“A person who works very hard, no matter in what occupation, and who offers the result of the work to the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, is called a karma-yogi.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.20.34 Purport)
Imagine a person who seeks to be good. Perhaps you are this person or it is someone you know. Maybe it is someone who lived a very long time ago. Their goal is to always do the right thing; never any sin. If the word “sin” offends you, think of anything that invites censure. The mindset of such a person is to reach ultimate perfection as a human being, doing no wrong in the process.
This is indeed a worthy goal, as the good people among us are those who try their best to lead a virtuous life. The issue, of course, is which authority to take in determining right and wrong. The thief who steals from others considers their behavior to be virtuous. They make up whatever excuse they can. “Oh, I need these things for my sustenance. The world has been very cruel to me. Everyone else has plenty anyway. They don’t really suffer from my theft. I am therefore justified. I am virtuous.”
Similarly, the person trying to do good, who doesn’t steal, will justify certain things that they do. Hearing bits and pieces of information about virtue and truth, they may consider a typical life in sense gratification to be pious:
“I have heard of the term ‘karma’. In Sanskrit, this means work. I have also heard of yoga, which is the linking to the supreme consciousness. Karma-yoga is my religion; I don’t blindly follow any sect. I do good and honest work, and since I am of the right mind, it is called karma-yoga. I don’t cheat anyone. I don’t lie unnecessarily. I don’t spend too much money on enjoyable things for myself. I take care of my spouse and children. I earn an honest living and entertain guests in the home. Thus I am following karma-yoga.”
In the Vedic tradition there are different paths offered for reaching the ultimate truth. These are not borne from speculation; rather they are passed on in a chain of dedicated teachers. The multitudinous activities and desires of human beings are grouped and sorted into four basic categories: karma, jnana, yoga and bhakti. Karma is work, jnana is knowledge, yoga in this context is meditation, and bhakti is devotion. You can attach the term “yoga” to any one of these. Thus you have the choice of karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, meditational-yoga, or bhakti-yoga as your path for reaching a truth that is absolute.
Jnana-yoga is pretty straightforward. You seek enlightenment through knowledge. You learn of the difference between matter and spirit and commit yourself to living with that knowledge. Let’s say that one of my children doesn’t know that boys and girls are equal human beings. They believe that the sexes are completely different. I then point out their flaw, and in an effort to correct the errata they always keep in mind that boys and girls are the same at the core; they are both human beings. In the same way in jnana-yoga one tries to see with the vision of Brahman, where one knows that every living entity, human and animal alike, is a spirit soul, eternal in its existence but temporary in its present manifestation.
Meditational yoga is also rather straightforward; you meditate in the recommended positions and at the appropriate times and places. You fix your mind on the Absolute Truth in hopes of having the same nature, merging into that truth.
Things get tricky with karma-yoga and bhakti-yoga. In the works of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the terms are often both translated to “devotional service.” This is not contradictory based on the fact that karma-yoga eventually turns into bhakti-yoga when the resulting rewards are no longer considered. Think of going to work every day and not caring what’s in your paycheck. Think of doing all of your assigned tasks and not even remembering what day you get paid. This is sort of how karma-yoga turns into bhakti-yoga.
Karma is work. So when we work, we get a result. When we seek to enjoy that result, it is basic karma. When we sacrifice that result for the service of the Lord, it is karma-yoga. The definition is very simple, and it is not concocted on anyone’s whims. If it were, then someone could go outside, kill any stray animal, cook it, think that God is great for providing such a hearty beast for consumption, and then categorize the entire episode as karma-yoga.
What makes the karma eligible for yoga is the sacrifice in service. Service is bhakti, so when the results of work are sacrificed for the sake of another’s or one’s own devotion to God, then it is karma-yoga. Understandably there is confusion between the two terms, and the reason is that bhakti-yoga can include just about anything. Bhakti-yoga is full devotion. The attitude of the person is always the same. They are always of the mindset of “how can I please my beloved Lord, who is not the exclusive property of any particular sect, and who wears a beautiful garland of flowers and presents an enchanting smile sure to defeat any person’s pride?” In this mindset, the person can work, study, or meditate; they are not restricted.
As we live with constant duality, there is no such thing as “the perfect being in virtue.” What is good to one person may not be so for another. What is appropriate for this situation may not be so for that. The karma-yogi is on the right track, as they are headed towards the Absolute Truth, the author of this world of duality. Working diligently and honestly sacrificing their results for the pleasure of that great author, their work eventually merges into bhakti-yoga, which is the handsome reward for the treasure seeker finally grown weary of a life of doubt in speculation.
World of duality, suffering in illusion,
Between karma and bhakti a confusion.
When dispassion for results to earn,
Karma-yoga into bhakti to turn.
Not some concoction of the mind,
Passed on from chain of teachers kind.
When only in devotional mindset to stay,
To bhakti karma eventually to give way.