Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Ramanuja | Discourse 3 verse 1-9

Chapter 3
Karma Yogaḥ
Communion through Action

Summary of the Teaching

The ultimate purpose of the Bhagavad Gītā is to show in a clear and lucid manner that one-pointed loving devotion to the Supreme Being who is glorified and proclaimed in the Vedas is the singular and paramount goal to be attained by all human beings specifically and for all living beings in general.

Who is proclaimed in the Upaniṣads as the singular goal to achieve by the aspirants for mokṣa or liberation from material existence, who is declared in the Purāṇas as being destitute of all defiling characteristics such as avidya or nescience - this Supreme Being who is possessing boundless and unlimited magnificent and glorious attributes.

Bhakti yoga or loving devotional service is exclusively only in relation to the Supreme Lord Krishna or any of His authorised avatars or incarnations as revealed in Vedic scriptures.

In order to achieve full success in bhakti yoga it is essential to achieve ātma tattva or realisation of one's eternal soul. The ātma or soul is one's eternal nature beyond all material conceptions and is a necessary preliminary step.

Ātma tattva is ultimately attained by jñāna yoga or the cultivation of spiritual knowledge from the Vedic scriptures, which is generated by karma yoga or the performance of prescribed Vedic activities without attachment.

These prescribed Vedic activities are established on the foundation that the ātma is eternal and can never be modified or destroyed as delineated so clearly by Lord Krishna in chapter two.

Brahma has stated that the acquisition of paravidya or the knowledge required to attain the Supreme Being is known as bhakti or loving devotion

and that dahāra-vidyā or that this method of meditation is required to realise the Supreme Being, who resides within the etheric region of the heart.

In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad in the words - 'He who after learning about the Self, meditates upon Him' (Ibid.) — it is given that the realisation of the ātma within one's own heart is the first ancillary step by the God aspirant to attaining realisation of the Supreme Being Himself.

Then the incorporeal and non-material reality of the ātma and its eternal nature beyond the consciousness of waking, sleeping and dreaming is completely transcended.

Thus does the phenomenal nature of the ātma emerging from within the physical body, radiant in ineffable light shining in its natural and wondrous effulgence.

In the Kaṭha Upaniṣad this subject is also well elucidated as given in the following description:

By perceiving paramātma which is the Supreme Soul existing simultaneously within all beings and then by discrimination obtained after realisation of the individual ātma, the enlightened one delivers himself from attraction and repulsion, joy and grief and all other dualities.

Communion with the Supreme Soul is communion with the Supreme Being which is the goal to be attained through the discrimination derived directly from ātma tattva.

This confirms that ātma tattva or realisation of the soul is an essential ingredient and constituent component of the Supreme Being which is attained by bhakti or loving devotion.

Another example is: Knowing the magnificent and all- pervading nature of paramātma the Supreme Soul, the enlightened one no longer grieves or laments which reveals the natural potency of the ātma to relieve one of all mundane dross due to the influence of the material existence.

The eternal soul known as the ātma is not realized merely by hearing about it. Nor is it obtainable by discoursing about it nor is it attainable by meditating exclusively on it.

The ātma is attainable solely to those whom the ātma alone elects to attain it. Whomsoever the ātma selects as an act of sovereign grace alone the ātma reveals itself to such a one.

Who is such a one?

It is none other than that person who has discriminatory wisdom as their charioteer, who has the reins of their mind controlling the steeds of the senses, who has the actual competence to achieve mokṣa or liberation and attain the coveted goal of loving devotion to the Supreme Lord.

So in conclusion what we have just presented in essence form is the ultimate purpose of the Bhagavad-Gita.

From chapter three along with chapters four, five and six the path for the aspirant is given beginning with the very first question in this chapter.

The means of cognition and the method of realisation along with the meditation required to achieve it will be delineated and forthcoming.

arjuna uvāca
jyāyasīcet karmaṇaste matābuddhir-janārdana |
tat kiṃkarmaṇi ghore māṃniyojayasi keśava || 1 ||

Arjuna said:

1. If, O Krishna you consider that Buddhi (mind-development) is superior to Karma (action), why do you urge me to engage in this terrible deed?

