Is Karma Yoga Sufficient For Liberation?

In a recent post, I discussed Vivekananda’s view that the essential aim of karma yoga is total self-abnegation and thus of moksha, or freedom from bondage.

I’d like to draw out a few further–in my view, crucial–points below, those that have occurred to me since. I come to the conclusion that karma yoga is, on its own, not sufficient for liberation.

The Witness Stance

My wife Alexandra pointed out to me that karma yoga seems to be concerned, in the main, with teaching one how to take one’s stand as the witness. Let’s unpack how this may occur.

When it’s said that one should work with detachment, what does this really mean? It means that one lets go of hoping for any gain whatsoever. And one lets go of fearing that there will be any losses. Thus, whatever is done is carried out without hope for gain and without fear of loss or–to compress the thought further–without any hope or fear. In this way, detachment entails the emptying out of (selfish) desire: draining the swamp of the self, as it were.

How can that be? Because, little by little, one is learning to take one’s stand as the witness to whom all activity is arising. Because, in other words, one has learned a certain mature or wise carefree attitude toward life. 

Said differently, activity, then, is “the arena” in which one comes to transcend all activity. Activity happens while I, the witness, remain uninvolved. This is one of the chief truths of karma yoga.

But is witnessing alone the same as liberation?

A Fork in the Road: Bhakti or Jnana

Vivekananda leaves us hanging in his little book Karma Yoga, for it’s just not sufficient to insist that karma yoga, in virtue of bringing one to the witness stand, thereby leads to liberation. To be the witness is not (yet) to be liberated.

As I see it, karma yoga must lead, via the witness stand, to bhakti yoga or to jnana yoga–that is, to love of God or to the knowledge of the Self.

Working selflessly can only get one so far. Then one must embrace the path of Love or Knowledge. We can now make sense of why karma yoga is the slow path to liberation. This is because it must, when the time is right, give way to bhakti or to jnana yoga.

Where to Begin?

Years ago, I asked my Zen teacher about any other ethical practices I would do well to cultivate. Realizing, I trust, that this could be a sidetrack, he offered me none. It was enough, he implied, to just keep sitting. Moreover, he used to say: “You can just start here.” Right, those who are ripe can just start with the longing for God or with the desire for Self-knowledge. Being earnest, as Nisargadatta often insists, is entirely sufficient.

Swami Vivekananda On Karma Yoga

The main lines of Vivekananda’s little book Karma Yoga may already be familiar to you from The Bhagavad Gita, but there are some surprises as well. I was surprised, for instance, to learn that karma yoga is not really the path of selfless service to others. Not really–but hang on; I’ll get there.

The Basics

Let’s start with the obvious. The domain of the jnana yogi is knowledge; that of the bhakti yoga is divine love; and that of the karma yogi is action (or work). The karma yogi, then, has a spiritual temperament that is pointed toward doing. What good is it to tell him to turn deeply within and see the Self (jnana yoga)? And what use is there in telling such a one, as the saint Ramakrishna did, to love God only (bhakti yoga)? Better, says wise Hindu thinking, to harness his predilection for work and, as it were, put it to good use.

Of what does karma yoga consist? We learn in The Bhagavad Gita that one has a “right to one’s actions” but not to “the fruit of one’s actions.” Thus, what is enjoined is an attitude of detachment. Care not for any fruits; think nothing of receiving any returns, of getting anything back, indeed of any ROI in life; act and let go; act and let go; act and ultimately be free.

Vivekananda points out that karma yoga is a slow path to Self-realization. By doing without taking, doing without expecting, doing and letting loose, one is slowly “giving up”; “only it is done slowly and gradually, by knowing things, enjoying things, and thus obtaining experience, and knowing the nature of things until the mind lets them all go at last and becomes unattached” (Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action, Advaita Ashrama [2021], p. 103). What makes this path slow are two things. Firstly, one is continuing to work and work and work until (call it) “the fuel of ego-self” is slowly yet inexorably burned away. Secondly, one is tasting worldliness in its many forms, not renouncing worldliness in all its forms (as jnana yogis do).

And what is the aim of karma yoga? It is none other than Freedom (moksha), and in this very Indian manner it joins hands with bhakti and jnana. All paths, that is, are valid, with each leading to the same goal. If the aim is Freedom, then the means isn’t work per se but the self-abnegation that comes through working with detachment.

The Surprises

I promised that there were a couple of surprises. I’ve already hinted at one, but here is the place to spell it out. Flouting a commonly held view, Vivekananda argues that karma yoga is not principally about helping others. He gives metaphysical reasons for why this is so, but let one example stand in for what he essentially argues: suppose, he says, that you feed a hungry man; will he not be hungry again later on? Then what final good have you done him? The wheel of samsara continues to turn.

In this, then, Vivekananda agrees with the contemporary Kashmiri teacher Eric Baret who states, “You can’t help anyone.” If to help someone is to totally end her suffering, then, yes (in that sense), one cannot help anyone. And such is the direction of Vivekananda’s thought as well.

