The Bhagavad Gita (“the Lord’s song”) is a dialogue between two extraordinary figures: Arjuna, a brilliant yogi as well as the general of a large army, and Krishna, the incarnated Lord of Life. As the Gita begins, Krishna has driven Arjuna’s war chariot to the center of a great battlefield, and there Arjuna surveys a vast assemblage of soldiers—his own army and that of his adversaries, both massed to fight a wrenching civil war. But at the sight of revered teachers and cherished family members in both armies, Arjuna is overwhelmed. He slumps to the floor of his chariot, not sure if he should fight or not. Turning to Krishna for advice, he pleads, “Whatever is definitely better, do tell me that.” Krishna’s reply ranges over the entire compass of worldly and spiritual life, echoing powerfully to the present day.
Turning to Krishna for advice, he pleads, “Whatever is definitely better, do tell me that.”
In spite of its surpassing majesty and drama, however, first-time readers of the Gita often find it perplexing. Extracted from a much longer epic—the Mahabharata—it offers few clues to the events leading to Arjuna’s crisis. Quite a number of its passages seem repetitive. And it contains many obscure devotional and philosophical references as well. Moreover, modern yoga students who have heard the Gita described as an important yoga scripture are frequently puzzled. The text has little to say about the practices commonly described in yoga manuals, and when the term yoga is used in the Gita (as it often is), it seems to have an unfamiliar ring. All in all, connecting to this three-thousand-year-old masterpiece can be a challenge.
Three Paths of Yoga
The enigmatic qualities of the Gita appear in its earliest moments. Arjuna laments in the opening chapter that he finds the thought of this war abhorrent. He would rather abandon the fight than let it rip his kingdom apart. Spiritual principles, he hopes, will justify his views.
But Krishna berates Arjuna, saying that if he does not fight he will go down in history as a coward and a fool. He claims that if Arjuna leaves the battle and retreats into his confused thoughts, spiritual peace will never be his. According to Krishna, Arjuna’s confusion is leading him not toward, but away from yoga. In his “song” to Arjuna, the Lord Krishna describes three spiritual paths: the yogas of action, of devotion, and of discrimination. Ultimately, each offers a way to live an active life while maintaining inner equilibrium. But what sort of yogic paths are these? What are their fundamental principles? What makes Krishna so certain that one course of life is more yogic than another? In this article we will focus on answers to these questions drawn from the yoga of action, or karma yoga.
The Fruit of Action
Krishna’s advice to Arjuna is based on a simple and compelling observation, one that is expressed in the causal relationship between two factors:
Action to result: Action leads to result: every action has a result, the “fruit of action” in the words of the Gita. There is no action that does not bear fruit of one kind or another. Straightforward examples come easily to mind: washing dishes makes them clean; running increases the heart rate; and closing the eyelids reduces the light that enters the eyes. Every action has an outcome.
There is no action that does not bear fruit of one kind or another.
But the relationship between an action and its fruit is rarely so simple as it appears in these examples. Actions often lead to more than one outcome, and the precise results of an action are frequently unpredictable. Further, even when the outcomes of an action are predictable, some may not be intended by the person performing the action. Over time, for example, some dishes are inevitably broken in the dishwashing process, although breaking dishes is not the intention of the dishwasher. Running increases the heart rate, but it also tightens leg muscles. Closing the eyelids reduces light entering the eyes, but it can also lead to sleepiness.
Assessing the various outcomes of an action can be a serious matter. When a physician ponders the choice of medication for a patient, the intended effects of the medicine must be weighed against the medicine’s unintended effects, its side effects. Indeed, all actions have multiple consequences when they are examined carefully. Some results are intended by the doer of an action, and others are not:
Arjuna is well aware that the side effects of actions often cannot be avoided. He sees that by leading his army to war, many of his respected elders will be killed on both sides, and that women’s and children’s lives will be fractured as well. His resistance to fighting is to avoid these consequences, and thus he is plunged into grief.
