Karma Yoga, Revisited

The Bhagavad Gita argues that one of the paths of Self-realization is karma yoga. Until recently, I had held that karma yoga was not a good path for us moderns due to the prevalance of Total Work. But I was mistaken, not least because I had believed that karma yoga could too easily be conflated with work. It needn’t be.

Here’s a story that illustrates how:

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa [writes Sri Swami Satchidadanda] gives a beautiful parable about this. Once, a few people went to visit a garden, having been told that there were beautiful big fruit trees there. But the garden was completely surrounded by high walls, and they couldn’t even see what was inside. With great effort one person managed to climb the wall and see inside. He saw such luscious fruit that the minute he saw it, he jumped in. Another person climbed up and immediately jumped in the same way. Finally, a third person climbed up, but when she saw it, she said, “My gosh, how can I jump in now? There are so many hungry people below who don’t know what is here or how to climb up.” So, she sat on the wall and said, “Hey, there are a lot of fruits, come on. If you try hard, you can come up like I have.” She lent a hand, pulling people in.

Such people are called teachers. (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Translaton and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda, p. 216)

Of course, this is, as we find in Mahayana Buddhism, a beautiful story about the bodhisattva ideal. Yes, it’s also a story about the existence of wholesome, legitimate spiritual teachers.

But what else is this a story about? Quite simply, it gives us all the motivation we need to see that, right here and now, we can selflessly act and selflessly give. Whenever you selflessly perform an act, however small it may be, on behalf of others so that others may suffer less or may flourish, you are engaged in karma yoga. Period.

The point is, in the very situations we find ourselves right now, to make karma yoga more intentional, more thoroughgoing, and more the default. There are fruits enough down below! Lend a hand: pull some beings–cockroaches, spiders, dogs in rescues, family members–up and over. Let’s begin already!