Karma Yoga & The Goal of Life | Podcasts on Vedanta

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Today’s podcast was edited and adapted from a lecture by Swami Vivekananda (Shāmi Bibekānondo), published in 1901.

The word Karma is derived from the Sanskrit “Kri”, meaning to do. Everything that is done is Karma. Technically, the word Karma 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, the word ”Karma” simply means work.

The goal of all human-kind is knowledge. That is the one ideal placed before us by Eastern philosophy. Pleasure is not the ultimate goal, but knowledge. Pleasure and happiness come to an end. The cause of all the miseries we have in the world is that we foolishly think pleasure to be the ideal — but after a time, we find that it is not happiness but knowledge towards where we are going, and that both pleasure and pain are great teachers, that we learn as much from evil as from good.

As pleasure and pain pass before our soul, they leave upon it different pictures, and the result of these combined impressions is what is called our ”character.” If you study the character of any person, what is it really but the tendencies, the sum total of the bent of his or her mind?

Ultimately, we find that misery and happiness are equal factors in the formation of character. Good and evil have an equal share, and in some instances misery is a greater teacher than happiness. In studying the great characters that the world has produced, I dare say that (in the vast majority of cases), it was misery that taught more than happiness; it was poverty that taught more than wealth; and it was blows that brought out the inner fire, more than praise.

Knowledge is inherent in us. No knowledge comes from outside. It is all within. What we say a person “knows” and what they “learn” should (in strictly psychological language) be thought of as what they ”discover,” the word discover meaning to take the covering off the soul, which is a fount of infinite knowledge.

We say that Newton discovered gravitation. Was it sitting anywhere in a corner waiting for him? It was in his own mind; the time came and he found it out. All knowledge that the world has ever received comes from the mind.

The infinite library of the universe is in your own mind. The external world is simply the suggestion, the occasion, which sets you to study your own mind, but the object of your study is always your own mind. The falling of an apple gave the suggestion to Newton, and he studied his own mind. He rearranged all the previous links of his mind and discovered a new link among them, which we call the law of gravitation.

It was not the apple nor anything in the center of the earth. All knowledge, secular or spiritual, is in the human mind. In many cases it is not discovered, but remains covered, and when the covering is being slowly taken off we say “we are learning,” and the advance of knowledge is made by the advance of this process of uncovering.

The person from whom this veil is being lifted is the more knowing one. The person upon whom it lies thick is ignorant; and the person from whom it has entirely gone is the all-knowing, the omniscient.

There have been omniscient men and women, and, I believe, will be yet, and that there will be myriads in the cycles to come. Like fire in a piece of flint, knowledge is existing in the mind — the suggestion is the friction that brings out that fire.

So with all our actions (our tears and our smiles, our joys and our griefs, our weeping and our laughter, our curses and our blessings, our praises and our blames), with every one of them we find, if we calmly study our own selves, that they have been brought out by so many blows. The result is what we are. And all these blows taken together are called “Karma”.

Every mental and physical blow that is given upon the soul to strike out the fire (to discover its own power and knowledge) is Karma — Karma being used in its universal sense. So, we are 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. We talk; Karma. Everything we do, physical or mental, is Karma, and is leaving its marks upon us.

There are certain works which are, as it were, the aggregate, the sum total, of a large number of small works. If we stand near the seashore and hear the waves dashing against the stones, we think it is such a great noise, and yet we know that one wave is really composed of millions and millions of minute waves.

Each one of these is making a noise, and yet we do not catch the sound of them. It is only when they become the big aggregate that we catch it. So every pulsation of the heart is making work. Certain works we feel, and they become tangible to us. They are, at the same time, the aggregate of a number of small works.

If you really want to judge the character of someone look not at their great works. Every fool becomes a hero at one time or another. Watch a person do their most common actions; those are the things which will tell you the real character of a great man and woman.

Great occasions rouse even the lowest of human beings to greatness, but those who are really great possess a character that is great always, the same wherever they may be.

This Karma in its effect on character is the most tremendous power that we have to deal with. Every individual is a center, as it were, and we are attracting all the powers of the universe towards ourselves, fusing them all and ejecting them again in a big current. That center is the real man, the real woman, the almighty, the omniscient, and we draw the whole universe towards ourselves — good or bad, misery or happiness, all running towards us, clinging round us, and out of them we fashion the tremendous power called character and throw it outwards.

