Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Shankara | Discourse 2 verse 19-21

The Self is unconcerned in action.

The Lord now quotes two Vedic verses to confirm the view that the Gītā-śāstra is intended to remove the cause of saṁsāra, such as grief and delusion, but not to enjoin works.

It is only a false notion of yours, says the Lord that you think thus: “Bhīshma and others will be killed by me in the battle; I will be their slayer.”


19. Whoever looks upon Him as the slayer, and whoever looks upon Him as the slain, both these know not aright. He slays not, nor is He slain.

Shankara's commentary:

He who understands the Self—of whom we are speak­ing—as the agent in the act of slaying, and he who regards Him as the sufferer in the act of slaying when the body is slain, neither of these two has understood the Self aright, for want of discrimination.

Those who think ‘I slay’ or ‘I am slain’ when the body is slain, and thus identify the Self with the object of the consciousness of ‘I,’ the ego (aham),—they do not understand the real nature of the Self.

Being immutable (avikriya), the Self is neither the agent nor the object of the action of slaying.

The Self is immutable.

How is the Self immutable?—This is answered by the next verse:

20. He is not born, nor does He ever die; after having been, He again ceases not to be; nor the re­verse. Unborn, eternal, unchangeable and primeval, He is not slain when the body is slain.

Shankara's commentary:

He is not born; no such change of condition as birth takes place in the Self. Nor does He die: this denies the last change of condition called death.

—‘Ever’ should be construed with the denial of every change, thus: He is never born, never dies, and so on.

—For, the Self, having once ex­isted, does not afterwards cease to be any more. In ordinary parlance he is said to die who, having once existed, after­wards ceases to be.

Neither does the Self come into existence, like the body, having not existed before. Where­fore He is unborn. For, he is said to be born who, having not existed, comes into existence.

Not so is the Self. Wherefore He is unborn. And because He does not die, He is eternal.

[Though, by the denial of the first and the last changes, all changes have been denied, yet it is thought necessary to directly deny the intermediate changes, in the words ‘unchangeable,’ etc., so as to imply the absence of all such changes of condition as motion, though not specified here.]

He is unchangeable: He is constant, not subject to the change of condition known as decline (apakshaya).

Having no parts, He does not diminish in His own substance. As devoid of qualities, He does not diminish by loss of a quality.

He is primeval, not subject to the change known as growth (vriddhi) as opposed to decline.

For, that which increases in size by the accretion of parts is said to grow and to be renewed. As devoid of parts, the Self was as fresh in the past (as He is now or will be in future; i. e., He is ever the same); He never grows.

And - He is not slain when the body is slain: He is not transformed when the body is transformed.—To avoid tautology, slaying is interpreted to mean transformation: the Self is not subject to transformation.

This verse teaches the absence in the Self of the six bhāva-vikāras,—of the six vikāras or changes of condition to which all bhāvas or beings in the world are subject.

The passage, on the whole, means that the Self is devoid of all sorts of change. Hence the words in the previous verse, “both these know not aright.”

The enlightened man has to renounce works.

Having started (in ii. 19) the proposition that the Self is neither the agent nor the object of the action of slaying, and having stated in the next verse the immutability of the Self as the reason for that statement,

the Lord concludes the proposition as follows:—

21. Who so knows Him as indestructible, eter­nal, unborn and inexhaustible,—How, O son of Pritha, and whom, does such a man cause to slay, and whom does he slay?

Shankara's commentary:

He who knows the Self (described in the last verse) as indestructible, i.e., devoid of the final change called death, as eternal, i.e., devoid of change called transformation, as unborn and inexhaustible, i.e., devoid of birth and decline,

— how does an enlightened man of this description do the act of slaying, or how does he cause another to slay?

He slays nobody at all, nor does he at all cause another to slay.

—In both the places, denial is meant, since no question can have been asked. The reason for the denial of slaying apply­ing to all actions alike, what the Lord means to teach in this section appears to be the denial of all action whatso­ever in the case of the enlightened;

the denial, however, of the specific act of slaying being only meant as an example.

(Objection):— What special reason for the absence of action in the case of an enlightened man does the Lord see when denying actions in the words “how does such a man slay?”

(Answer):—-The immutability of the Self has already been given as the reason for the absence of all actions.

(Objection):—True, it has been given; but that cannot be a sufficient reason, since the enlightened man is distinct from the immutable Self. We cannot indeed say that a man who has known an immovable pillar can have no action to do.

 [Answer):—This objection does not apply. For, the enlightened man is identical with the Self. Enlightenment (vidvatta) does not pertain to the aggregate of the body, etc.

Therefore, as the only other alternative, the enlightened man should be identical with the Self, who is not included in the aggregate and is immutable.

No action being possible in the case of an enlightened man, it is but just to deny all action in the words “how does such a man slay?”

Now, for instance, the Self, while remaining immutable, is, by reason of His not being distinguished from intellectual states (buddhi-vṛittis), imagined, through ignorance, to be the percipient of objects, such as sound, perceived by the intellect and other means.

Similarly, the Self is imagined to be enlightened, merely because of avidyā associating Him with that intellectual perception—which is unreal— which takes the form of discrimination between the Self and the not-Self, while in reality the Self has undergone no change whatever.

From this assertion of impossibility of action in the case of an enlightened man, the conclusion of the Lord is evident, that those acts which are enjoined by the scripture are intended for the unenlightened.

Works are meant for the unenlightened.

(Objection):—Even knowledge is intended for the unen­lightened only, as it would be useless—like grinding the flour over again—to impart knowledge to those who already possess it.