The twist in the argument, then, is that the karma yogi should be nothing but thankful when he finds and gives to a beggar because the beggar is precisely the occasion for his work of emptying out his own ego-self. To be clear, it’s not as if the beggar is now a prop for the karma yogi’s self-abnegation; it’s instead the case that the beggar, in that instance, is the karma yogi’s teacher. If the beggar expresses ingratitude, so much the better–provided that the karma yogi remains in equipoise from first to last. And if the karma yogi flinches or is repulsed, then–to quote D.H. Lawrence from his poem “Snake”: “I have something [still] to expiate: / A pettiness.”

The second surprise is to find karma yoga pressed so firmly in the direction of bhakti, as when Vivekananda states that the former must learn to give all up to God–indeed, to “resign everything unto God” (p. 112). As the ego-self is emptied out, it must be asked: who is acting? Only God. Who is receiving? Only God.

A Touch of Puzzlement

I end this post with a touch of puzzlement about the details–or, should I say, the exact mechanics–of Vivekananda’s account. In other words, how, exactly, does this path work? (I, of course, ask this question as a committed jnana yogi.) If the aim is moksha and if the means is self-abnegating work, how–more precisely–is one to use work to transcend work, indeed the field of all action? Whereas jnana yoga seems utterly pellucid in terms of its rigorous, often negative methodology, karma yoga still, to my mind anyway, has an air of mystery.

The best I can do to piece this account together is to add an additional premise from Nisargadatta’s Ultimate Medicine. Suppose we look at the first stirring of manifestation in terms of the Life Force or Vital Energy (cf. shakti). Then work initially seems to be undertaken by a jiva. Little by little, however, the jiva dissolves and the activity or vibration of work (i.e., manifestation) is now understood to be nothing but the Life Force, the single force effectuating all activities whatever. Such, then, is the entire field of manifestation. And thus only one (necessarily jnana-inspired) question remains: whence this Life Force? The answer, beyond words, is Para Brahman.

Is There A Shortcut?

A common story line among some spiritual teachers who have “attained the Way” goes something like this: I took the long road to come to Self-realization and, along the way, I discovered a shortcut. Now I only teach the shortcut and believe it’s utterly unnecessary for others to do what I did.

I don’t doubt the sincerity or the compassion of such teachers who speak of having found a shortcut, but I do find the story to be pretty dubious. After all, being enlightened takes however long it does: no longer and no shorter. (And, indeed, since enlightenment is a “non-event,” it literally takes no time at all.)

I wonder too about such stories: isn’t it just as plausible that, for instance, repeating a mantra for 20 years made the teacher’s mind more sattvic so that she could receive the ripe, right-to-the-point teaching? Or might doing self-inquiry for 30 dedicated years be just the thing?

A further doubt: a shortcut for someone of spiritual temperament X may be a long cut or no cut at all for someone of spiritual temperament Y. If, for example, someone were to tell me to become a bhakta and to just love God in all things, I’m just not sure that such a teaching would resonate. Yet if someone else urged me to do self-inquiry earnestly and constantly, then I’d take to it like a pig in slop. (Trust me: I have.)

To put a fine point on my doubts: there doesn’t seem to me to be any way of removing the supreme value of upaya. One helping others to see through their ignorance and to know definitively who they are should pull out all the stops and should be willing to throw anything at it that works including the kitchen sink. What one needs may not be what another needs; and what a third needs may be something totally different. Thus, finesse, keenness of judgment, and a certain openness to experiment seem to me to be hallmarks of the finest nondual teaching. And all these I find in spades in Sri Ramana Maharshi, who nimbly met each exactly where he or she was.

Game Over

An Analogy

Imagine that for the longest time you get fixated on objects illuminated by the sun. How interesting! Or how terrible! When each object is illuminated, you get caught up in this one. Then that one. Then that one…

Imagine that one day you became interested in where this illumination comes from. At which point, you’d start to see each object as pointing back to sunbeams and, little by little, you’d start to abide with these emanations.

Then imagine what would happen were you to be all absorbed in the incipient manifestation of the sunbeam. You’d effectively feel that you were surrounded on all sides by the light of the sun. Could you see anything apart from the light? No. Surrounded by light, soon you’d be pervaded by light.

And then you’d realize that you were not the light but the sun itself.

Turning Back Around

Getting fixated on objects is, in this analogy, equivalent to bondage.

Turning back around and being interested in the source of light refers to the beginning of self-inquiry; it means, in essence, getting acquainted with I Am.

Abidance in I Am is like being pervaded by the light of the sun. When there is complete pervasion, this is Self-realization.

Game Over

We can call “game over” the “state” in which one is completely abiding in I Am. Then just as being so close to the sun signifies that one must be “burned up” in the sun, so I Am, being near the Absolute, must naturally, automatically return to the Absolute.