Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 50: The Eighteenth Chapter Continues – Knowing One's Duty

The Bhagavadgita has been telling us varieties of things in terms of the three gunas—what is sattvic, what is rajasic and what is tamasic. Nothing on earth or in heaven can be said to be free from the operation of the three gunas. Not even the gods are free from the action of gunas on them.

brāhmaṇakṣatriyaviśāṁ śūdrāṇāṁ ca paraṁtapa
karmāṇi pravibhaktāni svabhāvaprabhavair guṇaiḥ (18.41)
śamo damas tapaḥ śaucaṁ kṣāntir ārjavam eva ca
jñānaṁ vijñānam āstikyaṁ brahmakarma svabhāvajam (18.42)
śauryaṁ tejo dhṛtir dākṣyaṁ yuddhe cāpyapalāyanam
dānam īśvarabhāvaś ca kṣātraṁ karma svabhāvajam (18.43)
kṛṣigaurakṣyavāṇijyaṁ vaiśyakarma svabhāvajam
paricaryātmakaṁ karma śūdrasyāpi svabhāvajam (18.44)

Here we have an indication of the manner in which society is to be organised, vertically as well as horizontally. The horizontal discipline and stabilising of life is called varna dharma. The vertical process of ascent of the individual is in the ashrama dharma. Actually, the whole of ethics, the entire code of conduct and behaviour, is summed up in three things: 1) the concept of dharma, artha, kama and moksha; 2) varna dharma; 3) ashrama dharma. Nothing in the world can tell us about ethics more than these three things. How we have to conduct ourselves in regard to the ultimate aim of life, how we have to conduct ourselves in relation to people outside, how we have to conduct ourselves in regard to our own self—these three enunciations sum up the whole of reality. That which we are, that which is outside, and that which is above are the threefold definitions of reality.

The ultimate goal, in its complete structure, is delineated in the principles of dharma, artha, kama, moksha. Perhaps you all know what it means, as we have touched upon this subject elsewhere in the course of earlier discourses. The concept of this fourfold aim known as the purusharthas is a highly compassionate, integrating and well thought-out discipline of life. Our requirements are classified into four principles: material needs, emotional needs, and ethical needs, all leading to spiritual needs. The ethical need is dharma, the material need is artha, the emotional need is kama, and the spiritual need is moksha. The concept of moksha, or the liberation of the soul, determines the other principles of dharma, artha and kama. This fourfold valuation of the whole of life is to be put into practice in our personal and social life, and is not there only to be philosophically contemplated as principles in textbooks. We have to live in this world in such a manner that we shall move upward gradually in the direction of the liberation of the inner spirit, and such a liberation is not possible unless we disentangle ourselves from our involvements which cause us bondage.

The bondage is also of three kinds. Total ignorance of the ultimate aim of life is the greatest bondage, the inability to get on with people outside is another bondage, and not knowing what is happening to one’s own self is a third bondage. One should not be ignorant in this matter. It has to be very clear to us as to what kind of person we are. We should not underestimate or overestimate ourselves. We must also know how we have to conduct ourselves in human society, where there are other people like us living with a common interest. Then, we have to be very clear about what it is that we are aiming at in the end, from the cosmic point of view. The cosmical aspiration is, therefore, summed up in this fourfold principle of dharma, artha, kama, moksha. But this concept of moksha has to be implemented in our daily life in society, and in our personality.

The terms used here—Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra—refer to intelligence, power, wealth and labour. These are the footstools, as it were, of human society. No one can be entirely intelligent, no one can be entirely powerful, no one can be entirely wealthy, and no one can be entirely fit for hard labour. There is a classification of the ability and endowments of people according to a variety of reasons. A person is born into some condition and circumstance. Some people are intelligent right from the beginning, some are royally construed right from the beginning, some have trading and economic tendencies right from the beginning, and some are traders, workmen, industrialists, technologists, etc., by their predilection and inclination. It does not mean that people can be classified only into four sections. There can be hundreds of differences among people, but this is broadly the category corresponding to our inner psychic faculty. We have buddhi or intellect inside us, there is will or volition in us, there is emotion or feeling in us, and there is also the impulse to action or work inside us. The fourfold classification of human society into Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra, representing the ruling class, the guiding class, the wealthy class and the labour class, has relevance to the inner psychic preponderance of intellectual capacity, administrative capacity, economic capacity and working capacity. When these four are blended together in a proper form, society is supposed to be stable.

