Swami Vivekananda’s Karma Yoga – the scripture of modern mankind


 How to understand it and design a Sadhana based on the book

‘Karma Yoga’ written by Swami Vivekananda is an important book for all spiritual aspirants. While trying to read this book, the Sadhaka will certainly face some hardship since the topic itself is very subtle. One of the difficulties is the various terms Swamiji uses again and again in the book. It would help if these terms could be explained in detail. If the aspirant understands these terms, he will be in a better position to understand the book. Another difficulty is the strange misconceptions that many aspirants have regarding Karma Yoga, especially regarding its comparative efficacy as a spiritual path. ‘Oh! I shall practice some Karma Yoga, but then, real sadhana is Japa and Dhyana, you see!’ This is a common utterance. Again, ‘Oh! You don’t think I am qualified for the real sadhana, that’s why you say I’ve got to practice Karma Yoga. Wait, let me show you!’ This is another misconception. There is a need to clear these and similar other puerile misconceptions regarding Karma Yoga. This article is an attempt to fulfill some of these needs.

Swamiji uses the following terms again and again in this treatise: Work, Character, Motive, Self-Control, Duty, Service and Non-attachment. These terms will be explained so that the student of the treatise will be able to grasp the drift of arguments therein. Further, the relationship between Work & Duty, Duty & Service will also be studied.

Requirements for Karma Yoga practice will be enumerated and the dangers that lie in the practice of Karma Yoga will be explained. Then, there will be a discussion on the role of Guru and Ishta in Karma Yoga. Lastly there will be a short study of the ideal of a Karma Yogi.

Work: Its purpose

All of us work. And our actions bring either pleasure or pain. We generally consider pleasure to be the goal of our lives. So, most of our activities is aimed to get pleasure and avoid pain. The fact however is something totally different. Pleasure cannot be the goal of our lives. Why? Pleasure is not everlasting, and something that isn’t everlasting cannot be the goal of our lives. What then is the goal of our lives? What is it then that we all work for all our lives? It is knowledge. ‘Knowledge of what?’ you may ask. Knowledge of every kind; Work causes misery and happiness. And both misery and happiness bring out different kinds of knowledge that already exists inside us. So, the goal of all our actions is this uncovering of knowledge, although it is not so apparent.

Do we really have a choice with regard to activity? I mean, can we really choose whether to work or not to work? Actually, we don’t have a choice in this matter, although apparently it looks like we may choose either as we wish. Only that blessed person who is in the Nirvikalpa Samadhi state is free from work. All the rest of us have to work.

What does Swamiji mean by work in this book? Every activity of man is work. Man performs various kinds of actions using his senses, his motor organs and his mind. Each of them is termed work. Thoughts and feelings are also work by this definition; so are prayer, worship and meditation.


Each activity leaves an impression on our mind. These impressions are vectors. They either cancel one another, or add up. These impressions have the ability to accumulate. The final resultant of all mental impressions upon our personality is called ‘Character’. In common terms, this word ‘Character’ means the manifestation of the Will, its tendencies, its direction, its propensities. This Will is what directs our life. It is what impels us to further action. This ‘Character’ can be changed. If change our ‘Character’, the quality of our life changes. How can we change our ‘Character’?

If we learn to manipulate our activities suitably, we can change our character. In other words, by learning to manipulate our activities, we can change the direction in which our Will operates. Thus, we can change our entire life. So, if we wish to change our ‘Character’ and thus improve the quality of our lives, it is important to learn to manipulate our actions. This is a science called ‘Karma Yoga’.

Every person therefore has a character. What sort of a character it will have to be seen. There are certain stereotypes of character. We have various classifications such as moral character, immoral character, mature character, immature character, etc. History shows that in certain cases (E.g. Christ, Buddha, etc), the character was entirely designed for doing good to everyone around them. Such a character is called a ‘Moral Character’ or ‘Unselfish Character’. Such a bunch of accumulated impressions is a great boon to oneself and to society. The impulsion of such a character is a tremendous energy called ‘Moral Energy’.

Anyone of us can develop a Moral Character. How? As we said before, it can be done by working in a certain way.