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

If the steadfast practice of meditation is the only means to Self-realisation, then how can one accept the idea that commitment to action (Karma Yoga) also leads to Self-realisation? —this is the question.

It was taught before that steadfast dedication to mind-development as the means to attain Self-realisation would arise through the cessation of activities of the senses, including mental activity in relation to their respective objects such as sound etc.

If Self-realisation is to be attained through the cessation of the activities of the senses, then surely I should be encouraged to relinquish all actions and engage myself solely in the practice of meditation.

Why then, do you encourage me to engage in this dreadful deed, which is a sense-activity and is thus an obstacle to Self-realisation?

vyāmiśreṇaiva vākyena buddhiṃmohayasīva me |
tad ekaṃvada niścitya yena śreyoham-āpnuyām || 2 ||

2. You confuse me with statements that seem to contradict each other; tell me for certain the one way by which I could reach the highest good.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

What Arjuna is trying to ascertain from Lord Krishna is if the cultivation of spiritual knowledge is superior to performing physical activities for the attainment of liberation and if so then why should one engage in horrendous activities like war and killing.

It is well known that jñāna yoga or the cultivation of spiritual knowledge is the means to accomplish self-realisation of the soul.

Karma yoga or performing physical activities without attachment leads one gradually to jñāna yoga. This path of spiritual knowledge can be attained by withdrawing all the senses along with the mind from the objects of the senses.

If this is the case then Arjuna is wondering why he is not being instructed in the cessation of all physical activities; but instead he is being encouraged to fully use his mind and senses to engage in all of the violent and horrific activities that accompany warfare.

Feeling confused by the conflicting instructions of withdrawing the senses and the performance of actions, Arjuna now wants a single, unequivocal instruction to determine for certain exactly what course he should embark to achieve the highest good.

śrībhagavān uvāca
loke’smin dvividhāniṣṭhāpurāproktāmayā’nagha |
jñāna-yogena sāṅkhyānāṃkarma-yogena yoginām || 3 ||

The Blessed Lord said:

3. In this world there is a two-fold path as I have said before, O sinless one: Jñāna Yoga for the Sānkhyas and Karma Yoga for the Yogins.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

Lord Krishna is telling Arjuna that he has not clearly understood what has been previously spoken by Him:

He tells Arjuna that in this world abounding in diversity there are two paths for two types of humans: Jñāna yoga the path of knowledge and karma yoga the path of actions each suited to the capacities and qualifications of the type concerned.

Not all humans in this world are born with the ambition for mokṣa or liberation. Neither are all humans able to embark upon the path of knowledge directly.

But all humans must engage in actions at all times they cannot stop but they must perform these actions unattached without desiring any reward, perfecting them in the process as factual activities of divine worship.

Then in fact all actions become divine activities as revealed forthcoming in chapter XVIII. 46 - worshipping God by one's actions.

Performing actions in this way humans evaporate the inauspicious qualities lurking in their minds and hearts and the senses give up their turbulence and become calm and peaceful.

It has already been established in chapter II. 47 that there must be no anticipation of rewards as the reason for performing activities.

When this platform has been attained then after one has risen in wisdom beyond the turmoil of the quest of satisfying one's sense with sense objects then jñāna yoga the cultivation of spiritual knowledge is appropriate. In chapter II. 55 Lord Krishna has stated - when one gives up all desires, to confirm this point.

Sānkhya refers to spiritual knowledge or spiritual wisdom. Those who possess this are called Sānkhyas as real spiritual knowledge is the knowledge that leads to realisation of the ātma or soul, firmly resides within them.

Those who are ineligible not fit for this course due to their own inherent qualities are the yogis who are eligible for karma yoga the path of actions.

So it can be seen that there is not even the slightest contradiction when it was asserted that for one who is beguiled by the objects and distractions of the phenomenal world, karma yoga is suitable for them

and for those who are not beguiled and able to renounce these objects and distractions are suited for jñāna yoga the cultivation of spiritual knowledge.

