Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Shankara | Discourse 5 verse 1-5
Which is better for the ignorant, Karma-Yoga or Sannyāsa?
In iv. 18, 19, 21, 22, 24, 32, 33, 37 and 41, the Lord has spoken of the renunciation of all actions; and in iv. 42 He has exhorted Arjuna to engage in Yoga, in performance of action.
Owing to the mutual opposition between performance of action and renunciation thereof as between motion and rest, the two cannot be accomplished by an individual at one and the same time. Neither have two distinct periods of time been prescribed for their respective observance.
By inference, therefore, only one of them forms Arjuna’s duty; so that thinking that, of the two,—performance of action and renunciation thereof,—he should resort to the better of the two to the exclusion of the other, Arjuna asks (v. 1) of the Lord with a desire to know which is the better of the two.
(Objection):—As going to speak of entire devotion to Jñāna- yoga on the part of him who has realised the Self, the Lord has taught, in the passages quoted above, that such a man has to renounce action, but not he who has not realised the Self.
Since performance of action and renunciation of action thus pertain to two distinct classes of people respectively, Arjuna’s question with a view to know which of the two is better than the other is irrelevant.
(Answer).—Yes; from your standpoint the question is irrelevant. But from the questioner’s (Arjuna’s) own standpoint, the question, we say, is quite relevant.
—In the passages quoted above, the Lord enjoins renunciation as a duty (in the form “ Let the wise man renounce”); and it cannot be enjoined as a duty unless it (the term ‘renounce’) is more important than the agent (i.e., the term ‘wise’);
so that this injunction of renunciation should be extended so as to apply to that man also who has not realised the Self, because renunciation is elsewhere enjoined on him also. It cannot be made out that renunciation of action is here intended for that man only who has realised the Self.
Thus arguing, Arjuna thinks that an ignorant man may either perform action or renounce it. But, owing to the mutual opposition of the two courses as shown above, only one of them can form the duty (of an individual at a time).
And inasmuch as it is the better one of the two that should be followed, but not the other, the question with a view to know which of the two is the better is not irrelevant.
The question is not with reference to the enlightened.
That this is the meaning of Arjuna’s question is also evident from an examination of the meaning of the words in reply.
—The reply runs as follows:
“Sannyāsa and Karma-Yoga both lead to the highest bliss; but Karma-Yoga is the better of the two” (v.2).
We should now ascertain:
Is it in reference to the Karma-Yoga and the Karma- Sannyāsa resorted to by a man who has realised the Self that it is said that they lead to the highest bliss as their result, and that the Karma-Yoga is for some reason the better of the two?
Or is it in reference to those resorted to by a man who has not realised the Self that the statement is made?
—What then? —Listen:
As a man who has realised the Self resorts to neither Karma-Yoga nor Sannyāsa, it is not right to speak of them as alike leading to the highest bliss, or of the superiority of his Karma-Yoga to his Karma- Sannyāsa.
If, for a man who has realised the Self, Karma- Sannyāsa and its opposite—Karma-Yoga (performance of action)—were possible, then it would have been right to speak of them as alike leading to the highest bliss or to speak of the superiority of his Karma-Yoga to his Karma-Sannyāsa.
Inasmuch as, however, neither Karma- Sannyāsa nor Karma-Yoga is possible for a man who has realised the Self, it is not right to speak of them as alike leading to the highest bliss, or to say that Karma-Yoga is better than Karma- Sannyāsa.
Karma-Yoga and Saṁnyāsa inapplicable to the enlightened.
[Question):—Are both Karma-Yoga and Karma- Sannyāsa impossible, or is only one of them impossible, for a man who has realised the Self? If only one of them, is it Karma- Yoga or Karma- Sannyāsa? What is the reason for the impossibility?
(Answer):—Since the man who has realised the Self is free from illusory knowledge, Karma-Yoga which is based upon illusion must be impossible for him.