Motive, Self Control & Non-attachment

Generally, the resultant of accumulated impressions impels our next action. The initiator of activity is the Will, produced by character. When an action is underway, a tentacle arises in the mind called ‘Motive’. During the course of action, this ‘motive’ takes possession of the performed action. This taking possession of the performed action by our mind through ‘motive’ creates the impressions associated with the act.

What we need to learn is therefore this – when an action is underway, and when ‘motive’ starts rising up in order to claim the action, we shall have to curb this claiming process. We have to learn to curb the motive from claiming the action. But, nonetheless, we have to allow the action to be performed by our body and mind. This technique of curbing the ‘motive’ and simultaneously allowing the act to be performed is called ‘Self-control’.

Work performed in this way, by ‘Self-control’, by totally restraining any claim over the action is called ‘Motiveless Action’ or ‘Work for work’s sake’. This kind of work is the highest ideal of Karma Yoga.

The mechanism of applying self control over ourselves, wherein, the act is allowed to flow through our body-mind apparatus, but the ego is curbed from claiming ownership of the act is called Non-attachment. A non-attached person is therefore not inactive. In fact, an inactive person is the opposite of a non-attached person. A non-attached man is extremely active, performing all actions that situations in life demand of him, yet, he claims no ownership for any of those actions. The perfection of this non-attachment in a person is the highest ideal of Karma Yoga.

Gradation in the ideals of Karma Yoga

Now, everyone cannot take up this highest ideal right from the beginning. So, we have to allow for many smaller ideals. The highest ideal of ‘Work for work’s sake’ has to be broken down into many smaller ideals, allowing men at different stages of development to identify with. Actually the Varna-Ashrama system of the olden days in Hindu society was designed to achieve this. We should not jump stages. We have to grow out of it naturally. Suppose we take up an ideal which is too high for us, what happens is that we fall into a vicious trap. We will not be able to achieve anything even remotely close to that ideal. Repeatedly failing to achieve the ideal, we shall start losing all confidence in ourselves. Then we generally start becoming hypocrites, knowing in the heart of our hearts that we cannot live up to the ideal, and at the same time, we continue to profess the ideal outwardly. This leads to self-hate. All further growth stops when we start to hate ourselves. Hence we have to follow the graded path of work laid out by Karma Yoga.

Suppose we consider the concept of work as a spectrum, on the one extreme lies ‘Unconscious work’. Most people perform this kind of work. They are unaware of why they act, and what they do. Animals also act in this way. Such actions are generally aimed at pure survival. And at the other end lies ‘Work for work’s sake’. Externally, the opposites look very alike. In between lie ‘Selfish work’ and ‘Unselfish work’. “Work for work’s sake’ refers to a unique kind of performing actions where there is no motive at all, neither selfish, nor unselfish. ‘Selfish work’ refers all those kinds of actions we perform for ourselves, for earning money, for earning name, fame and approbation from society, for gaining, maintaining and improving our status in the society. These actions are concerned with me even at the cost of all others. ‘Unselfish work’ refers to that kind of action which we perform for the benefit of others. We don’t have to gain anything from those actions. It is very important to note that all these are just different kinds of performing actions. They are not different actions, as such. The same action, when performed in a particular way can be unconscious work; same action performed in a different way can become selfish action, and so on.

There is one more aspect to be kept in mind. That is – no stage is intrinsically superior to any other. No kind of work is intrinsically superior to another kind of work. We should not judge the work of others at all, for judgments are traps that stop our further development.

Unconscious work does not create any impression on our mind. It does not affect our character. ‘Selfish work’ creates impressions. But again, a strong positive character need not be formed by means of this kind of work, because, as we saw before, it generally leads to formation of impressions of various kinds, due to which, the resultant is always weak and lacks force. Let us suppose we perform repeated ‘Selfish work’. What happens then? Impressions will then not cancel out. Instead they will reiterate themselves and become very strong. Then the resultant of those impressions will ne unidirectional and have great force. The character of such a man will be a tremendous energy, which will be palpably felt by oneself and by others. But, it may not be a positive energy; it may not be ‘Moral energy’. It will generally be highly selfish. Such a character need not be a blessing to others, even though it will certainly be extremely powerful.

