The Duty of Karma Yoga: Cooperating with Our Higher Self
by Swami Krishnananda


(Spoken on October 14, 1984)

The fourfold human nature is taken into consideration in the fourfold precept in regard to spiritual living, as we have it enunciated especially in the Twelfth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. There are four verses which make out that a fourfold approach may become necessary in accordance with the preponderance of one or another characteristic constituting human nature as a whole. Our approach to anything is conditioned by the capacity we have to receive the truths of the world, the realities of life, and the meaning of things in general.

To us, the world is that which is conceived by us. That which is incapable of comprehension and experience does not exist; therefore, the world’s existence is the same as the consciousness we have of some degree of outward reality. It is doubtful if we are conscious of the whole world as it is in itself in all its contents and levels of inclusiveness. It does not appear to be so because we do not live in all levels of our personality at the same time. Each person knows for one’s own self what is the particular level that operates in a particular condition. We never act entirely at every time, and hence, the entire world is never presented before our experience.

Thus, even the spiritual encounter, which is the largest meaning that one can read in life, appears to be so conditioned in respect of our capacity to receive the significance of spirituality, and there can perhaps be as many comprehensions of it as there are people in the world. No two persons are born at the same moment, evidently; therefore, no two persons can be said to be in the same level of the evolutionary process. Thus, from this point of view, the life spiritual, as far as human nature in its present makeup is concerned, is also a conditioned process. We cannot be unconditionally aware of God, because we are not unconditioned beings. Conditioned individualities that we are, our approach, our experience and our understanding are also conditioned in the same measure and in the same proportion. It may be anything, from the lowest matter to the ultimate concept of the final aim of life; whatever be the content of our awareness, it matters little insofar as it has a meaning to us only to the extent it is received by our consciousness under a given condition.

This was well known to Bhagavan Sri Krishna, and in his variegated, methodical and multifaceted definitions of the human approach to God, he has also precisely stated a simple fourfold attitude possible for a spiritual seeker. In the first verse, the highest possible way is mentioned: the fixing of the intellect. The reason in man, the rationality in the human individual, seems to be the greatest of gifts, and the more intense is our reasoning capacity, the more evolved we may be said to be as human beings.

Among the many facets of our psychological personality, four important ones can be cited, namely, the intellect or the reason, the will or the volition, the feeling or the emotion, and the energy or the capacity of action. It is these psychological facets within us that designate spiritual approach in a fourfold manner. We call these methods the yogas, known as jnana yoga, raja yoga, bhakti yoga and karma yoga. These methods are fourfold in nature, inasmuch as our personality is fourfold. The capacity of the intellect is the highest possibility in us. The reason is the principle value in ourselves. Nothing can equal it. If the reason fails, every other faculty will lose its meaning.

Thus, at the very outset we are told mayy eva mana ādhatsva mayi buddhiṃ niveśaya, nivasiṣyasi mayy eva ata ūrdhvaṃ na saṃśayaḥ (B.G. 12.8): “Fix yourself in Me.” This is the highest instruction of a nature that expects us to evince a potentiality that has to be drawn out, because to fix ourselves in something else is a procedure not known to us in our daily life. We cannot fix ourselves in another thing; we are fixed in our own selves only. How could we be another thing? It is not possible. In fact, the very nature of the ego, the so-called self-assertive principle, is the adamant assertion of itself in contradistinction with anything external to it and a refusal to associate itself with anybody else.

The question of becoming another thing is certainly unimaginable to the ego. We have to cease to be in order that we may be another. Now, this is humanly impossible. No one can be another by being nothing in one’s own self because that is the complete annihilation of one’s own self, the total abolition of the ego and a nihil as far as one’s own self is concerned. “I am not, and Thou alone art,” seems to be the instruction embedded in this initial verse. Fix yourself in Me: mayy eva mana ādhatsva. Let your mind and your intellect be in Me: mayi buddhiṃ niveśaya. And then what happens? You shall be in me: nivasiṣyasi mayy eva ata ūrdhvaṃ. There is no doubt about it: na saṃśayaḥ.

