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Bhagavad Gita Weekly – Chapter 3 – Karma Yoga, The Wise Should Set an Example to Common People – Verses 17 to 21 – Part 22


In the last part of this series, we looked at Bhagavad Gita chapter 3, verses 11 to 16 where Shri Krishna was explaining to Arjuna about the importance of performing one’s actions as a yajna – an offering to the god – because it is our duty to perform various actions and only when we perform those actions without the intention of enjoying the results, we are released from all karmic bondage created by those very actions.

In addition to us being released from karmic bondage, when we act in a selfless way, all celestial gods and goddesses are pleased and in return, we are blessed with all the favorable material conditions that are necessary for our existence in this world.

Shri Krishna also explains about the cosmic cycle of life, about how rain begets grains, and that grain is eaten and is transformed into blood and from blood to semen and egg and then a new life is born. All living beings are part of this cosmic cycle which is set in motion by the Parabrahman and it is designed to exist perpetually in harmony, providing all necessities and nourishments to every living being in this vast universe. Thus, it is important that each of us perform our niyatam karmas – the obligatory duties – to maintain the harmony of this cosmic cycle.

These verses show the sacred Oneness existing in this whole universe and how everything is interconnected to one another. Any disruption in one of the aspects of this universe affects the other. As we can see from our own history, whenever human beings attempted to create discord in the harmony of this cosmic cycle, nature reacted in the most terrific ways. As human beings, the only creation that has the capacity to discriminate between the right and wrong and show compassion and kindness, we are duty bound to act in a selfless way as to maintain this cosmic balance.

Let us now start with verse 17.

Chapter 3, Verse 17

यस्त्वात्मरतिरेव स्यादात्मतृप्तश्च मानवः।
आत्मन्येव च सन्तुष्टस्तस्य कार्यं न विद्यते।।

yas tvātma-ratir eva syād ātma-triptaśh cha mānavah
ātmanyeva cha santushtas tasya kāryan na vidyate

But those who rejoice in the self, who are illumined and fully satisfied in the self, for them, there is no duty.

Commentary for Chapter 3, Verse 17

One of the major problems we see in today’s world is that a lot of people, in the pretense of spirituality, “renounce” all their duties and responsibilities. This attitude is nothing but running away from our life and duties. As Shri Krishna pointed out in an earlier verse, there is no way one can remain actionless and claim to renounce duties. We are constantly performing actions one way or the other – either through our thoughts or through our physical actions. Thus, those who pretend to renounce actions and run away from life are betraying themselves and are simply cowards. Such people reach nowhere spiritually or materially because, even though they try to run away from various duties in the pretense of renunciation, they are still performing actions through their wandering minds and thoughts, resulting in accumulating more karmic bondage.

However, Shri Krishna explains through this and the next verse that the only exception to this rule applies to those who are self-realized. They are above all these rules of the Vedas and are not bound by their actions or the lack of it.

Only one with a purified mind performs good actions with absolutely no interest in enjoying the results of their actions. That is why Shri Krishna suggests Karma Yoga to all of us so that we can purify our minds through selfless actions, which would help us build the necessary awareness and intelligence required to discriminate between good and the bad and the right and the wrong. 

Through this verse, Shri Kirshna is telling us about how one who is illumined – a self-realized soul – is above all the rules of the Vedas and is not bound by their actions or the lack of it. One who is self-realized is a purified soul and all their actions are by virtue of their nature, pure and selfless.

Laghu Yoga Vasistha says, “Atman Jnana (self-realization) is the end of all Vedas.” The purpose of the Vedas is to guide us to self-realization. Once we realize ourselves, we transcend all the Vedas and rituals and walk above all of it and unite with the Parabrahman itself! This is the very purpose of life – to be one with Parabrahman, the source of all beings!

Thus, Shri Krishna says in this verse, ātma ratih – the one who delights in the Self, ātma triptih – the one who is satisfied in the Self, and ātma santustah – the one who is absolutely content in the Self, do not have any duties expected of them. Such a person finds unwavering joy in their own being. They have realized the very principle that Aham Brahmasmi that I am Brahman, and that “I” is the atman which is eternal and undestroyable even by the Gods!

Just like how when we were kids and tend to completely forget about our old toys when we get a new one, the one who has attained atma-tattva (self-realization) does not ever look back. Such a self-realized soul attains the ultimate happiness – ananda – which is permanent. Their cause of joy is their intimate connection with Parabrahman, as such, they have no need to look for happiness anywhere else, instead, they are the very source of happiness itself.

Chapter 3, Verse 18

नैव तस्य कृतेनार्थो नाकृतेनेह कश्चन।
न चास्य सर्वभूतेषु कश्िचदर्थव्यपाश्रयः।।

naiva tasya kritenārtho nākriteneha kashchana
na chāsya sarva-bhūteshu kashchid artha-vyapāshrayah

Such self-realized souls have nothing to gain or lose either in discharging or renouncing their duties. Nor do they need to depend on other living beings to fulfill their self-interest.

