People often ask the meaning of karma and karma yoga. What is the difference? Karma is what you do for your family and friends. Karma yoga is what you do for others who have nothing to do with you. That is how Swami Satyananda (Bihar School of Yoga) succinctly summed it up once.
Karma is action in thoughts, words, and deeds. It is also the consequences of those thoughts, words, and deeds. This includes the reactions. All these are recorded and stored in the vast stores of memory of the mental cloud.
Thoughts arise from the mental database accumulated over this birth and, according to yoga philosophy, previous births. In that mental database of information and experiences we have also accumulated reactions. For instance, fire burns, keep away from it. Thoughts arise from this pool of past experiences and they are positive, negative, or neutral. They precede words and action. The whole sequence can happen in a split second. These new thoughts, words, deeds will get recorded and stored. They in turn will produce more reactions. This constant chain reaction can be called karma. Throughout history, we see cycles repeating themselves. The cast, setting, and language may change but the plot remains essentially the same. Karma generating more of the same type of karma.
There is a beautiful explanation below by Swami Sivananda in Yoga Magazine, August 2006 and there are several other articles on the subject in that issue:
“Karma is of three kinds: sanchita or accumulated works, prarabdha or fructifying works and kriyamana or current works. Sanchita is all the accumulated karmas of the past. Part of it is seen in a person’s character, in his tendencies and aptitudes, inclinations and desires. Prarabdha is that portion of the past karma which is responsible for the present body. It cannot be avoided or changed. It is only exhausted by being experienced. You pay your past debts. Kriyamana is karma now being done for the future.
In Vedantic literature, there is a beautiful analogy. The archer has already sent an arrow. He cannot bring it back. He is about to shoot another arrow. The bundle of arrows in the quiver on his back is the sanchita. The arrow he has shot is prarabdha. And the arrow which he is about to shoot from his bow is kriyamana. Of these, he has perfect control over the sanchita and kriyamana, but he must surely work out his prarabdha. The past which has begun to take effect he has to experience.”
We can see how it is essential to be fully aware, pay attention, be mindful of our thoughts, words, and deeds. The message of Zoroaster, according to my mentor Dady Billimoria, can be summed up as “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” The process of witnessing all aspects is the heart of yoga meditation and all types of vipassana or insight/mindfulness meditations.
As everything in our lives arises from the mind, the mental cloud is incredibly important. Current Western yoga (unlike traditional yoga) places importance on the body and not on the mind. Vipassana places all its importance on the mind and none on the body. For most of us, the happy medium is probably somewhere in the middle. The body is the hardware and the mind is the software. (See What is Meditation?) Neither can function without the other. The body is just a lifeless object which cannot function without the mental database and software of the mind. The mind needs the body to run its software and cannot function without it. Everything reflects the principle of Shiva and Shakti–Shiva, the Supreme Consciousness, has no form of expression without Shakti, the Cosmic Energy. Energy arises from Consciousness.
What is karma yoga? Karma means action and yoga is the union of body and mind. Karma yoga is where all actions, free from reactions and expectations, are in union with the body and mind. None of us can exist without action. Positive action will create positive reaction and is without question better than negative action. Where there is positive there is also negative. They exist in relationship to one another and are not absolute. Karma yoga is the path of freedom from karma–karma binds and karma yoga liberates.
Therefore, in yoga the aim is to stop all chain reaction. (See the blog post What is Yoga? and Powerful Choice in Life:Without Limbs or Any Circumstance.) This is done by acting without reacting (also called selfless service)–make the best effort in everything; do it cheerfully with goodwill; do not do it with strings attached or with the attitude of quid pro quo; gracefully, do not expect, want, or desire anything in return (name, fame, money, credit, recognition, acknowledgement, praise); if criticism comes your way, cheerfully let it go. Don’t let anything stick to you–the good, the bad, the neutral. Do the work for the love it. This eliminates a great deal of stress. When the stress is gone, all that enormous amount of energy that was sucked out by it is freed up. It can be channeled in a more constructive way.
Karma yoga gives us a path to free ourselves from the chain reactions of karma. We do not have to do a formal sitting meditation to lessen and dissolve our karmas. Meditation does not appeal to everyone. But we all have to work! If we work with our heart and soul, mind and body, it is possible to achieve the same result as sitting meditation. It does not have to be either/or; we can do a combination of hatha, raja, karma, bhakti, and jnana yoga.
To me, Bill and Melinda Gates are outstanding contemporary karma yogis–they work without expecting anything personally for themselves. If something does not work out, they learn from it and move on. No one is expected to be perfect or saintly and that is just fine.
This same attitude can be extended to everything that we do. We do the job the best we can and then not fret about the title, pay raise, bonus, promotion–there is not much more we can do beyond our best anyway! No self-recriminations and let the end result take care of itself. We study well and do our personal best in school and then stop getting stressed out. No what-ifs, buts, could have, should have. Keep the could have, should have for next time. We learn and move on. It is beyond our personal control after some point. In this ultra-competitive environment and constant treadmill of achievement, the attitude of karma yoga can help retain some degree of essential mental balance. Working as a volunteer can be enormously helpful in cultivating this attitude.
With the upcoming holiday season, all cultures have a strong tradition of karma yoga–call it volunteering, community service, or social work. The attitude with which we do anything makes all the difference–just more karma or karma yoga.