Karma Yoga or Selfless service is the foundation for sadhana (spiritual practice)

Question: Should Karma Yoga always take priority over pranayama and asanas?

Swamiji: When I was doing my pranayama, suddenly I heard a cry. I did intense pranayama along with meditation. Suddenly, I am disturbed by a desperate cry of: “Help! Help! Help!” [Swamiji then does loud kapalabhati pumping]. Lord, you help them. [Much laughter]. I didn’t hear, it’s not my problem. [Swamiji laughs].

That’s not pranayama. What’s the purpose of pranayama? What’s the purpose of meditation? It doesn’t matter what sadhana you do: asana, pranayama, meditation, japa, etc. What’s the purpose of all of these?…..


“To give you energy so that you can serve. To utilize that energy for appropriate and needful purposes.”

“To attain Yoga.” That’s a better answer.

“To get closer to God.” “To become enlightened.” “To purify the mind so you can attain the goal.” I need a better answer.

“To perform any need that is around.” Who cares about other’s needs, I’m just happy to do pranayama.

“To destroy your ego.” A little better.

“Learning to give.” Yoga is uniting with all. There is no individual self. There is only one Self, one God. I and my Father are One. I am in you. You are in me. I am He. Who said that?

“Jesus.” Yes, Jesus taught  the same Eastern philosophy. Instead of repeating, “I and my Father are One,” we say “Aham Brahmasmi.”

The man calling for help is me, my own Self. So if I just go on with my pranayama, then I am not identifying with that needy person. If you still didn’t understand….

I have got two hands and ten fingers. Which hand do I use more? Left or right? I’m a right-handed person. So which hand do I use more? Right hand, is it not? You know that I love my right hand more than my left hand. Not only that, but my right hand is always angry with the left hand. He says, “You lazy stupid, I do all the work and you’re lazy. You don’t do anything but just a little work.” All the time the right hand is fighting with the left because the left hand is lazy. Now, suddenly the right hand got injured. The left hand was happy. He thought, “Ah, you stupid fellow. You see, you always scolded me. It’s good what’s happened to you.” Is that what the left hand will say? What will the left hand do now that the right hand is injured? It will help to bandage the right hand and then take over all of the right hand’s work. How did this transformation take place? Before he used to be the lazy hand? Now that the right hand is not working, automatically the left hand will perform all of the duties the right hand used to do to help this body. Even though it cannot do so as efficiently as the right hand, it’ll do it—will it not? Or, will it keep quiet like before saying that this is not his job?

“No, because it has to survive.” That’s correct, the left hand’s survival depends on the survival of the whole body. So, in reality, there is no difference between right hand and left hand. Neither hand gets credit afterwards for doing a great job. The right hand does not send a message: “Thank you left hand, at last you are doing a good thing for me.” They do not send get well cards or thank you cards to each other.

So, the purpose of life is to unite ourselves. Prejudices like: “I am different from you, because you’re English and I’m Indian;” or “You’re Catholic and I’m Protestant;” or “You’re a Muslim and I’m a Jew;” or, “You’re white and I’m black” are distinctions existing only in your mind. Until you remove these distinctions there will be no unity. To cultivate this experience of oneness is called Yoga.

So the question is: Which is important? Should Karma Yoga always take priority? So, I’m doing pranayama with the right hand. [Swamiji demonstrates anuloma viloma.] The left hand is burnt. What is the priority now? Do I continue with my pranayama or do I have to take care of the left hand? The priority is pranayama is it not? [Swamiji chuckles.] Can you imagine the right hand saying, “This is my pranayama,” and letting the left hand get burnt? Who’s going to take care of the body? Do you see? So, think in these terms.

Karma Yoga is not just working. Work is worship. Dedicate it to God. This does not mean that you must work all the time. A bulldozer also works. A bulldozer does more work in less time without expecting anything in return. It’s a good Karma Yogi, is it not? Yes, what does a bulldozer get for its work? Oil and lubrication and some gas—that’s all. It will not get liberation. So with a donkey, a donkey serves. A washerman in India carries the dirty clothes to wash in the river on the donkey’s back in the morning and carries them back home in the evening. The donkey gets what? [Audience] “Food.” He will get just a carrot and possibly a few cashews once in a year. Otherwise, just hay and oats are possible. Or, if we don’t have hay and oats, he must go and eat by himself wherever he can find grass. Even after eating grass from the roadside, he still serves his master. So the donkey will be getting liberation, will he not?

Karma Yoga is not simply action. It is removing the idea of agency, the thought, “I am the doer.” That must go. You are not the doer. We are not the doer. Within all action, there is infinite power, God’s power working. Can you see? That power makes this body move. Karma Yoga removes the egoism, “I am the doer.” Someone just called, “Help, help, help.” So who is calling? God is calling to test you.

YOGALife magazine, Fall 2002

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