Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Shankara | Discourse 3 verse 1-3



Arjuna’s perplexity.

The two aspects of wisdom—relating respectively to Pravritti and Nivritti, i.e., to the Path of Works and the Path of Renunciation—with which the Gītā-Śāstra is con­cerned have been pointed out by the Lord in the Second Discourse, speaking of them as wisdom concerning Sānkhya and wisdom concerning Yoga.

From ii.55 to the end of the Discourse, He has recommended renunciation of action to those who hold to the Sānkhya-buddhi (Sānkhya aspect of wisdom) and has added in ii.72 that their end can be achieved by being devoted to that alone.

And as to Arjuna, He has declared in ii.47 that he should resort to works (karma) alone as based on Yoga-buddhi (the Yoga aspect of wisdom), while it has not been said that the Highest Good can be attained by that alone.

Seeing this, Arjuna is troubled in mind and therefore puts a question to the Lord. (III. 1, 2).

This perplexity in Arjuna’s mind is quite explicable:

He thinks, “how might the Lord first describe to me—a devout seeker of Bliss—the direct means of attaining Bliss, namely adherence to the Sānkhya aspect of wisdom, and then com­mand me to do action which is fraught with many a tangible evil and which is but an indirect and uncertain means of at­taining Bliss?

Arjuna’s question, too points to this state of mind; and the Lord’s words in reply to the question are explicable only when the śāstra makes such a distinction (between Sānkhya and Yoga) as has been described above.

No conjunction of Knowledge and Action.

A certain commentator interprets the meaning of Arju­na’s question differently and explains the Lord’s reply as opposed (to the question) in meaning.

So also, he sums up the teaching of the Gītā-śāstra in one way in the intro­ductory portion of his commentary, while he interprets the question and answer in this connection in a different way.


—It is stated in the introduction that a simul­taneous conjunction of knowledge and action for men in all stages of religious life is inculcated in the Gītā-śāstra;

and moreover a specific statement is made amounting to an emphatic denial of the doctrine that moksha can be attained by knowledge alone, i. e., without those works which are enjoined by the scriptures as obligatory through­out life.

But here, in the Third Discourse, he makes out that devotion to only one of the two paths is taught. This is tantamount to saying that the very works which are enjoined by the scriptures as obligatory throughout life have to be renounced.

How is it possible either for the Lord to teach such contradictions or for the disciple to accept them?

That commentator may perhaps explain away the contra­diction thus:

—It is only to the grihasthas (to the order of married householders)—but not to other orders—that salvation by mere knowledge, preceded by the renunciation of works enjoined in the śruti and in the smriti, is denied.

This, too, involves a self-contradiction.

For, after declar­ing (in the introduction) that a simultaneous conjunction of knowledge and action is meant for all religious orders by the Gītā-śāstra, how could he, in contradiction thereto, say here (in iii. Discourse) that salvation by mere knowledge is meant for some religious orders?

Then the commentator may explain away the contradiction thus:

It is with reference to the srauta-karma (action enjoined in the śruti) that the assertion is made that salva­tion by mere—i.e., unconjoined with the srauta karma— knowledge is denied to the grihasthas.

The smārta-karma (action enjoined in the smriti) that is meant for a gri­hastha is ignored as if it were absent. It is in this sense that salvation by mere knowledge is denied in the case of grihasthas.

This also involves an absurdity.

For, how is it possible for any intelligent man to believe that salvation by know­ledge conjoined only with the smārta-karma is denied to a grihastha alone, but not to other orders?

On the other hand, if, as a means of obtaining salvation, the smārta-karma should be conjoined with knowledge in the case of the sannyāsins—the fourth religious order,—then it follows that, for the grihasthas also, knowledge should be conjoined only with the smārta-karma, not with the srauta-karma.

Then, he may explain away the contradiction thus:

it is only in the case of a grihastha that a conjunction (of know­ledge) with both the srauta-karma and the smārta-karma— both being of equal importance to him—is necessary for salvation, whereas the sannyasins can attain moksha by knowledge conjoined with the smārta-karma only.

If so, too much exertion in the shape of both the srauta- karma and the smārta-karma, very painful in themselves, falls to the lot of the grihastha.

Renunciation enjoined in the scriptures.

The commentator in question may now say:

Because of this multiplicity of exertion, salvation is attained only by a grihastha, but not by other religious orders who have not to do the nitya or obligatory srauta-karma.

