Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Shankara | Discourse 3 verse 17-33

Karma - Yoga is not meant for the Self-knower.

Now, the Lord Himself supposes Arjuna to ask the fol­lowing question:

Is the wheel, thus set in motion, to be fol­lowed by all, or by him only who has not yet attained to devotion in the path of knowledge which the Sānkhyas or Self-knowers tread and which is attainable by the ignorant by means of devotion in the path of action already des­cribed?

In answer to this question, or with a view to afford, of his own accord, a clear understanding of the teaching of the śāstra, He proceeds to show that what is intended to be taught in the Gītā-śāstra is the same truth that is embodied in the following passage of the śruti:

The brāhmaas (the devotees of the Brahman, the Self), knowing this, the Self, and free from illusory knowledge, shake off all desires of progeny, etc., cheri­shed, of necessity, by those who are still subject to illusion;

and they lead a mendicant life for the barest necessaries of life. They have nothing else to do than resort to devotion to Self-knowledge.” (Bri.Up. 3-5-1)

17. That man, verily, who rejoices only in the Self, who is satisfied with the Self, who is content in the Self alone,—for him there is nothing to do.

Shankara's commentary:

But that man —a sannyāsin, the Sānkhya, one devoted to Self-knowledge—whose joy is in the Self, not in the objects of the senses; who is satisfied only with the Self, not with food-essence, etc.; who is contented in the Self;

— all others derive contentment from possession of external things, whereas, disregarding these, he is content in the Self only and has no desire for anything;

—for such a man, for the man who knows the Self, there is nothing to do.


18.  For him, there is here no interest what­ever in what is done or what is not done. Nor is there in all beings any one he should resort to for any object.

Shankara's commentary:

For the man thus rejoicing in the Self, no purpose is served by action.—Does, then, any evil called sin (pratya-vāya) arise from inaction?

—No evil whatever, either by way of incurring sin, or by way of losing the Self, arises in this world from inaction. Nor is there, in all beings from Brahma (Prajāpati) down to the sthāvara or immovable objects, any whose support he has to gain by action.

He has no object whatever to gain, for which he has to depend upon any particular being: if he were to have any object in view, then he would have to exert himself to gain that object.

Arjuna qualified for Karma-yoga.

You have not attained to the right knowledge, which corresponds to the all-spreading flood of water (vide ii. 46).


19. Therefore, without attachment, constantly perform the action which should be done; for, per­forming action without attachment, man reaches the Supreme.

Shankara's commentary:

Performing action, without attachment, for the sake of the Īśvara, man attains moksha, through attaining purity of mind (sattva-śuddhi).

The wise should set an example to the masses.

For the following reason also (should thou perform action):

20.  By action only, indeed, did Janaka and others try to attain perfection. Even with a view to the protection of the masses thou should perform (action).

Shankara's commentary:

The wise kṣatriyas of old, such as Janaka and Aśvapati tried by action alone to attain moksha (saṁsiddhi).

If they were persons possessed of right knowledge, then we should understand that, since they had been engaged in works they tried to reach moksha with action, i. e., without abandoning action, with a view to set an example to the world.

If, on the other hand, such men as Janaka were persons who had not attained right knowledge, then, (we should under­stand), they tried to attain moksha through action which is the means of attaining purity of mind (sattva-śuddhi).

If you think that obligatory works were performed by the ancients such as Janaka because they were ignorant, and that it does not follow from that fact alone that action should be performed by another who possesses right know­ledge and has done all his duties,

—even then, as subject to your prārabdha-karma (the karma which has led you to this birth as a Kshatriya), and having regard also to the purpose of preventing the masses from resorting to a wrong path, you ought to perform action.

Who should secure the welfare of the world? And how?

The answer follows:

21. Whatsoever a great man does, that alone the other men do; whatever he sets up as the standard, that the world follows.

Shankara's commentary:

Whatever authority the chief among men follows, whether in relation to the spiritual or temporal matters, the same is regarded as the authority by his followers.

If you have a doubt even as regards the necessity there is for the protection of the masses, why do you not observe Me?

22 I have nothing whatsoever to achieve in the three worlds, O son of Prithā, nor is there any­thing unattained that should be attained; yet I engage in action.

Shankara's commentary:

I have nothing to achieve, for, there is nothing unattained.

23. For, should I not ever engage in action, unwearied, men would in all matters follow My path, O son of Pritha.

Shankara's commentary:

My: I being the chief among men.

And what harm is there in that?

—The Lord says:

24. These worlds would be ruined if I should not perform action; I would be the cause of confusion of castes, and would destroy these creatures.

Shankara's commentary:

If I would not perform action, then there would be no action conducive to the continuance of the universe, and all these worlds would fall into ruin. Moreover, I would be the author of confusion of castes, and thereby destroy these creatures.

