Work incessantly, work as if you were a stranger in this land, a sojourner. This world is not our habitation, but only a stage through which we are passing.


In addition to meaning work, psychologically the word कर्म karma also implies causation. Any word, any action, any thought, that produces an effect is called a karma. Thus the law of karma means the law of causation, of inevitable cause and sequence. Wheresoever there is a cause, there an effect must be produced; this necessity cannot be resisted; and this law of karma, according to our philosophy, is true throughout the whole universe. Whatever we see or feel or do, whatever action there is anywhere in the universe, while being on the one hand the effect of past work, becomes, on the other, a cause in its turn and produces its own effect.

It is necessary, together with this, to consider what is meant by the word law. By law is meant the tendency of a series to repeat itself. When we see one event followed by another, or sometimes happening simultaneously with another, we expect this sequence or coexistence to recur. Our old logicians and philosophers of the Nyaya school call this law by the name of व्याप्ति vyapti. According to them all our ideas of law are due to association. A series of phenomena becomes associated with certain things in our mind in a sort of invariable order; so whatever we perceive at any time is immediately referred to similar facts in the mind. Any one idea or, according to our psychology, any one wave that is produced in the mind-stuff, or चित्त chitta, must always give rise to many similar waves. This is the psychological idea of association, and causation is only an aspect of this grand pervasive principle of association. This pervasiveness of association is what is, in Sanskrit, called व्याप्ति vyapti. In the external world the idea of law is the same as in the internal-the expectation that a particular phenomenon will be followed by another and that the series will repeat itself. Strictly speaking, therefore, law does not exist in nature. It is really an error to say that gravitation exists in the earth or that there is any law existing objectively anywhere in nature. Law is the method, the manner, in which our mind grasps a series of phenomena; it is all in the mind. Certain phenomena, happening one after another, or together, and followed by the conviction of the regularity of their recurrence, thus enabling our minds to grasp the method of the whole series, are explained by what we call law.

The next question for consideration is what we mean by law’s being universal. Our universe is that portion of Existence which is conditioned by what the Sanskrit philosophers call  देश-काल -निमित्त des’a-kala-nimitta, or what is known to European philosophy as space, time, and causation. This universe is only a part of Infinite Existence, thrown into a peculiar mold composed of space, time, and causation. It necessarily follows that law is possible only within this conditioned Universe; beyond it there cannot be any law. When we speak of the universe We mean only that portion of Existence which is limited by our minds-the universe of the senses, which we can see, feel, touch, hear, think of, imagine This alone is under law; but beyond it, Existence cannot be subject to law’ because causation does not extend beyond the world of our minds. Anything, beyond the range of the mind and the senses is not bound by the law of causation, because there is no mental association of things in the region beyond the senses, and no causation is possible without association of ideas. It is only when Being or Existence becomes molded into name and form that it obeys the law of causation and is said to be subject to law-because all law has its essence in causation.

Therefore we see at once that there cannot be any such thing as free will; the very words are a contradiction, because the will is something that we know, and everything that we know is within our universe, and everything within our universe is molded by the conditions of space, time, and causation. Everything that we know, or can possibly know, must be subject to causation, and that which obeys the law of causation cannot be free. It is acted upon by other agents and becomes a cause in its turn. But that which has become converted into the will, which was not the will before, but which, when it fell into this mold of space, time, and causation, became converted into the human will, is free; and when this will gets out of the mold of space, time, and causation, it will be free again. From freedom it comes, and it falls into the mold of bondage, and it gets out and goes back to freedom again.

To acquire freedom we have to get beyond the limitations of this universe; it cannot be found here. Perfect equilibrium, or what the Christians call the Peace that passeth all understanding, cannot be had in this universe, nor in heaven, nor in any place where our minds and thoughts can go, where the senses can feel, or of which the imagination can conceive. No such place can give us that freedom, because all such places would be within our universe, and it is limited by space, time, and causation. There may be places that are more ethereal than this earth of ours, where enjoyments are keener; but even those places must be in the universe, and therefore in bondage to law. So we have to go beyond, and real religion begins where this little universe ends. These little joys and sorrows and this knowledge of things end there, and Reality begins. Until we give up the thirst after life, the strong attachment to this our transient, conditioned existence, we have no hope of catching even a glimpse of that infinite freedom beyond. It stands to reason then that there is only one way to attain to that freedom, which is the goal of all the noblest aspirations of mankind, and that is to give up this little life, give up this little universe, give up this earth, give up heaven, give up the body, give up the mind, give up everything that is limited and conditioned. If we give up our attachment to this little universe of the senses and of the mind, we shall be free immediately. The only way to come out of bondage is to go beyond the limitation of law, to go beyond causation.

