Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 48: The Eighteenth Chapter Begins – Renunciation, and Types of Action

We now come to the final chapter of the Bhagavadgita, the Eighteenth Chapter. It is the longest chapter in the Gita, in which we have practically a summing up of all the principles that were discussed in the earlier chapters. All things—whatever has been touched upon in the earlier chapters, from the First onwards to the Seventeenth—are brought together by the Teacher into a brief focusing of attention. Very interesting and very comprehensive is this teaching in the Eighteenth Chapter.

Here, Arjuna raises a question. The whole of the Bhagavadgita seems to be somehow or other centred round the principle of renunciation, abandonment of the fruit of action, for the purpose of attaining perfection. The terms ‘sannyasa’ and ‘tyaga’, meaning thereby abandonment or relinquishing, are used frequently in the Gita. Tyaga is abandoning; sannyasa is relinquishing.

Now, what is it that we abandon, and what is it that we relinquish? The word ‘sannyasa’ suggests renunciation, but it does not suggest what should be renounced. Here is the difficulty before all Sannyasins. They know very well that when they take to Sannyasa, something has to be renounced, because the very word ‘sannyasa’ means renunciation; but what are they to renounce? Generally they renounce their old clothes and put on new clothes, or they renounce their land and property, their family, etc., if that could be possible.

Actually, according to the Bhagavadgita at least, such a kind of relinquishment cannot be regarded as Sannyasa. This is because a person may be physically away from the object of attraction and attachment, but physical distance from the object of attachment does not necessarily mean absence of attachment. Sannyasins may, even after entering into the holy order, keep in their minds the memory of large estates of land that they had, etc. Renunciation is a difficult thing to understand; and so is the case with tyaga, or abandonment.

Because of this difficulty, Arjuna puts a question. Sannyāsasya mahābāho tattvam icchāmi veditum, tyāgasya ca hṛṣīkeśa pṛthak keśiniṣūdana (18.1): “O Lord! I want to know the real meaning of sannyasa, and I also want to know the real meaning of tyaga. Clearly explain to me what is sannyasa, what is tyaga.”

Na hyasannyastasaṁkalpo yogī bhavati kaścana (6.2) is mentioned in the Sixth Chapter. Nobody can be a sannyasin who has not renounced thoughts, determinations, in respect of anything that is to take place in the future. The contemplation of the achievement of something that is to take place in the future is called volition, and anyone who has not renounced volition, or will, cannot be a sannyasin.

Śrībhagavānuvāca: kāmyānāṁ karmaṇāṁ nyāsaṁ sannyāsaṁ kavayo viduḥ, sarvakarmaphalatyāgaṁ prāhus tyāgaṁ vicakṣaṇāḥ (18.2). Here the Lord says sannyasa is that kind of behaviour by which the actions that are connected with desire of some kind or the other are abandoned. A person may be said to be in a state of sannyasa the moment that actions which are motivated by desire are abandoned. That is to say, sannyasa does not mean abandonment of action as such. It means kāmyānāṁ karmaṇāṁ nyāsaṁ: abandonment of actions which are connected with a desire of some kind. If we can think of an action without any desire attached to it, that is a different matter. It is up to us to imagine if such an action is possible at all: an action with which no desire is associated, and from which we expect nothing.

Here, the reference is to another kind of action. Action which is charged with a motive, any kind of motivated action, is kamya karma; and the abandoning of kamya karma, or motivated action, is sannyasa. This is the definition of sannyasa given by great ancient learned ones, called kavis—saṁnyāsaṁ kavayo viduḥ.

Sarvakarmaphalatyāgaṁ prāhus tyāgaṁ vicakṣaṇāḥ. Definitions are very shrewdly given, which confuse the mind of the reader because we do not know exactly what is the distinction drawn between tyaga and sannyasa. Their definitions seem to be practically the same, only worded differently. It is now clear to us that sannyasa is defined as the renunciation of desire-filled action. Tyaga is defined here as sarvakarmaphalatyāga: the abandoning of the fruit of every kind of action. Abandoning the fruit of every kind of action is tyaga.

What is the difference between sannyasa and tyaga? Abandoning actions which are filled with desire is sannyasa. Abandoning the fruit of any action is tyaga. A peculiar mathematical distinction is drawn here, which will make us think deeply as to what this actually means. Now comes more detail as a light thrown on this intricate verse.