Thus, though working for the welfare of the creatures, I would bring about their ruin,—which would be unbecoming of Me, their lord.

The wise man’s action as contrasted with that of the ignorant.

Suppose, on the other hand, you—or suppose (for that matter) any other man thinks that he has achieved his ends and has realised the Self, even he should work for the wel­fare of others, though for himself he may have nothing to do.

25.  As ignorant men act attached to work, O Bhārata, so should the wise man act, unattached, from a wish to protect the masses.

Shankara's commentary:

The ignorant expect the result of their action thus: “The result of this action shall accrue to me.”

The wise man: he who knows the Self.

For me, or for any other person who, knowing the Self, thus seeks the welfare of the -world, there is nothing to do except it be with a view to that welfare of the world at large.

To such a man who knows the Self, the following advice' is offered:

26.  Let no wise man cause unsettlement in the minds of the ignorant who are attached to action; he should make them do all actions, himself fulfilling them with devotion.

Shankara's commentary:

An ignorant man who is attached to action believes “I should do this action and enjoy its result.” No wise man should unsettle that firm belief.

—What then should he do?

— Himself doing diligently and well the actions which the ignorant have to do, he should make them do those actions.

In what way is an ignorant man attached to actions?

27. Actions are wrought in all cases by the energies of Nature. He whose mind is deluded by egoism thinks ‘I am the doer.’

Shankara's commentary:

Nature (Prakriti, Pradhāna) is the equipoised state of the three guṇas or energies, i.e., sattva (goodness), rajas (activity), tamas (darkness).

It is by the guṇas or the modi­fications of Nature, manifesting themselves as the body and the senses, that all our actions, conducive to temporal and spiritual ends, are done.

The man whose mind (antaḥ- kāraṇa) is variously deluded by ahaṁkāra, by egoism identifying the aggregate of the body and the senses with the Self,

i. e., who ascribes to himself all the attributes of the body and the senses and thus thoroughly identifies himself with them

—he, by nescience, sees actions in him­self: as regards every action, he thinks “I am the doer.”

But as regards the wise man:

28. But he who knows the truth, O mighty- armed, about the divisions of the energies and (their) functions, is not attached, thinking that the energies act upon the energies.

Shankara's commentary:

He who is versed in the classification of the energies (guṇas) and their respective functions holds that the ener­gies as sense-organs move amid the energies as sense- objects, but not the Self. Thus holding, he forms no attachment (for actions).


29. Those deluded by the energies of Nature are attached to the functions of the energies. He who knows the All should not unsettle the unwise who know not the All.

Shankara's commentary:

The foolish believe we do action for the sake of its result.” These men who are attached to action look only to the results of their actions.

The man who knows the All—the man who knows the Self—should not of himself unsettle such men, i. e., he should not disturb their convic­tion.

How an aspirant for Moksha should do actions.

How then action should be performed by the ignorant man who seeks moksha and who is qualified for action only?

The answer follows:

30. Renouncing all actions in Me, with thy thought resting on the Self, being free from hope, free from selfishness, devoid of fever, do thou fight.

Shankara's commentary:

To me, Vāsudeva, the Divine Being, the Supreme Lord, the Omniscient, the Self of all, surrender all actions, with the wise thought that “I, the agent, do this for the Īśvara’s sake as His liege.”

Fever: anguish, grief.

31.  Men who constantly practise this teaching of Mine with faith and without cavilling, they too are liberated from actions.

Shankara's commentary:

Men who always follow this teaching of Mine without cavilling, i. e., without cherishing any feeling of envy to­wards Me, Vāsudeva, the Supreme Master (Parama-Guru) —they too are released from actions, i. e., from dharma and a-dharma, from the merit and demerit of actions.

32. But those who, carping at this, My teaching, practise it not,—know them as deluded in all know­ledge, as senseless men doomed to destruction.

Shankara's commentary:

Influence of man’s nature on his conduct.

Then, why do they, not following Thy doctrine, perform others’ duties and neglect their own? Thus opposed to Thee, why are they not afraid of the sin of transgressing Thy command?

33.  Even the man of knowledge acts in conform­ity with his own nature; (all) beings follow (their) nature; what shall coercion avail?

Shankara's commentary:

Nature (prakṛti) is the saṁskāra (the latent self-repro­ductive impression of the past acts of dharma and a-dharma) manifesting itself at the commencement of the present birth.

Even the man of knowledge acts according to his own nature; it needs no saying that an ignorant man acts ac­cording to his own nature. Thus all living beings follow their own nature.

What shall coercion in the shape of prohibition avail? That is to say, to Me or to anybody else, nature is irresistible.