The Bhagavad Gita and the Path of Karma Yoga

When we delve into the yoga of works, the Bhagavad Gita immediately comes to mind as a primary text. The Gita explores the questions of what constitutes a yogic attitude in action and compares it to the normal standpoint about work. The major difference lies in the inner standpoint and attitude taken by the person undertaking the action. Many people try to judge things by the type of work undertaken. Charity, philanthropy, altruistic work appear to be ‘yogic’ in their minds. Feed the hungry, care for the sick, these are examples of things that ordinarily fall under the rubric ‘karma yoga’. Yet the Gita makes it clear this is not the true distinguishing characteristic. Such works may be undertaken with a sense of pride or ego, they may be done for motives of fame, acclaim, or to curry favor with others. This makes them works of the ego and self-aggrandising in their intent and effect. The Gita clarifies that the inner attitude of self-surrender, removal of the ego and its motives from the action, and alignment of the action with the divine purpose represent the true basis of karma yoga. In such cases, even actions that outwardly appear to be negative are yogic in their essence. That is how Sri Krishna could counsel Arjuna to fight and win victory in the battle he was facing.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The ordinary life consists in work for personal aim and satisfaction of desire under some mental or moral control, touched sometimes by a mental ideal. The Gita’s yoga consists in the offering of one’s work as a sacrifice to the Divine, the conquest of desire, egoless and desireless action….”

“…the Gita is the great guide on this path. Purification from egoistic movements and from personal desire and the faithful following of the best light one has are a preliminary training for this path….”

“The first step in Karmayoga of this kind is to diminish and finally get rid of the ego-centric position in works, the lower vital reactions and the principle of desire.”

“Any work can be done as a field for the practice of the spirit of the Gita.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 95-96

The Nature of Karma Yoga

It is a common conception, and a tempting one, to expect that by taking up a certain type of charitable work, or even service to support a particular religion or spiritual path, one is practicing a form of karma yoga. All of these things may have enormous benefit in the outer world, and may certainly be encouraged generally. As a stage away from purely self-aggrandising action that has no real benefits to others, it may also find a place in the maturing of the individual consciousness. As long as these things are conducted as an external activity, and particularly as they contain the seeds of ego, desire, and subtle pressures for self-satisfaction, approval of others, or some secondary motives, they do not automatically become vehicles for the yoga of works.

It is not the outer form of work that determines the yogic value, but the inner motivation, the dedication, the ego-less state of the inner being in the action. Once that inner state is set, the form of the outer work does not really matter. Simple acts, small deeds, can be a complete expression of the yogic dedication. Undertaking those actions that are directed by the Divine through a state of Oneness, the seeker finds liberation from the bondage of works and acts in a free, selfless and devoted manner to carry out the work to be done. The Bhagavad Gita expounds in detail on the path of karma yoga and the need for inner dedication rather than some outer standard of action by which to measure the yogic method.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “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.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 94-95

The Need to Balance Meditation and Work in the Practice of the Integral Yoga

In an ancient Upanishadic tale, a youth approached a sage requesting to become a disciple and wanting to achieve spiritual realisation. The sage indicated that he should take two cattle into the forest, and when they numbered 1000 he should return and he would undertake to teach the youth. The young man made sincere efforts and learned all there was to know about raising and breeding cattle, protecting them from predators, and surviving in the forest for himself and his charges. He learned to be observant, patient, protective of those for whom he had taken on the responsibility while at the same time learning about the seasons, powers and timings of nature, and how to live in harmony with the beings who resided in the forest. Eventually he attained the goal and returned to the teacher. The teacher saw the glow of realisation and bowed down to the student, saying that the student was now the teacher, and he was the student, as the youth had attained spiritual realisation. This Upanishadic tale illustrates the potential of attaining liberation through works for a spiritual aspirant.

Those who believe that internal meditation is the only way may begrudge the time and external focus of works in the outer world. In some cases they become extremely withdrawn and uncomfortable acting in the world. In other cases, when they do undertake to act in the world, they may be brusque, angry or unable to handle the feelings, emotions and thoughts that arise in the external circumstances. One way or the other, there are dangers of becoming too entrenched in a narrow focus, which leads away from life and the world.

The integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother aims not solely for liberation from the life of the world, but for the active transformation of that life. This implies that the seeker must not only achieve a liberated state, but must be able to do so while interacting with the world and updating the way he relates to that world. He is to become an instrument of the divine manifestation in evolution, not an escapee from the task set by the Divine in creating this universal manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “To keep up work helps to keep up the balance between the internal experience and the external development; otherwise one-sidedness and want of measure and balance may develop. Moreover, it is necessary to keep the sadhana of work for the Divine because in the end that enables the sadhak to bring out the inner progress into the external nature and life and helps the integrality of the sadhana.”

“It may be necessary for an individual here and there to plunge into meditation for a time and suspend work for that time or make it subordinate; but that can only be an individual case and a temporary retirement. Moreover, a complete cessation of work and entire withdrawal into oneself is seldom advisable; it may encourage a too one-sided and visionary condition in which one lives in a sort of mid-world of purely subjective experiences without a firm hold on either external reality or on the highest Reality and without the right use of the subjective experience to create a firm link and then a unification between the highest Reality and the external realisation in life.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg.94

The Value and Rationale for the Yoga of Works — Karma Yoga

The vital nature of man is a core existential element of our existence. In the past, those who took up serious spiritual practice frequently recognised both the power of the vital and the difficulty of bringing it under some kind of managed and focused control, and thus, they attempted to abandon it to whatever extent possible and focus on meditation to the exclusion of an outer life.

This limited approach helped individuals succeed in their attempt to achieve liberation from the illusory status of action in the world. It did nothing to bring about any kind of change or transformation in the outer existence, and it left a large and essential portion of human nature essentially untouched.

There are frequent apocryphal tales of yogis who spent long periods of time in meditation, but when they came out and had to interact with the circumstances of the outer life, were unprepared and who then reacted with anger, lust, jealousy, greed, envy, and other forms of desire. Clearly they had achieved some serious advancement in the mental realm and could achieve states of concentrated, one-pointed focus on the spiritual goal they set before themselves, but this was done at the expense of any transforming focus on the outer life.

Changing the vital nature is hard. Some liken it to trying to straighten out a dog’s tail, which will simply go back to its former state once the controlling pressure is removed. It is understandable why those who are deeply involved in meditation will generally resist taking up the outer nature and its endless difficulties and snares. Yet, eventually, the outer nature needs to be dealt with if humanity is to progress and if we are to finally solve the riddle of our existence.

The integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother specifically acknowledges this task and works to take up and transform the vital nature and its relationship to the wider divine manifestation and they recognise that not everyone can achieve spiritual fulfillment through meditation. Thus, they embrace not only the path of knowledge, but also that of devotion, bhakti yoga, and that of works, karma yoga.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “There are some people who are not cut out for meditation and it is only by work that they can prepare themselves; there are also those who are the opposite.”

“The including of the outer consciousness in the transformation is of supreme importance in this yoga — meditation cannot do it. Meditation can deal only with the inner being. So work is of primary importance — only it must be done with the right attitude and in the right consciousness, then it is as fruitful as any meditation can be.”

“… that is one great utility of work that it tests the nature and puts the sadhak in front of the defects of his outer being which might otherwise escape him.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg.93

Methods for Quieting the Activity of the Mechanical Mind

The mind seems always to be busy, and we seem to have a constant inner commentary about sensations, perceptions, memories, anticipated activities, hopes and dreams, and worries about situations we need to address. Then there are the drives and cravings such as hunger, thirst, or sensations of discomfort, pain or desire. The mind remains constantly busy and there seems to be no way out. When we sit for meditation, we find it almost impossible to get rid of all of this activity, and in fact, simply because we are sitting quietly and trying to still the mind, we become much more aware of the activity than when we are involved in our constant round of activities externally.

Sri Aurobindo treats this as a more or less mechanical action of the mind and provides us various tools to address this. A primary aid is the separation of the witness-consciousness from the active nature. As we shift to this new standpoint, we begin to experience the mechanical action of the mind as something external to our awareness, and thus, it becomes easier to either disregard it or even reject it.

