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What is Karma Yoga in Hinduism?

Karma means action of the body, mind or speech. It is not possible to be without action even for a few moments. Karma Yoga, as explained in the Bhagavad Gita, is skill in action. Skill here consists in remaining unaffected, unsmitten by the effects of actions.

For understanding this skill it is necessary to understand the doctrine of karma, which is one of the fundamental assertions of Hindu philosophy. It says that an individual is accountable for each one of the multifarious deeds or actions performed in life, and one has necessarily to enjoy the fruits or effects, which may be good or bad, of each karma. They may be obtained in this life or in a future life. And during the present life, the fruits of karmas of past lives are obtained.

Each karma leaves its trace in the mind, and that has a binding effect on the mind, because unless one enjoys the fruit of that trace, that keeps on sullying the mind by its presence. Thus at anytime the mind of everyone of us is a vast storehouse of all the traces of past karma. These traces can be removed from the mind only by enjoyment of their pleasurable or painful or mixed consequences. The traces bind the individual to the cycle of rebirths.

Freedom from rebirths can be attained only by washing away the traces by experiencing their consequences. There can be liberation only when all the traces are done away with.

Karma Yoga is that skill which teaches the individual to remain free from the binding effect of karma. That is done by withdrawing from the mind the craving for any particular consequence of one’s deeds.

The Bhagavad Gita declares (II.470 that one has the right only to do, not to demand – karamyevadhikraste ma phaleshu kadachana. The choice likes only in doing, not in enjoying its fruit. One must accept the consequences of one’s deeds with equanimity, without attaching any wish to them. Thus, giving up personal involvement in the consequences of deeds themselves, is the essence of karma yoga. Krishna has implored Arjuna (II.48) never to run away from doing duty and to accept achievement or failure with equal readiness.

This can be well compared to Ishvarapranidhana of Patanjali. The attitude of samatva, ‘equanimity’,  is the main feature of karma yoga. The deeds of a person who has attained samatva would be different from those of all of us. Patanjali has said that our deeds are either virtuous, wrong or mixed, but the deeds of a yogin are free from virtue and vice (Yogasutra IV.7).