Hinduism: The Way to God through Work

Reference: Hinduism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

The point of life is to evolve beyond its current limits. Work without thought of self can be a vehicle for self-transcendence.

The third path toward God, intended for persons of active bent, is karma yoga, the path to God through work. 

The path for persons of active bent is karma yoga.

An examination of the anatomy and physiology of human bodies discloses an interesting fact. All organs of digestion and respiration serve to feed the blood with nutritive materials. The circulatory apparatus delivers this nourishing blood throughout the body, maintaining bones, joints, and muscles. Bones provide a framework without which the muscles could not operate, while joints supply the flexibility needed for movement. The brain envisions the movements that are to be made, and the spinal nervous system executes them. The vegetative nervous system, helped by the endocrine system, maintains the harmony of the viscera on which the motor muscles depend. In short, the entire body, except for the reproductive apparatus, converges on action. “The human machine,” a physician writes, “seems indeed to be made for action.”

The human body is made for action.

Work is the staple of human life. The point is not simply that all but a few people must work to survive. Ultimately, the drive to work is psychological rather than economic. Forced to be idle, most people become irritable; forced to retire, they decline. Included here are compulsive housekeepers as well as great scientists, such as Mme. Curie. To such people Hinduism says, You don’t have to retire to a cloister to realize God. You can find God in the world of everyday affairs as readily as anywhere. Throw yourself into your work with everything you have; only do so wisely, in a way that will bring the highest rewards, not just trivia. Learn the secret of work by which every movement can carry you Godward even while other things are being accomplished, like a wristwatch that winds itself as other duties are performed. 

Hinduism says, “You can find God in the world of everyday affairs as readily as anywhere.”

How this is to be done depends on the other components in the worker’s nature. By choosing the path of work, the karma yogi has already shown an inclination toward activity, but there remains the question of whether the supporting disposition is predominantly affective or reflective. The answer to that question determines whether the yogi approaches work intellectually or in the spirit of love. In the language of the four yogas, karma yoga can be practiced in either mode: jnana (knowledge), or bhakti (devoted service).

Karma yoga can be practiced in either mode: jnana (knowledge), or bhakti (devoted service).

As we have seen, the point of life is to transcend the smallness of the finite self. This can be done either by identifying oneself with the transpersonal Absolute that resides at the core of one’s being, or by shifting one’s interest and affection to a personal God who is experienced as distinct from oneself. The first is the way of jnana, the second of bhakti. Work can be a vehicle for self-transcendence in either approach, for according to Hindu doctrine every action performed upon the external world reacts on the doer. If I chop down a tree that blocks my view, each stroke of the ax unsettles the tree; but it leaves its mark on me as well, driving deeper into my being my determination to have my way in the world. Everything I do for my private wellbeing adds another layer to my ego, and in thickening it insulates me more from God. Conversely, every act done without thought for myself diminishes my self-centeredness until finally no barrier remains to separate me from the Divine. 

The point of life is to evolve beyond its current limits. Work without thought of self can be a vehicle for self-transcendence.

The best way for the emotionally inclined to render work selfless is to bring their ardent and affectionate natures into play and work for God’s sake instead of their own. “He who performs actions without attachment, resigning them to God, is untainted by their effects as the lotus leaf by water.” Such a one is as active as before, but works for a different reason, out of dedication. Acts are no longer undertaken for their personal rewards. Not only are they now performed as service to God; they are regarded as prompted by God’s will and enacted by God’s energy as channeled through the devotee. “Thou art the Doer, I the instrument.” Performed in this spirit, actions lighten the ego instead of encumbering it. Each task becomes a sacred ritual, lovingly fulfilled as a living sacrifice to God’s glory. “Whatsoever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give, whatever austerity you practice, O Son of Kunti, do this as an offering to Me. Thus shall you be free from the bondages of actions that bear good and evil results,” says the Bhagavad-Gita. “They have no desire for the fruits of their actions,” echoes the Bhagavata Purana. “These persons would not accept even the state of union with Me; they would always prefer My service.” 

Acts should be undertaken from the viewpoint of evolving beyond the current bounds of self.

A young woman, newly married and in love, works not for herself alone. As she works the thought of her beloved is in the back of her mind, giving meaning and purpose to her labors. So too with a devoted servant. He claims nothing for himself. Regardless of personal cost he does his duty for his master’s satisfaction. Just so is God’s will the joy and satisfaction of the devotee. Surrendering to the Lord of all, he remains untouched by life’s vicissitudes. Such people are not broken by discouragements, for winning is not what motivates them; they want only to be on the right side. They know that if history changes it will not be human beings that change it but its Author—when human hearts are ready. Historical figures lose their center when they become anxious over the outcome of their actions. “Do without attachment the work you have to do. Surrendering all action to Me, freeing yourself from longing and selfishness, fight—unperturbed by grief” (Bhagavad-Gita)

The fruits of action should not be merely in the service of the fixed self.

Once all claims on work have been renounced, including whether it will succeed in its intent, the karma yogi’s actions no longer swell the ego. They leave on the mind no mark that could vector its subsequent responses. In this way the yogi works out the accumulated impressions of previous deeds without acquiring new ones. Whatever one thinks of this karmic way of putting the matter, the psychological truth involved is readily apparent. A person who is completely at the disposal of others barely exists. The Spanish ask wryly: “Would you like to become invisible? Have no thought of yourself for two years and no one will notice you.” 

