(‘yoga of karma or action’)

According to all the six systems of Hindu philosophy, especially the Vedānta, mokṣa or liberation from the cycle of transmigration, is the final goal of human life. This can be got by realising God—called Ātman or Brahman or Īśvara—who is not only transcendent but also immanent in every object of the universe including the human being. This can be done either by jñāna (knowledge) or by bhakti (devotion) through the respective paths known as Jñānayoga and Bhaktiyoga.

However, all the schools of Vedānta concede that niṣkāmakarma (ordained actions performed without the taint of selfish desires) purifies the mind—this is called ‘cittaśuddhi’—making it fit for the paths of either jñāna or bhakti.

If God is in the heart of every human being and if the impurity of mind is preventing him from getting God-experience, removing that impurity should do the trick. And, niṣkāmakarma pursued till the whole mind is completely purified, must be able to achieve this and hence God-realisation as well as mokṣa too! This is the line of argument of those who advocate that Karmayoga also, like the other yogas, can be an independent path leading to mokṣa. And, there is enough support in the scriptures for this school also (vide Amṛtabindu Upaniṣad 2, 3 and 4; Īśāvāsya Upaniṣad 2; Bhagavadgītā 3.20; 5.19; 18.46; Viṣṇupurāṇa 2.3.25 and so on).

Man is essentially a social being and cannot live without doing some karma or the other. By guiding him in this field of karma itself, Karmayoga shows him the way of spiritual evolution.

Every human being has to work at two levels: the individual or the personal and, the social. The work at the individual level comprises general maintenance of the body and spiritual practices for spiritual evolution. The work at the social level consists of earning one’s livelihood and discharging one’s obligations to the other members of the society, including those of one’s own family.

Our body-mind complex is the basic instrument for us, to practise any yoga. Hence it must be kept in a good condition. In Karmayoga, since work or activity is all important, this becomes even more vital.

Apart from this, coming to the field of work itself, the spiritual aspirant following the path of Karmayoga has to implement the following, as a part of his sādhanā:

  1. He has to eschew completely all actions and conduct declared as niṣiddha (sinful and hence prohibited).
  2. He has to renounce all kāmya-karma or actions motivated by selfish desires, since they bind him to saṁsāra or transmigratory existence.
  3. On the other hand, he should never shirk from doing his ordained duties or kartavyakarmas, however unpleasant they may appear to be. Ordained duties are determined by the scriptures, social conventions and even by what one has voluntarily chosen as a duty (provided it does not transgress the basic principles of dharma).
  4. Since each is great in his own place, he should never think that his own work (and hence himself) is greater than that of others. Everyone, irrespective of his status in the society or the work that is his ordained duty, is capable of attaining spiritual enlightenment by cultivating the attitude that he is worshipping God through that work.
  5. He should also pay great attention to attaining proficiency in his field of work. Efficient work, done without desires and ambitions, helps one in subjective spiritual evolution. It will also benefit the society greatly. And, if the society is benefited, he too should be benefited.

The epics and the purāṇas give us the names of quite a few persons who got enlightenment through Karmayoga. They are: a brāhmin lady (Mahābhārata, Vanaparva 206); Dharmavyādha (op. cit. 209); Tulādhāra (Śāntiparva 262); Janaka (Bhagavadgītā 3.20).

The saint Puṇḍarīka (10th century A. D.) from Maharashtra may also be taken as an example.

A perfect karmayogi is never attached to anything in this world. He has actually no duties or obligations since he has already attained the final goal of life. However, he is ever active in the world, out of infinite compassion for the suffering human beings and also to set an example to the un-enlightened persons.

Another characteristic of his is that he works like a master and not like a servant or a slave. And, his own work is so perfect that it becomes a model for others to emulate.

See also KARMA.