ASSOCIATES OF MAHATMA GANDHI > VINOBA BHAVE > TALKS ON THE GITA > Karmayoga (Yoga of Selfless and Desireless Action)

03. Karmayoga (Yoga Of Selfless And Desireless Action)

11. Renunciation Of The Fruit Leads To Infinite Gains

  1. Brothers, in the Second Chapter we viewed the whole of the science of life. The Third Chapter provides further elaboration of that science. We had a look at the principles; now we shall look into the details. In the last Chapter, we dealt with karmayoga. Renunciation of the fruit of actions is the thing of distinctive importance in karmayoga. The question then is, does any gain accrue to a karmayogi or not?  The Third Chapter tells us that renunciation of the fruit results in infinite gains for a karmayogi.

Here I am reminded of the story of Lakshmis swayamvara.1 A whole lot of gods and demons had gathered at her swayamvara with the hope of marrying her. Lakshmi had not announced any test that they had to pass. Coming to the pandal where they were seated, she declared that she would marry one who was not coveting her. But all of those assembled there were desirous of marrying her; so all of them were naturally ruled out. Lakshmi then set forth in search of one having no desire for her. She finally found Lord Vishnu lying serenely on Shesha, the cobra. She put the garland around His neck2 and has been sitting at His feet ever since. As the poet puts it, न मागे तयाची रमा होय दासी ।3 — ‘Lakshmi serves one who does not covet her.This is the beauty of it.

  1. The ordinary man closely guards the fruit of his actions so that none else could have it. But thereby he loses infinite gains that could otherwise have been his. The man attached to worldly affairs toils a lot, but gets little in return. On the other hand, a karmayogi receives infinite gains with little effort. The difference in their mental attitudes makes all the difference. Tolstoy says, ‘‘People talk a lot about Jesus sacrifice, but the ordinary people toil much more than Jesus, carry much more burden, suffer much more. Were they to put in half the labour for the Lord, they would become greater than Jesus!’’

  2. Worldly people put in arduous labour; but in the pursuit of petty gains. We reap what we sow; as is the desire, so is the fruit. The world will not pay more for our goods than the price that we ourselves mark on them. Sudama went to Lord Krishna with the offering of a handful of parched rice. It might not have been worth a farthing, but to Sudama, it was priceless. It had the stamp of his love and devotion on them4 which, as it were, had charged them with magical potency. A small, insignificant thing gains in value and potency when it is so charged. What, after all, is a currency note? It is just a little piece of paper. If burnt, it would not warm up even a drop of water. But it has the stamp of the government on it, and that gives it value.

This is the whole beauty of karmayoga. Action is like the currency note. Stamped with bhavana—sentiments and genuine feelings—it acquires value. In a sense, I am revealing here the secret of idol-worship. The idea of idol-worship is extremely charming. To begin with, an idol is just a piece of stone. I put life into it, I pour my devotion into it. These feelings cannot be broken. A stone can be broken into pieces, but not the sentiments. The moment I withdraw my devotion from the idol, it once again gets reduced to a mere stone which can easily be broken into pieces.

  1. Action is like a stone, or a piece of paper. My mother scribbled just three or four lines on a piece of paper and sent it to me; another gentleman sent me a bundle of fifty pages. Now, which one has more value?  The feelings expressed in the few lines from my mother are priceless, they are sacred. The other stuff cannot stand comparison with it. Action must be imbued with the warmth of feelings. We assess a labourers work and pay him wages accordingly; but dakshina5 is not given like that. Water is sprinkled on it before it is given. The amount of dakshina is not important; it is the sentiment of reverence behind it that is important. The touch of water is symbolic of the feelings in the heart of the host. There is a remarkable saying in Manusmriti. In those days, students used to stay with the guru (master) for twelve years. The master would teach them and make them human beings in the true sense. Now, what should a student offer to the master?  In those days, fees were not collected in advance. The student, after completion of his studies, was supposed to offer what he felt like giving and thought proper. Manu says, Give the master a flower, a fan, a pair of sandals, or a pitcher of water. Is this a joke?  No; the point is that, whatever is offered should be offered as a sign of reverence. A flower in itself has little value, but charged with devotion, its value becomes immeasurable. The poet has sung the praise of Rukmini. She put in the scale a single leaf of Tulsi which equaled the weight of Lord Krishna while heaps of gold ornaments put by Satyabhama proved to be insufficient to weigh Him, because the Tulsi leaf put by Rukmini was full of devotion. It was no longer an ordinary leaf; it was a charged one.6This is true of the actions of a karmayogi too.

