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Is karma yoga doing action without expectation?

A very widespread notion about karma yoga is that it involves doing action without expecting a result. Let us examine how valid this is. Is it possible to perform action without expecting any result? Actually, it is not. Every action is undertaken with an expectation of gaining some result. For example, when one speaks to somebody, one expects the other to understand; when one eats, one wants to satiate the hunger; or when one takes the metro, it is to reach a place. This is perfectly natural and healthy. In fact, even the person who says that karma yoga is performing action without expecting any result expects that the audience will listen and understand what he says! Therefore, it is impossible to do action without expecting a result. Hence, this can not be a valid definition of karma yoga.

Then, it is very important to understand what karma yoga means. For this, one needs to understand verses II, 47-48 of the Bhagavad Gita which unfold what is karma yoga:



Your choice is with reference to action only, but definitely never with reference to the results. Do not become the author (or the cause) of the results of action. May your attachment not be towards inaction.
Remaining steadfast in yoga, O Dhananjaya, perform actions, abandoning attachment, remaining the same to success and failure alike. This evenness of mind, samatvam is called yoga.

The verses mean the following: with reference to performing an action, I have a choice. I can decide to do something, not to do it or do it differently. But once I have decided and performed an action, the Gita says I have no choice with reference to its result. For example, if I have a pen in my hand, I can decide to keep it in my hand, drop it or decide to write with it. But once I have decided to drop it, the law of gravity is going to take over and the pen is going to fall. I have no choice over it. If my expectation is that it should go upwards, then I am going to be disappointed with the result.

Similarly, I know from my experience that an action I perform does not always produce what I expected. The result might not always be in keeping with my desire. Even if I have planned an action in detail, some variables remain unknown to me and hence the result is often difficult to predict or comprehend. Some will call it luck or destiny, which is showing some insight about it but is not enough.

What then accounts for the result of action? Vedanta reveals that there is an order which governs actions and results of those actions, the law of karma. This law is comparable to any other law, such as biological, physical, psychological law. 

One can argue that if everything is decided by law of karma, then I am just a passive recipient of the result of action. In this case, I stop being proactive in exercising my choices. In this regard, I have to understand that with reference to action, I have a choice. Therefore, I must exercise my capacity to assess a situation and choose an action. In fact, contrary to this commonly held belief, the Gita exalts the power to desire, to know and to act that belongs to the human being. It explicitly mentions that human beings should not resort to inaction.

That means, within this law, I have choice only over action, I can plan, put efforts and perform actions that are in keeping with the law of dharma, the universal ethical order. Whereas the results that I receive are determined by law of karma which is impartial and infallible. This understanding puts me in touch with a global order where I see everything in my life as meaningful and interconnected, and appreciate that just like me, everyone else is also equally receiving in an impartial manner what he/she deserves. It is this understanding that enables me to take desirable and undesirable situations with a certain composure. I am able to give up all my resistance to people, situations, events etc. in light of the understanding of the universal order. I no longer try to control things, over which fundamentally I have no control; at the same time, attempt to modify things that I can.

What is important to note is that karma yoga is not an action but a change in life style and shift in attitude towards actions. This shift is born of understanding that it is the freedom from limitation that I am really seeking in my life, actions and their results being limited can not give me the freedom that I am seeking. Even though actions do not solve the problem, not doing anything is not a solution. I need to use the same actions with a change of attitude to become a mature person. This shift in perspective is essential for living a life of karma yoga. That means, karma yoga is much more than living just a pragmatic or ethical life. It requires one to become more objective in all areas of ones life, and to undergo a complete transformation with reference to ones goals and priorities to become eligible for knowledge.


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