It is important, however, to exercise patience. Any impatience represents the stirring of rajasic desire which has the opposite effect and tends to disturb the mind rather than quiet it. The long habit of the mechanical mind is not something that is resolved in a day.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The mind is always in activity, but we do not observe fully what it is doing, but allow ourselves to be carried away in the stream of continual thinking. When we try to concentrate, this stream of self-made mechanical thinking becomes prominent to our observation. It is the first normal obstacle (the other is sleep during meditation) to the effort for yoga.”

“The best thing to do is to realise that the thought-flow is not yourself, it is not you who are thinking, but thought that is going on in the mind. It is Prakriti with its thought-energy that is raising all this whirl of thought in you, imposing it on the Purusha. You as the Purusha must stand back as the witness observing the action, but refusing to identify yourself with it. The next thing is to exercise a control and reject the thoughts — though sometimes by the very act of detachment the thought-habit falls away or diminishes during the meditation and there is a sufficient silence or at any rate a quietude which makes it easy to reject the thoughts that come and fix oneself on the object of meditation. If one becomes aware of the thoughts as coming from outside, from the universal Nature, then one can throw them out before they reach the mind; in that way the mind finally falls silent. If neither of these things happens, a persistent practice of rejection becomes necessary — there should be no struggle or wrestling with the thought, but only a quiet self-separation and refusal. Success does not come at first, but if consent is constantly withheld, the mechanical whirl eventually ceases and begins to die away and one can then have at will an inner quietude or silence.”

“It should be noted that the result of the yogic processes is not, except in rare cases, immediate and one must apply the will-patience till they give a result which is sometimes long in coming if there is much resistance in the outer nature.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 92-93

Tips for Optimizing Concentration

Substance rules over form. This concept is well known in legal circles when equity between parties is at issue. It also is obviously an important thing to remember in any field of life, but most especially in the practice of yoga. Sri Aurobindo illustrates this concept with several specific examples. Most people want to follow a set of specific rules to succeed in yoga. They are trained on how exactly to seat themselves, what exact breathing techniques to utilize, the exact manner of intoning the mantra, the timing of their practice and even where to focus their concentration. They are advised to focus, for example, between the eyebrows or at the tip of the nose, or in the heart. They believe that if they can carry out these external forms precisely they will achieve realisation.

Sri Aurobindo brings added clarity to this subject. While the form of the word or mantra may be important, it is more important to dwell on the deeper meaning of the term so that it is not simply a rote mechanical repetition one undertakes, but a full immersion in the meaning. Similarly, the question of where to focus the concentration is not related to a near-sighted attention to specific bodily areas, but refers to where the consciousness is “seated” during the process of concentration or meditation. It is not the space between the eyebrows that must be focused on, but rather, the Divine intention which is the object of the concentration, while the awareness “seats” itself in the specific location.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “If one concentrates on a thought or a word, one has to dwell on the essential idea contained in the word with the aspiration to feel the thing which it expresses.”

“There is no harm in concentrating sometimes in the heart and sometimes above the head. But concentration in either place does not mean keeping the attention fixed on a particular spot; you have to take your station of consciousness in either place and concentrate there not on the place, but on the Divine. This can be done with eyes shut or with eyes open, according as it best suits you.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 91-92