This, too, is wrong;

for, in all the Upanishads, in the Itihāsas, in the Purāṇa, and in the Yoga-śāstra, renuncia­tion of all karma is enjoined on the seeker of moksha as an accessory t to knowledge.

Both in the śruti and in the smriti, a gradual passage (through the three orders to the fourth order) is enjoined, as well as a sudden jump (from any one of the three to the fourth order).

If so—the commentator in question may retort—it follows that a conjunction of knowledge with action is necessary for all religious orders.

No, (we reply). For, renunciation of all action is enjoined on the seeker of moksha, as the following passages from the śruti show:

Having given up all desire for progeny, for wealth, and for the world, they lead a mendicant life.”— (Bri. Up- 3-5-1)

Wherefore, of these austerities, renunciation, they say, is excellent.” “Renunciation alone excelled.” (Taittiriya-Up.4-79,78).

Not by action, not by progeny, not by wealth, but by renunciation, some attained immortality.” (Ibid.4.12).

One may renounce the world when yet a student.” (Jābāla-Upanishad, 4).

The following passages from the smriti may also be quoted: —

Give up religion, give up irreligion. Give up truth, give up untruth. Having given up both truth and un­truth, give up that by which you give them up.”

Finding the saṁsāra (mundane existence) worth­less and wishing to get at the essence, the unmarried grow quite weary of life and renounce the world.”— (Brihaspati).

Śūka’s teaching runs as follows:

By action a person is bound, and by wisdom he is released. Therefore, the sages who see the goal do no action.’’ (Śāntiparva, Mokshadharma, 241-7).

Here (in the Bhagavad-Gītā) also we have, “Renouncing all actions by thought, ” etc. (v. 12).

Moksha cannot be the effect of an action.

Moksha, too, being no effect of an act, no action will avail a mumukshu, a seeker of moksha.

(Objection):—The performance of obligatory duties is in­tended for the mere avoidance of the sin (of their omission).

(Answer):—No. For, the sin arises only in the case of one who has not formally entered the fourth order, the order of sannyāsins.

It is certainly (as the opponent must admit) not possible to imagine that a sannyāsin will incur sin by omit­ting the agṇi-kārya—worship of the sacred fire—as students (Brahmachārins) do thereby incur when they are not yet san­nyāsins, i.e., when they have not formally renounced works.

Neither is it, indeed, possible to imagine the generation of sin—which is a bhāva or positive effect—out of the omission of the obligatory duties,—which is an abhāva or mere negation; for, that the generation of existence out of non-existence is impossible is taught by the śruti in the words:

How can existence arise out of non-existence?” (Chāndogya-Upanishad, 6-2).

If the Veda should teach what is inconceivable to us, i.e., that evil arises from the omission of prescribed duties, it is tantamount to saying that the Veda conduces to no good and is therefore no authority; for, performance and non-performance alike would only produce pain.

This would further lead to the absurd conclusion that śāstra or revelation is creative, not indicative, a conclusion which is acceptable to none.

Hence there is no karma for sannyāsins; and hence also the absurdity of a conjunction of knowledge and action.

Conjunction is inconsistent with Arjuna’s question.

Arjuna’s question (in iii,1) would also be inexplicable.

If, in the Second Discourse, it was said by the Lord that both knowledge and action should be simultaneously conjoined in Arjuna himself, then his question in iii.1. cannot be explained.

If it was taught to Arjuna that both knowledge and action should be conjoined in him, knowledge which is superior to action must certainly have been meant for him.

Then there could be no occasion for the question, or the blame, which is implied in Arjuna’s words “then why dost Thou, O Keśava, direct me to this terrible action?” (iii.1.)

It can by no means be supposed that knowledge, the supe­rior of the two, was forbidden to Arjuna alone by the Lord in His previous teaching,—in which case the question on the part of Arjuna distinguishing (one path from the other) might arise.

If, on the other hand, it has been previously taught by the Lord that knowledge and action are intend­ed for two distinct classes of men respectively,

on the ground that a simultaneous devotion—on the part of one man—to knowledge and action was impossible owing to their mutual opposition, then the question (in iii. i) be­comes explicable.

Even supposing that the question was asked from ignorance, the Lord’s answer that devotion to knowledge and devotion to action are assigned to two distinct classes of men cannot be explained.

Neither can the reply of the Lord be attributed to His ignorance.

From this very answer of the Lord—that devotion to knowledge and devotion to action are assigned to distinct classes of persons—follows the impossibility of a conjunction of knowledge and action.

Wherefore the conclusion of the Gītā, and of all the Upanishads is this, that moksha can be obtained by knowledge alone, unaided (by action).