Commentary for Chapter 3, Verse 18

Shri Krishna explained in earlier verses how important it is for each of us to perform our obligatory duties as a yajna – a selfless offering to God – so that the demigods would be pleased and will help in maintaining the harmony of the cosmic cycle to bring peace and prosperity. Shri Krishna went to the extent of calling those who run away from their duties as sinful and wasting their life in vain. The purpose of Karma Yoga is to purify our mind so that all our actions become yajna and release us from all bondages caused by those actions. 

However, those who have already purified their minds and have attained self-realization are not needed to perform any actions at all. There is nothing for them to gain through actions or the lack of it since they still are in eternal bliss emanating from within after recognizing their relationship with God. 

The whole purpose of life is to realize our atma-tattva (the realization of the soul) that I am brahman, and that “I” am not this body or the mind, but “I” is the infinite, undestroyable atman which is a part of Parabrahman himself! A self-realized soul recognizes that eternal truth and thus, they are always situated in transcendental consciousness, recognizing the God within them, and are free from all kinds of bondage in this material world. They are neither needed to perform any actions nor do their actions create any karmic bondage. 

The difference between a self-realized soul and Arjuna (and all of us) is like the story of a bird and a man sitting on the branch of a tree which would break anytime and fall crashing onto the ground. While the man is fully dependent on that branch for his life, the bird is completely free from the fear of falling and is not dependent on that branch at all…the moment the branch breaks, the bird would fly away happily while the man could fall and die! A self-realized soul is like that bird. He can happily transact with the world around him, and yet remain completely detached and independent from all of it. 

Through verses 17 and 18, Shri Krishna is drawing clear distinction between the self-realized souls and the ones like us who have not yet recognized the God within each of us. The happiness of a self-realized master is not dependent upon any external factors and thus it is permanent. They have discovered the purpose of their life and their individual consciousness (“anu-sat”, “anu-chit” and “anu-ananda”) have found their union with the Ultimate Consciousness which is Sat Chit Ananda – The Eternal Consciousness Bliss – Parabrahman! 

Our sacred land has produced so many such enlightened sages over the past many centuries. Some of them like King Janaka Maharshi, the father of Sita Devi, even after god realization, remained to be a Karma Yogi and ruled his kingdom for many years. However, saints like Shri Shankaracharya, Shri Ramanuja, etc. chose a renunciant life and remained to be Karma Sannyasis, spreading the knowledge all over, even till today. 

Because they have already recognized their relationship with God and have purified their minds, all their actions become their yajna – a selfless offering to God – and they rejoice in their everlasting bhakti (devotion).

Chapter 3, Verse 19

तस्मादसक्तः सततं कार्यं कर्म समाचर।
असक्तो ह्याचरन्कर्म परमाप्नोति पूरुषः।।

tasmād asaktah satataṁ kāryaṁ karma samāchara
asakto hyācharan karma param āpnoti pūrushah

Therefore, give up attachment and perform actions as a matter of duty, for by working without being attached to the fruits, one attains the Supreme.

Commentary for Chapter 3, Verse 19

Having explained the reasons as to why performing activities are not necessary for the self-realized masters, Shri Krishna now asks Arjuna to perform his obligatory actions simply as a matter of duty, by giving up all attachments to the results and consequences, for only then, one attains the spiritual maturity and mental purity required for atma-jnana. 

The whole Kurukshetra war is a result of adharma committed by the Kauravas since their childhood. Being a Kshatriya warrior, it is Arjuna’s duty to protect his people, his kingdom and uphold dharma. There is no way he can run away from his duties. 

This is yet another beautiful reminder from the Gita to all of us who run away from our duties and life, claiming to be spiritual, and a renunciant, without first achieving the required mental purity, control of mind and senses and the spiritual advancements.

Arjuna’s duty at this point in his life is not to be a renunciant, but to perform his obligatory duties as a warrior. He (all of us for that matter) has not attained the atma-tattva or self-realization, and thus he is duty bound to fight this battle to establish dharma. If he had indeed obtained the spiritual knowledge to be a renunciant, he would not have been so attached to the end results of this battle or to his people, his family, his gurus, his kith, and kin and give up his weapons and wanting to surrender at the mere sight of his opponents at the battlefield, which eventually paved the way for this holy discourse to happen between Shri Krishna and his disciple, Arjuna. 

However, does Shri Krishna asks Arjuna to fight out of vengeance? No, at no point Shri Krishna wants his disciple to fight this battle out of anger towards the Kauravas, even though Duryodhana and parties have committed the most unparalleled crimes, including disrobing their beloved wife, Draupadi, at the court in front of everyone, including Grandsire Bhisma! If Arjuna had fought this out of anger and vengeance, the whole purpose of this battle would have been lost. This battle is to protect dharma, not to score personal points!  

We are all duty bound to protect dharma; thus, the scriptures say, “Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah” – dharma protects those who protect dharma!

What is dharma? Dharma is not just about doing good. As Swami Swaroopandanda of Chinmaya Mission beautifully puts it, “dharma is doing good things, in the right way, at the right time, with the right intention, for the purpose of creating a harmonious mind and society.” 

