Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

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Discourse 49: The Eighteenth Chapter Continues – Types of Understanding, Determination and Happiness

Lord Krishna is not tired of repeating again and again that we should do work. Wherever there is an opportunity, he brings in that point that we should do work, lest we become lost in God-consciousness. He is afraid that we will be thinking too much of God, so he again and again brings us down to earth by saying, “Do work! Do work!” Having said so many things about jnana, now he says what good action is.

Niyataṁ saṅgarahitam arāgadveṣataḥ kṛtam, aphalaprepsunā karma yat tat sāttvikam ucyate (18.23): Sattvic karma is that which is performed by one who considers that performance as an obligatory duty and not an imposition from outside, and does the duty without any kind of attachment or feeling of mine-ness in regard to the work. He will not say it is his work. It is just work, and it does not belong to anybody as their property, and it is free from like and dislike. Action can be performed for the fulfilment of a desire, or it can be done for harming people; there can be negative action or positive action. But the duty that is referred to here is free from likes and dislikes. It is not intended to please oneself, nor is it intended to harm somebody else. Niyataṁ saṅgarahitam arāgadveṣataḥ kṛtam: It is duty, free from mine-ness and attachment in regard to it. Aphalaprepsunā karma: With no eye to the fruit thereof.

There are so many conditions. Firstly, it should be considered as a duty and not as an imposition. Secondly, it should be done without any kind of attachment. Thirdly, it should not be motivated by like and dislike. Fourthly, there should be no eye on the fruit that accrues from the action. That kind of action, with so many conditions attached to it, difficult indeed to perform by ordinary persons, is called sattvic karma.

Yat tu kāmepsunā karma sāhaṁkāreṇa vā punaḥ, kriyate bahulāyāsaṁ tad rājasam udāhṛtam (18.24): Sattvic action is spontaneous, and does not fatigue the person. This is one characteristic of good action. We will not be tired of doing sattvic action. Sattvic action cannot fatigue us, because we are doing it of our own accord as something that has to be done. But if we are doing it for somebody else’s sake and not due to our own personal choice, then it will fatigue us. So, the Lord says that if anyone does action with intense longing attached to it, whatever be the nature of that longing, and it is also filled with egoism—“See what I do! I am capable of doing this. What do people think? What do they know about me?”—if this kind of egoistic boasting is at the back of any kind of performance, together with desire of some nature, yet it is attended with fatigue because one gets tired at the end of the day by doing that work, if the nature of the work causes fatigue engendered by egoism and is filled with desire, it is called rajasa karma.

Anubandhaṁ kṣayaṁ hiṁsām anapekṣya ca pauruṣam, mohād ārabhyate karma yat tat tāmasam ucyate (18.25). When we undertake an action, we must know our capacity to do it. Are we fit for it? To imagine oneself to be competent to perform a work, while really one is not competent, is lack of wisdom. It is not necessary to underestimate oneself, but it is also not necessary to overestimate oneself. It is necessary to judge oneself impartially as to one’s capacity and fitness for a particular kind of work or action. When a person does not consider his fitness for undertaking a work, and does not consider the consequence that may follow from that action, the harm that it may do to others and the injury that may result, and the work is done with a confused state of mind, such an action is called tamasic karma, the worst kind of action.

Muktasaṅgonahaṁvādī dhṛtyutsāhasamanvitaḥ, siddhyasiddhyor nirvikāraḥ kartā sāttvika ucyate (18.26). Sattvic action is defined once again. It is an action performed by those people who are free from attachment—muktasaṅgaḥ; who do not have any kind of a trace of egoism on their part—ahaṁvādī; and are full of enthusiasm for the work. It is not fatigue but enthusiasm, zest, and an indefatigability that is felt before undertaking any work. Utsāha, which is enthusiasm, spiritedness, and a love for what is good, should be the motive behind performing action, whether one succeeds or not. This is because, as mentioned earlier, the fruit of an action is not in anyone’s hand. The fruit is the product of the cooperative activity of five factors.

Therefore, if we do something to the best of our ability but have not succeeded, it is because we have not taken into consideration the other four aspects. Finally, one cannot succeed in life unless one is practically omniscient in nature. An ordinary person cannot know what consequence will follow from what action, because we cannot know all aspects of the matter at the same time. Sattvic karma is free from the longing to achieve its fruit, free from egoism, filled with enthusiasm, work undertaken spontaneously by oneself for the welfare of all people.

