“Karma is regulated action for the enjoyment of the fruit by the performer, but karma-yoga is action performed by the devotee for the satisfaction of the Lord. Karma-yoga is based on bhakti, or pleasing the Lord, whereas karma is based on pleasing the senses of the performer himself.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.1.4 Purport)
There is a difference between karma and karma-yoga. In both processes there is action, but the key distinction is in the beneficiary. In one, the beneficiary is a flawed individual who doesn’t even know what it is that they really want to begin with. In the other, the beneficiary is all-knowing. Even if He sometimes distributes rewards that seem unfavorable, the eventual end-result is always a lasting benefit.
Karma is a term passed on from the Vedas, the original scriptural tradition of India. The Vedas are the original tree of knowledge, and the many branches they spawn are representative of different kinds of fruits that can be tasted. Then there are the fruits that fall off the tree that are then exploited by others, who in the process ignore the original tree of knowledge. Hence we see karma commonly used as a vernacular term today, with its origin completely ignored.
Karma is understood to be action and reaction. But those reactions don’t take place on their own. Neither can the work be performed without outside help. As a simple example, think of planting a seed in the hopes of seeing a fruit. There is karma in the planting of the seed, but for that action to take place, there must be ground, or earth. The actor cannot create earth. They cannot will earth to generate from their hands. They cannot exhale and produce dirt that will be fertile ground for the growing of a seed. Even the seed must come from somewhere else. The sunlight is also out of the hands of the worker, as is the water required for nourishment of the seed. In this way the individual is merely a decision-maker; the component pieces must first comply in order for the work to take place.
“The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone's heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.61)
If not even the worker can act independently, how can any person expect the results to come on their own? The same external forces that collaborate to sanction the original work must also comply for the desired result to come about. Karma in the vernacular is understood to be the system that delivers reactions where the explicit cause is not immediately visible. For instance, I’ll do charitable work today so that in the future someone will be charitable to me. I have no way of tracing how the beginning leads to the end, so I chalk up the good fortune that arrives later on to karma. The same idea is there with bad behavior, as when we see misfortune fall upon someone, we attribute it to a past misdeed of theirs.
In the Vedas the word karma takes on different meanings depending on the context used. At its basic level, karma is work. In this way it is distinguished from jnana, which is knowledge. Think of the difference between going to work in the field and sitting in your room and studying. Essentially there is work going on in both places, but the work of the subtle body gets described as jnana, whereas the physical work is labeled karma.
Karma can also mean prescribed work. In this context the accompanying term is guna, or material quality. An easy way to conceptualize guna and karma is to think of the different workers in a business . The salesman is skilled at talking to people and persuading them to buy the product. The computer specialist is expert at making sure the computers used by the salesman and other employees function properly. Both people are involved in work, but their prescribed duties are different. The karma of the salesman is unique to his guna, or material quality with respect to the business. The karma of the computer specialist is also tied to his asset in ability towards the company.
In the Vedic definition of karma as prescribed activity, the related guna generally falls into one of four categories. These gunas are assumed at the time of birth, but they are not necessarily inherited from the parents. Just as we see sports stars born to parents who have no athletic ability, a person can be born with the qualities of a learned priest even if their parents are ordinary laborers. The reverse situation can also hold true.
The benefit of following your karma in terms of prescribed duty is ascension to a higher varna, or material classification with a corresponding guna and karma, in the next life. By following your prescribed duty, you also ascend to the heavenly realm in the afterlife, where you get to enjoy material amenities for a time commensurate with your accumulated pious credits. As more enjoyment occurs, the credits diminish, like a shrinking bank balance due to continuous ATM withdrawals. When those credits are no more, you fall back into the material world and hopefully continue your climb up the ladder of varnas.
Karma-yoga looks similar to karma, but it is actually vastly different. The results are not tied to a material body. There is no ideal aim of ascending to a higher varna in the next life because if one is really engaged in karma-yoga, there is no extra benefit to any specific type of body. Whether one is an ordinary sweeper or a learned scholar preaching to large groups of people, the assessment of the beneficiary is still the same.
The beneficiary of karma-yoga is the controller of the system of karma itself. In ordinary karma, His influence is passive; sort of like a government official who audits tax returns. In an honorable system of government, the tax auditor doesn’t play favorites. They look at the tax return filed and then either investigate further or accept it. The acceptance then allows the law-abiding individual to continue with their life. In karma devoid of yoga, the origin of matter and spirit distributes rewards fairly as they are earned. He does not interfere with the desires of anyone, as by definition their desires don’t relate to Him.
Karma-yoga automatically has a direct link to Him. That is the very definition of yoga, to link to the Supreme. There are different ways to create that link, and karma-yoga is the method where work is applied. The results of that work are either renounced or discarded. Think of it like going to work every day, getting your paycheck every two weeks, and not even looking to see how much you’re getting paid. You’re working for the sake of working. You know it’s the right thing to do. Whether you get paid a lot or a little is of no concern.
Karma-yoga eventually turns into bhakti-yoga, or the link to the Supreme in a mood of love. Karma-yoga is thus also often translated as devotional service, which is the term used to describe bhakti-yoga. In karma-yoga, you work to please the Supreme, and since the service itself is the source of the highest pleasure, there is no reason to worry over the results. If I know that the greatest person in the world, the only living entity who is without flaws, who never envies me, who always keeps my best interests at heart, who will never reject me no matter how many times I’ve ignored Him in the past, is pleased with my work, why will I worry so much over the exact nature of the results?
In ordinary karma, I am only trying to please myself. It is thus a very precarious condition. I don’t know what will ultimately benefit me. I can get frustrated in either success or failure. If I get what I want, and what I want fails to please me, I will be frustrated. If I don’t get what I want, when I think that what I want is what I need, I will also be frustrated. The senses are the beneficiary in karma, and sometimes the senses need to be starved in order to feel pleasure. I think that if I get drunk tonight I will be happy, but later on I will regret the action. I think that eating the entire pizza pie in front of me will be fun, but later on I will wish I hadn’t.
In karma-yoga practiced under the guidance of authority figures who are dear to the ultimate beneficiary, I only want to please God. And interestingly enough, the purer I become at heart, the more I will think that I am failing. And that increased concern will compel me to work even harder. And once I work so hard that I don’t even care at all about the results to my work, I will be in bhakti-yoga, which is the soul’s constitutional occupation. Ordinary karma cannot bring such a benefit, as since the senses are never fully satisfied, I will have to constantly jump from one activity to another, and find frustration and misery along the way.
In bhakti-yoga, I get to connect with the Supreme Lord, who in His original feature has a blissful, eternal and knowledgeable body, sach-chid-ananda vigraha. Chanting and hearing are ordinary acts of karma, but when the same take place through the medium of the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare,” they turn into devotional service. As the soul is happiest when it is serving, in this chanting and hearing there is so much pleasure that one will want to repeat it over and over again. And since He is the beneficiary, the Supreme Lord ensures that the desire alone is sufficient for bringing success.
Karma to please senses my own,
Karma-yoga to please God alone.
On outside both seem to look the same,
Do some work and profit with material gain.
With yoga to Lord there is connection,
Benefits arrive even without intention.
Karma is life full of regret,
Senses on true path never set.
In karma-yoga Krishna’s help to get,
Where from desire alone success is set.