But before we consider Arjuna’s dilemma we need to pursue the action-result equation one step further. According to Krishna there is another element that should be factored into our thinking: the element of motivation.
Motivation Precedes Action
From motivation to action, to results (intended/unintended): Returning to our earlier examples: The need to remove food residue (motivation) prompts us to wash the dishes (action). Washing the dishes makes them clean (result). A weak heart (motivation) may prompt us to run (action). Running causes the heart to work harder (result). The need to avoid bright light (motivation) causes us to close the eyelids (action). Closing the eyelids reduces the light that enters the eyes (result). In each case, motivation precedes action, and result follows action.
When Things Go Wrong
Krishna’s analysis of the yoga of action is now nearly within our grasp. Our final task is simply to see how this triad of factors, motivation-action-result, can backfire. Let’s have a look.
Suppose that you are the gardener in your family. You enjoy being outside, working with plants, and your happiness in your work has produced a bounty of flowers and vegetables. One day, midway through the summer, it occurs to you to enter your garden in the local gardening competition—a chance to win recognition for yourself and your family. The winner’s prize, you muse, would also be a pleasant reward for your season-long efforts. So with these thoughts you begin spending more and more time in the garden, and less and less time with your family. You become increasingly preoccupied with creating a garden that is better than the others in your neighborhood. Without intending it, you have come to equate your work with winning the gardening contest. The thought of prize money lingers in your mind—the joy of gardening drifts farther and farther away. You are now motivated by the fruits of your actions, but not by the actions themselves.
¨Action = result¨ is not the same as ¨action to result:” When we equate actions with results, our focus strays. We blur the distinction between what is to be done and what is to be gained. We begin to motivate ourselves by working for results—and according to Krishna, we sow the seeds of trouble. We lose the sense of living and acting in harmony with the moment. We step away from yoga.
When we equate actions with results, our focus strays.
When actions are motivated by the desire for pleasurable results, life becomes a gamble. Hoping to attain our desires, we are happy when actions bring success, and unhappy when the fruits are sour. Happiness and unhappiness are both submerged in the unpredictable shadows of the future, and it is inevitable that we will be stalked by anxiety until that future arrives. One whose mind is thus dominated by desires is called a bhokta in the Gita—one who “performs action only for the sake of the fruit.” Such a one, says Krishna, “is to be pitied.”
The Yoga of Action
What we all must do, Krishna tells us, is keep our mind in the here and now. But despite his admonition not to find motivation in the fruits of actions, it does not seem sensible to act as if we are blind to those fruits. Are we to enter a race with no desire to win it? Do we wash dishes without intending to make them clean?
Four questions, drawn from the Gita, help clarify Krishna’s message and give us practical guidance about the path of right action:
- Is it in my nature or is it my responsibility to perform this action?
- Is the action right or wrong?
- Who do I want to receive the fruits of this action?
- Am I attached to a particular outcome?
- Let’s take a brief look at each of these questions.
Individual nature: Each of us has an individual nature that gradually reveals itself as we grow. If we are fortunate, we have experiences that strengthen that nature, giving us confidence in ourself. Krishna explains that each of us is disposed to perform actions that suit our nature, and to fulfill the responsibilities that come to us naturally. Struggling to do things that do not really suit us, or that are the responsibility of others, is a mistake.
Each of us has an individual nature that gradually reveals itself as we grow.
This is why when Arjuna dreams of renouncing the world and living as an ascetic in the forest, Krishna reminds him that his entire life has been dedicated to defending righteousness. He is a warrior. His nature is not that of a renunciate monk. Facing an army that is determined to steal his kingdom, he must fight.
