Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Shankara | Discourse 3 verse 4-16

Karma-Yoga leads to freedom from action.

The superiority of knowledge to action, referred to by Arjuna (iii. i), must be true, because there is no denial of it. And it must also be true that the path of knowledge is in­tended for sannyāsins only. Since it has been stated that the two paths are intended for two distinct classes of aspirants, such is evidently the opinion of the Lord.

Now seeing that Arjuna, afflicted as he was at heart on the ground that the Lord had urged him to action which caused bondage, was resolved not to perform action, the Lord proceeds with iii. 4.

Or, the connection of what has gone before with the sequel may be thus stated:

As devotion to knowledge and devotion to action are mutually opposed, it is impossible for one man to resort to both of them at one and the same time.

From this it may follow that each leads to the goal quite independently of the other.

But the truth is this:

Devotion to action is a means to the end, not directly, but only as leading to devotion to knowledge; whereas the latter, which is attained by means of devotion to action, leads to the goal directly, without extraneous help.

To show this, the Lord says:

4. Not by abstaining from action does man win actionlessness, nor by mere renunciation does he attain perfection.

Shankara's commentary:

‘Action’ refers to the acts of worship (Yajña) which, per­formed in this or a previous birth, conduce to the destruction of sins committed in the past and cause purity of mind (sattva, antaḥ-kāraṇa);

and by thus purifying mind, they cause knowledge to spring up and lead to the path of devo­tion to knowledge.

It is said in the Mahābhārata:

Knowledge springs in men on the destruction of sinful karma, when the Self is seen in self as in a clean mirror.” (Śāntiparva, 204-8.)

By abstaining from action man cannot attain to actionlessness (naiṣkarmya), freedom from activity, i. e., devotion in the path of knowledge, the condition of the actionless Self.

From the statement that man wins not freedom from acti­vity by abstaining from action, it is understood that by the opposite course, i.e., by performing action, man attains freedom from activity.

For what reason, then, does he not attain freedom from activity by abstaining from action?

The answer follows:

—For, performance of action is a means of attaining freedom from activity.

Certainly there is no attaining of an end except by proper means.

Devotion to action is the means of attaining freedom from activity, i. e., devotion to knowledge,—as taught in the śruti as well as here.

In the śruti, for instance, karma-yoga is declared to be a means to jñāna-yoga in the following passage:

“The Brāhmaṇas seek to know this (the Self) by the study of the Vedas, by yajña or worship.” (Bri. Up. 4-4-22)

In this passage, karma-yoga is pointed out as a means of realising the Self that is sought after. Here (in the Bhagavad-Gītā) the following passages point to the same view:

But without Yoga, O mighty-armed, renunciation is hard to attain.” (v.6.)

Having abandoned attachment, Yogins perform action for the purification of the Self.” (v. 11.)

Sacrifice, gift and also austerity are the purifiers of the wise.” (xviii.5.)

Now, the following objection may be raised:

—A passage in the smriti,

- “Having promised immunity from fear to all beings, one should resort to freedom from activity (naiṣkarmya),”—shows that actionlessness can be attained by renouncing the prescribed duties.

Our experience also favours the idea that freedom from activity can be attained by abstaining from action. Of what use then is the perform­ance of action to one who seeks for freedom from action?

In reply the Lord says:

Nobody can attain perfection,— i.e., freedom from activity, or devotion in the path of know­ledge—by mere renunciation, by merely abandoning action, without possessing knowledge.

The ignorant are swayed by Nature.

For what reason, then, does a person not attain perfec­tion, i. e., freedom from activity, by mere renunciation unaccompanied with knowledge?

—The reason thus asked for is given as follows:

5. None, verily, even for an instant, ever remains doing no action; for everyone is driven helpless to action by the energies born of Nature.

Shankara's commentary:

The energies (guṇas) are three, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.

‘Everyone’ means every living being that is ignorant, (ajñā), who knows not (the Self); for, it is said (of a wise man that he is one) “who is unshaken by the energies” (xiv. 23.)

Since the Sānkhyas have been distinguished from the Yogins (iii. 3), the Karma-yoga, devotion to action, is indeed meant for the ignorant only, not for the wise.

As for the wise who are unshaken by the guṇas, and who in them­selves are devoid of any change whatever, the Karma-yoga is out of place.

And this was explained at length in our comments on ii. 21.

The unenlightened should not give up Karma = Yoga.

Now, for him who knows not the Self, it is not right to neglect the duty enjoined on him.

So, the Lord says:

6.  He who, restraining the organs of action, sits thinking in his mind of the objects of the senses, self-deluded, he is said to be one of false conduct.

Shankara's commentary:

The organs of action are the hand, etc. The self-deluded man, the man whose anta-kāraa is thus deluded, is called a hypocrite, a man of sinful conduct.

7.  But whoso, restraining the senses by mind, O Arjuna, engages in Karma-Yoga, unattached, with organs of action, he is esteemed.