Though society is stable, somehow or the other, by an administrative system that is introduced in this manner by bringing about some harmonious adjustment of capacities and intelligences, there is also a need for working out a system of inner development. It is not enough if we are merely stable socially. We also have to be perfect inwardly in our own individuality. Varna dharma, which is actually what is meant by this social group mentioned, is concerned only with external society, and ashrama dharma is concerned with ourselves. Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra are external, social, outward, whereas Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa refer to the inward graduated ascent of the spirit to higher and higher dimensions of comprehension.

These two have to go together. Socially we are involved in a particular location, and we have to work and contribute our might for the welfare of society in accordance with our placement, location or situation in which we find ourselves or for which we are fitted in society. Together with that, we also have to work for our development. The four stages of inner development, known as ashrama dharma, are Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa.

In the early stages, for about twenty-five years at least, a person lives a life of utter self-restraint and study, under a teacher. The parents do not, according to the ancient system at least, allow their sons to remain at home when they come of age for education and study. When a person comes of age for education, he is sent out to a teacher, and he is supposed to be there for at least twelve years, if not more, as the case may be. This Brahmacharya stage of self-restraint and service to the Guru, and study of the Vedas particularly, is supposed to be a foundation that is being laid for one’s personal life. What we have been in our early years will tell upon us in our later years. What were we doing for the first twenty or twenty-five years? What kind of life did we live? That will have a direct impact upon our life after fifty or sixty years of age. The energetic, disciplined, hard life that we lived early on will bear fruit which we can reap towards the end of our life. But if in our early years we have lived a dissipated, carefree life, without any kind of discipline whatsoever, it will have a very deleterious effect when we grow old. That is why it has been always prescribed that early years should be of complete control, complete discipline—biological, psychological and physical—apart from the social involvement already mentioned as varna dharma.

After this stage of Brahmacharya, one usually enters into household life, because that is supposed to be a stage where one learns the ways of life. The world is made up so many complicated involvements. The isolated life of a Brahmacharin is good for conserving energy and making one strong enough to face life, but one must know what life is. One gains knowledge of life by living a socially construed family life, into which one is generally introduced after the Brahmacharya stage is over. But when one comes to maturity of experience—where the hair turns grey, as it were—there is a necessity to withdraw oneself from too much concern over family affairs or even social affairs, and a desire should arise inwardly to look to the need for a higher kind of living, what may be called spiritual living. Then one lives a secluded life. This stage is called Vanaprastha life. It is not actually total renunciation like a Sannyasin, but it is isolated, secluded living, away from the family atmosphere. One may live in a temple or in an ashrama for some time, and then go back to the family, and then again go for retreat, thus habituating oneself to a life of non-involvement in family life. That continues for some time.

Usually, the expectation is that one should live a life of Brahmacharya for twenty-five years, a life of Grihastha for another twenty-five years, Vanaprastha for the third twenty-five years, and Sannyasa for the last twenty-five years. But considering the age limit of people these days and there being no standard hope of everybody living one hundred years, we have to limit the duration of the stages mentioned according to the circumstances. Nevertheless, the stages are valid even today, and in connection with this kind of internal and external discipline, the Bhagavadgita goes into these brief statements of Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra.

The duties of a Brahmana, a Kshatriya, a Vaishya or a Sudra are determined by the gunas of prakritisvabhāvaprabhavair guṇaiḥ. One is not born a genius, one is not born wealthy, one is not born an administrator, nor is one a labourer right from birth. The conditions of living accrue or grow around oneself due to various circumstances occasioned by past karmas as well as one’s present abilities.

Internal restraint of the sense organs, external control over the active senses, purity of motive inwardly and outwardly, forgiveness, straightforwardness, knowledge and wisdom, spiritual experience, and belief in God are considered to be the main characteristics of a Brahmana. The characteristics of a Kshatriya are valour, heroism, spiritedness, determination to achieve a goal, power which does not diminish, never retreating in war, charitableness, and a feeling of responsibility, as the ruler, for the welfare of other people. These are considered as the Kshatriya’s dharmas, the warrior’s, the ruler’s, the administrator’s dharma: śauryaṁ tejo dhṛtir dākṣyaṁ yuddhe cāpyapalāyanam, dānam īśvarabhāvaś ca kṣātraṁ karma svabhāvajam.

The economic group is called Vaisya: kṛṣigaurakṣyavāṇijyaṁ vaiśyakarma svabhāvajam. Tilling and taking care of land, producing grains, trading, wealth, protecting cattle, carrying on business—all these come under the Vaisya’s duty. Actual hard work, whether industrially, technologically or in any way whatsoever—that which requires hard labour—is the prerogative of the fourth class, known as Sudra.

