Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Ramanuja | Discourse 18 verse 1-11

Chapter 18
Mokṣa Sannyāsa Yogaḥ
Liberation Through Renunciation

Summary of the Teaching

The preceding chapters 16 and 17 elaborated the following subjects by Lord Krishna:

1) The only means of achieving the four Puruṣārthas or goals of human existence which are kāma or pleasure, artha or wealth, dharma or righteousness and Mokṣa or liberation from material existence, which is the quintessence of them all,

is to adhere to and follow the ordinances and injunctions of the Vedic scriptures by the performance of yajña or ritualistic propitiation and worship to the Supreme Lord Krishna, tapaḥ or austerities and penance authorised in the Vedic scriptures and dānaṁ or charity to the Vaiṣṇava Brahmins.

2) That all Vedic rituals and observances are always predicated first with the Prāṇava OM the transcendental sound vibration of the Supreme Lord denoting the first breath making this reverberating hum which the Sanskrit root is prāṇa.

3) The distinction of that representing the Brāhman or spiritual substratum pervading all existence and leading to Mokṣa is symbolised by TAT and that representing prakṛti or the material substratum pervading physical existence conferring kāma, artha and dharma is symbolised by SAT.

4) That yajña or ritualistic propitiation and worship performed for the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord when devoid of any desires for rewards becomes successful

5) That those initiated Vaiṣṇava brāhmaṇas performing yajñas achieved their ordainment as a result of the prominence of sattva guṇa or mode of goodness permeating their character enhanced by the sole intake of only sāttvic foods.

In this final chapter Lord Krishna concisely delineates the following subject matters:

1) Sannyāsa the renunciation of action and tyāga the renunciation of actions rewards

2) The exact nature and mood of tyāga.

3) The comprehension that the Supreme Lord Krishna is the repository and agency of everything.

4) A description of the effects of the three guṇas or modes of material nature illustrating that sattva guṇa alone leads to Mokṣa or liberation from material existence and is thus the only guṇa worthy of cultivation.

5) How activities appropriated in the varṇas or four caste system indicates the natural propensities of a jīva or embodied being based on karma or reactions to past actions are actually authorised acts of worship to the Supreme Lord accomplishing His attainment.

6) The quintessential conclusion of the divine discourse Śrīmad Bhagavad- Gita is that bhakti or exclusive loving devotion to the Supreme Lord Krishna or any of His authorised incarnations and expansions as revealed in Vedic scriptures is the paramount goal of all existence.

arjuna uvāca
saṃnyāsasya mahābāho tattvam icchāmi veditum |
tyāgasya ca hṛṣīkeśa pṛthak keśiniṣūdanam || 1 ||

Arjuna said:

1. I desire to know the decisive truth about the difference between renunciation (Sannyāsa) and relinquishment (Tyāga) O Krishna.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

The question enquired about is the distinct difference between sannyāsa and tyāga as well as their similarities. Both are subtle not easy to understand. Both are situated in renunciation and both lead to Mokṣa.

Literally sannyāsa means putting away and literally tyāga means giving up.

Sannyāsa expresses abandonment of desires for actions and tyāga exhibits the abandonment for the rewards of actions.

The Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad III.II.VI beginning veda ta vijnano sunisch means:

“Those of restrained senses who lead a life of renunciation with Vedic knowledge achieve liberation. Not by action, not by wealth, not by progeny can this be achieved”.

Those enlightened jīvas who have ascertained what is the essence of the Vedic scriptures and assimilating it within their hearts by renunciation, dissolve all their karmas and achieve Mokṣa and the final beatitude.

In order to illustrate the nature of both sannyāsa and tyāga and prove that they are one and the same Lord Krishna first corrects the misapprehension that they are different.

śrībhagavān uvāca
kāmyānāṃkarmaṇāṃnyāsaṃsaṃnyāsaṃkavayo viduḥ|
sarva karma phala tyāgaṃprāhus tyāgaṃvicakṣaṇāḥ|| 2 ||

The Blessed Lord said:

2. The enlightened ones understand that renunciation (Sannyāsa) means the giving up of all works which are motivated by desire. The wise declare relinquishment (Tyāga) to be the relinquishment of the fruits of all works.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

Some learned philosophers contend that sannyāsa or renunciation is the abstention from performing activities for rewards.