  2. Suppose two persons have gone to bathe in the river Ganga. One of them says, What, after all, is this Ganga that people talk so much about?  Combine two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, and you will have Ganga. The other one says, This great river emerged from the holy lotus-feet of Lord Vishnu, she dwelt in the matted hair of Lord Shiva. Thousands of seers—both ascetic and kingly—have done penance near her. Countless holy acts have been performed by her side. Such is this sacred Mother Ganga. He takes a bath with these feelings in mind. The other fellow, for whom Ganga’s water is just a compound of hydrogen and oxygen, also bathes in the river. Both get the benefit of physical cleansing; but it is a petty benefit. Even a bullock can get this benefit. Dirt of the body will go. But how to wash the mind of its taint?  One got the petty benefit of physical cleanliness; the other, in addition, gained the invaluable fruit of inward purity.

A man doing surya-namaskars7 after bathing will certainly get the benefit of physical exercise; but if he is not doing them for the sake of health only, but as a form of worship, he will also have a sharp and radiant intellect in addition to a healthy body. He will get from the Sun-God vigour and creative energy.

  1. The act may be the same outwardly; but the difference in the inward feelings makes a world of difference. Action by a spiritually motivated selfless person elevates him morally and spiritually whereas the same action by a worldly person serves to bind him. A karmayogi farmer will look upon farming as his swadharma. It will, of course, fill his stomach; but he is not farming for that purpose. He will eat only to enable him to perform the swadharma of farming. Swadharma is the end for him, and food a means therefor. But to another farmer, food will be the end and farming a means therefor. These two attitudes are the reverse of each other.

This has been figuratively described in the Second Chapter. It is stated therein that a karmayogi is asleep when others are awake whereas he is awake when others are asleep. What does this mean?  We are ever mindful about filling our stomachs, while a karmayogi is keen about spending every moment in work and does not waste a single moment. While ordinary worldly persons live in order to eat, he eats only because something has to be fed to the body to survive to perform selfless service. While ordinary worldly persons enjoy eating, for a yogi it is a burdensome task. He would not therefore eat with relish; he would have control over his palate. The attitudes are thus diametrically opposite to each other. What gives pleasure to one is burdensome to the other. This has been metaphorically described as the night for the one is a day for the other, and the day for one is the night for the other. The actions look alike, but what is important is that a karmoyogi enjoys work leaving aside any attachment to the fruit of his actions. He will eat and sleep like others, but his attitude towards everything will be different. To impress this point, the ideal of the sthitaprajna has been put forth at the outset itself in the Gita, although sixteen Chapters are still ahead.

The similarity and difference between the actions of a worldly man and those of a karmayogi are immediately clear. For example, if a karmayogi is engaged in the care of the cows, he will do the work with the idea of serving the society by providing it with plenty of milk; and at the same time he will look to it as an opportunity to have a relationship of love with all the lower orders of beings through the service of the cows. He will certainly get his wages, but that is not his motivation. Real joy lies in the divine feelings informing the actions.

  1. Every act of a karmayogi unites him with the whole universe. We are supposed to take meals only after watering the Tulsi plant in the courtyard. This is for creating a bond of love with the whole world of plants. How can I eat, keeping the Tulsi plant starved?  Beginning with the identification with the cow and the Tulsi plant we are to progress till we are one with the whole creation. In the Mahabharata war, fighting used to stop at sunset and everybody would then go for performing religious rites etc. But Lord Krishna would rejoice in actions like unyoking the horses from the chariot, giving them water, gently massaging their bodies and nursing their wounds. What a joy the Lord found in such service! The poet is never tired of describing all this. Bring before your mind’s eye the picture of the divine charioteer carrying the feed of the horses in the folds of His lower garment and feeding the horses with His own hands and realise how joyful karmayoga is. In karmayoga, all actions attain the highest spiritual character. Take khadi8 work. A khadi worker hawking khadi from door to door carrying its load on his head never feels tired, for he knows that millions of his brothers and sisters are famished and is inspired by the idea of providing a few morsels to them. His work of selling a few yards of khadi is linked to daridranarayan—God in the form of the poor.

12. Various Gains From Karmayoga

  1. There is extraordinary power in the selfless and desireless karmayoga. It richly blesses both the individual and the society. A karmayogi, who follows his swadharma, does get his daily bread. Besides, his industriousness makes his body healthy and pure. His work also contributes to the well-being and prosperity of the society in which he lives. A karmayogi farmer will not cultivate opium or tobacco to earn more money. He links his work to the welfare of the society. Actions done in the pursuit of swadharma will confer nothing but benefit on the community. A trader who believes in working for the good of the people will not sell foreign cloth. His business will therefore be beneficial to the society. A society which has in its midst such karmoyogis who have identified themselves with those around them, forgetting their selfish interests, will have prosperity, order and harmony.