But the great Lord is a master psychologist, a person who is thoroughly acquainted with the structure of things and fully aware of the incapacity of the disciple or the student to be able to receive this kind of instruction. Human logic says A is A, B is B, and A can never be B. It is a law of contradiction. We are masters of logic, and this logic is our doom finally, because we think that one thing cannot be another thing. But here it is said that one thing has to be another thing. It defeats our logic. One person cannot be another person, one thing cannot be another thing, A cannot be B; but it has to be, if the meaning of this verse is to be clear to us.

But it cannot be clear to us, so the verse goes on further. Sri Krishna dilutes his advice with another instruction. Atha cittaṃ samādhātuṃ na śaknoṣi mayi sthiram, abhyāsayogena tato mām ichāptuṃ dhanaṃjaya (B.G. 12.9): If this kind of total dissolution of your understanding in universal understanding is not possible, at least habituate yourself to continuous practice by the force of your will. While the first verse may be said to correspond to what is called jnana yoga, the second verse bears some similarity to what is called the raja yoga system of volitional concentration: daily practice and a tenacious betaking of oneself to a centralised objective or an ideal, repeatedly and continuously hammering the same notion, the same idea and the same ideal into one’s consciousness. ‘Repeated practice’ means many things because many things are connected with our daily life. It is a practice related to all the associations of our day-to-day existence.

We live in a place and in a time, and we have a method of work, but all these three facets of our daily life should be concentrated into a systematised abhyasa or practice, which means to say, the place where we are seated for meditation must be the same, the time for which we are sitting should be the same, and the methodology that we adopt in our concentration should not vary from day to day. It should be a continuous concentration on a single pointed ideal. We have very detailed instructions in this regard in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Abhyāsa vairāgyābhyām tan-nirodhaḥ (Y.S. 1.12) says a sutra of Patanjali, and we have a similar statement in the Bhagavadgita. Abhyāsena tu kaunteya vairāgyeṇa ca gṛhyate (B.G. 6.35): By practice and renunciation you shall attain success.

Abhyasa is the repeated accustoming of oneself to a single method of living. We should have a uniform way of living every day, and our moods, our ways, our occupations, as far as possible, should not vary from day to day. But unfortunately, our psychological moods change from moment to moment, distractions come in every moment of time, and a uniform behaviour is not seen. We do not know how a person will behave at any time because of one’s life being mostly a reaction to action, a kind of answer that we give to the call from external nature and human society.

Most of us do not live. We only react. We have no independent, deliberately chosen way of living. We adjust ourselves to conditions prevalent outside so that our life is mostly a kind of accommodation with existing conditions and prevalent situations in life. But it is necessary to develop a stuff in one’s own self. It is a very unfortunate way of living to be just a bundle of reactions to outer conditions. If somebody smiles, we smile. If somebody frowns, we frown. This is not a uniform and stabilised way of living. There should be what we may call our own stuff, and a very stern stuff, and a well-matured individuality. We have a logic of our own and have come to a conclusion, and that conclusion is in harmony with the law of things. Once this decision is arrived at, it should not be shaken by any other word of logic. No Guru, no book, no scripture and no instruction can shake us afterwards because we have come to a final conclusion, and no other advice can have any effect upon it.

We may say that the second instruction is easier than the earlier one, where we have to totally become another thing. The second instruction does not expect that much of sacrifice, and only advises us to do some practice; still, we will find that even the practice is not easy. One session of practice cannot continue for a long time because monotony is resented by the mind. The mind requires diversity, variety, a picturesque presentation of things. A uniform conundrum is never appreciated by the consciousness. We cannot go on enjoying one picture always. We cannot even do japa for a long time because of the same reason, the same difficulty, because japa is a monotonous repetition of a single formula or a sound or a name, and the mind wants variety because it is fickleness in its essentiality. It is a chameleon in its nature, changing its colours and expressing various needs at different moments of time.