Sve sve karmaṇyabhirataḥ saṁsiddhiṁ labhate naraḥ (18.45): Each one is to perform one’s duty according to the station in society in which one is placed. Then it is possible for one to progress further. Svakarmanirataḥ siddhiṃ yathā vindati tac chṛṇu: “I shall now tell you how, by performing one’s own duty, one reaches the highest.”

Yataḥ pravṛttir bhūtānāṁ yena sarvam idaṁ tatam, svakarmaṇā tam abhyarcya siddhiṁ vindati mānavaḥ (18.46): One attains perfection by adoring the Almighty Being by one’s own knowledge and capacity, and performing one’s duty in accordance with that knowledge and capacity. God does not expect us to do anything beyond ourselves, beyond our capacity, and no one can expect from us what we cannot do. Our svadharma is that which we can do and, therefore, we must do. With that, the Supreme Being Himself will be satisfied. Our worship of God should be through the work that we do according to our ability and our concept of duty, performed in a totally unselfish manner: svakarmaṇā tam abhyarcya siddhiṁ vindati mānavaḥ.

Śreyān svadharmo viguṇaḥ (18.47): We should not try to intrude into a field of work for which we are not fitted. In that case, we will find that our knowledge and capacity are not adequate for the purpose. Either we would bungle on account of our not being suitable for that kind of work, or we would not be utilising our genius adequately by choosing some lesser kind of work while we are actually expected to be involved in a higher kind of work. So, one should be able to judge for oneself the knowledge and capacity that one has in respect of any kind of duty to be performed in society; and that capacity of choice of duty is actually the worship of God through svakarma. Svadharma and svakarma—one’s own duty is best because we cannot expect to do more than what our duty can permit us to do. Another’s duty—that is, work that is not intended for us and for which we are not fitted—is not recommended. Svabhāvaniyataṁ karma kurvan nāpnoti kilbiṣam: According to our nature, according to the predilection of our psyche, the inborn characteristic of our own personality will decide what kind of work we have to do and what duty is expected of us. Then we shall not have any kind of fear of sin because we are doing the best that we can—kurvan nāpnoti kilbiṣam.

Sahajaṁ karma kaunteya sadoṣam api na tyajet (18.48): It is incumbent on oneself to do one’s own duty, though it becomes difficult to carry on that work due to some defect involved there. We may be ill, or we may not have the appurtenances required for performing our duty. Nevertheless, we should not transgress the boundaries of what we are expected to do in this world. That is our rule; that is our law: sahajaṁ karma kaunteya sadoṣam api na tyajet.

Sarvārambhā hi doṣeṇa dhūmenāgnir ivāvṛtāḥ: There is what is called dignity of labour. Every work is equally good. We should not say, “Why should I do this kind of menial work? That person is doing better work.” There is no such thing as menial work and better work in this world. It is all a contribution from one’s own point of view for the total welfare of humanity. Every work is equally divine; every work is equally contributory to the welfare of one’s own benefit as well as others’. Work should not be compared. We should not say, “That person is doing a superior work, and I am doing an inferior work.” There is no such thing as inferior work, and no such thing as superior work, just as in a huge mechanism we cannot say which part is superior and which part is inferior. All parts are equally necessary because even if one little part is not working properly, the entire mechanism will be dislocated. So, the concept of dignity of work, and the divinity that one can see in the performance of duty, is to be the guiding factor in one’s daily life; and there should be no complaint either in regard to placing oneself in a so-called inferior position or imagining that somebody else is in a higher position. There is no higher position or inferior position. Each one is fitted for something, and that must be done; and what we are not fitted for, that of course we cannot do. So, we should not complain.

Sarvārambhā hi doṣeṇa dhūmenāgnir ivāvṛtāḥ: Actually, every work has a defect in it, whether it is higher work, lower work, that man’s work, this man’s work. Nobody can be omniscient. Everybody is human. Inasmuch as we lack complete knowledge of every kind of involvement in a particular undertaking or work, there is likely to be some difficulty to be encountered on the way. We will not get everything that we want even if we work to the best of our ability and expectation. This is because, as mentioned earlier, there are five factors determining the result of an action, and inasmuch as no one can know all the five factors working in an action—one knows only one or two—those factors of which we are ignorant will react upon us in a deleterious manner. So it is not that everybody will work perfectly without any kind of pain involved in it. Every work involves some kind of pain, whether we regard it as higher work or lower work. Every undertaking has a defect behind it, because rajoguna and tamoguna pravritti are also together with the sattvaguna pravritti. We cannot always be in sattvaguna, under the impression that everything will be well. Everything looks well for some time, but then rajoguna comes and distracts our mind, and tamoguna comes and puts a stop to our work. Hence, there is a defect in every kind of undertaking. Knowing this, one should not compare one’s work with another kind of work. All work is equally good or equally bad.