Rāgī karmaphalaprepsur lubdho hiṁsātmakośuciḥ, harṣaśokānvitaḥ kartā rājasaḥ parikīrtitaḥ (18.27). Rajasic karma is a different kind. It is, right from the beginning until the end, filled with some kind of longing: “I expect some fruit from this kind of undertaking. It must come.” The focus is not on the means, but on the end. It does not matter what means we adopt, provided the end is achieved. But the correct process of action is that the end cannot be justifiable if the means is not justifiable. The end is nothing but the evolutionary completion of the means. When evolution takes place, the means evolves into the fruit of itself; that is called the end. The end is the consummation of the means. Inasmuch as the end is the consummation of the means, there cannot be any qualitative difference between the means and the end. Hence, it is foolishness and a kind of idiocy to think that the end justifies the means.

Attachment, desire, longing, and passionate clinging are the characteristics of rajasic action, not of sattvic action. Karma-phala-prepsuḥ: Always thinking of what comes out of the action performed. Lubdhaḥ: Full of greed for the fruit. Hiṁsa-ātmakaḥ: Causing injury to people, and not caring what negative effect the action may have on other people, as long as one is satisfied. Aśuciḥ: Impure motive is at the back of it. Sometimes one is elated, sometimes one is depressed. When there is a little indication that perhaps success is on the horizon, one is elated; but when the conditions change, there is immediately depression. A person floats on the surface of the sea of happiness and sorrow, and does not know what will actually be in store for him tomorrow, whether it will be happiness or grief. That kind of undecided state of affairs in the future is veritably grief itself. Harṣaśokānvitaḥ kartā rājasaḥ parikīrtitaḥ: Such a person is rajasic in nature.

Ayuktaḥ prākṛtaḥ stabdhaḥ śaṭho naiṣkṛtikolasaḥ, viṣādī dīrghasῡtrī ca kartā tāmasa ucyate (18.28). “Oh, what a difficult work it is! Why should I undertake that work?” That is a tamasic attitude. Always grieving—complaining in the beginning, complaining in the middle, and complaining in the end. There are some people who always complain when they do some work. They complain before starting it, while doing it, and also at the verge of completion. Dīrghasῡtrī: Taking a long time to do a thing. If something can be done today, they will take three days to do it. They go on thinking about it for three days, and on the fourth day they think how to do it, and on the fifth day someone has to push them to do it. This kind of procrastination is the thief of time, as they say, and such people are called dīrghasῡtrīs. Ayuktaḥ: Always in a state of grief and diffidence, and not inwardly united to the spiritual goal. Stabdhaḥ: Highly crude in behaviour, thinking only of the material end, always in a state of mental torpidity. The mind is not active, not clear, not at all moving for days together; and when it starts moving, it will move in the wrong direction. Śaṭhaḥ: A person who is totally unreliable, shrewd and cunning in the performance of affairs, a bad character, and basically lethargic in his nature. All these qualities go to form what is called tamas.

This is briefly some recapitulation of the characteristics of three types of actions done by three kinds of people—sattvic, rajasic and tamasic. This subject has been dealt with in more detail in the Third and the Fourth Chapters, and here it is only a summing up, a simhavalokanam. Simhavalokanam means going on, going on, and then looking back—like a lion. A lion goes on walking, and then after some time it turns to see what is behind. That kind of looking back is called summing up, recapitulation, simhavalokanam.

Now the buddhi, or the intellect, is discussed. Three qualities of the intellect are mentioned here—three types of intellect, understanding. Buddher bhedaṁ dhṛteś caiva guṇatas trividhaṁ śṛṇu, procyamānam aśeṣeṇa pṛthaktvena dhanaṁjaya (18.29): “Hey Arjuna, listen to the characteristics of understanding, the characteristics of determination, which I shall now touch upon briefly.”

Pravṛttiṁ ca nivṛttiṁ ca kāryākārye bhayābhaye, bandhaṁ mokṣaṁ ca yā vetti buddhiḥ sā pārtha sāttvikī (18.30): Sattvic understanding, or intellection, is that which knows what is to be done and what is not to be done under a given condition, what is proper and what is not proper. Place, time and circumstance condition the undertaking of any work to determine which work may be suitable at a particular moment and which work may not be suitable at that moment. That which may be fitting in this particular spot may not be suitable at another place, and that which is fitting under conditions prevailing now may not be fitting under conditions prevailing in a different manner altogether or in some other place.

