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The Gita on Renunciation and Karma Yoga
A contemplative temperament must be cultivated.
Swami Dayananda makes an important distinction between giving up things and growing out of things. When you were a child, there were certain things you loved and couldn’t live without, such as teddy bears, action figures, Barbie dolls or Saturday morning cartoons. Fast-forward a few years, and what once meant the world for you now you have no desire for. It’s not that you gave it up, you simply grew out of it.
When you give something up, an attachment remains. You still have a value for that particular thing, so therefore you still have a desire for it. It’s easy to give up something you have no value for, like last week’s garbage. The moment the garbage is collected, you never think about it again, because it has no value to you.
It’s much harder to try to give up the things you love and value, such as money, status, relationships, cars or holidays. As Swami Dayananda says, “As long as there are things without which you cannot live, you cannot call yourself a sannyasi, because there are things that bind you and upon which you depend on for your well-being.”
That’s why you can’t rush headlong into sannyasa. As long as you depend on anything worldly for your happiness, you remain bound by it. Oh, you can take physical sannyasa and go sit in a remote mountain cave, but mental sannyasa isn’t nearly as easy to attain. If you are still bound by worldly objects, even as you sit alone in your cave trying to meditate, your mind will naturally gravitate to those worldly objects rather than the Self.
Renunciation therefore can’t be used as an escape, which is how Arjuna is viewing it. This is because, no matter where you go, your vasanas will be there with you. Before you can progress on your path, you first have to learn to tame and manage the mind.
What makes the Gita particularly important in Vedantic literature is that it is addressed to a general audience, those who still have karma in the world and who aren’t suited or ready for a lifestyle of renunciation. The Upanishads generally seem to favour, and indeed glorify, the path of the ascetic. They are aimed at highly mature souls whose minds have been purified and prepared for knowledge.
This led many to assume that moksa was solely the province of sannyasis, and that one could only hope to attain liberation by renouncing all action and becoming an ascetic. Krishna says this is not so. He advocates the path of action in the world as the better option for most seekers, including Arjuna.
The two paths, the path of karma yoga and the path of jnana yoga, lead to the same destination: liberation through Self-knowledge. Whereas sannyasis are ready to plunge straight into jnana yoga, karma yogis must take the longer path, for they must first purify the mind and make it fit for inquiry.
Only jnana yoga, Self-knowledge, leads to liberation. Karma yoga doesn’t directly lead to liberation but is essential to prepare the mind for jnana yoga. Therefore it may be the longer route, but until one’s mind is purified and freed from the pull of binding likes and dislikes, karma yoga is a necessary prerequisite and cannot be skipped.
How will you know when karma yoga has worked? You will have developed the contemplative disposition of a renunciant which is, as Krishna says, a mind that “neither hates nor longs for anything.”
The Karma Yogi
As a karma yogi, you aren’t called upon to renounce all worldly and materialistic pursuits. Indeed, such pursuits will likely be necessary and appropriate for your stage of life. What changes is your attitude with regard to them. Worldly goals are no longer an end in themselves. You no longer seek wealth for the sake of wealth, pleasure for the sake of pleasure or virtue for the sake of virtue.
In other words, you are no longer a samsari, someone who seeks happiness in worldly objects or objectives. Your goal is now the same as that of the renunciant: freedom through Self-knowledge. When your goal is moksa, you become what we call a mumukshu, a seeker of liberation.
As a karma yogi, it’s not so much your actions that change as your attitude toward action, and this is where the spiritual journey really begins.
The primary aim of karma yoga is a pure mind. According to the Gita, the impurities of mind all boil down to raga-dvesas, your likes and dislikes. When the Gita talks about likes and dislikes, it doesn’t mean whether you prefer tea or coffee. Raga-dvesas are the binding desires and aversions that filter your entire experience of life and compel you to perform actions that may or may not be in harmony in dharma.
These binding likes and dislikes appear in the form of vasanas, the strings by which the jiva is made to dance. This conditioning dictates every aspect of a person’s life and, until it is neutralized, the mind remains in bondage.
You might think of the vasanas as the cogs that keep the wheel of samsara in motion. They bind the jiva to action and its results, keeping the mind extroverted and dependent on objects as a source of happiness. A mind thus agitated is unfit for inquiry, so until the vasanas have been managed, the pursuit of Self-knowledge is a largely wasted endeavour.
Even from a pragmatic point of view, it makes sense to learn to master your desires and aversions rather than be controlled by them. If you had the omniscience of Isvara it wouldn’t be a problem. You’d have the power to ensure that all your likes were attained and all your dislikes were avoided. As a jiva, however, you lack this ability, so, unfortunately, a lot of the time your likes and dislikes will not be met. Whenever this happens, you suffer.
A life driven by one’s likes and dislikes alone is a life of constant ups and downs, frustration, anger and sorrow. The problem of desire-based living is that behind every desire is an expectation and an attachment to gaining a certain result.
The Gita states that unfulfilled expectation leads to anger. Anger is a mental disturbance that distorts and deludes the mind. Lost in a realm of projection and subjectivity, it becomes impossible to think and act objectively, much less practise Self-inquiry. Such a conflict-ridden mind becomes ever more enmeshed in the net of samsara.
That’s why the entire psychology of the Gita focuses on the management of your likes and dislikes, which are seen as the root of all psychological disturbances.
For the average person, the dance of the likes and dislikes – and the resultant desire, attachment, anger, sorrow and delusion – continues throughout an entire lifetime. The management of these psychological compulsions is not a one-time affair. As Swami Chinmayananda often said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”
Karma yoga is the great purifier of the mind. Its practise helps you manage your likes and dislikes until, bit by bit, the mind becomes steady, stable and fit for inquiry.