The next higher ideal is ‘Unselfish work’. A man shall work, but he shall only perform such acts as will benefit others and not him. What is the benefit of this kind of work? The benefit is that as a result of repeatedly performing such a kind of work, a different type of character is formed, extremely powerful, and a positive, force called ‘Moral character’. Such a character exudes a great force on the man that possesses such a character, propelling him to actions which will benefit all those around him. Hence it is considered positive.

So, we notice that. Starting from ‘Unconscious work’, we have to rise to ‘Selfish work’. Then, we have to exercise ‘Self-control’ on ourselves while performing selfish works and convert it to ‘Unselfish work’. Then, upon further applying self-control over ourselves while performing unselfish work, we can reach the highest ideal of ‘Work for work’s sake’. Karma Yoga thus gives the highest ideal as well as a graded code of conduct and activity for spiritual development.

We started a study of human actions in order to discern if there was any way in which we could achieve spiritual development using our propensity for action. We have seen that there is such a way. Now, common sense tells us that spiritual development generally accompanies silence, solitude, quietness. But, all along we have been dealing with action. So, the question will arise as to how spiritual development can occur while we are engaged in intense activity. If we are always engaged in activity, where will we find rest to achieve spiritual development? Karma Yoga teaches the technique of achieving silence in the midst of intense activity.

Work & Duty

What sort of work must we take up? As we already saw before, Karma Yoga depends not on the particular act, but on the manner in which the work is performed. So any work may be taken up. Yet, there are certain rules governing the choice of work to be taken up. The work to be performed by us is given the term ‘Duty’. There doesn’t seem to be a universal definition of duty. One school of thought says that the voice of conscience determines our duty. Since conscience is not intrinsic in man, but a product of social training, we cannot have a standardization of duty based on this concept of conscience. Another school of thought says that is duty which takes us forward in our life. Again, there can be no standardization based on this view too, since too many factors are involved in deciding as what takes me forward in my life. It depends on what one considers as the goal of one’s life, on one’s social training about right and wrong, etc. Karma Yoga however says that some actions make us brutal; some others make us human, while some actions exalt us to divinity. Hence that is our duty which lifts us higher up this ladder, from brutality to humanity to divinity. Bhagavad Gita says your birth in the family and position in society determines your duty. This too cannot be totally accepted since occupation is no longer dependent on families now-a-days in India. Moreover, no foreign country neither followed nor follows family based occupations. However, position in the society even now decides our duty to a large extent.

Instead of worrying about how to define duty, we may profit by seeing how this concept of duty helps us in our spiritual growth. Performing an action haphazardly and performing it as duty has a great difference on our character. Performing our action based on the concept of duty helps us to develop the ability to restrain our senses and other selfish pulls, for duty calls for great personal sacrifice. When a person is on duty, he cannot take rest even though he feels sleepy; he cannot eat even though he is hungry. So, by grades, he learns to control and restrain himself by performing his actions as duty. Duty requires continual denial of low desires. You will notice that entire society is designed on these lines.

Under which category of work can we classify duty – is it selfish work or unselfish work? It is surely not unconscious work, since duty is that activity that you have consciously accepted to perform. Duty may be selfish or unselfish depending on the way we allow our ‘motive’ to behave.

Dangers regarding Duty

There are two dangers regarding this concept of duty. Firstly, since it is dictated on us, and not chosen by us, there is a greater chance that we shall tend to treat the activity as a drudge. ‘Oh! It is my misfortune that I have to do this damned job!’ This kind of feeling may develop. When this kind of feeling develops, all cheerfulness goes away from action. Karma Yoga can no longer be practiced. Secondly, every personal whim and fancy can be justified as duty. Since duty cannot be objectively defined, it can be extended to include anything that strikes our fancy. If this happens, we get into a trap in which we shall be forever involved only in performing selfish work and can never grow out of it.

How are we to avoid these two dangers regarding duty?

Firstly, we have to base all our duty on ‘Love’. We have to love the society in which we live. We have to love ourselves. We have to love our fellow beings. There must be love in our heart when we perform duty. Only then will there be cheerfulness. Karma Yoga gives a technique for developing love in our heart. That is called ‘Chastity’. A Karma yogi must necessarily be chaste. He must practice sexual purity and then perform his duties. Then he will always have love in his heart and be cheerful about his duty. Generally Chastity means sexual continence. Karma Yoga considers Chastity to mean looking upon the opposite sex as the representation of divine energy. For a Karma Yogi, Chastity means a lot more than mere physical continence. Even a thought of a feeling that is tinged with sexuality means he/she is unchaste. When we are chaste, there will be no competitive sense in our heart. There will be no grumbling about our work to be performed as duty.