Asaktabuddhiḥ sarvatra jitātmā vigataspṛhaḥ (18.49): The final yoga is summed up here. How do we practise final yoga when we are about to depart from this world? It is by being totally detached in understanding, and freeing the intellect from involvement with anything whatsoever in the world. Asaktabuddhiḥ sarvatra: In everything, be detached and have no attachment. Jitātmā: Restrained in one’s own self. Vigataspṛhaḥ: Having no liking for any particular thing in the world. Naiṣkarmyasiddhiṁ paramāṁ sannyāsenādhigacchatii: This kind of attitude of self-restraint is called sannyasa, the abandonment of every kind of involvement. Thus practising, one attains to a state where one need not do anything. Naiṣkarmya siddhi is a state where karmas automatically find their fulfilment, and we need not have to engage ourselves in any work later on. Just as rivers move, but they need not move after they reach the ocean, so too one has to work hard until the Universal Being is reached. There, all actions find their consummation. Therefore, it is called naiṣkarmya. That is the ultimate perfection which is reached by sannyasa dharma, which is constituted of freedom from attachment, self-restraint, and absence of desire for all things.

Siddhiṁ prāpto yathā brahma tathāpnoti nibodha me, samāsenaiva kaunteya niṣṭhā jñānasya yā parā (18.50): “How does one attain to this perfection, and attain to Brahman in the end? Please listen to Me. I shall tell you in brief.”

Buddhyā viśuddhayā yukto dhṛtyātmānaṁ niyamya ca (18.51): Purifying one’s intellect from the dross of rajasic and tamasic desires. Dhṛtyātmānaṁ niyamya ca: By restraining the lower self with the power of the higher self—that is, by restraining oneself in the light of the aspiration for a higher reality. Śabdādīn viṣayāṁs tyaktvā: Cutting off connection of all five senses with the objects by withdrawing the five senses from their corresponding objects. Śabdādīn viṣayāṁs tyaktvā rāgadveṣau vyudasya ca: Freeing oneself from raga and dvesha, attachment and aversion, like and dislike for anything, and having an equilibrated attitude towards all things.

Viviktasevī laghvāśī (18.52): Always wanting to be alone to oneself, and not feeling happy in the midst of people. The more we are alone, the more we feel free and happy. That is the characteristic of a spiritual seeker in an advanced stage. Laghvāśī: Eating only as much as is necessary, and not eating like a glutton. Yatavākkāyamānasaḥ: Working only to the extent it is necessary to work. He does not work beyond his limit and become fatigued. He speaks only when it is necessary to speak, and does not speak unnecessarily. He also restrains the mind, and thinks only when it is necessary to think in a particular line. Otherwise, he does not think anything at all because of his inward spiritual approach. Dhyānayogaparo nityaṁ: Always intent on the supreme meditative mood on the ultimate goal of life. Vairāgyaṁ samupāśritaḥ: Totally renouncing all attachment to worldly involvements, all perishable objects—anything that is external, spatial and temporal—renouncing all these things by vairagya dharma.

Ahaṁkāraṁ balaṁ darpaṁ kāmaṁ krodhaṁ parigraham vimucya (18.53): Abandoning self-consciousness, not patting oneself on the back that “I have achieved something. I am a spiritual seeker. God is very kind to me, I have advanced so much”. Do not say this, and do not even feel in your mind that you are a superior person, because nobody can be regarded as so very high in the eye of God. Do not be proud of your energy, strength and capacity; do not be vainglorious in your approach; do not desire things which are unnecessary; do not be subject to anger and irritation; do not accept anything which is not actually necessary for a reasonably comfortable life; never have a feeling of ‘I’-ness and ‘mine’-ness in regard to things; do not go on asserting yourself by saying, “I, I, I” and “mine, mine, mine”. None of these things are permitted, finally. Therefore, one must be calm and quiet inwardly, established in Brahman, free from these turmoils of the psyche which come in the form of ego, etc. Then one becomes fit for the realisation of Brahman, brahma sakshatkarbrahmabhūyāya kalpate.

