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Freedom on the Field of Action: The Path of Karma Yoga

Most people follow the path of karma yoga, the path of action, either consciously or unconsciously. Those who tread it without awareness or understanding usually create a lot of pain and suffering for themselves; however, those who are wise, and who understand the principle of karma, can gain the power to transform their lives and to accomplish the final goal of all human life—the state of self-realization and perfection.

Karma is actually a very simple concept; it is the law of cause and effect on the human scale, and it governs all our lives. Karma is a principle that is widely accepted and taught under many different names in the great traditions of self-transformation. The principle of karma can be summarized very succinctly and clearly: As you sow, so shall you reap. This principle makes no reference to heaven and hell, and it does not imply any sense of blame or punitiveness. Karma is only the statement of a simple fact: If we plant apple trees, they will bear apples, not lemons. The actions we perform are the cause of the consequences we see later on. Although no one escapes this natural law, we often fail to recognize the connection between cause and effect in our lives, because the effects of karma do not express themselves immediately, but instead are expressed slowly over time. Our limited awareness of ourselves also limits our ability to perceive this relationship.

Karma And Choice

According to the principle of karma, nothing happens by accident. The idea of karma is not consistent with the fatalistic idea that a human being is like a leaf, blown aimlessly here and there by the wind. A human being is not at all like a passive, wind-tossed leaf, subject to the control of nature and unable to make choices. When we act as if we are lifeless leaves, our environment responds by controlling our lives, but when we act like human beings—understanding our potentials and choices—then we begin to move to another level in our development.

In the cycle of human evolution, a person gains the power and ability to choose and decide what he wants to do. None of us are dragged passively into this plane of reality merely because our parents gave birth to us. We came into the world because we desired to come; the advantage of human life is that it provides us with the opportunity to fulfill our ultimate purpose. We have the free will to create our own destiny; we can attain the purpose of life and overcome the bondage of past karmas. But to do this, we need to understand how to free ourselves from karma, and to begin to put this knowledge into practice by changing our habits.

Those who have learned how to apply the principle of karma wisely are no longer the prisoners of their own actions.

The law of karma—of cause and effect—affects all human beings equally, no matter what external differences we perceive among ourselves. Although no one evades the law of karma, those who have learned how to apply the principle of karma wisely are no longer the prisoners of their own actions. Instead, these wise seekers gain the power to make progress on the spiritual path by performing their actions skillfully, selflessly, and lovingly. If seekers think that they can gain self-realization through meditation alone, without understanding the law of karma, they are mistaken.

The very word karma is often misunderstood as meaning fate or destiny, but it is actually related to the root kri, meaning “to do.” Thus any action we do is a karma. There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” karma; it is simply that a particular karma will have results which are either helpful or which create further confusion in our minds.

Foolish people sometimes try to use the principle of karma to avoid taking responsibility for themselves: when something good happens to them, their egos become inflated, but when they experience the negative consequences of their actions, they say fatalistically, “Oh well, it’s my karma.” Only those rare people who are sincerely seeking can learn how to actively apply the principle of karma in their daily lives. Once they learn to do this, they transform the whole nature of life, and thus attain freedom from the bondage of their actions.

Three States of Karma

To begin the journey to freedom, it is useful to think of karmas as being of three types: karmas of the past, karmas of the present, and karmas of the future. These karmas can be compared to an archer’s arrows. Our past actions are like the arrows that an archer has already shot toward a target. Our present actions are like arrows being readied in the hands of the archer; and our future actions are like arrows that still rest, untouched, in the archer’s quiver. The course of the arrows that have already been released—our past actions—cannot be altered. Only those who have attained a high level of spiritual progress can eliminate the effects of those past karmas. However, everyone has control over present and future karmas—so those are the areas in which we have the power to begin the process of freeing ourselves.

Some people make a grave error once they begin to consider the principle of karma. They waste time in self-condemnation, regretting their prior actions and brooding on the deeds they have already performed. They allow their minds to conclude that they have done something bad and it is useless to make an effort to transform themselves. None of us has the power to undo our past deeds, so such thinking is a waste of time and energy; it merely prevents us from using our power creatively to influence our present and future karmas.

