Karma Yoga: Spirituality is NOT Social Service

Srila Prabhupada on Karma Yoga from Bhagwad Gita

This seems to be a common theme in a lot of my disgruntled conversations with people. Either they have this zeal to help and improve the world, which is fine, BUT they channel it with a complete and utter disregard for spiritual & religious traditions. Because mistakenly they think that social service is a better form of spirituality than the rituals, fasting and other traditional sadhana. Which means that you can easily uproot thousands of year old tradition because ‘oh but this actually helps someone’

Or there are people who are not traditional spiritual seekers. I say ‘traditional’ because everyone is a spiritual seeker in some way, for example a mountaineer by being with the mountains and in the wild may be a deeply spiritual person. But he or she may just never identify with traditional spirituality. So some of these people who are not traditional seekers think that spirituality is about ‘doing good’ or morality. Not realising that the time they are truly spiritual is when they are with the mountains. This is a consequence of overall ignorance of what Spirituality means.

Anyway, I am not addressing them with this blog post. They may read this blog and gain some insight, their choice. I am writing mostly for those who are seekers and keep coming across these kind of comments and arguments from people. I usually don’t care to get into ‘intellectual debate’ because they can very easily become ego pandering and very far from reality.

So, just a few days back I found this passage by Ramana Maharishi and I wanted to highlight it in the above context. It is of course a powerful passage in its own right without the above context too.

An examination of the ephemeral nature of external phenomena leads to Vairagya. Hence enquiry (vichara) is the first and foremost steps to be taken. When vichara continues automatically, it results in a contempt for wealth, fame, ease, pleasure, etc. The ‘I’ thought becomes clearer for inspection. The source of ‘I’ is the Heart – the final goal. If, however, the aspirant is not temperamentally suited to Vichara Marga he must develop Bhakti to an ideal – may be God, Guru, humanity in general, ethical laws, or even the idea of beauty. When one of these takes possession of the individual, other attachments grow weaker i.e. vairagya develops. Attachment for the ideal simultaneously grows and finally holds the field. Thus ekagrata grows simultaneously and imperceptibly – with or without visions and direct aids.


In the absence of enquiry and devotion, the natural sedative pranayama (breath regulation) may be tried. This is known as Yoga Marga. If life is imperilled the whole interest centres round the one point, the saving of life. If the breath is held, the mind cannot afford to (and does not) jump at its pets – external objects. Thus, there is rest for the mind so long as the breath is held. All attention being turned on breath or its regulation, other interests are lost. Again, passions are attended with irregular breathing whereas calm and happiness are attended with slow and regular breathing. Paroxysm of joy is in fact as painful as one of pain, and both are accompanied by ruffled breaths. Real peace is happiness. Pleasures do not form happiness. This mind improves by practice and becomes finer just as the razor’s edge is sharpened by stropping. The mind is then better able to tackle internal or external problems. If an aspirant be unsuited temperamentally for the first two methods and circumstantially (on account of age) for the third method, he must try the Karma Marga (doing good deeds, for example social service). His nobler instincts become more evident and he derives impersonal pleasure. His smaller self is less assertive and has a chance of expanding its good side. The man becomes duly equipped for one of the three aforesaid paths. His intuition may also develop directly by this single method.

This passage was part of a QnA you can view the picture of this dialogue here. It is from the book Talks by Sri Ramana Maharishi by Mungala Venkataramaiah.

In the current context of this blog post, clearly Ramana Maharishi states Karma Yoga only the 4th path of choice, which can make the person suitable for one of the 3 paths which I assume are commonly known as – Jnana, Bhakti and Kriya.

What he has spoken correlates with many other sources. In general Bhakti is considered more viable than Jnana marga (hence in Kali yuga the Bhakti marg is said to be more viable to common man, but not so much the other one). Yoga marga, quite logically we can understand is accessible to anyone and everyone starting from simple breath control practices and so would be the lightest of them all.

I always thought of Karma Marga as the 4th path. But here Ramana states that it helps in making the person ready for one of the other 3 paths. This is valuable to note, so it is not by itself a complete path but it helps.