It will next be shown that, even if a wish for mokṣa or liberation arises, still one may not be fully competent to experience the cultivation of knowledge by jñāna yoga.

na karmaṇām anārambhān naiṣkarmyaṃpuruṣo’śnute |
na ca saṃnyasanād-eva siddhiṃsamādhigacchati || 4 ||

4. No one achieves freedom from activity (Naiṣkarmya) by abstaining from works; and no one ever attains success by mere renunciation of works.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

Neither by not performing the activities prescribed in the Vedic scriptures nor by abandoning them once they were begun does one attain the qualification to perform jñāna yoga, the cultivation of spiritual knowledge.

This is because that actions when performed as worship for the Supreme Lord for His satisfaction alone with no desire or expectation for any reward leads to perfection and without this consciousness one is not qualified for jñāna yoga.

For in jñāna yoga exclusive attention is devoted to ātma-niṣṭhā, deep faith in knowledge and meditation of the soul. This is only possible for one who has relinquished all desires and expectations fully.

It is not possible for one who is still mired in the pursuit of fruitive activities, burdened with sins from previous lives and for one who has never worshipped Lord Krishna with love and devotion with no anticipation of reward.

na kaścit kṣaṇam-api jātu tiṣṭhaty-akarma-kṛt |
kāryate hy-avaśaḥkarma sarvaḥprakṛtair-guṇaiḥ|| 5 ||

5. Verily no one can remain even for a moment, without performing action; for everyone is forced to act, helplessly indeed, by the Material Modes [Gunas].

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

No living being in the material existence can remain inactive even for a moment without initiating or pursuing some activity or another.

If one should steadfastly determine to perform absolutely nothing, still one would be compelled into action by the qualities of the three guṇas, being sattva or goodness, rajas or passion and tamas or ignorance, all from prakṛti, material nature. The effects of these have sprung into existence from one's past life activities.

Thus by adhering to karma yoga the yoga of actions without desires one's accumulated sins will gradually dissolve and then mastery over the guṇas and prakṛti is achieved. At this time the mind has become pure and one becomes qualified for jñāna yoga.

Otherwise, as Lord Krishna states, anyone attempting to pursue jñāna yoga in lieu of this is a charlatan and all their attempts are merely a charade.

karmendriyāṇi saṃyamya ya āste manasāsmaran |
indriyārthān vimūḍhātmāmithyācāraḥsa ucyate || 6 ||

6. One who, restraining the organs of action, sits contemplating on the objects of senses, is a deluded person and an hypocrite.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

A hypocrite (mithyācāraḥ) is one whose actions do not harmonise with one’s resolve.

[Such a person] is one whose mind and other five senses are not subdued—having failed to neutralise the accumulated demerit, and is none-the-less struggling for Self-realisation.

His mind is dragged away from the Self because it is so attached to sense objects, and thus he allows the mind to dwell upon them —by practising meditation in this way, one becomes perverted and lost.

yastv-indriyāṇi manasāniyamyārabhate’rjuna |
karmendriyaiḥkarma-yogam asaktasya viśiṣyate || 7 ||

7. But one who, subduing the senses by the mind, O Arjuna, begins to practice Karma Yoga through the organs of action and who is free from attachment —excels.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

Controlling the senses by strength of mind, utilising them to assist in achieving ātma tattva by performing the prescribed duties given in the Vedic scriptures, according to the natural attributes found within their character by the natural disposition of their natural impulses,

then that person although performing karma yoga the yoga of actions is superior to the performer of jñāna yoga the yoga of cultivating knowledge inasmuch as falsely performing jñāna yoga with duplicity is far inferior to performing karma yoga with sincerity.

niyataṃkuru karma tvaṃkarma jyāyayo hy-akarmaṇaḥ|
śarīra-yātrā’pi ca te na prasiddhayed akarmaṇaḥ|| 8 ||

8. You must perform your obligatory duties; for action is superior to non-action (meditation). For not even the maintenance of the body is possible by inaction.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

The word niyatam can refer to eternal, regular or even daily.

An act is eternal if it is connected to the ātma which is the eternal soul. Actions merely connected to prakṛti or the material nature are a persistent inheritance from one's past activities in the unknown past.

