IN THE BHAGAVAD-GITA (12.8-12) Lord Krsna gives a series of merciful prescriptions for the benefit of people in different circumstances.
The first direction Krsna gives is this: "Just fix your mind upon Me, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and engage all your intelligence in Me. Thus you will live in Me always, with-out a doubt." (Bg. 12.8) This instruction is meant for someone already advanced on the path of bhakti-yoga, someone who has attained the stage of spontaneous attraction to serving Krsna (raganuga).
For someone who has not yet developed spontaneity, the Lord recommends vaidhi-bhakti, or devotional service in practice: "My dear Arjuna, O winner of wealth, if you cannot fix your mind upon Me with-out deviation, then follow the regulative principles of bhakti-yoga. In this way develop a desire to attain Me." (Bg. 12.9). By following this advice, one will become purified and rise to the stage of love of God.
For a person unprepared or unable to practice such principles of bhakti-yoga, Lord Krsna advocates karma-yoga, the sacrifice of one's work: "If you cannot practice the regulations of bhakti-yoga, then just try to work for Me, because by working for Me you will come to the perfect stage." (Bg. 12.10) In the purport to that verse, Srila Prabhupada suggests that we be "sympathetic to the propagation of Krsna consciousness." He writes,
There are many devotees who are engaged in the propagation of Krsna consciousness, and they require help. So, even if one cannot directly practice the regulative principles of bhakti-yoga, he can try to help such work. Every endeavor requires land, capital, organization, and labor. Just as in business one requires a place to stay, some capital to use, some labor, and some organization to expand, so the same is required in the service of Krsna. The only difference is that in materialism one works for sense gratification. The same work, however, can be performed for the satisfaction of Krsna, and that is spiritual activity. If one has sufficient money, he can help in building an office or temple for propagating Krsna consciousness. Or he can help with publications. There are various fields of activity, and one should be interested in such activities. If one cannot sacrifice the results of his activities, the same person can still sacrifice some percentage to propagate Krsna consciousness. This voluntary service to the cause of Krsna consciousness will help one to rise to a higher state of love of God, whereupon one becomes perfect.
Karma-yoga is therefore a transitional stage between the material and spiritual. Srila Prabhupada explained this point in a 1974 lecture in Mayapur, West Bengal:
Yoga means connection with Krsna. Bhakti-yoga means a direct connection, but there is also karma-yoga, which is yoga, but not pure yoga. Karma-yoga means:
yat karosi yad asnasi
yaj juhosi dadasi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya
tat kurusva mad-arpanam
Whatever you are doing already can be offered to Krsna. In the beginning you may not be able to take to pure bhakti-yoga. Therefore karma-yoga is recommended. Never mind what you are doing. In that position you can become a devotee. People are interested in different types of work. Therefore Krsna says, yat karosi never mind what you are doing. And how does it become karma-yoga? Tat kurusva mad-arpanam: "You give it to Me."
Suppose you are doing business, earning much money. Krsna says that as you are attached to business you may go on with it but you should give the money to Him. That is karma-yoga. Not that you earn money and spend it for your sense gratification. That is not karma-yoga. The rascals say that is karma-yoga.* No, here is karma-yoga: It doesn't matter what one does, but the ultimate result should be given to Krsna. In another place Krsna says, karmany evadhikaras te ma phalesu kadacana: You can go on with your business, but don't expect the fruit of your business. He is indirectly saying that the fruits should be given to Him ma phalesu kadacana.
Suppose you grow a nice mango tree. There will be fruit, but according to Bhagavad-gita you should not take this fruit. One might think, "Oh, I've nourished such a nice mango tree for so many years, and now the fruit is there." But Krsna says, ma phalesu kadacana: "Don't take the fruit."
Then who will take it? It will fall down on the ground and rot? "No," Lord Krsna replies. "Don't you take it, but give it to Me." That is karma-yoga.
It is not that the fruit should be wasted. Karmis are very much attached to material activities, and for them karma-yoga is recommended. Somehow or other be connected to Krsna. It is a very great achievement to work hard, earn money, and give it to Krsna. That's a great sacrifice. So by karma-yoga you can also satisfy Krsna. That is everyone's main business.
* Such people work simply for themselves and their families and then audaciously claim that they are karma-yogis. Here Srila Prabhupada strongly rebukes such dishonest people.
"Not by Works Alone"
As a karma-yogi, one does not simply work for Krsna without advancing in one's understanding and love for Him. To work hard for someone requires some affection and love. Without this affection, or bhakti, one cannot perform any type of yoga. Therefore karma (work) plus bhakti equals karma-yoga. As one practices karma-yoga one should try to add the principles of bhakti-yoga to one's life as much as one can practically maintain them. Gradually one will rise to the platform of unconditional, unmotivated, uninterrupted service to Krsna, the exclusive feature of pure bhakti-yoga, the topmost rung of the "yoga ladder." If we seriously apply the practical methods of Krsna consciousness, taking advantage of the help offered to us by the merciful Lord Krsna, any one of us can attain pure devotional service to Krsna in our lifetime.
A much quoted Christian maxim states, "It is not by works alone that one can enter the kingdom of God." Karma-yoga is not simply "works" but work as an offering to God. If we try to serve Lord Krsna, the Supreme Person, through our daily work, He reciprocates by extending His grace and gradually frees us from fruitive desire and the tendency to perform ordinary karmic activity. In this regard the old adage "God helps those who help themselves" is certainly true.
In the Bhagavad-gita the Lord explains that even though the material body is not our real self, it can and should be used in acts designed to please Him. Spiritual life of any type should never produce idleness, where-in one expects God's grace while one languishes in inactivity or engages in selfish, fruitive pursuits.
Krsna never told Arjuna to sit idly on the chariot, even though, by the Lord's all-powerful desire, Arjuna's opponents were already defeated. Rather, Arjuna was to work hard as an instrument for Krsna and so take the credit. If we try hard, Krsna will unfailingly help us, but He first wants to see how painstaking we are in our efforts.
If you are at the stage where karma-yoga is the place for you to begin your progress toward pure bhakti, then carefully read chapters three and five and chapter eighteen, texts 42-47, of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is.That will help you practically perceive how to be Krsna conscious at every moment of your daily life.
Rohininandana Dasa lives in southern England with his wife and their three children. Write to him in care of Back to Godhead.