Chapter 3 – Karma Yoga

The Yoga of Work

Lets say you’ve always been curious about life sciences and throughout your academic career scored high marks in Biology. Upon the advice and strong recommendation of your professor, you apply to many medical colleges. Given your impressive score card, you get admission in one of the nation’s top medical colleges. Couple of months into the course, you meet an old friend who’s taken up a job as a trader in one of the leading firms on Wall Street. He tells you that the job of a Doctor is very hard, involves in-human hours of work, night shifts and no personal life. He also tells you that being a Doctor also involves taking responsibility for the death of many patients. He also tells you from a financial return perspective Doctors don’t earn much compared to the hours of work they put in. He tells you that he earns 50 times more than the salary an average Doctor earns.

You have two choices –

  1. Ignore what your friend says and continue with your studies
  2. Given all the horrors stories you’ve heard, which you know are all true, you give a second thought on alternative career paths

You are in a difficult situation and are questioning what is the right course of action? In the context of work, what is the ultimate goal of life? If work comes with unintended consequences (i.e. death of patients for Doctors; death of civil life from collapse of a building for an Engineer, etc.), should one abandon work all together? You take all these questions to your professor who encouraged you to become a Doctor.

Chapter 3 – Karma Yoga of Bhagavad Gita deals with questions relating to such situations. Following the Q&A style of learning from Bhagavad Gita, lets do a Q&A between the medical student and his professor.

Q – If becoming a Doctor involves carrying the guilt of death of my patients all my life, why should I become a Doctor?

A – Everything in life has a positive side and a negative side. Unintended consequences are always behind every good deed. Look at Sun who is the life giver on this Earth. He causes seasons, provides food for plants that in-turn nourish us, every life on Earth is dependent on Sun. On the negative side, he also causes famine, skin cancer, death by sunstroke. Every act of kindness has unintended consequences. We live in a world full of duality, even nature works based on this principle of duality. There is nothing in this world that is free of potential negative effects. You living this life is also governed by the same principle of Duality. Inaction is not your option. What matters is you do work with good intentions. (3.4, 3.5, 3.8)

Q – I am completely disturbed with the thoughts my friend seeded in me and not able to concentrate on my studies. What do I do? Go on a long vacation away from everyone I know?

A – Running away from the world will not help you get rid of your thoughts. The same mind that caused the disturbance goes with you on the vacation. Physical escape doesn’t help and there is no way to escape mentally. The only why you can get rid of your disturbance is when you embrace the principles of Yoga of Work. (3.6, 3.7)

Q – What are the principles of Yoga of Work?

A – At the core of Yoga of Work lies an attitude called Yajna Mindset. As you know, Yajna involves offering things of utility to fire (food, metals, clothes, oils, etc.). Offering to fire means giving it way fully and completely without any intention of taking them back. Yajna is a selfless act to share happiness with family and friends. Yajna is symbolic of an attitude of selfless utilitarian contribution done by an individual for the benefit of others. It’s a mindset of giving and not taking; It’s a mindset of contribution and not consumption; It’s a mindset of self-motivation and not compulsion. Historically we as humans have progressed because of Yajna attitude of people that gave us wheel, fire, steam engine, internet, etc. Society prospers though Yajna attitude of its members. Those that don’t contribute to such Yajna i.e. Don’t work / contribute towards society but only take all the benefits of the society are thieves and sinners. Even nature for e.g. Sun is performing Yajna all the time for the sole benefit of others. There is nothing that Sun is expecting from anybody. Even all of Nature is performing this Yajna all the time for the benefit of others. When individual members of the society don’t act with Yajna mindset, not only the individual but even the entire society stands to lose (3.9, 3.10, 3.12, 3.13, 3.14, 3.15, 3.16, 3.20, 3.32)

Q – I truly love life sciences and biology subjects. Just being able to understand how nature works is fascinating. But now I am worried that becoming a doctor, I would be thinking more about adverse consequences and perhaps I would be accumulating sin if people die because I was not able to save them.

A – If you truly enjoy what you do and there is nothing more rewarding than the work itself, you will find your work fulfilling. Similar to how a painter / artist enjoys the process of art more than the monetary sale proceeds it generates, If you work with an intention to help others without any attachment to the actual outcome and see the work in itself as a reward; you will liberate yourself from the mental disturbance. What is critical is that you approach your work with good intentions and leave the outcome to destiny. Once you understand that you are just a means thorough which the supreme intelligence operates to further evolution, you will realize that you do not have any control over the outcome and hence you do not accumulate any sins for your actions done with good intentions. Again learn from nature… Sun, Fire, Water work to help others and they have been doing so for eons. Though over eons they have also caused floods, famines, fire rage, etc. which have caused damage to others but that does not deter them from continuing to work for the benefit of others. Work done with good intentions without attachment to outcome does not accumulate any sin (3.17, 3.18, 3.19, 3.30, 3.31)

Q – Why are you trying to convince me to become a Doctor? What’s in it for you?