Nor can we totally avoid shooting these present and future arrows. No matter what we do, we will continue to think and act, and thus create karmas. Sometimes people think that they will avoid making karma by avoiding active involvement in life. But karmas are still created, even by the thoughts that occur in the mind! In fact, those who evade or abandon their duties, using the law of karma as justification, create even more barriers for themselves. As Krishna taught Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, the worst mistake a seeker can make is to attempt to evade his duty. However, it is possible to attain freedom from the bondage created by karma.

All Actions First Occur Within

Karma occurs on two levels: it is both a result of external actions and deeds, and also a consequence of our thoughts, which are really internal actions that have not yet been manifested in the external world. Thus every thought is essentially an action. Long before any action is expressed in the external world, it has already taken place on the internal level. We think certain thoughts and we cultivate certain mental tendencies, and eventually they may be expressed externally. It is impossible for us to perform any action that does not reflect some aspect of our internal action. Whatever we do, we first have had the desire, conscious or unconscious, to do it, and later we express that desire in action through our body or speech.

The seeds of all our actions—positive and negative—lie within, and these seeds may remain dormant until they give rise to external acts. Once we act, however, we reap the fruits (or consequences) of that act, and then those fruits motivate us to again perform the same action. For example, when we do something and enjoy the consequences, we are inclined to repeat the act again, whether or not it is truly helpful to us. In this way, we become the slaves of our own actions, as each act repeatedly creates a groove or an impression in the mind and personality, which forms a mental or behavioral habit. Eventually we feel impelled to repeat that habit helplessly, which intensifies the karmic bond.

Only by learning to work consciously with ourselves can we escape the bondage we have created.

Wherever we go or whatever external charges we make, the internal fruits of our karmas remain within us, and we carry these tendencies from place to place. Thus external changes can never free us from the self-imposed bondage of our karmas. Only by learning to work consciously with ourselves can we escape the bondage we have created. And the most powerful bondage we create is that of the ego and its tendency to separate us from the whole.

The Path To Freedom

As humans, we have the power to choose our actions—we can choose to act either selfishly and destructively or selflessly and lovingly. When we act selflessly and lovingly, we affirm and recognize an inner force higher than our mere personalities and egos. We affirm consciousness within ourselves and those we serve. Although our appetites and drives are not very different from those of animals, we humans are not driven blindly by nature to act in certain ways. We can choose the path of self-awareness and self-discipline, or we can walk the path of egotism and selfish contraction. When we act selfishly, we deny the higher reality, and we instead stubbornly assert that the little self is the center of the universe. Thus we become lonely, isolated, and afraid.

Everyone has to act in the world—we think, talk, and perform actions from morning until evening. All of our actions have some meaning, and most of these actions relate to ourselves: we feed ourselves, dress and adorn ourselves, earn money to support ourselves, and perform many actions so that others will think well of us. All day, every day, we are caring for the body and the ego. Caring for ourselves is both necessary and one of our duties. In fact, if we do not care for ourselves, we become sick and create a burden for others, which is simple foolishness, not selflessness. However, the ego cannot understand the difference between the duties that are necessary to take care of ourselves and the ego’s own desire for self-aggrandizement. The ego constantly demands more and more attention. Soon it creates a conflict for us, for we not only have the duty to care for ourselves, we also have other duties that we have chosen in the course of our lives. To many people, the very word duty is unpleasant, as it signifies a burden and a chore, rather than a role they have chosen with love.

All our duties are actually commitments that we have chosen for ourselves, and yet most people rapidly begin to resent these duties and feel trapped and imprisoned by the commitments they have made. We begin to feel angry and depressed by our duties and wish to escape them by abandoning our jobs, children, or spouses. Because almost no one understands the path of karma and selfless service, people become slaves to their duties and commitments—and their whole lives become a pattern of feeling pressured and frustrated by those duties.

These days, many people seem to experience stress and to feel that they are forced to do things that they don’t really want to do. People say, “I have to work to support my family,” or I have to make dinner for my children.” Such thinking creates mental strain. This creates a great internal conflict, because such a person doesn’t really want to do the action. But seeking to escape our duties is not the answer either. This only creates a dilemma: if we ignore the duty we feel guilty, but if we force ourselves to do the duty without love, we are dishonest and feel resentment.

Instead of making superficial external changes, the path of karma yoga involves changing our internal attitudes and emotions—transforming our actions as we refine our motivations.