Therefore, everyone should understand this peculiar tantalising character of the method of choosing what is proper and what is improper. One cannot easily know what is good and bad. The goodness and the badness of an undertaking is not merely an ethical or a moral question. It is a philosophical and metaphysical issue based finally on the very purpose of existence itself. Only a well-baked philosopher can have some insight into what is finally good and what is not. By reading a book or a code of law, or a Smriti such as the Manu or the Yajnavalkya Smritis, one may know something of the nature of goodness and badness under specific conditions, but under what condition which kind of actions are to be performed cannot be catalogued in a book. We have to decide for ourselves what criteria we will hold in judging what is proper and improper. This is a crucial question before us, and the judgment in this regard should be based, finally, on the ultimate purpose of life. That is why one has to be very intelligent in choosing any course of action. Such a person is sattvic who knows what is proper and what is improper, what is good and what is bad, what is to be done and what is not to be done, what is a cause of bondage and what is going to be liberating. Only such a person can be really intelligent, and that understanding can be regarded as sattvic in its nature: sa buddhih partha sattviki.

Yayā dharmam adharmaṁ ca kāryaṁ cākāryam eva ca, ayathāvat prajānāti buddhiḥ sā pārtha rājasī (18.31): A rajasic person considers a wrong place as a proper place, a wrong time as a proper time, a wrong circumstance as a proper circumstance, and mixes up the concepts of dharma and adharma. Many people do wrong actions under the impression that they are doing some dharmic activity, because the idea of dharma is not clear in their mind; it is localised, politicised. Geographical, historical, communal, religious and political circumstances may vitiate the very concept of what is good and bad. We cannot decide what is ultimately good and what is ultimately bad as we are involved in these conditioning factors of human society. Such an involved kind of thinking is called rajasic buddhi, because it does not know what is dharma and adharma, what is to be done and what is not to be done, and misconstrues everything. A thing which is injurious is regarded as very good, and that which is harming others is regarded as something contributory to the welfare of people. Such a person is rajasic in nature.

Adharmaṁ dharmam iti yā manyate tamasāvṛtā, sarvārthān viparītāñś ca buddhiḥ sā pārtha tāmasī (18.32): The worst kind of understanding is tamasic buddhi, which totally misconstrues all things in a topsy-turvy manner. Totally wrong things are regarded as very good things—adharmaṁ dharmam iti yā manyate—on account of a clouding of the intellect. Every kind of objective in life is viewed from a selfish point of view. There is no ability to link the undertaking to the final purpose of life, because that consciousness of the final purpose is completely obliterated from a tamasic buddhi.

The ‘determination’ that will be taken up for discussion in the coming verses has a connection with understanding. Intellect and will go together. The capacity of our deciding factor—decision, determination, volition—depends much, or perhaps wholly, on understanding. To the extent of our understanding, to that extent also we have the power of will. If the understanding is weak, the will also is weak. In these verses we have been told something about the three types of understanding—sattvic, rajasic or tamasic. Now, three types of determination or volition are mentioned here.

Dhṛtyā yayā dhārayate manaḥprāṇendriyakriyāḥ, yogenāvyabhicāriṇyā dhṛtiḥ sā pārtha sāttvikī (18.33). What is sattvic determination? That exercise of will by which we are able to restrain the mind, the prana and the sense organs with great force of the logical capacity within, being united in a state of yoga inwardly with no distraction in the mind and wholly concentrated on the final aim of life—that kind of decision, determination, or dhṛtiḥ, is sattvic in its nature.

Yayā tu dharmakāmārthān dhṛtyā dhārayaterjuna, prasaṅgena phalākāṅkṣī dhṛtiḥ sā pārtha rājasī (18.34): Rajasic determination is that which keeps in view the product of one’s action, whether it is good or otherwise. Dharma, artha and kama are considered as the primary motives behind any kind of work, and moksha is completely ignored. Where moksha is not at all in the mind of a person, and it is not taken into account in the judgment of values, dharma may look like adharma, and adharma may look like dharma. Kama will ruin a person; and artha, or desire for material goods, will be harmful for the security and welfare of life. Hence, rajasic determination takes into consideration only the secular values. Here dharma is to be understood only in the sense of that kind of behaviour or conduct which will be conducive to the fulfilment of desire and material welfare, and not necessarily of moksha. We have emotional desires and material greed. If these two desires can be fulfilled somehow or the other, and we regard that way of fulfilment as righteousness, and we are always thinking of what will accrue through the undertaking in which we are engaged, that is rajasic understanding.

Yayā svapnaṁ bhayaṁ śokaṁ viṣādaṁ madam eva ca, na vimuñcati durmedhā dhṛtiḥ sā pārtha tāmasī (18.35): Tamasic determination or will is filled with sleepiness, fear, grief, despondency, pride, and a deluded state of thinking. These are qualities of a tamasic individual. Durmedhā dhṛtiḥ: A determination that is motivated by a bad or a wrong type of understanding. Mada is a kind of vanity that one feels in oneself. Vishada is despondency. Soka is grief. Bhaya is fear. Svapna is lethargic sleeping or a torpid condition of the mind, which is not inclined to any kind of activity. If this is the characteristic of a person, such a person is tamasic and is unfit for doing anything at all.