The Value of Karma Yoga for a Seeker

Today I was listening to Sadhguru’s Spot On discourse and he spoke about Karma Sanyaas. The typical quality that Sadhguru has always propounded is ‘doing what is needed’. Volunteer efforts at Isha is supposed to be just this. Doing what is needed. No personal agenda or selfish aims or ego fancies. Immersing ourselves in work and doing the best that we can for everyone in all situations. And as we are looking to do the best for everyone inevitably some aspect of social good comes in. However, this is a fairly different from the typical ‘social service’. Moreover, the social service aspect is a much smaller in the seekers spiritual path.

Any spiritual seeker, will club it with the some pranayam/yoga kriya, bhakti activities like chanting / pooja and also enquiry into the nature of life. As this would be natural as he is on the spiritual path. And so it is never just Karma Yoga, but karma yoga can be a part of the spiritual path.

Immersing oneself in work without any selfish aims should ideally put the personal ego and personality to the background and the work/others become more important. This way the personality may dissolve and one would advance spiritually. In fact I find that a lot of traditional housewives in India are naturally very spiritual. Because they are raised to always put family needs first. But since it is not a conscious process, they often get mired in superficial social activities and never really delve into spiritual understanding and awareness. But their selflessness is often evident.

Sadhguru in today’s discourse highlighted that it is very easy to fall prey to fancy ideas of self worth or other mental fantasies in karma yoga. Where the person may get lost because they are doing ‘such great work’. This could be seen clearly in imperial times – the missionary zeal which wiped out beautiful, ethnic cultures in the name of doing good.

So if doing ‘social service’ then the end may be considered more important, even if the person develops a lot of fancy ideas of self worth. But in Karma Yoga the main aim is not social good, but the rubbing away of the persons ego and individual personality. Allowing him/her to easily realise their divine nature. So there is an integral difference.

Work as Karma Yoga

My working culture was established as a volunteer in Isha Foundation. Since then once I left the ashram and came out in society – I always work as karma yoga. But this is not ‘social work’. It is my professional work as a digital marketeer. The spiritual aspect behind everything I do helps with stronger ethics and commitment towards my work. It also helps me keep going. Sometimes I may not get paid by the crappy clients or there is recession so work is hard to come by, but because this is part of my spiritual sadhana – I just keep going.

And I very consciously have always tried to be a very responsible digital marketeer – not putting out misleading messages or promoting social wrongs (like women objectification). However, this is not ‘social service’.

And if I had a choice between doing a ‘social good’ project with too much work and messy situation versus a quiet profitable project which I can do without much hassle – I may very well choose the second option. Because the second project allows me to focus on my yoga and other spiritual sadhana. Though it depends, if I really feel strongly for the first cause then maybe I may take it up.

To work without attachment is to work without the expectation of reward or fear of any punishment in this world or the next. Work so done is a means to the end, and God is the end. ~Ramakrishna

Even the Bhagvad Gita is all about this selfless action, as far as I know. I haven’t studied it deeply but the whole idea of Dharma is to inculcate a sense of doing actions with out a selfish motive or pandering your ego. Doing what is needed, as a duty or as a responsibility. So as to work in a way that does not lead to more karma, but rather it diminishes your ego fancies, to make you more balanced and sensible individual.

Social Good Can be Detrimental to Spiritual Path

I am aware of many people who I consider hard core spiritual seekers, who just stay away from ‘social good’ because it can cause many problems. And they have first hand experience. There are often too many legalities involved. Moreover, the society is such that even if you are looking to help people out, there are other people who will come and throw shoes at you – just cause you may have made some small mistake. Or because they perceive some injustice done by you. So ‘social good’ can often be detrimental to the spiritual path.

I have also seen that social activists often become very hard-hearted and disturbed individuals. Very prone to hate speech and extreme negativity towards certain aspects of society. It takes a lot of compassion to be able to probe the underbellies of human society and yet maintain a balanced state of mind.

