Swami Vivekananda lived from 1863 to 1902 and is best known for his address at the Parliament of Religions in 1893, which helped to bring Hinduism to the modern world as a major religion. Vivekananda wrote a number of books, some of which are based on his lectures, and Karma-Yoga is one of these. Karma-Yoga has been reprinted many times over the past hundred years; the copy that I read, borrowed from a college library, is a tiny little book, maybe 4″ x 5″, and only 143 pages. Because the book was published so long ago, you can read the whole thing online, so feel free to check it out! If you’re interested in the topic, this book is well worth the time.
In 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 work, action, character, motivation, morality, duty, and non-attachment. While Vivekananda’s explication of Karma yoga really moved me and helped me to understand how the path of Karma yoga can work in my life, I’ll try to keep this post focused on what Vivekananda writes, and I’ll follow up with another post on my personal response to the text.
Vivekananda begins by providing an introduction to the concept of Karma and work. For Vivekananda, a person’s character reflects that person’s will, which is shown through their work. He states,
Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man. Great occasions rouse even the lowest of human beings to some kind of greatness, but he alone is the really great man whose character is great always, the same wherever he be (5).
Karma, or work/action, is the means by which we each build our character. Our actions, our work, build us into who we become: doing good works reinforces good character, and constantly doing evil work builds a bad character. Therefore it’s possible for someone to change his character through his actions.
Vivekananda also discusses the motive for work: one shouldn’t work for money or fame or even the results of our work, but simply for the work’s sake. Removing selfish motives from our work builds self-control and character. He describes how the ideal person can find balance between a quiet, solitary spiritual practice and life in the world. Such a person can be in the middle of the densest city traffic and his mind will be as if he’s in a cave by himself; whether in a city or a cave, he’s intensely working at all times.
Vivekananda describes how the concept of morality and duty varies greatly depending on the country or culture: what’s considered right and moral in one country can be thought wrong and evil in another. Vivekananda argues that for this reason there can’t be a universal morality or sense of duty, but that each person must act according to what is deemed right and good in his or her own culture. Vivekananda recommends that we try to view each person’s actions through their own eyes rather than judging that person by our own standards of duty, especially when meeting people from another culture. If we view them by our standards, we may think they are acting wrongly or strangely, but if we try to understand their actions in the context of that person’s culture, we may see that the person’s actions are right and good to him. Every person should work to accomplish his own ideal, according to his own skills and abilities; if you take up someone else’s ideals, you can never hope to make progress. He then explains that one person’s duty isn’t higher or lower than another person’s; even working at hard physical labor can count towards spiritual progress if it’s approached with the right attitude.
Vivekananda also discusses the idea of non-attachment. Each person must constantly work, because it’s in our nature as human beings, but the only way to truly make our work count is to be unattached to the results of the work. Vivekananda compellingly describes how attachments affect the mind as well as how non-attachment relates to love, self-sacrifice, and charity, and how all of these come together: being able to love perfectly, without attachment, we are able to give freely of ourselves to others without worrying about how it will affect us. Vivekananda uses the powerful image of the grumbling worker: if you’re grumbling and complaining about your work, that means you’re attached to it; all your duties will seem distasteful and you’ll never be satisfied. However, if you’re able to do the work for the work’s sake, without attachment, you’ll find satisfaction and freedom.
Vivekananda states that no action can ever be completely good or completely bad: even the most kindly meant action can have negative consequences, and even the foulest evil act can result in some good. Because Karma results from every action, there’s no way to attain perfection simply by doing good works, because each good work will also have some negative effect. This is where non-attachment comes in: you continue to work and strive to do good, but free yourself from attachment to the results of the action. You set yourself aside, removing all selfish wish for praise or reward, and do your duty because it’s right to do your duty.
At the end of the book, Swami Vivekananda sums up his views on Karma yoga:
Karma-Yoga, therefore, is a system of ethics and religion intended to attain freedom through unselfishness and by good works. The Karma-Yogi need not believe in any doctrine whatever. He may not believe even in God…. He has got his own special aim of realising selflessness; and he has to work it out himself. Every moment of his life must be realisation, because he has to solve by mere work, without the help of doctrine or theory, the very same problem to which the Jnani applies his reason and inspiration and the Bhakta his love (131-2).