“Yoga is skill in action,” says Bhagavat Gita, the well-known Indian Scripture. But this famous verse is mostly misinterpreted to mean professional dexterity in action. If this is the real meaning of the verse then everyone who is professionally skillful, from the cobbler to the criminal, has to be considered as yogis. This article presents a deeper perspective based on Sri Aurobindo insights on the meaning of this verse of Gita.
The Triune Discipline
Shoddy work or unskillful and inefficient action which wastes energy and resources is not part of karma yoga. In fact in an integral-spiritual perspective, professional skill an efficiency which conserves energy and resources can be a part of karma yoga. But, what Gita describes as skill in action is something very different from professional dexterity in action.
In this spiritual perspective of the Gita, skill in action means the ability to act without any inner bondage or in other words to remain inwardly free in the midst of action. This implies, at present we are not free in action. There are three major knots of bondage in our actions which we have to eliminate or conquer. The first bondage is the unequal and disturbing reactions of our mind, heart and senses to the dualities of life like pleasure and pain. We cannot establish calm, which is the sign of freedom, in our faculties of action without a complete mastery over this disturbing reaction. The remedy to this bondage lies in Equanimity. The second bondage is desire, which in work and action takes the form of craving for the fruits or rewards for our action. The remedy to this bondage lies in renunciation of the fruits of action. The third bondage is the primal ego of the worker which in action takes the form of the sense of doership. The remedy to this bondage lies in renunciation of the feeling or sense, “I am the doer.” When all these three bondages are eliminated or conquered by internalizing the corresponding remedial attitudes, the individual worker is totally free in action and his actions leave no trace of karma. This ability to act with a complete inner freedom without forging karma is the essence of yogic skill in action.
The Way of Equanimity
The first limb of the triune discipline for achieving yogic skill in action is Equanimity. The essence of Equanimity is to remain calm and undisturbed by all unequal disturbances, dualities or reactions of our mind and heart within and also the shocks or events of the outer life like for example pleasure and pain, success and failure.
According to Sri Aurobindo, this poise of equanimity can be achieved by three attitudes or disciplines. The first one is Heroic Endurance, which means to endure all the unequal disturbances and shocks of the inner being or outer life with a firm and conscious endurance and an unflinching and unyielding courage. The second attitude is Sagely Indifference which means to look upon the entire disturbance with an aloof and detached indifference of the sage, as something which happens in some immature and ignorant lower parts of our nature. The third attitude is that of Saintly Resignation or Acceptance, which means to accept whatever happens to us as the expression of divine Will with a total faith and trust in the divine Love and Wisdom that whatever the divine has ordained for us is for our ultimate good.
When anyone of these attitudes or a combination of them are put into practice with patience and persistence, it leads to a bifurcation in the being. A deeper, inner or higher part in us gets detached from the surface self. The disturbances may still go on in our surface being but something within remains calm and undisturbed by the surface turmoil. Slowly and gradually, this calm and equanimity can be imposed on the lower parts by bringing down the light and peace and calm of the higher to the lower levels of our being.
The Inner Renunciation of Reward
The second important part of skill in karma-yoga is renunciation of the fruits of action or in other words desire for the rewards. The craving for reward may appear in different disguises in different parts of our self. In the gross physical it is the desire for material benefits. In the vital parts it is the ambition for name and power, wealth, name and fame, prestige and position. In the mental plane it is the passion for our mental, moral, intellectual and aesthetic ideals. This passion may manifest itself as the desire for self-display and for appreciation from the world of our real or imagined talents. In the spiritual level this desire for reward appears as impatient craving for personal spiritual progress in proportion to our austerities or an eager expectation of some spiritual rewards for our good thought or for an immediate response from the divine for our acts of love, devotion or surrender. Even when these desire for personal rewards are detected and rejected from the conscious mind, they may still remain hidden in the subconscious and may try to possess the conscious will in our unguarded moments or may seek consent of the will with some very clever rational and spiritual justification. Even after renouncing entirely the personal element in this reward-seeking impulse, there may still remain some remnants of it in an impersonal form in the form of a desire to see our mental or spiritual ideals accepted and established in the world. This desire for reward in whatever subtle form it may exist, is one of the major source of imperfection in action, because it creates a needless anxiety for the future and prevents the worker from acting in the ever-new creative present.
The Renunciation of the Ego in Action
The third discipline is renunciation of the sense of doership which says, “I am the Doer or Worker.” This includes the sense of possession or pride over talents or capacities of the individual instruments which says, “All these talents and capacities are mine.” Our individual action is only a limited, partial and quite often distorted expression of the universal and indivisible action of the Divine Power. Our personal sense of doership is due to the self-appropriating action of the ego-principle which identifies with the individual movement and action of the universal energy and says, “I am the doer of this or that action.” Similarly, whatever capacities or talents we possess are partial and diminished expression of the qualities or attributes of the divine Power. So, to be free in action, this personal sense of doership or possession has to be replaced by a constant sense of the divine Power as the source of all our work, action, talents or capacities.
There is a danger in this attitude if there is no sufficient purity and sincerity in the consciousness of the instrument; it may lead to self-deceptions like for example indulging in our personal fancies and desires and justifying it in the name of God. So even while taking the attitude, “I am not the doer, but only an instrument of the ultimate divine Worker” there must be simultaneously a sincere and persistent effort towards purification of the instrument of every form of ego and desire through an inner discipline of constant and unceasing self-observation and a firm, persistent and sincere rejection of all that is contrary to our higher nature and the divine ideal.