Yet we can fulfill our duties without feeling enslaved. This does not mean changing our external circumstances—we still work to support our families, to feed and care for our children, and to help our spouses. Instead of making superficial external changes, the path of karma yoga involves changing our internal attitudes and emotions—transforming our actions as we refine our motivations. The sages say it this way: “Your actions never make you a slave if you do them with love. Performing your actions with love is a profound and special accomplishment. You continue doing your duties in the external world, but you cultivate love for your duties—you cultivate a willingness to enjoy serving others.”

Cultivating this enjoyment of serving others and doing our duties with love requires honesty and dedication. We must understand that doing our duties lovingly is, in itself, a spiritual practice. When we can cultivate this attitude, we fulfill our obligations and also free ourselves from the bondage of our individual egos, which only want to think of “I, me, and mine.” We begin to discover the joy of escaping from the prison of our own egos—and find delight and peace in serving those around us. Then, making breakfast for our children becomes a spiritual practice, as does every loving and selfless act. Each act of loving service affirms our recognition of the Self within all. With this mindfulness we become transformed, and feel the sense of joy and peace that is meant to unite mankind.

All the great teachers and leaders practiced such selfless service—Christ, Buddha, Moses, Krishna, Guru Nanak, as well as the great teachers of the modern world, such as Schweitzer or Gandhi. They dedicated their lives to service others selflessly, without expecting any reward. All the great people of the world have been living examples of how to walk the path of karma yoga.
But on the smaller scale of our individual lives, we do not need to begin with grand acts of service to humanity or to strangers. We can begin, instead, with those who are closest to us—our children, our partners, and our friends—those we claim to love.

Transforming Our Relationships

The biggest problem in the modern world is that many people are confused about the authentic meaning of love and how to fulfill their karmic duties in their marriages and relationships. If we forget the real purpose of these commitments, we become resentful and angry when our desires and expectations of the other person are not fulfilled. We become dependent and seek to lean on these relationships for support. We expect our wives or husbands or children to make us happy by behaving the way our egos desire. We all want others to make us feel important, wise, and attractive. So we spend 20 to 50 years living together—expecting and demanding many things from each other—but this has nothing to do with experiencing our love and walking on the spiritual path.

Love and service expand our consciousness; selfishness and expectations contract it.

When we truly love someone, we love the light within that person. The process of enlightenment is the path of learning to appreciate the light within both ourselves and those we love, and seeking to allow the full expression of our Self as well as the Self of others. When we have expectations, we love only our little self, and we seek to gain others’ admiration of that little self. However, when we strive to transform our personalities—so that we love others selflessly and expect nothing in return—then we can fulfill our karmic duties without creating further bondage for ourselves.

Love means giving, joyfully and selflessly. Learning to serve others happily and lovingly is the means to becoming free—then we are no longer the slaves of our own petty personalities and sense of self. Love and service expand our consciousness; selfishness and expectations contract it. Our goal in practicing karma yoga is to learn to enjoy serving others lovingly, without thinking only of our own petty egos—this is the process of transforming and purifying our karma.

The image of the mother is the symbol of the highest love, because a real mother does everything she can for her child out of love and asks nothing for herself. If we want to transform both our culture and our own karma, we must learn to give and to love others selflessly, without expecting anything in return. What we do lovingly for others does not create bondage; it frees us. Such love is real ecstasy. Our expectations and demands are the source of our misery, pain, and sorrow. If we want to learn the art of dissolving karma and expanding our consciousness, the answer lies in learning to give. When we expand this ability for selfless action from our family, to our communities, to the nation, and then to the whole of humanity—then we are free of the bondage of karma, and we will have made the world a paradise on earth.

Source: Yoga International magazine

About the Teacher

Swami Rama

One of the greatest adepts, teachers, writers, and humanitarians of the 20th century, Swami Rama (1925–1996) is the founder of the Himalayan Institute. Born in northern India, he was raised from early childhood by the Himalayan sage, Bengali Baba. Under the guidance of his master, he traveled from monastery to monastery and studied with a variety of Himalayan saints and sages, including his grandmaster, who was living in a remote region of Tibet. In addition to this intense spiritual training, Swami Rama received higher education in both India and Europe. From 1949 to 1952, he held the prestigious position of Shankaracharya of Karvirpitham in South India. Thereafter, he returned to his master to receive further training at his cave monastery, and finally, in 1969, came to the United States, where he founded the Himalayan Institute. His best-known work, Living with the Himalayan Masters, reveals the many facets of this singular adept and demonstrates his embodiment of the living tradition of the East.

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