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Year : 2016  |  Volume : 48  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 37-41

Karma Yoga: A traditional perspective

Philosophico-Literary Research Department, Kaivalyadhama, Lonavla, Pune, Maharashtra, India

Date of Web Publication19-Jan-2017

Correspondence Address:
Rajeshwar Mukherjee
Philosophico-Literary Research Department, Kaivalyadhama, Lonavla, Pune, Maharashtra - 410 403
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DOI: 10.4103/0044-0507.198708

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Background: Karma Yoga is a valid way to the ultimate realization of the Self. It has been emphasized by Yogeśvara Kṛṣṇa in Śrīmadbhagavadgītā. There is a prevalent misconception that the traditional exponents of Advaita Vedānta have declined to accept it as a path leading to supreme illumination. A careful and in-depth study of the traditional works of Śaṅkara and the modern interpretation by Swami Vivekananda reveal that Karma Yoga is not only a very effective path of yoga but it is a pre-requisite to the highest realization.
Aim: This paper attempts to unravel the finer shades of Karma Yoga in the light of Vedānta.
Method: The real import of yoga is derived from the etymology of the word 'yoga' and from the definition furnished by Patañjali in his Yogasūtra. Then, Karma Yoga has been substantiated as an independent path to the supreme realization through an analytical study. Ideas about the concept have been carefully culled from Śrīmadbhagavadgita and from the works of Swami Vivekananda. The entire discussion has been carried out without compromising Advaita i.e. non-duality, at any point.
Results: The study reveals the following results (a) Karma Yoga can lead to the highest realization. (b) It is complementary to Jñāna Yoga and is not opposed to the findings of Advaita Vedānta.
Conclusion: Karma Yoga performed in the spirit of discrimination or devotion consummates in the supreme vision of the non-dual reality.

Keywords: Ignorance, Self knowledge, selfless work, Vedānta

How to cite this article:
Mukherjee R. Karma Yoga: A traditional perspective. Yoga Mimamsa 2016;48:37-41

How to cite this URL:
Mukherjee R. Karma Yoga: A traditional perspective. Yoga Mimamsa [serial online] 2016 [cited 2021 Aug 6];48:37-41. Available from:

  Introduction Top

Yoga is the supreme state of realization. It is the ultimate goal of human life. The word 'yoga' can be traced in the Ṛig-Veda, Śathapatha Brāhmaa, and the Upaṇiṣads. The word was used in several senses as yoking, connecting, achieving, control, etc. However, the word 'yoga' is derived from the verbal root Yuj, the meaning of which was technically ascertained by Pāṇini, the famous Sanskrit grammarian. Illustrating the import of the root yuj, the Paninian Dhātupāṭ

ha reads yujir yoge, yuja samādhau, and yuja sayamane. These three connotations attach three different implications to the verbal root. The first implies union whereas the second implies concentration. The third one suggests control. The root yuj associated with the suffix“ac“gives rise to the word 'yoga'. Therefore, the word 'yoga' simultaneously suggests union, concentration, and control.

In recent times, the Pātañjala Yoga Sūtra, has gained a wide currency as a standard treatise of yoga, though the concept of yoga is abundantly available in several Upaniṣads and Śrīmadbhagavadgita. The germ of the thoughts on yoga is contained in these texts since the morning of Indian literary tradition. Therefore, in consideration of the antiquity, Śrīmadbhagavadgita and the Upaniṣads may be treated as authentic compendiums of yoga. However, Patañjali has accomplished the uphill task of systematizing the scattered concepts of yoga to give rise to a philosophical framework.

Vyāsa, the renowned commentator of Pātanjala Yoga Sūtra, used the word 'yoga' to mean“Samādhi” which denotes concentration. However, the term 'yoga' has been accepted largely to connote the sense of union. It is the union of the“Apparent Man” and the“Real Man.” Through this union the apparent man, identified with a changeful body and mind, dissociates himself from his changeful nature and discovers his absolute nature, which is infinite and eternal. The word 'yoga' has been used in the Upaniṣads to suggest union as well as control.

Advaita Vedānta asserts that the individual Self, Ātman, is the only reality, the supreme Self. It is one without a second. As a matter of fact, the Self, which is non-dual, appears to be manifold due to its association with the primordial ignorance. The world of relativity is the animation of this ignorance. This ignorance is philosophically termed avidyā or māyā. This māyā has two powers: concealment, āvaraa, and projection, vikepa. On the one hand, it conceals the real nature of the individual, and on the other hand, it projects this world of relativity and changefulness. The Self which is indivisible by nature appears to be individuated due to its association with this ignorance. Being under the spell of ignorance, the individual being identifies himself with the body–mind complex, which is ephemeral and mutable. The Self, due to this association, as it were, experiences pleasures and pangs being trapped in the cycles of births and rebirths. This false identification of Self with the body-mind complex can be dissolved through the praxis of the principles, as prescribed in the Yogaśāstra. An individual is said to be perfectly established in yoga when he realizes his own supreme nature obtaining freedom from the shackles of māyā. Therefore, the union of the individual Self and the Supreme Self is equivalent to the separation of the Self from the clutch of Prakti.

