“Nothing matters but the soul. Nothing counts in the long run but service.” Alice A Bailey/Master DK
All the world’s religions emphasise the importance and value of Karma Yoga or service – to others, the community, the world. In The New Testament (which is littered with such references), Mark recounts Christ teaching: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all;” and in Philippians 2:4: “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Satya Sai Baba extolls us to “love all, serve all”, and the great Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita has a whole chapter (3) dedicated to The Yoga of Action: “In this world there is a two-fold path taught by me long ago: [the path of] knowledge…and [the path of] action, the yoga of the yogis. Of these two ways, Krishna maintains that “he who by the mind controls the senses, and yet is unattached while engaging action’s organs in action [Karma Yoga], is superior.”
This “action” that Krishna describes is action of a particular, rarified type and tone, it is what Krishnamurti called “correct action”. But what is this action or service, what does it mean “to serve all” as Sai Baba puts it, or anyone for that matter and why is it so important in the quest for liberation and self-knowledge?
The dynamic will of the soul
Service cannot be limited to any specific type of activity and it has nothing to do with occupation, role or position; simply because one happens to work in an area of social need e.g. does not necessarily equate to a life of service. Nor is service based on good intentions, which are widespread, or being thoughtful or kind. Positive as these human qualities are, acts of kindness are not necessarily demonstrations of service or karma yoga; neither is service determined by motive (the desire to “do good” e.g.).
The desire to serve itself comes from the source of all goodness in man – the soul, anchored in the heart; the effectiveness or otherwise of any type of service is directly related to and dependent upon the degree to which the soul is directing and infusing the activity. If, after responding to the soul’s initial call to act along a certain line, action is dominated by the personality or ego (we are using the term “ego” according to Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi’s definition: ego he says, “is nothing other than the false sense of “I”), the effectiveness and impact of the work will be limited.
Service or Karma Yoga is action consistent with the dynamic will of the soul. A necessary factor in any such action is therefore self-sacrifice; sacrificing the lower self (ego/personality) for the so-called higher (the soul); becoming consciously aware of and laying aside self centred/ego-centred wishes, ideals, images and constructed objectives of, e.g., the result or aim of action along any particular line.
Ego (self) is conditioned and deeply attached, attached to that which it finds pleasurable or comforting; to a belief system, a person, or persons, a place, a book or series of books, anything in fact that is familiar. Actions undertaken from such a limited source are polluted from the outset, and, rooted in ignorance, will inevitably add to the prevailing discord, no matter the area of activity, the motive, hope or intention – however noble.
Despite its protestations and assertions to the contrary, ego, being conditioned, does not know what “correct or right” action is, as Krishnamurti called it, and as such it cannot truly engage in service/karma yoga, or claim to serve. Although ideals, such as brotherhood, unity, peace, tolerance etc, which emanate from the soul and are consistent with “divine intent”, are fondly spoken of, due to the dominance of the ego, they remain unrealised and instead of harmony destructive self-centred patterns are repeatedly set in motion – karmic streams of force, in which we flounder again and again. As Bhagavan Ramana states “The fruit of karma passes. But action [by the ego] leaves behind the seed of further action [and therefore karma] leading to an endless ocean of action and not at all to moksha (liberation/freedom).”
“Correct action” is action free from the production of karmic seeds; incorrect or self-centred action, rooted as it inevitably is in conditioning, attachment and desire, will by contrast always lay “the seeds of further action”, and often leads to chaos.
We see the fruit of this pattern in the world around us. In all areas of life, individually and collectively, separation and conflict, selfishness and greed characterize modes of living and systems of governance. From economic, social and political inequality to religious intolerance, poverty and environmental injustices to terrorism and war, the world, as devised by mankind, is deeply divided, and in many ways, dysfunctional. The external forms within which our daily life takes place are expressions of the collective consciousness of humanity – the root or initiating impulse from which activity and forms take shape and advance.
“Give and ask naught”
The personality/ego may believe in the ideal of service (mind loves an ideal – peace, brotherhood, love) and see the goodness of selfless action; it may form an image of service and seek to live up to that image, and indeed some good may be achieved, but like all images it will be a conditioned limited view and to some degree will form an obstacle to correct action. Freedom from the inclinations, the desires, fears and attachments inherent in the life of the ego, will allow such restrictive tendencies to be overcome, right action to take place allowing a true server to be born.
