“Work Incessantly, but be not Attached to it.” – Vivekananda on Karma Yoga

One beautiful aspect of Hinduism is that it does not reserve enlightenment only for monks and nuns. It provides a much more inclusive plan for attaining it where all are eligible, intellectuals, monks, workers, family men and women, lovers. Anyone can achieve enlightenment if they self abnegate themselves for the realization of their higher selves. Vivekananda, a brilliant 19th century Indian monk has written extensively on the four paths of enlightenment available to anyone who cares to walk on them. These include the paths of the intellectual (jnana yoga), the devotee (bhakti yoga), the ascetic (raja yoga), and the householder (karma yoga). Any of these paths can be picked based on the temperament and the life situation of the Seeker. Since most people work are householders and work for a living, we will start with the path of the Karma Yogi.

Work because good will come out of it, Vivekananda says. Do good for the poor, help those around you, because you believe in being good and doing good. Do not expect anything out of it, no money, fame, or even gratitude. Do something because you want to serve, you want to help and you believe that it is the right thing to do.

“The motive for name and fame seldom brings immediate results, as a rule; they come to us when we are old and have almost done with life. If a man works without any selfish motive in view, does he not gain anything? Yes, he gains the highest. Unselfishness is more paying, only people have not the patience to practice it. It is more paying from the point of view of health also…

He works best who works without any motive, neither for money, nor for fame, nor for anything else; and when a man can do that, he will be a Buddha, and out of him will come the power to work in such a manner as will transform the world. This man represents the very highest ideal of Karma-Yoga.

Now, anything that you do has both pros and cons. You cannot do anything that does not do some good somewhere and some harm somewhere.For example, a business man who donates laptops to school students while benefiting them, is harming the livelihood of the local cyber cafe owner. Every work is necessarily a mixture of good and evil. Then how do we choose what to do? Do what your station in life requires from you as your responsibility and do it without attachment to personal gains in terms of name, fame or fortune. There is no way you can take away the pain without taking away the pleasure. The solution, he says is not in giving up action altogether, because we cannot really do it while we live, but by removing our personal interests from the picture. When we do that, and do what we think is the best for those around us, we become Karma Yogis, on our path to enlightenment with our daily work just as Buddha attained enlightenment with meditation and Jesus with his devotion. We don’t have to shun our lives and go to the forests or monasteries. We just have to give up selfish attachment to the results of our goals and work.

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Swami Vivekananda

Many of us often think of work as a drudgery. As an obligation we have to endure because we don’t have enough. Another way to look at work is a way to serve and help those around us. When we expand our problems to include the problems of others and work towards solutions like we work to solve our own problems, work becomes as natural as breathing. When we think of how many people can be brought joy, or comfort with our actions, work can become meaningful. It can be an expression of our love for others instead of a chore we do to earn a livelihood because we do not have a choice. Like the Bodhisattvas, we can hope that our work serves all beings and helps them be free from suffering. Then work becomes an engaging process. This is the secret of joyful work.

He empathizes with our lot saying that duty is seldom sweet, only when greased with love can it be done smoothly. Like politeness is a shadowy lightweight substitute for kindness, work ethic is the subtitute for joyful work done to serve others. If one can work with love, you do not need anyone to tell you to be work harder.

“Work through freedom! Work through love! The word “love” is very difficult to understand; love never comes until there is freedom. There is no true love possible in the slave. If you buy a slave and tie him down in chains and make him work for you, he will work like a drudge, but there will be no love in him. So when we ourselves work for the things of the world as slaves, there can be no love in us, and our work is not true work. This is true of work done for relatives and friends, and is true of work done for our own selves. Selfish work is slave’s work; and here is a test. Every act of love brings happiness; there is no act of love which does not bring peace and blessedness as its reaction. Real existence, real knowledge, and real love are eternally connected with one another, the three in one: where one of them is, the others also must be; they are the three aspects of the One without a second — the Existence – Knowledge – Bliss…

Do you ask anything from your children in return for what you have given them? It is your duty to work for them, and there the matter ends. In whatever you do for a particular person, a city, or a state, assume the same attitude towards it as you have towards your children — expect nothing in return. If you can invariably take the position of a giver, in which everything given by you is a free offering to the world, without any thought of return, then will your work bring you no attachment. Attachment comes only where we expect a return. If working like slaves results in selfishness and attachment, working as master of our own mind gives rise to the bliss of non-attachment...

The whole gist of this teaching is that you should work like a master and not as a slave; work incessantly, but do not do slave’s work...

