What is Karma?

Before we are able to understand the doctrine or the principle of desireless action, we must understand what really is meant by the word "action". Action means something done. Before you do anything, there is a desire, an intention or an urge in your mind. The desire is first formed within the mind, and then it is executed outside. A simple example will make this clear:

A person got it into his head that he wished to kill another person. This constituted his intention or internal action. In order to execute or fulfil the desire, he took up a weapon and killed the man. This was the external execution of that internal action. The internal action emits certain currents (the effects are in one’s aura even if one does not execute the action externally), so that it makes a deep impression not only on his mind but also causes a disturbance in the environment around him.

We should therefore keep careful watch over our mind and consider how we can attain the state of desireless action. The teachings of the Saints and those contained in our religious Scriptures enable us to make the proper choice. Action plays a great part in spiritual matters. A man has a physical body, but he acts through his mind. Whatever mental attitude one has, becomes manifested in action.

Thought is the keynote of our succes,

was said by the great philosopher, Emerson.

Therefore, the actions of a person are governed by his thoughts. And good or bad actions are the results of the same degree of good or bad thoughts which he entertains.

Consequently, a person becomes a good person or a bad one as a result of his good or bad actions. And all this is done in accordance with one’s own desires. Actions, therefore, mould our lives in virtuous or evil directions so long as we perform such actions with desire.

All religions have laid great emphasis on desireless actions. The Bhagavad Gita, or the Song of the Lord, is replete with teachings of desirelessness or desireless action.

It says:

In this world one should take refuge in God after renouncing all desires and all actions arising there from.

Hindu Philosophy also teaches that in order to attain Salvation it is necessary to get rid of all desires and the fruits of all worldly actions caused by such desires. The same teaching of karmaless action is contained in all holy books.

In Chapter 6, Verse 29 of the Bhagavad Gita we find:

The aim of human life is that a man should put his mind to yogic action. He should have fraternal thoughts for all fellow beings and should consider himself to be present in all, while everything pervades in him.

Chapter 18, Verse 51

Lord Krishna says:

Oh Arjuna, under the influence of your ego you believe that you should not fight. This idea of yours is fallacious, because the action which you do not wish to perform, you will have to do under the compulsion of your nature.

It is most difficult to understand the basic principles of Karma Yog. You will find two viewpoints:

One is that an action can only be performed through intention or desire, and without these no action can be executed (because whenever a person acts, it is difficult for him to get rid of the thought of reward or punishment). If, therefore, a person wishes to perform a desireless action, he can only do so by complete detachment from the world.

The Gita also says that it is not possible to give up the outer actions so long as the internal desires are not killed. Actually, a true Sanyasi (Anchorite) is one who has renounced all his desires. So long as a man has not achieved such a state of desirelessness, he should act and leave the results of all his actions in the hands of his Almighty Father. In that way he will not be subject to the consequences of his actions. In addition to this, he should engage himself in spiritual practice according to the instructions of a perfect Master, because when he has made some progress on the Spiritual Path, his karmas will begin to disappear.

If it were necessary to renounce everything in this world in order to obtain the state of desirelessness, it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for everyone to be able to do so. Very few indeed would be able to achieve it, and all praise would be due them.

At the moment, however, we have to consider how the large majority of people who regard such renunciation as beyond their reach, should achieve desireless karma. For such persons it is necessary to perform all action in the Name of God.

To obtain release from the fetters of karma, it would be necessary for such persons to engage in spiritual practice according to the instructions of a perfect Master and to inculcate in themselves the spirit of devotion to the Lord and the Master.

Actually, all actions that are performed under the influence of the ego – whether good or bad – are equally responsible for the ties of attachment which bind an individual to this world. Even in the Gita it is stated that good and bad actions are equally responsible for binding a person. The fetters may be of iron or may be of gold, but both have the same effect of binding. Good actions may temporarily give us a reward in heaven, and bad actions may bring us the punishment of hell, but the bondage of transmigration remains. So long as a person considers himself to be the doer, he is weighed down by the shackles of karma.1

A person who renounces all desires and the fruits of all his actions, becomes independent of all actions and their results.

Oh Arjun, one whose mind has no thought that ‘I am doing it’ and whose mind is not engrossed in worldly attachments and worldly desires, such a person – even if he should kill everybody – does not kill anybody and is not bound by the result of his action.

Gita, Chapter 18, Verse 17

To say, "I am actionless" is easy, but to be able to achieve this state is most difficult.

Oh Arjuna, renounce all self-interest and consider reward and punishment alike. Engage yourself in spiritual practice and then perform the action. Such action is free from effect, and you should perform all your actions in this manner.

Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 49

A person who attains the state of mind is free from both sin and virtue.

You should, oh Arjuna, always act in such a manner, because it is this type of action which is called ‘Karma Yog’, the science of Karmaless (Re-action-less) Action. 

Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 50

Those persons who do karmas (actions) in this manner are freed from the ties of transmigration and attain the highest form of Salvation. 

Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 51

Then Arjuna asks:

Oh Lord, if you hold, that detachment of mind is superior to karma, then why do you throw me into the whirlpool of actions?

Lord Krishna replies:

Man does not become karmaless (without action) by simply renouncing actions or by not doing them, because a man cannot live even for a second without doing some action. The mental currents create actions in man at all times. One who forcibly suppresses his physical self from performing actions is deceiving himself, for his mind cannot be restrained permanently in this manner. Therefore, that person is really great who conquers his mind by withdrawing it from worldly desires and thus acts with a disinterested as far as the fruit of action is concerned, but interested in serving the Lord only. He performs his prescribed duties as indicated in his moral or religious code, because to act is far better than not to act. The body is given to us for the purpose of action, both internal and external.

Gita, Chapter 3, Verses 1, 4, 6, 7, 8

Action is inherent in the mind and in the body. So long as the mind is not conquered, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be karmaless. Mind is restless. It is impossible to make it motionless even for a second. Therefore, it is impossible for anyone to be free from mental or physical action.

We have to act for the benefit of our own body and for the benefit of others. Otherwise, we would be a burden on society. Therefore, it is essential for human beings to act. History reveals that Saints have always practised and approved of such actions. To remain "actionless" while action is the main puzzle which must be clearly understood.

A person who has conquered his mind will be able to control his physical actions. One who is free from attachment and hatred is a genuinely karmaless person. The Gita lays great emphasis on the ideal of surrendering oneself to the Lord in order to become actionless.

Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you give, whatever you worship, whatever penances you perform, Oh Arjuna, surrender them all to me, because by doing so you will be free from the consequences of actions (you will be actionless) and, traversing the path of Renunciation, you will attain liberation and will merge in me.

Gita, Chapter 9, Verses 17, 18


Footnote: Also see the book ‘The Wheel of Life’ by Kirpal Singh, 1894–1974.