Reflection on Karma Yoga
Right action now protects us in the future
In slokas 37 through 40, Sri Krishna introduces the idea of action now that protects us in the far future, even past this lifetime.
Sloka 37 is a turning point. Rather than being motivated by the result of our actions, let us see that when we do our duty, no matter what happens, we will be protected. The immediate result is immaterial. Sri Krishna brings this out by telling Arjuna that by drying, he will attain heaven, and living, he will rule a kingdom (hato vā prāpsyasi svargam jitvā vā bhokshyase mahīm) – but neither would have happened if he hadn’t fought the battle (tasmād uththistha kaunteya yuddhāya krtanischayah).
As per this sloka, I am clear that when I hesitate, nothing good can happen, but when I stand by my conviction, I will be protected no matter what the apparent outcome.
Sloka 38 introduces the concept of samatvam, or equanimity (sukha duhkhe same krtvā lābha alābhau jaya ajayau). Whenever we act without minding the immediate outcome (tato yuddhāya yujyasva), good will ultimately result. Again the idea of protection, for we will not incur sin (naivam pāpam avāpsyasi). “Sin” here means to keep generating new karma and remain in the cycle of samsara.
Thus, my goal is to remember that when I perform an action with samatvam, and receive the outcome with samatvam, I will be doing my best and need not worry about anything else. Apparent happiness or sorrow, gain or loss, and victory or defeat do not mean anything in the long run. I have to keep holding Ishwara’s hand and doing my best.
In sloka 39, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna that having expounded the highest Truth of the Self (eshā te abhihitā sānkhye), he will now teach karma yoga (buddhir yoge tu imām shrnu) – when we use our intellect to discern and hold on to Truth (buddhyā yukto yayā), we will become free from the bondage of karma (karmabandham prahāsyasi).
Rather than reacting or relying on emotions, I can use my intellect (with input from my emotions) to keep discerning my truth. Once my truth is clear, then I can act.
Sloka 40 reveals how this long-term protection occurs from an action performed now. Using buddhi yoga even in one small area of our life (svalpam api asya dharmasya) enables us to stay calm (trāyate mahato bhayāt), guides our action to do the utmost good (pratyavyāyo na vidyate), and benefits us in a way that can never be lost (na iha abhikrama nāshah asti).
This sloka reminds me that when I do feel fear in some part of my life, I am not using karma (buddhi) yoga. In that case, whatever I am trying to hold onto is anitya and will definitely perish, and worse, my actions in the moment may produce a contrary result, since I am reacting instead of responding. Then I need to examine what outcome I feel dependent on and practice greater samatvam.
Equally, when I make a decision and do not feel fear, but feel calm and equipoised instead, then my intellect is guiding me and I can trust that I am on the right path. When I do this, no matter what outcome I am receiving, I am moving forward in my life.
Know that the Self is within you
In slokas 41 through 44, Sri Krishna shows us that certainty about the Self centers and focuses our mind, while a lack of certainty about the Self diffuses and scatters our mind.
In sloka 41, Sri Krishna contrasts the unified mind which has clarity about the Self (vyavasāyātmikā buddhih ekeh) with the diffuse and scattered mind (bahushākhā hi anantāh cha buddhayo avyavasāyinām). In slokas 42 through 44, Bhagavan describes how lack of clarity about the Self leads to pandering to outward observances – in the pursuit of artha and kāma – at the level of body and senses (sloka 42), mind (sloka 43), and intellect (sloka 44), and keeps us in the loop of transmigration (janmakarmaphalapradām) rather than leading us to peace in the Self (vyavasāyātmikā buddhih samādhau na vidhīyate). When we don’t understand that there is a divine presence within, then we believe those with flowery speech (yām imām pushpitām vācham pravadanti avipaschitah) who tell us that the scriptures are teaching us how to find fulfillment in material objects and favorable circumstances (vedavādaratāh na anyad asti iti vādinah). That leads to more desires (kāmātmānah svargaparāh), then to manipulate outcomes for our benefit (kriyāvishesha bahulām), and then to the belief that we can isolate pleasure and power (bhog aishwarya gatim prati), which robs us of the ability to perceive a higher divine intelligence (bhog aishwarya prasaktānām tayā apahrta chetasām).
Without a clear belief in the Self, in Ishwara, my mind will turn outwards to thinking that I am a victim, I am small and powerless, and that I need to fix or resist my fate. Knowing that there is a higher divine intelligence frees me to do my part and leave the results to Ishwara.
Stabilize within before acting
Slokas 45 and 46 take us to the present moment and prepare us to act in the best way possible.
