The Baghavad Gita tells the story of Arjuna, a young warrior who, on the eve of a great and terrible battle, calls to Lord Shiva for guidance. Shiva explains to him the path to the 'eternal state', which requires the seeker to abandon desires and release herself from attachment (moha): "The [wo]man attains peace, who, abandoning all desires, moves about without longing, without the sense of mine and without egoism." (BG II.71)
Upon hearing this, Arjuna thinks to himself that if realisation is a state of mind, why in that case should he engage in action - in particular, in the battle before him? Why not, indeed, withdraw from the world of the senses (and therefore from desires), renounce action? Shiva explains to Arjuna that the road to enlightenment is twofold, and comprises both knowledge and action, saying (in characteristically cryptic fashion): "Not by the non-performance of actions does [wo]man reach actionlessness, nor by mere renunciation does [s]he attain to perfection. " (BG III.4)
Essentially, Shiva is saying that one cannot reach 'perfection', or self-realisation, simply by renouncing action. Furthermore, even if one doesn't act, the mind is still active, and, as he continues: "verily none can ever remain for even a moment without performing action, for everyone is made to act helplessly by the qualities born of Nature." (BG III.5) We are a part of nature, and action is our inherent nature. Every time we breathe, walk, speak - these are actions and they have consequences on the world around us.
Shiva's point here is that by remaining ignorant and un-mindful of our actions, we are most likely to commit those actions which are based in delusion, as opposed to those that lead to self-realisation and have a positive impact on the world. Shiva goes so far to suggest that this can lead to hypocrisy, in the sense that "repression leads to obsession" - by supressing actions and desires one might encourage the mind to dwell on them! Therefore, in order to do good, the Yogi should engage in positive actions while controlling the senses, and being aware of her intentions.
The key to Karma Yoga is to engage in that action which is right, without being attached to the result of the action or expecting/desiring recognition from that action. Think of the greatness of the anonymous gift - that which is given freely, and without expectation of recompense, or a sense of martyrdom, is truly noble. The Yogi should perform her actions for the sake of the rightness of the actions theselves, or dedicate them to a higher purpose. In return for this latter, Shiva explains, the powers-that-be will bless the giver of these actions, and reward shall come to them from the universe in due time and fashion. This, of course, is what we commonly understand as "karma". To those who do good, good things will happen. But beware - the person who does good for purely selfish reasons does not truly progress.
If we are all revolving around the wheel of birth and re-birth, therefore, the person who remains ignorant, or who acts only on selfish impulses or to seek selfish rewards, wastes their time in the cycle. This person is deluded by egoism, and does not recognize themselves (and all their actions) as a part of Nature. On the other hand, the person who controls their desires and acts without expectation of benefit, will progress towards self-realisation and understand that all actions are a part of the tapestry of natural forces, not badges to be pinned to an individual's belt. In the famous words of Lao Tzu: "free will is fate, fate is free will". The enlightened person, controlling their senses, actions and impulses, sees into their true nature, and therein disentangles nature - human nature - so as to rise above the duality of the world as expressed by opposing forces of love and hate, pleasure and pain, gain and loss, etc. This person, freed from these constraints, can attain a state of peace. But, before one can control one's actions and senses, one must possess self-awareness - therefore the seed of Karma Yoga is planted in self-discovery and meditation.
The fundamental precept of Karma Yoga is that action is superior to non-action - and that every action we do should be done for itself, and not for the glorification of our own ego or to seek a reward. However, Yoga Gypsy might ask herself, how is one to know what is right, and what is not?
The next post will discuss some of the possible guidelines a person could use to inform their actions - always remembering, that when in doubt: "the wise should act without attachment, wishing the welfare of the world!" (BG III.25)