Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Shankara | Discourse 18 verse 19-40

The Impulses are threefold accordingto the guas.

Inasmuch as action, the several factors of action, and the fruit, are all made up of the guṇas, the Lord now pro­ceeds to teach the threefold distinction of each, according to the three distinct guas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas:

19. Knowledge and action, and the agent, are said in the science of the guṇas to be of three kinds only, according to the distinction in guṇas. Hear thou duly of them.

Shankara's commentary:

Action (karma): ‘karma’ here means action (kriyā). It is not used in the technical sense of the word denoting the object of an action, what is sought to be attained by means of action.

Agent: the performer of acts. They are of three kinds only.—This restriction is intended to imply the ab­sence of distinctions other than that caused by the guṇas.

Guas: such as Sattva. The science of the guas here re­ferred to is Kapila’s system of philosophy.

—Even Kapila’s science of guṇas is certainly an authority so far as it con­cerns the guṇas and their experiencer (bhoktṛ). Though they are opposed to us as regards the supreme truth, i.e., the oneness or non-duality of Brahman,

still the followers of Kapila are of acknowledged authority in the exposition of the functions of the guṇas and of their products, and their science is therefore accepted here as an authori­ty as serving to extol the teaching which follows.

Hence no inconsistency.

Hear, etc.: Pay attention to the teaching which follows here, concerning knowledge and the rest, as well as their various distinctions caused by different guṇas, as I describe them duly, according to the science, according to reason.

Sāttvic Knowledge.

Here follows the threefold character of knowledge:

20. That by which a man sees the one Indes­tructible Reality in all beings, inseparate in the separated,—that knowledge know thou as Sāttvic.

Shankara's commentary:

Reality (Bhāva): the one Self. Indestructible: which can­not be exhausted either in itself or in its properties; Kūṭasthā or immutable. All beings: from Avyakta, or the unmanifested matter, down to the sthāvara or unmoving objects.

That Reality, the Self, is not different in different bodies; like the ākāśa, the Self admits of no division. Know thou this direct and right perception of the non-dual Self as Sāttvic.

Rājasic Knowledge.

The dualistic fallacious systems of philosophy are Rājasic and Tāmasic, and therefore they cannot directly bring about the cessation of saṁsāra.

21. But that knowledge which, by differentia­tion, sees in all the creatures various entities of distinct kinds, that knowledge know thou as Rājasic.

Shankara's commentary:

By differentiation: regarding them as different in different bodies. Entities: Selves. Which sees, etc.: This should be interpreted to mean ‘by which one sees,’ since knowledge cannot be an agent.

Tāmasic Knowledge.

22. But that which clings to one single effect as if it were all, without reason, having no real object, and narrow, that is declared to be Tāmasic.

Shankara's commentary:

Tāmasic knowledge is engrossed in one single effect,— such as the body or an external idol—as though it is all-com­prehensive, thinking ‘this body is the Self’ or ‘that is God’, and that there is nothing higher than that.

Jīva (soul), for example, dwelling in the body is regarded by the naked Jains, etc., as being of the size of that body; and the Īśvara is regarded (by some) to be the mere stone or piece of wood.

This knowledge is not founded on reason and does not perceive things as they are. Because it is not founded on reason, it is narrow, as extending over a limited area, or as producing very small results.

This knowledge is said to be Tāmasic, because it is found only in Tāmasic beings possessing no faculty of discrimination.

Sāttvic Action.

The threefold nature of action is next described:

23. An action which is ordained, which is free from attachment, which is done without love or hatred by one not desirous of the fruit, that action is declared to be Sāttvic.

Shankara's commentary:

Ordained: Obligatory (nitya). It is not an action done by one impelled by love or hatred.

Rājasic Action.

24. But the action which is done by one long­ing for pleasures or done by the egotistic, costing much trouble, that is declared to be Rājasic.

Shankara's commentary:

Pleasures: as fruits of action.

The Egotistic: not as dis­tinguished from one who has realised the true nature of the Self (who is absolutely free from egotism),

but as distin­guished from one who is free from pride, in the sense in which an ordinary srotriya (a devotee of the Vedic Religion) of the world is expected to be free from egotism.

For, he who is absolutely without egotism, i.e., one who has rea­lised the Self, cannot even be imagined to long for the fruit of an action or to do an action costing much trouble.

