How Do We Practice Karma Yoga?

Path to Siva Commentary, Lesson 59


ray to Lord Ganesha before beginning work. Turn everything you do into selfless service, seva, karma yoga. Work becomes worship. Hold the perspective of Sivanadiyar that you are the devoted servant of God Siva. "Do everything you do as Sivathondu. Give up this 'I' and mine."

Path to Siva, Lesson 59 The Guru Chronicles, Chapter 15

Unedited Transcript:

Today's lesson from Path to Siva is Lesson 59:

"How Do We Practice Karma Yoga?

"Karma yoga is selfless service, or seva. It often takes the form of volunteer work at a temple--helping with the basic needs and events, like polishing the brass lamps, answering the phone, making garlands and preparing for pujas. This humble service helps establish good character. The effort to do good deeds can be extended into other areas as well, such as the workplace and the home, quietly and willingly helping others, without complaint and without expecting thanks. Such service reaps hidden blessings. In its broadest sense, karma yoga is spiritualized action. It is doing each and every task consciously, selflessly, excellently, as an offering to the Divine. Satguru Yogaswami advised devotees, 'Whatever work you have to do, do it well. That in itself is yoga.' Work done in this spirit is a form of worship. Doing our ordinary daily duties becomes a powerful sadhana that contributes to our spiritual progress. This yoga makes us more focused, effective and fulfilled. It eliminates the false separation of secular work from religious practice. Swami Vivekananda counseled, 'When you are doing any work, do not think of anything beyond. Do it as worship, as the highest worship, and devote your whole life to it for the time being.' Here are some keys to successfully turning work into worship: 1) Pray to Lord Ganesha before beginning your work. 2) Act selflessly, detached from the results. Focus on serving, helping, giving. 3) Work hard; overcome lethargy, fatigue, confusion and doubt. 4) Maintain harmony with others. 5) Enjoy the effort; don't feel rushed. 6) Make the work a worthy offering, completing it as perfectly as you can. Then stop, review what you have done and make it even better."

Gurudeva's quote:

"Go out into the world this week and let your light shine through your kind thoughts, but let each thought manifest itself in a physical deed, of doing something for someone else. Lift their burdens just a little bit and, unknowingly perhaps, you may lift something that is burdening your mind. You erase and wipe clean the mirror of your own mind through helping another. We call this karma yoga."

Before we look at the story, the lesson gives two explanations of what karma yoga is. Important to note that. When we say karma yoga, to most people the thought that comes up is selfless service. Seva. That's karma yoga. Go to the temple, help out decorate for the festival. Karma yoga. That is true. But, the lesson also makes the statement saying: "In its broadest sense, karma yoga is spiritualized action." Spiritualized action is much broader than just selfless service. Spiritualized action includes going to school, your profession, going shopping, it includes everything. Action refers to all action. So if we're doing them in a spiritual way, that's also karma yoga. And as the lesson says: If we're good at that then we take away the separation of religious practice and secular practice which is the goal. We want to turn everything we do into karma yoga and the easy phrase for that is: 'Work becomes worship' shall we say. And we can say work is worship. And we do it correctly work becomes worship.

Two examples, work becoming worship. The person whose name here is Ramaswami. So when you hear Ramaswami don't think he's talking about the deity Rama. Ramaswami's the name of the person.

"Yogaswami once spoke to a laborer who was cleaning the lavatory outside his hut. Oh Ramaswami are you doing Siva Puja out there?"

So, even when you clean the lavatory it's supposed to be worship is the point. And what, why is he, why is he saying that to this man? Cause it's his profession, he's doing his task. And, that which is our profession, no matter what it is should be a form of worship.

Second example:

"Yogaswami's words to a young man just starting his career were: 'You are going out to work, you must dress well and look dignified. Everything should be an offering to God. The world is an alter."

Well that's again, it's no different.