So abhyasa, if it is to be a continuous attention of the mind on one given ideal, will also be difficult. Even this is a hard thing for us. We cannot be the same persons every day. We are different persons on different occasions, and having the same place, same time, same method of practice is also a hard thing. Uniformity is not known to us because we never see uniformity anywhere. In all the world we see diversity and discreteness, and Bhagavan Sri Krishna knows this difficulty of the human being that even this, even abhyasa, is difficult.

Abhyāsepy asamarthosi matkarmaparamo bhava, madartham api karmāṇi kurvan siddhim avāpsyasi (B.G. 12.10): “At least make yourself acquainted with whatever is pleasing to Me, whatever is in harmony with My nature, and all the actions that are in the satisfaction of God may be resorted to.” Commentators on this verse generally tell us that this is an instruction on that kind of karma which is related to God’s satisfaction, and they equate it with love of God, or what may be called bhakti yoga.

The karmas related to God are the various types of affection which we manifest in our devotions in respect of God the Almighty. We have navavidha bhakti, the ninefold method of devotion to God, and the five attitudes called bhavas. These are said to be the indications of the meaning of this particular verse. Śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ viṣṇoḥ smaraṇaṁ pāda-sevanam arcanaṁ vandanaṁ dāsyaṁ sakhyam ātma-nivedanam (Bhagavata 7.5.23) is a verse that occurs in the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana. Always listening to the glories of God, and not being interested in listing to anything else, is sravana. It is singing His glories. When we speak, we speak only the glory of God, and nothing else. We have nothing else to say. This may be said to be kirtanam. Smarana is continuous remembrance of the existence of God. It is a memory that shall never fail. There is a continuous awareness that there is something pervasive existing everywhere in the universe. This may be equated with japa yoga, which is also continuous remembrance, especially when japa becomes mental. Pada-sevana is explained by traditional followers of bhakti yoga as worship of the feet of the Almighty, which extreme traditionalists tell us is possible only to Mahalakshmi, Parvati or Saraswati because they are directly in contact with these forms of the Almighty. But this need not be the only meaning of pada-sevana if it means the worship of the feet of the Almighty, because in the Upanishad we are told that the Earth is the footstool of God. Padbhyām pṛthivī hy eṣa sarva-bhūtāntarātmā (Mundaka 2.1.4) is the conclusion of a verse occurring in the Mundaka Upanishad. The whole Earth is the feet of God, and therefore, everything that is on Earth may also be said to be so. Sarvataḥ pāṇipādaṃ (B.G. 13.14) says the Gita itself: Everywhere we have the feet of the Almighty. The feet of everyone are the feet of Almighty God. Everything that we touch and sense is a finger of God and indicates the feet of God. Service of humanity, service of God’s creation, and unselfish dedication to an altruistic cause may also be considered to be a part of pada-sevana, worship of the feet of God. Archana is ritualistic worship or mental worship. In places of religious pilgrimage, in temples and churches and mosques, worship is offered to God in a ritualistic traditional manner with gestures of performance. Where physical gestures like kneeling down, bending below, or offering flowers, waving a light, etc., are involved, we may say such a worship is the external form of worship.

In the Saiva Siddhanta School, especially as is prevalent in southern India, four types of worship are mentioned, and they go by the name of charya, kriya, yoga and jnana. Charya is externalised worship, a service that one can do in a temple, for instance, by collecting flowers from the garden or bhel leaves from the forest, by sweeping the outskirts of the temple, by cleaning the veranda, washing the vessels and other things. But there is an internal type of service which is carried on by people inside the temple, inside the holy place, within the holy of holies. You must have seen in temples that there are people who work outside, and there are also those who are directly connected with the worship itself. The internal association is clear, but both charya and kriya are external in the sense that they are performances with the limbs of the body.