Even the doer of a Sāttvic action is ignorant of the Self and is egotistic; much more so are the Rājasic and Tāmasic doers.

In common parlance, a Srotriya who is ignorant of the Self is said to be free from egotism; we say “He is a modest (unselfish) brāhmaa.” It is only from this class of persons that the doer of a Rājasic action is distinguished as being egotistic.

Tāmasic Action.

25. The action which is undertaken from delusion, without regarding the consequence, loss, injury, and ability, that is declared to be Tāmasic.

Shankara's commentary:

Loss: Loss of power and of wealth accruing from the action done. Injury: to living beings. Ability: one’s own ability to complete the work.

Sāttvic Agent.

Now the Lord proceeds to treat of the distinction among agents:

26. Free from attachment, not given to ego­tism, endued with firmness and vigour, unaffected in success and failure, an agent is said to be Sāttvic.

Shankara's commentary:

Success: Attainment of the fruit of the action done.

Unaffected: as having been impelled to act merely by the authority of the Śāstra, not by a desire for the fruits.

Rājasic Agent

27. Passionate, desiring to attain the fruit of action, greedy, cruel, impure, subject to joy and sorrow, such an agent is said to be Rājasic.

Shankara's commentary:

Greedy: thirsting for another’s property, not giving away one’s own property to worthy persons.

Cruel: doing harm to others. Impure: devoid of external and internal purity.

Subject to joy and sorrow: rejoicing on the attainment of what is desirable and feeling sorry on the attainment of what is not desirable or on parting with what is desirable. Joy and sorrow may arise on the success or failure of the action in which he is engaged.

Tāmasic Agent

28. Unsteady, vulgar, unbending, deceptive, wicked, indolent, desponding, and procrastinating. Such an agent is said to be Tāmasic.

Shankara's commentary:

Vulgar – uncultured in intellect (buddhi), who is like a child. Unbending: not bowing like a stick to anybody. Deceptive: concealing his real power. Wicked: setting others at variance with each other.

Indolent: not doing even what ought to be done. Desponding: always depressed in spirit.

Procrastinating: postponing duties too long, always sluggish, not doing even in a month what ought to be done today or tomorrow.

Intellect and Firmness are threefold according to guṇas.

29. The threefold division of intellect and firmness according to qualities, about to be taught fully and distinctively (by Me), hear thou, O Dhananjaya.

Shankara's commentary:

Qualities: Guṇas, such as Sattva. The first half of the verse contains in an aphoristic form what is going to be taught.

Dhananjaya: the conqueror of wealth. Arjuna is so called because he acquired much wealth,—human and divine, material and spiritual,—during his tour of conquest through the four quarters of the earth.

Sāttvic Intellect.

30. That which knows action and inaction, what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, fear and absence of fear, bondage and libera­tion, that intellect is Sāttvic, O Pārtha.

Shankara's commentary:

Action (pravṛtti): the cause of bondage, the karma- mārga, the path of action as taught in the śāstra. Inaction (nivṛtti): the cause of liberation, the path of sannyāsa.

— As ‘action’ (pravṛtti) and ‘inaction’ (nivṛtti) occur in connection with ‘bondage’ (bandha) and ‘liberation’ (moksha), they have been interpreted to mean the paths of action and renunciation (karma and sannyāsa).

What... done: the necessity for doing or not doing—by one who relies on the śāstra—at particular places and times, actions pro­ducing visible or invisible results, according as they are enjoined or prohibited by the scriptural or social ethics.

Fear etc.: the cause of fear and the cause of fearlessness, either visible or invisible. Bondage and liberation: together with their causes.

Knowledge is a vṛtti or function or state of intellect (buddhi), whereas intellect is what functions or undergoes change of state. Even firmness (dhṛiti) is only a particular function or state of intellect.

Rājasic Intellect.

31. That by which one wrongly understands dharma and a-dharma, and also what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, that intellect, O Pārtha, is Rājasic.

Shankara's commentary:

Dharma is what is ordained in the scriptures and a-dharma is what is prohibited in them. What...done: the same that was mentioned already. (xviii.30).Wrongly: in opposition to what is determined by all (authorities).

Tāmasic Intellect.

32. That which, enveloped in darkness, sees adharma as dharma and all things perverted, that intellect, O Pārtha, is Tāmasic.

Shankara's commentary:

It takes quite a perverted view of all things to be known.

