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Commentary on the Bhagavadgita


Discourse 49: The Eighteenth Chapter Continues – The Working of the Three Gunas

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.

Niyatam sanga-rahitam araga-dveshatah krtam, aphala-prepsuna karma yat tat sattvikam uchyate(18.23): Sattvika 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. Araga-dveshatah krtam niyatam sanga-rahitam: It is duty, free from mine-ness and attachment in regard to it. Aphala-prepsuna karma: with no eye to the fruit thereof.

There are so many conditions. Firstly, it should be considered as duty and not 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 to perform indeed by ordinary persons, is called sattvika karma.

Yat tu kamepsuna karma sahankarena va punah, kriyate bahulayasam tad rajas am udahrtam (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 voluntarily of our own accord as something that has to be done. But if we are doing it for somebody’s sake and not due to our own personal choice, then that will fatigue us; we will be sweating. 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.

Anubandham kshayam himsam anavekshya cha paurusham, mohad arabhyate karma yat tat tamasam uchyate (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 this paurusha aspect – that is, one’s fitness for undertaking a work – and also 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 confused state of mind, such an action is called tamasa karma, the worst kind of action.

Mukta-sango’nahamvadi dhrty-utsaha-samanvitah, siddhy-asiddhyor nirvikarah karta sattvika uchyate (18.26). Sattvic action is defined once again. It is an action performed by those people who are free from attachment – muktasangah; who do not have any kind of a trace of egoism on their part – anahamvadi; 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. Utsaha, 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. 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. Sattvika 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.

Ragi karma-phala-prepsur lubdho himsatmako’suchih, harsha-sokanvitah karta rajasah parikirtitah (18.27). Rajasika 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 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 end justifies the means.

Attachment, desire, longing and passionate clinging are the characteristics of rajasic action, not of good (sattvika) action. Karmaphalaprepsuh: always thinking of what comes out of the action performed. Lubdha: full of greed for the fruit. Himsatmakah: causing injury to people, and not caring what negative effect the action may have on other people, as long as one is satisfied. Asuchih: impure motive is at the back of it. Sometimes one is elated, sometimes one is depressed. When there is a little indication that success is perhaps in the horizon, one is elated; but tomorrow 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 happiness or grief. That kind of undecided state of affairs in the future is veritably grief itself. Harsha-sokanvitah karta rajasah parikirtitah: Such a person is rajasic in nature.

Ayuktah prakrtah stabdhah satho naishkrtiko’lasah, vishadi dirgha-sutri cha karta tamasa uchyate (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. Dirghasutri: taking 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 dirghasutris. Ayuktah: always in a state of grief and diffidence, and not inwardly united to the spiritual goal.  Stabdhah: and 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. Sathah: 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 bhedam dhrtes chaiva gunatas tri-vidham srunu, prochyamanam aseshena prthaktvena dhananjaya (18.29): “Hey Arjuna, listen to the characteristics of understanding, the characteristics of determination, which I shall now touch upon briefly.”

Pravrttim cha nivrttim cha karyakarye bhayabhaye, bandham moksham cha ya vetti buddhih sa partha sattviki (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.