Tyājyaṁ doṣavad ityeke karma prāhur manīṣiṇaḥ (18.3): Some wise ones say that every action is defective—karma doṣavat. Sarvārambhā hi doṣeṇa dhūmenāgnir ivāvṛtāḥ (18.48): Sri Krishna himself says that any undertaking is defective because we will come a cropper one day or the other, whatever be the project that we undertake or the work that we do. Because of the fact that there is a defect in every kind of undertaking, in any kind of action, action should be abandoned. This is the opinion of certain ancient Masters. Yajñadānatapaḥkarma na tyājyam iti cāpare: But other great ones tell us that not all actions should be abandoned under the impression that they are all defective, because there are certain actions which are purifying in their nature, and they are obligatory on the part of every person. These actions—namely, yajna, dana and tapas—are very necessary for all people.

“What is My opinion?” Niścayaṁ śṛṇu me tatra (18.4): “What is My conviction about these matters? Please listen.” Tyāgo hi puruṣavyāghra trividhaḥ samprakīrtitaḥ: “Renunciation is of three kinds.” Yajñadānatapaḥkarma na tyājyaṁ kāryam eva tat (18.5): “I shall clinch the matter by firmly telling you that yajna, dana and tapas should not be abandoned under the impression that they are actions that have some defect.”

What is yajna, what is dana, what is tapas? Tapas pertains to us, dana pertains to others, and sacrifice, or yajna, pertains to the gods. We have a duty towards ourselves, a duty towards others, and a duty towards the Supreme Divinity manifesting itself as the controlling power of the cosmos. Therefore, we cannot say that we shall not do anything. We have to do something for our welfare, for others’ welfare, and for the satisfaction of God Himself. The sacrifice that we perform for the satisfaction of the Supreme Divinity, which is the ultimate sacrifice, is called yajna. The charity that we do for the pleasure of people and the welfare of people is called dana, or philanthropic deeds. Tapas—inward austerity, self-control, self-discipline, restraint of the mind and the sense organs—is a duty of every person seeking God.

Therefore, we cannot say, “It is an action; therefore, I will not do it.” We have to do it because tapas is conducive to our welfare, charity or dana is conducive to the welfare of others, and yajna or sacrifice is conducive to the satisfaction of God Himself. Yajñadānatapaḥkarma na tyājyaṁ kāryam eva tat: “Therefore, I tell you, yajna, dana and tapas should not be abandoned. They must be done; they are imperative duties.

Yajño dānaṃ tapaś caiva pāvanāni manīṣiṇām: All these three mentioned actions—yajna, dana and tapas—are highly purifying to everybody and, therefore, every day it is necessary for us to engage ourselves in yajna, dana and tapas simultaneously, for our own welfare and for the great blessing of God Almighty Himself.

In this chapter, brief statements are made on a variety of subjects. A predominant subject is the principle of right action, which has been more elaborately touched upon in the Second and the Third Chapters. Niyatasya tu sannyāsaḥ karmaṇo nopapadyate, mohāt tasya parityāgas tāmasaḥ parikīrtitaḥ (18.7): An obligatory duty can never be abandoned. One cannot relinquish that which is imperative—that which is a must under the circumstance in which a person is placed in this universe. We observed more details in this regard when we studied the Third Chapter.

An obligatory duty is that kind of work or performance which is organically related to our very survival and existence in this world, and is interrelated to other beings in the world. Our existence is conditioned by certain obligations to the atmosphere or the environment of the society in which we are living, and if this point is missed due to any intense form of selfishness on one’s part—one works for one’s own welfare very ignorantly, not considering the internal relationship that one bears consciously or unconsciously with the outer atmosphere—if this ignorance is going to be the motive behind one’s action, deluded is that person. Mohāt tasya parityāgas tāmasaḥ parikīrtitaḥ: Such abandonment of work which is obligatory is called tamasic renunciation. That is, that which is imperative cannot be relinquished. More details can be found in the Third Chapter.

Duḥkham ityeva yat karma kāyakleśabhayāt tyajet, sa kṛtvā rājasaṁ tyāgaṁ naiva tyāgaphalaṁ labhet (18.8): Tamasic relinquishment is mentioned as that form of abandonment of action which is tantamount to abandonment of duty itself; that is called tamasic relinquishment. There is another relinquishment, called rajasic tyaga: “Because it is difficult—it is very painful, it involves a lot of hardship, I have to work day and night—therefore, I will not do that work.” This argument for not doing a work is not actually feasible or tenable. The reason for not doing a work should not be merely the fact that it is a strain upon oneself to do hard work. We have to sweat, and “I do not want to sweat; therefore, I will not do this work. Physically it is painful, torturous and, therefore, I am afraid of doing this kind of work or undertaking this project.” When a person abandons doing a work because it is painful and requires hard labour on their part, that kind of abandonment of work is called rajasic tyaga. It is not sattvic.

