Karma-yoga – The Hindu take on holy action

Hinduism has several forms of yoga. The yoga most of us are familiar with, where one breathes and does bodily postures, is properly called hatha-yoga.

Hatha-yoga at the beach

Yoga simply means ‘uniting with God’ or ‘merging the personal will with God’s will’ and there are different ways of achieving this.

The Sanskrit noun योग yoga is derived from the sanskrit root yuj (युज्) “to attach, join, harness, yoke”. The word yoga is cognate with English “yoke“.¹

Karma-yoga is the path of action. But this is not just any action. This kind of action is regarded as a sacred duty (Skt. = dharma).

Those following the path of karma-yoga strive to mentally focus on and be directed by God while engaged in worldly activities.

This ideal is not without controversy beyond the confines of Hindu orthodoxy and, indeed, raises some important ethical questions. For instance, Arjuna‘s killing in the Bhagavad Gita is usually taken as an instance of karma-yoga. Indeed, killing can be a holy duty in Hinduism.

Why did Arjuna pick up arms to kill his elder brother in the war of Mahabharata?

I find this ideal quite different from the non-violent ideal outlined in the New Testament where Jesus says even thinking about killing is a sin.

Elsewhere I have questioned the alleged purity of the Hindu take on ‘sacred duty,’ as have many other scholars and especially feminists.

In essence, the mind is said to be fixed on God while correct action is performed without care for the personal “fruit” of those actions. However, the notion that one’s actions may be entirely untainted by personal biases and desires seems questionable.²

Traditionally associated with the Vaisya caste, today a businessperson, banker or dancer could be a follower of karma-yoga. In fact, anyone performing an alleged sacred duty involving some kind of action is doing karma-yoga.

Again, some say these ‘sacred duties’ are too often reflections of a sexist and oppressive caste system and instead of being directed by God, are more influenced by chauvinism and a desire to maintain the status quo.

More than five years after the Delhi gang-rape, India is still no country for women

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga#Etymology

² See Dharma.

Related » Yoga

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