What is the basic difference between karma and karma yoga?
Swami Satyananda: When one acts with the feeling that one is the doer, it is called karma. When action is done with the involvement of ego, and one becomes attached to the results of the action, this karma creates further karma and that karma creates more karma. In this way one creates a big chain of karma, and this chain never comes to an end. Just as one sows a seed and a plant grows, again one gets seeds and again one sows them. More plants grow and they give seeds. One sows them and again more plants grow. That is how continuity of karma takes place through desires, and there is no end to it. When the personal ego is involved with the performance of duties, karma or samskara are acquired, which are again responsible for birth and rebirth. Therefore, some new approach is required in between the karma and the accruing result.
The Bhagavad Gita is the dialogue between Sri Krishna and Arjuna. In the midst of the battlefield, Sri Krishna instructed Arjuna about performing his duties without ego. If the ego is isolated from the duties and obligations, one becomes free from every type of attachment. When actions are performed without attachment, they become karma yoga, which, in the course of time, frees the soul from past karmas. The karmas are automatically resolved by the practice of karma yoga, but most people practise just karma and play with their desires, ambitions and passions. It doesn't matter which job one does or which family one belongs to, but if one is playing with the mind and the samskaras or impressions, one is not terminating them but just adding more and more. Through karma yoga, however, one expresses the samskaras and exhausts them.
While practising karma one acquires samskaras, but while practising karma yoga one eliminates samskaras. Karma is action performed through the mind and body, and everyone performs it. However, karma yoga is more than this. Some people do karma to produce; others to enjoy. But for a karma yogi, the object of performing karma is self-purification. By involvement in karma, one gives expression to the inner vrittis, modifications of the mind, or samskaras, and expels them.
It is the noble attitude of the aspirant that transforms an ordinary karma into karma yoga. In karma yoga hard work is performed, but the purpose of karma yoga is purification of the self and renunciation of attachment or involvement. When one renounces personal attachment and purifies the mind, karma yoga is considered to have become successful.
If the aim of karma yoga is freedom, why is this pursued through involvement in the world?
Swami Satyananda: The path of karma yoga accepts the material world and the need to function in it. However, it aims at using the objects, thoughts and actions that bind an individual in a constructive manner in order to eventually break the bondage and attain freedom and knowledge. This is achieved progressively by acting in everyday life with full awareness to the best of one's ability. The aim is to become perfectly free in the fullest sense of the word, to become liberated and in tune with the consciousness. One becomes free by knowing, confronting, using and eventually transcending the limitations of the world. This is the purpose of karma yoga.
A butterfly does not become free and able to fly immediately. First of all, it must pass through the trauma and bondage of being a caterpillar and living in a cocoon. Eventually, the cocoon is discarded and the butterfly emerges to the bliss of freedom. Similarly, each person must fully experience and understand the world before being able to transcend it and experience spiritual bliss and freedom. The world of karma, actions, thoughts, situations and circumstances is a testing ground where one can find out about oneself. It is a workshop, where the mind-body instrument can be sharpened and made receptive to the influx of higher knowledge and awareness. Through the world of everyday experiences the mind and awareness can be sharpened to cut through the veil of ignorance. The world is a means of tuning the mind-body complex.