Yogic Concentration

The power of concentration is well-known. It is a power that we utilize daily to accomplish the various tasks set before us, or to achieve some goal that we have set for ourselves. In yoga, also, the power of concentration is required. The focus and intention behind the concentration is the primary difference between ordinary concentration and that utilized by practitioners of yoga. In his lectures on Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda devotes considerable efforts to explain concentration, describing the processes outlined by Patanjali, and how it can be intensified and focused, and the kind of results one can obtain. A systematic process of purification, quieting of the mind, control of the posture and the breath, and eventually, directing the concentration upon specific subjects or objects, is outlined. As the concentration intensifies, it becomes more and more directed and extraneous thoughts, feelings, and perceptions drop off. The result of such concentration is to see the manifestation of certain Siddhis, or powers, that arise when concentration is focused in particular areas, or attainment of the state of Samadhi. Sri Aurobindo provides additional insights to the process of concentration.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Ordinarily the consciousness is spread out everywhere, dispersed, running in this or that direction, after this subject and that object in multitude. When anything has to be done of a sustained nature the first thing one does is to draw back all this dispersed consciousness and concentrate. It is then, if one looks closely, bound to be concentrated in one place and on one occupation, subject or object — as when you are composing a poem or a botanist is studying a flower. The place is usually somewhere in the brain if it is the thought, in the heart if it is the feeling in which one is concentrated. The yogic concentration is simply an extension and intensification of the same thing. It may be on an object as when one does Tratak on a shining point — then one has to concentrate so that one sees only that point and has no other thought than that. It may be on an idea or word or a name, the idea of the Divine, the word OM, the name Krishna, or a combination of idea and word or idea and name. But further in yoga one also concentrates in a particular place. There is the famous rule of concentrating between the eyebrows — the centre of the inner mind, of occult vision, of the will is there. What you do is to think firmly from there on whatever you make the object of your concentration or else try to see the image of it from there. If you succeed in this then after a time you feel that your whole consciousness is centred there in that place — of course for the time being. After doing it for some time and often it becomes easy and normal….”

“It may be asked what becomes of the rest of the consciousness when there is this local concentration? Well, it either falls silent as in any concentration or, if it does not, then thoughts or other things may move about, as if outside, but the concentrated part does not attend to them or notice. That is when the concentration is reasonably successful.”

“One has not to fatigue oneself at first by long concentration if one is not accustomed, for then in a jaded mind it loses its power and value. One can relax and meditate instead of concentrating. It is only as the concentration becomes normal that one can go on for a longer and longer time.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 90-91

Distinguishing Concentration and Meditation from One Another

If we observe the mental status that takes place at times when we focus on achieving some objective or other, taking a test, working on a project, running a race, playing music, or creating some work of art, for example, we see that the attention is focused intensely on the task at hand, and there is in most cases, little perception of extraneous sensations or matters, or even of the passage of time. This is concentration. Concentration also applies when the focus is turned toward spiritual development, for instance, through intensive visualisation of a mandala, or through focus on awareness between the eyebrows, or in the heart region, or mindful attention on the breath or on recitation of a particular mantra. Brainwaves in a state of concentration tend to be tightly packed, dense and strong.

Meditation, on the other hand, has a different character when we view the process inwardly. The mental process may be more relaxed, the brainwaves less intense and more widely spaced from each other as the mind moves along its chosen object of meditation. Meditation, by definition, is an inward process, while concentration may be focused either internally or externally.

Each of these processes has its time and place and both clearly can be aids to the spiritual growth of the individual. It may be noted that in his lectures on Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda systematically explores the process of achieving concentration and describes the power of concentration and its effects. One-pointed focus is considered to be one of the ultimate achievements of spiritual discipline.

We find that the mind cannot remain constantly in a state of intense concentration. Thus, an alternation with the process of meditation can be highly beneficial and refreshing to the mind. Meditation is more reflective in nature, while concentration is more active.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Concentration is a gathering together of the consciousness and either centralising at one point or turning on a single object, e.g., the Divine; there can also be a gathered condition throughout the whole being, not at a point. In meditation it is not indispensable to gather like this, one can simply remain with a quiet mind thinking of one subject or observing what comes in the consciousness and dealing with it.”