Brahmabhūtaḥ prasannātmā (18.54): One who is established in Brahman is calm and quiet, and composed in oneself, and neither grieves nor wants anything—na śocati na kāṅkṣati. Samaḥ sarveṣu bhūteṣu madbhaktiṁ labhate parām: Devoted to God ultimately, and wanting nothing else. Having an equilibrated attitude towards all living beings, high and low, one is centred in God, and loves God and nothing else—madbhaktim labhate param.

Bhaktyā mām abhijānāti yāvān yaś cāsmi tattvataḥ (18.55): The Lord says, “A true devotee knows what kind of person I am, what kind of Reality I am.” This means knowing what God is, what God does, what is the characteristic of God, and what one actually attains after reaching God. All these things will become clear when the devotion intensifies. Then, one enters into the Absolute. Tato māṁ tattvato jñātvā viśate tadanantaram: Knowing God as He is in Himself is a precondition necessary to enter into God. A conceptual appreciation of God’s existence is different from an appreciation of His Existence as He is in Himself. This is possible only if you totally annihilate your egoistic individuality, do not conceive God as if He is something outside you, and do not go on insisting on your own individual existence also. Let God be, and you should not be. When God takes possession of all things, your existence ceases to be and you are no more there, and then it is that you have entered into the Absolute. When you are there looking at God, or thinking that you are there contemplating on God as an independent person, you have not entered. You are only outside beholding, conceptualising, thinking and intellectualising. That is not enough. The entering into the very substance of God is the final aim of life, which is possible only when you cease to be, by a total abolition of your encrustations of physical and psychical personality. Then your soul merges in God.

Sarvakarmāṇyapi sadā kurvāṇo madvyapāśrayaḥ, matprasādād avāpnoti śāśvataṁ padam avyayam (18.56): If you work as a worship of God, whatever be the work that you do—let it be anything, even the littlest of activities of yours—may these activities be dedicated to God as a humble offering. By the grace of God, Who knows your goodness and your devotion, you shall attain to that Eternal Abode—śāśvataṁ padam avyayam.

Cetasā sarvakarmāṇi mayi sannyasya matparaḥ, buddhiyogam upāśritya maccittaḥ satataṁ bhava (18.57): “O Arjuna! I am telling you that with all your mind, with all your heart and with all your soul, be devoted to Me. Abandoning all other concerns in this world, and resorting to the yoga of contemplation through understanding, which is called jnana yoga, be rooted in Me, and let there be no other concern in your mind—maccittaḥ satataṁ bhava.”

Maccittaḥ sarvadurgāṇi matprasādat tariṣyasi (18.58): “Because of your intense devotion to Me and your rootedness in Me, you shall cross over all the turmoil of life by My grace. But if you insist on your own ahamkara and say, ‘I shall do this, and I shall not do that’—then you will be responsible for what follows.” You shall actually perish if you insist on your egoism and say “I shall do this, and I shall not do that” as Arjuna said in the beginning of the First Chapter. Atha cet tvam ahaṁkārān na śroṣyasi vinaṅkṣyasi: “If you do not listen to this good advice and insist on your egoism again and again—well, you will reach nothing finally.”

Yad ahaṅkāram āśritya na yotsya iti manyase (18.59): “Because of egoism, you are saying, ‘I shall not take up arms, I shall throw down everything, and I shall not do any work.’” This was the attitude of Arjuna in the beginning. “If you are so egoistic and you decide everything for yourself—okay, do it. This attitude of yours is not going to succeed finally, because prakriti will compel you to act. Even if people inwardly decide not to do anything, not to work at all, and maintain silence, it is not possible. As long as the body and mind—which are the properties of prakriti—are there, and because prakriti is always in a state of motion, it is not possible for any person to be inactive. Prakriti’s gunas will compel you to act. So, don’t say, ‘I shall not do.’”

Svabhāvajena kaunteya nibaddhaḥ svena karmaṇā, kartuṁ necchasi yan mohāt kariṣyasyavaśo’pi tat (18.60): Even without your wanting to do a thing, you shall be forced to do it on account of the operation of the gunas. It is not that you deliberately want to do something. Even your so-called deliberate undertaking is a compulsion from a higher source, which you cannot avoid. Therefore, do not decide individually, egoistically that “I shall do, I shall not do”. Let there be no such individual decision on your part. Surrender yourself to the Almighty, and all shall be well with you.