Duty becomes a disease with us; it drags us ever forward. It catches hold of us and makes our whole life miserable. It is the bane of human life. This duty, this idea of duty is the midday summer sun which scorches the innermost soul of mankind. Look at those poor slaves to duty! Duty leaves them no time to say prayers, no time to bathe. Duty is ever on them. They go out and work. Duty is on them! They come home and think of the work for the next day. Duty is on them! It is living a slave’s life, at last dropping down in the street and dying in harness, like a horse. This is duty as it is understood. The only true duty is to be unattached and to work as free beings, to give up all work unto God. All our duties are His. Blessed are we that we are ordered out here. We serve our time; whether we do it ill or well, who knows? If we do it well, we do not get the fruits. If we do it ill, neither do we get the care. Be at rest, be free, and work. This kind of freedom is a very hard thing to attain. How easy it is to interpret slavery as duty — the morbid attachment of flesh for flesh as duty! Men go out into the world and struggle and fight for money or for any other thing to which they get attached. Ask them why they do it. They say, “It is a duty”. It is the absurd greed for gold and gain, and they try to cover it with a few flowers.”

One problem that we might encounter as we work is jealousy. We think we desire we deserve better work than what our menial jobs entail. We want to do more meaningful work and want to change the world from the day one. Vivekananda says, that as we excel in the job we have, we will get ready for the job we could have. Instead of complaining and procrastinating, we can do the best at what is needed right now, and we develop the skills to do more interesting work later on.

“There is, however, one great danger in human nature, viz that man never examines himself. He thinks he is quite as fit to be on the throne as the king. Even if he is, he must first show that he has done the duty of his own position; and then higher duties will come to him. When we begin to work earnestly in the world, nature gives us blows right and left and soon enables us to find out our position. No man can long occupy satisfactorily a position for which he is not fit. There is no use in grumbling against nature’s adjustment. He who does the lower work is not therefore a lower man. No man is to be judged by the mere nature of his duties, but all should be judged by the manner and the spirit in which they perform them. Later on we shall find that even this idea of duty undergoes change, and that the greatest work is done only when there is no selfish motive to prompt it. Yet it is work through the sense of duty that leads us to work without any idea of duty; when work will become worship — nay, something higher — then will work be done for its own sake.

It is the worker who is attached to results that grumbles about the nature of the duty which has fallen to his lot; to the unattached worker all duties are equally good, and form efficient instruments with which selfishness and sensuality may be killed, and the freedom of the soul secured. We are all apt to think too highly of ourselves. Our duties are determined by our desires to a much larger extent than we are willing to grant. Competition rouses envy, and it kills the kindliness of the heart. To the grumbler all duties are distasteful; nothing will ever satisfy him, and his whole life is doomed to prove a failure...

The only way to rise to do the duty next to us and thus gathering strength to go on until we reach a higher stage.

There is no duty for you and me. Whatever you have to give to the world, do give by all means, but not as a duty. Do not take any thought of that. Be not compelled. Why should you be compelled? Everything that you do under compulsion goes to build up attachment.

In so working we should never think that we can help on even the least thing in this universe. We cannot. We only help ourselves in this gymnasium of the world. This is the proper attitude of work. If we work in this way, if we always remember that our present opportunity to work thus is a privilege which has been given to us, we shall never be attached to anything. Millions like you and me think that we are great people in the world; but we all die, and in five minutes the world forgets us.”

Vivekananda cautions us against fanaticism that we can very easily slip into with our intention of helping the world and doing good. While we do everything we can to help make the world a better place, having the humility to acknowledge and remember that the world might not change because of our efforts, and we are but a drop in the ocean of humanity. We do good because we are good.And by helping others, we are just helping ourselves be better human beings. We are evolving into higher versions of ourselves. No one, including a beggar, owes us anything for this, not even gratitude. We have the right only to work and improve ourselves. This will protect us from turning into fanatics who even with their good intentions, can harm more than help.

“Why should we do good to the world? Apparently to help the world, but really to help ourselves. We should always try to help the world, that should be the highest motive in us; but if we consider well, we find that the world does not require our help at all. This world was not made that you or I should come and help it.

Yet we must do good; the desire to do good is the highest motive power we have, if we know all the time that it is a privilege to help others. Do not stand on a high pedestal and take five cents in your hand and say, “Here, my poor man,” but be grateful that the poor man is there, so that by making a gift to him you are able to help yourself. It is not the receiver that is blessed, but it is the giver. Be thankful that you are allowed to exercise your power of benevolence and mercy in the world, and thus become pure and perfect. All good acts tend to make us pure and perfect.