So a spiritual seeker should seriously consider how to include karma yoga in their life.

‘Social Good’ in Religions

I also happened to speak to my Jain aunty about this, and she said that the religion forbids any activity that is not for religious purpose. So they do charity work but it is done again a little differently from social service. Free food – very common in Jain and Hindu temples is done with the purpose of offering food to fellow devotees who have come to the temple.

Sikh Gurudwara hospitality which is world famous I suspect is also from a similar origin. The free food offered in Sikh gurudwaras for all visitors is called ‘Langaar’. Langaar literally means ‘prasad’ in their language. So even though the actual activity of offering free food in temples is just like opening a kitchen for homeless people – it is fairly different from the purpose being to propagate the religion and be of service to fellow devotees. Depending on the path, ‘devotees’ could mean people of that particular religion or any fellow human.

Sometimes social good is necessary for spiritual organisations. For example, truly exploring spirituality and doing sadhana is best when the family situation is taken care – this means your children are well placed somewhere, and you are affluent enough. Even though spiritual sadhana involves fasting – if people can’t buy necessary food for themselves, there is not much scope for sadhana. In fact they may find evolving spiritually difficult on a hungry belly. So this way, social service becomes part of many spiritual organisation work. Though it is not something they ‘want’ to be doing, but they need to do because the times demand it.

 From Compassion

A lot of great devotees and yogis have done great acts of karma yoga but I think it is consequential.

Increased awareness and intelligence of a yogi leads to compassion. Understanding that a society where everyone is happy is the best place to be. Also there is no self interest or desire that would lead to any reason to hurt anyone. A person would only hurt someone if there is some gain there – but when there is no gain, then why hurt? Moreover, being of a compassionate and positive personality they may also help others. But it would depend on their sadhana.

On the other hand once they attain enlightenment it is clearly seen that they care about all humanity. And all their effort is in spreading spiritual knowledge and also uplifting society in general (so they can focus towards spiritual practice). This is with the understanding that spiritual enlightenment is the only TRUE end goal.

Gautama repeatedly said, “I don’t want to go to heaven. I want to go to hell.” People thought he was crazy, but that’s how a liberated man will be. “What’s my problem with hell? Anyway they can’t make me suffer, so I will go to hell.” ~@sadhgurujv

Spirituality – the Greatest ‘Social Good’

And so from the spiritual perspective, the greatest social good is spiritual awareness.

Many social activists will attest that while a lot of social good can happen on the ground, it is very hard to truly make a big change in the situation because of vested interests. The reason there is so much poverty in the world is because A LOT of people gain from it. They gain power, wealth and whatever else. And so these people become a wedge that stops a natural improvement in the situation of the poor.

While social work will help alleviate the situation of the poor to certain extent, it doesn’t solve the problem – that is of the people on top working to keep the status quo so they don’t lose their power. These people on top actually include rogue rich people but also rogue poor people who collude with the criminals to get a little better situation than their fellow poor.

So what is to be done? Spiritual awareness is the best way. Because true spirituality will make people look inward and then their greedy interests will naturally fall. So with this understanding all religions and spiritual organizations are looking to spread their influence. Even the social good they do is not with any other intention. A lot of people find this a bad thing and that it makes these places like any other commercial activity. Especially because of the money involved. But this is not the case. Spiritual awareness is the biggest gift to anyone. And a spiritually aware and adept person would be in the best state to improve his/her situation.

But as is the state of human evolution – the same rogues in society also infiltrate the spiritual and religious systems and even they get corrupted.

But gratefully, I have managed to come across amazing spiritual spaces. Bharat is amazing for this. Many of the ancient temples are absolute spiritual treasure troves.

And After Social Good

Once people become self sufficient then they will start looking beyond this routine human life. And that is where spirituality becomes the answer. It is not odd that the western societies after a level of well being are turning to vegetarianism, yoga and spirituality. Because it is the natural way that a human, after his basic needs of hunger, shelter and so on is fulfilled – he / she will look for more, and spirituality is the answer.

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