Shankara's commentary:

If the ignorant man, who is only qualified for action, per­forms action with the hand, with the organ of speech, etc., restraining the organs of knowledge by mind and unmindful of the result, he is more worthy than the other, who is a hypocrite.


8. Do thou perform (thy) bounden duty; for, action is superior to inaction. And even the main­tenance of the body would not be possible for thee by inaction.

Shankara's commentary:

Thy bounden duty is the obligatory (nitya) act, that which one is bound to perform, and which is not prescribed (in the scriptures) as a means to a specific end.

Action is superior to inaction in point of result. By inaction you cannot attain success in the life’s journey. The distinction between action and inaction is thus seen in our own experience.

It is also wrong to suppose that actions lead to bondage and that they should not therefore be performed.


9. Except in the case of action for Sacrifice's sake, this world is action-bound. Action for the sake Thereof, do thou, O son of Kuntī, perform, free from attachment.

Shankara's commentary:

Sacrifice (Yajña) here means Īśvara, the Supreme Lord. So, the śruti says ‘Yajña, verily, is Viṣu.’ ‘This world’ means those persons who, as qualified for action only, are bound to do it and who accordingly perform it.

The world is not bound by action done for the Lord's sake. Perform action without attachment.

For the following reason also, action should be done by him who is qualified for it:

10.  Having first created mankind together with sacrifices, the Prajāpati said, “By this shall ye propagate; let this be to you the cow of plenty.

Shankara's commentary:

Mankind: composed of three castes. First: at the begin­ning of creation. The cow of plenty: the cow which yields all desires.

How can this be achieved by sacrifice?

11.  With this do ye nourish the Gods, and the Gods shall nourish you: thus nourishing one another, ye shall attain the supreme good.

Shankara's commentary:

“By this sacrifice ye nourish the Gods such as Indra. The Gods shall nourish you with rain, etc.” ‘The supreme good’ is the attainment of the knowledge of Brahman in due course. Or, the ‘supreme good’ may mean ‘svarga.’


12. “Nourished by the sacrifice, the Gods shall indeed bestow on you the enjoyments ye desire.” Whoso enjoys—without offering to Them—Their gifts, he is verily a thief.

Shankara's commentary:

Pleased with your sacrifices, the Gods shall bestow on you all enjoyments, including women, cattle, children, etc.

He who enjoys what is given by Gods, i.e., he who gratifies the cravings of his own body and senses without discharging the debt due to the Gods, is a thief indeed, a robber of the property of the Gods, etc.

On the other hand,

13. The righteous, who eat the remnant of the sacrifice, are freed from all sins; but sin do the impious eat who cook for their own sakes.

Shankara's commentary:

Those who, after performing sacrifices to the Gods, etc., eat the remains of the food—which is called amrita, ambrosia—are freed from all sins committed at the five  places of animal-slaughter (such as the fire-place), as well as from those sins which result from involuntary acts of injury and other causes.

But as to the others, who are selfish and cook food for their own sakes, what they eat is sin itself, while they themselves are sinners.

The wheel of the world should be set going.

For the following reason also should action be performed by him who is qualified for action. For, it is action that sets the wheel of the world going.


—The answer follows:

14-15. From food creatures come forth: the production of food is from rain; rain comes forth from sacrifice; sacrifice is born of action; know thou that action comes from Brahman and that Brahman comes from the Imperishable. Therefore, the all-pervading Brahman ever rests in sacrifice.

Shankara's commentary:

All living creatures, it is evident, are born from food, which, when eaten, is converted into blood and semen.

Rain proceeds from sacrifice as taught in the following text from the smriti:

The offering thrown into the fire reaches the sun; from the sun comes rain; from rain food; and from this (food) all creatures.” (Manu, iii.76).

Yajña or sacrifice here spoken of refers to what is called apūrva; and this apūrva is the result of the activities of the sacrificer and his priests (Rittviks) engaged in a sacrifice.

These activities are enjoined in the Veda (Brahman), and the Veda comes from the Imperishable, the Paramātman, the Highest Self.

Because the Veda has arisen from the Highest Self,—the Akṣara, the Imperishable, as the breath comes out of a man, therefore, the Veda, though all-com­prehending as revealing all things, ever rests in sacrifice, i. e., it treats mainly of sacrifices and the mode of their performance.

16. He who follows not here the wheel thus set in motion, who is of sinful life, indulging in senses, he lives in vain, O son of Pritha.

Shankara's commentary:

He who ought to perform action, but who, indulging in sensual pleasures, does not follow the wheel of the world thus set revolving by Īśvara, on the basis of the Veda and sacrifices, he lives in vain.

The main drift, therefore, of this section (iii.4-16) is that action should be performed by the ignorant man, for whom it is intended.

In iii.4-8, it was taught that till he attains the qualification for Devotion to the knowledge of the Self, the man who knows not the Self and is therefore qualified (for action only) should resort to Devotion to action as a means of attaining Devotion to knowledge;

and, further, there were incidentally propounded (in iii. 9-16) many reasons why the man who knows not the Self and is (therefore) qualified for action should perform it. Mention, too, has been made of evils arising from a neglect of action.