Karma yoga (also known as Buddhi Yoga), or the "discipline of action" is based on the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Sanskrit scripture of Hinduism. One of the four pillars of yoga, Karma yoga focuses on the adherence to duty (dharma) while remaining detached from the reward. It states that one can attain Moksha (salvation) or love of God (bhakti) by performing their duties in an unselfish manner for the pleasure of the Supreme. Karma Yoga is an intrinsic part of many derivative types of yoga, such as Natya Yoga.
The Bhagavad Gita gives a summary of the Karma Yoga process. The Gita itself is a chapter from a larger work known as Mahabharata, wherein a dialogue takes place between the prince Arjuna, and his friend and chariot driver, Krishna, on the brink of a great dynastic war. Their conversation is prompted by Arjuna as he is engulfed by sorrow and misgivings regarding the oncoming fight in which he has friends and relatives on both sides. In reply, Krishna then elucidates upon a number of philosophical yoga systems and practices (including Karma Yoga) by/through which he should indeed continue with the fight on righteous principles.
The word Karma is derived from the Sanskrit Kri, meaning 'to do', in its most basic sense karma simply means action, and yoga translates to union. Thus Karma yoga literally translates to the path of union through action. It is described as a way of acting, thinking and willing by which one acts in accordance with one's duty (dharma) without consideration of personal selfish desires, likes or dislikes. Acting without being attached to the fruits of one's deeds.
- Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.
In the case of Arjuna in the Gita this translated to his fighting in the oncoming war to uphold the righteous cause in accordance with his duty as a warrior; even if out of compassion he did not want to fight with his relatives and teachers on the other side.
Krishna then goes on to describe how Arjuna should surrender the fruits of his actions (good or bad) to himself (as the Supreme Person or avatara) :
- Therefore, O Arjuna, surrendering all your works unto Me, with full knowledge of Me, without desires for profit, with no claims to proprietorship, and free from lethargy, fight.
Krishna describes that allocated work done without expectations, motives, or anticipation of its outcome purifies one's mind and gradually makes an individual fit to see the value of reason. He states that it is not necessary to remain in external solitude, or actionless, in order to practice a spiritual life, with the state of action or inaction is primarily determined in the mind.
In order to achieve the perfection of life, Krishna describes it is important to control all mental desires and tendencies to enjoy pleasures of the senses. The practice of Karma Yoga in daily life makes an individual fit through action, meditation and devotion to sharpen his reasoning, develop intuitive power of acquiring knowledge and to transcend the mind itself.
As with a number of other philosophies in Hinduism, Karma yoga is based on the general understandings of karma and reincarnation (samsara). It is believed that a man is born with certain Samskars (karma's), both positive and negative, from his past lives which push him towards performing certain actions in his present one. This process continues until the individual attains a zero balance, (no karma remains) wherein one achieves liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
Schools of thought
Shankaracharya says by practicing Karma, one's mind gets purified. Thus, he describes Karma yoga as a path to Jnana yoga, with Jnana yoga ultimately leading to a state of Moksha or realisation.
Some consider personalities such as the Buddha to have been karma yogis. Buddha is the ideal karma yogi... acting entirely without motive, and the history of humanity shows him to have been the greatest man ever born, beyond compare, the greatest combination of Head & Heart that ever existed. - Swami Vivekananda
The Hindu Saint Mata Amritanandamayi says, "The beauty and charm of selfless love and service should not die away from the face of the earth. The world should know that a life of dedication is possible, that a life inspired by love and service to humanity is possible. Meditation and studying the scriptures are like two sides of a coin. The engraving on that coin is selfless service, and that is what gives it its real value. Our compassion and acts of selflessness take us to the deeper truths. Through selfless action we can eradicate the ego that conceals the Self. Detached, selfless action leads to liberation. Such action is not just work; it is karma yoga."