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by John Schlenck

It has been said that the Bhagavad-Gita is the summation of the teachings of the Upanishads and that the Gita itself is an Upanishad—“Gitopanishad.” Nearly all the teachings of the Upanishads are also given in the Gita. But the reverse cannot be said. Some teachings in the Gita are not given, or are only hinted at, in the Upanishads. One of the most important of these is karma-yoga—the practice of non-attached or unselfish work as a path to spiritual illumination. Karma in the Upanishads usually refers to the performance of rituals for attaining success or prosperity in the relative world, which includes heaven. The thorough and profound analysis of action and its use as a discipline for Self-knowledge was left to the Gita.

If we examine the verses in the Gita that have to do with karma-yoga, we find several lines of emphasis. There are verses that have to do with duty, verses concerning ritual, verses that emphasize jnana (knowledge), others that emphasize bhakti (devotion), some relating to raja-yoga (meditation), and a number that might be regarded as pure karma-yoga.


Krishna’s first teaching to Arjuna has to do with duty. In the dramatic opening scene, Arjuna is confronted by the immediate need to decide his course of action—whether to fight the looming battle or to withdraw into contemplative life, giving up action. Krishna exhorts him in the strongest language to choose the path of action, the path of duty, because that accords with his temperament and training. This is perhaps the first teaching of the Gita: be true to your own nature. Start from where you are, according to the nature of your own mind; don’t try to imitate someone else whose nature is different. Arjuna is a man of action, and so he must follow the path of action. He must banish faint-heartedness and act honorably in the battle of life. If we refuse to fight life’s battles, external or internal, we dishonor our human birth. But the fight must be waged with an attitude that leads to greatness of spirit. We must fight “without mental fever,” without anger or hatred.

The Gita begins with the nitty-gritty of a real-life crisis, with the need to make a decision here and now, to act boldly and decisively. It does not begin in a calm, forest retreat with no external complications. It is this setting, in the thick of life’s challenges, that makes the Gita so powerful and so relevant to our lives.

Having challenged Arjuna to stand and fight, Krishna now explains the method by which he can convert karma (action) into karma-yoga. And he assures him that even failed attempts to practice this yoga are not wasted. Even a little practice is beneficial.


In karma-yoga, “the will is directed singly toward one ideal.” Kierkegaard put this another way: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” We must cultivate single-minded dedication to our ideal. We must will to transform our lives, to reach our spiritual destiny. If we lack focus, our “will wanders in all directions, after innumerable aims.”

But this cannot be done by abstaining from action. “Nobody can become perfect by merely ceasing to act. In fact, nobody can rest from activity even for a moment. All are helplessly forced to act” by the forces of nature, internal and external. Abstaining from outward action but letting our minds feed on images of desire is hypocrisy. Gradually we are to control our minds while at the same time engaging in action without desire for its fruits. Actions are to be performed sacramentally, without attachment to results.

Swami Vivekananda says that it is possible to reach spiritual illumination simply through unselfish action, without prayer or meditation. But karma-yoga is usually practiced in conjunction with one or more of the other yogas. In any case, there must be introspection, some monitoring of our state of mind.  Holy Mother instructed one disciple who was of an active type that there must be morning and evening meditation, which acts like the rudder of a ship. As one sits for evening meditation, one reflects on the good and bad actions one has done during the day. “Otherwise, how will you know you are working along the right lines?”


To keep focused, we need some mental image to go along with our work, some image of where we are headed. Krishna says to Arjuna, “Remember Me and fight.” If we think only of the present state of our minds, we tend to brood on our imperfections. We need some positive image that attracts us—a large magnet, as Sri Ramakrishna says.

That image could be the compassionate form of a personal God who loves, guides and saves us. It could be the absolute freedom and bliss of our real nature, the divine Self. It could be the stillness and serenity of a mind under perfect control, as represented in Buddhist and Jain statues in meditation.

Or it could be the beauty of great lives lived in self-forgetful service to others. And if we remember that these great men and women did not start out perfect, we can gain courage. They struggled with their imperfections, and there is beauty in that struggle. Their example shows that we too are capable of struggle and spiritual growth. They show what human life can become. By thinking of their lives, we form an image of the person we would like to be.

If our chosen image is the personal God, we can derive hope and inspiration from Chapter 12, vs. 8-11. Krishna first asks Arjuna to “lodge his mind” in Him, and by doing this he will dwell in Him. Then he says, “If you cannot become absorbed in Me, then try to reach Me by repeated concentration.” But there are still more options. Here is the karma-yoga option: “If you lack the strength to concentrate, then devote yourself to works which will please me. For, by working for my sake only, you will achieve perfection.” And finally, “If you cannot even do this, then surrender yourself to me altogether. Control the lusts of your heart, and renounce the fruits of every action.”

It is interesting to note here that self-surrender does not absolve us of all responsibility. There are still things we have to do. The last part of the verse can be seen as a continuation of karma-yoga. We are to exercise self-control—a form of mental action; and we are to renounce the fruits of every action, internal or external, another form of mental action, one that relates directly to karma-yoga. By surrendering ourselves to God, we gain the strength and the right frame of mind to perform these actions.


If we are inclined to ritual, we can study those verses in the Gita relating to offering, in Chapters 3 and 4. Instead of “cooking good food for the greed of our stomachs,” we should first offer whatever we eat to God. Gradually we will come to see that God dwells within the ritual. “The ritual is God, the offering is God; God is the devotee who offers to the holy fire that is God. If God is seen in every action, one finds God.” This is ritual oriented toward jnana. But ritual may also lead to bhakti: “Whatever one gives me in true devotion: fruit or water, a leaf a flower; I will accept it. That gift is love, his heart’s dedication. Whatever your action, food or worship, whatever the gift you give to another, whatever you vow to the work of the spirit: lay these also as offerings before me.” The final offering is the offering of our lives, ourselves, to God. “Offer everything to Me. If your heart is united with Me, you will be set free from karma even in this life, and come to Me at the last.”

Chapter 6 of the Gita relates action to meditation. “Let him who would climb in meditation to heights of the highest union with Brahman take for his path the yoga of action: Then when he nears that height of oneness his acts will fall from him, his path will be tranquil.” With regard to directing the will: “What is man’s will and how shall he use it? Let him put forth its power to uncover the Atman, not hide the Atman: Man’s will is the only friend of the Atman; His will is also the Atman’s enemy.”


From one standpoint, karma-yoga can be regarded as the most basic spiritual path. From the moment we are born, we act. Before we think, pray or meditate, we act. And we act continuously. Even if our bodies are apparently at rest, our minds are active, consciously or unconsciously. Even if we are flat on our backs, millions of unconscious actions are going on within our bodies. Our bodies are in fact battlefields, where the forces of preservation and destruction are constantly at war.

The question is not whether or not we act, but how we act. Are we content to act as prisoners of our desires and whims and fears, our likes and dislikes, simply coasting along on the path of least resistance? Or do we choose to act in a way that leads to self-transformation and freedom? More than we care to admit, we are the slaves of our minds—in Swami Vivekananda’s words, “rolling to and fro at the mercy of good and bad actions.” But it is possible to rebel against this slavery, to find a way out of the prison. We have a choice. And if we choose to rebel, there are friends and guides to help us: the lives and teachings of those men and women who attained spiritual freedom even while living in a human body. • • •


JOHN SCHLENCK, a composer of music, was resident at the Vedanta Society of New York for many years, serving as Secretary, librarian and music director.  Now living at the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, he is Coordinating Editor of American Vedantist and Secretary-Treasurer of Vedanta West Communications. JSCHLENCK@GMAIL.COM

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