As we have the power of drawing in anything, so we have the power of throwing it out. All the actions that we see in the world, all the movements in human society, all the works that we have around us, are simply the display of thought, the manifestation of the will of human-kind.

Machines, instruments, cities, ships, soldiers-of-war: everything is simply the manifestation of the will of humanity, and this will is made by character, and character is manufactured by Karma.

No one can get anything except that they earn it. This is an eternal law. We may think it is not so, but in the long run we shall be convinced of it. A person may struggle all their life to become rich; they may cheat thousands; but they find at last that they did not deserve it, and their life becomes a trouble and a nuisance to them.

We may go on accumulating for our physical enjoyment, but only what we earn is ours. You may buy all the books in the world, but you will only be able to understand those that you deserve, and this deserving is produced by Karma. Our Karma determines what we deserve and what we can assimilate. We are responsible for what we are, and whatever we want ourselves to be, we have the power to make ourselves.

If what we are now has been made by our own past actions, it certainly follows that whatever we want to be, we can make ourselves by our present actions. So, we have to know how to act.

We should learn how to avoid frittering away our energies. In the Bhagavad Gita it is said that Karma Yoga is doing work, but with cleverness and as a science —knowing how to do work that will bring the greatest results. We must remember that all this work is simply to bring out the power of the mind which is already there: to wake up the soul.

This power is inside every man and woman, and the knowledge is there too. These different works are like blows to bring it out, to cause this giant to wake up.

We all work for various motives; there cannot be work without a motive. Some people want to get fame, and they work for fame. Others want to get money, and they work for money. Others want power, and they work for power. Others want to get to heaven, and they work to get to heaven.

There are only a few who are really the salt of the earth and who work for work’s sake — who do not care for power, or fame, or to get to heaven. Then there are others who do good for the poor and help humankind from higher motives, because it is good, and they love the good.

Desire for name and fame seldom brings immediate results. As a rule, they come to us when we are old and almost done with life. So, if a person works without any selfish motive in view what becomes of them? Do they not gain anything? Yes, that person is the highest gainer. Unselfishness pays more, only people have not the patience to practice it. And I am not talking only of spiritual rewards. It is more paying in physical value also.

Love, and truth, and unselfishness are not only moral figures, but are the highest ideals, because they are such manifestations of power. A person who can work for five days, or for five minutes, without any selfish motive whatever, without thinking of the future, or heaven, or punishment, or anything of the kind, becomes a giant.

It is hard to do it, but in the heart of our hearts we know the value of it, and what good it brings. It is the greatest manifestation of power and a tremendous restraint. Remember that to restrain is a manifestation of more power than all outgoing action. A carriage with four horses may rush down a hill without restraint. Or, the coachman may restrain the horses. Which is the greater manifestation of power, to let them go or to restrain them? Or consider a cannon-ball that flies through the air, goes a long distance, and then falls, versus one whose flight is cut short by striking against a wall, generating an intense heat.

Likewise, all this outgoing of action toward a selfish motive goes away. It will not return to you, but if it be restrained it will develop. Restraint will produce a gigantic will, that character which makes a world move. But the majority of us are fools who lack the patience and vision. We cannot see beyond a few years, just as animals cannot see beyond a few steps. Just a little narrow circle: that is our world. We have not the patience to look beyond and thus we become selfish.

It is our weakness, our powerlessness. But it does not mean that the lowest sorts of work are to be despised. Let the person who knows no better, work for selfish ends, for name and fame; but we should always try to get towards the higher motive and to understand what that motive is.

Intense activity is necessary; we must always work. The ideal person is the one who in the midst of the greatest silence finds their intensest activity, and in the midst of the intensest activity, finds the silence of the desert. That person has learned the secret of restraint; they have controlled themselves.

They go through the streets of a big city, with all their traffic, and their mind is as calm as if they were in a cave, where not a sound can reach them. And they are working intensely all the time. That is the ideal of Karma Yoga, and if you have attained to that you have really learned the secret of work.

But we have to begin from the beginning, to take up the works as they come to us and slowly make ourselves more unselfish every day. We must do the work and find out the motive power that is behind it, prompting us to the work. And, almost without exception, in the first years, we will find that the motives are always selfish. But gradually this selfishness will melt, by persistence, and at last will come the time when we shall be able to do really unselfish work.

We all hope that some time or other, as we struggle through the path of life, there will come a time when we shall become perfectly unselfish. And the moment we attain to that, our powers will be concentrated, and the eternal knowledge which is ours will become manifest.

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