While passing through various of the 8,400,000 species of life, the spirit soul is overwhelmed by the suffering created by those reactions. We have very little chance of escaping this bondage of action and reaction—work and its fruitive results. Even after abdicating all work and accepting the life of a sannyāsī, or renunciant, one still has to work, if only for his hungry stomach. And thus Śaṅkarācārya, the great monist philosopher and religious reformer, said that simply for the matter of the stomach, one may not adopt the dress of a renunciant. Therefore, there is no way out—no way to avoid doing work, if only for the belly's sake.
As a result, the Personality of Godhead, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, advises Marshal Arjuna in the following words: "O Arjuna, you must always do your duty. To do something is far better than to do nothing. You cannot even secure your everyday sustenance without doing any work."
"Work" means the work that is ordered in the scriptures and sacred law books. It means standard, prescribed duties. Such work is far better than laziness under the pretension of being a renunciant or mystic. To earn a living, one can honorably adopt the profession of a street sweeper, but one must not change his dress to the saffron robes of a renunciate simply to fill up his empty stomach. In the present age of quarrel and pretension, one should prefer to do the ordinary, prescribed duties rather than adopt the life of a sannyāsī, a renunciate. Those who are genuinely renounced understand that they must not give up performing their prescribed daily duties in the social order, because otherwise there will be disaster, plain and simple. When we cannot secure our everyday sustenance without doing any work, how is it possible to give up our prescribed duties? And yet one must not forget the difficult position of one's being in the network of action and reaction by which the spirit soul becomes bound up in material existence.
So, to solve this dilemma, the Personality of Godhead, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, advises us as follows: "The best policy for doing work is to perform all prescribed duties for the satisfaction of Yajña, the Supreme Being—Viṣṇu, the Absolute Truth. Otherwise, all actions will produce reactions that will cause bondage. If work is done for the sake of Yajña, then one can become free from all bondages."
This method of work, or prescribed duties, that does not cause any bondage is called work with transcendental results, or karma-yoga. By such work with transcendental results, or karma-yoga, not only does one become immune from the bondage of work, but also one develops his transcendental devotion toward the Absolute Personality of Godhead. One must not enjoy the fruits of his work himself, but must dedicate the same for the transcendental loving service of the Personality of Godhead. This is the first step on the ladder of devotional activities. Lord Caitanya taught this process of devotional service, or work with transcendental results, to Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī at Daśāśvamedha-ghāṭa in Prayāga. Lord Caitanya said that only one who is fortunate can get the seed of transcendental loving service, by the mercy of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the Personality of Godhead, and that of the spiritual master. Karma-yoga, or work with transcendental results, is the seed of pure devotional activities. This science is taught by Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself or by His bona fide, confidential servants. Unless one takes his lessons from such sources, one must inevitably misunderstand the import of karma-yoga, as do the ordinary mundaners who often advertise themselves as karma-yoga experts.
We have to earn some wealth just in order to push on with our material existence. In exchange for that wealth, we have to secure the necessities of life, and primarily, we have to cook something for our hungry stomach. For if we do not eat, we cannot keep a healthy body, and if we do not keep a healthy body, we cannot earn our livelihood. It is very difficult to ascertain which exigency is the cause of the other, but we can describe this process of reciprocity as the wheel of work. And to travel all over the universe is to circumambulate the wheel of work. There is no estimation of our circumambulation and the concomitant distress resulting from such travel life after life for illusory, material happiness, which is compared to the will o' the wisp. In the capacity of a false enjoyer, without any obedience to the supremely powerful Lord, the living soul searches for permanent happiness life after life, but he does not know where the real happiness is. Therefore, Prahlāda Mahārāja says that no one knows that his ultimate goal of self-realization is to reach Viṣṇu, the all-powerful Godhead.
Without knowing the goal of our self-realization, we are aimlessly voyaging on the ocean of material existence, life after life. And tossed as we are by the waves of action and reaction, we cannot ascertain the volume of our distresses in undertaking such an ominous journey. Here we must know that the goal of our voyage is to reach the Absolute Truth, Viṣṇu, the all-pervading Godhead. Śrī Kṛṣṇa confirms this goal of life by saying that everything must be performed for the satisfaction of Viṣṇu, or Yajña. In the Ṛg Veda the same truth is described: Viṣṇu is the Supreme Deity, and thus all the subordinate gods, the suris, look to Viṣṇu and His lotus feet. The author of the Vedas is the Personality of Godhead Himself. Consequently, His Bhagavad-gītā is the finest summary of all the teachings in the Vedas (the books of knowledge), and there is no doubt about it. The instruction is, therefore, that we must do everything for the satisfaction of Viṣṇu and Viṣṇu only, if we want to be free of the bondage to the wheel of our work.
Formerly, the people of India (now misnamed as "Hindus") followed varṇāśrama-dharma or sanātana-dharma, the system that organizes human affairs according to four social orders and four spiritual orders. Those in the three higher social orders—namely, the brāhmaṇas (the instructive order), the kṣatriyas (the administrative order), and the vaiśyas (the productive order)—all used to lead the life of Vaiṣṇavism, or centering every action upon the Supreme Deity, Viṣṇu. In all the four spiritual orders—the student, the householder, the retired, and the renounced—and especially the householder order, Viṣṇu was being worshiped. The brāhmaṇa householders, particularly, used to worship Viṣṇu without fail, and even now the descendants of those brāhmaṇas continue to worship Viṣṇu daily as their family Deity.