8.2 Karma Yoga

This sub-module is based on the teachings of Swami Paramarthananda, James Swartz, Sundari (Isabella Viglietti) and Tan.
Expand All Sections


Though we may hear the teachings of Vedanta and intellectually resolve all doubts, assimilating the teachings is another matter alltogether.

There are long established thinking patterns which keep us tied to the world of objects. Objects distract and disturb the mind, not allowing us a tranquil mind where these teachings might be assimilated.

The scriptures realized this problem and provided a means to calm the mind and turn it inwards to Self Inquiry.

And one of the most important techniques is Karma Yoga.

How does Karma Yoga work?

Karma Yoga works by removing the Vasanas that extrovert the mind, and develop Vasanas that turn the mind toward the Self so that Self Inquiry can bear fruit.

So in this sub-module we’ll discuss:

1. What is Karma Yoga?
2. How Karma Yoga is related to Dharma?
3. The benefits of practising Karma Yoga.
4. Practical example of Karma Yoga in action.

What is Karma Yoga?

Expand this section
Karma Yoga is a compound of two words: Karma and Yoga. The word “Karma” in this context means “proper action”, and the word “Yoga” in this context refers to “proper attitude”.

So in simple terms, Karma Yoga means “doing proper actions with a proper attitude”.

What is Meant by “Proper Action”?

Expand this section
The scriptures categorize human action into 3 types. The actions are categorized based on their spiritual benefits, rather than any material benefits derived from such actions.

The 3 types of actions (Karmas) are:

1. Sattvic Karmas

Sattvic Karmas provide the most positive spiritual benefits to a person. Sattvic Karmas are those actions that help contribute to other’s well being.

Sattvic Karmas are also called Punya Karmas or Nishkama Karmas. We will discuss more on Punya Karmas in the Law of Karma sub-module.

Sattvic Karmas give more to world and take less. They are giving Karmas, not grabbing Karmas. The more you give, the more you grow. Therefore Vedic culture is a giving culture.

Sattvic Karmas are necessary if Karma Yoga is going to work.

2. Rajasic Karmas

Rajasic Karmas, also called Sakama Karmas, have limited or zero spiritual benefits, though they may provide material benefits.

It is those actions done for the benefit of myself, for my own material acquisitions and desires.

Though such actions are not prohibited, in fact you do need some Rajasic Karmas to maintain your life, such Karmas do not contribute much to spiritual growth.

3. Tamasic Karmas

Tamasic Karmas, also called Nishidha (prohibited) Karmas or Adharmic Karmas or Papa Karmas, have a negative spiritual effect on us. We will discuss Papa Karmas further in Law of Karma sub-module.

Tamasic Karmas are those Karmas that break the norms of Dharma. It is those actions whereby I benefit, but is harmful to others. Such actions bring us down spiritually.

So Sattvic Karmas lead to spiritual advancement, Rajasic Karmas lead to spiritual stagnation, and Tamasic Karmas lead to spiritual regression.

The scriptures say that a Karma Yogi’s attempt should be to change the proportion of Karmas in such a way that the Sattvic Karmas are more dominant, Rajasic Karmas are less dominant, and to make Tamasic Karmas almost nil.

And even if we do some Tamasic Karmas under unavoidable circumstances, such Karmas can be neutralized by doing Sattvic Karmas.

So Sattvic Karmas help in two ways; first by contributing to spiritual growth, and secondly by neutralizing Tamasic Karmas.

Close this section

What is Meant by “Proper Attitude”?

Expand this section
Any attitude is born out of right understanding. One can never develop a healthy and lasting attitude unless one understands the principles.

So what is a “proper attitude” while doing any action?

The moment you do an action, it leaves your hand – metaphorically speaking – and becomes part of the universe.

And once Karma becomes part of the Universe, all the Universal laws will act upon the Karma. This is because everything in creation in acted upon by the laws of the Universe.

So the moment I do an action, the Universal laws act upon the Karma, and this processed Karma is called Phalam, the fruits (results) of my action.

Thus every Karma is processed by Universal laws, becomes Phalam (result of action), and is handed back to me.

The scriptures say all Universal laws are tools in the hands of Isvara (or God) to maintain the harmony of creation. And therefore when we say the laws process Karma, it essentially means Isvara is processing the Karma.

Therefore Karmas are going to Isvara for processing, and the results are coming from Isvara as Phalam.

Offerings to Isvara

If you remember the fact that all actions are going to Isvara, then any action you do becomes an offering to Isvara or God.

For an enlightened Karma Yogi every action is an offering to Isvara, born our of this knowledge. In Sanskrit this attitude is called Isvara Arpana Bhavana; “Arpana” meaning “offering” and “Bhavana” meaning “attitude”.

So while acting in Karma Yoga spirit, every action is consecrated to Isvara.

