Karma Yoga: The concept of work and duty, as defined by Swami Vivekananda


Swami_Vivekananda_JaipurBy Nithin Sridhar

Today is Swami Vivekananda’s Nirvaana Diwas. On this day, 113 years ago in 1902, Swami Vivekananda, the patriot saint, the torch bearer of Hinduism, had passed away. But his message to humanity still lives on. One such teaching which he repeatedly spoke about was the concept of work and duty- the Karma Yoga.

All action is Karma

Before understanding what constitutes duty, we must first understand what constitutes Karma.

Swami Vivekananda says-

The word Karma is derived from the Sanskrit Kri, to do; all action is Karma.

Technically, this word also means the effects of actions. In connection with metaphysics, it sometimes means the effects, of which our past actions were the causes. But in Karma-Yoga we simply have to do with the word Karma as meaning work.”

Therefore, all actions are Karma, from the most trivial actions like brushing the teeth to the highest elevating actions like meditation.

Swami Vivekananda adds-

“Thus we are all doing Karma all the time. I am talking to you: that is Karma. You are listening: that is Karma. We breathe: that is Karma. We walk: Karma. Everything we do, physical or mental, is Karma, and it leaves its marks on us.”

The goal of mankind is knowledge

Therefore, Karma is simple exertion of effort. Naturally the question arises, what is the ultimate goal of such efforts? Why should we perform actions?

Swami Vivekananda answers-

“The goal of mankind is knowledge. That is the one ideal placed before us by Eastern philosophy.Pleasure is not the goal of man, but knowledge. Pleasure and happiness come to an end. It is a mistake to suppose that pleasure is the goal. The cause of all the miseries we have in the world is that men foolishly think pleasure to be the ideal to strive for.”

Therefore, the ultimate goal is not pleasure, not temporary happiness but Knowledge (Atma-Jnana) that liberates one from the limited bondage of the universe.

In another place, he states- “I have already tried to point out that goal. It is freedom as I understand it. Everything that we perceive around us is struggling towards that freedom, from the atom to the man, from the insentient, lifeless particle of matter to the highest existence on earth, the human soul. The whole universe is in fact the result of this struggle for freedom.”

Means are as important as the goal

A question may arise- If the goal of all actions is Liberation, then does it mean there is no importance to the actions that are employed as means to attain the goal? Can any one indulge indiscriminately in any kind of actions?

As if to answer, Swami Vivekananda declared-“One of the greatest lessons I have learnt in my life is to pay as much attention to the means of work as to its end” in one of his lectures delivered at Los Angeles, California in 1900.

Hence, while doing one’s actions, and while performing one’s duties, one should first and foremost concentrate on the immediate job that is in front of a person. It often happens that one tends to ignore the immediate task at hand, by indulging too much in the goal to be attained.

This will result in a person being shabby at his work. Further, over-indulgence with the idea of attaining the goal will make a person blind towards righteousness or unrighteousness of the means. Such, a person will often end up having results that are quite unfavorable and sometimes opposite of what was intended.

That is why Swami Vivekananda cautions-

“Our great defect in life is that we are so much drawn to the ideal, the goal is so much more enchanting, so much more alluring, so much bigger in our mental horizon, that we lose sight of the details altogether.”

Any action that makes us go Godward is duty

As means are very vital to reach the goal, it is necessary to understand, what actions can serve as a means to attain liberation. Swami Vivekananda calls these actions “Duty”.

He says-

“Any action that makes us go Godward is a good action, and is our duty; any action that makes us go downward is evil, and is not our duty. From the subjective standpoint we may see that certain acts have a tendency to exalt and ennoble us, while certain other acts have a tendency to degrade and to brutalize us.”

Therefore, only those actions that constitute duty and lead us to exaltation can be considered as the means to Liberation. These are the duties that Hindu scriptures call “svadharma”. What is right and good for one may not be so for another person. Every person should understand his own inherent nature, his position and stage in life and perform those duties that take him towards Liberation.

Swami Vivekananda himself clarifies this-

“The Bhagavad-Gita frequently alludes to duties dependent upon birth and position in life. Birth and position in life and in society largely determine the mental and moral attitude of individuals towards the various activities of life. It is therefore our duty to do that work which will exalt and ennoble us in accordance with the ideals and activities of the society in which we are born. But it must be particularly remembered that the same ideals and activities do not prevail in all societies and countries”

But this does not mean that people perform any actions according to their fancies and call it dharma. Though svadharma is different for every person, there are universal principles that are common to everyone.

Swami Vivekananda says-

“There is, however, only one idea of duty which has been universally accepted by all mankind, of all ages and sects and countries, and that has been summed up in a Sanskrit aphorism thus: “Do not injure any being; not injuring any being is virtue, injuring any being is sin.” Therefore, people must decide their own svadharma, not on the basis of their fancies but on the basis of these universal principles and how their application will take them towards liberation.”

Work performed without attachment leads to highest realization. The next question is, how should one perform one’s duty?

Swami Vivekananda says-

“When you are doing any work, do not think of anything beyond. Do it as worship, as the highest worship, and devote your whole life to it for the time being. Thus, in the story, the Vyadha (hunter) and the woman did their duty with cheerfulness and wholeheartedness; and the result was that they became illuminated, clearly showing that the right performance of the duties of any station in life, without attachment to results, leads us to the highest realization of the perfection of the soul.”

Therefore, if the performance of duties in an unselfish manner, as an act of worship wherein the actions and its fruits are surrendered to God that leads to liberation. Hence, detached action is the key to liberation.

Swami Vivekananda summarizes this path of Karma-Yoga as-

“Karma-Yoga is the attaining through unselfish work of that freedom which is the goal of all human nature. Every selfish action, therefore, retards our reaching the goal, and every unselfish action takes us towards the goal; that is why the only definition that can be given of morality is this: That which is selfish is immoral, and that which is unselfish is moral.”