Other sophisticated sages assert that in sections of the Vedic scriptures pertaining to Mokṣa or liberation from material existence that tyāga or renunciation means abandoning the rewards attached to Vedic activities, whether they are naimittika or regular duties or kāmya or specific activities prescribed for specific results.

The contention here is the predominance of one or the other points of view when in contradiction.

Is sannyāsa or abandonment of the activities for rewards alone sufficient or is tyāga, the abandonment of desires for rewards, the essential attribute to be embraced?

Both appear to be plausible and both are situated in renunciation and both may be used synonymously and considered as renunciation.

More clarity concerning this topic is presented by Lord Krishna in verses four, seven and twelve.

tyājyaṃdoṣavad ityeke karma prāhur manīṣiṇaḥ|
yajñādāna tapaḥkarma na tyājyam iti cāpare || 3 ||

3.   Some  learned  ones  say  that  all  actions  should  be  given  up  as  defective;  others  declare  that works such as yajña, philanthropy and self-discipline should not be given up.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

Kapila Muni, the founder of the Sānkhya philosophy which is based on analytical reason declares that since even prescribed Vedic activities have an aroma of desire for rewards attached to them and the resultant reactions keep one enslaved in samsāra, the perpetual cycle of birth and death, in material existence.

So even prescribed Vedic activities are fit to be abandoned by those aspirants striving for Mokṣa or liberation from material existence.

But those of the Mimāṅsā philosophy who adhere to rationalistic thinking in interpreting the conclusions of the Vedic scriptures maintain that prescribed Vedic duties are not to be abandoned, only the desires for rewards from such duties are in fact to be renounced.

niścayaṃ śrṇu me tatra tyāge bharata sattama |
tyāgo hi puruṣa-vyāghra tri-vidhaḥsaṃprakīrtitaḥ|| 4 ||

4.   Listen  to  My  verdict,  O  Arjuna  (Tiger-among-men),  regarding  relinquishment  (Tyāga)  for relinquishment is declared to be of three kinds.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

It is logically explained that even in the performance of prescribed Vedic activities and obligatory duties one can exercise tyāga or renunciation in its threefold composite. Abandonment of these is not required.

First is the lowest stage likened unto tama guṇa, the mode of ignorance whereby in renunciation one performs activities as a matter of duty or a matter of righteousness without desire for rewards. This can be done by abandoning desires for material benefits or heavenly delights.

Second is the intermediate stage likened unto raja guṇa the mode of passion whereby renunciation of activities abandons the identifying ego sense attached to it. Relinquishing such mentalities as this work was accomplished by me, I did it, this is mine and the rewards are mine.

Thirdly is likened unto sattva guṇa the mode of goodness and is renunciation whereby one surrenders all rewards and results unto the Supreme Lord Krishna or any of His authorised incarnations and expansions as revealed in Vedic scriptures.

One should be cognizant that He is the supreme absolute truth, the supreme controller and the ultimate reality and not think that we are the controllers in any way.

yajñādāna tapaḥkarma na tyājyaṃkāryam eva tat |
yajño dānaṃtapaścaiva pāvanāni manīṣiṇām || 5 ||

5. The acts of yajña, philanthropy and self-discipline should not be relinquished; but should be performed. For yajña, philanthropy and self-discipline are the purifiers of the wise.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

Lord Krishna emphasises that never under any circumstances are prescribed Vedic activities such as yajña or ritualistic propitiation and worship, tapaḥ or penance and austerities and dānaṁ or charity to the Vaiṣṇavas and brāhmaṇas ever to be abdicated.

They must be continuously performed all throughout the life, some daily and others occasionally, until the moment of death.

The reason for this is that prescribed Vedic activities situated purely in sattva guṇa or mode of goodness duly purify the performer and all involved,

especially those in varṇa āśrama or the natural four divisions of society which are Vaiṣṇava and Brahmin the spiritual class, kṣatriya or royal and warrior class, Vaiṣya or agricultural and commerce class and śūdra the worker class.

They also upgrade the general consciousness of the world in general.

The performance of prescribed Vedic activities dissolves all impurities and eradicates the karmas or reactions to actions from past activities.

The word manīṣiṇām means the wise, the conscientious, those whose consciousness is evolved in a spiritual sense. Such aspirants reflecting upon spiritual attainment throughout their lives are naturally in communion with the Supreme Lord at the moment of death.  

etānyapi tu karmāṇi saṅgaṃtvyaktvāphalāni ca |
kartavyānīti me pārthas niścitaṃmatam uttamam || 6 ||

6. It is My considered and final opinion that even these [three] practices should be done, O Arjuna, relinquishing all attachment and the desire for reward.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

Due to the fact that the performance of prescribed Vedic activities are sanctifying, purifying and lead to bhakti or exclusive loving devotion to the Supreme Lord Krishna or any of His authorised incarnations and expansions as revealed in Vedic scriptures.

