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Karma Yoga Is Dharma Yoga
Nina: Hi, Sundari, I hope all is well with you and James!
I see often that exercising karma yoga is one of the ways to prepare one to remove the ignorance of one’s nature. Although everything I said implies action, I understand that we must operate in mithya to get to the self. Please feel free to correct my misconceptions.
Sundari: Thank you, Nina, all is wonderful. Karma yoga is the only way to negate the doer and remove some of the pressure of the binding likes and dislikes. Karma yoga is not about not acting, it is an attitude we take towards action. We never stop acting, but for peace of mind we must act appropriately, in a timely way and in accordance with dharma. Even sitting still in silence is an action. To negate the doer, we must see action in inaction and inaction in action. That is discrimination. And you cannot “get to the self,” because you are the self. Where is there to get to, as there is nowhere you are not? Consciousness pervades everything. You are only ever experiencing consciousness, nothing else. But I understand that by that statement you are saying you are “getting to” the realization that you are the self. That is where the “work” of self-inquiry begins.
Nina: Another question is, how do you know what is your karma yoga? If you have options, how does one knows what option to choose to be in alignment with their particular karma yoga?
Sundari: I think you do not understand karma yoga and are confusing it with dharma. They are linked, but how can there be a “personal” karma yoga? As I said above, karma yoga is simply an attitude I take towards action. It is the consecration of all my actions to Isvara in a spirit of gratitude and the understanding that I can act in an appropriate and timely manner, but I am not in charge of the results. I know that only Isvara is in charge of the Field of Existence and takes care of the needs of the Total before my small needs. Therefore I take all results that do come as prasad, as a gift of grace, and exactly what I need. I do not complain, whine or become depressed when I do not get what I want. The whole point of karma yoga is to understand that you are not the doer and to negate your likes and dislikes, you offer them to Isvara.
Nina: Karma yoga is not necessarily devotional and all smiles, forgiveness and a happy world, it is what is in your path, taking it warts and all.
Sundari: Correct, karma yoga is often very difficult exactly because we often do not get what we want but quite the opposite. We get what Isvara wants to give us according to our karma load. Being grateful when you have lost your job, your lover, your whatever is when gratitude counts. It does not count as much when you are sitting at a banquet with the love of your life, with all your likes and dislikes catered to.
Nina: But how do you know? Can someone’s karma yoga be in contrast with some universal values (if such exist) and still be right karma yoga for that jiva? What does karma yoga mean at all? How do you know it is karma yoga and not action that comes from your vasanas? Do not worry, I will not do anything stupid, as I do not need your answer to give me a licence to act this way or another, my questions are purely intellectual because I get to that quite often, making choices. From which place should they be made and to where?
Sundari: Karma yoga is for negating the doer – the one who thinks it is responsible for doing. It is not about what you do or don’t do. Karma yoga never fails, because it is an attitude you take towards action, not the action itself. However, if you are contravening dharma, karma yoga does not work. It only works if you are acting in accordance with your inborn nature (svadharma) and in accordance with Isvara’s universal dharma – see more on the different types of dharma further down.
Karma yoga means fully dedicating your every thought, word and action, before they are performed, on a moment-to-moment basis, to Isvara. Karma yoga is performing one’s duty, cultivating the right attitude toward life, thus one is conforming to the pattern and harmony of Creation and one becomes alive to the beauty of the cosmic order.
Karma yoga is not a path. It is a life committed to performing action as yoga. It takes skill to perform action with the right attitude, which is doing what is to be done, whether you like it or not. Thus likes and dislikes, how I feel about the situation, do not come into play. Your likes and dislikes often prompt you to perform an action which is not conducive to peace of mind, so a karma yogi refrains from performing it, because it is not proper for them. So performing actions in harmony with the natural order (dharmic actions) and avoiding actions that disturb the order (adharmic actions) is karma yoga.
