In the Bhagavad Gita Shri Krishna said: “Do your duty without the concern to the fruit of it”. Some people get confused with the Karma Yoga as volunteer work or social work. The word “Karma” means action, so Karma Yoga is the Yoga of Action or duty. Karma Yoga can be best defined as followed:
“Doing your duty at your best without any involvement of ego or attachment”
In this definition of Karma Yoga, there are 4 essential words: duty, ego, attachment, and expectation of reward. To understand the principles of Karma Yoga, it is essential to understand these 4 principles.
The Four Principles of Karma Yoga Duty
Everybody has duties in life. Some duties are given to you, you don’t have a choice, for example, your duty as a citizen, as a member of society, as a son/daughter, as a brother/sister, etc. Other duties you choose yourself, for example, your duty as an employer, as a husband/wife, as a friend, etc.
In Karma Yoga it is important to prioritize your duties; to know what is most important and which duty you should give more importance over other.
It is important to realize that the highest duty you can have is the duty towards yourself. This means that you should first take care of yourself, do what is good for you and then only you can do what is good for others. For example, let’s say you are ill and lying in bed. You should rest so you get better soon but late in the night, you get a call from a friend saying he feels lonely and he wants your company. Even though it is your duty as a friend to support your friend who needs company, at that time it is more important to take care of yourself and to get better before you can help your friend.
It is also important to fulfill your duty at your best. For example, if you are given a room to clean, you don’t clean it very well because no one is watching or you think what you get paid for it is very less. Another example can be when your employer asks you to do something at work you have 2 options: you can do what he asks, nothing more, nothing less. You could have done it better and more detailed but because your working day was almost over you quickly finished the work and went home.
Ego is all the ideas you have about yourselves or others. It includes our likes, dislikes, desires, etc. With every action we do we tend to think about the consequences for ourselves; how does it affect ourselves, our image, etc. Karma Yoga is all about doing your duty without thinking about yourself. The main purpose of Karma Yoga is to control and eventually let go of your ego.
It is essential that in the practice of Karma yoga you do not involve your ego because only then you can do it without attachment and desire. Sometimes a person thinks he needs some ego in order to perform better and grow. But ego is like cancer which always keeps growing. It makes us see what we want to see and stops us from seeing reality. It controls our perception and understanding.
Practicing Karma Yoga means doing your duty without attachment. Whether you like your duty or not, you still do it your best. You do your duty without any attachment for example if you are a teacher you don’t teach one student better than because you like him more. You always perform your duty without any kind of attachment to the process or result.
Expectation of reward
When we do something we rarely do it without expecting something back. For example, at the office, we do our work because we get a salary at the end of the month or for the praise or position. We take care of our partner or child, but we expect love and appreciation in return. When you do something without the expectation of reward, the outcome of your action doesn’t affect if and how you do your duty. You do it because it is your duty, not because you get something out of it.
Read more: Karma and Dharma - Are you doing it right?
Karma Yoga is not
There is some misconception about Karma Yoga, it is not:
- An exchange: often people think if they offer their time and service in exchange for another service like a course or stay, it is karma yoga. If the action is done with intention of exchange, it is not Karma Yoga.
- Working for free; working for free in name of spirituality or humanity is not Karma Yoga.
- Cheap labor: working for cheap in name of Karma yoga is not Karma Yoga.
- Social service: not all social service is Karma Yoga.
Remember, Karma Yoga is ‘doing YOUR duty without ego, and attachment is Karma Yoga’. If your intention is anything else than doing a duty (natural or taken) without ego, it is not Karma Yoga.
How to practice Karma Yoga
Every one of us can practice Karma yoga. To practice karma yoga in your daily life follow these simple steps;
- Make a list of all duties/roles you have in your life. There might be some roles in it which you don’t like to fulfill but you must think and write all the roles you have.
- Prioritize them as per their importance. Understand the importance of your role in them.
- Start to fulfill them on daily basis.
There will be some duties or roles which you cannot fulfill because of reasons beyond your control. Do the duties as you must, not as you would like to do them.
Benefits of Karma Yoga
Karma yoga has many benefits. Some of these can be seen immediately but some can only be realized after some time of regular practice.
- The main benefit is that helps to decrease ego. When you practice Karma Yoga you do your duty without ego. You do what is supposed to be done, not what you would like to do. When you stop involving ego in your daily activities, slowly your ago begins to diminish.
- Your priorities become clear. You start to understand your roles and duties. You complete them without attachment, and without personal desire.
- Because you do your duties without ego and attachment, you balance your karma without making new karma.