Introduction to the Karmayoga of the Gita

Karmayoga is often held to be the essence of the teaching of the Gita. While the Gita clearly has much more to say than to just be the “gospel of Karmayoga” there is no doubt that Karmayoga plays an important part in the Gita’s exposition.

Most of us, including Arjuna in the Gita, want to have some form of external guideline or rule for determining “right action”. Arjuna asks pointedly how he can tell if someone is undertaking “right action”. “How does he sit, how does he stand, how does he act?” he asks.

Others have taken the position that action in the world is an illusion and should be abandoned in order to achieve realization. Arjuna raises this point in the course of the Gita as well.

Sri Aurobindo describes Sri Krishna’s response as one which addresses both of these lines of concern: “The Gita does not try to define works by any outward signs through which it can be recognisable to an external gaze, measurable by the criticism of the world; it deliberately renounces even the ordinary ethical distinctions by which men seek to guide themselves in the light of the human reason. The signs by which it distinguishes divine works are all profoundly intimate and subjective; the stamp by which they are known is invisible, spiritual, supra-ethical.”

and “For by action, by works, not by inaction comes the knowledge and the release.”

Sri Krishna points out to Arjuna that action in the world is a complex subject and “…even the sages are perplexed and deluded.” Clearly the understanding of action can only come with a spiritual insight and inner reflection as the basis.

Sri Krishna promises a solution for Arjuna so that he can correctly understanding “action” and the principles of Karmayoga, as translated by Sri Aurobindo: “I will declare to thee that action by the knowledge of which thou shalt be released from all ills.”

The answer will not be a set of ethical rules or guidelines; nor a set of ritual observances; nor some kind of moral code; nor a fixed rule of law of some sort.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 18, The Divine Worker, pp. 168-169