Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Shankara | Discourse 17



The ignorant, but faithful.

The Lord’s words (xvi. 24) having given Arjuna an occasion for a question, he said:

Arjuna said:
1. Whoso worship, setting aside the ordinance of the scripture, endued with faith,—what faith is theirs? Is it Sattva, or Rajas, or Tamas?

Shankara's commentary:

Whoso: not exactly specified. It must refer to those who, endued with faith, i. e., thinking that there is some­thing beyond,—on observing the conduct of the learned, — worship the Gods and the like, unaware of the procedure laid down in the scriptures, the śruti and the smriti.

Those, on the other hand, who, while knowing the injunctions of the scripture, set them aside and worship the Gods, etc., contrary to those injunctions,—they cannot indeed be meant here, because of the qualification that they are ‘endued with faith’.

We cannot suppose that those men are endued with faith who, while knowing the scriptural injunctions about the worship of the Gods, etc., set them aside, without caring for them, and engage in the worship of the Gods which is not in accordance with the injunctions.

Therefore it is only the persons of the other class described above that are here referred to.

Arjuna’s question may be thus stated: Is the worship offered by them to the Gods, etc., based in Sattva, or Rajas, or Tamas?

The three kinds of Faith.

Seeing that such a general question cannot be answered without reference to the several particular aspects of it, the Blessed Lord said:

The Blessed Lord said:
2. Threefold is that faith born of the individual nature of the embodied,—Sāttvic, Rājasic, and Tāmasic. Do thou hear of it.

Shankara's commentary:

Faith, of which thou hast asked, is of three sorts:

It is born of the individual nature (svabhāva): i. e., the saṁskāra or tendency made up of the self-reproductive latent impressions of the acts—good and bad, Dharma and Adharma—which were done in the past births and which manifested themselves at the time of death.

Sāttvic: faith in the worship of the Gods (Devas) which is an effect of Sattva. Rājasic: faith in the worship of the Yakṣas and the Rākṣasas, which is an effect of Rajas. Tāmasic: faith in the worship of the Pretas and the Piśāchas, which is an effect of Tamas.

Do thou understand the threefold faith which is going to be described.

As to this threefold Faith,

3. The faith of each is in accordance with his nature, O Bhārata. The man is made up of his faith; as a man’s faith is, so is he.

Shankara's commentary:

Each: every living being. Nature (Sattva): the antaḥ- karaṇa with its specific tendencies or saṁskāra. Man: Jīva, samsārin. So: in accordance with that faith.

So the Sāttvic faith or the like has to be inferred from its characteristic effects, namely, the worship of the Gods or the like.

The Lord says:

4. Sāttvic men worship the Gods; Rājasic, the Yakṣas and the Rākṣasas; the others,—Tāmasic men,—the Pretas and the hosts of Bhutas.

Shankara's commentary:

Hosts of Bhutas: as also the seven Mātrikās.

Men of Rājasic and Tāmasic Faiths.

Thus, by a general principle laid down in the scripture, Sāttvic and other devotions have been determined through their respective effects.

Now only one in a thousand is Sāttvic and devoted to the worship of the Gods, while the Rājasic and Tāmasic creatures form the majority.


5. Those men who practise terrific austerities not enjoined by the scripture, given to hypocrisy and egotism, endued with the strength of lust and passion;

6. Weakening all the elements in the body— fools they are—and Me who dwell in the body with­in; know thou these to be of demoniac resolves.

Shankara's commentary:

Terrific: causing pain to himself and to other living beings. Endued, etc.: This portion of the text may also be inter­preted to mean ‘possessed of lust, passion and strength.’ Elements: organs. Me: Nārāyaṇa, the Witness of their thoughts and deeds.

To weaken Me is to neglect My teaching. Know thou that they are demoniac (āsuric) in their resolves, so that you may avoid them. This is a word of advice to Arjuna.

Threefold Food, Worship, Austerity and Gift.

Now will be shown what sort of food—which is divided into three classes, i.e., that which is savoury and oleaginous, and so on—is dear to the Sāttvic, Rājasic and Tāmasic men respectively,

so that a man may know that he is one of Sattva or of Rajas or of Tamas as indicated by his own par­tiality for one or another particular class of food—such as the savoury and the oleaginous—and then give up the Rājasic and Tāmasic food and resort to Sāttvic one.

Simi­larly, the object of the threefold division here made of sacrifice and the like according to the Sattva and other guṇas is to show how a man may find out and give up the Rājasic and Tāmasic ones and resort exclusively to the Sāttvic ones.

The Lord says:

7. The food also which is dear to each is three­fold, as also worship, austerity and gift. Do thou hear of this, their distinction.

Each: Every living being that eats. This: that which is going to be described . Their: of food, etc.

The three kinds of Food.

