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.