Swami Vivekananda began working on Karma Yoga when he returned to New York from London in December, 1895. It was not his habit to do much actual writing himself; a stenographer was employed to record his lectures. It is thanks to the efforts of the stenographer, J. J. Goodwin, an Englishman who became Vivekananda’s disciple, that Vivekananda’s teachings, including his exposition of karma yoga, have survived. Karma Yoga is one of four volumes by Vivekananda describing the different paths to enlightenment in Vedanta. The other volumes are on raja yoga (the principal system of yoga as taught by the ancient seer, Patanjali), jnana yoga (the way of knowledge), and bhakti yoga (the way of devotion).
Karma Yoga is divided into eight chapters. Vivekananda’s style is simple, straightforward, and logical. In almost every chapter, he includes a story or anecdote from the Indian tradition to illustrate his main point. In keeping with his universalist outlook, Vivekananda also alludes to the Buddha and to Christian teachings. Sometimes he throws in an analogy drawn from science, especially physics, to make his point.
Karma and Karma Yoga
Vivekananda defines karma yoga as a system of ethics and religion intended to attain freedom (moksha) through unselfishness and good works. He does not exalt karma yoga as superior to other yogas, which include jnana and bhakti yoga. All yogas have the same goal, and each can lead to freedom independently of the others. He also points out that karma yoga does not have to be practiced within a particular tradition. It makes no difference whether a person is a Hindu, a Christian, Jew, or Gentile.
In the first chapter, Vivekananda defines the word “karma.” Derived from the Sanskrit word kri, to do, it simply means action, or work. The word is used in an all-inclusive sense; action includes the imprints of everything a person has done, thought, or felt. Everyone is performing karma all the time, and every thought and action leaves a mark on the doer. One’s character is composed entirely of what one’s karma, or one’s actions, have been and are. Because actions are determined from within, according to thought and will, people are responsible for what they are and have the power to make themselves what they wish. It is therefore necessary to know that the highest form of action is motivated not by selfish goals such as money, fame, or power, but by unselfishness. If one works without selfish motive, one gains the highest reward and becomes a moral giant. The ideal is to act without being attached to the fruits of the action and to remain utterly calm and still even in the midst of activity. Here Vivekananda alludes to the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most important of Vedantic texts. Indeed, the whole of Karma Yoga might be described as a commentary on that central idea of nonattachment as expounded by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
In chapter 2, Vivekananda points to the relative nature of duty and morality; they differ in varying circumstances and various cultures. There are disparate callings in life, each with its own duties. The householder and the recluse each has a place; one is not better than the other. Nor is one stage in life better than another; the roles of student, householder, retiree, or sanyasin (one who has given up the world altogether) are equally valid in their due place.
Chapter 3 is devoted to a discussion of how a person may best be helped. According to Vivekananda, the highest aid that one can give is to help a person spiritually, because that is the only thing that will free the individual from want. Those who give spiritual knowledge are the great benefactors of humankind. After this in importance is intellectual knowledge. The least valuable help is physical, because if all one does if feed a hungry person, he or she will soon become hungry again.
The nature of spiritual help rests on the understanding of the central question of karma yoga: If everything is work (karma), how does one become free of the effects,...
(The entire section is 2,339 words.)