We frequently hear about the practice of ‘karma yoga’ in connection with feeding people, or providing medical care and support. These and other ‘good works’ are clearly beneficial to the social body and to the numerous individuals who receive real and substantial benefits from them. These functions, in and of themselves, however, do not constitute ‘karma yoga’ in the truest sense of the word. The Bhagavad Gita sets a standard for karma yoga which does not define it as specific works carried out for social benefit or to fit an artificial standard of what constitutes ‘good works’; rather, it is the inner attitude of the individual and the consecration, dedication and offering to the Divine inwardly that determines whether something is ‘karma yoga’ or not!
In an arguably very extreme case, Arjuna was asked to fight a war and kill respected elders, teachers and relatives in upholding the Dharma of the society and furthering its progress against forces of oppression and egoistic self-gratification which were flaunting basic principles of rightness and fairness. Society held that peacefulness and harmlessness were high principles and represented ‘good works’ as opposed to the conduct of any kind of warfare, even ‘righteous’ warfare. This conflict between what society would say is ‘good works’ and what he was actually asked to accomplish in his role at that time under those circumstances, is what led to his confusion, dejection and prayer for guidance. The goal here was not to justify ‘holy war’ but to show that in the battle of life, an individual may be called to stand up against forces of deceit, oppression or dishonesty and meet them head on, by not abandoning the outer action in favor of an artificially constructed peacefulness that allowed oppression to continue to rule unabated.
Good works may have external value but not provide the yogic growth and progress for the seeker if the inner poise and attitude is still based in the ego-consciousness and its satisfactions, including subtle satisfactions obtained through the praise and support one receives through those good works, or through an expected karmic benefit to be received in return, either in this life, or in some future life or abode in heaven after departure..
Sri Aurobindo observes: “I do not mean by work action done in the ego and the ignorance, for the satisfaction of the ego and in the drive of rajasic desire. There can be no Karmayoga without the will to get rid of ego, rajas and desire, which are the seals of ignorance. … I do not mean philanthropy or the service of humanity or all the rest of the things — moral or idealistic — which the mind of man substitutes for the deeper truth of works.”
“I mean by work action done for the Divine and more and more in union with the Divine — for the Divine alone and nothing else. Naturally that is not easy at the beginning, any more than deep meditation and luminous knowledge are easy or even true love and bhakti are easy. But like the others it has to be begun in the right spirit and attitude, with the right will in you, then all the rest will come. … Works done in this spirit are quite as effective as bhakti or contemplation. One gets by the rejection of desire, rajas and ego a quietude and purity into which the Peace ineffable can descend; one gets by the dedication of one’s will to the Divine, by the merging of one’s will in the Divine Will the death of ego and the enlarging into the cosmic consciousness or else the uplifting into what is above the cosmic; one experiences the separation of Purusha from Prakriti and is liberated from the shackles of the outer nature; one becomes aware of one’s inner being and sees the outer as an instrument; one feels the universal Force doing one’s works and the Self or Purusha watching or witness but free; one feels all one’s works taken from one and done by the universal or supreme Mother or by the Divine Power controlling and acting from behind the heart. By constant referring of all one’s will and works to the Divine, love and adoration grow, the psychic being comes forward. By the reference to the Power above, we can come to feel it above and its descent and the opening to an increasing consciousness and knowledge. Finally, works, bhakti and knowledge go together and self-perfection becomes possible — what we call the transformation of the nature.”
“These results certainly do not come all at once; they come more or less slowly, more or less completely according to the condition and growth of the being. There is no royal road to the divine realisation.”
“This is the Karmayoga laid down in the Gita as I have developed it for the integral spiritual life. It is founded not on speculation and reasoning but on experience. it does not exclude meditation and certainly does not exclude bhakti, for the self-offering to the Divine, the consecration of all oneself to the Divine which is the essence of this Karmayoga are essentially a movement of bhakti. Only it does exclude a life-fleeing exclusive meditation or an emotional bhakti shut up in its own inner dream taken as the whole movement of the yoga. One may have hours of pure absorbed meditation or of the inner motionless adoration and ecstasy, but they are not the whole of the integral yoga.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Work, Meditation and Love and Devotion, Work pp. 129-145