  2. Work of a karmayogi helps sustain him. It keeps his body healthy and intellect radiant. It results in the welfare of the society as well. It also confers on the karmayogi a great gift in the form of the purity of his mind. It is said that work is a means for the purification of the mindकर्मणा शुध्दि:’. But this is true only of the work done by a karmayogi, as it is charged with the spirit of selfless service, and not of the work ordinarily done by the people. In the Mahabharata, there is a story of the trader named Tuladhar. Jajali, a Brahmin goes to him seeking true knowledge.9 Tuladhar tells him, My dear fellow, what is really required is that the scales must always be held even. The outward action of weighing had made Tuladhars mind straightforward and perfectly balanced. Whosoever came to the shop, Tuladhars balance was always true. Work does have effect on ones mind. A karmayogis work is like japa10—a form of prayer. It purifies the mind and it is only the clean and pure mind which receives true knowledge. A karmayogi’s work ultimately leads to the attainment of wisdom. Tuladhar learnt equanimity of mind from the weighing balance. Sena was a barber who cut the hair and cleansed the heads of his customers. While doing this work, a realisation dawned on him. He thought, I have been cleansing others’ heads, but have I cleansed my own head, my own mind?  Such words of spiritual wisdom came to his lips while working. While removing weeds from the field, it occurs to a karmayogi that the weeds of base desires and passions should also be removed from the mind. Gora Kumbhar, the potter, realised, while shaping and baking earthen pots, that his own life should also be properly moulded and baked in the fire of desireless action. He eventually attained such an exalted status by virtue of his wisdom that he earned the authority to judge the degree of spiritual development of others.11 Karmayogis gained true knowledge through the terms used in their respective vocations. To them, their vocations were like schools of the spirit. Their work was imbued with the spirit of worship and service. Although it appeared worldly, it was spiritual in essence.

  3. Another great gain that flows from the actions of a karmayogi is that a model is placed before the society. In the society, there are persons belonging to different generations. It is the duty of the older generation to set an example to the younger generation. It is the duty of an elder brother to his younger brother, of parents to their children, of leaders to their followers, of masters to their pupils, to set an example through their actions; and who else but a karmayogi is fit to set an example?

As a karmayogi finds joy in the work itself, he is ever-absorbed in his work. Hypocrisy does not, therefore, gain ground in the society. A karmayogi is happy and content with fulfillment; still he continues to work. Saint Tukaram says, Should I give up singing bhajans12, now that I have realized God through them?  Singing bhajans has now become my nature.

आधीं होता संतसंग ।  तुका झाला पांडुरंग

   त्याचें भजन राहीना ।  मूळस्वभाव जाईना

(Earlier, Tukaram used to keep company with the saints. Eventually he became one with Lord Pandurang. Still he cannot help singing bhajans. Ones original nature does not, after all, change.)

The karmayogi reaches the summit of spiritual liberation using the ladder of work. He does not kick off that ladder even thereafter. He just cannot do so. Doing work becomes his nature. He thus continues to impress on the society the importance of service in the form of work enjoined by swadharma.

Removal of hypocrisy from the society is extremely important. Hypocrisy spells doom for the society. If a jnani13 stops working, others will follow suit. The jnani, being ever-content within himself, may sit still in a state of bliss, but others will become inactive even though inwardly unhappy and disgruntled. One is at rest because he is happy at heart; the other is merely passive but unhappy. This is a horrible situation. It will encourage hypocrisy. That is why all the saints continued to hold on steadfastly to the means even after reaching the end, the pinnacle of fulfillment. They kept on working till the last breath. A mother actively participates in the children’s play with the dolls even though she knows that it is all make-believe. If she takes no part in the play, the children will not enjoy it. Likewise if a karmayogi stops working because of contentment, others will follow suit despite being discontented; but inwardly they will continue to be dissatisfied and joyless.

Therefore, a karmayogi continues to work like an ordinary man. He does not think that he is in any way an exceptional person. He exerts himself infinitely more than others. It is not necessary to put a stamp on any action and mark it as spiritual; no action should be publicised as such. If you are a perfect brahmachari14 your work should look hundred times more zestful than that of others. You should work much more even if you get less to consume. Your service to the society should be greater. Let your brahmacharya be reflected in your actions. Let its fragrance, like sandalwood, spread far and wide. This is what should be true for the truly spiritual work.

In short, a karmayogi, by renouncing desire for the fruit of his actions, will receive infinite rewards. His body will be sustained and both his body and mind will remain healthy and radiant. The society to which he belongs will also be happy and contented. His mind will be purified and he will attain wisdom. The spread of hypocrisy in the society will be precluded, and the sacred ideal will become clear to all. Such is the glory of karmayoga, which is testified by experience.