In order to avoid the 2nd danger, we shall have to implicitly accept society’s allotment of duty for us. That saves us from this danger to some extent. Society is not perfect. But it has its own adjustments according to which it allots certain duties to us. We profit by accepting this adjustment by society.

But our effort has to be constantly towards transforming our duty from a selfish way to unselfish way. How is this to be achieved? As we saw before, by constantly exercising Self-control over ourselves, by curbing the motive from claiming the duty we perform. By devotedly performing our allotted duties in this fashion, we gather strength to perform the allotted duties in higher levels, i.e. we can experience a progression from selfish to unselfish to work for work’s sake. So, we have to accept the duty allotted to us by society. We have to perform it with cheerfulness and love, by practicing chastity. We have to thus constantly transform our duty into unselfish activity and then gradually into work for work’s sake.

Gradation in duties

Since we depend on society for our allotment of duty, it may so happen that time to time, society may allot various duties to us to perform. Since society has a hierarchy, there is a hierarchy in duties too. It may so happen that depending upon the efficiency with which we perform our presently allotted duty, there may be a progression in the hierarchy of duties allotted to us. Thus, it seems that there is a progress with respect to the duties allotted to us. But this progression in duties is not a necessary condition for Karma Yoga. In Karma Yoga, all that matters is that there is a steady progress in the method in which we perform our duties, not in the hierarchy of duties.

We saw above that ‘Moral character’ can be developed by performing our allotted duties as activities that will help others and do not necessarily benefit oneself. It is to be remembered that the particular act does not matter. It is the way in which the act is performed that determines whether we shall develop a selfish character or an unselfish character by means of our actions.

Aspects of Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga therefore deals with the training ourselves to manipulate our actions with a view of developing a desired type of character. But this aspect does not encompass the entirety of Karma Yoga. Karma Yoga also involves the use of ritualism, use of symbolism and the use of the written & spoken word. Symbolism is a part of rituals. So, knowledge of symbols is also Karma Yoga. So, according to Swamiji’s book, Karma Yoga includes the following:

  1. Performing duty for the sake of spiritual development.
  2. Doing good to the world without thought of any personal considerations.
  3. Manipulating our actions so as to develop a particular type of character.
  4. Use of ritualism and symbolism.
  5. Use of the spoken and written word.

Dangers regarding Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga presents its own set of obstacles to the practitioner. Fanaticism is a great obstacle in Karma Yoga. Expectation of rewards for our actions is another obstacle. How to avoid these?

We must clearly understand the nature of this world that we try sincerely to repair and help. This world is not our permanent habitat. It is just a passing stage. This world is a curly dog’s tail. No matter how much you help it, it will remain crooked and curled. This world is imperfect, full of inequality. Then why at all should we help this world? We need to work for the good of others because that is a very good way of helping ourselves to grow. If we work with this knowledge, then we can avoid fanaticism. Another way to avoid fanaticism is to have a faith in Ishwara. Ishwara is the Lord of this world. He has a responsibility for this world. He will take care of it finally. This shifts crushing pressure from your head and allows you to work freely. You may chip in your efforts, but your efforts are not at all indispensable. This also avoids fanaticism.

We have already seen the way to avoid expecting rewards for our actions. Self control is the way. We shall have to check our motive from claiming the rewards for our actions.

