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We all know Lord Krishna told Arjuna that

"कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन ।
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भुर्मा ते संगोऽस्त्वकर्मणि ॥"

Perform your actions but do not have any expectation of the fruits.

Here, in context, actions are only duties? or are they desires too? If we continuously perform duties, then we are robots. Why god tell us to perform only duties like machines? I think there must be some humanism too.

Recently, I was working at home as I am software engineer, I work from home. I heard voice of 2 sadhus who were sanyasis. abstemious men. I went in gallery and they asked me to offer them food. I accepted their request and my mother offered them food.

They were talking about Shrimad Bhagwat Geeta. So they asked my name. I told them that my name is "Parth" and they told me below shloka/verse.

ॐ पार्थाय प्रतिबोधितां भगवता नारायणेन स्वयं व्यासेन ग्रथितां पुराणमुनिना मध्ये महाभारतम् ।

अद्वैतामृतवर्षिणीं भगवतीम्- अष्टादशाध्यायिनीम् अम्ब त्वामनुसन्दधामि भगवद्- गीते भवद्वेषिणीम् ॥ १॥

Om Parthaya prathi bodhithm bhagawataa naaraayanena swayam, Vyasaena gratitaam Puraana muninaa 
madhye Mahabaratam...

sloka meaning:

Om !

“Oh Bhagavad Gita, destroyer of rebirth(s), thou hast been instructed
to partha(son of prutha) by Lord Narayana himself and later included
by the ancient sage Vyasa within the Mahabharata. Showerer of the
nectar of advaita, of eighteen chapters, Oh Mother! I meditate upon thee”

So I asked them that Lord Krishna has told Arjuna to perform karma, so is this what I do as engineer, I must do it without expectation of fruits?

The sage replied to me - "No son, it is for to get money and make your stomach full for foods. Karma means incantation."

Then both of them finished their lunch and left our home after praising my mother's food. But this incident originated curiosity to know exactly what is karma?

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  • How would you define humanism?
    – Ketan
    Jul 31 at 20:34
  • Regarding humanism, it is important to read Bharat Maharaja’s story from Srimad Bhagvatam. Bharat ji rescued deer calf - that was the karma he was supposed to do out of kindness or to help (shows humanism if that’s what you meant). But getting attached to it such that mind always thinks of deer -was wrong. That’s the difference.
    – Ketan
    Aug 1 at 15:06
  • What do you mean by Duty vs Desire? What is your definition of them? Is duty not desired? Pls elaborate.
    – sbharti
    Aug 8 at 7:59
  • "Why god tell us to perform only duties like machines?" - any reference to this?
    – sbharti
    Aug 8 at 8:09
  • Yes it is contradicting.
    – Wikash_
    Aug 9 at 13:45
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Mistaking Karma Yoga as karma

You should remember that Gita is talking to Sannyasis and not to worldly folk when Gita asks us to perform actions without desiring for the fruit. Gita is talking about Karma Yoga and not merely about karma. A worldly person would find it very difficult to do karma without desiring for the fruit.

Definition of Karma Yoga

Abandonment of all desire-prompted actions is Samnyasa (renunciation) according to the wise. Men of discernment speak of the abandonment of the fruits of all actions as Tyaga (relinquishment).

Gita 18.2

Ordinary men do karma to earn money and fill their stomachs. They do not have any higher goal. A Karma Yogi does karma to attain the Divine.

Are actions only duties? or are they desires too?

Karmas for a Karma Yogi can be both optional and duties according to the Gita. Karmas for a Karma Yogi have nothing to do with desires.

Works like sacrifice, charity and austerity should not be abandoned. They should be performed; for sacrifice, charity and austerity are indeed purifying for the wise..

Gita 18.5

O son of Prtha! Even these works are to be performed without attachment and desire for their fruits. This is My settled and decisive view.

Gita 18.6

It is not at all proper to renounce works that ought to be done as duty. Their abandonment out of delusion is considered to be of the nature of Tamas.

Gita 18.7

An example of work that is duty is supporting one's widowed mother.

If we continuously perform duties, then we are robots. Why god tell us to perform only duties like machines? I think there must be some humanism too.

Again there is a confusion between Karma Yoga and ordinary Karma. There was in ancient India a debate about the path of action of a Sannyasi. Should he give up all worldly work or should he do work while doing Yoga. Sri Krishna is talking about this issue in the Gita.

Some wise men say that all action is to be abandoned as evil. Others maintain that good works like worship, charity and practice of austerity are not to be abandoned.

Gita 18.3

What Sri Krishna is saying is that charity, austerity are not to be abandoned. Only attachment and desire for their fruits should be abandoned as explained in Gita 18.6.