While defining yoga, Patañjali has put forward two consecutive aphorisms to provide an all pervasive definition of yoga. Patañjali writes:


Yoga is the control of the thought-waves in the mind.“(Prabhavananda & Isherwood, 2014)

tadā draṣṭu

svarūpe-'vasthānam \\

Then man abides in his real nature“(Prabhavananda & Isherwood, 2014)

So the ultimate goal is to discover the real nature of one's own Self and to be eternally established in it, being free from mundane attachments, which is the result of ignorance. Patañjali asserted that, to achieve this goal, mental modifications need to be destroyed. The Advaita Vedanta speaks about the dissolution of mind. The Māṇukya Kārikā clearly indicates that the ultimate realization of the Self is consummated only when the mind becomes“no mind,” as mind is the generator of all manifest objects. Hence, the primary aim is to annihilate the mind which is the generator of the dualities. When this mind is destroyed the knowledge of the 'Self' dawns. The Yoga Sūtra says that the thought waves are to be nullified whereas the Vedanta speaks about the total annihilation of the mind. However, Saṅ

kara asserts that the mind can be annihilated through the cessation of the mental modifications. Thus, for all practical purposes, the mind is to be put under control. In fact, the scientific process of controlling the mind intensifying one's concentration is called the yoga.

Vedānta emphasizes the divinity of individual soul. An individual soul is eternal, pure, conscious, and free (Nitya, Śuddha, Buddha, Mukta). That is his real nature. The veil of ignorance clouds the real nature of the Self. Yoga is the way of dispelling the cloud of ignorance unfolding one's real nature.

The essence of yoga is echoed in the voice of Swami Vivekananda. He writes:

Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy - by one, or more, or all of these - and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.“(Vivekananda, 1989)

The four royal roads to absolute realization, as recommended by Swami Vivekananda, are Jṇāna Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Rāja Yoga, and Karma Yoga. Some traditional scholars consider Karma Yoga to be only the means of cleansing the mind and, as such, the supreme state cannot be accomplished through this state. It leads to the gateway of liberation but is unable take one to the highest goal. However, a study of traditional texts reveals it is as potent as the other royal roads to the highest realization.


In this context, some pertinent questions evolve:

  • Is Karma Yoga equally potent as the other paths of yoga?
  • Can Karma Yoga lead to Self realization?

The modern phase of Advaita Vedānta, pioneered by Swami Vivekananda, echoing with the teachings of Śrīmadbhagavadgita asserts that Karma Yoga is not only a potent way to the Self realization, but it also has the potential to accomplish the experience of the ultimate reality independently.

  Method Top

A comparative and analytical study of Pātañjala Yoga Sūtra, Śrīmadbhagavadgītā, and expositions of Ācārya Śaṅ

kara and Swami Vivekananda's has been made to reach the conclusion. The analysis has been done from the perspective of Advaita Vedānta.

  Results Top

  • Practice of Karma Yoga coupled with Jñāna Yoga leads to absolute realization
  • It is equally potent as the other traditional paths of yoga and is not opposed to the principles of Advaita Vedānta.

  Discussion Top

The study of the commentary of Brahmasūtra by Ācārya Śaṅkara seemingly implies that there can be no conjunction of work and knowledge. Ācārya Śaṅkara asserts that the non-dual knowledge is the only way to supreme realization and, therefore, he categorically refuted the conjunction of work and knowledge in his interpretation of Brahmasūtra. Ācārya Śaṅkara writes:“...the deliberations on virtuous deeds and Brahman differ as regards results and objects of inquiry.“(Gambhirananda, 2006). Advaita, non-duality, is the watch-word of Ācārya Śaṅkara's philosophy, and since Karma consisting of several accessories is dualistic in nature, their convergence is a complete impossibility. According to him, Karma is the product of the primal ignorance and, as such, it cannot lead to Self realization. Here, it requires mention that by Karma, in the commentary of Brahmasūtra, Ācārya Śaṅkara has meant the ritualistic works advocated by the Mīmāṃsakas, which were practiced with a desire to obtain specific results. For example, the sacrifice called Putreṣṭi Yajña is a sacrifice which is performed with a desire of having an off-spring. But the great Ācārya, in his commentary of Śrīmadbhagavadgita, has accepted the Karma Yoga as a significant path of yoga as the word 'Karma' has been used here in a different connotation. The Karma here refers to selfless action in contrast with the ritualistic action of the Mīmāṃ

sakas. In fact, Acarya Samkara has fully approved that selfless action leads one to the state of absolute freedom.