8. The foods which increase life, energy, strength, health, joy and cheerfulness, which are savoury and oleaginous, substantial and agreeable, are dear to the Sāttvic.

Oleaginous: oily, fatty. Substantial: which can last long in the body.

9. The foods that are bitter, sour, saline, exces­sively hot, pungent, dry and burning, are liked by the Rājasic, causing pain, grief and disease.

Excessively, should be construed with all, thus, excessively bitter, excessively hot, etc.

10. The food which is stale, tasteless, putrid and rotten, refuse and impure, is dear to the Tāmasic.

Shankara's commentary:

Stale: Half-cooked. ‘ Yātayāma ’ (lit. cooked three hours ago) meaning ‘powerless’ is thus explained, to avoid tautology; for, the next word ‘gatarasa’ (tasteless) means the same, i. e., ‘powerless.’

Rotten: the cooked food over which one night has passed. Refuse: left after a meal. Impure: unfit for offering.

The three kinds of Worship

Now the three sorts of worship will be described:

11. That worship is Sāttvic which is offered by men desiring no fruit, as enjoined in the Law, with a fixed resolve in the mind that they should merely worship.

Shankara's commentary:

That they should merely worship : that their duty lies in the mere performance of the worship itself, that no personal end has to be achieved by that means.

12. That which is offered, O best of the Bhāratas, with a view to reward and for ostentation, know it to be a Rājasic worship.

13. They declare that worship to be Tāmasic which is contrary to the ordinances, in which no food is distributed, which is devoid of mantras and gifts, and which is devoid of faith.

Shankara's commentary:

Distributed: to brāhmaṇas. Devoid of mantras: with hymns defective in utterance and accent. Gifts: prescribed fees (to priests).

Physical Austerity.

Now the three kinds of austerity will be described:

14. Worshipping the Gods, the twice-born, teachers and wise men,—purity, straightforward­ness, continence, and abstinence from injury are termed the bodily austerity.

Shankara's commentary:

The bodily austerity: that which is accomplished by the body, i. e., in which the body is the chief of all factors of action,—the doer, etc.,—of which the Lord will speak in xviii. 15.

Austerity in Speech.

15. The speech which causes no excitement and is true, as also pleasant and beneficial, and also the practice of sacred recitation, arc said to form the austerity of speech.

Shankara's commentary:

Excitement: pain to living beings. Pleasant and beneficial: having respectively to do with the seen and the unseen. ‘Speech’ is specified by the attributes of ‘causing no excite­ment’ and so on. An invariable combination of all these attributes is here meant.

That speech addressed to others which, though causing no pain, is devoid of one, two or three of the other attributes—i.e., is not true, not pleasant and not beneficial—cannot form the austerity of speech;

so, that speech which, though true, is wanting in one, two, or three of the other attributes cannot form the austerity of speech; so, an agreeable speech which is wanting in one, two or three of the other attributes cannot form the auste­rity of speech.

So, the speech which, though beneficial, is wanting in one, two, or three of the other attributes cannot form the austerity of speech.

—What forms the austerity then?

—The speech that is true, that causes no excitement, that is agreeable and good, forms the austerity of speech; as for example, “Be tranquil, my son, study (the Vedas) and practise yoga, and this will do thee good.”

Practice of sacred recitation: according to ordinances.

Mental Austerity.

16. Serenity of mind, good-heartedness, silence, self-control, purity of nature,—this is called the mental austerity.

Shankara's commentary:

Good-heartedness: the state of mind which may be inferred from its effects, such as the brightness of the face, etc.

Silence: even silence in speech is necessarily preceded by a control of thought, and thus the effect is here put for the cause, i.e., the control of thought.

Self-control: a general control of the mind. This is to be distinguished from silence (mauna) which means the control of thought so far as it concerns speech.

Purity of nature: Honesty of purpose in dealings with other people.

The three kinds of Austerity according to Gunas.

The Lord proceeds to show that the foregoing austerity, — bodily, vocal and mental,—as practised by men, is divided into classes according to Sattva and other guṇas.

17. This threefold austerity, practised by de­vout men with utmost faith, desiring no fruit, they call Sāttvic.

Shankara's commentary:

Threefold: having respectively to do with the three seats —body, speech, and mind. With faith: believing in the existence of things (taught in the scriptures.)

18. That austerity which is practised with the object of gaining good reception, honour and wor­ship, and with hypocrisy, is said to be of this world, to be Rājasic, unstable and uncertain.

Shankara's commentary:

Good reception: in such words as ‘Here is a good brāhmaṇa of great austerities.’ Honour: the act of rising to greet, of making a reverential salutation, etc. Worship: the wash­ing of feet, adoring and feeding. Unstable: as productive of a transient effect. .

19. That austerity which is practised out of a foolish notion, with self-torture, or for the purpose of ruining another, is declared to be Tāmasic.