As object-dependency diminishes, you find that grief over the past and anxiety over the future falls away. Living a life of karma yoga, you take what happens as prasad, as a gift from the Lord. A situation may or may not bring the result you hoped for, but because your action is no longer motivated by your likes and dislikes, you can accept it because your primary intent as a mumukshu is cultivating a peaceful, pure mind.
You trust Isvara to dispense the appropriate result according to the greater good of the total. Your view of life moves from complete subjectivity to objectivity, and your mind becomes more discriminating and dispassionate, two of the key qualifications necessary for an inquiry-ready mind.
Isvara Is Dharma
In order for karma yoga to work, it’s necessary to approach life with a devotional, dharma-orientated mindset. Rather than pursuing action solely for the sake of gratifying your likes and dislikes, every action is undertaken as an offering to Isvara. Obviously, you will only want to offer actions that are worthy of Isvara, and this is done by living with strict adherence to dharma. You won’t, for instance, go about robbing people or mugging old ladies and claim that you’re doing it for Isvara!
Rather than a chore or inconvenience, dharma is actually your greatest friend and, as the scriptures call it, your “protector.” This is a lawful universe, a dharma field, and by living in harmony with those laws, you are living in harmony with Isvara. In fact the karma yogi understands that dharma is Isvara. Isvara, wielding maya, is the principle that determines, sets and maintains the tapestry of universal laws that comprise the Creation.
When you play by the rules and follow the appropriate dharma as it relates to your body, mind, environment, life circumstances and other people, you tend to get positive results. Life flows, you avoid too much calamity and you cultivate the peaceful and abiding mind necessary for successful Self-inquiry. Your life becomes a dance of dharma, and as such, every action becomes an act of devotion to Isvara.
“When you are impelled by likes and dislikes,” says Swami Dayananda, “you are performing action for your own sake, whereas if you sacrifice your likes and dislikes and perform action with the awareness of dharma, then you are doing it for the sake of Isvara.”
This is easy when the dharmic action happens to be in alignment with your desires. However, when it conflicts with your likes and dislikes, you may find yourself less inclined to act. If you happen to be an immature, desire-orientated person, you may decide do violate dharma and do what you want, regardless of the consequences.
Violating dharma in even the subtlest and most seemingly insignificant ways creates ripples. It agitates the mind, not least because you feel a pang of guilt, and also because you instinctively know that when you go against Isvara, Isvara will go against you. You’ll find yourself constantly looking over your shoulder and fretting about when your indiscretion is likely to catch up with you.
As a karma yogi, you always conform to dharma, even if the action isn’t to your liking. We all have to do things we don’t like, and we do them because we know that we have to. In this way, actions are done for Isvara, for the totality, rather than your own personal preferences.
Swami Dayananda states that a karma yogi is actually a devotee. “Actions become offerings when Isvara is looked upon as dharma.” As long as action is motivated by your own self-interest, attachment remains in the form of expectations, frustration, anger and sorrow. But when action is motivated by dharma, you remain in harmony with Isvara.
Swami Dayananda explains that this “is why there is always a sense of relief when you do something that is right. There is a satisfaction because you are not rubbing against the law. There is no conflict. The absence of conflict is shanti [peace].”
Although the Self is actionless, the jiva, as part of the Creation, has to contribute to the Creation. A certain degree of participation is mandatory; that’s why we’ve been given not only organs of perception, but organs of action. This participation takes the form of doing what is to be done when it is to be done; in other words, following dharma.
There’s No Skipping Ahead
Modern spiritual teachers tend to skip the part on preparatory work. There’s little talk of dharma or karma yoga, because it’s not exactly an enticing notion to the average spiritual seeker.
Accordingly, these wily spiritual entrepreneurs package only the juiciest elements of the teaching in order to sell their books and workshops. People generally don’t want to hear that qualifications are necessary and that they have to put in some hard graft in order for the teaching to work. In today’s society we all want and expect instant gratification.
Unfortunately, skipping to the end doesn’t work with Vedanta. It might if one’s mind is extremely pure to begin with, but such a soul is uncommon. Almost anyone living in today’s confused and confusing world, with its endless distractions, iPhones, gadgets, social media, Netflix and porn can safely assume that they don’t yet have the tranquil, refined mind of a yogi.
That’s why everyone should start at the beginning, by adopting the karma yoga mindset and following dharma in order to neutralize the mind’s extroverting vasanas.
As with everything in life, the proof is in the pudding. You’ll know when karma yoga is working because you’ll see the results for yourself. As Swami Chinmayananda says, “When the mind is swept clean of its desire-waves, it must, necessarily, become more and more quiet and peaceful. When the intellect is purified, meaning rendered immune to desire-disturbances, the mind, which reflects the condition of the intellect, cannot have any disturbances. The sentimental and emotional life of one who has controlled the floodgates of desires automatically becomes tame and equanimous.”
With karma yoga, you experience a shift from dependence on objects for happiness to dependence on Isvara for happiness. The impurities of desire and aversion melt away when you commit to a life of self-mastery and devotion. All your actions are consecrated to Isvara and performed for dharma, for the good of the total, rather than for personal gain. You accept whatever results Isvara dispenses with equanimity because your true goal was the cultivation of a peaceful and pure mind.
Such a mind, when illumined by the alchemy of Self-knowledge, shifts again from dependence on Isvara to true Self-dependence, and you come to know yourself as one with the entire Creation.