A – I have nothing to gain from your gain or loss. I am just living by the principles of Yoga of Work. My joy is in seeing my students become successful in their fields of talent. As they say ‘it takes a village to bring up a child’, the village has nothing to gain from the child becoming successful. However when intelligent students like you run away as cowards from the challenges of life, you set bad example for other junior students that may look up to you for inspiration. We humans learn by imitating from our role models. If everybody that look up to you also run away from becoming Doctors, imagine the plight of the society where disease and sickness go untreated. Inaction / escape from your pursuit is not an option for you. (3.21, 3.22, 3.23, 3.24)

Q- What do I gain from becoming a Doctor? What is the use of toiling throughout my life and earning 50 times less than what my Wall Street trader friend makes.

A – If money is your end goal, than you will never be happy. Humans can never be satisfied when it comes to material things and pleasures. After a certain limit more desire for money and pleasures turn into greed and eventually that path leads to misery and unhappiness. The world is full of people with excesses that suffer from depression and routinely commit suicides. When you have as your goal service of others, everything you do brings you more happiness and contentment. Unwise are motivated by desire and work with fruit of action as their goal. This eventually leads to misery. Wise on the other hand see the intrinsic value of utilitarian work as the reward in itself. This path leads to equanimity in one’s life. (3.25)

Q – I care about what my friend thinks about me. How do I convince him that being a Doctor is after all not a bad idea?

A – All attempts to change the mind of ignorant is absolutely wasted efforts. You are better off investing your time in utilitarian work and pursuing your own service goals vs. trying to convince your friend which is a futile attempt. Change and knowledge comes about only by effortful seeking. Just telling is not helpful. Remember information is not transformation. Don’t waste time in trying to transform someone that is not interested in what you say. (3.26, 3.29)

Q – What’s the problem if I am interested in becoming a Wall Street Trader? Perhaps I might like that job.

A – You may have heard about the ‘nature vs. nurture’ argument. When you are born you have some innate skills / talent that mother nature bestows upon you. These include your natural instincts of fight, fright, flight responses; your temperament, your interests in certain fields, your artistic traits, etc. Sometimes you see these nature gifted skills / talents conspicuously in prodigies that are good at math, sports, singing, arts, music etc. They are able to perform advanced tasks with little to no training. Nurture on the other hand is acquired skills / talent through studies, training and hard work. People who are successful in sports, leadership, arts etc. generally improve on nature given gifts. They nurture skills / talent given by nature. Without the help of nature, nothing meaningful can be achieved. You know you have natural interests in life sciences and biology. Your probability of success is very high when you choose a profession / vocation that aligns with your natural interests. When people don’t align their natural interests with their profession i.e. Carpenter becoming a Doctor and an Engineer becoming a Trader the whole society stands to lose (3.27, 3.28, 3.33, 3.34, 3.35)

Q – My friend has a lavish lifestyle and I keep thinking of all the luxuries and pleasures he is enjoying. I desire such a lifestyle too and that desire is not allowing me to continue my studies. What do I do?

A – As Buddha said, desire is the cause of suffering in this world. As you know psychologically, when you passionately fall in love with a person or an idea, your discerning ability is compromised i.e. as the old adage goes, ‘Love Blinds’. You cannot see or accept any feedback on the shortcomings and limitations of such a person or an idea. Take for example you see a luxurious home by the lake. You naturally start to dream about all the ways you would enjoy that home and how you can achieve the ultimate happiness of life by acquiring that home. Lets say there is another person more richer than you who is also interested in that home. Such a situation causes a lot of frustration and anger in you. That further gets exasperated by your intense hate for the person that bought that home. You feel miserable about your own financial situation and your inability to accomplish your dreams. If you are of a weak mental disposition, the chances of you getting into acute depression also gets very high.

Alternatively lets say you end-up buying that home, then within few months your sense of happiness comes back to its normal levels and the cycle of ‘desire to acquisition’ starts again on some other object. Desire is like fire. It consumes everything that is thrown into it and it is never satisfied. As you can see, just a desire and an attachment to an imaginary reality causes misery in the eventual end state.

Senses are naturally attracted to the sense objects (e.g. eyes to things of beauty, skin to physical pleasures, etc.). Senses are very powerful and controlling them once they get in contact with external sense objects is very difficult. One of the ways you can overcome such sense driven mental distraction is by thinking beyond acquisition of object of desire and emotionally ‘feeling’ all the problems and misery it creates. For example, when you see a rich creamy dessert, you cannot resist the natural urge to consume that dessert… however if you develop a discipline to think deeply about how high calories cause obesity which leads to diabetes that eventually means a miserable life, your chances of controlling the urge is very high. What is critical is that you emotionally and experientially ‘feel’ the end state of misery and not just think about it without feeling it. Desire causes ignorance and ignorance envelops knowledge. So practice the discipline of feeling (and not just thinking) the end state of desire which invariably leads to misery. (3.37, 3.39, 3.40, 3.41, 3.42, 3.43)

My Notes Chapter 3