No beggar whom we have helped has ever owed a single cent to us; we owe everything to him, because he has allowed us to exercise our charity on him. It is entirely wrong to think that we have done, or can do, good to the world, or to think that we have helped such and such people.

If we were really unattached, we should escape all this pain of vain expectation, and could cheerfully do good work in the world. Never will unhappiness or misery come through work done without attachment. The world will go on with its happiness and misery through eternity.

This world is like a dog’s curly tail, and people have been striving to straighten it out for hundreds of years; but when they let it go, it has curled up again. How could it be otherwise? One must first know how to work without attachment, then one will not be a fanatic. When we know that this world is like a dog’s curly tail and will never get straightened, we shall not become fanatics. If there were no fanaticism in the world, it would make much more progress than it does now. It is a mistake to think that fanaticism can make for the progress of mankind. On the contrary, it is a retarding element creating hatred and anger, and causing people to fight each other, and making them unsympathetic. We think that whatever we do or possess is the best in the world, and what we do not do or possess is of no value. So, always remember the instance of the curly tail of the dog whenever you have a tendency to become a fanatic. You need not worry or make yourself sleepless about the world; it will go on without you. When you have avoided fanaticism, then alone will you work well. It is the level-headed man, the calm man, of good judgment and cool nerves, of great sympathy and love, who does good work and so does good to himself. The fanatic is foolish and has no sympathy; he can never straighten the world, nor himself become pure and perfect.

The world is a grand moral gymnasium wherein we have all to take exercise so as to become stronger and stronger spiritually….We ought not to be fanatics of any kind, because fanaticism is opposed to love….

We must inform our minds that no one in this universe depends upon us; not one beggar depends on our charity; not one soul on our kindness; not one living thing on our help. All are helped on by nature, and will be so helped even though millions of us were not here. The course of nature will not stop for such as you and me; it is, as already pointed out, only a blessed privilege to you and to me that we are allowed, in the way of helping others, to educate ourselves. This is a great lesson to learn in life, and when we have learned it fully, we shall never be unhappy; we can go and mix without harm in society anywhere and everywhere. You may have wives and husbands, and regiments of servants, and kingdoms to govern; if only you act on the principle that the world is not for you and does not inevitably need you, they can do you no harm. This very year some of your friends may have died. Is the world waiting without going on, for them to come again? Is its current stopped? No, it goes on. So drive out of your mind the idea that you have to do something for the world; the world does not require any help from you. It is sheer nonsense on the part of any man to think that he is born to help the world; it is simply pride, it is selfishness insinuating itself in the form of virtue. When you have trained your mind and your nerves to realise this idea of the world’s non-dependence on you or on anybody, there will then be no reaction in the form of pain resulting from work. When you give something to a man and expect nothing — do not even expect the man to be grateful — his ingratitude will not tell upon you, because you never expected anything, never thought you had any right to anything in the way of a return. You gave him what he deserved; his own Karma got it for him; your Karma made you the carrier thereof. Why should you be proud of having given away something? You are the porter that carried the money or other kind of gift, and the world deserved it by its own Karma. Where is then the reason for pride in you? There is nothing very great in what you give to the world. When you have acquired the feeling of non-attachment, there will then be neither good nor evil for you. It is only selfishness that causes the difference between good and evil. It is a very hard thing to understand, but you will come to learn in time that nothing in the universe has power over you until you allow it to exercise such a power. Nothing has power over the Self of man, until the Self becomes a fool and loses independence. So, by non-attachment, you overcome and deny the power of anything to act upon you. It is very easy to say that nothing has the right to act upon you until you allow it to do so; but what is the true sign of the man who really does not allow anything to work upon him, who is neither happy nor unhappy when acted upon by the external world? The sign is that good or ill fortune causes no change in his mind: in all conditions he continues to remain the same.”

He says that a Karma Yogi consistently meditates on dedicating the results of his work to God. In case you do not believe in God, you can dedicate the results to the world and all beings in it. You can hope that your work will serve all beings. Selfishness brings narrow mindedness and hardens us. Inclusiveness and non selfishness softens us and helps us stretch ourselves to become better people. You do not have to become a monk to be a better human. You can be a sales person, a school teacher, a janitor and apply these teachings and be more unselfish than a monk who might be wearing rags but is intensely thinking only of his own needs.

