Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Shankara | Discourse 4 verse 19-24

Who is a sage?

The realization of inaction in action and vice versa is extolled as follows:

19. He whose engagements are all devoid of desires and purposes, and whose actions have been burnt by the fire of wisdom, him the wise call a sage.

Shankara's commentary:

The man who has realized the truth described above, whose works are all free from desires and from purposes (sankalpa) which cause those desires, who performs mere deeds without any immediate purpose,

—if he be engaged in worldly action, he does so with a view to set an example to the masses; if he has renounced worldly life, he performs deeds only for bodily maintenance,

—whose actions good and bad, are consumed in the fire of wisdom which consists in the realization of inaction in action and vice versa: him the wise who know Brahman call a real sage (paṇḍita).

The Sage’s worldly action as an example to the masses.

He who can see action in inaction and vice versa, (i. e., who has realized the true nature of action and inaction), is, by virtue of that very realization, free from action;

he re­nounces (the world) and engages in no action,—only doing what is required for the bare existence of his body,—even though he had been engaged in action before realizing the truth.

On the other hand, there may be a person who, having started with action and having since obtained the right knowledge of the Self, really abandons action with all its accessories, as he finds action of no use;

but who, finding that for some reason he cannot abandon action, may conti­nue doing action as before, with a view to set an example to the world at large,

devoid of attachment to action and its result, and therefore having no selfish end in view; such a man really does nothing.

His action is equivalent to inaction, since all his actions are consumed in the fire of knowledge.

To teach this, the Lord says:

20. Having abandoned attachment for the fruits of action, ever content, dependent on none, though engaged in actions, nothing at all does he do.

Shankara's commentary:

He who has abandoned all concern for action and all attachment for its results in virtue of the knowledge of the truth explained above,

who is always content, longing for no objects of senses; who seeks nothing whereby to achieve any end of his (i. e., to secure enjoyments in this birth or the next);

who, for want of any selfish end in view, might give up action with its accessories; but who, finding it impracticable to get away from action, engages in action as before with a view to set an example to the world or to avoid the displeasure of the orthodox,

—such a man, though engaged in actions, really does nothing at all, since he is endued with knowledge of the actionless Self.

The Sage’s action for bodily maintenance.

He who, unlike the one just spoken of, has, even before engaging in action, realized his identity with Brahman (the Absolute) abiding within all as the innermost actionless Self (the Pratyagātman);

who is free from desire for objects of pleasure, seen or unseen;

and who, therefore, finding no use in action which is intended to secure such objects of pleasure, renounces all action with accessories, except what is necessary for the bare bodily maintenance;

such a devotee, steady in his devotion to knowledge, is liberated.

To teach this, the Lord says:

21. Free from desire, with the mind and the self controlled, having relinquished all possess­ions, doing mere bodily action, he incurs no sin.

Shankara's commentary:

He from whom all desires have departed, by whom the mind and the body (the self, the external aggregate of causes and effects) have been controlled, by whom all property has been disowned,

who does mere bodily action (action necessary for the bare existence of the body), without attachment even for that action,

—he incurs no sin which will produce evil effects.

Even dharma is a sin,—in the case of him who seeks liberation,—inasmuch as it causes bondage. He is liberated from both (dharma and a-dharma), i. e., he is liberated from saṁsāra.

Now, what does the phrase mere bodily action’ (śarīra- karma) mean?

Does it mean action which can be perform­ed by means of the body only? Or does it mean action required for the bare existence of the body?

One may ask:

What is the good of this enquiry? What if ‘bodily action’ means ‘action done by means of the body’ or ‘action necessary for the bare existence of the body’?

We reply as follows:

Firstly:

If mere bodily action ’ means ‘ action which can be performed by means of the body only’, the words would imply that even he who, by means of the body, does an un­lawful action productive of some visible or invisible results, incurs no sin.

Then this teaching would contradict the teaching of the śāstra.

And to say that he who does by means of the body a lawful action productive of some visible or invisible results incurs no sin is to deny something which even the opponent would never advance.

Moreover, the qualifications ‘doing bodily action’ and ‘mere’ would imply that sin accrues to him who in speech or thought performs actions enjoined or prohibited by the śāstra, res­pectively called dharma and a-dharma.

To say, then, that he who does a lawful act in speech or thought incurs sin would be to contradict the scripture; and to say that he who does an unlawful act in speech or thought incurs sin is a useless reiteration of what is known.