Kāryam ityeva yat karma niyataṁ kriyate’rjuna, saṅgaṁ tyaktvā phalaṁ caiva sa tyāgaḥ sāttviko mataḥ (18.9): Sattvic renunciation does not mean renunciation of action. Then, what does it mean? It is the doing of one’s work because it is something that must be done under the circumstances in which one is placed. Kāryam ityeva yat karma niyataṁ: “Definitely it has to be done, because it is binding upon me. Yet, I shall do that work but be free from attachment to the work.” It does not mean that we should be attached to duty. The performance of duty is an impersonal involvement of ourselves in a call that is super-individual, and it does not call for attachment. Attachment is an emotional clinging to a particular form, event or anything whatsoever; and duty, being a superior call from a law that is above human nature, cannot be an object of attachment. Therefore, when a person performs a work as a duty incumbent upon that person and yet never feels that it is ‘my’ work, and he knows that it is not anyone’s work but it is a work done for the work’s sake, and he does not expect any recompense or fruit thereof—such an impersonally construed unselfish action done for the sake of work alone can be regarded as sattvic action. All other kinds of work are rajasic or tamasic.

Na dveṣṭyakuśalaṁ karma kuśale nānuṣajjate, tyāgī sattvasamāviṣṭo medhāvī chinnasaṁśayaḥ (18.10): The person who renounces attachment due the preponderance of the sattva guna in him, who is very intelligent in perceiving the pros and cons of things, and has no doubt whatsoever about the way in which work is to be done, hating not painful work, clinging not to pleasurable work, such a person is really an example before us. It does not mean that we should cling to something because it is pleasant, nor does it mean that we should hate something because it is not pleasant. Na dveṣṭy akuśalaṁ karma kuśale nānuṣajjate: The pleasant form of work does not call for attraction, nor should it evoke hatred when it is painful work calling for hard labour on our part.

Na hi dehabhṛtā śakyaṁ tyaktuṁ karmāṇyaśeṣataḥ (18.11): No embodied person can totally be free from work. The very fact of our being in a body calls for some kind of engagement because this body is made up of physical matter and, therefore, it is a form of prakriti constituted of the three gunassattva, rajas and tamas. Inasmuch as prakriti is always in a state of disturbance—it is not in a state of equilibrium—and its properties of sattva, rajas and tamas are constantly moving in a cyclic fashion, they compel the body to also be subject to that kind of cyclic action because the physical body of a human being, or of anything whatsoever, is not free from the contingency arising from the operation of the three gunas. Therefore, anyone who has a body has to work. If one has no body, that is a different matter. Na hi dehabhṛtā śakyaṃ tyaktuṃ karmāṇyaśeṣataḥ: The very fact that we are embodied in a physical tabernacle means that we are part of physical nature, and the process of physical evolution will also have an impact upon our body; it will compel us to do something. Therefore, freedom from work for an individual with a body is unthinkable.

Yas tu karmaphalatyāgī sa tyāgī’tyabhidhīyate: Abandoning work is, therefore, not possible as long as we have a body. But we shall be free from the binding effect of karma, or action, provided we do not look to the effect, or the fruit, that accrues from the work. We should do our work because it is necessary to work for the welfare of everybody, not because we get some recompense out of it. If we have an eye only on the salary that we get, and not on the duty that is expected of us, then that duty, that work that we perform, will be tarnished with a little bit of selfishness because even while we are working, our mind is thinking of the salary or of ‘that something’ that comes out of the work. We are not interested in the work itself and, therefore, it is not sattvic.

Sattvic work is work done for work’s sake only, whether or not it brings any fruit. Actually, every duty performed well—in a most unselfish manner—will, of its own accord, bring a result which is most pleasant, and we need not ask for it. Every duty is connected with a privilege; and we should not cry for the privilege. If we ask for it, it will not come. If we do our duty well, the privilege automatically follows without asking for it.

Aniṣṭam iṣṭaṁ miśraṁ ca trividhaṁ karmaṇaḥ phalam, bhavaty atyāgināṁ pretya na tu saṁnyāsināṁ kvacit (18.12): People who are attached to work due to selfishness on their part reap fruits which are of three kinds—anishtam, ishtam, mishram. Sometimes an action that is done brings unpleasant results; sometimes an action brings pleasant results; sometimes an action brings mixed results: a little bit of joy, a little bit of pain. This is the case with those people who perform work with selfishness, who cannot renounce the fruit of action. But this threefold mixing up of karma’s fruits will not have an effect upon sannyasins who have renounced the fruit of action.