“For those who believe in God there is another way, which is much less difficult. They give up the fruits of work unto the Lord; they work and are never attached to the results. Whatever they see, feel, hear, or do, is for Him. For whatever good work we may do, let us not claim any praise or benefit. It is the Lord’s; give up the fruits unto Him. Let us stand aside and think that we are only servants obeying the Lord, our Master, and that every impulse for action comes from Him every moment. Whatever thou worshippest, whatever thou perceivest, whatever thou doest, give up all unto Him and be at rest. Let us be at peace, perfect peace, with ourselves, and give up our whole body and mind and everything as an eternal sacrifice unto the Lord. Instead of the sacrifice of pouring oblations into the fire, perform this one great sacrifice day and night — the sacrifice of your little self. “In search of wealth in this world, Thou art the only wealth I have found; I sacrifice myself unto Thee. In search of some one to be loved, Thou art the only one beloved I have found; I sacrifice myself unto Thee.” Let us repeat this day and night, and say, “Nothing for me; no matter whether the thing is good, bad, or indifferent; I do not care for it; I sacrifice all unto Thee.” Day and night let us renounce our seeming self until it becomes a habit with us to do so, until it gets into the blood, the nerves, and the brain, and the whole body is every moment obedient to this idea of self-renunciation. Go then into the midst of the battlefield, with the roaring cannon and the din of war, and you will find yourself to be free and at peace...

Just as water cannot wet the lotus leaf, so work cannot bind the unselfish man by giving rise to attachment to results. The selfless and unattached man may live in the very heart of a crowded and sinful city; he will not be touched by sin.

Do not give up the world; live in the world, imbibe its influences as much as you can; but if it be for your own enjoyment’s sake, work not at all.” Enjoyment should not be the goal. First kill your self and then take the whole world as yourself; as the old Christians used to say, “The old man must die.” This old man is the selfish idea that the whole world is made for our enjoyment.….

We have seen already that in helping the world we help ourselves. The main effect of work done for others is to purify ourselves. By means of the constant effort to do good to others we are trying to forget ourselves; this forgetfulness of self is the one great lesson we have to learn in life. Man thinks foolishly that he can make himself happy, and after years of struggle finds out at last that true happiness consists in killing selfishness and that no one can make him happy except himself. Every act of charity, every thought of sympathy, every action of help, every good deed, is taking so much of self-importance away from our little selves and making us think of ourselves as the lowest and the least, and, therefore, it is all good. Here we find that Jnâna, Bhakti, and Karma — all come to one point. The highest ideal is eternal and entire self-abnegation, where there is no “I,” but all is “Thou”; and whether he is conscious or unconscious of it, Karma-Yoga leads man to that end.”

Vivekananda says that when you practice Karma Yoga, your self induced stress and worries will melt away. You will be able to relax even in the midst of intense activity and you will be able to excel at what you do, and create value for those around you.

“Some men, who begin by saying that the world is a hell, often end by saying that it is a heaven when they succeed in the practice of self-control. If we are genuine Karma-Yogis and wish to train ourselves to that attainment of this state, wherever we may begin we are sure to end in perfect self-abnegation; and as soon as this seeming self has gone, the whole world, which at first appears to us to be filled with evil, will appear to be heaven itself and full of blessedness. Its very atmosphere will be blessed; every human face there will be god. Such is the end and aim of Karma-Yoga, and such is its perfection in practical life.
Now comes a very fine and serious question about Karma-Yoga — namely, that these actions of ours, both good and evil, are intimately connected with each other…

first destroy the tendency to project this tentacle of selfishness, and when you have the power of checking it, hold it in and do not allow the mind to get into the ways of selfishness. Then you may go out into the world and work as much as you can. Mix everywhere, go where you please; you will never be contaminated with evil. There is the lotus leaf in the water; the water cannot touch and adhere to it; so will you be in the world. This is called “Vairâgya”, dispassion or non-attachment. attachment. I believe I have told you that without non-attachment there cannot be any kind of Yoga. Non-attachment is the basis of all the Yogas. The man who gives up living in houses, wearing fine clothes, and eating good food, and goes into the desert, may be a most attached person. His only possession, his own body, may become everything to him; and as he lives he will be simply struggling for the sake of his body. Non-attachment does not mean anything that we may do in relation to our external body, it is all in the mind. The binding link of “I and mine” is in the mind. If we have not this link with the body and with the things of the senses, we are non-attached, wherever and whatever we may be. A man may be on a throne and perfectly non-attached; another man may be in rags and still very much attached. First, we have to attain this state of non-attachment and then to work incessantly. Karma-Yoga gives us the method that will help us in giving up all attachment, though it is indeed very hard…

The great secret of true success, of true happiness, then, is this: the man who asks for no return, the perfectly unselfish man, is the most successful.”