As a yoga student, I used to believe that Karma yoga merely involved going to a spiritual institution and doing the assigned daily tasks.
I would see studios advertising open positions for yoga teachers who were okay to work without compensation, and I thought, with some misgivings, that too was Karma yoga. But then one experience shook me to my core.
A few years ago, I went to a reputed ashram in South India to pursue a teacher training program, and as part of the curriculum, all students had to engage in Karma yoga duties. We were split into groups—though surprisingly not randomly, but by nationality—and then assigned specific tasks based on our “cultural background.” Tasks such as taking attendance or assisting at the café and bookstore were reserved for the Westerners, serving tea was for the Iranians, and the majority of Indians were given tasks like cleaning toilets, sweeping dorms, and serving food.
I had performed Karma yoga tasks in the past, but this situation pained me deeply. I even approached the director, a Westerner, to share my concerns about the authenticity of these assignments, but they fell on deaf ears. Politely yet firmly, having shared my opinions, I left soon after.
This experience cemented my belief that Karma yoga was being used merely as a tool for suppressing people’s spirit with the general dictum: “It is your duty, so you must do it no matter how you feel about it.” It seemed like people were “playing God” and telling others what they should do, which felt similar to India’s caste system—and we’re still bearing the consequences of that today. It was disappointing to see remnants of these ideals still being practiced in present day, and at an ashram where I had gone seeking knowledge.
But the silver lining was that this is how my study of Karma yoga truly began. The confusion I felt, and the disregard for fundamental human values that was being demonstrated in the name of yoga, led me to pursue the Bhagavad Gita.
And what a revelation it has been to study this concept and appreciate how far removed the beautiful philosophy of Karma yoga is from the balderdash we’ve made of it today. So, for the benefit of anyone else who has felt similarly confused, frustrated, or lost, I’ve created this Q&A, which articulates my own journey to Karma yoga and the answers I was seeking. I hope you find it helpful.
What is karma?
Any action done by us is karma. In Hindu philosophy, every action will bear fruit in the future, which can be good or bad depending on the nature of our action. The fact that it will bear fruit is inevitable, but when that will happen is not known to us.
What’s wrong with that? Seems like a fair system.
It is indeed a fair system, and we are accountable for every action that we commit. All these actions get stored in our karmic account and, as explained earlier, could bear fruit at a much later date, thereby settling it. But the number of actions we commit in one life are so many that it would take hundreds of years for them to get settled. Thus we are reborn again and again to settle our previous debts. But in every life, we end up creating even more karma, which creates the endless circle of death and rebirth.
Okay, I understand—so what is Karma yoga then?
Karma yoga is the technique through which we can continue to act in this life but not generate any bondage through our actions. It literally makes all our actions “null”—thus whatever we do in the spirit of Karma yoga neither increases nor decreases our karmic account. It is essential to understand that the goal is not to increase our good karma but to reduce all our karma to zero.
What if I just stop acting and do nothing—is that Karma yoga?
It’s not physically possible; we would still be breathing and thinking. As long as the mind is active, we are creating karma with every motivated thought.
What if I stop thinking?
If you can do that, then you’re already enlightened!
How exactly is Karma yoga practiced?
Karma yoga is practiced by doing whatever we do (1) selflessly, (2) to the best of our capacity, (3) without expectations or anxiety over results, and (4) as a dedication to the supreme consciousness.
What if I decide to steal food and money for sick kids, with sincerity and without any expectations, and dedicate it to God?
Every action is not Karma yoga—only that act which is for the greater good of the universe is considered worthy. Stealing is a non-virtuous karma.
How do I know what type of actions are worthy or unworthy?
The only right action is the one that is aligned to dharma. All other actions are called adharma and take us away from the path of Karma yoga.
What is dharma?
Dharma is an ancient concept that is often translated as “duty,” but is more like an inherent characteristic. For instance, the dharma of a glass is to hold water, of a pen is to enable writing, of trees is to sustain life, and of fire is to purify. Similarly, each one of us is born with some specific inherent characteristics which make us uniquely predisposed to certain skills. That’s our purpose in life—our individual dharma.
It is also important to note that dharma is always for the greater good and not for the individual entity. The sun does not shine for itself, the glass doesn’t hold water for itself to drink, and the pen does not write to satisfy its creative instincts. Dharma is found in following our individual purpose, fulfilling our duties, and abstaining from prohibited actions. It requires us to do what we’re good at and what benefits the world at large, and to do so without expectations.
How does one even act like a Karma yogi?
Like a musician who works for the sake of creating the best and most beautiful music he can, a Karma yogi does not do it for his or her own entertainment or to gratify his ego with fame, money, or success.
I’m still a little confused. Am I a bad Karma yogi if I’m passionate about my project or work?
As long as we understand that the only right we have is to “act” and not to control the results, it’s Karma yoga. But if every failure disappoints us or every success exhilarates us, then we have failed. Or if the quality of our action is motivated by the rewards, then we’ve also missed the point. A Karma yogi works to move beyond all this.
Sounds like I need to be disinterested in what I do…
We only need to be disinterested in the results after having put in our best effort. We need to work with full commitment and dedication at all times—without which we cannot do justice to the task at hand. The path of yoga is of balance and equanimity, not extremes. Neither the person who works too much nor the one who works too litlle can attain enlightenment. A yogi is not pulled into extremes; he is not one to starve himself or to eat too much. He strives for a balanced state of mind.
So how do I motivate myself to do my best if I’m not supposed to crave success or hate failure?
We stay motivated by the knowledge that everything we do is taking us to our ultimate liberation and is not entangling us further in this material world. We are motivated by the prospect of enlightenment. The highest state the human mind can achieve is possible through Karma yoga. If spiritual growth is not our goal, then Karma yoga is not practical for us.
What are the benefits of this practice?
The goal of all humanity is enlightenment. To reach enlightenment, one has to control the mind—and being a Karma yogi helps us do that. Once we’ve learned to control the mind, even our meditation practice improves. Karma yoga is the most accessible method to help free us from the bondage our daily actions create.
This was great, thank you.
I decided to throw this in since I’ve pretty much been talking with myself this whole time! But I do hope you found it to be of benefit.
“You have a right to perform prescribed action, but you are not entitled to the fruits of that action. Do not make the rewards of action your motive and do not develop any attachment for avoiding action.” ~ Bhagavad Gita 2.47