Karma yoga is keeping one’s attention on the motivation behind one’s actions and adjusting one’s attitude when it is found to be vasana-producing. When rajas is strong, the mind cannot observe itself. It is caught up in the future, the thought that things need to be different, so the mind acts to correct the situation, usually in negative ways; it does not act to correct itself. When tamas predominates, the mind is too dull to discriminate; it is prone to denial and avoidance. Rajas and tamas always work together. Where you find projection (rajas) you will find denial (tamas).
Sameness of mind towards success and failure with respect to action is another definition of yoga. When a result is looked upon as a success, attachment arises and when it is looked upon as failure aversion arises. In fact there is no such thing as success and failure. Every result is in accordance with the laws of action. Laws are not made by anybody; they are made by the dharma field, or Isvara, so they can never go wrong. Every result is a right result. The more you appreciate the laws, the more you are in harmony with the things around and you can find your place in the scheme of things. Action never really fails; it only produces results. A given expectation may be said to have failed, but the one with the expectation has not failed. That I have failed or that the action has failed is the wrong conclusion – only the expectation is the problem. Nobody fails. It is only a matter of wrong judgment because we are not omniscient and we cannot have the knowledge of all the factors that shape the results of the actions. Only Isvara has all knowledge of these factors.
As stated, another definition of karma yoga is an attitude of gratitude, a loving consecration of one’s actions based on the understanding that life is a great gift that requires reciprocation. We must remember that we have the freedom in choosing and performing an action and whatever result comes is in accordance with the laws governing the action. This attitude of taking the result as it is, maintaining equanimity of the mind both in success and failure, is yoga.
Failure to appreciate this fact results in low self-esteem, the feeling that “I am a failure.” The solution to low self-esteem is the understanding that one’s knowledge of all the variables in the field that produce results is and always will be limited. Therefore the results of one’s actions can never be known.
Action can produce likes and dislikes (vasanas) only if the result is looked upon as a success or failure. When the result is looked upon as a function of the invariable laws of action or, what is even better, if it is looked upon as the grace of the dharma field, no new likes and dislikes are created. The existing likes and dislikes will no doubt create desires and produce actions, but new likes and dislikes are avoided. With this attitude towards the result actions born of likes and dislikes becomes the means of eliminating the very likes and dislikes themselves. The mind becomes free from the agitations of elation (rajas) and depression (tamas).
Such a mind is tranquil and contemplative, sattvic.
Three Types of Dharma
There are three types of dharma. Everything in the mithya world is always changing, therefore dharma is always changing. Dharma is a very difficult topic, and it is impossible for one person to tell another what their personal dharma is or what is right for them in any situation. What is right for you will not be right for me. Generally, when you feel happy and at peace with what you are doing, you are following your svadharma. When there is a nagging, unhappy or guilty voice in your head, you are most likely contravening dharma, either by what you are doing or not doing. Ultimately, the highest dharma is to commit to self-inquiry into your true nature using the scripture as your means of knowledge, which you apply to everything in your life. What is the use of self-knowledge if it does not translate into the life of the person? Vedanta is a valid means of knowledge which dispels ignorance in every situation, if it is properly taught, assimilated and applied. It is never fails – and if it does, it is not the fault of the scripture but our failure to grasp its true meaning for us.
The universal laws, or dharmas, are built into the nature of the Field of Existence and cannot be avoided or contravened without consequence. Although dharma is one because reality is non-dual, it can be understood in three ways.
1: Samanya dharma, or universal values, are twofold: (a) the moral laws governing the Field of Existence that apply to everyone personally, like non-injury, honesty, fairness, etc., (b) the macrocosmic laws of physics, like gravity, electricity and thermodynamics, etc. These laws behave the way they behave whether you are aware of them or not and cannot be changed, only understood. Universal laws work the same way for everybody and cannot be contravened without consequence.
2. Visesa dharma is how the individual interprets universal laws and applies them to their lives in the apparent reality with regards to everything: lifestyle, diet, money, work, family, sex, marriage, how one relates to people and the environment one lives in, technology, etc. Visesa dharma will vary for everyone depending on their life circumstances and svadharma.