In the Śrīmadbhagavadgita, the highest form of knowledge is expressed in the form of a dialogue between Yogeśvara Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. Kṛṣṇa showers profuse praise on the Karma Yoga and emphasizes that it is one of the primary paths among other ways to Self realization. The wonderful dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna in Śrīmadbhagavadgita reveals the intricacies of this yoga in a profound manner. Yogeśvara Kṛṣṇa himself asserts:

sannyāsaḥ karma-yogaśca niḥśreyasa-karāvubhau

tayostu karma-sannyāsāt karma-yogo viśisyate

Both renunciation of actions and Karma Yoga leads to liberation.

Among the two, Karma Yoga however excels.” (Gambhirananda, 2003)

Here, Karmasannyāsa refers to knowledge. Though each of the paths leads to the highest goal, the Lord treats Karma Yoga superior to the knowledge. Commenting on the same Ācārya Śaṅkara remarks:

Though both lead to the highest good, still of these two causes of the highest good, Karma Yoga is superior...” (Warrier, 2014)

It is notable that even Ācārya Śaṅkara, though being a great exponent of knowledge, has accepted the superiority of work over knowledge. Such an unusual stance of Ācārya Śaṅkara regarding the eminence of Karma Yoga really incites wonder and confusion.

In this context, the utter confusion of Arjuna regarding the motive of Lord Kṛṣṇa to engage him in the terrible war may also be referred. Arjuna asks with bewilderment:

jyāyasī cet karma nas te matā buddhir janārdana

tat kiḿ karmani ghore māḿniyojayasi keśava \\

“O Janardana (Kṛṣṇ

a), if it be Your opinion that Wisdom is superior to action, why then do you urge me to horrible action?” (Gambhirananda, 2003)

Kṛṣṇa profoundly answers:

na karmanām anārambhān naiskarmyaḿ puru so 'śnute

na ca sannyasanād eva siddhiḿ samadhigacchati \\

na hi kaścit kaamapi jātu tiṣṭhtyakarmakrit

kāryate hyavaśa

karma sarvapratijairguai\\

A person does not attain freedom from action by abstaining from action; nor does he attain fulfilment merely through renunciation.” (Gambhirananda, 2003)

Because, no one ever remains even for a moment without doing work. For all are made to work under compulsion by the guas born of nature.“(Gambhirananda, 2003)

A person living in this empirical world is controlled by the nature and its modes; and, as such, he cannot live a moment without action. So, being impelled by the Prak ṛti, he cannot renounce action at his will. Work is a part and parcel of his very existence. When this work is sublimated in form of selfless action, it results in the renunciation of actions,“Karmasannyāsa.” Through the attainment of such renunciation of action, the supreme light dawns. As a matter of fact, selfless action and knowledge are essentially complementary to each other. Action performed with desirelessness and non-attachment matures into the knowledge of the reality through the renunciation of action. Thus, yoga starts with selfless work; and through the process of gradual purification, it culminates in knowledge, which is the ultimate reality. The Upaniṣad reads:

satyam jñānam anantam Brahma.' 'Brahman is Truth, Knowledge and Infinite.” (Gambhirananda, 1986)

Though Karma Yoga is an ancient method, the importance of this path has lost its prominence in the course of time and it has been resuscitated by Swami Vivekananda in the modern age. He staunchly advocated Karma Yoga and emphasized that this path of action is one of the potent ways to the Self realization. Selfless action performed with the spirit of Advaita can lead individuals to the supreme enlightenment. Swami Vivekananda's concept of work is in the spirit of Karma Yoga of Bhagavadgita. His Karma Yoga is the way of selfless action which is, in essence, the echo of the utterance of the Lord in the Śrīmadbhagavadgita. Kṛṣṇ

a instructs Arjuna:

karma nyevādhikāras te mā phalesu kadācana

mā karma-phala-hetur bhūrmā te sago'stvakarmani \\

“Your right is for action alone.” (Gambhirananda, 2003)

