There are three broad divisions of yoga – karma yoga, jñāna yoga and bhakti yoga. Understanding these three yogas is important so that one’s sādhanā matches their respective definitions. Otherwise, one is liable to be a khicaḍī yogī who mixes practices of the three paths with each other. Karma yoga in particular is liable to be confused with bhakti yoga because both involve actions. We examine the distinction between the two in this article.
niṣkāma karma yoga and bhakti yoga are distinct paths
In the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, Kṛṣṇa states that there are three distinct paths:
yogās trayo mayā proktā nṝṇāṁ śreyo-vidhitsayā
jñānaṁ karma ca bhaktiś ca nopāyo ’nyo ’sti kutracit
These three yogas—jñāna, karma, and bhakti—have been taught by Me with the intention of granting the highest good to humanity. No other means besides these can be found anywhere. (SB 11.20.6)
Śrī Jīva Goswami notes that karma is different from bhakti, otherwise it would not be listed as one among three (there would be only two paths in that case).
The actions in niṣkāma karma yoga are different from those of bhakti yoga
The word karma in karma yoga has a technical meaning. It does not refer to all actions, but to nitya (regular) and naimittika (occasional) actions which are part of varṇāśrama duties. Obviously, being niṣkāma, kāmya karma is excluded from niṣkāma karma yoga.
A key feature of bhakti is that in it, the sādhaka first surrenders to Bhagavān. After surrender, any and all actions performed by a bhakta, come under the purview of bhakti. Karma yoga does not involve surrender of the sādhaka to Bhagavān, but only surrender of the results or fruits of the karma.
Bhakti yoga has a much broader scope than niṣkāma karma yoga. The latter is restricted to varṇāśrama duties.
niṣkāma karma yoga is not bhakti yoga despite offering of the results to Kṛṣṇa
niṣkāma karma yoga is defined in the Bhagavad-Gita by the following verse:
mayi sarvāṇi karmāṇi sannyasyādhyātma-cetasā
nirāśīr nirmamo bhūtvā yudhyasva vigata-jvaraḥ
Therefore, dedicating all actions to Me with your mind fixed on the self, being devoid of desire for the fruits, free from all notions of proprietorship, and having abandoned all mental anguish, be engaged in battle. (Bg 3.30)
The word niṣkāma (devoid of desire) refers to the offering of the fruits of the action to Kṛṣṇa. Because there is such offering of results to Kṛṣṇa, one might consider that karma yoga is bhakti. Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravarti disagrees with this in his commentary on this verse reproduced below.
yadi ca bhagavad-arpitaṁ karmāpi bhaktir eveti mataṁ, tadā karma kiṁ syāt? yad-bhagavad-anarpita-karma, tad eva karmeti cen, na naiṣkarmyam apy acyuta-bhāva-varjitaṁ na śobhate jñānam alaṁ nirañjanam | kutaḥ punaḥ śaśvad abhadram īśvare na cārpitaṁ karma yad apy akāraṇam || (SB 1.5.12)
If the karma offered to Bhagavān also refers to bhakti, then what will karma refer to? If one thinks that the action which is not offered to Bhagavān alone is karma, then that is not so because this verse shows the worthlessness of such karma: Even awareness of Brahman which frees one from impurities is inadequate if devoid of devotion to Kṛṣṇa. What then can be said of kāmya karma, which is always inauspicious, or of nitya/naimittika karma, when not offered to Bhagavān? (SB 1.5.12)
Indeed, the very definition of bhakti excludes faith in karma. If karma is part of bhakti or the same as bhakti, then the definition of bhakti becomes meaningless.
Does the offering of results to Bhagavān have no positive effects? Śrī Viśvanātha notes that the results (i.e. purity of the heart from desires) that accrue from karma yoga are because of the offering to Bhagavān. Otherwise karma yoga is completely useless as pointed out in SB 1.5.12 above.
The adhikāra of niṣkāma karma yoga is different from the adhikāra of bhakti yoga
The adhikāra or qualification for niṣkāma karma yoga and bhakti yoga is not the same as outlined in this verse:
nirviṇṇānāṁ jñāna-yogo nyāsinām iha karmasu teṣv anirviṇṇa-cittānāṁ karma-yogas tu kāminām yadṛcchayā mat-kathādau jāta-śraddhas tu yaḥ pumān na nirviṇṇo nāti-sakto bhakti-yogo ’sya siddhi-daḥ
jñāna yoga is for those who are detached and who have abandoned actions, whereas karma-yoga is for those those who desire the results of actions. Bhakti yoga gives success to a person who has acquired faith, by good fortune, in hearing My narrations, and who is not completely detached from nor too attached to sense objects (SB 11.20.7-8).
As is made amply clear in this verse, the initial qualification for undertaking karma yoga is attachment to the results of action, while the initial qualification for bhakti is śraddhā in the śāstras, as well as a balanced state of mind with respect to material attachment (not overly attached nor overly detached).
A bhakti yogi loses the adhikāra for karma yoga
Kṛṣṇa further emphasizes in the next verse that karma yoga should be performed for only as long as one does not develop śraddhā in bhakti. It follows, then, that upon acquiring śraddhā in bhakti, one loses the adhikāra for karma yoga.
tāvat karmāṇi kurvīta na nirvidyeta yāvatā
mat-kathā-śravaṇādau vā śraddhā yāvan na jāyate
One should engage in nitya or naimittika karma [according to Śrīdhar Swami] only until one has developed detachment from sense pleasure, or until one has awakened faith in hearing narrations about Me. (SB 11.20.9)
In their commentary on this verse, Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravarti and Jiva Goswami both anticipate an objection. Giving up one’s varṇāśrama duties is condemned in the scriptures. As an example, consider the following verse:
śruti-smṛtī mamaivājñe yas te ullaṅghya varttate ājñācchedī mama dveṣī mad-bhakto’pi na vaiṣṇavaḥ: Śruti and smṛti are My orders. One who transgresses them disobeys Me and is averse to Me. Even if such a person is My devotee, he cannot be considered a Vaiṣṇava.
Śrī Jīva points out that this verse is not applicable to a bhakta, because Kṛṣṇa Himself has ordered the abandonment of karma in SB 11.20.9 above. He adds that, in fact, transgressing His order in SB 11.20.9 would be a defect. However, as we have discussed elsewhere, in order to not disturb social order, a bhakta can continue to be part of varṇāśrama, as long as he/she does not have faith in its independent capacity to give results.
Karma yoga is in sattva guṇa, while bhakti yoga is nirguṇa
A crucial difference between niṣkāma karma yoga and bhakti yoga, is that niṣkāma karma yoga is in sattva guṇa, and therefore it cannot give a result that is beyond the guṇas. In contrast, bhakti yoga is nirguṇa i.e. beyond the guṇas, and hence bhakti is the only process which can bring about a cessation of material existence. This point is made clear in the following verse from the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam.
mad-arpaṇaṁ niṣphalaṁ vā sāttvikaṁ nija-karma tat: One’s own duties offered to me without desire are under sattva guṇa. (SB 11.25.23)
That bhakti is nirguṇa is explained in several verses in SB 11.25, and also in Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravarti’s commentary on B.G. 2.45. niṣkāma karma yoga can at best prepare a sādhaka for the practice of jñāna yoga, but it cannot bring about any independent result which lies beyond this world. If a karma yogī is unsuccessful in his/her life, then he/she takes birth again as part of the varṇāśrama system to continue their sādhanā.
Just as a material process cannot produce a spiritual result, the practice of niṣkāma karma yoga cannot produce bhakti.
Karma yoga is different from bhakti yoga in the following items:
- The adhikāra or qualification of the sādhaka.
- The sādhanā itself.
- The goal to be attained or sādhya.
- Karma yoga is under sattva guṇa while bhakti yoga is nirguṇa.
Mixing these two yogas and not understanding the difference between them is akin to mistaking a material process (karma yoga) for a spiritual process (bhakti yoga). This is why Śrī Jīva and Śrī Viśvanātha emphasized this point so much in their writings.