Selfless Action: Karma Yoga in The Bhagavad Gita

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Bhagavad Gita" by Eknath Easwaran. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is selfless action? How does it relate to the lessons taught in The Bhagavad Gita?

Selfless action in The Bhagavad Gita is the act of following through on your dharma, or destiny, selflessly. It’s an important part of finding the path to god.

Read more about selfless action in The Bhagavad Gita.

Selfless Action

Arjuna asks Krishna—in light of what he’s learned about yoga, meditation, and inward thought—why he needs to fight this war. He argues that if wisdom, not action, is the key to living well and breaking the cycle of reincarnation, then Krishna telling him to fight doesn’t seem to make sense, since fighting would be taking action. 

Krishna answers that there are two righteous paths through life: jnana yoga, the way of meditation and contemplation; and karma yoga, the way of selfless action. Of the two, karma yoga is better and more practical. Nobody can go through life without taking some actions, and selfish actions cause harm to others and to the world. Therefore, the best way to act is with no sense of self: Do what’s right and devote all your actions to God and the betterment of the world, with no thought of personal rewards. 

Krishna goes on to say that the duty of selfless service was created at the same time as humanity, and that the two are intertwined. He promises that people who act selflessly will prosper, and all of their desires will be fulfilled. Selfless service comes from Brahman, the ultimate force and truth behind everything that exists, and it pleases the devas, minor deities who look after humanity. To accept the blessings of the devas without offering selfless service in return would make one a thief.  

(Shortform note: Later in the Gita, Krishna reveals that Brahman is also his own truest nature. In spite of that, Brahman is usually spoken of like a non-sentient force, rather than a deity, similar to “the Force” in Star Wars.)

Krishna repeats several times that only people who understand the true Self may act selflessly. Remember what he said about wise people in the previous chapter: They recognize that they are in all things and all things are in them. Understanding the true Self means understanding that truth. Therefore, the wise are able to act with no thought for themselves, because they understand who and what they are. They don’t see themselves as the ones performing actions, they’re merely vessels through which the greater powers of the universe are acting

Selfless Action: Karma Yoga in The Bhagavad Gita

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  • The key principles of the Hindu faith
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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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