Pañcaitāni mahābāho kāraṇāni nibodha me, sāṁkhye kṛtānte proktāni siddhaye sarvakarmaṇām (18.13): All action is bound by a fivefold factor. Therefore, knowing that there are five facets to every action that one performs, let there be no wrong notion on the part of any person that they are doing it. There are five conditioning factors behind any kind of movement, action, work, or whatever it be. Sankhya, which is the highest knowledge, and which details the varieties of results that follow from different kinds of karmas, tells us that there are five phases of an action. Therefore, the doership of an action is only one phase. To lay excessive emphasis only on doership, and be totally oblivious of the other four factors, would be utter ignorance on the part of the doer of action. Maybe we are doing the work, but we are not the only one involved in that work.

What are the other four factors? Adhiṣṭhānaṁ tathā kartā karaṇaṁ ca pṛthagvidham, vividhāś ca pṛthakceṣṭā daivaṁ caivātra pañcamam (18.14): The physical body has something to say about the quantum of work that we can execute, and also the quality of work that can be expected from us. Whether our body is strong and healthy, or whether it is weak and sick, is a factor that also is to be taken into consideration when we do any work. Hence, according to the nature of the physical condition, there will also be the conditioning of the result that follows from the action. That is one aspect among the five.

Tathā kartā : The ego principle that is actually motivating the action is also one factor. Why are we doing an action? The ego has a motive behind it. The physical body is one aspect, no doubt, but the ego is another aspect, and it is more important. The ego decides the methodology of work. That is the second factor.

Karaṇaṁ ca pṛthagvidham: The instruments that we use in the performance of action also condition the work. Suppose we dig a pit. If we dig with our hands, we will get one type of result; but if we use a pickaxe or a shovel, or a bulldozer, then different kinds of results will follow. The kind of instrument that we use in the performance of action will also decide what kind of result will follow.

Vividhāś ca pṛthakceṣṭā refers to the varieties of distracting factors conditioning the mind during the performance of any work. Even when we are doing one work, twenty ideas may be in our mind at the same time, pulling us in different directions, and it does not mean that a person thinks only one thought at a time. Even when we are doing one work, if we are able to think only that and nothing else, we are really a great person. But, generally that is not possible. There is a memory of something that happened in the past, and an apprehension of something that could take place in the future, and a fear of something that is in the present. These will distract the mind. These operations of the mind which distract are also conditioning factors in the performance of the work.

Therefore, the strength or weakness of the physical body, the motive of the ego, the instrument that is used, and the distractions characteristic of the mind are the four factors that are mentioned as conditioning every work. There is a fifth factor, which we always forget: the will of God—daivam chaivatra panchamam. A thing that is not sanctioned by the Ultimate Will of the universe will not take place, however much we may sweat. That which is to happen will happen, whatever be our effort to prevent it; and that which is not to happen will not happen, even if we call for it. This is the inscrutable factor operating behind all things. Our very mind, our very body, our egoism, our mental faculty, our very existence, is conditioned by the central Cosmic Will; and if it does not permit any event to take place, that event will never take place even if millions of people work hard to make it happen. Empires will crash in one moment if it is the will of the universal historical principle; we may call it the time process or the time spirit. Whatever be our effort in the direction of guarding our person, our society, or our country, it has to be sanctioned by the Supreme Will. As Sri Krishna told Arjuna, “Go ahead. You will succeed.” But that sanction was not there for the Kauravas, and the opposite result followed.

Thus, the final operative factor is the central Universal Will, with which we have to always stand in a state of union and communion. We should not egoistically assert too much of our own individual agency in action. We are not the only agents. There are five agents in the performance of an action, and among those five there is one supreme principle which we cannot afford to forget: the existence of God in the world. The principle of divinity permeating all things—the immanence of God—ultimately decides all factors, though others also act as instruments.

Śarīravāṅmanobhir yat karma prārabhate naraḥ, nyāyyaṁ vā viparītaṁ vā pañcaite tasya hetavaḥ (18.15): Whatever be the work we do—whether good action or bad action, whether through the physical body or through the mind or through speech, whatever it be that we are doing, it is conditioned in this fivefold manner. Therefore, we should not be too egoistic. We should not be under the impression that we are the ruler of the world, because the other four factors will not permit it and, finally, the Central Will may not be in favour of it. Therefore, all that we do in any manner whatsoever—whether physically, psychologically, verbally, personally, socially, in any way whatsoever, whether it be a good action or a bad action—all these are decided by this fivefold factor involving itself in every action.