Sāttvic Firmness.

33. The firmness which is ever accompanied by Yoga, and by which the activities of thought, of life-breaths and sense-organs, O Pārtha, are held fast, such firmness is Sāttvic.

Shankara's commentary:

Yoga: samādhi or concentration of mind. Held fast: restrained from rushing into ways which are opposed to the śāstra. It is only when they are restrained by firmness (of the intellect) that they do not rush into ways which are opposed to the śāstra.

The meaning of the passage is this: He who, by unflinching firmness, restrains the activities of thought(manas), of life-breaths and sense-organs, restrains them by Yoga.

Rājasic Firmness.

34. But the firmness with which one holds fast to dharma and pleasures and wealth, desirous of the fruit of each on its occasion, that firmness, O Pārtha, is Rājasic.        .

Shankara's commentary:

Dharma etc.: when a person is firmly convinced at heart that dharma, pleasure and wealth ought always to be secur­ed and is desirous of the fruit of each whenever that one (dharma or pleasure or wealth) occupies his attention, the firmness of such a person is Rājasic.

Tāmasic Firmness.

35. That with which a stupid man does not give up sleep, fear, grief, depression and lust, that firmness, O Pārtha, is Tāmasic.

Shankara's commentary:

The stupid man holds sensual gratification in high esteem and never gives up lasciviousness. He regards sleep, etc., as things that ought always to be resorted to.

Pleasure is threefold according to guas.

The threefold division of actions and of the several factors (kārakas) concerned in action, has been described. Here follows the threefold division of pleasure which is the effect of actions:

36. And now hear from Me, O lord of the Bhāratas, of the threefold pleasure, in which one delights by practice and surely comes to the end of pain.

Shankara's commentary:

Hear: Pay steady attention to. Practice: familiarity, frequency. The end: cessation or alleviation.

Sāttvic Pleasure.

37. That which is like poison at first, like nectar at the end, that pleasure is declared to be Sāttvic, born of the purity of one’s own mind.

Shankara's commentary:

Like poison at first: on its first occurrence it is attended with pain as it is preceded by much trouble in the acquisition of jñāna or spiritual knowledge, of vairāgya or indifference to worldly objects, of dhyāna and samādhi.

At the end, 'the pleasure is like nectar, arising from mature knowledge and indifference to external objects.

Declared: by the wise.

Born, etc.: born of the purity of one’s own buddhi or antaḥ- karaṇa; or, born of the perfectly clear knowledge of the Self.

Being so born, the pleasure is Sāttvic.

Rājasic Pleasure.

38. That pleasure which arises from the contact of the sense-organ with the object, at first like nectar, in the end like poison, that is declared to be Rājasic.

Shankara's commentary:

In the end like poison: after indulgence, the (sensual) pleasure proves to be like poison, because it leads to deterioration in strength, vigour, colour, wisdom, intellect, wealth and energy; and because it leads to a-dharma, and, as an effect thereof, to hell (nāraka).

Tāmasic Pleasure.

39. The pleasure which at first and in the sequel is delusive of the self, arising from sleep, indolence, and heedlessness, that pleasure is declared to be Tāmasic.

Shankara's commentary:

In the sequel: after the termination.

No man or god is free from guas.

Here follows the verse which concludes the present subject:

40. There is no being on earth, or again in heaven among the Devas, that can be free from these three guas born of Prakriti.

Shankara's commentary:

Being: animate or inanimate. Guas: such as Sattva. On earth: among men.

The sequel sums up the whole Doctrine.

The whole saṁsāra, manifested as action, instruments of action, and results, made up of the guṇas (Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas), and set up by avidya,—the evil of saṁsāra has been thus described as well as its root.

It has also been figuratively represented as a tree, in xv.1, et seq. It has also been said that after having cut the tree of saṁsāra asunder with the strong sword of non-attachment, “then That Goal should be sought after” (xv. 3, 4).

From this it may follow that, as everything is made up of the three guṇas, a cessation of the cause of saṁsāra cannot be brought about.

Now, it is with a view to show how its cessation can be brought about, with a view, further, to sum up the whole teaching of the Gītā-śāstra,

and with a view to show what the exact teaching of the Vedas and the smṛiti is which should be followed by those who seek to attain the highest end of man,

—it is with this view that the next section, from xviii. 41 onward, is commenced.