The theoretical grounds and techniques of action in Karma Yoga are clearly stated by Kåñna in the Bhagavad Gita, with the only observation that the order in which these ideas are presented is not the most convenient for Western people. Briefly, the wise teachings of Kåñna are:
- One can not be without action, even for a second.
- One should not make inaction one‘s goal.
- Certain actions are obligatory, therefore we cannot escape them.
- One should not desire the fruits (or the consequences) of one‘s actions.
- One should not be attached to the action itself.
- One should not consider oneself as being the author of the action.
- Any action, regardless of its nature, will not enchain its performer, if it is done in this way.
- In fact, we can say that Karma Yoga is the divine skill (wisdom and non-attachment) in actions.
We have seen that, broadly speaking, the Karma Yoga system can be resumed in four principles:
- Do not consider any detached action as being without importance, negligible and incompatible with the role we may think we have to play in life as Karma yogi-s.
- Do not egotistically desire or fear the results of your completely detached actions, which you accomplish as divine instrument.
- Do not egotistically attach yourself to the action while you detachedly perform it.
- Neither during an action nor afterwards should you consider yourself the author of that action, but the instrument through which God manifests.
The last three points, if misunderstood, can easily lead to a state of total lack of interest (which is a manifestation of selfishness!) towards the action that has to be done. In this case we will perform that action superficially, hastily, "it doesn’t matter how", because now we don’t feel responsible anymore. This is exactly the opposite of what Karma Yoga is in reality. In fact Karma Yoga puts a bigger responsibility on its practitioner. This is obvious in two ways:
- The difficult responsibility of choosing from among all the existing possibilities the one which answers best to the highest divine ideal of that given moment. It is impossible to escape from this responsibility or hide from it, behind a dogma or a law;
- The obligation to perform, with all your might and in a perfect state of detachment that particular action that was chosen. This implies that, from time to time during that action it is necessary to set aside moments of reflection, andconsecration to the Divine. These moments are necessary in order to accomplish well these two conditions.
As Sri Aurobindo was writing to his disciples: "Laziness must be eradicated, of course, but sometimes it is obvious for me that you went too far in the opposite direction. It is necessary to act completely detached, with all the energy then offered by the Divine, but it is equally necessary sometimes to not act at all" (Practical Integral Yoga). "Too much uninterrupted work is sometimes altering the quality of action, regardless of the experience and the enthusiasm of the one who does it".
We should never imagine that the perfection and the wonderful inner realisation made possible through the Karma Yoga system are easy to attain. Even the correct intellectual understanding of its rules and of their correct application is not easy at all. Kåñnasays in Bhagavad Gita: "Regarding what detached action and inaction are in fact, even sages are sometimes uncertain and some of them are mistaken. We must understand well the concept of detached action, wrong action and inaction. A great wisdom is necessary here because the path of actions is often very complicated".
Sri Ramakrishna regularly talks about the difficulties in the practice of Karma Yoga: "Nishkama karma (the action that is detached of the selfish desire for its fruits) is very difficult" (Teachings of Ramakrishna). "The total unselfish action is very difficult, especially in our time. To act with no egotistical attachment is extremely difficult". And Swami Vivekananda observes with a certain disappointment: "The person who can act completely detached for five days, or even for five minutes, with no egotistical motive whatsoever, without thinking at all to the future, to the rewards of Heaven, to gratification, to punishments or to any other things of the sort, will instantly become a powerful spiritual giant." (Practical Integral Yoga). Sri Ramakrishna told his disciples to think as follows: "I imagine that I accomplish my deeds with detachment, but I do not know for sure to what extent this is an illusion and if I don’t actually act somewhat attached. I do charity acts not knowing if in this way I am trying in fact to step forward in the eyes of people." (Teachings of Ramakrishna). And Sri Aurobindo says: "Karma Yoga is a rapid path, simpler than the Yogic meditation, with the condition that the mind is not fixated upon Karma, but exclusively upon the Divine" (Integral Practical Yoga).
Ma Ananda Moyi adds: "The action that is totally consecrated to God is much more valuable than the action performed under the impulse of our own desire. The former brings about the divine fusion that will lead to Enlightenment, and the latter has as goal the selfish pleasure that will lead to more and more experiences in this world. The only true action is the one who reveals the eternal fusion between the human being and God; the other actions are useless, undignified to be called ‘actions’ and because of that we can say that they are not at all actions". (Teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi)
The practice of the Karma Yoga system can be combined with the practice of other forms of yoga, especially Bhakti Yoga, Haöha Yoga, Raja Yoga, Laya Yoga. This is one of the main themes of Kåñna‘s teachings exposed in Bhagavad Gita. On this subject I will give several quotes:
"Abandon and offer all your works to the Divine." "No matter what you do, do it detachedly as an offering to me. This way you will be free of the good or bad results which are making chains of the selfish action." "Do all your actions detached, driven only by your love for me." "The one who is at the root of all beings and who permeates the entire Universe - only by adoring Him through activity done with detachment, can a person easily obtain perfection".
For Sri Aurobindo, Karma Yoga is most efficient when "we abandon our own will and our selfish desires to the Divine will". (Practical Integral Yoga)
Sri Ramakrishna was telling those who came to consult him: "pray to God to send you His grace and the strength to accomplish your duties with detachment, without hoping for any inner or outer gratification and without fear of a punishment in this world or another". (Teachings of Ramakrishna).
Significantly, Kåñna insists upon the important role of spiritual knowledge and intelligence (in other words Jïana-Yoga) in the practice of Karma Yoga: "This is the intelligence about which you heard in Samkhya; listen now to what Yoga is teaching you: if you are in the state of Yoga through this intelligence, O Son of Pritha, you will eliminate forever the slavery of action". He goes on to say that Karma Yoga completes very well any other type of Yoga, among which are Raja Yoga, Tantra Yoga, Haöha Yoga, Laya Yoga, Bhakti Yoga.
For Sri Aurobindo "the activity done in a completely detached state of mind, as a form of spiritual training is a strong way in any form of Yoga".
Swami Ramadas states: "Without Karma Yoga the practice of Jïana-Yoga and Bhakti Yoga, Haöha Yoga, Tantra Yoga and Laya Yoga is only an extreme spiritual selfish glorification" (Letters).