Viswanatha Swami

Activity, Help Not Hindrance

THE earnest aspirant is endowed with onepointedness of mind. But others, whose minds are restless on account of their attachment to the outer world, are asked to practise certain simple spiritual disciplines in order to acquire the concentration of mind which is an indispensable step towards ultimate spiritual attainment.

The urge to be active is strong in man; it is extremely difficult to renounce action altogether and dedicate oneself entirely to spiritual sadhana, whatever be the mode of sadhana. Thus, of all the paths available for an aspirant, Karma Marga is the most suited to the modern age. By Karma Marga we do not mean the rituals of the orthodox or social service as generally understood nowadays. By Karma Marga we mean the performance of one’s svadharma as determined by one’s environment and circumstances. Since action is inescapable, the choice left for one is to follow one’s svadharma without undue attachment to the results.

What is this Karma Marga pursued merely as doing one’s svadharma? It is simply working in an
egoless spirit without identifying oneself with the doer. But such egolessness is impossible for the man of the world; he always identifies himself with the doer. Karma Marga then is the process of inner development which enables one to be active in the world and yet remain unattached to the credit or the results of the work. The sadhana consists in cultivating the attitude that it is not oneself that acts but a Power within. “ Doership pertains to the individuality; but you are not a separate individual and so you are not the doer. “Man is moved by some mysterious power but he thinks he moves himself,” says Sri Bhagavan. The same idea is conveyed in the Bhagavad Gita (XVIII, 61): “Mounted as on a machine in the heart of every being dwells the Lord whirling every being by His mysterious power.”

The urge for action is strong in most men; action is their svabhava; it is impossible for them to renounce all activity. But the distinguishing characteristic of the karma yogi is that throughout his activity he feels intuitively that he is not the doer, but that the higher power works through him. He is thus merely an instrument of the higher power working for the welfare of all. His work, therefore, is really worship. He asks nothing for himself, seeks nothing, but yet is active. 

He realizes that he is only an actor playing his role in the drama of life, the Lila of the Supreme. He does not forget his real Being nor does he overplay his role to win fame or personal success. There is no room for desires in him because of his non-identification with a petty individuality. Such a detached life frees him from the prison of ignorance, though he may be active like others.

Is action, without expectation of results, itself enough? Detached action (nishkama karma) is the means to achieve inner purity and therefore one has to strive further in the quest for perfection. The question still persists: who is engaged in such nishkama karma? As long as there is a doer there is the need for the experience of pure non-dual Awareness. Hence the karma yogi too has to tread the path of knowledge ultimately. But Selfenquiry comes naturally to him. The perfect karma yogi is spontaneously drawn to the path of jnana (knowledge).

The apparently contradictory paths of karma and jnana become complementary and inseparable from each other. The purity of mind brought about by selfless action points the way to jnana.

The identification of one’s true Being with the bodybound ego is the root cause of all selfishness and suffering. Such wrong identification ends only with the dawning of wisdom through the enquiry: ‘Who is bound?’, ‘Who am I?’. When, through uninterrupted experience of Being, the wrong notion of bondage (and liberation therefrom) is dispelled, the radiance of Pure Awareness alone remains. Sri Bhagavan has clarified for us the path of Self-enquiry starting from selfless action and culminating in the bliss of Pure Awareness. 

Inner search for jnana together with such disinterested karma is the most practical way for most of us under the present modern conditions. Leading such a life is fully approved by Sri Bhagavan when he says: “Leave your outward life to prarabdha and make intense effort within for illumination.” He has taught us that, while pursuing the path of Self-enquiry, we can carry on our occupation in life, without the least idea of ‘I am doing this’. The idea ‘I am the body’ is the only ignorance and bondage. Performing our work with detachment and enquiring ‘Who Am I?’ at the same time is the safest course for release from bondage. To do one’s work impersonally and to enquire intensely within ‘Who am I?’ is thus the essence of the teaching of all great Masters.

Bhagavan sums this up aptly: “A man need not give up his worldly duties; what he should give up is desiring things for himself.” The ideal to be aimed at, therefore, is a life of selfless activity accompanied by uninterrupted awareness. The mind that operates without attachment to its own past or future can efficiently attend to any kind of work in a truly scientific manner. Such a mind is well protected from all ignorance and distraction as it is free from petty, personal desire.