Three kinds of understanding and three kinds of decision or determination have been mentioned. Many kinds of themes constituting three categories are taken up in this fashion. As understanding is threefold and determination is threefold, happiness also is threefold. There are three kinds of happiness.

Sukhaṁ tv idānīṁ trividhaṁ śṛṇu me bharatarṣabha, abhyāsād ramate yatra duḥkhāntaṁ ca nigacchhati  (18.36): “Now I shall tell you what is real happiness. That which leads you finally to sorrow and that which will lead you to real happiness, I shall tell you what it is.”

Yat tadagre viṣam iva: True happiness, or real happiness, lasting happiness, genuine happiness, looks like poison in the beginning. Very painful is any kind of effort in the direction of real happiness, but in the end it is like nectar. There is a proverb that says, “You have to soil your hands in order to get sweet milk from the cow.” Anything that is intended for our final welfare looks like a bitter potion in the beginning, and we will be very unhappy even to undertake it. Whether it is yoga exercise, japa, meditation, study, sadhana or whatever it is, it will look very boring and painful, but is going to lead to final bliss. That which is really good looks undesirable and repulsive. Yat tadagre viṣam iva pariṇāmemṛtopamam, tat sukhaṁ sāttvikaṁ proktam ātmabuddhiprasādajam (18.37): That kind of happiness which will finally delight the self inside, make our understanding blossom and bring us inner peace, which ends in the nectarine experience of bliss though in the beginning it may look like a poisonous bitter stuff, should be considered as real sattvic happiness.

Viṣayendriyasañyogād yat tad agremṛtopamam, pariṇāme viṣam iva tat sukhaṁ rājasaṁ smṛtam (18.38). Sense indulgence appears to bring immediate pleasure, unlike sattvic happiness which looks very bitter in the beginning. Here, nectar is felt in the beginning itself. When the sense organs indulge in the objects which they long for, they seem to be drowned in nectar, so they long for the objects again and again, and one can spend one’s entire life indulging in these sense objects. But in the end, terrible, painful consequences will follow. Mental grief, physical debility and rebirth will follow as a consequence of sense indulgence. Viṣayendriyasañyogād yat tad agremṛtopamam: That which looks like nectar in the beginning because of the contact of the sense organs with their objects, but which will lead one to sorrow in the end, is called rajasic happiness.

Yad agre cānubandhe ca sukhaṁ mohanam ātmanaḥ, nidrālasyapramādotthaṁ tat tāmasam udāhṛtam (18.39). For instance, the happiness that one gets by drinking alcohol is tamasic happiness. It will completely delude our brain and put us into a state of stupor, giving us the false impression that we are in a state of joy. Intense smoking and drinking may come under this category because they appear to bring some kind of satisfaction to a person, but it is a deluded mind that thinks in this fashion. The person is happy in the beginning, in the middle and in the end—because he is drunk. In a person who is drunk, the nerves are stimulated and appear to be always in a state of happiness, but they are going to collapse completely after some time. Such happiness which is totally undesirable is tamasic happiness. Nidrālasyapramādotthaṁ tat tāmasam udāhṛtam: It will lead to sorrow and sleep. A drunken man sleeps, and when he wakes up he again drinks, and after drinking again sleeps, and after sleeping again drinks on waking up. What kind of happiness is this? This is the kind of life that some people live in the world—tamasic.

Na tad asti pṛthivyāṁ vā divi deveṣu vā punaḥ, sattvaṁ prakṛtijair muktaṁ yad ebhiḥ syāt tribhir guṇaiḥ (18.40): Some specific instances of the working of the three gunassattvic, rajasic and tamasic—have been mentioned here. There are infinite instances that can be used to illustrate this, and they are classified as being either sattvic, rajasic or tamasic. Actually, neither on earth nor in heaven is there anything which is not controlled and conditioned by the three gunas. Everything in the entire creation, in all the realms of being, is a modification of the three qualities of prakritisattva, rajas and tamas. Therefore, we always have to try to bring the sattvic quality to the surface of consciousness because it is perspicacious and it will give us some inkling of the higher purpose of life. The rajasic and tamasic vrittis will make us completely oblivious of the higher values of life, make us sunk in secular affairs, make us think in terms of sense objects, and cause us to take rebirth. We should develop sattvic attitudes in understanding, in determination, in will, and in happiness.