Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Shankara | Discourse 4 verse 14-18

Action without attachment does not bind the soul.

Since I am not in reality the author of those actions of which you think Me to be the author,

14. Actions pollute Me not, nor have I a desire for the fruit of actions. He who knows Me thus is not bound by actions.

Shankara's commentary:

For want of egoism (ahaṁkāra), these actions do not pollute Me by necessitating incarnation; nor have I a desire for the fruit of these actions.

On the other hand, it is but right that actions should pollute those men of the world (saṁsāra) who are attached to their actions, thinking themselves to be the authors thereof, and longing for the fruits of such actions.

As I have none of these, (i.e., desire and at­tachment), actions cannot pollute Me. Any other person, too, who knows Me to be his Self, who thinks “I am no agent, I have no longing for the fruits of actions,”—his actions too will not necessitate incarnation.

Knowing that ‘I am no agent, I have no longing for the fruits of actions,’

15.  Thus knowing, men of old performed ac­tion in the hope of liberation; therefore do thou also perform action as did the ancients in the olden time.

Shankara's commentary:

As the ancients performed action, do thou also perform action; do not sit quiet, nor renounce action:

If thou art ignorant, do thou perform action to purify the self. If thou art wise and knowest the truth, do thou perform action for the protection of the masses. It was performed by the ancients such as Janaka in the olden time: it is not a recent institution.

The real nature of action and inaction.

If action should be performed here (in this world of man) I shall perform it on the authority of Thy word. Why should thou add that it was performed by the ancients in the olden time?

— (In reply the Lord says :) Listen. For there is a great difficulty in (understanding) action.


16. What is action? What is inaction?—As to this, even the wise are deluded. I shall teach thee such action, by knowing which thou shalt be liberated from evil.

Shankara's commentary:

Even the wise are deluded as to what is action and what is inaction. Wherefore I will explain to you the nature of action and of inaction, knowing which thou shalt be released from the evil of saṁsāra.

Neither should thou think thus:

“It is familiar to all that action means movement of the body, and inaction means absence of it, to sit quiet. What is there to be learnt about them? ”

Wherefore the answer follows:

17. For, thou hast to know something even of action, something to know of unlawful action, and something to know of inaction; hard to under­stand is the nature of action.

Shankara's commentary:

For there is much to be learnt about the action which is enjoined by the scripture, about the action which is un­lawful, and about inaction. In fact, it is hard to understand the true nature of action (enjoined), of inaction, and of unlawful action.

What, then, is the true nature of action and inaction, about which much has to be learnt, and which you have promised to teach?


18. He who can see inaction in action, who can also see action in inaction, he is wise among men, he is devout, he is the performer of all action.

Shankara's commentary:

‘Action’ means what is done, an act in general. Inaction can be seen in action, and action in inaction, since both inaction (nivṛtti) and action (pravṛtti) presuppose an agent.

In fact, all our experience of such things as action and agent is possible only in a state of avidyā, only when we have not yet attained to the Real (vastu).

He who sees inaction in action and who sees action in inaction,—he is wise among men, he is devout (yukta, yogin), and he has done all action.

—Thus is he extolled who sees action in inaction and vice versa.

(Objection):—What means this incongruity, “who can see inaction in action and action in inaction”? Surely action can never be inaction, nor can inaction be action. How can one ever realize such an incongruity?

(Answer):—This objection does not apply to our interpre­tation.

To an ignorant man of the world, what in reality is inaction appears as action, and what in reality is action appears as inaction.

With a view to teach what their real nature is, the Lord says, “He who can see inaction in action,” etc. Hence no incongruity.

It must be a bare truth that the Lord means to teach here, inasmuch as He has said that he who realizes this view of action and in­action is wise, and has introduced the subject by saying that there is much to be learnt about action and inaction, (iv. 17).

It has also been said that ‘by knowing which thou shalt be liberated from evil’ (iv. 16); and certainly freedom from evil cannot be achieved by means of false knowledge.

Wherefore, we should understand that action and inaction are misunderstood by all living beings and that the Lord, wishing to remove this false view of them, teaches “He who can see inaction in action” etc.

Moreover, inaction cannot be said to be located in action or contained in it, as jujube (badara) fruits in a vessel, nor can action be said to be located in inaction; for, inaction is but the absence of action.

Wherefore (the meaning of the Lord must be that) action and inaction are not rightly understood by people and that the one is mistaken for the other, as the mirage is mistaken for water, or as the mother-of-pearl is mistaken for silver.

(Objection):—Action is ever action to all; it never appears to be anything else?

(Answer):—Not so.

When a ship is in motion, the motion­less trees on the shore appear, to a man on board the ship, to move in the opposite direction; distant and moving bodies which are far away from our eye appear to be motionless.

Similarly, here, (in the case of the Self) in­action is mistaken for action, and action for inaction. Wherefore, to remove this false impression, the Lord says “He who can see inaction in action” etc.

Though such an objection has been more than once answered, people who have long been subject to great mis­conceptions are deluded often and often, forget the truth though often and often taught, and often and often raise objections based on false premises.

Wherefore, seeing how difficult the Real is for us to know, the Lord often answers such objections.

The truth that the Self is actionless, so clearly taught by śruti, smriti, and reason, has been taught here also in ii. 20.-24; and it will also be taught hereafter.