But worship can be more internal, and that is yoga. In the sixteenfold worship described in traditional circles, one way is mental invocation of God, though it may sometimes be expressed in recitations, chanting of mantras, etc. There is a procedure called nyasa in the traditional form of Indian worship. Anganyasa, karanyasa, etc., are read in books and are sometimes chanted by people who are proficient in the practice. Nyasa actually means ‘placing’. They touch different parts of the body. But people who do not know the meaning of it merely touch, not knowing why they are touching. The touching is a mystical invocation in that particular part of the body which is a corresponding part of the universal Almighty’s personality. Our head is tuned up to the cosmical head, our eyes to the cosmical eyes, our heart to the cosmical heart. Whatever part of the body we touch in nyasa, in the sacred placement, as it is called, we are tuning ourselves with the corresponding counterpart in the universal total that is a preparation for the internal worship which is yoga, landing us finally in a total unawareness of ourselves, being tuned up to that counterpart so much, in such intensity, that we feel as if we are that. This is jnana. All these four methods are archana, one of the nine modes of bhakti, devotion.

Vandana is prayer. We have the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament, and various types of prayer in other religious groups. We chant mantras, prayers and passages from the scriptures or we compose our own prayers through our own feelings, whatever they be, a supplication of ourselves before the Almighty, a dedication of ourselves before that Great Being which may be manifest either through utterances of words, by singing, by quoting passages from recognised scriptures, and the like. Essentially, it is requesting God to be condescending, gracious, kind, and protecting. This is also one form of bhakti.

Dasya is total subjection of oneself to the magnificence of God. We feel that we are utter servants, as it were, and God is the Supreme Master. He is the Lord of all lords, the Father of all fathers, the Master of all masters, and therefore, we are His servants. Rarely, in extreme forms of elevated devotion, God is considered as one’s own equal, like a friend. We speak to God, as it were, as if He is in front of us. There were some saints in India, and perhaps in the West also, who could speak to God and summon Him, and they could expect God to do anything for them. If they ask Him to bring a vegetable, He will bring it like a servant boy. They develop such an intimate relationship with God that they have no fear of Him. They love Him in the same way as they love a friend. It is rare to find such devotion prevalent in human beings, but it is one of the nine mentioned in tradition.

Atma-nivedana is the last method of devotion. Actually it should not be called a method; it is the culmination of devotion. “I am Thine.” We have completely dedicated ourselves.

Atma-samarpana is the soul’s offering of itself to the universal spirit. These are the well-known nine methods of devotion called navavidha bhakti in bhakti yoga shastras, scriptures of devotion.

There are also five ways of attitude, called bhavas. There is no need to expatiate on that because they are intensely mystical methods of the soul’s feeling for God. A novitiate or a beginner cannot understand what all this means. We may love God, but how would we love Him? Would we consider Him as our father? Would we consider Him as our boss, a master? Would we consider Him as our equal, a friend? Or would we consider Him as our child, and caress Him? What is the way in which we can express our affection? Bhakti yoga is a masterly science of psychology in the sense that in the introduction and suggestion of these ways or bhavas of bhakti, a system has been discovered to transmute human love into divine love. It is impossible to destroy the principle of affection in the human mind. Either it is there as it is in normal human beings, or else a person is unconscious. In all conscious states, there is a movement of consciousness in the form of a liking or affection for something, and anyone who is sufficiently educated in human psychology and nature knows what love is, what affection is, and what are the things that can evoke affection in any human being.

These objects which evoke human affection are transferred to the personality of the Supreme Creator of the universe so that this Ultimate Being, external to which there can be nothing, becomes the very same thing which pulls us in this world of attractions. Whatever attracts us in this world is the Universal Being Himself. That is, we see this there, whatever it be, and it is up to anyone to find out what it is that pulls one’s affection. So it is suggested that this verse abhyāsepy asamarthosi matkarmaparamo bhava means the bhakti yoga method of human communion with God through feeling or love. But even this is a difficult thing. We cannot even love God. We cannot love anybody, really speaking. We always love with a knife hidden under our armpit, and we develop this kind of attitude even with God: “I love God. Thou art all, but give me something.” So even the love of God, which is apparently considered by the Almighty, Sri Krishna, as a third alternative and the most diluted form of approach, even that is hard for us.