So, two words in Tamil. Sivathondar, Sivanadiyar, which literally mean the devoted servant of God Siva and are generally used to, in the context of seva, service. So one of Yogaswami's Natchintinai letters, the third one on this topic, he says: "Nangal Sivanadiyar. Nangal Sivanadiyar. Nangal Sivanadiyar. Nangal Sivanadiyar. Ithu sariyai. Ithu kiriyai. Ithu yogam. Ithu jnanam. Ithu mantiram. Ithu Thantiram. Ithu marunthu."

So he's saying: We are Sivanadiyar, we are Sivanadiyar, we are Sivanadiyar, this is chariya, this is kriya this is yoga, this is jnana, this is mantra, this is tantra, this is the panacea. Panacea is the translation for medicine.

So what does Yogaswami mean? How can Sivanadiyar be all these things? All the practices of Saiva Siddhanta: chariya, kriya, yoga and jnana relate to Sivanadiyar? Well it means it's the key attitude. If we hold this perspective, that we are the devoted servant of God Siva, when we do these practices, then we get the most benefit from them.

Other attitudes aren't as effective shall we say. So it's the right attitude to get the best benefit. And we'll come back to that idea at the end of the story, it's a long story.

This is from Guru Chronicles and it shows the importance Yogaswami gave to performing selfless service:

"'Work, work, work; serve serve serve.' He always had a project going. Something that seemed like more than anyone or any group of people could accomplish. And he demanded it be done to perfection, never allowing them to settle for second-rate performances. If it was a drama for a Hindu festival, he would boldly offer advice about the production. Swami might even act out parts of the pageant like a director, rehearsing scenes, stretching each participant a little beyond what he thought was his capacity. 'You are more than you think you are,' he would chide. Each one discovered a new strength in fulfilling his expectations. A devotee recalls:

"If you were organizing a feeding for a thousand people at Nallur Temple, he made sure you had everything planned well so the event would go smoothly. He wanted to know precisely what curries you planned to serve, and might suggest substitutes or cutting back on the quantity. 'Three curries is enough,' he would direct.

"If you and other devotees were rebuilding a temple that had fallen into disrepair, he would get involved, making sure you rebuilt it properly and had the necessary ceremonies conducted for its reopening. He would even inquire if you had provided, he would even inquire if you had provided an adequate endowment to keep the temple functioning well into the future."

So endowments. You repair a temple you should endow it as well.

Then the last paragraph of this, brings up an important aspect of Sivanadiyar which is: "To truly feel that rather that I am the one who achieved this, that it's God Siva who is making this happen through me and the others involved."

So we'll read the comment here and then comment on that.

"If a devotee had accomplished something and came to Swami for praise, he would strip him down to size quickly. Sometimes he would ignore a devotee's achievement entirely and quickly guide his attention to another project that needed work. Or he would scold, 'So you think you have put on a good feeding? Was it you who put life into the food? Into those who cooked the curries? Who created hunger? Who discovered the way to satisfy it? My child, you must not think you have done anything. It is all the work of the Lord. When you know that, then you will know you have done nothing."

So that's a, reflecting the ideal. And, if you want to see how well you're doing you can ask yourself a question or present it to someone else to see their attitude. And there are devotees, if you try to praise them, they won't let you. You say: "Oh you did a wonderful job on this, it's so well done." And they'll say: "Oh it's all Gurudeva's grace", or "It's all Siva's grace." No, they won't ever accept the praise, they'll deflect it. And they're not doing it just because of the culture; they're doing it because that's the way they actually look at it. So that's the attitude we want. And you know, you can praise yourself, "Oh I did a great job." See how you respond. You really feel that was Siva's grace or Gurudeva's grace. Or you say: Thank you, thank you for praising me. Wonderful test.

And, the last quote here: Excellent summary.

"See everything you see as Siva. Do everything you do as Sivathondu. Give up this 'I' and mine."

Wonderful qoal. Wonderful day.

Photo of  Gurudeva
When we are not harboring negative attachments to anything that happened twenty or thirty years ago, thus creating tensions in our body and confusion in our mind, the subconscious becomes a powerhouse.
—Gurudeva