to do large amounts of work to practise karma yoga. It is the attitude and state of awareness that is important. Even a hermit in his cave can be a karma yogi, even though he does little work. Yet at the same time, there are or have been certain people who are renowned as karma yogis, for they most clearly and obviously illustrate and epitomize the ideals of karma yoga. They do prodigious amounts of work without desire of fame, without thought of power or money. They work for the sake of the work and often to help other people to raise themselves above the mire of social conditions or spiritual poverty. Probably the most well known example in this century is Mahatma Gandhi. He performed incredible amounts of work, for he was very little influenced by personal likes and dislikes, whims and fancies. His mind was free of the limitations that normally interfere with the actions of most people. Because of this, he was able to view the problems of India and the work that was his duty with pristine clarity.
Most decisions in the world are clouded over by personal friendships and enmities. Gandhi was able to overcome this one-sidedness, and it is through this that he obtained his strength. He had no real personal friends in the usual sense of the word, for all people were his friends, even his so-called enemies. None of his actions were done as a favour. He acted because something needed to be done; the situation demanded it to be so. He acted for the benefit of people in general and that which was for the overall good of the people of India. Some people say that he was stubborn, but he acted because he knew his own mind, could understand the mind of other people and the world situation in a clear undistorted light. He was a politician with a strong mind, yet he showed deep and sincere compassion for all. By vocation he was a politician; by aspiration he was a great karma
Mahatma Gandhi achieved his success by purifying his mind by continuous effort and karma yoga. Because of this, he achieved tremendous amounts of work, both efficiently and without leaving things half done. He never seemed to tire of his work, unlike most other people who do an hour's work and then lose interest or become fatigued. Why was this? The answer of course lies with the mind. Gandhi, through relentless practise of karma yoga, backed up by other forms of yoga including bhakti and kriya yoga, was able to clean his mind. A mind that is calm can do the most intense work for long periods of time without fatigue. It does not become diverted by external distractions or inner disturbances. It remains focused on the work in hand. Most people waste their energy on useless, petty, egotistical arguments or heated discussions about nothing. Their mental energy and in turn their physical energy is dissipated in all directions. Little or no power goes towards the work that is to be done.
The combination of concentrated power and detachment becomes almost irresistible. It moves mountains, as the saying goes. Gandhi clearly illustrated this, and we emphasize again that detachment does not mean disdain for the things of the world. Gandhi, though he was surely detached, nevertheless felt and expressed overwhelming compassion. Detachment is the attitude of mind where no matter what happens, there is no negative repercussion and resulting mental disturbance in the mind. One does the best that one can do with one's ability, but at the same time one doesn't allow external events to unbalance or throw the mind. The attitude can be slowly developed and applied as it was so successfully by Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi saw that every action he did (or did not do, depending on the point of view) was part of the divine process of the universe in accordance with the will of the cosmic consciousness. He was only an instrument, a mere witness of his actions.
There are many other people who epitomize the essence of karma yoga. People like Swami Vivekananda and Swami Sivananda show that karma yoga is not just an idealistic thought, but that it is possible. Both of these people, as well as uncountable others, both famous and unknown, have expressed total egolessness in their interaction with the world - perfect expression, perfect response to given circumstances. And what these people can do, you also can achieve. The path and the possibility are open to everyone. Each person can develop a powerful and one-pointed mind and awaken their intuitive faculties. Each person can become a karma yogi. All that is required is the need to attain perfection, together with relentless and continuous practice.
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