Karma means “material activities subjected to reaction.” Karma binds us with each act. Yoga means “that which connects, links with the Supreme.” Yoga is the process of Self-liberation. These two words combine in a single process called Karma yoga which is the seeking-and-attainment of self realization (liberation) through action.
Everyone has to act. According to Lord Krishna,
Everyone is forced to act helplessly according to one’s acquired qualities of the modes of material nature, and thus nobody can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment. (Gita, 3.5)
Everyone has to do something, but by the grace of Krishna we can be freed from that place where every action is followed by bondage. If a man is fixed in God-consciousness he does not engage himself in action that is binding, like excessive food indulgence or drug addiction or sexual promiscuity. For instance, no Krishna conscious man should pursue sexual encounters for once he moves into such activities, misery will claim him since he is bound to his action. Without Yoga, Karma is entanglement—action quickly becomes binding and one suffers the good or bad consequences. The lives of such Karmis lead either to aimless chaotic activity on the phenomenal level or directly to hell. The real way out of the action-nightmare is Karma yoga. In the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna says,
… if a sincere person tries to control the sense organs and begins Karma yoga in Krishna consciousness, without being attached, he is far better. (Gita, 3.7)
He is “far better,” he is “sorrowless” because he does not suffer the consequences of his action.
A simple way to begin is to give all you earn to Krishna. That is a start. It releases you at once. If all you earn goes to Krishna, you are saved from a whole area of materialism. Let the world know that any money coming into your hand is going to Krishna—and you are free from great danger.
In Karma yoga, when you are working for Krishna, you can do your office tasks, speak to people on business, and do whatever you duty happens to be, for it all becomes part of your single aim: to return to God. The more God-conscious you become, the more effectively you can function. Whereas formerly you found yourself trapped, once you take to Karma yoga and sacrifice every act to Krishna, then your main objective is not to get out of trouble but to love God. Then no powerful mundane personality will awe or frighten you. You can do your work well and unafraid because you work unattached. And your work goes well.
How can you control your sense organs? In the matter of techniques, sincerity is what is needed. In spiritual effort, when you try hard you succeed. As you work, chant the name of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.” This means “Hail God,” please accept me, be associated with my humble dealings on Your behalf.
Sitting at your desk, waiting for the elevator, answering the phones—make these moments moments of decision and re-affirm your purpose. Are you Karma-yogi? Then don’t let your sense wander! Remember: Why have you come here? Why are you working? Why are you living? Who do you love? Make all your answers—Krishna. Control is gained by being thoughtful of your position. This “thoughtfulness” is the beginning of God-consciousness. Wherever you are God offers this consciousness and you must not fail to grasp it. Aim your heart to this end. When the crowd goes mad, as so often happens, you will not be swept away—if you remember Krishna. Remember, you are in control only because Krishna is controlling—receive His rays. That is real control. Work for Him.
This is not a punishing technique. The punishment is dealt by the material nature. According to the Bhagavad Gita we are in these bodies because we desired to have sensual enjoyment and because we more or less hate God.
All beings are born to delusion O Bharata (Arjuna) overcome by the dualities which arise from wish and hate, O conqueror of the foe (Arjuna). (Gita, 7.27)
The material world is a prison. Factories are producing artificially needed items, and offices are producing artificially created services, at the great cost of daily brute labor. The karma yogi, who is forced by his original desire into one of three modes of material nature (goodness, passion, ignorance) is, by way of his control and sacrifice, receiving a sublime touch unknown to the ordinary fruitive worker. He is a tiny speck of God; he realizes this and takes it seriously. In the presence of the Supreme he is asking for the touch of association, and nothing more. The advanced form of Karma yoga is called Bhaktiyoga, namely “devotional service to God.” As he serves God with his body, words and intelligence, and guided by the principles of the revealed scriptures, the Karma or Bhakti yogi is developing a personal individual relationship with the Supreme. He is not working for his own gain, nor for a formless impersonal concept, but for the Supreme revealed Lord, and the actuality of his position is that he feels the touch of the Supreme.
This process leads to Krishna. It is a question of realizing the Godhead. If God is realized only through His grace you should at least try to see that this Grace is open to you. As stated in the Srimad Bhagavatam, we are bewildered by the Lord:
No one can understand, oh Lord, your transcendental pastime which appears to be human, and is misleading. (SB, 2.8.28)
It is bewildering of course, that you, O Soul of the Universe, have to work although inactive, have to take birth although unborn and are the vital force. Still you yourself descend amongst the animals, men, sages, aquatics. They are verily bewildered. (SB, 2.8.29)
When you work for God, the wages are the chance of understanding Him. Our brains are tiny. To realize the Personal God is most difficult. We have His Word (scripture), His Form (Sri Krishna), His devotees (Lord Chaitanya and the disciplic succession)—and today, most easily available and life-saving, His Holy Name for chanting. But we are nonetheless stupid and covered up by contamination. Without Grace the human brain can conjecture about God for eternity and get nowhere. Nonsense-babbling is endless, fools crowd the streets and governments, waves of illusion throw us around like flies—therefore we must be wary and take shelter of the Supreme Lord. Faced with this material nature, and yet in sight of Divine Light, the Karma yogi has said, “Let me work for Him. God is a person not like me. But yet like me. Let me do His work here. Since I must act, let my actions be for Him—I am nonsense, but He is the True Reality of which everything on earth is a mistaken reflection.”
A karma yogi does not lose heart. He is not staggered or made “punchy” by labor. There is not the taste of dread despair in his labor—not the terror of the abyss, not the wholesale nausea over having to live, not the mad fear of Yamaraj, the Death messenger—at worst the path gets very hard, but the Karma yogi does what he can, and beyond that point the Supreme provides. The Lord—as revealed in the Bhagavad-Gita—has promised protection and deliverance to such a devotee:
Come to Me alone for shelter. Be not grieved, for I shall release thee from all evils. (Gita, 18.66)
Karma yoga is the fulfilling of His promise in reciprocal love, through the energy of His work.