Similarly in our own lives, situations call for a response that is appropriate to who we are—to our nature and responsibilities. If I am a runner, then I must race to win. If I am a poet, then I must express myself in words. And if my work at the moment is to wash the dishes, then I must make them clean. In such cases, the fruits of actions are not my motivation. They are the outcome of doing what is mine to do anyway. Acting from this realization is yoga. This is the fundamental meaning of the familiar yogic phrase “to act according to one’s dharma”—one’s nature.
Right vs. wrong: Yogic action also involves learning to choose between actions that are harmful and actions that are not—between actions that are wrong and actions that are right. This can be difficult, and as a result we may delay our actions or even be tossed into inaction.
According to Krishna, it is yoga that helps us resolve these conflicts. It does this by appealing to a faculty of mind called the buddhi—the faculty of inner discrimination and decision-making. Krishna explains that buddhi acts like a mirror, reflecting inner experience and presenting it to our awareness so that we may see it more objectively. When we consciously quiet the chatter of the everyday mind, we polish that mirror and bring it to life, and during meditative moments our desires, our reactions to life events, our memories, and goals, all become visible to us—reflected in the buddhi’s mirror-like quietness. An awakened buddhi also gives us access to such qualities as peace, justice, and inner balance—qualities that are reflected from within us.
But when the mind is clouded by desire, we lose sight of objectivity. Desire, by its very nature, colors our thinking processes with emotion and leads to confusion. In this sense, desire lies at the heart of unwise actions. Thus Krishna encourages us to learn to consciously awaken the buddhi—then actions can be viewed with a balanced mind in the spirit of what he calls “buddhi yoga,” the yoga that arises from inner clarity. At such moments, differences between right and wrong action become intuitively clear. We rise above desires and the confusion they engender in us.
Giving away the fruits of action: Each of us has certain responsibilities in life. We must provide food for ourselves, find a place to live, and manage our personal affairs. We must also fulfill our responsibilities to one another, as parents, partners, family members, co-workers, and human beings. We can meet these responsibilities reluctantly or we can act graciously, with a love that eases our load. “Greasing our actions with love”—acting with kindness in our obligations toward ourself and others—is an important aspect of karma yoga.
We can act graciously, with a love that eases our load.
But not all actions are motivated by responsibility. Some rise above it. For example: open the door for another person, contribute money or time to a worthy cause, or pitch in on “clean-the-yoga-center day” and your actions will feel different to you. They have become a kind of sacrifice—actions performed so that the fruit can be given away. Acts of this kind feel clean. We remember them sweetly and they give us a taste of inner freedom. When the phrase “karma yoga” is used in your local yoga class, it often refers to actions like these.
Non-attachment: No matter what motivates the action—one’s nature, the responsibility of the moment, the rightness of an action, a desire to facilitate human affairs with love, or pure goodwill and selflessness—the path of karma yoga is not complete unless it is accompanied by one more essential quality: non-attachment, the absence of personal regard for the action’s outcome. As Krishna tells Arjuna: “Be not moved in success or failure, for yoga is evenness of mind, it is said.”
With the introduction of the concept of non-attachment, Krishna sets a threefold standard for action that is as true for gardening as it is for waging war. To conscientiously evaluate one’s motivation, to act with skill and full determination and yet remain unattached to the outcome of action—this is karma yoga. Krishna points out that Arjuna’s thinking process has not met this standard, that he must rise above the attachment he has fallen into. He must fight with full determination, whether victorious or not. By the end of the Gita, Krishna has fully convinced Arjuna of the truth of this teaching and renewed his faith in the power of yoga.
The dialogue that is the Bhagavad Gita explores the mystery of human action, portraying it as a battle against the ignorance of attachment. But in the end, Krishna’s teaching leads far beyond our familiar concepts of action. It questions who the doer of any action really is, and ponders the nature of action altogether. If you have never read it, or were put off by your first reading, dust off a copy of the Gita. Read chapters one through six, the chapters that focus the most on the path of karma yoga. Ponder these ancient concepts, and you will discover a whole new world of yoga waiting for you—a path of yoga with the power to transform your life.