They should be performed daily and during special occasions throughout the whole life until the moment of death as a matter of joy or a matter of duty without desiring any reward and without any sense of ego involved.

This is the final and best conclusion.

niyatasya tu saṃnyāsaḥkarmaṇo nopapadyate |
mohāt tasya parityāgas tāmasaḥparikīrtitaḥ|| 7 ||

7. But the renunciation (sannyāsa) of obligatory acts (nitya karma) is not proper. Relinquishment (Tyāga) of these through delusion is declared to be in the Mode of Tamas.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

Prescribed Vedic activities are niyata or eternal:

Some are daily duties such as chanting mantras or sacred incantations for the benefit of all creation at the three junctures of the day.

Some are occasional duties such as fasting from all grains twice a month on Ekādaśī which is the 11th day of the waxing and waning moon.

Still other prescribed Vedic activities such as a Vishnu yajña which is ritualistic propitiation and worship of the Supreme Lord are performed during extraordinary celebrations

such as the installation of the vigraha or authorised deity form of the Supreme Lord Krishna or any of His authorised incarnations and expansions as revealed in Vedic scriptures.

Ceasing to perform such sanctifying and purifying Vedic activities which benefit all creation would be unrighteous and cause unimaginable degradation to humanity specifically and evolution in general.

Lord Krishna already confirmed in chapter three, verse 8:

That bodily sustenance cannot even be maintained without appropriate actions otherwise it is not possible. Even if one is able to assimilate bodily sustenance from sunshine or by air alone as some elevated yogis do, that is still performing action.

Food, not first consecrated unto the Supreme Lord, is considered sinful and such food produces delusion and bewilderment in thinking.

It is confirmed in Chāṇḍogya Upaniṣad VI.V.IV beginning anna mayam hi somya mana states: “The mind is verily composed from food.”

The purifying vestiges of sanctified food ingested after the performance of the holy yajña is capable of imparting sacred knowledge conducive to ātma tattva or soul realisation.

Cognition of the Supreme Lord and communion with Him is dependent upon internal and external purity which are mandatory pre-requisites.

Purified food purifies the mind, a purified mind has the ability to access the esoteric spiritual reality that assures Mokṣa or liberation from material existence.

So the reality is that prescribed Vedic activities and obligatory duties are to be performed all throughout one's life even up to the last day of departing the present existence, as they guarantee one is able to fulfil the goals of human existence.

So abstinence from performing them is not in one's best interest.

Those that desist, ignore, disregard and blaspheme are influenced by illusion and are locked in tama guṇa the mode of ignorance.

For it has been traced by the enlightened that the idea of abstinence of prescribed Vedic activities was induced by tama guṇa and governed by illusion. Ignorance is that which is hostile to wisdom and exists as perverted knowledge.

So abstaining from prescribed Vedic activities is in the category of perverted knowledge. Lord Krishna will illustrate this further in verse 32.  

duḥkham ityeva yat karma kāya kleśa-bhayāt tyajet |
sa kṛtvārājasaṃtyāgaṃnaiva tyāga phalaṃlabhet || 8 ||

8. One who renounces works as being bothersome from apprehension of physical hardship, acts in the Mode of Rājas and will not gain the merit of renunciation (Tyāga).

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

Undoubtedly prescribed Vedic activities are conducive to achieving Mokṣa or liberation form material existence, but as they also include penance and austerities they may cause discomfort, difficulty and even pain to accomplish.

Sometimes fasting is required, putting the physical body under duress causing fatigue which is agonising to the mind.

Dreading such inconvenience one may limit themselves solely to the practice of aṣṭāṅga yoga with its numerous exercises, or Prāṇāyāma maintaining strict breath control or sit for long hours in meditation to achieve Mokṣa.

All of these activities may have merit but if they keep one refraining from performing prescribed Vedic activities and obligatory duties then such abstention is known to be contrary to the conclusions of the Vedic scriptures and is situated in raja guṇa the mode of passion.

The benefits that one thinks they are gaining by abstaining from prescribed Vedic activities to perform other works are factually never accrued.