The three kinds of Gift.

Now the threefold nature of gift will be described.

20. That gift which is given—knowing it to be a duty to give—to one who does no service, in place and in time, and to a worthy person, that gift is held Sāttvic.

Shankara's commentary:

Given to one, etc.: to one who cannot return the good, or to one from whom, though able to return the good, no such return is expected.

Place: Kurukṣettra etc. Time: Sam­kranti (passage of the sun from one Zodiacal sign to another), etc. Worthy: as learned in the six sciences (aṅgas) etc.

21. And that gift which is given with a view to a return of the good, or looking for the fruit, or reluctantly, that gift is held to be Rājasic.

Shankara's commentary:

With a view, etc: hoping that he (the receiver) will in time return the service, or that the gift will secure for himself some (now) unseen reward.

22. The gift that is given at a wrong place or time, to unworthy persons, without respect or with insult, that is declared to be Tāmasic.

Shankara's commentary:

At a wrong place and time: at a place which is not sacred and which is associated with Mlechchas (Non-Āryans), with unholy things and the like,

and at a time which is not auspicious—i.e., which is not marked with any such speciality as the sun’s passage from one zodiacal sign to another.

 Unworthy persons: such as fools or rogues. Without respect: without agreeable speech, without the washing of feet, or without worship, though the gift be made in proper time and place.

How to perfect the defective acts.

The following instructions are given with a view to per­fecting sacrifices, gifts, austerities, etc.

23. “O, TAT, SAT”: this has been taught to be the triple designation of Brahman. By that were created of old the brāhmaas and the Vedas and the sacrifices.

Shankara's commentary:

Taught: in the Vedānta by the knowers of Brahman. By that etc.: by the triple designation, etc. This is said in praise of (the triple) designation.

24. Therefore, with the utterance of ‘O,' are the acts of sacrifice, gift and austerity, as enjoined in the scriptures, always begun by the students of Brahman.

Shankara's commentary:

Acts of sacrifice: acts in the form of sacrifice, etc.

25. With ‘TAT,’ without aiming at the fruits, are the acts of sacrifice and austerity and the various acts of gift performed by the seekers of moksha.

Shankara's commentary:

With ‘Tat’: with the utterance of ‘Tat ’, which is a designation of Brahman. The fruits: of sacrifice, etc. Acts of gift: gifts of land, gold, etc.

The use of ‘Om’ and of ‘Tat’ has been explained.

Now the use of ‘Sat’ is given as follows:

26. The word ‘Sat ' is used in the sense of reality and of goodness; and so also, O Pārtha, the word ‘Sat’ is used in the sense of an auspicious act.      

Shankara's commentary:

In expressing the reality of an object which is unreal—as for example, the birth of a son who is unreal—and in expressing that a man is one of good conduct who is not so, this designation of the Brahman, i.e., the word ‘Sat,’ is employed.

It is also used with reference to the act of marriage and the like.

27. Devotion to sacrifice, austerity and gift is also spoken of as ‘Sat’; and even action in connection with these is called ‘Sat.’

Shankara's commentary:

Sacrifice: the act of sacrifice. Spoken of: by the learned. These: sacrifice, gift and austerity. Or, ‘tadarthīyam karma’ may be interpreted to mean action for the sake of the Lord whose triple designation is the subject of treat­ment here.

These acts of sacrifice, gift and austerity,— even such of them as are not of the Sāttvic class and are imperfect,—turn out to be Sāttvic and perfect ones, on applying to them with faith the triple designation of Brahman.

Works without faith are fruitless.

Because all these acts become perfect when done in full faith, therefore,

28, Whatever is sacrificed, given, or done, and whatever austerity is practised, without faith, it is called ‘asat,’ O Pārtha; it is naught here or hereafter.

Shankara's commentary:

Given: to the brāhmaṇas. Deed: such as adoration and obeisance. Asat: as they are quite outside the path by which I (the Īśvara) may be reached.

It is naught: though costing much trouble, it is of no use here as it is despised by the wise; nor can it produce any effect hereafter.

The teaching of the discourse summed up.

[The teaching of this discourse may be thus summed up:

—There are devotees, who, though ignorant of the scriptures, are yet endued with faith, and who, according to the nature of their faith, may be classed as Sāttvic, Rājasic, or Tāmasic.

These should cultivate pure Sattva by avoiding Rājasic and Tāmasic kinds of food, worship, gift and austerity, and resorting exclusively to Sāttvic ones.

When their acts of worship, gift, and austerity are found defective, they may be perfected by uttering the three designations of Brahman, ‘Om,’ ‘Tat,’ and ‘Sat’.

With their reason (buddhi) thus purified, they should engage in the study of scriptures and in the subsequent stages of investigation into the nature of Brahman. Thereby they attain a direct perception of Truth and are finally liberated.-A.]