An excerpt from Affectionate Guidance:
Devotee: In Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Krishna has explained about karmma-yoga. Can karmma-yoga ever be seva, or devotional service?
Srila Govinda Maharaj: Karmma and seva, action and divine service, are identical from the external perspective. Bhakti-yoga and karmma-yoga are the same apart from one thing—and that is the inner mood of the practitioner. The inner intention is the all-important, differentiating factor.
What result is going solely to the Lord, and not to the jiva-soul, that is called bhakti-yoga. When all of one’s work will be accredited in the account of Krishna, then that is bhakti-yoga. And when the result of one’s work is credited to the account of that jiva-soul, then that is karmma-yoga. It is very simple.
yat karosi yad asnasi yaj juhosi dadasi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya, tat kurusva mad arpanam
(Srimad Bhagavad-gita: 9.27)
“Whatever you will do for Me, you will not be responsible for any reaction you accrue from that.” Karmma is giving reaction. Newton’s third law is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Many of Newton’s laws have been disputed and even broken, but this law still exists unchallenged. It is not only Newton’s law but it is the law of the Gita, of the Vedic Scriptures. We are living within the plane of exploitation, otherwise no reaction could come. That is, we are exploiting and exploited within this plane and so reaction is always coming to us.
Once, just after the War of Kurukshetra, a rishi from near Kashmir, named Utaika came before Krishna with a view to curse Him. “You are the cause of the violence in Kurukshetra. If You had wanted to You could have easily controlled the situation and prevented it, but You did not. Now millions of women have been widowed as a result of that battle, and I cannot tolerate to hear them cry. You are the cause, and so I shall curse You.”
Krishna smilingly replied, “Oh rishi, please give a little hearing to me. You have amassed so much subtle power through your austerity, your tapasya, but that will be useless if you throw your curse upon Me. I am existing in the plane of nirguna, the non-material plane, so your curse will not touch Me. All your austerity, tapasya, everything you have acquired, it is all within this material world. It may reach up to the highest plane of this world, Brahmaloka, but it cannot touch My position. It will be futile and you will lose everything, so I advise you not to curse Me. Please heed My advice to you. I am giving you the knowledge so that you will see who I am.”
Then with folded hands that rishi took shelter of Krishna, “Now I can see, and You have saved all of my tapasya.”
That is the plane of nirguna, and playing there is devotion—the service world. There are three planes: the plane of exploitation, the plane of renunciation, and the plane of dedication. Who is wholeheartedly serving Krishna, he is living in the plane of dedication. He is not responsible for the results of his own activity, yet he is happy with his activities because he is trying to satisfy his Lord, and the Lord is living within the nirguna plane. So the reactions are not coming to the devotee.
I often give the example of a policeman or military man. During war a soldier may kill hundreds or even thousands of other people, but the responsibility for that must come to the government, so no reaction will come to that man—any reaction will come to the government.
Similarly a police officer may sometimes kill a criminal while trying to apprehend him. Again the reaction must come to the government. If through his work anything wrong has happened, then compensation will be given by the government, not from his salary. This is the example. If we offer all our activity for the service to Krishna, then that is bhakti-yoga. All result will go to Krishna, and it will not come back to me. Otherwise if we are doing karmma, following karmma-yoga, then some reaction will also come to us. It is nature, otherwise the universe would not function, and that is true not just of this universe, but all universes.