An Attitude of Gratitude

In Hindu temples devotees offer food items to the deity while doing Puja (a ritual). After the priest performs the Puja, these food items are considered to have the deity’s blessings residing in it. These blessed food items are called Prasad, and the devotees consume the Prasad to receive the blessings themselves.

Similarly, when I perform an action with an “attitude of offering” to Isvara, and when I receive the result, the result becomes Prasad from Isvara to me. Isvara is giving me the Prasad in return of my offering.

Because the Prasad comes from God, it is sacred and therefore cannot be rejected or criticized, but received with gratitude.

So every result of my action, I accept with an “attitude of gratitude”. In Sanskrit this attitude is called Isvara Prasada Bhavana.

So in short Karma Yoga is doing actions with an “attitude of offering” to Isvara, and receiving the results with an “attitude of gratitude”.

Close this section

Karma Yoga image

When you set out to do something appreciate how fortunate you are that you are here in a body, able to what you do, to have a wonderful family, to just be here breathing and experiencing. Life is a gift that keeps on giving with every breath and it is not complete unless we offer ourselves back to it in the form of our thoughts and feelings. It is just the sense that you are making a contribution. When you contact a person, see them as yourself and honor them with kind words and humble gestures. So just think of the self and mentally say, “This is for you, self.” It seems a bit ritualistic at first, but the ritual will put you in touch with an immense ocean of gratitude within yourself that uplifts you and burns Vasanas like wildfire.

James Swartz

Close this section

Karma Yoga and Dharma

Expand this section
Karma Yoga, when practiced properly, is really Dharma Yoga because every action you take is dedicated to Isvara; it is a consecration. It is understood that peace of mind only comes with the realisation that you are not in control of the Dharma field (laws of the Universe), yet in taking the appropriate steps to act according to Dharma and then relinquishing the results, whereby peace of mind is produced.

If you are not experiencing peace of mind by relinquishing results, you are not relinquishing results. It means the doer is still there, afraid and small, still wanting a particular result. It is frustrated and afraid because it believes it needs the result to be safe or whole, and is not getting what it wants.

Karma Yoga means fully dedicating your every thought word and action, before they are performed, on a moment-to-moment basis, to Isvara, and accepting whatever is the result with an attitude of gratitude, knowing that the results are not up to you. This applies whether or not one is sure of what the right action is.

Karma Yoga is an attitude towards action. Karma Yoga is performing one’s duty, cultivating the right attitude toward life. In the beginning of one’s spiritual practice, duty is an attitude, but eventually it becomes natural.

The right attitude is not a path, it is a commitment. Karma Yoga is not a path, it is a life committed to performing action as yoga, and 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.

Close this section

Benefits of Karma Yoga

Expand this section

1. Helps Assimilate Self-Knowledge

Expand this section
Karma Yoga is intended for people with spiritual Vasanas who know they are the Self, but do not have full confidence in the knowledge.

The lack of confidence is due to Rajas and Tamas (we discussed the 3 Gunas here: link), which cloud and disturb the mind to such a degree that it cannot enjoy the freedom that Self-Knowledge confers.

Karma Yoga is an important topic in Bhagavad Gita. In the Gita, an extroverted person (Arjuna) abandons his duty in the middle of a crisis and is taught Self-Knowledge on life’s battlefield by his friend (Krishna), an enlightened person. Arjuna’s mind is too agitated to permit him to assimilate the knowledge so he is encouraged to practice Karma Yoga.

The purpose of Karma Yoga is to negate one’s sense of doer-ship, and to render one’s binding Vasanas non-binding. When the mind is sufficiently purified of these two fundamental disturbances, it can turn its attention inward and engage in effective Self Inquiry.

Only is such a quiet mind will Self-Knowledge arise be assimilated.

Close this section

2. Neutralizes Binding Vasanas

Expand this section
If we are going to reduce our Vasana load and turn the mind toward the Self we need the Karma Yoga spirit. It is not a spirit you can successfully assume without understanding the logic behind it.

Karma yoga works on the Ego, the doer. The Ego is that part of the Subtle Body that acts to enjoy the results. It is also the part that owns action and its results. (We discussed the Ego in the 3 Bodies sub-module: link)

The words “I do, I enjoy, this is mine” belong to the doer. For someone seeking freedom, these ideas are obstacles because they build unhelpful Vasanas and obstruct knowledge.

The desire that is in me demands action, and action causes desire. So even if I run off to a cave in India, I have not solved my problem. My Vasanas and my disturbed mind go with me.

Why does action create Vasanas?

The Vasanas are caused by the attitude with which we act.

What is the attitude?

The attitude is “I want. I don’t want.” In short, fear and desire motivate us.

It stands to reason that a different attitude may not produce the Vasanas. Is there such an attitude, and what would it be?