Requirements for Karma Yoga

  1. Not to hate ourselves

It must also be mentioned that Karma Yoga has its own specific requirements. Without those requirements, one cannot achieve any success in that path; no matter how long he tries. Swamiji says that our 1st requirement is not to hate ourselves. What does it mean to say ‘I hate myself’? Isn’t loving oneself something selfish and hence abhorrent? Our mind is a very strange thing. We are right now aware of just the superficial parts of our own mind. Beneath the superficial layer of our mind lie many layers of the mind which are not readily accessible to our consciousness. It is one of the strangest facts of life that our own mind works against us in most cases. A person reads a good book on spiritual life and wants to practice those precepts. When he tries to practice them, he finds that his mind militates against those practices. Now can he deny that those ideas appealed to him? Of course, the ideas were indeed appealing to him, which was why he started to practice them. But then, his own mind militates against practicing them. Why is this so? This fact of our own mind militating against our efforts is called ‘hating ourselves’. First of all, we need to recognize this great fact. And then, we need to take adequate steps to overcome this inner resistance to progress. Psychologists today even speak of a ‘Will to fail’ that is operative within us, which is responsible for our failures in life. A Karma Yogi needs to rise above this inner enemy. Else all his efforts in trying to control his actions and motives will come to naught.

  1. Be a witness

Another urgent sine-qua-non needed for Karma yoga is the ability to ‘be a witness’ of our actions and situations. We must practice working like the nurse in a rich man’s house. We must be completely involved in all our actions, in all that happens around us. We must be involved but we must remain unruffled by any of them. Deep down in our hearts we must know that we are the ever-perfect Atman that needs nothing further to perfect it. No act makes us perfect. We are perfection itself. Perfection in all its aspects is our true nature. Yet we must work hard. Our inner-most self is of a nature that needs nothing else to make it perfect. But our body and mind need activity to become more and more perfect.

Role of Guru in Karma Yoga

What is the role of Guru in Karma Yoga? Any spiritual path generally starts with a Guru. The aspirant is initiated into the path by a person who has achieved success by following that path in his own life. Guru is that person. It won’t do if the person merely has intellectual knowledge of the path. The Guru must have personal experience. No where in Swamiji’s book do we come across the need of a Guru with regard to practicing Karma Yoga. But, practice of Karma Yoga too needs a Guru, not for initiating us into the path, but more to present before us the actual form of the ideas of this grand path. It is possible to understand concepts like Chastity, Self-control, Moral character, Being a witness, non-attachment, etc merely by studying books and articles. But, unless we see these ideas manifested in a person, we may end up understanding the whole thing in a totally different way. It takes a living person to make it clear to us that chastity is something more than being an ox. Ox is continent, because it is emasculated. Emasculation is not chastity. A Karma Yogi lives and works amidst the opposite sex, yet does not allow even the least sexual thought to pass through his mind! Non-attachment is not callousness. It is possible for a person to be utterly involved in activity and yet be totally unaffected by it at heart. The subtleties of Karma Yoga become clear only when we see a living person manifest those concepts in his life. And such a person is nothing less than a Guru. Certain schools of religion in India speak of ‘Deeksha Guru’ and ‘Sheeksha Guru’. Karma Yoga seems to have done away with the need of a Deeksha Guru. But, a Sheeksha Guru is indispensable for Karma Yoga.

Ishta of a Karma Yogi

Every Yoga needs an Ishta, the chosen ideal. In Karma Yoga, our Ishta is our ‘Duty’ and it is pointed out to us by society. Generally, the Guru points out to us our Ishta. But, in Karma Yoga, we do not need a single person to point out our Ishta to us. Society has its mechanism for allotting our duty at any point of time. Thus society itself points out our Ishta to us.

Inter-relationship between Duty & Service

We have now seen the important aspects of Karma Yoga as presented by Swamiji in his book. We shall now try to highlight some points, by clarifying which, our study of Swamiji’s book will be more fruitful. We need to know the relationship between duty & service; then we shall have to see the inter-relationship between Karma Yoga and other Yogas.

Society is a gigantic being, involved in infinite activities. Those activities can be broken down into smaller parts. Each of those smaller parts is allotted to the various persons who are members of the society. Such allotted activities are called duties. Society has the tendency to create imbalances within itself from time to time, creating the haves and the have-nots among its members. A particular type of activity which mainly helps others is called Service. All duties allotted by society cannot be classified under Service. But all types of service activities are duties. Thus service is a special kind of activity devised by society to establish balance within itself. Service takes various forms. Helping others with food and clothing is one kind of service. Imparting secular education and knowledge is another. Giving health care to the sick is yet another form. Bringing peace of mind to the emotionally disturbed is a still higher kind of service. All forms of service are valuable. But helping others spiritually is the highest. So, there is an objective hierarchy in service. We have already noted that a hierarchy does exist with respect to duty.