Soka 45 reminds us that though there are teachings about how to perform rituals for specific outcomes (traigunya vishayā vedāh), we need to become free of the compulsion to run between the gunas (nistraigunyo bhava), bewail the dvandvas (nir dvandva), and to acquire and preserve (nir yoga kshema) the anitya objects around us. Instead, we want to establish ourselves in sattva (nityasattvasthah) and tune in to our inner wisdom guided by Ishwara (ātmavān). Greater clarity comes from following the goals of dharma and moksha rather than artha and kāma. By going within, we have access to deeper knowledge and Truth. When we do this, we become expansive and powerful – surrounded with wisdom, resources, and infinite blessings (tāvān sarveshu vedeshu brāhmanasya vijānatah) as a flooded plain is to a pond (yāvān artha udapāne sarvatha samplutodake) (sloka 46) .
Whatever is happening around me is for my benefit. Before acting, I can expand and become my bigger Brahman container, rather than wanting to change my outer circumstances because of attachment or aversion. Then I become established in myself, and my mind becomes calm and even. From this place, I have access to infinite knowledge and resources, since the Self is within me.
Now I will no longer accrue āgāmi karma, since my actions are coming from a pure reservoir of knowledge. I also gain insight into how I can stop perpetuating the prārabdha karmas I am enduring now.
Act and renounce the outcome
In slokas 47 through 50, we understand how to perform action in the present moment, having cultivated the state described in the previous slokas.
In sloka 47, we learn how to act according to karma yoga: my free will and choice (adhikārah te) extends only to my actions (karmani eva) but only partially to the results (mā phaleshu kadāchana). Therefore, there is no point in acting to get an outcome (mā karmaphala hetur bhūhuh) or in refusing to act (mā te sangoh tu akarmani).
Stabilized within, I can act according to my conscience without fearing the result. With moksha as my goal, I can now stop creating new karmas and face my current ones. The results are all occurring with infinite precision according to a higher law and my actions have many seen and unseen effects. I need to trust that when I act as purely as possible, good things will happen, no matter what I see in front of me.
Sloka 48 emphasizes that karma yoga is equanimity (samatvam yoga uchyate) and that we need to act (yogasthah kuru karmāni) by valuing inner growth over material growth (siddhi asiddhyoh samo bhūtva) and renouncing control over results (sangam tyaktva).
By acting with equanimity and accepting what I am receiving each moment, I burn off karma, let go control over results, and prioritize inner growth over outward success.
Sloka 49 tells us that focusing on material outcomes is far inferior (dūrena hi avaram karma) to surrendering our actions to a higher goal (buddhiyogād). Those who focus on material outcomes are wretched (krpnā phalahetavah). We need to take refuge in the clarity of the buddhi (buddhau sharanm anviccha), which means acting from a higher conscience.
By lamenting or trying to fix what is happening around me, I simply create fresh karmas and more sorrow – which makes my life wretched, because I am trapped in suffering and the belief that I am small and powerless. By acting with moksha as my goal, I simply endure what is happening in the moment, while observing where I can make a choice and acting wisely there.
In sloka 50, Sri Krishna teaches us that the one aligned with a higher goal (buddhiyuktah) renounces (jahāti) any calculation of what good or bad may ensue from his action (ubhe sukrta dushkrte). Thus, he maintains samatvam and his actions are skillful (yoga karmasu kaushalam).
As I stay focused on the present moment and act according to the dictates of my conscience, my actions become more aligned with Ishwara and therefore more skillful. Thinking about immediate results dilutes this energy and results in reactive and impulsive behavior.
The Self will slowly reveal itself
In slokas 51 through 53, we understand how these actions bear fruit in the future and lead to knowledge of Self.
In sloka 51, Sri Krishna shows the progression from aligning with our conscience (buddhiyuktā) and accepting whatever comes our way (karmajam phalam tyaktvā) (dharma purushārtha) to becoming wise (manīshi) (studying shāstra) to freeing yourself from the bondage of karma (janmabandha vinirmuktāh) and ultimately to attaining oneness with the Self (padam gachchanti anāmayam) (moksha purushārtha).
Now I am clear about how my every action in this moment leads me towards or away from moksha.
Sloka 52 describes how your intellect will continue to purify (yadā te buddhih mohakalilam vyatitarishyati) and you will become increasingly immune to whatever bombards your senses or your memory (tadā gantāsi nirvedam shrotavyasya shrutasya cha). You are now operating with viveka and vairagyam.
As I continue practicing buddhi yoga, I will refine my ability to hear my inner voice, even when it is very soft and subtle. Then no matter what else I hear or comes through my senses, I will not be swayed from my conscience.
In sloka 53, Sri Krishna teaches us that as we continue to ignore the clamor of artha and kāma (shruti vipratipannā) and surrender to a higher goal of moksha (te buddhih yadā sthāsyati nischalā), our intellect will become more firm and steady (samadhau achalā) and we will ultimately attain Self-knowledge (tadā yogam avāpsyasi). This is the climax of karma yoga.
All of my answers lie within me. As I continue to practice buddhi yoga, my intellect will become more established in the Self and I will have greater clarity and insight. Now my actions will be truly skillful while I maintain samatvam within.