Karma Yoga in Bhagwat Gita

Categories : Spirituality

The sacred book Bhagavad Gita is a part of Mahabharat. It contains a collection of teachings of Sri Krishna on the battleground of Kurukshetra when he saw the renunciant type of behaviour of Arjuna before the commencement of the battle. Arjuna saw his relatives arrayed against him on the battleground and he began thinking about whether mass killing of close relatives was morally justified. He expresses his doubts to Krishna and more or less refuses to take up arms, thus creating a problem.

To bring him back to his senses Sri Krishna advised him to prepare for a battle which was the dharma of Kshatriya. Thus, Gita is a command of action during the battle which was imminent. The mandate for the war by God spreads through 700 shlokas of Gita which elaborately explain the Karma Yoga, Gyan Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Sri Krishna must have given him advice for immediate action and necessity which was later elaborated and explained by scholars led by Ved Vyas.

Karma has been one of the leading subjects of discourse between Krishna and Arjun which forms a big part of Gita. The word Karma may have many meanings and connotations. Commentators on Gita such as Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, S. Radhakrishnan, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad, and historians like A. L. Basham, Wendy Doniger etc. have commented on these aspects. References to Karma are also found in Upanishads. Some of the connotations of Karma may be examined.

1. Action is the first and basic meaning of Karma. Arjun had drifted towards inaction. To bring him back to action was the prime necessity of the moment. To make him battle-ready was the purpose of Gita. Krishna developed the theory of human activity. He said God himself remains continuously active. Therefore, humans should also remain in active mode. Some selected shlokas are highly relevant.

न हि कश्चित्क्षणमपि जातु तिष्ठत्यकर्मकृत् |

कार्यते ह्यवश: कर्म सर्व: प्रकृतिजैर्गुणै: || 5||

na hi kaśhchit kṣhaṇam api jātu tiṣhṭhatyakarma-kṛit

kāryate hyavaśhaḥ karma sarvaḥ prakṛiti-jair guṇaiḥ


There is no one who can remain without action even for a moment. Indeed, all beings are compelled to act by their qualities born of material nature (the three guṇas).

नियतं कुरु कर्म त्वं कर्म ज्यायो ह्यकर्मण: |

शरीरयात्रापि ते प्रसिद्ध्येदकर्मण: || 8||

niyataṁ kuru karma tvaṁ karma jyāyo hyakarmaṇaḥ

śharīra-yātrāpi cha te na prasiddhyed akarmaṇaḥ


You should thus perform your prescribed Vedic duties since action is superior to inaction. By ceasing activity, even your bodily maintenance will not be possible.

यद्यदाचरति श्रेष्ठस्तत्तदेवेतरो जन: |

यत्प्रमाणं कुरुते लोकस्तदनुवर्तते || 21||

yad yad ācharati śhreṣhṭhas tat tad evetaro janaḥ

sa yat pramāṇaṁ kurute lokas tad anuvartate


Whatever a great man does, the same is done by others as well. Whatever standard he sets, the world follows.

मे पार्थास्ति कर्तव्यं त्रिषु लोकेषु किञ्चन |

नानवाप्तमवाप्तव्यं वर्त एव कर्मणि || 22||

na me pārthāsti kartavyaṁ triṣhu lokeṣhu kiñchana

nānavāptam avāptavyaṁ varta eva cha karmaṇi


There is no duty for Me to do in all the three worlds, O Parth, nor do I have anything to gain or attain. Yet, I am engaged in prescribed duties.

मयि सर्वाणि कर्माणि संन्यस्याध्यात्मचेतसा |

निराशीर्निर्ममो भूत्वा युध्यस्व विगतज्वर: || 30||

mayi sarvāṇi karmāṇi sannyasyādhyātma-chetasā

nirāśhīr nirmamo bhūtvā yudhyasva vigata-jvaraḥ


Performing all works as an offering unto Me, constantly meditate on Me as the Supreme. Become free from desire and selfishness, and with your mental grief departed, fight!         

2. The second meaning of Karma may be related to the performance of ritual actions prescribed by scriptures like Rig Veda. Vedic Brahmans etc. Codes of conduct were available for the performance of activity for chosen goals. The distinction between good deeds and bad deeds emanated from this.

3. The third meaning of Karma is that good deeds and bad deeds transform into earnings of individuals during their lifetime. Thus, everyone carries an accumulated load of Karma which may have a relationship with future lives.

4. The fourth meaning of Karma may be interpreted as reflections of the Karmas of past lives into the life of the present. There is a common practice of connecting the bad deeds of past lives with the problems of the present life.

5. The fifth characteristic of Karma is that it is transferable not only between relatives but also between non-relatives. An example of this exists in Katha-Upanishad.

It has been said in the scriptures that if a household fails to honour and feed a guest, the guest will depart with all the good Karmas earned by the householder and will leave all his accumulated bad Karmas for the host. The same effect has been described in a discourse between Yama and Nachiketa

“The foolish man in whose house a Brahmana guest remains without food, all his hopes and expectations, all the merit gained by his association with the holy, by his good words and deeds, all his sons and cattle, are destroyed”.

  • Chapter 1, Sloka 8 (Katha-Upanishad)

6. The sixth meaning of Karma is that the Karma should be performed without an expectation of result/reward (Niskama Karma). Karmas performed with expectations of results are causes for bondage. Nishkama Karma leads one towards salvation. The shlokas relating to this idea from the Bhagavad Gita are very popular.

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन |

मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि || 47 ||

karmaṇy-evādhikāras te mā phaleṣhu kadāchana

mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te saṅgo ’stvakarmaṇi


You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.

योगस्थ: कुरु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा धनञ्जय |

सिद्ध्यसिद्ध्यो: समो भूत्वा समत्वं योग उच्यते || 48||

yoga-sthaḥ kuru karmāṇi saṅgaṁ tyaktvā dhanañjaya

siddhy-asiddhyoḥ samo bhūtvā samatvaṁ yoga uchyate


Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, O Arjun, abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yog.

बुद्धियुक्तो जहातीह उभे सुकृतदुष्कृते |

तस्माद्योगाय युज्यस्व योग: कर्मसु कौशलम् || 50||

buddhi-yukto jahātīha ubhe sukṛita-duṣhkṛite

tasmād yogāya yujyasva yogaḥ karmasu kauśhalam


One who prudently practices the science of work without attachment can get rid of both good and bad reactions in this life itself. Therefore, strive for Yog, which is the art of working skillfully (in proper consciousness).

कर्मजं बुद्धियुक्ता हि फलं त्यक्त्वा मनीषिण: |

जन्मबन्धविनिर्मुक्ता: पदं गच्छन्त्यनामयम् || 51||

karma-jaṁ buddhi-yuktā hi phalaṁ tyaktvā manīṣhiṇaḥ

janma-bandha-vinirmuktāḥ padaṁ gachchhanty-anāmayam


The wise endowed with equanimity of intellect, abandon attachment to the fruits of actions, which bind one to the cycle of life and death. By working in such consciousness, they attain the state beyond all suffering.

यदा ते मोहकलिलं बुद्धिर्व्यतितरिष्यति |

तदा गन्तासि निर्वेदं श्रोतव्यस्य श्रुतस्य || 52||

yadā te moha-kalilaṁ buddhir vyatitariṣhyati

tadā gantāsi nirvedaṁ śhrotavyasya śhrutasya cha


When your intellect crosses the quagmire of delusion, you will then acquire indifference to what has been heard and what is yet to be heard (about enjoyment in this world and the next).