Here, in the Gita-śāstra, in the sections treating of the real nature of the Self, it is said that a man who knows the Self, who knows himself to be the Self that is devoid of all changes of birth, etc., and is actionless, and whose illusory knowledge has been replaced by right knowledge,
—that such a man has to renounce all actions, ever dwelling in the true actionless Self;
and it is further said that, owing to the opposition between right knowledge and illusory knowledge as well as between their effects, he has nothing to do with Karma- Yoga, the reverse of Karma- Sannyāsa, presupposing an active Self and based on the idea of agency caused by illusory knowledge.
Wherefore it is but right to say that, for him who has realised the Self and who is free from illusory knowledge, Karma-Yoga which is based upon illusory knowledge is impossible.
(Question):—What, then, are the sections treating of the real nature of the Self in which the man who knows the Self is said to have no action to do?
(Answer):—In ii.17, in ii.19 and ii.21, and in other places here and there, the man who has realised the Self is said to have no action to do.
(Objection):—Karma-Yoga is also taught here and there in the sections treating of the real nature of the Self, e.g., in ii. 18, 31, 47, etc. How, then, can Karma-Yoga be said to be impossible for a man who has realised the Self?
( Answer ):—It is so, because there is an opposition between right knowledge and illusory knowledge as well as between their effects.
In iii.3 it is said that the Sānkhyas who have realised the true nature of the Self apply themselves to devotion in the path of wisdom—ever dwelling in the actionless Self
—as distinguished from devotion in the path of action which is intended for those who have not realised the Self.
The man who has realised the Self has no longer any object to gain, since he has achieved all. In iii. 17 it is said that he has no more duties to perform.
In such passages as iii.4 and v.6 Karma-Yoga is enjoined as an accessory to the acquisition of the knowledge of the Self, while in vi.3 it is said that the man who has obtained right knowledge has no longer anything to do with Karma- Yoga.
Further, in iv.21 all action is denied to him except that which is required for bodily maintenance;
and even with reference to such acts of hearing and seeing as may be required for mere bodily maintenance, the man who knows the true nature of the Self is directed in v.8 always to meditate with a concentrated mind on the idea that ‘it is not I that do it.’
It is not possible to imagine even in a dream that the man who knows the Self can have anything to do with Karma-Yoga, so opposed to right knowledge and entirely based upon illusory knowledge.
Therefore it is the Sannyāsa and the Karma-Yoga of the man who has not realised the Self that are spoken of (in this connection) as leading alike to moksha.
This Sannyāsa, which consists in renouncing a few actions only while yet there is an idea of agency, is different from the one already spoken of, from the renunciation of all actions,—which is resorted to by the man who has realised the Self.
The former becomes very difficult of performance as it is further associated with ‘yama’ and ‘niyama ’ and the like (which are the various forms of self-control).
Karma-Yoga is comparatively easier of performance and is therefore spoken of as the better of the two.
Thus an examination of the meaning of the words in reply leads also to the same conclusion as has been arrived at before as regards the meaning of Arjuna’s question.
At the beginning of the Third Discourse, Arjuna, seeing that knowledge and action could not coexist in one man, asked the Lord “tell me that which is the better of the two;”
and in reply the Lord declared decisively that devotion in the path of knowledge was meant for the Sānkhyas— the renouncers, the Sannyāsins,—and that devotion in the path of action was meant for the Yogins.
And from the statement “nor by mere renunciation does he attain perfection,” (iii. 4) it is clear that, in the view of the Lord, renunciation with knowledge is a means of attaining perfection.
And Karma-Yoga, too, must lead to perfection, inasmuch as it has been enjoined (iv. 42).
Arjuna now asks with a view to know as to which one of them, Karma-Yoga or Sannyāsa, is better for a man who has no knowledge.
1. Renunciation of actions, O Krishna, Thou praisest, and again Yoga. Tell me conclusively that which is the better of the two.
Thou teachest renunciation of those actions which are enjoined in the śāstras, and Thou teachest also that performance of those very actions is necessary.
I have, therefore, a doubt as to which of them is better, performance of (prescribed) actions or renunciation of those actions. Which is the better course which must be followed?