I abide in all beings as their inner-most soul. Disregarding My presence within them, men make a show of worshiping Me through images. If one disregards Me present in all as their soul and Lord but ignorantly offers worship only to images, such worship is as ineffective as a sacrificial offering made in ashes. A man who persecutes Me residing in others, who is proud and haughty, who looks upon God as the other – such a person will never attain to peace of mind. If a man disregards and persecutes fellow beings, but worships Me in images with numerous rituals and rich offerings, I am not at all pleased with him for proffering such worship. A man should, however, worship Me in images, side by side with discharging his duties, which include the love of all beings, until he actually realises My presence in in himself and in all beings. As long as man is self-centred and makes an absolute distinction between himself and others (without recognising the unity of all in Me, the Inner Pervader), he will be subject to the great fear of Death (including every form of deprivation of self-interest). So overcoming the separateness of a self-centered life, one should serve all beings with gifts, honour and love, recognising that such service is really being rendered to Me who reside in all beings as their innermost soul.

Srimad Bhagavata Purana III.29.21-27

Sri Krishna is saying that even a Sanyasi should continuously perform duties like serving fellow men even when doing yoga. A Sanyasi should not forget the plight of the distressed while doing Yoga. This is actually humanism. Actually this principle applies both to Karma Yogis and to ordinary folks who are just doing ordinary karma.

Helping the indigent

Bhishma said, "Whatever wishes one entertains with respect to oneself, one should certainly cherish with respect to another. With the surplus wealth one may happen to own one should relieve the wants of the indigent. It is for this reason that the Creator ordained the practice of increasing one's wealth (by trade or laying it out at interest)."

Mahabharata, Santi Parva, Section CCLIX

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  • Good answer except that I think it is wrong understanding that “Gita is talking to Sannyasis and not to worldly folks when it says don’t desire fruits”. IMHO, it is meant for all ordinary folks as it is best path for them since they can’t abandon doing karma. Krishna asked Arjuna to do karma (war) without desiring results - would you say Arjuna was Sannyasi? The way I understand is that ordinary folks should try to do karma like sanyaasi to get liberation. What do you think?
    – Ketan
    Aug 1 at 14:26
  • @ketan Gita 18.2 explicitly mentions Samnyasa. Gita is laying down a template for Samnyasa. If any ordinary person can work without desiring the fruits and without attachment then that is wonderful. However, I think such a person will find it very difficult to do so. Aug 2 at 12:18
  • Agree with your statement sir that 18.2 is talking about Sanyaas. But starting of your answer seemed to me like a general conclusion that “all mentions in Gita about abandoning fruits only is for Sanyaasis”. Same statements of abandonment of desires also mention in chapter 2
    – Ketan
    Aug 2 at 19:14
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You asked “What is Karma”?

The very definition of karma is action or work. The karma word used in Gita for karma yoga means - work or action. It doesn’t mean karma as in “residual karma or sanchit or parbadh karma” (when talking in regards to karma yoga)

From Karma Yoga by Swami Vivekananda -

The word Karma is derived from the Sanskrit Kri, to do; all action is Karma. But in Karma-Yoga we have simply to do with the word Karma as meaning work

Every mental and physical blow that is given to the soul, by which, as it were, fire is struck from it, and by which its own power and knowledge are discovered, is Karma, this word being used in its widest sense. Thus we are all doing Karma all the time. I am talking to you: that is Karma. You are listening: that is Karma. We breathe: that is Karma. We walk: Karma. Everything we do, physical or mental, is Karma, and it leaves its marks on us.

Karma and humanism:

Humanism aspects (how you treat your family and society) still stays as scriptures ask you to perform mandatory duties at each stages of life. See the duties mentioned in Maha Nirvana tantra for example.

Now regarding question or doubts if this is really applicable to us or Sanyaasi, see following

** From Chapter 2 of Karma yoga by Swami Vivekanand**

The householder should be devoted to God; the knowledge of God should be his goal of life. Yet he must work constantly, perform all his duties; he must give up the fruits of his actions to God. It is the most difficult thing in this world to work and not care for the result, to help a man and never think that he ought to be grateful,

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Bhagwad Gita, Chapter 3 talks a lot about Karma. While the whole chapter is essential to understand Karma Yoga, I am reproducing few shlokas here, relevant to the question.

Is Karma optional? No, it's inherent property
Karma is not avoidable. We continue to do karma without stopping even for a second. One can't run away from it. This is because all entities are created out of Brahman and Karma leads them back to Brahman. There is no other way to go back to Brahman except Karma.

सहयज्ञा: प्रजा: सृष्ट्वा पुरोवाच प्रजापति: |
अनेन प्रसविष्यध्वमेष वोऽस्त्विष्टकामधुक् || 10||
In the beginning of creation, Brahma created humankind along with duties, and said, “Prosper in the performance of these yajñas (sacrifices), for they shall bestow upon you all you wish to achieve. (Commentary)

सदृशं चेष्टते स्वस्या: प्रकृतेर्ज्ञानवानपि |
प्रकृतिं यान्ति भूतानि निग्रह: किं करिष्यति || 33||
Even wise people act according to their natures, for all living beings are propelled by their natural tendencies. What will one gain by repression? (Commentary)