3. Svadharma with a small “s” is an individual’s conditioning. This is the nature and the predisposition with which each person is born. To be happy the individual needs to act in accordance with his or her inborn nature or he or she will not be following dharma. For instance, if it is an individual’s nature to be a businessperson, it will not serve them to be in the healing professions or vice versa. Svadharma is different for everyone.
All dharmas are based on common sense and logic. Our personal svadharma includes our conditioning, or vasana load, which will be governing how we see and act on all levels. The binding vasanas must be seen and dissolved for peace of mind to be experienced. We all have a given nature that we need to be in harmony with, and unless one understands what it is, we can make decisions that cause great agitation, suffering and discomfort to the mind and body.
It is possible that on the personal level, to be true to our svadharma, we must sometimes take actions that cause agitation and distress to ourselves or “others.” For instance, because I am afraid to hurt my parents and feel duty-bound to them, I could decide to do what they want for me knowing it does not support who I am. Or conversely, I decide that my need to be true to myself trumps making my parents happy. Another example is people who decide to leave unhappy marriages even though they pay a high price emotionally to do so. There is no fixed rule when it comes to “right and wrong” actions. There is just the law of karma – cause and effect – appropriate action, and that we are never in control of the outcome of any action. If we do decide to go against our nature for good reason, then we do so with a clear mind and heart, without complaint and with the karma yoga attitude.
Sometimes doing the right thing for us involves tough decisions. But if we do not live in accordance with the rules of life and the nature Isvara gives us, we will not be happy or have peace of mind. Our lives must conform to the truth, not the other way around. When it does, following the truth will always work out for the best even though it may turn our life upside down. In the long run, it is far more damaging to all concerned to make choices that contradict dharma because we are afraid to face the consequences of making the choices that are right for us.
If on the other hand, if we are duty-bound and cannot change our circumstance, then we must accept that this is prarabdha karma playing out and we attend to it as best we can, as always, with the karma yoga attitude. You know the beautiful prayer: “Lord give me the courage to change what needs to be changed, the strength to accept what cannot be changed and the wisdom to know the difference between the two.”
It never matters what you do from the self’s point of view, because for the self, nothing ever happens or changes. But for the jiva who lives in the apparent reality, it matters what you do, assuming you want peace of mind and freedom from limitation. Moksa is only for the jiva because the self is ever-free.
There are three main types of doer renunciation: (1) karma yoga – surrendering the results of action to Isvara, (2) karma sannyas – renouncing GRATUITOUS actions and (3) karma jnana sannyas, the knowledge that you may act but you are not the doer.
Nina: I get confused with all references that stem mostly from the Hindu heritage, as my conditioning happened in mainly Western culture with little exposure to other cultural heritages and their concepts. I kind of think of certain concept and must translate it into my own understanding with my own words, and sometimes I manage to grasp it, but sometimes I think I grasped it, then I stumble on the expansion of it. Does that mean that my mind (this jiva) might not be prepared for the inquiry into the self?
Sundari: No, it does not necessarily mean you are not qualified for self-inquiry, although it is clear you do not have all the qualifications. But they can be developed, assuming you are serious about moksa. It could be that you are making the mistake that many inquirers make who do not yet understand what Vedanta is: you are interpreting it and trying to fit it into your understanding and beliefs instead of the other way around. Vedanta will never work for you unless you at least provisionally accept the fact that everything you know or think you know is wrong. But your beliefs on the shelf and trust the scripture. If the scripture differs from what you think, you can be certain that the fault is in your thinking, not the other way around. We call this faith in the scripture shraddha, which is not blind faith but faith pending the outcome of our investigation. If after exposing your mind to the scripture you prefer your beliefs, you can always take them back. Have you read James’ book The Essence of Enlightenment? If not, I urge you to do so. I am sure I have given you the requirements and steps for self-inquiry. Please make sure you follow all our recommendations clearly stated on the website.
~ Love, Sundari