Context

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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).

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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

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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.

Spiritual Help

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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, both good and bad, that all action will produce? How does one step out of the turning wheel of karma, in which desire produces action, which in turn produces more desire in an eternal restless cycle? For the answer, Vivekananda returns to the Bhagavad Gita. The key passage, although Vivekananda does not refer to it directly, is chapter 2, verse 45, when Krishna counsels the warrior Arjuna to go beyond the “three gunas.” The gunas, sattva, tamas, and rajas, are the three constituents of nature, present in everything. By taking his mind beyond them, Arjuna will be beyond the dualities of nature. He will realize the essential nature of his own being and the steadfastness of the universal self and no longer have attachment to the world. Krishna advises further (chapter 2, verse 48) that action must be performed from that realized state of being, in which case it will automatically result in nonattachment. As Vivekananda explains it, the message of the Bhagavad Gita is to perform the action, but not let the action or the thought behind it create a deep impression on the mind. To do anything less than this is to identify oneself with nature, which means that action results only in more slavery, not freedom. On a practical note, Vivekananda states that nonattachment can be cultivated by acting without the expectation of any reward. One must offer everything as a free gift; attachment comes when one expects something in return.

Duty

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The tolerant universalism for which Vivekananda was noted is evident in chapter 4, which discusses the philosophy of duty. He first points out that the term is virtually impossible to define, because the same actions might be right in one context and wrong in another. However, the most universal guide is that one’s duty is not to injure any living being and to do what will exalt and ennoble according to the tradition in which one has been born. It is important not to judge the customs of other cultures.

The purpose of performing duty is the same as in any other aspect of yoga, the object being to allow the higher self to shine through one’s actions. Vivekananda then returns to his main theme: Duty only runs smoothly when it is motivated by love, and the only way to truly express love is to be nonattached.

In chapter 5, Vivekananda broaches one of the paradoxes often encountered in mystical thought. The paradox is that although working to help the world should be our highest motive and calling, the world does not need our help. The universe is just as it should be, and nothing we can do can alter that fact. Vivekananda likens the world to a dog with a curly tail; for all time, people have been trying to straighten it, but it always curls up again. Remembering this analogy is the antidote to fanaticism, which is incompatible with love.

Nonattachment

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Chapter 6 returns to the central theme of nonattachment. Because action cannot be destroyed until it has produced its fruit and because all actions produce a mixture of good and bad effects, perfection can never emerge from work (karma). The consequence of this is that only the act of self-abnegation can produce happiness. Self-abnegation is nivritti, the “revolving away” from the self, and karma yoga is a means to that end and as such is the basis of all morality. Self-abnegation is another way of expressing the goal defined in the Bhagavad Gita as nonattachment in the performance of action, the art of being in the world but not of it. One must give up one’s sense of ownership, because all that one thinks one owns does in fact belong to God. By nonattachment, one is able to deny the power of anything to act on one.

As if he is examining spokes of a wheel that all emanate from the same hub, Vivekananda explores nonattachment from a different angle in chapter 7. He points out that the will is free only when it is outside the sphere of time, space, and causation. Everything within that sphere is bound by the laws of cause and effect, which is another aspect of karma. In order to attain freedom, one must go beyond the limitations of this universe. This means transcending mind, thought, senses, and imagination, for real religion begins where the universe ends. There are two ways to accomplish this, the so-called negative way, through reasoning (jnana yoga), and the positive way, through karma yoga, the yoga of action. This is a gradual process, through which the mind learns by experience the nature of things until it lets them all go.

However, this does not mean one must give up all one’s possessions. It is the state of one’s mind that is the key. One could renounce the world and live in a desert but remain attached to the world of the senses. The converse is also true: a rich person could still live in a state of nonattachment.

Vivekananda adds that one way of cultivating nonattachment, if one is religious, is to give all the fruits of one’s actions to the Lord, because this amounts to a perpetual sacrifice of the small self. However, it is possible to be successful on the path of karma yoga even if one does not believe in God or in any metaphysical or philosophical system.