Thus, a Karma Yogī above all must be selfless at heart. All his actions must be permeated with the spirit of unselfishness. Swamiji considers that, if work is carried out selflessly, it will undoubtedly lead to the supreme revelation. Though Ācārya Śaṅ

kara vehemently opposed the theory of Karma proposed by the Mīmāṃ

sakas, he has practically accepted the fact that selfless actions can lead to the supreme realization. It is notable that he refers to the instances of Janaka and Aśvapati who strove to attain liberation through action itself. However, in his commentary on the Śrīmadbhagavadgita, Ācārya did not at all recognize their strivings as“ritualistic karma” because their actions were completely free from the“sense for agent ship and desire for the fruit of actions.” He accepted the practicality of Karma Yoga by erasing the dividing lines between the realizations of Karma Yogī and other liberated souls. As a matter of fact, the actions of Karma Yogī are but the manifestation of their Advaitic knowledge. So, the real essence of Karma Yoga is to work selflessly in the spirit of Advaita.

An aspirant of Karma Yoga can perform the work either in the spirit of devotion or in the spirit of knowledge. As a bhakta, devotee, he sees his beloved Godhead to be manifested as innumerable beings of the universe. He considers his Karma as the token of unconditional love offered to his beloved Godhead. On the other hand, the follower of the path of knowledge considers his own Self to be permeated within every object of the universe. He visualizes his own reflection in all the worldly manifestations and is pleased to work unconditionally.

Naturally, Karma Yoga is an ideal way suited for the modern man having a scientific temperament and materialistic outlook. Even a person having no faith in the existence of a personal God can reach freedom by adopting this way of the pursuit of truth. There are several aspirants who have had the supreme enlightenment by adopting this path of spiritual attainment. In this age of materialism, there are scientists who are agnostic and do not have faith in anything beyond the sensory knowledge. Through selfless work these people are also led to the gradual purification of the mind, and when the mind is purified, supreme truth inevitably shines forth. This Karma, referred here in the Karma Yoga, is different from the desire prompted action advocated by the Mīmāṃ

sakas. Such desire prompted action does not take an individual to the high roads of spirituality but drags him down to the world of ignorance. In regard to the practice of Karma prescribed by the Mīmāṃsakas, Ācārya Śaṅkara considers Karma, having its root cause in primal ignorance, cannot lead to the knowledge. But unselfish action, as recommended in the Bhagavadgita, leads to highest realization. The essence of Karma Yoga and its relation with Bhakti Yoga and Jnana Yoga has been interpreted by Swami Vivekananda in clear terms. He interpretes:

Karma Yoga, therefore, is a system of ethics and religion intended to attain freedom through unselfishness, and by good works. The Karma Yogi need not believe in any doctrine whatever. He may not believe even in God, may not ask what his soul is, nor think of any metaphysical speculation. He has got his own special aim of realising selflessness; and he has to work it out himself. Every moment of his life must be realisation, because he has to solve by mere work, without the help of doctrine or theory, the very same problem to which the Jnani applies his reason and inspiration and the Bhakta his love.” (Vivekananda, 1989).

The Karma Yoga has been included in the scheme of Pātañjala Yoga in terms of Kriyā Yoga. The word Kriyā stands for action, and therefore Kriyā Yoga is the yoga of action. Patañjali opens the sādhanapāda of his yoga sūtra with a very important concept of Kriyā Yoga. The word 'Kriyā' has also come from the verbal root kṛ, which connotes work or action. The dhātupāṭ

ha reads: ḍu kṛñ karaṇe. The definition of Kriyā Yoga, as recorded by Patañjali is as follows: tapasvādhyāyaīśvarapraidhānani kriyā yogaḥ.

Therefore, Kriyā Yoga consists of three limbs: tapaḥ, svādhyāyaḥ, and īśvarapraṇidhānam. The word 'tapaḥ' has been used extensively in literary tradition in various connotations. The word 'tapaḥ' has originated from the verbal root tap. The Dhātupāṭha of Pāṇini records three different connotations of tap: satāpah (becoming hot), dāha (burning), and aiśvarya (wealth or rulership). Patañjali, in his yoga sūtra, aptly mentions that tapaḥ is the mastery accomplished over the body and senses through the burning of impurities within. He writes: Kāyendriyasiddhiaśuddhikayāt tapasa

(Prabhavananda & Isherwood, 2014). Svādhāya is the undertaking of the study of spiritual science, mokṣaśāstra. Through this study, one gains a glimpse of the effulgence of supreme reality. From the viewpoint of theistic aspirant, practice of Svādhāya connects one to his cherished Godhead. Patanjali writes: Svādhāyāt itadevatā saprayogaḥ (Prabhavananda & Isherwood, 2014).