But then Sri Krishna gives a masterly stroke, appearing to tell us the easiest thing while he is actually telling us the most difficult thing. And what is that? Athaitad apy aśaktosi kartuṃ madyogam āśritaḥ, sarvakarmaphalatyāgaṃ tataḥ kuru yatātmavān (B.G. 12.11): “Even this you find difficult. All right, do what you like, but expect not the fruit of what you do.” Now, we may think that this way is very easy, but no one does anything without some purpose, and that purpose becomes the fruit which we are desiring. There is no action without a fruit that is tagged onto it as a future possibility. So karma yoga may sometimes look like the easiest of yogas and the last thing that one can resort to, but it is the hardest of things because it cuts at the very root of human predilection, our usual habit of expecting things. And who will pass one moment without expecting something to happen or expecting something to become one’s own possession? We always expect some event to take place or expect something to become our property. Without this expectation, can one pass a moment in life? And it is said that we should not expect anything. Duty for duty’s sake is well said, but man has never understood the meaning of duty even today.

In a way we may say the performance of duty is what is called karma yoga. What is duty? It has never been understood properly because it is mixed up with rights or expectations. Wherever there is the necessity to perform duty, there is always a psychological connection with the result that has to follow from the performance of that duty, and this is exactly what is forbidden by this practice. We should not expect any result to follow because when there is an axe to grind even in the performance of our duty, this act becomes our motive, and then the duty is not our intention. How could we perform our duty wholeheartedly when our heart is not in the duty but in that which the duty will bring to us? Duty becomes a sort of instrument that we are employing, a modus operandi that we are somehow or other bringing forth into action – a machine, as they say. Our heart is somewhere while our limbs are mechanically performing some action, as a vehicle carries a load which is other than its own self. It is hard for the prejudiced human mind educated in this manner to understand what duty is. If duty means the performance of an act without connecting it with any result that may follow from it, it would be hard to find a person in this world who performs duty.

But it should not be as difficult as it appears because the expectations, the rewards, the fruits, the salaries or the rights, as people say nowadays, spontaneously follow without our asking for them when the duties are performed effectively. Duty is not a dry, essenceless performance. It is filled with the potentiality of the fulfilment of our life. Who would ask us to do a duty if it is a meaningless performance? If we feel that the meaning in a duty lies only in the fruit that it brings, and if we are told that duty should not be connected to a fruit, we may think that duty is an absurd performance – a kind of doing without any significance, like an arid desert. This is how we may think. What is intended here is that the performance of duty is the ringing tone of the whole of the Bhagavadgita, and if this becomes a hard nut to crack and we cannot even know what it actually means if it is unconnected with the fruit, we are not fit even to do karma yoga.

When we are organically associated with the body of an ideal and we cooperate with the purpose of this ideal in the fulfilment of the maturity or the fructification of the ideal, the ideal will take care of us. When we do physical exercise, the limbs of the body, such as the hands and feet, move. Now, what is the result that follows from these types of performance? It is the result that is nothing but the well-being of the whole physical organism, which is incidentally the well-being of the performer also. It is not that the legs move or the hands work for the sake of the other parts of the body. The satisfaction that may be brought to the other parts of the body by these operations will also be the satisfaction of the practitioner. If the stomach digests food, the stomach is not the only beneficiary of this act of digesting. It is the whole body, the entire system that is the beneficiary, which includes every other part including the stomach.

The performance of duty, therefore, is to be freed from the morbid notion of something following from it. Nothing need follow from it because it is just that attitude of ours which can be called cooperation with the whole. The part cooperating with the whole is called duty. And why should we cooperate with the whole, sir? What will it bring to us? If we put this question, we are totally untutored in the art of living in the world. If we cooperate with the whole of which we are a part, to which we belong, without which we cannot even exist, why should we expect another, extraneous result to follow? It is because our cooperation with the whole of which we are a part is cooperation with our own larger self, which is the whole to which we belong, of which we are a part. This is signified by the Bhagavadgita doctrine of the cosmical evaluation of values delineated in the Eleventh Chapter. It is most difficult to understand, and subtle thinking is necessary here. The mind has to be purified of all emotional dross, of any kind of material and social prejudice, and then we will find that duty is the same as fulfilment. This is karma yoga. “Resort to that,” says Bhagavan Sri Krishna in these verses of the Bhagavadgita.