Vivekananda rounds off his discussion of karma yoga, in chapter 8, with comments about freedom, morality, and metaphysics. He describes freedom as the goal of everything in the universe, from an atom to a person; it is why the saint prays and the robber robs. However, freedom can be gained only through unselfishness, which is the ground of all morality. When one has given up the self and is conscious only of others, one has gained an infinite expansion that is the goal of all philosophical and religious systems. This does not mean that such a person will be able to improve the world, however, because the sum total of good in the world always remains constant. It cannot be increased or decreased; the opposites of happiness and pain must always exist; they are only different expressions of the rising of the same wave. Everything in creation is a struggle between opposites. However, if one can stand inside the turning wheel of the world and learn the secret of karma yoga, one can attain the freedom that all seek.

Action and Nonattachment

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Vivekananda’s exposition of karma yoga was intended as much for his Western listeners as for students of philosophy and religion in his native India. Rather than expound abstruse or esoteric theories, he pursued a few overarching ideas, such as nonattachment in the performance of work, a concept with which many Westerners were unfamiliar up to that point. As a result, Karma Yoga has had an unquantifiable but lasting impact on Western attempts to understand the Vedantic philosophy.

In his homeland, Vivekananda’s practice of extolling the virtues of work in the context of karma yoga earned him some rebuke from orthodox adherents of Advaita Vedanta, who put a greater emphasis on renunciation of worldly activity. Vivekananda’s response was to claim that they were misunderstanding the nature of Vedanta, which did not advocate the abdication of social responsibility. The key, as always, lay in the concept of action performed in a mental state of nonattachment.

Bibliography

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Additional Reading

Athalaye, D. A. Swami Vivekananda: A Study. New Delhi, India: Ashish Publishing House, 1979. A laudatory study of Vivekananda’s life and work that sometimes sacrifices objectivity for unbridled enthusiasm about its subject. Contains useful analyses, mainly in paraphrase, of Vivekananda’s major works on the four yogas.

His Eastern and Western Disciples. The Life of Swami Vivekananda. 2 vols. 5th ed. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1979-1981. First published in 1912, this biography, which runs more than thirteen hundred pages, contains the most comprehensive collection of materials on Vivekananda’s life. It is unashamedly hagiographic in tone, its purpose being to inspire seekers on the spiritual path described by Vivekananda. Includes a bibliography, glossary, and many illustrations.

Kapoor, Satish K. Cultural Contact and Fusion: Swami Vivekananda in the West (1893-96). Jalandhar, India: ABS Publications, 1987. The most detailed book on Vivekananda’s journey to the West. Examines the nature of his mission, his interaction with Christians, and the extent of his impact.

Nivedita, Sister. The Master as I Saw Him. 12th ed. Calcutta: Udbodhan Office, 1977. Nivedita was formerly Margaret Noble, an Anglo-Irish woman who met Vivekananda in 1895, became his devotee, and later moved to Calcutta as his disciple.

Rao, V. K. R. V. Swami Vivekananda: The Prophet of Vedantic Socialism. New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1979. Concisely covers the life and teachings of Vivekananda. The biographical section is almost entirely based on the official biography by Vivekananda’s disciples and never escapes its hagiographic excesses. The assessment of Vivekananda’s ideas and his legacy in modern India is more original; Rao asserts that what Vivekananda called “practical Vedanta” closely resembles modern socialism.

Sil, Narasingha P. Swami Vivekananda: A Reassessment. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1997. This is a corrective to hagiographic accounts of Vivekananda by his disciples. Sil tries to discover the real man behind the myth. Vivekananda is seen as a tragic figure, ambitious and impulsive, approaching his spiritual mission as if it were a Napoleonic conquest and ending up frustrated and isolated in his final years. This is a scholarly, well-researched book marred by the author’s hostility to Vivekananda and his willingness to consistently place the swami’s words and actions in the worst possible light.

Williams, George M. “Swami Vivekananda: Archetypal Hero or Doubting Saint?” In Religion in Modern India, edited by Robert D. Baird. New Delhi, India: Manohar, 1981. Williams is one of the few scholars who have tried to penetrate beyond the Vivekananda legend and to see in him a more human figure. Williams’s Vivekananda survives spiritual crisis and angst to become an effective religious leader.

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