Secondly:

If, on the other hand, “bodily action” be interpreted to mean ‘action required for the bare existence of the body,’ then the teaching amounts to this:

He who in deed, speech and thought does no other action, lawful or unlawful, productive of results here or hereafter;

who, in deed, speech or thought, performs in the eye of the world just those acts which are required for the bare existence of the body without even such attachment for those acts as is implied in the words “I do,”

he does not incur sin.

Since it cannot even be imagined that such a man can do any wrong which may be called sin, he is not subject to re­birth; he is liberated without any let or hindrance, since all his actions have been consumed in the fire of knowledge.

— Thus, there is here only a reiteration of the results of the right knowledge, which have been described already (in iv. 18). The phrase ‘mere bodily action’ thus understood gives no room to objection.

Since an ascetic who has disowned all property does not own even the articles of food and other things required for the maintenance of the body, it would follow that the body should be maintained by begging or such other means.

Now the Lord points out such means of obtaining food and other things required for the maintenance of the body as are sanctioned by the texts like the following:

What is not begged for, not previously arranged for, what has been brought to him without his effort...” (Baudhāyana-Dharmasūtra, 2-8-12).

22. Satisfied with what comes to him by chance, rising above the pairs of opposites, free from envy, equanimous in success and failure, though acting he is not bound.

Shankara's commentary:

He who is satisfied with whatever he may obtain by chance, without his effort or request, who is not affected in mind by the attack of such pairs of opposites (dvandva) as heat and cold, who cherishes no feelings of envy and jea­lousy, who is calm whether he obtains or not such things as might come to him without effort,

—such a devotee, feeling no pleasure or pain whether he obtains or not food and other things required for the maintenance of the body, seeing action in inaction and vice versa,

ever steady in his knowledge of the true nature of the Self, always disowning agency— “I do nothing at all, energies act upon energies,”—in all acts of the body, etc., while begging or doing anything else for the bare existence of the body,

—thus realizing the non­-agency of the Self, he really does no act at all, not even the act of begging.

But as he appears to act like the generali­ty of mankind, agency is imputed to him by people, and so far he is the agent in the act of begging and the like.

From his own point of view, however, as based on the teaching of the scriptures which are the source of right knowledge, he is no agent at all.

Thus, though he performs the act of begging and the like required for the bare existence of the body, and though with reference to these acts agency is imputed to him by others,

he is not bound, since action and its cause, which are the source of bondage, have been burnt in the fire of wisdom.

This is only a reiteration of what has been already said (iv, 19, 21).

The Sage’s worldly action does not bind him.

It has been shown in iv.20 that that man does no action who, having started in life with action, has since realized the actionless Self as one with Brahman and has seen the non-existence of agent, action and results,

but who, though competent to renounce action, yet, on account of something preventing him from doing so, has continued in action as before.

Of him who, as thus shown, does no action, the Lord Says:

23.  Of the man whose attachment is gone, who is liberated, whose mind is established in know­ledge, who acts for the sake of sacrifice,—his whole action melts away.

Shankara's commentary:

That man from whom all attachment is gone, from whom all cause of bondage, dharma and a-dharma, has fled away, whose mind is ever fixed in wisdom alone, who acts with a view to the performance of a sacrifice

—his action with its result is dissolved away, is reduced to nothing.

Wisdom - sacrifice.

For what reason, then, is all action which he does, entire­ly dissolved, without producing its natural result?

—Listen why.

24. Brahman is the offering, Brahman the oblation; by Brahman is the oblation poured into the fire of Brahman; Brahman verily shall be reached by him who always sees Brahman in action.

Shankara's commentary:

The man who has realized Brahman sees that the instru­ment by which the oblation is poured in the fire is nothing but Brahman;

that it has no existence apart from that of the Self, just as silver has no existence apart from that of the mother-of-pearl (mistaken for silver). What (in the illustration) appears as silver is nothing but the mother-of- pearl.

What people look upon as the instrument of offering is, to one who has realised Brahman, nothing but Brahman.

Brahman is the oblation: i. e., what is regarded as oblation is to him nothing but Brahman. So the fire wherein the oblation is offered is nothing but Brahman; and it is by Brahman that the offering is made, i.e., the agent is none other than Brahman.

