Living your purpose: reflections on the meaning of karma yoga in modern times


‘The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachment of results.’ – Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita

I have to admit that during my yogic journey, I’ve wrestled with the concept of karma yoga for a good while. The first time I came across karma yoga was in India. A few years ago, I’d landed in an ashram in Rishikesh where I wanted to study yoga. To my surprise, all residents were asked to clean the ashram, serve food or help with building work in their free time. This was called karma yoga, Sanskrit for ‘selfless service’. We were told that altruistic work, carried out without attachment to the fruits of one’s deeds generates good karma, purifies the mind and ultimately leads to moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

Interesting idea, I thought then. My resistance kicked in almost instantly. Karma yoga?! Surely that’s just a clever way devised to get cheap labour. It was evident that karma yogis worked hard. They cleaned, cooked and built and didn’t receive compensation of any kind, other than the promise of karmic benefits somewhere down the line. Moreover, in many modern ashrams karma yogis were expected to pay for room and board in addition to working all day long. It seemed a bit absurd to me, and I resolved that I wouldn’t fall for this.

A few years and a few ashram living experiences on, my views and understanding of karma yoga have changed considerably. I understand now that in traditional ashrams, the practice is used to generate an attitude of equanimity, surrender and non-attachment to likes and dislikes. It’s actually a valuable tool that helps us to work through our resistances and to observe our minds. Do we always want to do well? Do we expect praise? Do we always want to do what we enjoy, or can we generate the same joy while cleaning the bathrooms?

I think one of the problems is that many ashrams nowadays are commercial enterprises, and this can overshadow the purity of karma yoga how it was intended. If you can clearly see that an ashram is not a non-profit organization and that the owners are doing very well from running it, then the question of karma yoga becomes redundant. Volunteering there can still be a valuable experience, but this volunteering shouldn’t be called ‘selfless service for God’.

But there’s still something that puzzles me. In the Gita, it says that actions must be free from all attachment of results. ‘Do your duty, always; but without attachment. That is how a man reaches the ultimate truth; by working without anxiety about results.’ That, in my opinion, is a very interesting point. Karma yoga in ashrams aside, how does this apply to the modern world? A good friend of mine, the writer Tony Crisp, always used to laugh at me when I went to ashrams to clean and cook. He spends his days writing books and articles and answering people’s queries about dreams and the inner life – for free. ‘That’s my karma yoga’, he used to say. He writes because this is what is natural to him; he uses this innate gift to share it with the world and as a tool for transformation. He doesn’t care whether he earns money from it or not; he does it because he loves it. Sometimes he earns money and that’s fine; at other times he doesn’t and he lives frugally, that’s fine, too. He trusts that his needs are taken care of as long as he is sharing his gifts with the world freely.

I have yet another friend who takes this attitude to an even higher level. Beth Forster of Mosaic Magazine in the UK not only publishes the magazine because of her love of spirituality, she actually pays for all of the printing costs herself and doesn’t use advertising to make up for them. For a long time, the magazine was available for free; now she sells it at a very low price and has the shops who sell it keep 100% of the sale price. Crazy, a commercial-minded person would think. And Beth is not a millionaire: she has used her own savings, and just when they ran out and she wasn’t sure whether she could afford printing any more, she inherited some money that secured the future of the magazine. Recently, people have come forward voluntarily and offered donations to pay for further printing. Such is the extent of her trust – producing the magazine is Beth’s gift to the world, and she believes that she will be supported for as long as she is meant to do so.

Maybe this is the modern interpretation of karma yoga. As you may know from reading this blog, I am very fond of Sri Prem Baba, a Brazilian Saint, who fuses the wisdom of East and West and puts it into a contemporary context. In his book ‘From Suffering to Joy’, he says: ‘Each person brings certain gifts and talents to this world. You have to give what you came here to give. You brought the gifts – are you going to hide them away in the closet? Karma yoga, the path of service, means giving your gifts away with love and tenderness. In this way you fulfil the purpose of your birth. This love takes you to God.’

This – the knowledge that I had certain gifts to share – has always been my struggle with the karma yoga of the ashrams. I thought – if I already know what my gifts and talents are, then why should I spend all of my time cleaning and gardening? What happens to these talents if I am too busy to share them? Of course, these thoughts came to me when I was considering living in ashrams for a long period of time, not just a visit of several weeks or months. And I am aware that cleaning and gardening have to be done, but there should be a balance between the tasks that are necessary and the task that we came here to do.

I truly believe that we all have a purpose in life and certain gifts to share. Many of us don’t become aware of those gifts until later in life, unless we are very lucky. And many of us, though we may know what our gifts are, can’t live them out fully because we have a family to support and are dependent on a steady wage. But for those of us on the spiritual path, for those of us whose human self has submitted to the will of a deeper truth, of a calling, nothing else can work. We have no choice but to share our gifts with the world, no matter what, because that’s the truth of our existence. And I also believe that in cases of such surrender, the Universe will create ways for us to have abundance as well. Prem Baba says that ‘the spiritually mature person knows that their actions are governed by the heart’s intent, and that money is a natural consequence of their actions. Work, often perceived as a burden, now is transformed into service and becomes a precious gift given to others from the depths of one’s being.’

There’s yet another aspect to ‘fruit of one’s labour’ – and that is success and recognition. For many people, money may even be secondary as long as they are recognized and admired for their work. Maybe this is even more seductive than money. In the yoga world, there are suddenly so many ‘stars’ – affluent, beautiful, famous people with a large following. I find this to be an interesting phenomenon. In the old days, the yogic teaching tradition was mostly 1:1. An accomplished yogi did his or her best to stay anonymous, and the students had a hard time finding him/her, and an even harder time to get accepted as a student. The yogi didn’t really care about having students or fame. This way of teacher-student relationship has always appealed to me, both as a student and as a teacher. The teaching carries much more depth in this way, and if I can transform just one student’s life with my teaching, isn’t my purpose fulfilled? But this type of teaching is hard to sustain in our reward-driven society, and requires a huge amount of surrender.

Of course, everything ultimately depends on what your goal is. I once read an interesting story in a book about Amma. It talked about a filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary about Amma. Amma in turn had him do all sorts of tasks – cleaning, milking the cows, chopping vegetables and so on – until he was completely transformed. He arrived at a stage where he wasn’t attached to filmmaking any longer: he enjoyed all tasks equally. And that is liberation, of course. If we think that our desires and thus our talents are karmas, then it is liberation if we are released from those karmas. But I do remember thinking upon reading this story: ‘oh, what a pity about the filmmaking talent. He could have enriched a lot of people’s lives with his films.’ Yes – he can also enrich people’s lives through cleaning, but I’d say that the main result from his interaction with Amma was the loosening of his attachments and karmas.

So, it’s all good and valid. For me, until I am enlightened, Prem Baba’s view currently makes the most sense. Share your gifts and talents generously without attachment to rewards and results. Do your work dutifully, to the best of your ability, and surrender everything else – financial gain, success, recognition – to the will of the Divine.  What matters is that the love flows through you. When you live your truth and are centered in your heart, the lives of those around you are enriched and transformed automatically.