In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes the four paths of yoga:
- Karma Yoga: the path of action
- Raja Yoga: the path of meditation
- Jnana Yoga: the path of wisdom/knowledge
- Bhakti Yoga: the path of love/devotion
Each of these paths has the potential to lead a yogi to enlightenment, so you choose your path based on your temperament and personality. Choosing the wrong path will make it much more difficult to make progress, because essentially you’re fighting your nature. This month, my assignment is to consider the four paths and decide which one appeals to me the most.
Karma yoga, the path of action, is the path that called out to me right away during our class discussion at the last teacher training session. The nice thing about Karma yoga is that it’s all about action – you don’t have to give up your life in the world or retreat into secluded study or meditation. You still have to read and study and meditate, of course, but your main focus is your secular life. The difference between a Karma yogi and some regular guy, however, is that the Karma yogi seeks to perform the actions of her life with an attitude of selfless service, with no attachment to the results of her actions.
In Karma yoga, you perform your actions because it’s your duty, because it’s the right thing to do – no more and no less. You don’t get caught up in expecting a reward for your efforts. If you receive a reward, that’s nice, but the point is to do the action for its own sake. It’s not that the Karma yogi doesn’t care about what happens: to the contrary, she cares very much and works hard at her work, but she recognizes that she has no control over the results of her actions, so she just does her best and then lets go. She takes an attitude of service, making each action an offering to the Divine. This way, doing the work actually becomes your spiritual practice. (Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita discusses Karma yoga in more detail.)
There are four steps to Karma yoga:
- Know your duty, know your life’s purpose (your dharma), and accept it fully
- Concentrate and be fully present as you perform your duty
- Do the work with excellence, as best you can
- Give up any attachment to the results of your actions
For me, this path is very, very appealing. I have always felt like I wanted to do more, to serve more, that there was something I owed to the world in gratitude for the wonderful life that I have. For years I secretly wanted to join the Peace Corps but was too afraid to take the risk. I can’t even talk about the Peace Corps; I get teary. I’m teary just typing about it. The concept of Karma yoga fulfills that need to serve by making everything a form of service. I don’t need to go far away to make my life meaningful or helpful or useful. I can do that right here.
I also like how neatly Karma yoga fits together as a system for running your life. If every action is service, is an offering to the Divine, then you’re pretty much going to stop being a jerk to people, aren’t you? The yamas and niyamas become even more practical guidelines for living. You start wanting to eliminate negativity and nastiness from every action you put out into the world; there’s an inherent kindness to it. I often feel that I am not very kind, and I’d like to be. As a system, it also puts emphasis on personal excellence – doing your best, striving to perform your work in the best possible way – and that resonates with me too because I’ve tried to live my life that way.
The hardest thing for me to imagine is acting without attachment to the results of my actions. And obviously that’s kind of a biggie. But that’s something I feel I need in my life, too. How comforting it would be to stop worrying over things that are beyond my control! To be able to let go of that suffering, and just reside in the fact that I did the best I could do. I’ve been telling myself this for years. Of course, it’s still incredibly hard for me to just do that, but isn’t that the point? To work at it, and to make the work the offering?
I’m getting a little emotional here, but that’s clearly indicative of something. Yesterday, I was thinking about Bhakti yoga and thinking that maybe that might be a good option for me, but Karma yoga is something I really feel passionately about, and something I’ve been trying to practice without even knowing I was doing it. There are many aspects of the other paths that do appeal to me, and there’s no reason I can’t take those things and use them on my journey, but my main path is going to be Karma yoga.
I’m also been drawn to both Bhakti and Karma yoga, and I sometimes wonder if they are necessarily separate paths. (I mean, I’m sure they can be, but “can” doesn’t mean “always.”)
For me, though, karma — action — is the natural result of bhakti — devotion. When I try to meaningfully separate the two, I start asking myself questions like:
“If I really am devoted, shouldn’t I try to show that via some kind of action — even if it’s not the action I’d prefer?”
“If I act — but it isn’t motivated by devotion to the divine — that isn’t really karma, is it?”
I certainly don’t expect that my answers are correct for everyone; I’m not even certain that they’re correct for me. But when all I can go on is what resonates with my truth, they are joined paths for me.
That’s a really interesting distinction (or, rather, lack of distinction). 🙂 My teacher says that there are elements of all the paths in each path, such that you might meditate regularly but consider karma yoga to be your main path, or that everyone should be trying to act selflessly regardless of whether karma yoga is their main path. So it definitely makes sense that the two paths feel so closely aligned for you. Thank you for sharing!
[…] this book, Vivekananda expands on the concept of Karma yoga as set out in the Bhagavad Gita. Vivekananda covers a variety of topics related to karma, including […]