13. Obstacles In The Way Of Karmayoga

  1. A karmayogi’s work is much better than that of others. For him, work is worship. We perform pooja15 and receive prasad thereafter. But is the prasad a reward for the pooja?  If one performs pooja for the sake of prasad, one will, of course, get it. But a karmayogi seeks to see God face to face through performance of pooja. He does not think that the value of his pooja is so trivial that the prasad is its only reward. He is not prepared to underestimate the value of his work. He does not measure the value of his work in gross terms. The fruits of actions depend on the outlook behind them. A person with a gross outlook and gross aim will receive reward in gross terms. There is a saying among the farmers: Sow deep, but sow in a moist soil. It is not enough to sow deep; there should also be moisture in the soil. Then only the yield will be high. There should thus be depth, that is, thoroughness and excellence in the work and there should also be the moisture, that is, devotion and surrender to God, dedication to God. A karmayogi has depth in his work and he then dedicates that work to God.

We have developed some absurd ideas about spirituality. People feel that a spiritual seeker need not do any work. They wonder how a farmer or a weaver could be a spiritual seeker. But they do not raise the question how one who feeds his body could be a spiritual seeker!  But the Lord of the karmayogis—Lord Krishna—massaged horses, mopped the floor after people had their meals at the time of Pandavas Rajsooya Yajna, grazed the cattle. The ruler of Dwarka (Lord Krishna) would play flute and graze the cattle whenever he visited Gokul, his childhood abode. The saints have sketched the picture of such a karmayogi God; and the saints themselves have attained liberation while working as a tailor, or a weaver, or a gardener, or a potter, or a grocer, or a barber, or a tanner.

  1. A person slips from the observance of such a divine karmayoga on account of two reasons. We should keep in mind the peculiar nature of our senses. They are always caught up in the duality of likes and dislikes. We are attached to or fond of what we want and are averse to what we do not want. Love and hate, desire and anger pounce upon a man and prey on him. How beautiful and infinitely rewarding karmayoga is!  But desire and anger are always after us, driving us to hanker after something and reject something. The Lord is warning us, at the end of this Chapter, to shun them. A karmayogi should also become an embodiment of self-restraint like the sthitaprajna.



  1. In ancient India, princesses used to choose their spouses.  The custom was called swayamvara.  All those princes wishing to marry the princess used to be invited to the ceremony at which the princess would publicly choose a bridegroom for herself.  Often, the princes were made to perform some very difficult task.  For example, princes gathered at the swayamvara of Sita were asked to lift the bow of Lord Shiva, which nobody except Rama could succeed in doing.

  2. The act signifies acceptance of the person as a spouse.

  3. Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity.  So the verse also means that one gets riches when one does not hanker after them.

  4. Sudama, a childhood friend of Lord Krishna, was a poor Brahmin.  His wife once coaxed him to meet Krishna, who was now the ruler of Dwarka and who could releive them of their penury.  Sudama visited Krishna with an offering of parched rice as he could afford nothing else.  The Lord sensed the feeling of love behind this offering and gave him countless riches.

  5. It means money or other things offered to the priest with reverence for the services rendered as a religious obligation.

  6. Satyabhama and Rukmini, both queens of Lord Krishna, once had a dispute over who loves Him the most.  They thereupon decided to weigh him.  Krishna sat on one of the pans of the balance and Satyabhama put heaps of gold ornaments on the other pan, but they could not equal the Lord's weight.  Rukmini then weighed the Lord against a Tulsi leaf, but the leaf equaled the Lord's weight.

  7. A form of worshipping the Sun-God, it is also a well-known yogic exercise wherein body goes through different motions, thereby getting all-round physical exercise.

  8. Handspun, hand woven cotton cloth, popularised by Mahatma Gandhi.  For him, it was a symbol of self-reliance and identification with the poor.

  9. In ancient India, teaching was the vocation of the Brahmins.  But here a Brahmin is shown going to a Vaishya (trader) for knowledge.

  10. Japa means repeated recitation/chanting of God's Name or a sacred verse.  It also implies unremitting mental contemplation of the Brahman.

  11. Saint Namdeva, when he was still a seeker, once thought that he was quite close to Lord Pandurang, and had thus gained all that he should.  To remove his vain misconception, Lord Pandurang sent him to Gora.  Gora was busy testing the strength of his pots when Namdeva approached him.  Gora then stroked Namdeva's head with his testing implement and announced that 'the pot is not yet fully baked', meaning that Namdeva had yet to attain Self-knowledge.

  12. Devotional songs.

  13. One who has attained Self-knowledge; a man of wisdom.  The term 'Jnana' is commonly used for knowledge and understanding, but it also means Self-knowledge or saving wisdom.  The meaning has to be understood from the context.

  14. Brahmachari is one who practices brahmacharyaBrahmacharya is normally translated as chastity or celibacy, but it is a much wider concept.  Etymologically, it means a course of conduct adopted for realization of Brahman.  It includes control of all the senses.

  15. Pooja is a from of worshipping the Lord in the form of idols.  After completion of the same, sweets, fruits, etc. are offered to the Lord.  It is called naivedya.  These eatables are then distributed to those present, as a mark of God's grace.  They are called prasad.