न हि कश्चित्क्षणमपि जातु तिष्ठत्यकर्मकृत् |
कार्यते ह्यवश: कर्म सर्व: प्रकृतिजैर्गुणै: || 5||
There is no one who can remain without action even for a moment. Indeed, all beings are compelled to act by their qualities born of material nature (the three guṇas). (Commentary)

न कर्मणामनारम्भान्नैष्कर्म्यं पुरुषोऽश्नुते |
न च संन्यसनादेव सिद्धिं समधिगच्छति || 4||
One cannot achieve freedom from karmic reactions by merely abstaining from work, nor can one attain perfection of knowledge by mere physical renunciation. (Commentary)

Certain karmas are Superior
What one can do is to own it's karmas, control it and shape it in proper way. It's like large pool of water : if left just like that it spreads everywhere and takes form of a pond (largely static); Or if shaped and controlled properly takes form of a River which nourishes civilizations while also meeting it's goal, that is, Ocean.

यस्त्विन्द्रियाणि मनसा नियम्यारभतेऽर्जुन |
कर्मेन्द्रियै: कर्मयोगमसक्त: स विशिष्यते || 7||
But those karm yogis who control their knowledge senses with the mind, O Arjun, and engage the working senses in working without attachment, are certainly superior. (Commentary)

यज्ञार्थात्कर्मणोऽन्यत्र लोकोऽयं कर्मबन्धन: |
तदर्थं कर्म कौन्तेय मुक्तसङ्ग: समाचर || 9||
Work must be done as a yajña (sacrifice) to the Supreme Lord; otherwise, work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties, without being attached to the results, for the satisfaction of God. (Commentary)

Why should we perform Superior karmas?
Not doing any karma leads to fall of the entity itself. By doing superior karma, one can reach to Brahman faster. Isn't that what this is all about anyway?

नियतं कुरु कर्म त्वं कर्म ज्यायो ह्यकर्मण: |
शरीरयात्रापि च ते न प्रसिद्ध्येदकर्मण: || 8||
You should thus perform your prescribed Vedic duties, since action is superior to inaction. By ceasing activity, even your bodily maintenance will not be possible. (Commentary)

यस्त्वात्मरतिरेव स्यादात्मतृप्तश्च मानव: |
आत्मन्येव च सन्तुष्टस्तस्य कार्यं न विद्यते || 17||
But those who rejoice in the self, who are illumined and fully satisfied in the self, for them, there is no duty. (Commentary)

तस्मादसक्त: सततं कार्यं कर्म समाचर |
असक्तो ह्याचरन्कर्म परमाप्नोति पूरुष: || 19||
Therefore, giving up attachment, perform actions as a matter of duty, for by working without being attached to the fruits, one attains the Supreme. (Commentary)

Karma is intrinsic even in Brahman
We think karma is just for mortal beings? No. Karma is for everyone, even Brahman. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva also perform karma and receive their phal (fruits). Otherwise, this whole system would crumble down.

न मे पार्थास्ति कर्तव्यं त्रिषु लोकेषु किञ्चन |
नानवाप्तमवाप्तव्यं वर्त एव च कर्मणि || 22||
There is no duty for me to do in all the three worlds, O Parth, nor do I have anything to gain or attain. Yet, I am engaged in prescribed duties. (Commentary)

उत्सीदेयुरिमे लोका न कुर्यां कर्म चेदहम् |
सङ्करस्य च कर्ता स्यामुपहन्यामिमा: प्रजा: || 24||
If I ceased to perform prescribed actions, all these worlds would perish. I would be responsible for the pandemonium that would prevail, and would thereby destroy the peace of the human race. (Commentary)

Burden of Superior Karma on Gods and Humans
Gods and Humans are superior entities created by Brahman. They must perform superior actions in order to guide the ignorant (lesser mortals like animals, plants and this world). Gods show this to humans, and humans to the rest of world. Many scriptures talk about maintaining trees, animals, wells, ponds etc. in effect to that - see Mahabharat, Shanti Parva. In Uttar Kand, Valmiki Ramayan, Brahma says this to Indra that because you did this sin (Ahalya story), humans will also learn from you and start doing this sin. Hence, it's not just the good deeds but bad deeds also originate from Devas.

यदि ह्यहं न वर्तेयं जातु कर्मण्यतन्द्रित: |
मम वर्त्मानुवर्तन्ते मनुष्या: पार्थ सर्वश: || 23||
For if I did not carefully perform the prescribed duties, O Parth, all men would follow my path in all respects. (Commentary)

न बुद्धिभेदं जनयेदज्ञानां कर्मसङ्गिनाम् |
जोषयेत्सर्वकर्माणि विद्वान्युक्त: समाचरन् || 26||
The wise should not create discord in the intellects of ignorant people, who are attached to fruitive actions, by inducing them to stop work. Rather, by performing their duties in an enlightened manner, they should inspire the ignorant also to do their prescribed duties. (Commentary)

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  • This does not answer my question. I know about gita. no need to just copy paste verses here.
    – prem30488
    Aug 6 at 12:52

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