When someone gives you a gift, what is the appropriate response? You will say “Thank you,” not merely to be polite but because you really do feel grateful.

The body and mind can act only because they are blessed with the gift of life, and with them you can seek success here. Billions of hands and feet are required by Isvara to maintain this amazing dream. They all belong to Isvara and are on loan to you.

You are here for a reason and you have been given the powers necessary to do your Dharma, your duty. You are required to respond. It is not what you do. Only that you do, that you can do, matters. How generous, how magnanimous is God! How lucky I am to be here, to be alive!

Each and every action that is done in this spirit, backed by this understanding, does not produce a Vasana. So it is quite possible to de-condition yourself if you act in this spirit.

If you study enlightened people you will find that they create no Karma and are non-attached to objects. They don’t create binding Vasanas because, being whole and complete, being one with Isvara, they know that they don’t need objects to be happy.

They are satisfied with the Self alone, and they are satisfied with whatever objects they have or don’t have. They act, no doubt. But they act from fullness and happiness, not for happiness from incompleteness.

That I am not enlightened does not mean that I cannot become reasonably free of Karma and Vasanas.

To rid myself of binding Vasanas all that is required is a change in the attitude motivating my actions. Karma Yoga is an attitude that you take with respect to action and its results. And this attitude burns Vasanas.

Though due to the Vasanas being associated with one’s mind-body-sense complex, they will still manifest as preferences and motivate one to seek particular results, one will see the essential equality of all results, and thus will not be carried away by his or her preferences.

In short, one’s binding Vasanas will be rendered non-binding, and may show up as preferences. One does not become a desire-less zombie. Preferences give a person individuality, but at the same time they don’t force a person to indulge in Adharmic actions unlike strong binding Vasanas.

Close this section

3. Removes Anxiety and gives Peace of Mind

Expand this section
Anxiety about the results of one’s actions is a fancy term for stress. If you ask people why they meditate, most will say “to remove stress.” Meditation does remove stress, but it does not remove the cause of stress.

This is why people meditate unsuccessfully for many years. And it is the reason so many meditators abandon meditation in favour of some other approach. Karma Yoga removes the cause of stress by exhausting the fears and desires that produce stress.

The source of your emotional problems is very simple: you are not getting what you want. You perform an action with the expectation that the result will make you feel good.

When you don’t get the result you want, you feel some form of anger (Rajas) or disappointment that can lead to depression (Tamas). All the uncomfortable emotions are generated from Rajas and Tamas.

It is very difficult to argue with this logic because when you are getting what you want, you feel great. Getting what it wants all the time is the doer’s idea of happiness.

There is one small problem with this: the results of your actions are not up to you. If the results of your actions were up to you, you would have everything you want.

So what are the results up to?

The law of karma and the Dharma field.

We will discuss Law of Karma and Dharma in the Law of Karma sub-module. For the moment you can take these two to mean Isvara. Isvara is called Karma-Phala-Data, “giver of results of action”.

One understands that the results of one’s actions are determined by Isvara, or the Dharma field, which is a “web” of contributing factors that is far too complex for any individual to weave on his or her own.

This understanding frees one from the sense of responsibility for the ultimate outcome of one’s actions. Knowing that we are not in control of the results of our actions frees us from the stresses and anxieties we normally face when we act.

Taking what happens as a gift is fine as long as what happens is what we want, but what should I do when Isvara gives me something that I don’t want?

Should I become angry and reject it?

No, I should take it as a gift.

Worldly people are happy when they get what they want, and unhappy when they don’t. But Karma Yogis are happy when they get what they want, and even when they don’t, because their goal is peace of mind, not the temporary joys that come from objects.

The Vasanas appear in the Subtle Body as likes and dislikes. Likes and dislikes, attractions and repulsions, fears and desires are the enemies of the Karma Yogi.

Karma yoga is intended to neutralize them because they continually agitate the mind, making it unfit for Self Inquiry.

Life is a university meant to teach us who we are. We do not graduate until we have learned our lessons. Isvara instructs by delivering the fruits of our actions. Results never last but the knowledge hidden in experience leads us to the Self.

So when something happens, irrespective of whether it is what we want or not, we are meant to welcome it and learn from it. In this way the likes and dislikes are neutralized and the dispassion necessary for inquiry develops.

Close this section

4. Reduces Tamasic Karmas

Expand this section
Karma yoga reduces the Subtle Body’s grasping fearful orientation. This unconscious stance is there the moment an impulse to act arises, and it is present with every thought, feeling and action. It is there when actions fructify, a constant silent companion.

To shift a lifelong orientation to its opposite is hard work, a war with the ego. Karma Yoga simply means thinking of the Self, reminding yourself of your purpose here, invoking an attitude of gratitude to go with every action, and then doing what is required without attachment to the results.

When the impulse to act is met directly in this way, it is impossible to perform self-insulting actions or actions harmful to others.