The act of offering is nothing but Brahman; and the result, the goal to be reached by him who always sees Brahman in action, is nothing but Brahman.

Thus, the action performed by him who wishes to set an example to the world is in reality no action, as it has been destroyed by the realisation of Brahman in action.

This representation as a sacrifice (Yajña) of the right knowledge possessed by him who has given up all rites and has re­nounced all action is quite in its place, as serving to extol that right knowledge.

For him who has realised the Supreme Reality, the instrument of offering and other accessories connected with the actual sacrifice are nothing but Brahman, who is one with his own Self.

Else, it would be to no purpose to speak specifically of the instrument and other accessories of a sacrificial rite as Brahman, when every­thing is Brahman. Wherefore, to one who realises that all is Brahman, there is no action.

Moreover, all idea of the accessories of action is absent; and indeed, no act of sacri­fice is ever possible in the absence of such an idea.

Every sacrificial rite, such as Agnihotra, is associated with an idea (derived from the revealed texts) of the accessories of action such as a particular God or Gods to whom the oblation should be offered, and with egoism on the part of the agent and his attachment for the results.

No sacrificial rite is ever found unassociated with the idea of the accessories of action and results, unaccompanied with egoism and a longing for the results.

But this (wisdom-sacrifice) is an action wherein all idea of the instrument and other various access­ories of action, all idea of action itself and of its results, has been replaced by the one idea of Brahman. Whence it is no action at all. This is shown in iv.18,20; iii. 28; v., 8.

Thus teaching, our Lord here and there tries also to remove all idea of duality, i. e., of action, its result and its access­ories.

It is admitted in the case of the Kāmya-Agnihotra— the sacrifice of Agnihotra performed for some selfish pur­pose— that it ceases to be a Kāmya-Agnihotra in the absence of that purpose.

So also we are given to know that actions produce different results according as they are performed deliberately or otherwise.

Accordingly, here too, in the case of the wise man in whom the idea of Brahman has replaced all idea of duality

—such as, the instrument and other accessories of the act of offering, the act itself and its results—

his action, though appearing as such externally, ceases to be action.

Whence it is said “the whole action melts away ” (iv. 23).

In interpreting this passage, some say:

—What we call Brahman is the instrument of action and so on. And in fact it is Brahman that manifests Himself in the five forms,—such as action and its accessories,—and does the action.

In this case, the idea of the instrument and other accessories of action do not cease to exist.

On the other hand, it is taught that the idea of Brahman should be fixed upon action and its accessories in the same way that the idea of Vishṇu is fixed upon an idol or the idea of Brahman is fixed upon ‘name.’ (Vide Chh. Upanishad, 7-1-5).

Indeed, even this view would be possible if this particular section of the discourse were not here concerned with the praise of the Wisdom-sacrifice (jñāna-yajña).

On the other hand, our Lord will here speak of the several acts of worship termed Yajñas (sacrifices) and then praise wisdom, the right knowledge, in these terms: “Superior is the wisdom-sacrifice to the sacrifice with objects.” (iv. 33).  And it has been shown that the verse is intended to re­present wisdom as a sacrifice (vide p. 126).

But, with those who maintain that the idea of Brahman should be fixed upon the sacrificial rite and all its accessories, just as the idea of Vishṇu is fixed upon an idol or the idea of Brahman on ‘name’

—the Brahma-vidyā (knowledge of Brahman), which has been hitherto spoken of, cannot be the aim of the teaching here;

for, this verse would be mainly concerned, according to their interpretation, with the instrument, etc., connected with a sacrificial rite.

Moreover, moksha cannot be obtained by that knowledge which consists in fixing the idea of Brahman on a symbol (such as a sacrificial rite). It has been here said that Brahman is the goal to be reached.

It is indeed opposed to truth to maintain that moksha can be obtained without knowledge. Such interpretation is also opposed to the context.

Right knowledge is the subject of which this Discourse treats (vide, iv. 18), and the concluding portion of the Discourse treats of the same subject, as shown by the closing verses.

The Discourse indeed concludes by extolling right know­ledge (iv. 33, 39).

Accordingly it is not right to maintain that, all on a sudden, and without reference to the present topic, it is here taught that the idea of Brahman should be fixed on a sacrificial act just as the idea of Vishṇu is fixed on an idol.

Wherefore this verse should be interpreted as has been done by us.