It should be remembered that Sri Bhagavan’s method is not a mere intellectual exercise, but a heuristic and holistic sadhana for self-integration and self-transcendence in which there can be no conflict between awareness and action. The only freedom we enjoy and the only obligation enjoined on us is to turn the searchlight inward and learn to look within. Having once set out on this quest of self-improvement through Self-enquiry, one can no more miss one’s way than a living plant firmly rooted in good soil in the open air can lose its rapport with sunlight. One’s very means of livelihood, the actions that one is called upon to perform, duty to family and role in society, will undergo the requisite change, either through one’s volition or by sheer force of circumstance. 

All things work together for good to them that love God, i.e., for those who have turned towards the Self. For turning to the universal Self is ceasing to be selfish, narrow, and personal. The more impersonal the worker, the more scientific and more efficient the work. If disinterestedness is an asset, surrender to the Lord, heightened awareness and empathy with one’s fellow workers, add a new dimension to one’s human relations. The spiritual aspirant who is honest and heroic can, therefore, use even worldly work as a means of selfpurification. This may even be easier than it is for an inmate of an ashram who fails to maintain the right attitude to activity, which can be a hindrance in the spiritual path.

There is a lurking fear in some people that their sadhana will be adversely affected by engaging in work or service. Even granting that sadhana becomes less intense if combined with work, can one honestly assert that one is engaged in sadhana all the time? Unfortunately the truth is far from this. People who are not prepared to be active in constructive work mostly indulge in casual or loose talk, controversial discussion or even outright gossip. Their own notions of piety also drive them to undertake minor or major jobs for others. The results of such undertakings of individual responsibility are unpredictable. Thus the problem comes through the back door and has to be faced. It is far better and safer to do allotted tasks than indulge in erratic activity. Rare is the sadhaka who can carry on sadhana on a whole time basis. And it is highly unlikely that such a person will refuse to do service when called upon to do so.

The human tendency that drives one to activity cannot be wished out of existence. This tendency can be sublimated by accepting work or service as a vital and recognized aspect of spiritual practice.

Work, particularly systematic work, has rich rewards. In the higher, spiritual sense, gradual purification results. Work in an impersonal and universal cause helps the erosion of the ego. The loss of individuality is easier here than in mundane activity where personal motives have wider and stronger play. The two types of activity are different. Work in the world without is a sadhana for the athletic spirit. Work in an ashram demands less of courage than humility.

Spiritual alertness and physical briskness go together. Spiritual laziness can lead to physical laziness and vice versa. Spiritually evolved persons prove the point conclusively. Sri Bhagavan was always an enthusiastic participant in the Ashram chores. He was the first to get up (from his apparent sleep) and attend to kitchen duties, like cutting vegetables. He did this for many years. He had done on numerous occasions jobs like brick laying and book binding. There was no task which he deemed beneath him. Apart from this personal example there was also his unmistakable admiration for those who worked hard for the Ashram. His own Ashram on the Hill he named Skandashram, because one Kandaswami cleared the ground and prepared the site for it single handedly. For the dignity of useful labor there could be no higher testimony than the example of Sri Bhagavan.

This does not mean that ashrams should be converted into workhouses and their activities expanded in a mechanical manner. But one should not attempt to escape work that needs to be done; one should do one’s share of it willingly. The kind and quantum of work done does not matter as much as the willingness and zeal one puts into it.

It should never be forgotten that awareness is our true Being and that action is only a ripple, a movement, a shadow in the ocean of awareness. We should not be in too great a hurry to become agents, we should for the most part be content to be patient. 

As Wordsworth says: 
Action is transitory, a step, a blow, The motion of a muscle, this way or that, ’Tis done, and in the after vacancy We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed. Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark And shares the nature of infinity.

Whatever action we do, and none of us can altogether escape action, whether in the world or in an ashram, should be surrendered to the Lord, should not boost the ego and should thus help inner purification.

In the words of Herbert:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws Makes that and the action fine. 
It is in this spirit that Appar, the saint who was ever busy tidying up our temples and thei environs, sang of the covenant between him and Siva It is His duty to sustain even this slave. My duty is Only to serve and be content.

— The Mountain Path, Vol. 13. No. 3