Wherefore tell me conclusively that one,—it being impossible for one man to resort to both at the same lime,—be it performance of actions or renunciation of actions, by which you think I may attain to perfection.
Karma-Yoga suits the ignorant better than Sannyāsa.
To state His own opinion with a view to clear the doubt, the Lord says:
The Blessed Lord said:
2. Renunciation and Yoga through action both lead to the highest bliss; but, of the two, Yoga through action is esteemed more than renunciation of action.
Sannyāsa and Karma-yoga, renunciation of actions and performance of actions, both lead to moksha, as giving rise to (spiritual) knowledge.
Though both lead to moksha, yet, of the two means of attaining moksha, Karma-Yoga is better than mere—i. e., unaccompanied with knowledge—Karma- sannyāsa.
Thus the Lord has praised Karma-Yoga.
—The answer follows:
3. He should be known as a perpetual renouncer who neither hates nor desires: for, free from the pairs of opposites, O mighty-armed, he is easily set free from bondage.
The Karma-Yogin who neither hates pain and the objects causing pain, nor desires pleasure and the objects causing pleasure, should be known as a perpetual renouncer (sannyāsin), though he is engaged in action.
Sānkhya and Yoga lead to the same goal.
(Objection):—Sannyāsa and Karma-Yoga, which are meant for two distinct classes of people and are opposed to each other, should, properly speaking, be mutually opposed in their results also. They should not, on the other hand, both lead to moksha alike.
(Answer):—the Lord says:
4. Children, not the wise, speak of Sānkhya and Yoga as distinct. He who is rightly devoted to even one obtains the fruits of both.
It is children who speak of Sānkhya and Yoga as producing distinct and opposite results. But the wise, men of knowledge, believe that they produce but one harmonious result.
He who rightly observes even one of them, Sānkhya or Yoga, obtains the fruits of both. Both lead to the same result, i.e., moksha. Wherefore, there is no diversity in the result.
(Objection):—Having started with the words ‘Sannyāsa ’ and ‘Karma-Yoga', how is it that He speaks of Sānkhya and Yoga—with which we are not at present concerned—as producing the same results?
(Answer):—There is no fault here. Arjuna indeed asked the question with reference to simple Sannyāsa and simple Karma-Yoga.
But the Lord, without leaving these, has added to them some additional conceptions of His own and has answered the question, speaking of them under other names, Sānkhya and Yoga.
In the opinion of the Lord, Sannyāsa and Karma-Yoga are themselves termed Sānkhya and Yoga when knowledge of the Self (jñāna) and equanimity (samabuddhitva) are respectively added to them. Hence no irrelevant topic.
How can a man obtain the results of both by the right observance of only one?
—The answer follows:
5. That state which is reached by Sānkhyas is reached by Yogins also. He sees, who sees Sānkhya and Yoga as one.
Sānkhyas are those who are devoted to knowledge and have renounced the world. They reach the state called moksha.
The same state is reached by Yogins also.—but indirectly, through the attainment of true knowledge and renunciation,—by those who perform their duties as a means of attaining knowledge, dedicating them to the Īśvara, and having no selfish end in view.
That man sees rightly who sees that Sānkhya and Yoga are one, as leading to an identical result.
(Question):—If so, Sannyāsa must be superior to Yoga. How then is it that it has been declared that Karma-Yoga is better than Karma- Sannyāsa.
(Answer):—Listen why it is so:
It is the simple Karma- Sannyāsa and the simple Karma-Yoga with reference to which you have asked me “which one is the better of the two?”
In accordance with the question, My answer has been given—without having regard to knowledge—that Karma-Yoga is superior to Karma- Sannyāsa.
But that Sannyāsa which is based upon knowledge is regarded by Me as Sānkhya, and Sānkhya itself is the true (paramārtha) Yoga.
It is only by a figure that the Yoga through Vedic rites is called Yoga or Sannyāsa, inasmuch as it conduces to that (true Yoga or Sannyāsa).