“Concentration means fixing the consciousness in one place or on one object and in a single condition. Meditation can be diffusive, e.g., thinking about the Divine, receiving impressions and discriminating, watching what goes on in the nature and acting upon it, etc.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 89-90

Dynamic Meditation

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna poses the question to Sri Krishna as to how one can know the spiritual man, how does he walk, how does he speak, how does he act… Spiritual practitioners pose similar types of questions about meditation, as to what is the right form of meditation, how does one sit, how does one act, how does one carry out the meditation. Sri Krishna’s answer to Arjuna was that it was not the external form, but the internal substance that determined the truth. It is similarly the inner aspiration, the motivation of the seeker who meditates, that determines the effectiveness of the meditation. Meditation does not mean that one should simply sit and let ‘anything’ happen that comes up, and then, when the time is up, the individual gets up and nothing has changed or been transformed in his life. Meditation is not simply to withdraw from activity. A question that can be asked is whether the individual is the same after the meditation as before the meditation. What has changed? In fairness, some types of meditation will of course not bear obvious fruit after a single attempt. So one can look back and see whether after any period of time, one day, or one week, or one month, etc., the meditation has made the individual more reflective, more insightful, more compassionate, more understanding, more in tune with the divine purpose of his life. If it is not moving the seeker forward in the spiritual practice, then it is simply a static exercise that may help relax the individual, but does not go much farther. The dynamic form of meditation will have a transformative effect, and that is how one can see the difference over time.

A disciple asks: “How is it done? Is it done in a different way?”

The Mother observes: “I think it is the aspiration that should be different, the attitude should be different. ‘Different way’ — what do you mean by ‘way’ (laughing) the way of sitting?… Not that? The inner way?”


“But for each one it is different. … I think the most important thing is to know why one meditates; this is what gives the quality of the meditation and makes it of one order or another. … You may meditate to open yourself to the divine Force, you may meditate to reject the ordinary consciousness, you may meditate to enter the depths of your being, you may meditate to learn how to give yourself integrally; you may meditate for all kinds of things. You may meditate to enter into peace and calm and silence — this is what most people generally do, but without much success. But you may also meditate to receive the Force of transformation, to discover the points to be transformed, to trace out the line of progress. And then you may also meditate for very practical reasons: when you have a difficulty to clear up, a solution to find, when you want help in some action or other. You may meditate for that too.”

“I think everyone has his own mode of meditation. But if one wants the meditation to be dynamic, one must have an aspiration for progress and the meditation must be done to help and fulfil this aspiration for progress. Then it becomes dynamic.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 88-89

The Difference Between Static and Dynamic Meditation

When an individual sits for meditation, does he come out of the meditation changed in some way? … or is meditation something like a state of ‘statis’ where time goes by, but nothing happens? Is the individual taking a ‘time out’ from life but not moving the purpose and focus of the life forward? These questions arise when we examine the statements of those who attempt meditation and who report they simply saw rounds of thoughts and sense impressions impinging on them, and that they wound up following these until they noticed it, and then tried to draw back, until the next ones captured them; or else, that they found they were simply ‘nodding off’. Many people who take up meditation report they may feel more relaxed or peaceful at the end, but realistically, their actions afterwards have not changed in any meaningful way.

As with anything an individual does in his life, there is a reason or motive behind it. If one begins meditation without a clear sense of purpose, without an aspiration directed toward that purpose, then it tends to simply be static and does not aid much, if at all, in the actualization of the seeker’s ultimate purpose in the life. This leads to the question of whether meditation can be dynamic and focused, without simply becoming another vehicle of expressing some form of vital ambition. Ultimately everyone acts in the world. The action can be motivated by ego and vital ambition, but it can also be directed toward a higher aspiration and the transformation of human life. It can be an attempt to deny life or an attempt to affirm life. Everything depends on the direction and sincerity of the seeker’s motivation in the action.

A disciple asks: “What does Sri Aurobindo mean by ‘a self-dynamising meditation’?”

The Mother responds: “It is a meditation that has the power of transforming your being. It is a meditation which makes you progress, as opposed to static meditation which is immobile and relatively inert, and which changes nothing in your consciousness or in your way of being. A dynamic meditation is a meditation of transformation.”

“Generally, people don’t have a dynamic meditation. When they enter into meditation — or at least what they call meditation — they enter into a kind of immobility where nothing stirs, and they come out of it exactly as they went in, without any change either in their being or in their consciousness. And the more motionless it is, the happier they are. They could meditate in this way for eternities, it would never change anything either in the universe or in themselves. That is why Sri Aurobindo speaks of a dynamic meditation which is exactly the very opposite. It is a transforming meditation.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 87-88