But it is a most difficult thing to give up the clinging to this universe; few ever attain to that. There are two ways to do it mentioned in our books. One is called “नेति नेति Neti, neti” (“Not this, not this”); the other is called “इति इति Iti Iti” (“This is This is”); the former is the negative, and the latter is the positive, way. The negative way is the more difficult. It is only possible for men of the very highest, exceptional minds and gigantic wills, who simply stand up and say, “No, I will not have this,” and the mind and body obey their will, and they come out successfully. But such people are very rare. The vast majority of mankind choose the positive way, the way through the world, making use of their bondage in order to break that very bondage. This is also a kind of giving up; only it is done slowly and gradually, by knowing things, enjoying things, and thus obtaining experience and knowing the nature of things until the mind lets them all go at last and becomes unattached. The former way of obtaining non-attachment is by reasoning, and the latter way is through work and experience. The first is the path of ज्ञानयोग jnana-yoga, characterized by the refusal to do any work; the second is that of कर्मयोग karma-yoga, in which there is no cessation from work. Almost everyone in the universe must work. Only those who are perfectly satisfied with the Self, whose desires do not go beyond the Self, whose minds never stray out of the Self, to whom the Self is all in all-only those do not work. The rest must work.

A current of water, rushing down of its own nature, falls into a hollow and makes a whirlpool, and after turning around a little there, it emerges again in the form of the free current to go on unchecked. Each human life is like that Current. It gets into the whirl, becomes involved in this world of space, time, and Causation, whirls round a little, crying out, “my father, my brother, my name, my fame,” and so on, and at last emerges out of it and regains its original freedom. The whole universe is doing that. Whether we know it or not, whether we are conscious or unconscious of it, we are all working to get out of the whirl of the world. The aim of man’s experience in the world is to enable him to get out of its whirlpool.

What is karma-yoga? The knowledge of the secret of work. We see that, whole universe is working. For what? For salvation, for liberty. From the atom to the highest being, working for the one end: liberty of the mind, of the body, of the spirit. All things are always trying to get freedom, to fly away from bondage. The sun, the moon, the earth, the planets, all are trying to H: away from bondage. The centrifugal and centripetal forces function throughout the whole universe. Instead of being knocked about in this universe and after long delay and thrashing, getting to know things as they are, we lean; from karma-yoga the secret of work, the method of work, the organizing power of work. A vast mass of energy may be spent in vain if we do not know how to utilize it. Karma-yoga makes a science of work; you learn by it how best to utilize all the activities in this world. Work is inevitable; it must be so. But We should work to the highest purpose. Karma-yoga makes us realize that this world is a world of five minutes, that it is something we have to pass through, and that freedom is not here, but is only to be found beyond. To find the way out of the bondage of the world we have to go through it slowly and surely, There may be exceptional persons, such as those about whom I just spoke, who can stand aside and give up the world as a snake casts off its skin and looks at it as a witness. There are, no doubt, these exceptional beings; but the rest of mankind have to go slowly through this world. Karma-yoga shows the process, the secret and method of doing it to the best advantage.

What does it say? Work incessantly, but give up all attachment to work. Do not identify yourself with anything. Hold your mind free. All that you see, the pains and the miseries, are but the necessary conditions of this world. Poverty and wealth and happiness are but momentary; they do not belong to Our real nature at all. Our nature is far beyond misery and happiness, beyond every object of the senses, beyond the imagination. And yet we must go on working all the time. Misery comes through attachment, not through work. As soon as we identify ourselves with the work we do, we feel miserable; but if we do not identify ourselves with it, we do not feel that misery. If a beautiful picture belonging to another is burnt, a man does not generally become miserable; but when his own picture is burnt how miserable he feels! Why? Both were beautiful pictures, perhaps copies of the same original; but in one case very much more misery is felt than in the other. It is because in one case he identities himself with the picture, and in the other he does not.

Therefore be unattached. Let things work; let the brain centers work; work incessantly, but let not a ripple conquer the mind. Work as if you were a stranger in this land, a sojourner. Work incessantly, but do not bind yourselves; bondage is terrible. This world is not our habitation, but only a stage through which we are passing. Remember that great saying of the Samkhya philosophy: “The whole of nature is for the soul, not the soul for nature.” The very reason for nature’s existence is the education of the soul; it has no other meaning. It is there because the soul must have knowledge, and through knowledge free itself. If we remember this always, we shall never be attached to nature; we shall know that nature is a book which we are to read, and that when we have gained the required knowledge the book is of no more value to us. Instead of that, however, we identify ourselves with nature; we think that the soul is for nature, that the spirit is for the flesh, and, as the common saying has it, we think that man “lives to eat,” not “eats to live.” We are continually making this mistake; we regard nature as the self and become attached to it; and as soon as this attachment comes, there is created in the soul a deep impression, which binds us down and makes us work, not through freedom but like slaves.

Swami Vivekananda
Adapted from: Vivekananda Yoga and Other Works, Karma Yoga