69. Karma Yoga and Karma Sannyasa Yoga Compared

Human Body

by Jayaram V

Notes: I have translated the Bhagavadgita twice. The first one was a loose translation. The second one was a word to word translation with a detailed commentary. The commentary is however different from what you will find here. In this section I will share with you my thoughts about the knowledge, philosophy and wisdom of the Bhagavadgita as I understand it from my perspective. Jayaram V

Summary: This article explains the distinction between karma yoga and karma sannyasa yoga in the context of the Bhagavadgita.

The third chapter of the Bhagavadgita is known as Karma Yoga and the fifth chapter as Karma Sannyasa Yoga. Jnana Yoga comes in between them as the fourth chapter. Now, you may want to know the difference between Karma Yoga and Karma Sannyasa Yoga and why the chapter on Jnana Yoga is placed in between the two. Karma Yoga is the practice of performing actions as a service or sacrifice to achieve certain ends or fulfill one’s desires.

According to the Vedic dharma, householders have the permission to seek the four chief aims of human life through their actions. They are Dharma (religious and moral duties), Artha (wealth), Kama (sexual pleasure) and Moksha (liberation). Vedic tradition was not averse to performing desire-ridden actions as long as they were in harmony with these aims of those of creation.

To achieve these ends, householders (grihastas) in traditional Vedic society were obligated to perform three types of sacrifices namely daily sacrifices (nitya karma), occasional sacrifices (naimitta karmas) and sacrifices to fulfill particular desires (kamya karmas). Nowadays, many Hindus do not perform the daily sacrifices with the same regularity, discipline or conviction. They may participate in a few naimitta and kamya karmas, but even in this regard their number is small. However, most Hindus engage in various religious and spiritual activities including domestic worship.

We can consider them also karma yogis since karma yoga is not just about performing obligatory duties that are specified in the Vedas. Karma yoga is the practice of performing one’s actions as a service or sacrifice, whether such actions are performed to fulfill one’s desires or not. In today’s context, anyone can practice karma yoga who is obligated to perform certain actions for whatever reason, offering those actions to a deity as a service or sacrifice or to reach certain ends. Even mundane tasks such as eating, sleeping can be considered a part of karma yoga. If you offer your life to God and live in his service or for the sake of others or for the self which resides in them to redeem your life or escape from sinful karma or for any other reason, you are a karma yogi.

Karma yoga is fit for all people since no one can live without performing actions. Anyone who performs actions can be a karma yogi, and practice it to mitigate the consequences which arise from them. Although karma yoga is better than living selfishly for oneself and not caring about others, it is not the best solution to overcome suffering, sin or rebirth. Karma yoga ensures a better life in this life and in the next, but not liberation. We are all karma yogis, yet we are all caught in samsara. Karma yoga purifies us and prepares us for liberation, but does not guarantee it.

Therefore, if you are aiming for liberation, you have to look for better alternatives, such as jnana yoga, buddhi yoga, sannyasa yoga, bhakti yoga or karma sannyasa yoga. Of them, the last one is the best for worldly people, since you can integrate into it the other three. Some scholars regard bhakti yoga as the best, which is true. However, bhakti yoga is the culmination of all other yogas, and only a few people can practice pure devotion without any trace of desire, delusion, attachment or egoism. A karma yogi becomes a karma sannyasa yogi by acquiring knowledge of the self. What distinguishes them is knowledge (jnana). Hence, the chapter on jnana yoga placed between the two.

Karma Sannyasa Yoga is the practice of performing your actions with detachment and without desire for their fruit. In its practice, instead of renouncing worldly actions or obligatory duties, you renounce desires and attachments, and perform such actions without any expectations as an offering or service to God or your chosen deity. The best option for householders is to practice karma sannyasa yoga in conjunction with knowledge, discernment and devotion (jnana, buddhi and bhakti) and elevate it to a much higher level. By that, you will be combining five yogas into one (karma, jnana, karma-sannyasa, buddhi, and bhakti).

The underlying justification is that actions produce karma and bind you when you perform them with desires to achieve certain ends. When you renounce desires and perform the same actions, they will not affect you. In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna says he himself practices Karma Sannyasa Yoga for the welfare of the worlds. Although he is complete in himself and has no particular desires, he performs actions without seeking their fruit to ensure the orderly progression of the world.

He therefore advises his devotee not to renounce actions but perform them by offering the fruit of their actions to him. In other words, karma sannyasa yoga is the means by which householders can consecrate their lives to God and live in his service. By replacing his ego with the eternal self, and identifying himself with it, a householder who leads a worldly life can become free karma even when engaged in actions. If he persists in that, he will quickly attain liberation.

Thus, there is a big difference between karma yoga and karma sannyasa yoga. Karma yoga means performing actions as a service or sacrifice to achieve desired ends. Karma sannyasa yoga means performing them by giving up the desire for their fruit. Desire is the poison, the halahal, which arises from the churning of your life through desire-ridden actions. When you renounce it and offer it as a sacrifice to Shiva, the consumer of all poisons, he will accept it and save you from destruction.

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