The self expands as the viewpoint expands.

Work as a path toward God takes a different turn for people whose dispositions are more reflective than emotional. For these too the key is work done unselfishly, but they approach the project differently. Philosophers tend to find the idea of Infinite Being at the center of one’s self more meaningful than the thought of a divine Creator who watches over the world with love. It follows, therefore, that their approach to work should be adapted to the way they see things. 

Whether one is emotional or reflective, the aim is to rise above the self, and evolve it.

The way that leads to enlightenment is work performed in detachment from the empirical self. Specifically, it consists in drawing a line between the finite self that acts, on the one hand, and on the other the eternal Self that observes the action. People usually approach work in terms of its consequences for their empirical selves—the pay or acclaim it will bring. This inflates the ego. It thickens its insulation and thereby its isolation. 

Working with the existing self in mind only tends to peg that self and not expand it.

The alternative is work performed detachedly, almost in dissociation from the empirical self. Identifying with the Eternal, the worker works; but as the deeds are being performed by the empirical self, the True Self has nothing to do with them. “The knower of Truth, being centered in the Self should think, ‘I do nothing at all.’ While seeing, breathing, speaking, letting go, holding, opening and closing the eyes, he observes only senses moving among sense objects.”

In fact, the self is not fixed; only a fixed view of self fixes it.

As the yogi’s identification shifts from her finite to her infinite Self, she will become increasingly indifferent to the consequences that flow from her finite actions. More and more she will recognize the truth of the Gita’s dictum: “To work you have the right, but not to the fruits thereof.” Duty for duty’s sake becomes her watchword.

He who does the task
Dictated by duty,
Caring nothing
For the fruit of the action,
He is a yogi. (Bhagavad-Gita, VI:I)

Hence the story of the yogi who, as he sat meditating on the banks of the Ganges, saw a scorpion fall into the water. He scooped it out, only to have it bite him. Presently, the scorpion fell into the river again. Once more the yogi rescued it, only again to be bitten. The sequence repeated itself twice more, whereupon a bystander asked the yogi, “Why do you keep rescuing that scorpion when its only gratitude is to bite you?” The yogi replied: “It is the nature of scorpions to bite. It is the nature of yogis to help others when they can.” 

Actions that enhance the self are those which bring about increased continuity, consistency and harmony.

Karma yogis will try to do each thing as it comes as if it were the only thing to be done and, having done it, turn to the next duty in similar spirit. Concentrating fully and calmly on each duty as it presents itself, they will resist impatience, excitement, and the vain attempt to do or think of half a dozen things at once. Into the various tasks that fall their lot they will put all the strokes they can, for to do otherwise would be to yield to laziness, which is another form of selfishness. Once they have done this, however, they will dissociate themselves from the act and let the chips fall where they may.

One to me is loss or gain,
One to me is fame or shame,
One to me is pleasure, pain. (Bhagavad-Gita, XII)

Mature individuals do not resent correction, for they identify more with their long-range selves that profit from correction than with the momentary self that is being advised. Similarly, the yogi accepts loss, pain, and shame with equanimity, knowing that these too are teachers. To the degree that yogis repose in the Eternal, they experience calm in the midst of intense activity. Like the center of a rapidly spinning wheel, they seem still—emotionally still—even when they are intensely busy. It is like the stillness of absolute motion.

The focus of the Karma yogi is on perfecting the action and not on any loss, pain or shame.

Though the conceptual frameworks within which philosophical and affectionate natures practice karma yoga are different, it is not difficult to perceive their common pursuit. Both are engaged in a radical reducing diet, designed to starve the finite ego by depriving it of the consequences of action on which it feeds. Neither gives the slightest purchase to that native egoism that the world considers healthy self-regard. The bhakta seeks “self-naughting” by giving heart and will to the Eternal Companion and finding them enriched a thousandfold thereby. The jnani is equally intent on shrinking the ego, being convinced that to the degree that the venture succeeds there will come into view a nucleus of selfhood that differs radically from its surface mask, “a sublime inhabitant and onlooker, transcending the spheres of the former conscious-unconscious system, aloofly unconcerned with the tendencies that formerly supported the individual biography. This anonymous ‘diamond being’ is not at all what we were cherishing as our character and cultivating as our faculties, inclinations, virtues, and ideals; for it transcends every horizon of unclarified consciousness. It was enwrapped within the sheaths of the body and personality; yet the dark, turbid, thick [layers of the surface self] could not disclose its image. Only the translucent essence of [a self in which all private wants have been dispersed] permits it to become visible—as through a glass, or in a quiet pond. And then, the moment it is recognized, its manifestation bestows an immediate knowledge that this is our true identity. The life-monad is remembered and greeted, even though it is distinct from everything in this phenomenal composite of body and psyche, which, under the delusion caused by our usual ignorance and undiscriminating consciousness we had crudely mistaken for the real and lasting essence of our being.”

Ego is essentially a fixation on a self. “Shrinking the ego” means shrinking that fixation. Therefore, you act with the purpose to evolve by aiming at continuity, consistency and harmony of oneness.


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