I often hear people reference “Karma Yoga” as shorthand for doing necessary yet menial or bureaucratic tasks around the Lodge, tasks that are somewhat boring and seemingly “un-magical,” like book-keeping, tending bar, cleaning, and so on. And while that’s not an inappropriate use of the term, it doesn’t really dig in to the “Why?” of Karma Yoga. It doesn’t explain why Karma Yoga is a yoga at all.
Yoga, as I’m sure most of us know, comes from a Sanskrit root which translates into English as “union” or “yoke.” One thinks of yoking a pack animal like an ox, associated with Aleph and The Fool. Generally speaking it is an active, intentional practice of guiding one’s self toward union with… something. Or nothing. Or everything, or one’s own self, depending on who is doing the defining.
Karma is “act” or “action.” This is no small thing, though it permeates the smallest of movements. It is causality, the source of friction and its resolution. It implies space and time, life and death, and all the great rivers which empty into the sea only to be dropped back upon the mountain top.
Vivekananda, who wrote a lovely treatise on Karma Yoga, writes “What is Karma-Yoga? The knowledge of the secret of work. We see that the whole universe is working. For what? For salvation, for liberty; from the atom to the highest being, working for the one end, liberty for the mind, for the body, for the spirit. All things are always trying to get freedom, flying away from bondage.”
This bondage that he’s talking about is—paradoxically enough—the fruit of action. It’s from the chain of cause and effect that maya arises, creating the illusion of distance between of one’s self from the immortal, imperturbable godhead, Brahma. How can action escape the seeds it plants by being enacted? How is a Karma Yoga even possible given this cycle? Because it is one’s duty to perform a given action. Disciplined action performed in order to fulfill one’s sacred duty, though it does sow some seeds that perpetuate karma, begins to quell the cycle; the seeds are reduced to fewer and fewer. In fact, without these disciplined actions, nothing will ever stem the karmic flow.
Now, of course, in the Aeon of Horus we recognize that this apparent separation is not a dread illusion which ties us as prisoners into our crippled bodies for lifetime after lifetime. Rather, we invert the formula. This division exists in order that we may experience the joy of love, that we may strike at the worship of Nu. And, the rapturous struggle toward this embrace is itself the fulfillment of our deepest aims, a fulfillment which we each are charged to amplify even as we succeed.
One sees obvious, if skin-deep, parallels between the sacred duty, the dharma we find in Vedanta and the True Will espoused in Thelema. And despite the inversion of metaphysic, Thelema and Vedanta utilize homologous practices to apply karma as a method of yoga. This practice is best described as “equanimity.”
Returning to Vivekanada: “Such is the central idea of Karma-Yoga. The Karma-Yogi is the man who understands that the highest ideal is non-resistance, and who also knows that this nonresistance is the highest manifestation of power in actual possession, also what is called the resisting of evil is but a step on the way towards the manifestation of this highest power, namely, non-resistance. Before reaching this highest ideal, man’s duty is to resist evil; let him work, let him fight, let him strike straight from the shoulder. Then only, when he has gained the power to resist, will non-resistance be a virtue.”
I am reminded of the admonition given in Liber LXV by Adonai to the Adept: “Thou strivest ever; even in thy yielding thou strivest to yield—and lo! thou yieldest not. Go thou unto the outermost places and subdue all things. Subdue thy fear and thy disgust. Then—yield!”
The charge here is to seek out the horrifying, the sickening, whatever is most repellent and offensive to every sense… and love it. Also to build one’s self up, because it is only the wealthy that have the power to choose charity or not, only the king who may choose his garment as he will. Only then can one reach equanimity.
Vedanta considers this quality necessary because it makes possible the disciplined action that reduces one’s karmic footprint, thereby bringing about the heat death of the universe with greater rapidity.
Thelemically, we have a similar valuation of this quality, though a differing analysis of its effects. Equanimity empowers the individual with perspective. It clears the air so that one can act without obstruction or distraction, and without undue influence from the elements so that one may control them rather than be controlled by them. Yet this equanimity shouldn’t be confused with callousness or simple aloofness: true equanimity is a sacred practice, necessary to the perpetuation of the multiplicity of possibility.
We see this principle embodied in a raw, archetypal form in the 8th tarot trump, Adjustment, attributed to Libra, which is ruled by Venus, the planet of Love (which drives us toward union), and exalts Saturn, the lord of Time (which separates one thing from another). The figure in this trump is one of our Lodge’s namesakes, Ma’at. Of her, Crowley writes, “She is therefore to be understood as assessing the virtue of every act and demanding exact and precise satisfaction… She represents Manifestation, which may always be canceled out by equilibriation of opposites.”
It is from her that we become armed with the goad, Lamed, to prod our yoked ox ever onward, drawing our star along its course. Yet she, the archetype, is not the actor. She is The Woman Satisfied, not The Satisfying Woman. The sword she wields is the magician’s rather than her own. Her dance is one of reaction and pure calculation; she is the arrow, not the archer. She will cancel every action, but it is Man who must create it. She is the arbiter of Truth, but it is Man who must speak it.
This woman also appears in The Vision and the Voice as the Angel of the 19th Aethyr, bearing a message to our prophet: “And on her mouth, like a chrysanthemum of radiant light, is a kiss, and on it is the monogram I.H.S. The letters I.H.S. mean In Homini Salus and Instar Hominis Summus, and Imago Hominis deuS. And there are many, many other meanings, but they all imply this one thing; that nothing is of any importance but man; there is no hope or help but in man.”
Our Order exists so that we may strike the glory of the god Man upon the Earth, to make manifest in the World the ordeals which we each undergo in our initiations that adhere us to the Law.
This is our sacred duty, to dance with this woman and speak the Truth. “The Rose of the World is the Lily of Heaven.” This is our Karma Yoga. This is our work. This is our joy.