If a conjunction of the two were possible (for one man), Arjuna’s request to the Lord to teach him only one of the two, jñāna or karma, would be unaccountable.

The Lord, moreover, emphatically teaches the impossibility of devotion to jñāna in the case of Arjuna, in the words “do thou there­fore perform action only.” (iv.15).

Which is better, Knowledge or Action.

Arjuna said:

1. If it be thought by Thee that knowledge is superior to action, O Janārdana, why then dost Thou, O Keśava, direct me to this terrible action?

Shankara's commentary:

If it had been meant that knowledge and action should be conjoined, then the means of salvation would be one only;

and, in that case, a groundless separation of knowledge from action would have been made by Arjuna declaring knowledge to be superior to action.

If the two be regarded as constituting together a single means to a single end, they cannot at the same time be regarded to be distinct as producing distinct effects.

Neither could we account for what Arjuna said—“Why then dost Thou direct me to this terrible action? ”—as if meaning to censure the Lord, on finding that He—for what reason Arjuna could not see clearly—had exhorted him to follow the unwholesome course of action after declaring that knowledge was superior to action.

Now, if a conjunction of knowledge with the smārta- karma only were intended for all by the Lord and under­stood by Arjuna as so intended, how could we then justify the words of Arjuna: “why dost Thou direct me to this terrible action?


2. With an apparently perplexing speech, Thou confusest as it were my understanding. Tell me with certainty that one (way) by which I may attain bliss.

Shankara's commentary:

No doubt the Lord speaks clearly; still, to me of dull understanding the speech of the Lord appears to be perplex­ing.

Thereby “Thou confusest as it were my understand­ing.” Arjuna means—“It is not possible that Thou would confuse me, Thou who has undertaken to remove my confusion?

Hence I say ‘Thou confusest as it were my understanding.’

He goes on If Thou thinkest that knowledge and action, which are intended for two distinct classes of aspirants, cannot both be followed by one and the same person,

then teach me one of the two, knowledge or action, after determining (within Thyself) that this one alone is suited to Arjuna and is in accordance with the state and powers of his understanding, teach me that one of the two, knowledge or action, by which I may attain bliss.

If knowledge had been intended by the Lord to be at least an accessory to devotion to action, why then should Arjuna wish to know about only one of them.

It had not indeed been said by the Lord that He would teach him one only of the two, knowledge or action, but not both,—in which case alone Arjuna might ask for one only, seeing that both would not be taught to him.

The Paths of Knowledge and Action.

The Blessed Lord gives the following reply, which is in conformity with the question:

The Blessed Lord said:

3. In this world a twofold path was taught by Me at first, O sinless one: that of the Sānkhyas by devotion to knowledge, and that of the Yogins by devotion to action.

Shankara's commentary:

In this world—with reference to the people of the three castes, for whom alone are intended the teachings of the śāstra (the Scripture),

—a twofold nishṭha or path of devotion was taught by Me, the Omniscient Lord,

when at first, at the beginning of creation, I created people and revived the tradition of the Vedic doctrine for teaching them the means of attaining worldly prosperity and Bliss.

—What was that twofold path of devotion?

—One of them was jñāna-yoga, the devotion of knowledge—knowledge itself being yoga— suited to the Sānkhyas,

to those who possessed a clear knowledge of the Self and the not-Self, who renounced the world from the Brahmacharya (the first holy order or āśrama), who determined the nature of things in the light of the Vedāntic wisdom, who belonged to the highest class of sannyāsins known as the Paramahamsas, whose thoughts ever dwelt on Brahman only.

The other was karma-yoga, the devotion of action,—action itself being Yoga or devotion,—suited to yogins, to karmins, to those who were inclined to action.

If it had already been taught or is going to be taught by the Lord in the Gītā—and if it had been taught in the Vedas as well—

that both knowledge and action should be conjoined in one and the same person as a means to one and the same end,

how might the Lord teach Arjuna, who approached Him as a beloved pupil, that the two paths of knowledge and action were respectively intended for two distinct classes of aspirants?

If, on the other hand, we suppose, that the Lord meant that Arjuna, after hearing Him teach knowledge and action, would devote him­self, of his own accord, to both of them simultaneously conjoined,

but that to others He would teach that the two paths were intended for two distinct classes of aspirants,

then it would be tantamount to saying that the Lord is subject to love and hatred and that therefore He is no authority (in such matters): which is absurd.

Wherefore by no argument can a conjunction of knowledge and action be proved.