Karma Yoga help us become more aware of our limited orientation and the unwanted results it produces.

Close this section

Karma Yoga benefits

Close this section

Karma Yoga For Dummies

Expand this section

Karma Yoga In A Nutshell

Expand this section

1. You have the right to choose your action

It should be a dharmic one. If you exploit someone or do harm, your mind will never be peaceful. What does dharma mean?: The simplest guideline for that is the golden rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Prepare for the action as good as you can with the skills and time that is at your disposal.

2. You are not the giver of the result of that action

You can do the action , but you are not the one who can control the result. If you had control over the result you would click a button and get the result. But it is not like that. You put your action, your coin in the big slot machine of the universe and you get a result. So you offer the action to the God/Dharma field, because you actually have no other choice.

3. Take the result as a gift

Here comes the spiritual part of Karma Yoga. You take the result of your action as a gift.. The Dharma Field, God, the Universe is giving the appropriate result to the action depending on skill, effort, timing, environment/circumstance and the needs of the total. As something that is the right result for this universe, as an opportunity to learn, to grow in the appropriate role that has been given to you in this theater play of existence.

Many successful business people are using points 1 and 2 but are not interested in any spirituality. The 3rd point however creates love for this universe. It creates the understanding that this universe transcends the needs of the little ego-person.

Close this section

Practical Example Of Karma Yoga

Expand this section
Suppose you have to give a presentation on a topic and you will receive a grade on the presentation. How will you apply Karma Yoga in this situation?

1. Is this purpose of the presentation a dharmic one? Yes it has a good purpose. Did I do my best to accomplish a good presentation (the PowerPoint Document) with the skills and time that were at my disposal? Yes. I tried to do a good job and I rehearsed a little bit. Ok. Sufficient!
2. Can I control the result? No. The grade is being given by the teacher (…and by the way God/Ishvara created him: meaning his DNA, his environment, the level of coffee he drank, if he had a good night sleep, his mood, whether his wife was nice to him in the morning ….etc. etc.)
3. Offer the action to God. “Dear God I am doing this presentation to you, not for me and not for the teacher. I am doing this for you. And I give this as a gift to you. I do not expect anything except your result.” If you want visualization: Take the action and all stressful thoughts that might be attached to expectation of results, put them in a “visual big bag” and give that bag to God. It is his problem now. God will take care of the result. Puff. If you had any stressful thoughts they should be gone by now. The ball is in Gods corner now.
4. Accept that result as the gift of God. Here it is important not to think that you have to become a victim. If you are not happy with the result that is also fine. Accept the result, because you have no choice but to accept it (it happened) and learn from it. You will see that all things always work out.

If you do this continuously it becomes a habit. After a while this happens automatically and in a fraction of a second in the mind. Once you know who you are, Karma Yoga is the way the mind works automatically.

For practical purposes start practicing Karma Yoga with a few actions that are creating a lot of stress in your mind. The target for the seeker is to get a peaceful mind. Later on you can expand Karma Yoga to all actions if you wish. Then it can become inquiry.

You can even offer daily actions such as brushing your teeth, breathing …and in the end you can offer the person that you think you were. You can offer “yourself” to Ishvara. And he will give the result of “your” life back to this universe.

Close this section

Karma Yoga for dummies

Close this section


Expand this section
1. Karma Yoga is defined as doing “proper action” with “proper attitude”.
2. By “proper action” we mean doing Sattvic Karmas; unselfish actions which benefit the society.
3. The scriptures tell us that every action is processed by Isvara, and the results are also given by Isvara. Isvara is called Karma-Phala-Data, the giver of results.
4. A Karma Yogi does more Sattvic Karmas, a bare minimum of Rajasic Karmas (selfish actions which do not hurt others), and avoids Tamasic Karmas (actions that harm others) totally.
5. The scriptures say a “proper attitude” while performing action involves two parts:
a) Every action is consecrated to Isvara and
b) The result of the action, whether positive or negative, is accepted in an attitude of gratitude.
6. Karma Yoga can also be called Dharma Yoga because Karma Yoga put us in a frame of mind whereby we automatically perform Dharmic actions and avoid Adharmic actions.
7. Karma Yoga helps assimilate Self-Knowledge by purifying the mind so that it can focus on Self Inquiry.
8. Karma Yoga neutralizes binding Vasanas. It destroys Vasanas by making a fundamental change in the attitude with which we act. When we act with an attitude of gratitude towards Isvara, it prevents new Vasanas from being created, and weakens the existing ones.
9. When you know you’re not in control over the results of your action, it frees us from the sense of responsibility towards the outcome. This reduces anxieties and stresses from our mind.
10. It’s difficult to perform Adharmic actions with a Karma Yoga spirit, so Karma Yoga helps reduce Tamasic Karmas.
Close this section