(This is a first part of a series of posts)
When 12th graders of 2014 class were graduating this year, I reminded them the four spiritual practices. I told them that these practices will help them to grow spiritually and will bring them inner peace and fulfillment of life. Getting good education, making money, having a good family and all other legitimate joys of the world are good, but one has to pay a very high price for these joys and these joys are short-lived. Without spiritual practices one cannot have longer-lasting happiness, proper understanding of life, pure love, and inner peace.
The four spiritual practices covers all the four yogas described in Bhagavad Gita. I am sure you know that one of the major contributions of Bhagavad Gita is the description of four Yogas: Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Let me first share with you briefly my understanding about these four yogas.
(To acquire full knowledge of these four yogas, we have to study Swami Vivekananda’s lectures on these yogas which were given in New York, study Bhagavad Gita, listen to the experts, reflect upon them, practice what we had learned, and acquire the highest knowledge.)
‘Yoga’ roughly means a path to connect with the Ultimate Reality which we may call Brahman, God, the Ultimate Truth, or the Supreme Power. The Sanskrit root of the word Yoga is yunja, means to connect.
Jnana Yoga: This is path of Knowledge. By proper reasoning which we call discrimination (viveka) between real or permanent and impermanent one can realize the Ultimate Reality or Brahman. Along with discrimination one needs renunciation (vairagya). When we find something which is impermanent, we have to discard it even though our senses and mind crave for it. For example, body and mind are constantly changing and so they are impermanent. Thus, the pleasures of body and mind cannot be the goal of our life. We must seek something beyond these pleasures.
With reasoning we have to realize that there is something unchangeable behind our body and mind in whose background we perceive the changes of our body and mind. This Unchangable is called Atman, a part of Brahman in us. We have to realize this Atman. This Atman is divine. It is our True Identity whose nature is Sat-Chit-Ananda, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss absolute. We have to realize that only by realizing this Atman we get infinite bliss, infinite knowledge, and infinite life which is immortality.
We must realize that this Atman is in all irrespective of people’s color, creed, culture, country, religion, gender, or any other differences. The final stage is to realize that Atman or Brahman has become everything living and non-living.
Practices: One of the practices for Jnana Yoga is reading and/or listening to scriptures and trying to understand what the Ultimate Reality is. We do not reason to denounce what has been said in the scriptures, but reason to understand what they say. Once we understand what the Ultimate Reality is, then we have to meditate on It and realize It. We should have a direct perception of the Ultimate Reality. We perceive that our true identity is Atman and not body and mind. It is NOT an intellectual knowledge.
Test of Achievement of the Goal: What is the test to know that we have realized the Ultimate Reality? The test is that one manifests in one’s life the characteristics of ‘a person with steady intellect’ as described in Bhagavad Gita (Gita 2.55-72). One sees the same Ultimate Reality in all. One loves all, hates none and be ready to sacrifice one’s life for the good of all just as loving mothers do for their children.
Dangers: Many people love Jnana Yoga because they think that Jnana Yoga means just read books and meditate. The other Yogas require many other things to do than reading and meditating.
Jnana Yoga is not just reading and meditating. In Jnana Yoga, one has to acquire total control over senses and mind. One has to become completely desire-less since desire binds the body and mind to the worldly objects which are impermanent and makes one forgets Atman. Sri Ramakrishna found that lust and greed drags the mind to the body and mind. At some point if he was touching a coin or even a metal he used to get an electric shock. His body-mind completely followed what his discriminating intellect said.
One of the dangers in Jnana Yoga is that a person thinks that ‘I am one with Atman. I am not body and mind.’ But in reality he/she slowly becomes inactive and lazy. He/she neither makes any spiritual progress nor acquires anything in the world. His/her behavior does not match with the characteristics of a spiritually advanced person described in the scriptures. Such a person never even listens to any advice from an expert person.
Karma Yoga: Karma Yoga is a path to attain the highest knowledge or to realize the Ultimate Reality or Brahman through performing actions or responsibilities.
Each individual by birth has been assigned responsibilities. For example, parents have responsibilities towards children and children have towards parents. We have civic and other responsibilities. Karma Yoga says that just by properly performing one’s responsibilities one can attain the highest knowledge. Swami Tyagananda of Boston Vedanta Society, USA, says that each action is like a key. It is the same key; if we turn it right it locks the door and if we turn it left it opens the door. Thus, the same action if we perform it in an improper way it makes us ignorant or slaves while if we perform it in a proper way, it leads us towards the highest knowledge and makes us free from bondages. Bhagavad Gita says, “Skillfully performing every action is Yoga.” (Gita 2.50)
What is the right way to perform any action?
The following ways are all connected. They are divided just for convenience.
(1) Work like a master, not like a slave: When we work, we become slave of the results of our action. Most of the time the result of the action occupies our mind more than thinking and applying effective ways to perform the action. Suppose a student while studying for a test, occupies his/her mind with thoughts like ‘Am I going to pass the test?’, or ‘What grade am I going to get?’, ‘What if I fail the test?’, ‘What if I don’t get grade A?’ Then, the student has more chances not to do well on the test. A player who keeps thinking of winning or losing the game has higher probability to lose the game. Also, the result of our action decides whether we will be happy or sad. It has been proven by many examples from people’s lives that those who focus more on the performance of the action and provide themselves all the necessary skills and tools have a better record of achieving success consistently. Such people learn from their failures, improve themselves constantly, and enjoy what they are doing. These people work like masters. People who are slaves of the results of actions, are constantly under tension, and remain miserable most of the time. Such people cannot enjoy the actions. They hardly learn from their failures and blame the whole world about their failures.