Thus to perform actions comes easily as a natural phenomenon and not subject to the inherent dangers of possessing an impure mind or the lack of sense control associated with jñāna yoga, the cultivation of spiritual knowledge.

Therefore Lord Krishna is urging Arjuna to perform karma yoga or actions without attachment as in his case it is superior to cultivating knowledge.

A-karma is non-action which implies cultivating knowledge by the abstention of activities. But it is known that it is not possible to completely achieve the actionless state.

Even for the followers of jñāna yoga the path of karma yoga is superior because in jñāna yoga one must follow a path one is naturally not accustomed, is difficult to practice, fraught with the risk of dominant senses

and also which does not flow as an inherent tendency like the path of karma yoga where actions follow the natural locomotion of the body in the course of daily activities.

Further it will be shown that even one who is liberated by ātma- tattva realisation of the eternal soul; still may be involved in so many activities, performing actions without attachment or as a matter of duty.

Thus even ātma-tattva can be connected to material activities transforming them to spiritual activities. Hence karma yoga can be superior in this way.

What can be inferred about the superiority of karma yoga over jñāna yoga will be evident to one who is actually engaged in practising jñāna yoga.

But an alternative argument could be alright suppose one is determined to abstain from all actions, then how does one expect to maintain their bodily existence which depends on eating and sleeping and washing and exercising etc. and by which the body is very helpful and useful in practising jñāna yoga.

The maintenance of one's physical body is absolutely essential to complete the course charted in life until one achieves their goal.

The way in which one maintains their body is by actions such as labour by rightful means to acquire funds for performing worship to God by offerings of food which are subsequently imbued with spiritual potency and by partaking of the remnants of such foods solely for bodily sustenance each day maintain their bodies.

In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad VII.XXVI.II we find:

"When the food is pure, the Sattva (mind) becomes pure; when the Sattva is pure, then the mindfulness (meditation) will be steady.” (Cha. Up, 7.26.2).

Thus if one desires to desist from all activities how will their mind become purified and how will their bodily needs be maintained?

Thus it is obvious that one who practices jñāna yoga in order to maintain their bodily existence must still continue performing the daily and occasional duties prescribed in the Vedas until they reach their goal. The same as if one practised karma yoga.

Also in karma yoga the contemplation of ātma-tattva is also included in the conceptions that I am not my body performing actions and I am not the actual doer of any actions.

So for all these reasons karma yoga is preferably recommended to jñāna yogis.

So the conclusion is for Arjuna to desist and practice karma yoga.

But if it is still postulated that actions such as the acquiring of funds involves the my-ness of this is my money and the I-ness of I have earned this by the strength of my mind and the power of my faculties and that these efforts must cause bondage,

Lord Krishna refutes this argument in the next verse.

yajñārthāt karmaṇo’nyatra loko’yaṃkarma bandhanaḥ|
tad-arthaṃkarma kaunteya mukta saṅgas-samācara || 9 ||

9. This world is bound by actions other than those performed as sacrifice. O Arjuna, you must perform work to this end [for sacrifice alone], free from attachment.

Rāmānuja’s Commentary

People become subject to the bondage of Karma only when work is done for personal gain, but not when work is performed, or money acquired for the purpose of sacrifice and other acts of charity which are prescribed in the Scriptures.

So you must perform acts like the acquisition of wealth for the purpose of sacrifice (Yajña).

In doing so, overcome attachments generated by the pursuit of personal ambitions, and then do your work in the spirit of sacrifice.

When a person, free from attachment, acts for the sake of sacrifice, the Supreme Being, propitiated by sacrifice, grants him the calm vision of the Self after destroying the subtle impressions of Karmas, which have accumulated from time without beginning.

Śrī Krishna stresses the need for sustaining the body only by the remnants of sacrifices in respect of those who are devoted to all [the four approved] goals of human life (1. Dharma — social duties, 2. Artha —material prosperity. 3. Kāma —pleasure, 4. Mokṣa —liberation from suffering).

He denounces those who nourish the body by things that have not been offered in sacrifice: