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Learning to Contribute An approach to Karma Yoga

– V. Srinivas Karma Yoga and ‘We’ Karma Yoga means attaining spiritual illumination by doing unselfish work. This is the highest ideal for work. However, most of us, who are struggling to break free from the iron chains of selfishness, find this ideal very high, perhaps unattainable, from our current level of being where we are attached to many things. We seem to be interested in higher things but our circumstances and state of being does not always encourage us to strive for them. So, the point is what to do in such a situation? Let us ask ourselves: do we struggle manfully towards this high, seemingly unattainable ideal with little or no hope of attaining that high state of unselfishness? Or do we give up all hope, and turn instead towards accepting our current state of leading a largely moral but essentially self-centered life focused on personal welfare and the welfare of one’s family? Whichever of these two we choose, we are faced with certain issues. Looking around us, we live in India, a country whose heartbeat is religion. We find that most individuals have chosen the second of the two alternatives above, and, one might even say, in that state long enough to even forget that a higher ideal exists! We think living a self-centred life is a natural choice, nay, the ultimate choice for we ‘ordinary people’. It is in this context that the ideal of contribution, as envisaged in the life and teachings of Swami Vivekananda, gives us hope and energy to act positively. Here is an ideal which all of us can practice.

© V. Srinivas, January 2014


The Contribution Ideal The contribution ideal is the intermediate stage between a life of self-centeredness and a life of unselfishness. It may be called ‘enlightened self-interest’. The following diagram depicts it thus:

In other words, the contribution ideal gives us energy and enthusiasm to live in a state higher than utter self-centredness and prepare ourselves for the higher ideal of pure unselfish work. It helps us discover a link between our present state and the highest state and thus motivates us to practice it. Instead of living trapped in a self-centred, often meaningless and purposeless existence, we now have an opportunity to make a difference, live more meaningfully, and lead a purposeful existence. And, as a bonus, we also prepare ourselves for an even higher life described by the Karma Yoga Ideal.

How does the contribution ideal prepare us for the higher state of unselfish work? In order to appreciate the contribution ideal from the viewpoint of Karma Yoga, let us go back to Swami Vivekananda’s definition of Karma Yoga. Swamiji describes Karma Yoga as a system of ethics and religion intended to attain freedom through unselfishness and by good works.1

© V. Srinivas, January 2014


This definition of Karma Yoga Ideal covers four key aspects of work a.

The motive for work is unselfishness.


The process through which work is done is good works.


The outcome we seek is spiritual freedom.


The frame or personal vision that sustains the work is the journey of spiritual evolution.

This four-fold definition is a useful framework to compare the Karma Yoga ideal with the contribution ideal and the lower transaction ideal of life. Let us put this in the form of a chart: Transactional Ideal (Lowest) Motive for work

Selfishness (good of self)

Process through which work is done The outcomes we seek

Ethical works

The frame or personal vision which sustains the work

Journey of Acquisition

Attaining personal rewards and success

Contribution Ideal (Intermediate) Enlightened Selfinterest (good of self, organization/ community and society) Positive contribution to a purpose Attain both inner development & external success Journey of inner fulfilment & welfare of society (Citizenship)

Karma Yoga Ideal (Highest) Unselfishness (good of the other) Good works Attaining Freedom Journey of spiritual evolution

As this chart indicates, the contribution ideal is a clearly valid and distinct ideal from the transactional ideal and the highest Karma Yoga Ideal. It is also obvious from the chart that this ideal is in itself valuable and inspiring for individuals at the level of transactional thinking and gives them courage and inspiration to lift themselves from their current state to a new level of thought and action, that makes them more fit and capable of embarking upon the highest path in the world or work. If the ideal of contribution is perceived as a valid intermediate stage in our journey to the highest Karma Yoga, we must also ask how do we realize the ideal of contribution?

Š V. Srinivas, January 2014


The simplest and most direct method is ‘to work in order to meet an expanded goal or a purpose’. It means that we concern ourselves not only with what we do and how we do it, but also with why we do what we do. Keeping this simple definition in mind, let us explore the journey to becoming a contributor.

First Step—from Activity to Purpose The first step in the journey is to shift the organizing principle of our work from ‘activity or ritual focus’ to purpose focus. When we are activity or ritual or process focused we are occupied with activity for its own sake. We are quite mechanical and focused on only external, visible gains. But when we begin asking the question ‘what is the purpose behind this activity’, then we become far more result-oriented and capable of delivering results. This means that whatever our purpose is—whether it is doing well in an exam, or earning money, or finding peace of mind—we are more likely to accomplish it well if we are aware of the purpose. This is the first step towards contribution because we learn to become effective and result oriented in whatever we do. As we become more effective, pursuing our worldly, individual purposes we are bound, sooner or later, to come to the question ‘Why?’ Why do we work? Why do we seek what we seek? It is then that we question the quality or depth of the purposes we hold.

© V. Srinivas, January 2014


This questioning is understood with the help of the following model:


Evolutionary Purposes

Expressive Purposes

Do Have

Material Purposes


Is it to ‘have’, i.e., is to gain more material and other forms of possessions? This we may call a ‘material purpose’.