Tatraivaṁ sati kartāram ātmānaṁ kevalaṁ tu yaḥ, paśyaty akṛtabuddhitvān na sa paśyati durmatiḥ (18.16): In the light of the fact that five factors are involved in the performance of work, if anyone foolishly thinks that he or she alone is responsible for doing it, then very foolish, very idiotic, very wrong indeed is the motive of that person. In the light of the fivefold factor being there behind every action, no one should have the hardihood to imagine that “I do it”. No ‘I’ can succeed here. Because of the unintelligent approach to a particular context in the world by a person who considers himself as all-in-all in the matter of working, one does not succeed.

Yasya nāhaṁkṛto bhāvo buddhir yasya na lipyate, hatvāpi sa imāl lokān na hanti na nibadhyate (18.17): We may confront the whole world if we like, and yet if our ego is annihilated completely, that is, if we do not have even an inkling that we are doing the action and feel that the Universal Will is operating through us, if that is the case, then we may even work the destruction of things, yet no result will follow as a nemesis of painful experience, provided—this provision is very important—provided we have totally annihilated our egoism and we do not even know that we are existing, and we always feel that the Universal is operating through us. Otherwise, we will be bound by anything that we do.

jñānaṁ jñeyaṁ parijñātā trividhā karmacodanā karaṇaṁ karma karteti trividhaḥ karmasaṁgrahaḥ (18.18) jñānaṁ karma ca kartā ca tridhai’va guṇabhedataḥ procyate guṇasaṁkhyāne yathāvacchṛṇu tānyapi (18.19)

Now, the Lord shifts his attention to some other subject. Up to this time, all that we have heard is about karma, or action—right action, or proper action. Now we are led to another subject altogether: “The nature of knowledge, the nature of the object of knowledge, the nature of the one who knows or has the knowledge, the nature of all action whatsoever in the process of perception, and the nature of the doer in the context of perceiving or knowing, this I shall describe to you now.”

There are three kinds of knowledge: sattvic knowledge, rajasic knowledge and tamasic knowledge. What is sattvic knowledge? It is that knowledge or wisdom or insight by which we are able to see the unity in the midst of the diversity of things, and we can locate the one Absolute manifesting itself in all these varieties of forms. If the variety of objects in the world do not in any way preclude our vision of the Absolute being immanently present in all things, and if we can see it directly with our own eyes, as it were—the Universal Absolute hiddenly present in the midst of all these apparently divided things—this knowledge, if at all we have got it, is to be considered as the best of knowledge. The highest knowledge is this, the best knowledge is this; sattvic knowledge is this.

But, this knowledge is not given to everybody. We are not so superior in our evolution. There is rajas predominating in us. We always see things as distinct from one another. We cannot see any kind of connection of one thing with another in this world. Everything seems to be thrown pell-mell, here and there. Something here, something there—we do not know what is where. This is the kind of world in which we are living. That is rajasic knowledge, not the knowledge that sees oneness everywhere.

Pṛthaktvena tu yaj jñānaṁ nānābhāvān pṛthagvidhān (18.21): Everything is different. There are trees here, cattle there, water here; there is a solar system there, earth here, planets there, human beings here, animals there. There is no connection of one thing with another thing; everything stands independently by itself, as it were. This kind of idea that we entertain—namely, that everything is independent by itself and there can be no connection, no relation whatsoever between one thing and another thing—that knowledge is rajasic because it is the perception of a distracted mind that is divided inside and, therefore, it sees division outside also.

Then there is the worst kind of knowledge. Yat tu kṛtsnavad ekasmin kārye saktam ahaitukam, atattvārthavad alpaṁ ca tat tāmasam udāhṛtam (18.22): Whereas rajasic knowledge at least recognises the existence of many things, tamasic knowledge clings to one thing only. It has intense attachment to one person, one object, one occupation, one character, one event, one circumstance, whatever it is—intensely hugging it, and considering that one thing only as everything, as if other things do not exist at all. Let alone the consciousness of unity, that is too far—even the consciousness of other equally valid things being there is not taken into account. There is only clinging to one thing, like a mother clinging to one baby: “My baby is everything; other babies don’t exist in the world. And if my baby survives, very good; let the rest go to the dogs.” This kind of attachment is the worst kind of knowledge, where one clings only to one thing due to the feeling of mine-ness, possessiveness, attraction and attachment. This kind of knowledge is tamasic—the worst kind of knowledge.

Niyataṁ saṅgarahitam arāgadveṣataḥ kṛtam, aphalaprepsunā karma yat tat sāttvikam ucyate (18.23). Now we are again taken to the realm of sattvic, rajasic and tamasic action from another angle of vision altogether, which is a subject we shall look at another time.