Īsvarapraidhānam, in general, is surrendering one's own self to the supreme Godhead. From the viewpoint of the aspirant of Jñāna Yoga, it is the endeavour to obtain the highest spiritual treasure; as the word Īśa has been derived from the verbal root Īś, which means wealth. The dhātupāṭha records: Īśa aiśvarye. On the other hand, Vyāsa comments that īsvarapraidhānam is tendering the fruits of all action to the supreme consciousness which results in perfect non-attachment. Through this comes the samādhi, the highest experience. This is simply the echo of the profound utterance of Vāsudeva in Bhagavadgīta:

Yatkaroi yadśnāsi yajjuhoi dadāsi yat.

Yttapasyasi kaunteya tatkuruva madarpaam\\

“O son of Kuntī, whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer as a sacrifice, whatever you give and whatever austerities you undertake, (all) that you offer to me.” (Gambhirananda, 2003).

The man with a devotional temperament considers īsvarapraidhānam as the worship to the highest God, whereas the man of discriminative knowledge considers it as the renunciation of the fruits of action by the self.

Vācaspati in his gloss on the commentary of yoga sūtra, referring to Bhagavadgīta, establishes its equivalence with the yoga of selfless action which is popularly known as Karma Yoga (Rāma Prasād, 2005).

It requires mention here that the observances of tapa

, Svādhāya, and Īsvarapraidhānam are concurrent, and none can be practiced to the exclusive seclusion of the other two. Therefore, Kriyā Yoga is the yoga of selfless action, which leads to the perfect non-attachment through burning of impurities with concomitant study of the spiritual sciences. The three limbs of Kriyā Yoga are the three different layers of Karma Yoga which are interwoven inseparably. The devotee performs it in the spirit of devotion and the man of wisdom will have its praxis in the light of perfect discrimination.

However, it is worth-mentioning that the import of Tapa

goes far beyond the practice of austerities aiming at burning the impurities. The word 'Tapa

' in the Indian literary tradition has been often used as equivalent to concept of yoga. Therefore, in the spiritual tradition of India, the instruction of performing Tapaḥ has been given again and again in order to inculcate the essence of spiritual praxis. It has been recommended that Tapa

is to be undertaken until the knowledge of Brahman consummates. Tapaḥ itself is the spiritual discipline which only leads to the knowledge of Brahman. Ācārya Śaṅkara writes Tapasapunapunarupadeśasādhanātiśayatvāvadhāraārtha. Yāvadbrahmao lakaaniratiśayana bhavati, yaavaccha jijñāsā na nivartate, tāvattapa eva te sādhanam, tapaseiva brahma vijijñāsasvetyarthaḥṛjvanyat (Śaṅkarācārya, 2012). Since Karma Yoga is a spiritual discipline (Tapaḥ) which is practiced as the renunciation of the fruits of action with concomitant purification and practice, it may be safely identified with Kriyā Yoga of Pātañjala Darṣana.

  Conclusion Top

Advaita Vedānta considers the absolute freedom as the much coveted goal of human life. This freedom refers to the liberation from all limitations. Human being by nature is divine; he is eternal, pure, conscious, and ever free. The bondage is only due to the false identification with the body–mind complex. This identification is the root cause of all the ignorance. The aim of yoga is simply the annihilation of this nescience. Karma Yoga – preformed either in the spirit of devotion, bhakti, or in the spirit of knowledge of discrimination, Viveka – purifies the heart of the individual; and when the process of purification is fully accomplished, it culminates in knowledge through the renunciation of action. Thus, the supreme state of yoga is attained with the total annihilation of ignorance.

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  References Top

Krishna Warrier, AG. (2014). Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā Bhāya of Śrī Śakarācārya. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math.  Back to cited text no. 1
Rāma Prasāda (2005). The Yoga Darṣṇa of Patañjali. New Delhi: Logos Press.  Back to cited text no. 2
Śrī Śaṅ  Back to cited text no. 3
karācārya (2012). Complete Works: Kaladi. S.S. University of Sanskrit.  Back to cited text no. 4
Swami Gambhirananda. (2003). Bhagava-Gītā. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama.  Back to cited text no. 5
Swami Gambhirananda. (1986). Eight Upanishads. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama.  Back to cited text no. 6
Swami Gambhirananda. (2006). Brahma Sutra Bhashya. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama.  Back to cited text no. 7
Swami Prabhavananda, Isherwood Christopher. (2014) Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math.  Back to cited text no. 8
Swami Vivekananda. (1989). The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Vol I. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama.  Back to cited text no. 9
Swami Vivekananda. (1989). The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Vol. II Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama.  Back to cited text no. 10


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