It is a common conception, and a tempting one, to expect that by taking up a certain type of charitable work, or even service to support a particular religion or spiritual path, one is practicing a form of karma yoga. All of these things may have enormous benefit in the outer world, and may certainly be encouraged generally. As a stage away from purely self-aggrandising action that has no real benefits to others, it may also find a place in the maturing of the individual consciousness. As long as these things are conducted as an external activity, and particularly as they contain the seeds of ego, desire, and subtle pressures for self-satisfaction, approval of others, or some secondary motives, they do not automatically become vehicles for the yoga of works.

It is not the outer form of work that determines the yogic value, but the inner motivation, the dedication, the ego-less state of the inner being in the action. Once that inner state is set, the form of the outer work does not really matter. Simple acts, small deeds, can be a complete expression of the yogic dedication. Undertaking those actions that are directed by the Divine through a state of Oneness, the seeker finds liberation from the bondage of works and acts in a free, selfless and devoted manner to carry out the work to be done. The Bhagavad Gita expounds in detail on the path of karma yoga and the need for inner dedication rather than some outer standard of action by which to measure the yogic method.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “I do not mean by work action done in the ego and the ignorance, for the satisfaction of the ego and in the drive of rajasic desire. There can be no Karmayoga without the will to get rid of ego, rajas and desire, which are the seals of ignorance.”

“I do not mean philanthropy or the service of humanity or all the rest of the things — moral or idealistic — which the mind of man substitutes for the deeper truth of works.”

“I mean by work action done for the Divine and more and more in union with the Divine — for the Divine alone and nothing else. Naturally that is not easy at the beginning, any more than deep meditation and luminous knowledge are easy or even true love and bhakti are easy. But like the others it has to be begun in the right spirit and attitude, with the right will in you, then all the rest will come.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 94-95

Author's Bio: 

Santosh has been studying Sri Aurobindo's writings since 1971 and has a daily blog at and podcast at He is author of 17 books and is editor-in-chief at Lotus Press. He is president of Institute for Wholistic Education, a non-profit focused on integrating spirituality into daily life.