One may ask: ‘Is it possible not to think of the result of any action?’ ‘Is it wise not to think of the result of action?’ It is true that we cannot avoid thinking of the result of our action. Actually, we have to think of the result and see that our actions bring good results. But, thinking wisely about the results and not becoming slave of the results is the technique we have to learn. That is Karma Yoga.
Those who are devotees of God offer the results of their actions to God. If good results come, they thank God to help them achieve success. If the result is not good, they think that God wants them to learn something and improve. Thus, they do not get attached to the results of their actions. They perform their actions with fully focused mind because they think that they are doing God’s work. Peace immediately follows when one offers the results of actions to God (Gita 12.12)
One way to develop detachment for the results of actions is to keep in our mind the fact that everything belongs to God (the creator, the sustainer, and the dissolver) and we are appointed to perform our responsibilities. Sri Ramakrishna said that work like a house-maid who works in the house as if everything belongs to her, but in her mind she knows that the Master of the house can give her layoff and she has to be ready to quit everything any minute.
No work is inferior: Each responsibility (if it is not harmful to oneself and others) is important. No work is inferior. Many times one does not like one’s own responsibility and likes other people’s responsibilities. Bhagavad Gita says that it is better to perform one’s own responsibility than performing other people’s responsibility (Gita 3.35).
Keep mind balanced: Through properly performing every action one can attain inner peace and highest knowledge. Properly performing means keeping the mind balanced. We have to learn to keep the mind balanced. Passion is needed to perform any work. But, passion has to be controlled as we control the gas-paddle while driving. Pumping gas in necessary when we drive, but we harm ourselves and others if it is beyond control. Bhagavad Gita says that the highest ideal to attain is to be like ‘action-less’ when one is fully engaged in action and when we meditate we look like in the state of ‘action-less’ but our mind is fully active controlling all our thoughts (Gita 4.18)
Keep higher motive: Karma Yogi’s goal is to realize one’s own True Identity (Atman), the divine inner Self. Performing actions are just means to attain to that. If there is no higher motive, then we become like machines. Actually, every action we perform, every word we speak, and every thought we think leaves a mark on our mind and that builds up our personality. According to our personality we react to any situation. If we build up positive and constructive personality, then our reaction to the situation will be proper and beneficial. The result will be joy, better understanding of people and creating an unselfish loving environment. If we build up negative and destructive personality, then after every situation comes depression, reaction, anger, jealousy, and a state of blaming whole world for the failures. Such agitated state of mind cannot give us happiness and inner peace.
Acquire proper tools and skills: Bhagavad Gita describes four things which are under our control to successfully accomplish any work; knowledge of the field of action, field of action, tools required to perform action, and to perform any action. Suppose I want to pass a test in one field. I must register for the test (field of action), I must buy books or needed material to study for the test (tools needed), I must attend classes and study the material (knowledge of the field), and I must take the test (to perform action). All these are under our control. But, I may get sick on the day of the test, I may blank-out during test, I may have a flat tire and cannot make the time of the test or something happens and I do not pass the test. Thus, the result is not in our hand. If we do all the four things which are in our control, then there are higher chances to get a good result. But, there never will be 100% guarantee to expect a positive result (Gita 18.13-14).
Develop service attitude: Finally, the authority (scriptures) on the Karma Yoga say that we have to learn to perform every action as a service to God (or as an offering to the welfare of humanity). What we gain is knowledge, purity of mind, self-control, and freedom from all bondages. Of course, these will bring inner peace, unlimited happiness, and fulfillment. Great Saint Shri Shankaracharya says that ‘May my every action be a worship of the Lord Shiva.’ We perform every action with focused mind, with love and care, and for the good of all as if we are worshiping our beloved God. We perform every action with knowledge and devotion and for knowledge and devotion.
This is a fact that whatever we do for our own body-mind enjoyment has limited joy. We will never be happy with it. We want more and more. But, if we do service unselfishly for the good of others give us unlimited joy and will remember forever. Swami Vivekananda said that those who live for others really live their life. The rest (those who perform only selfish activities for one’s own body-mind pleasures) are more dead than alive. Also, by doing good to others we do good to ourselves. Let us be Karma Yogi and live a joyful life.
1. We have to know our responsibilities and start performing them.
2. Learn the skills of Karma Yoga from Bhagavad Gita, Swami Vivekananda’s lectures, from the experts, and experiment these lessons in our lives. This way we keep improving in our performance of actions.
3. Measure the success of Karma Yoga by our spiritual development and not by the actions performed.
4. Practices of other three yogas help to become a better Karma Yogi.
1. If we do not have spiritual goal, then just performing responsibilities wears us out and brings harmful reactions.
2. Without spiritual goal, service to others can develop ego, and desire for name and fame. Many a times, “mouth bites the hand which feeds it”. People whom one has helped may insults or criticize for no reason. At that time, one can get frustrated.
3. One gets easily attached to the work. Then spiritual growth gets forgotten and the purpose of performing actions will not be served.
(to be continued in the next post)