It is, how­ever, a deep-rooted habit of the mind to connect action with the actionless Self, though it is contrary to His real nature; wherefore, “even the wise are deluded as to what is action and what is inaction” (v. 16).

Action pertains to the physical body (deha) etc., but man falsely attributes action to the Self and imagines: “I am the agent, mine is action, by me shall the fruit of action be reaped.”

Similarly, he falsely imputes to the Self the cessation of activity which really pertains to the body and the senses, as also the happiness which results from that cessation (of activity);

he imagines: ‘I shall be quiet, so that I may be happy, without worry and without action; and I do nothing now, I am quiet and happy.”

To remove this false impression, the Lord says: He who can see inaction in action,” etc.

Now, action which belongs to the body and the senses, while yet retaining its own nature as action, is falsely imputed by all to the Self who is actionless and immutable; whence even a learned man thinks I act.”

Hence the passage means:—He who sees inaction in action, i. e., he who has the right knowledge that action, which is common­ly supposed by all to pertain to the Self, does not really belong to the Self,

just as motion does not really pertain to the trees (on the shore of the river) which appear (to a man on board the ship) to move in the opposite direction;

and he who sees action in inaction, i. e., he who knows that even inaction is action,

—for, inaction is but a cessation of bodily and mental activities, and like action it is falsely attributed to the Self and causes the feeling of egoism as expressed in the words “quiet and doing nothing, I sit happy”

—he who can realize the nature of action and in­action as now explained is wise among men; he is devout (Yogin), he is the performer of all actions. He is released from evil; he has achieved all.

This verse has been interpreted in a different way by some commentators.


—The obligatory duties (nitya- karma), performed for the sake of Īśvara, do not produce any effect and may therefore be figuratively termed inaction, i.e., they are equivalent to inaction;

and neglect of those duties produces evil and may therefore, only figuratively, be termed action, i. e., it is equivalent to action.

Accordingly, they have interpreted the verse thus:

—He who regards the obli­gatory duties (nitya karma) as inaction, since they do not produce any effect

—just as a cow may be said to be no cow when she does not serve the purpose of yielding milk, —

and he who regards the neglect of obligatory duties as an action, since it produces evil such as hell (nāraka), he is wise among men, etc.

This interpretation cannot hold good.

As such knowledge cannot lead to liberation from evil, the Lord’s statement that “by knowing which thou shalt be liberated from evil” (iv. 16) would prove false.

Even though it be grant­ed (for mere argument’s sake) that liberation from evil accrues from the performance of obligatory duties (nitya- karma), it can never be granted that it will accrue from the mere knowledge that they do not produce any effect.

Certain­ly it is nowhere revealed (in śruti) that liberation from evil accrues from the knowledge that obligatory duties do not produce effects or from knowledge of those obligatory duties themselves.

It cannot be urged that it has been taught here by the Lord.

The same argument holds good also against their view as to seeing action in inaction. Indeed, this precept enjoins, (they hold), not that neglect of obligatory duties (nitya-karma) should be regarded as action, but only that obligatory duties should be perform­ed.

Moreover, no good can result from the knowledge that non-performance of obligatory duties leads to evil. Neither can non-performance (which is non-existent in itself) of obligatory duties be enjoined as an object on which to fix our thought.

Nor by a false knowledge which regards inaction as action can a man be released from evil, or said to be wise and devout and to have performed all actions: and such a knowledge deserves no praise.

False knowledge is itself the evil; how can it release us from another evil? Darkness does not expel darkness.

(Objection):—The knowledge that inaction is action or that action is inaction is not an illusion, but a figur­ative idea based upon the fact of productiveness or unpro­ductiveness of effects.


For, nowhere is it taught that even such a figurative idea regarding action and inaction is of any good. Neither is any purpose served by thus ignoring the immediate subject of discourse and speaking of something else.

It is, moreover, possible to express more directly the fact that obligatory duties do not produce effects and that their omission leads to hell.

What, then, might be the purpose served by such an ambiguous circumlocution as “he who can see inaction in action,” etc.? Such an explanation is tantamount to saying that the Lord wanted to confound others by these utterances.

It is not necessary to mystify the doctrine (of obligatory duties) by means of symbolic language, nor is it possible to maintain that it can be easily understood if expressed often and often and in more ways than one. For, the same doctrine is more clearly expressed in ii. 47, and needs no reiteration.

It is only what is high and worthy of our effort that is worth knowing, but not the worthless.

No knowledge is worth acquiring; nor is its object—which is unreal—worth knowing. No evil can arise from non-performance; no existence can arise from non-existence.

It has been said here, “Of the unreal no being there is,” (ii. 16), and in the śruti “How can the existent arise from the non-existent?” (Chha. Up.6-2-2).

To say that an existent object arises from the non-existent is tantamount to saying that non-existence itself becomes exist­ence and vice versa, which cannot be maintained as it is against all evidence.

The scripture (śāstra) cannot enjoin an act which is productive of no good; for, such an act is painful in its performance, and no pain would ever be deliberately incurred.

Since it is admitted that omission of such duties leads to hell, it would simply amount to this, that Revela­tion (śāstra) is of no good, since performance as well as omis­sion of duties therein enjoined alike result in pain.

More­over, he who admits that obligatory duties produce no effects and at the same time holds that they lead to salva­tion, lands himself in a self-contradiction.

Wherefore, this verse admits only of a literal interpreta­tion, and we have interpreted it accordingly.