Wherefore, it is hard to explain the distinction that works are meant for the unenlightened, and not for the enlightened.

(Answer):—This objection does not apply. For, the distinction can be explained by the existence or non-exis­tence of something to be performed in the two cases respec­tively.

(To explain): There remains something for the un­enlightened man to do, on understanding the meaning of the injunctions regarding the Agnihotra etc.

He thinks that the Agnihotra and other sacrificial rites are to be performed, and that the many necessary accessories thereto should be acquired. He thinks further, “I am the agent, this is my duty.”

Nothing, on the contrary, remains to be performed subsequent to the realization of the truth of such teachings as are contained in ii. 20 etc., regarding the, real nature of the Self. No other conviction arises except that the Self is one and non-agent. Wherefore, the distinc­tion referred to can be accounted for.

In the case of him who thinks that the Self is the doer of actions, there will necessarily arise the idea that he has this or that thing to do.

A man who possesses this sort of knowledge is qualified for actions, and on  him actions are enjoined. Such        a man is unenlightened, for it is said that “both these know not aright” (ii. 19).

In ii. 21, the enlighten­ed man is specified, and with reference to him actions are denied in the words “how does such a man slay?”

There­fore the enlightened man who has seen the immutable Self and the man who is eager for emancipation have only to renounce all works.

Hence it is that Lord Nārāyaṇa distinguishes the enlightened Sānkhyas from the unenlightened followers of works, and teaches to them respectively two distinct paths (iii. 3).

Accordingly, Vyāsa said to his son, “Now there are two paths.” (Mokshadharma, xxiv. 6). In the same connection, Vyāsa said that the path of works is the first, and that renunciation comes next.

Our Lord will refer to this distinction again and again in this work. (vide iii. 27, 28 ; v. 13, etc.)

Knowledge of the Immutable Self is possible.

(Objection):—In this connection some conceited pedants say:

To no man can arise the conviction ‘I am the immutable Self, the One, the non-agent, devoid of the six changes, such as birth, to which all things in the world are subject; ’ which conviction arising, renunciation of all works is enjoined.

(Answer):—This objection does not apply here. For, in vain then would be the Scriptural teaching, such as “the Self is not born,” etc. (ii. 20).

They (the objectors) may be asked why knowledge of the immutability, non-agency, unity, etc., of the Self cannot be produced by the Scripture in the same way as knowledge of the existence of dharma and a-dharma and of the doer passing through other births is produced by the teaching of the Scripture?

(Opponent):—Because the Self is inaccessible to any of the senses.

(Answer):—Not so. For, the Scripture says “It can be seen by the mind alone.” (Bri. Up. iv, 4, 19).

The mind, refined by Sama and Dama—i. e., by the subjugation of the body, the mind and the senses—and equipped with the teachings of the Scripture and the Teacher, constitutes the sense by which the Self may be seen.

Thus, while the Scripture and inference (anumāna) teach the immuta­bility of the Self, it is mere temerity to hold that no such knowledge can arise.

The enlightened should resort to Jñāna-Yoga.

It must be granted that the knowledge which thus arises necessarily dispels ignorance, its opposite.

This ignorance has been already indicated in ii. 19. It is there taught that the notion that the Self is the agent or the object of the action of slaying is a product of ignorance.

That the agency, etc., of the Self is a product of ignorance holds good in the case of all actions alike, since the Self is immutable.

It is only the agent, subject to variations of condition that causes another person, who can be acted on by him, to do an action.

This agency—direct and causative with respect to all actions alike—Lord Vāsudeva denies in ii.21 in the case of an enlightened man, with a view to show that the enlightened man has nothing to do with any action whatsoever.

[Question):—What, then, has he to do?

[Answer):—This has been already answered in iii.3 that the Sānkhyas should resort to Jñāna-Yoga or devotion to knowledge.

So also, the Lord will teach renunciation of all works in the words, “Renouncing all actions by thought, the self-controlled man rests happily in the nine-gated city,— in the body—neither acting nor causing to act ” (v. 13).

[Objection):—Here the word ‘thought’ implies that there is no renunciation of the acts of speech and body.

[Answer]:—No, for there is the qualification, ‘all actions.’

[Objection): —The renunciation of all mental acts only is meant.

[Answer):—No. Since all acts of speech and body are preceded by mental activity, they cannot exist when the mind is inactive.

[Objection):—Then, let him renounce all other acts of mind except such as are necessary for those acts of speech and body which are enjoined by the Scripture.

(Answer):—No, for, there is the qualification, “neither acting nor causing to act.”

(Objection):—Then, the renunciation of all actions, here taught by the Lord, may be meant for the dying man, not for the living man.

(Answer):—No; for, then, the qualification rests in the nine-gated city—in the body’ would have no meaning. No man who is dying can by giving up all activity be said to rest in the body.

(Objection):—Let us then construe the passage thus: Neither acting nor causing another to act, he, the disembodi­ed soul of the enlightened man, deposits (saṁ + nyas) all activity in the body (i. e., knows that all activity belongs to the body, not to the Self) and rests happily.

Let us not, on the contrary, construe, as you have done, ‘he rests in the body,’ etc.

(Answer):—No. Everywhere (in the śruti and in the smriti) is emphatically asserted that the Self is immutable. Moreover, the act of resting presupposes a place to rest in, whereas the act of renunciation does not presuppose it. And the Sanskrit verb ‘saṁ + nyas’ means ‘to renounce,’ not ‘to deposit.’

Therefore, the Gita-Śāstra teaches that he who has acquired knowledge of the Self should resort to renuncia­tion only, not to works. This we shall show here and there in the following sections, wherever they treat of the Self.