Is it to ‘do’? For example our purpose is to do some creative activity or produce some creative output for common good. This we could call an ‘expressive purpose’

(iii) Is it to ‘be’? i.e. our purpose is to reach a new higher or different state of being that gives us more strength, peace, joy, knowledge, etc. This we would call an ‘evolutionary purpose’.

Second Step—Enhancing Quality of Purpose Thus, when we take the second step towards becoming a contributor, we begin to focus on our evolutionary purpose and ensure that our material and expressive purposes support or enable our evolutionary purpose. This is different from just being a consumer of things and situations. It means being a contributor to whatever we do and find ourselves in.

As a corollary to it, we may add that any individual who believes that his or her material purpose or expressive purposes are more important than his or her evolutionary purpose will find it difficult to make the ‘sacrifices’ necessary for any meaningful contribution.

© V. Srinivas, January 2014


Third Step - Creating Proactive Zones of Purpose The search for evolutionary purpose sets the stage for the third step in our journey. At this stage, we ask a new question: Is our purpose or goal to merely respond or cope with life as it presents itself? Were it be so, then our whole goal would be to try to retain or cling on to our ‘higher’ or ‘evolutionary purposes’ in the midst of a complex and challenging environment. This leads to further query: Can we shift our purpose of life to creating or working towards a new state of affairs around us which not only enables us to live better but also enables all others in the same environment to live better? By environment we mean our own immediate family environment, our social environment, our cultural environment, physical environment around us, our workplace environment, etc.

Scope of Purpose (correlating to the final step of the journey to be a contributor) This becomes clearer when we take the help of a simple model which Swami Ranganathananda provides us: 2


Related to the question “who am I”


Related to the question “what I do”

Thus, a purpose centred in function (i.e. what I do), translates itself into one of many forms of ‘functional excellence’. For example, excellence in a craft or mode of expression like dance, art, etc., excellence in the form, excellence in the products I create, technical expertise, etc.

On the other hand, a purpose centred in being (who am I) translates itself in one of many forms of ‘being excellence’, i.e., excellence in character, excellence in conduct, excellence in interhuman relationships, excellence in the way we respond to life, etc.

© V. Srinivas, January 2014


Thus, to contribute, now means, to take responsibility for the betterment of the environment around us. While we still have not reached the ideal of Karma Yoga—that of perfect unselfishness— we have started our journey of lifting ourselves from gross selfishness to a refined level of living. In this approach, we can pick and choose our battles—for example, we may find that the larger organizational environment in which we work is not very congenial but that does not stop us from focusing on improving the immediate team environment around us. Thus to contribute means to define for ourselves the space or an environment where we can make a difference in the overall state of affairs and then act proactively within that space. This is a big leap forward from the state of mediocre accomplishments to bringing excellence in life. Then, instead of doing things in a slipshod way we do them with greater commitment and dedication. Contribution thus involves a mix of heroic action and forbearance by applying our judgment wisely. One should be willing to take some ‘risks’ and use one’s discretion in a given situation to do things in a better way. That is how ‘contribution’ becomes possible.

As we begin to contribute to the environment, we begin seeking sustainability of impact.

Final Step—Creating Sustainable Contribution This leads us to the fourth and final step in our journey to becoming a contributor. Any contributor has sustainable impact only when it solves more than material or social need. It must also serve a more fundamental human need like empowering individuals or enabling them to find deeper fulfilment in life.

© V. Srinivas, January 2014


Sustainable contribution takes place only when we are able to integrate function-level excellence with being-level excellence. Hence, contributors seek not only excellence in terms of professional or activity excellence, but in terms of character and inter-human excellence, and in terms of making an impact at both levels in the lives of those who they serve. Conclusion These four stages in the journey of becoming a contributor are summarized in the following table: Stage

Point of Transformation


Organize activity around purpose


Seeking deeper meaning purpose


Shifting from reactive purpose to proactive purpose Widens the scope of purpose


Key Shift in Thinking – From Activity – Focus to Purpose – Focus – From – Acquisitional – Purpose to – Evolutionary – Purpose From Coping to Proactive Contribution From Functional level Contribution to Function + Being level Contribution society (Citizenship)

Impact Improved effectiveness in whatever we do Creates the ‘intention’ or will to contribute

Awakens the heroic spirit within Results in the search for solutions that make a sustainable difference to the human condition

This roadmap provides us a set of milestones one should look for as we journey from an activity centred life to a purposive life aimed at developing total human excellence. As we reach a stage when we are truly contributing—both to other human beings and to our own evolution—we become ready, as it were, to begin the attempt on the sublime peak of unselfish action as presented by Karma Yoga. We can now see our transformation from a worldly life to a spiritual life, not as a quantum jump but as a gentler ‘ladder of evolution’—from a transaction ideal to the contribution ideal, and then finally to the Karma Yoga Ideal.

© V. Srinivas, January 2014


That is the spirit of contributor ideal. References: 1.

The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 1, Karma Yoga, Chapter VIII, The Ideal of Karma Yoga, p. 111. Mayavati Memorial Edition, Advaita Ashrama.


Eternal Values for a Changing Society, Volumes I-IV, by Swami Ranganathananda, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay (1993)

Š V. Srinivas, January 2014


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