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.