As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, He, “who controlling the senses by the mind, O Arjuna, with the organs of action without attachment, performeth the yoga by action, he is worthy.” Non-attachment is essential; the great Indian sage, Nirsargadatta Maharaja taught that, “Discrimination will lead to detachment; detachment will ensure right action; right action will build the inner bridge to your real being [the Self].”
Such “right” action is the action of the soul – action free from choice and the time-bound rumination of thought. The soul does not choose and act, there is no “weighing things up” and eventually deciding; from a position of vision, unconditioned knowledge and pure love, the soul simply acts. as the Master DK (writing through Alice A. Bailey), puts it in a letter to a disciple, “you need to acquire that divine indifference which leaves the soul free to serve – untrammelled by personality reactions.” This is truly right or correct action, karma yoga or service; rare indeed in the world.
Action that precipitates unhindered from this holy source will always be harmonious, even if disruptive to, for example, the existing socio-economic system, or destructive of a civilization that has run its course. Such clean (unpolluted) action is the hallmark of a true human being; someone who does not identify with the ego and knows beyond doubt that he/she is part of a united whole. As the great Indian avatar Anandamayi Ma, revered as an incarnation of the feminine principle, and known to millions simply as Mother, put it; in service, “you will come to know by direct perception that the person served, the one who serves, and the act of service are separate only in appearance.”
The handicap to ‘correct’ action or service then, is the identification of the “I” with the personality/ego, from this identification grows the idea of individual doer-ship. This is a powerful factor in the obstruction of soul action, and is inevitable as long as the notion of an individual “I” or ego persists. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains: “the one who perceives that all works are done by the powers of material Nature truly understands and thus does not consider oneself as the doer.” Furthermore, “Surrendering all actions to Me [Krishna or soul], with thy thoughts resting on the supreme Self, from hope and egoism freed, and of mental fever cured, engage in battle [action].”
Freedom from this idea of individual doer-ship and the inflated image it creates is not accomplished through abstaining from activity, but through the negation of ego, through non-attachment and the overcoming of desire/fear. The Master DK points to the sustaining action of the sun as an illustration of the attitude required: “Lord of my life, how can I do the duty of this day yet seek detachment? Meet every need yet free myself from ties and bonds? God said: the Sun draws near and vivifies the Earth. Naught can it take from out the Earth. Live likewise. Give and ask naught.”
Such action, which is free from reward of any kind allows for spontaneous or effortless action (something Krishnamurti repeatedly spoke of) to occur. Spontaneous action is the opposite of conditioned, reward-based action, and is a central element within Taoism and Zen. The idea of “non-doing” is central in Taoism. This does not mean absence of action, but the negation of doer-ship and imposition, not trying to assert one’s own will on the natural movement of life but “going with the flow”. Lao Tzu (founder of Taoism) taught the importance of being quiet and watchful, tuning within to become aware of what Helena Blavatsky called the Voice of the Silence.
Zen also teaches what we might call The Art of Action; moving from forceful action to spontaneous action, which is a form of unrestrained freedom experienced through the application of intense discipline as awareness or choiceless observation, as Krishnamurti called it. Not freedom to do as we want irrespective of consequences, but freedom from attachment, from desire and fear. Such is the pure action of the soul in which no sense of separation is experienced; as the Master DK says, “To stand really free is to stand in the clear unimpeded light of the soul, which is basically and intrinsically group consciousness,” that is, without any sense of individual doer-ship or separation.
In order for the soul to act free from limitation, the mind needs to be still, quiet, uncluttered, detached. As Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “A quiet mind is all you need. All else will happen rightly [correctly], once your mind is quiet.” Stillness and therefore purification of the mind – the “root cause” – is essential for actions to be wholly “correct”; and it is only “correct” action that can create the forms, structures and modes of living required to bring about peace and usher in a civilisation rooted in goodness.
This is why Krishnamurti and other great teachers have emphasized that lasting fundamental change in society is dependent upon the individuals within society changing: “to change it [society/the world] you have to change yourself. When you begin to change yourself, you begin to change the society.” Because, as is clear “You [we] are the world, and the world is you [us]. Therefore you [we] have a tremendous responsibility.” A “responsibility” to the world, a responsibility to serve the needs of the time as we understand them, and at the same time a responsibility to free oneself from the obstacles to “correct action”; as the Master DK states, “the outer life of service will become arid and full of personality unless it is paralleled by a growing sensitivity to the impulses of the soul.” The primary responsibility is to stand aside, to negate totally any sense of doer-ship, all else will follow naturally and spontaneously.