Now, revolving around duty and service, two different kinds of Karma Yoga can be practiced. A Karma Yogi who is confined to his duty will seem like a most ordinary person, with nothing special about him, going about performing his allotted duties, living his seemingly humdrum life, but, within him, maybe burning a great flame of renunciation, taking him up and up and above the ordinary. Merely by performing his allotted duties in a purely household set-up, a person may become a Yogi. Outwardly, there will be no fanfare and show about such a Yogi, but, within, he is a totally different man.

Swamiji seems to be the first person who envisaged that service too can be taken up as Karma Yoga. And in this sense, Karma Yoga means helping others to the point of one’s death! He gives the example of the sacrifice of the Brahmin family in Mahabharata, where the mongoose rolled on the spilled floor and got half his body turned into gold.

Inter-relationship between Karma Yoga & other Yogas

Should Karma Yoga be practiced along with other Yogas or is it sufficient to bring emancipation all by itself? Swamiji says that Karma Yoga, by itself, is capable of making a man free from all bondages. But, depending on one’s disposition, a person may integrate Karma Yoga with Yoga of his choice too.

  1. With Bhakti Yoga

Supposing you are a devotee; then Karma Yoga can be integrated with Bhakti. How? Every act is considered as a flower, to be performed and offered to the feet of your Ishta. Thus, slowly, your actions get a transforming power over your personality. You go on working, but the overall effect is that your work does not directly affect you; instead your relationship with your Ishta gets strengthened as a result of working. This is the easiest way of performing Karma Yoga.

2. With Jnana Yoga

What is the relationship of Karma Yoga with Jnana Yoga? A Jnani negates this world. So how can he work? And if he doesn’t work, where does Karma Yoga arise? Jnana Yoga teaches you that Atman alone exists. You are not the body, nor the mind, but pure consciousness. And so is every being around you. Now, you may cry yourself hoarse that you not this and not that, but unless you actually perceive that you are pure consciousness in the state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, you will find yourself interacting with this world, with this society. Each interaction, emanating from your body and mind, can reinforce your vision of you being non-different from others. So, if you are a Jnana Yogi, then each of your interactions with others can also be called Karma Yoga, since, your work is uniting you with the whole.

But, is there anything called ‘Pure Karma Yoga’? Yes, there is. Such a Yogi does not believe in a Personal God and hence cannot entertain devotion to God. Such a Yogi does not posit the Atman, pure consciousness, negating the world and hence cannot bother about Jnana. But, he can work; he can use his faculties of body and mind and interact meaningfully with others in society. Such a unique person works not to achieve anything for himself. By force of will, he renounces his selfishness. His main job while discharging his allotted duties is to keep himself unattached from any kind of bindings that his ego may conjure. This very act will lead to a tremendous change in his consciousness and lead him to freedom.

Ideal of Freedom

Swamiji says in more than one place that the goal of Karma Yoga is ‘Freedom’. We must try to understand what this freedom means. Human existence is full of contradictions. We think we are free. But are we really free? How far does our freedom go? Even trifles like sleep and hunger keep us bound, not to speak of the greater bondages of prejudice or fanaticism or ignorance. A Karma Yogi’s goal is to slowly grow out of each of these bondages. A question may be asked here. As of now, we are not even aware of our bondages. So, can this ideal of freedom from bondage ever be a strong force in our lives? Yes. It is indeed a very sorry state of affairs that we seem to be quite happy with our present putrid state of bondage. Karma Yoga paves the way for our realizing that we are bound. Then, it takes us out of that bondage too.

Karma Yoga tells us ‘Work, enjoy, experience and let go’. Most of us do all these except ‘letting go’. That needs training ourselves. Experience is not our goal. Our goal is freedom. For that, we need to let go. ‘Letting go’ means Non-attachment. Absolute non-attachment is infinite expansion.

Karma yoga begins with duty. Then it rises till the idea of duty ceases. In the higher stages of Karma Yoga, there is no sense of ‘ought to’. There, actions are performed because it is good to perform those actions; good for the entire world. No more are any external impulses needed to act, inner impulses of love spur a Karma Yogi to act.



Author: Swami Vedatitananda

Monk of the Ramakrishna Order

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