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The Five Offerings of Karma Yoga
Larry: I am looking for some discussion and description of the five offerings.
Sundari: Because I value life more than anything and because it is a gift from the field of existence, I reciprocate by taking the three dharmas into account and offering my actions as a gift to the field. Karma yoga is a giving, not a getting, attitude. It is the appropriate response to life’s demands. It breaks the hold of rajasic and tamasic desires, and converts an extroverted, emotional mind into a peaceful, introspective, sattvic mind.
What you do with the gift of life is your offering to the field. The field is obviously intelligently designed, so there has to be an intelligent architect. And the field controls us completely, right down to causing us to breathe, eat and digest our food, so it is called God. What we do with the gift of life is our offering to God. If you appreciate this fact, which should be second nature, you will not offer a greedy, angry, vain, licentious life to the Lord. You will offer a pure life as a wonderful gift with a cheerful, smiling face. You may wonder why, considering the downsides of life, you should present a cheerful, smiling face. However, if you are fair-minded, you can find an upside for every downside because life is a perfectly equilibrated duality. The half-empty glass is half-full. A positive attitude is no less realistic than a negative attitude.
The best life is not a material life, because it does not tap our real potential, and it is a life of problems that tends to compromise our authenticity. The best life is a sincere life, one that manifests our innate spiritual potential and adds real value to the world. To do what you love is the best worship you can offer, assuming it doesn’t involve injury.
How does karma yoga work? Before I act, I offer the actions to the field, and when results come, which they do every minute, I take them as a gift, even if they aren’t what I want, in which case I see them as instructive, corrective offerings from the field that help me to avoid actions that will produce unwanted results in the future. In this way, I set up healthy communications with my environment.
Of course it is not easy, because the ego, the most tamasic function in the subtle body, abhors change and does not like to relinquish the idea of control, even though it is not in control of the results in the first place. Rather than follow the foolish advice of gurus who tout ego-death, you need to make friends with your ego and educate, not eradicate, it, not that ego-death is even possible. Enlightened or not, you cannot function in the world without an ego. If you patiently educate your ego in the karma yoga spirit, it will like you because you have given it good, noble work, and you will like it because it will stop being a problem.
The Five Offerings
Karma yoga is not only right attitude, it is right action. Actions can be classified in terms of how well they serve to prepare the mind for inquiry. They are (1) sattvic, those that give maximum spiritual benefit, (2) rajasic, those that are neither beneficial nor detrimental and (3) tamasic, those that are harmful and lead one away from the goal.
These actions build unhelpful vasanas that take the doer away from liberation. Violence in thought, word and deed, lying, cheating, stealing, gambling, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, excessive sex solely for pleasure, etc. are examples of the third class of karmas. They are considered sins because they produce a dull and agitated mind. They are not recommended for anyone and are definitely prohibited for karma yogis.
The second class is desire-prompted activities that basically contribute to our material well-being. These activities do not directly contribute to preparing the mind, but they are scripturally sanctioned because indirectly they make it possible to pursue liberation. They are not considered sins as long as they do not compel the individual to violate dharma or ignore the legitimate needs of others, in which case they increase selfishness, a detrimental characteristic. In fact the Vedic scriptures prescribe several rituals for getting money, property, certain types of children, etc. They are not encouraged or discouraged.
The first class of actions, sattvic karmas, are necessary if karma yoga is going to bear fruit. They are giving karmas, not grabbing karmas. The more you give, the more you grow. Karma yoga involves actions that add value to every situation, offerings that contribute to the well-being of the dharma field. The intention of a karma yogi is to enshrine sattvic karmas at the forefront of her life, to see that rajasic karmas are relegated to subordinate status and to eliminate tamasic karmas. Of course it is impossible to eliminate tamasic actions altogether. Certain situations demand them. Sattvic karmas bring about maturity and spiritual growth. These actions are not based on desires for tangible results like money, fame, status, pleasure, children and so forth. They should be considered compulsory actions – assuming the desire for liberation.
What are these karmas? They are called the Five Essential Worships (pancha-maha-yajna). There is no tangible benefit from these karmas. One of these practices does not replace the other. Just as eating only dessert at the expense of other nutritious foods is not enough, all five are necessary. Each one affects a different part of the psyche, and the psyche as a whole needs to be healed. These practices are the essence of karma yoga because they directly contribute to spiritual growth.
1. Worship of God in Any Form. Isvara/Maya, the creator of the dharma field, is God. Karma yoga is worship of God. Most modern spiritual people have abandoned religion because so much suffering has foisted on humanity in its name. But the religious impulse, the self loving itself, is as hardwired as the desire for identity. So it is incumbent on a karma yogi to choose a symbol of the self that is attractive and uplifting, and worship it regularly. It can be anything because every object is just God in a particular form. It may be a ritual sacrifice or a puja in front of an idol or a photo. It can be telling the beads, visiting a temple, doing service or giving money to a church or mosque.
2. Unconditional Reverence for Parents, especially difficult ones. For instance, if you don’t feel love when you think of your parents, you should inquire into why you have a problem with them. You should “heal” the relationship in your mind by understanding, for example, that if the other person could have been different they would have been different and that they did their best according to their conditioning. Find a place in your heart to accommodate them and give them credit for the good qualities they instilled in you. They are no longer in your life physically perhaps, but they are still in your mind. They are part of it and it is made out of you. Until you have a loving feeling about that part of your mind, you will not be free to inquire properly. In any case the essence of enlightenment is love, so you might as well start somewhere. Once you have dissolved the negativity bring an image of them into your mind and fill the image with love. Keep the love flowing to the image as long as possible.
3. Worship of Scriptures. The purpose of karma yoga is to cultivate devotion, develop your understanding and gain a contemplative disposition so that you can assimilate the meaning of the teachings. You should not think that you will start inquiry one fine day when you are contemplative. You should set aside a half an hour, an hour a day or more for study of Vedanta. Pick a text, read a verse or a few pages each morning and contemplate throughout the day. You don’t become contemplative all at once. You have contemplative moments throughout the day and insights all along. Cultivate those moments, and the extroverted mind will gradually turn inward.
4. Service to Humanity. Worshipful service simply means responding appropriately to legitimate, small, everyday requests for help. When someone wants something from you, see if you can’t accommodate them, assuming it is a reasonable desire. If you are helping others, at least you are not wasting your time indulging tamasic and rajasic habits. Service isn’t only doing what others want, although it might include that. It is showing an accommodating openness to others, not shutting them out. Because ego, born of a sense of inadequacy and inferiority, looks for opportunities to feel special, virtuous and recognized, humble service keeps these tendencies in check. It is based on a recognition of the essential oneness of all. It is also wise because everything we need comes through others. Service-oriented individuals are generally well looked after.
5. Worship of All Sentient Beings. There is no distance between us and nature. We are born in it, live in it and die in it. Worshipping nature is continual mindfulness of our environments, beautifying them and contributing to them always, including the body, our most intimate contact with nature. How we relate to everything in our delicately balanced ecosystem has a powerful effect on our state of mind. Recycle. Reduce your carbon footprint. Go green.