It is just a figment of the imagination like a mirage, for

without supplicating everything to the Supreme Lord Krishna through the medium of the bona fide spiritual master in disciplic succession it is not possible to receive His grace. This topic will be addressed further in verse 32.

kāryam ityeva yat karma niyataṃkriyate’rjuna |
saṅgaṃtyaktvāphalaṃcaiva sa tyāgaḥsātviko mataḥ|| 9 ||

9. When obligatory works are performed merely as duty, O Arjuna, renouncing attachment and also fruits, such relinquishment is regarded as Sāttvic.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

It should be understood and clearly comprehended that all prescribed Vedic activities both nitya or eternal and naimittika or occasional are obligatory duties for aspirants seeking Mokṣa or liberation from material existence and communion with the Supreme Lord.

These prescribed activities devolve into the specific duties varṇa and āśrama or the stage and class one is situated in. This may be initiated by birth but it is established inherently and qualified by deeds.

Actual renunciation is performing such prescribed Vedic activities free from egoism, without any attachment or desire for any rewards.

This is real renunciation and is situated in sattva guṇa the mode of goodness where the source of spiritual realisation commences; properly situated in correct knowledge, untainted by delusion and free from illusion.

This theme will appear again in verse 30.

na dveṣṭy-akuśalaṃkarma kuśale nānuṣajjate |
tyāgīsattva samāviṣṭo medhāvī-cchinna saṃśayaḥ|| 10 ||

10. The one who has renounced, being wise and imbued with Sattva, free from doubts, neither hates disagreeable work nor clings to an agreeable one.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

The aspirant who renounces both the desire for rewards as well as any ego- sense as the doer is fully in sattva guṇa the mode of goodness.

Situated in correct knowledge and hence free from all doubts such a one is neither besieged by unrighteous acts nor relieved from righteous acts.

Righteous acts are those that bestow positive reactions such as progeny, cows, entry into the heavenly planets, etc.

An unrighteous act is that which one may accidentally or unintentionally commit that will accrue negative reactions such as misery, pain, entry to the hellish planets, etc.

It should not be misconstrued that final emancipation applies to anyone who deliberately engages in unrighteous activities, for the Katha Upaniṣad I,II.XXIV beginning na virato duscharitanna shanto states:

“One who has not desisted from evil unrighteous actions or who is of unrestrained mind can never achieve final emancipation even if one is a paragon of intellect and knowledge.”

In as much as the ego-sense is absent there is no impetus to exhibit aversion or attraction for either one or the other and since all other goals have been relinquished and resigned,

 with the exception of Mokṣa or final emancipation from material existence and communion with the Supreme Lord Krishna or any of His authorised incarnations as revealed in Vedic scriptures - then one is truly established in ultimate renunciation.

Thus the conclusion is that relinquishing all ego-sense of authorship and abandoning any desire for rewards is actual renunciation and not mere abstention from actions.

na hi deha-bhṛtā śakyaṃtyaktuṃkarmāṇy-aśeṣataḥ|
yastu karma-phala-tyāgīsa tyāgīty-abhidhīyate || 11 ||

11. For, it is impossible for an embodied being to abandon work entirely. But one who foregoes the rewards of works, is called a renunciate.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

It should be clearly understood that whether confined to a physical body or a subtle body it is virtually impossible to entirely give up all action completely.

In the physical body the heart is beating, the lungs are breathing, water must be drunk, some form of nourishment must be ingested. If it is a subtle body then sunshine must be absorbed or Prāṇa or energy must be assimilated. These things are indispensable for life in a physical or subtle body.

Thus while residing in a physical body the observance of prescribed Vedic activities are essential and must be performed.

It is the renouncing of desires for the rewards of actions that is factual renunciation and not the mere abandoning of activities. Such renunciation also includes idea of authorship and the bane of attachment.

It may be argued that prescribed Vedic activities have rewards automatically associated with them, such as entry to Svarga the heavenly planets so by such inseparable relationships they are clear incentives.

This is also applicable to the merits accrued from nitya or daily duties and naimittika or occasional duties as well. These actions can be compared to planting a mango tree and the fruits can be considered the rewards thereof.

But motivation for the rewards of actions opposed to bhakti or exclusive loving devotion to Lord Krishna and is inimical to Mokṣa or liberation from material existence. Verily this is true.

So all rewards whether or not desirable or undesirable must be renounced as only activities performed without motive and hankering for rewards are to be enacted and this is actual renunciation.