Arjuna was not just any other man. He had all the wisdom in the world, had the power of concentration, willpower, and knowledge. He lives his life according to dharma. He is called Gudakesha because he is someone who has overcome sleep (as in ignorance) and is spiritually awakened. Yet, Arjuna was still very much attached to his actions, and has not attained the atma-tattva or liberation (moksha). 

Similarly, all of us are on our journey to discover our truth. So long as we have not attained the spiritual wisdom, intellect, control over our senses, the power of discrimination between the right and wrong and can act in a space of complete detachment, we cannot give up our duties and remain actionless. All of us have our own duties based on our past life karmas, our gunas and vasanas. Through Karma yoga, we can develop purity of mind and eventually attain moksha. Till then, whoever runs away from their duties are simply wasting away their life and accumulating even more karmic attachments. 

Only if we perform our duties without expecting a favorable or unfavorable outcome and without worrying about any consequences, but simply doing our duties because they are our duties, we shall be released from the effects (karmic bondage) of those actions. Only such a purified mind can develop mastery over their mind and eventually attain the spiritual maturity required for self-realization! Till then, we must be Karma Yogis and perform our duties as a yajna being a social being for the larger good of the society. 

Chapter 3, Verse 20 & 21

कर्मणैव हि संसिद्धिमास्थिता जनकादयः।
लोकसंग्रहमेवापि संपश्यन्कर्तुमर्हसि।।

karmanaiva hi sansiddhim āsthitā janakādayah
loka-saṅgraham evāpi sampashyan kartum arhasi

यद्यदाचरति श्रेष्ठस्तत्तदेवेतरो जनः।
स यत्प्रमाणं कुरुते लोकस्तदनुवर्तते।।

yad yad ācharati shreshthas tat tad evetaro janah
sa yat pramānaṁ kurute lokas tad anuvartate

By performing their prescribed duties, King Janaka and others attained perfection. You should also perform your work to set an example for the good of the world. Whatever actions great persons perform, common people follow. Whatever standards they set, all the world pursues.

Commentary for Chapter 3, Verses 20 & 21

Having explained the importance of performing one’s obligatory actions as a yajna to attain mental purity, spiritual advancement and for the benefit of the society at large, Shri Krishna now emphasizes this point by giving Arjuna historical references such as the story of King Janaka.


As we saw earlier, King Janaka was the father of Sita Devi, who even after attaining the atma-tattva (self-realization) through Karma Yoga, continued to perform his duties as a King for the benefit of his people and for the larger good of the society. King Janaka is also called Rajarshi because he had already gained all the knowledge and the spiritual wisdom of a Rishi (sage), yet he continued to dispense his duties as a Karma Yogi purely with the intention to serve his people and to set an example for all to follow.

There are so many such examples of great people who continued to do their duties as a yajna for the benefit of the people even after them attaining self-realization. Thus, Shri Krishna asks Arjuna to do his duties as a Kshatriya warrior so that he too would set an example for all of us to follow.

Humanity is inspired by great people and their way of life. People like King Janaka recognized that fact and followed to conduct themselves in the righteous manner so that people would follow the right path. Had Arjuna withdrawn from this battle and succumbed to his fear of losing his kith and kin who were there to fight and kill him, it would have been perceived by people as the right thing to do, and the opponents would have called him a coward.

We must also remember that we are all born in the current place, to the families, the form, the shape, the race, etc. due to our past life karmas. As Shri Krishna explained in Chapter 3, Verse 10, when we were all created by Lord Brahma, we were also assigned specific duties, with the intention to help us purify our mind through performing those duties selflessly. These duties are based on our past life karmas. They are our niyatam karmas – the obligatory duties.

We can only renounce actions when we have developed control over our mind and have attained the mental purity required for higher knowledge. As Sage Tulsi Das wrote, “One who renounces worldly duties, without the concurrent internal enlightenment with divine knowledge, treads the quick path to hell.” 

All of us have a duty towards maintaining the harmony existing in this whole universe by doing what we are meant to do in this human form. We can only renounce actions when we have developed control over our mind and have attained the mental purity required for higher knowledge. As Sage Tulsi Das wrote, “One who renounces worldly duties, without the concurrent internal enlightenment with divine knowledge, treads the quick path to hell.”

Unlike what many of us tend to believe, spirituality, yoga, religion, etc. are not meant to be the means for you to withdraw from society, rather, they help you develop the humility and wisdom required to connect with every living being and serve society at large. Only those who can selflessly dispense their duties in that manner eventually attain the spiritual knowledge, power of concentration and detachment from their actions, release themselves from their karmic bondage and be a Karma Yogi.

Remember, even our thoughts are considered actions. Without achieving mastery over our minds, we cannot control our thoughts. Pretending to be a renunciant by simply discarding our duties towards our families, society, jobs, nation, etc., one does not become a sannyasi. We must have the spiritual knowledge, wisdom, and internal enlightenment so that we can sit quietly and meditate up on the self and contemplate on, “who am I.” The discovery of that “I” as atma which is undestroyable, eternal and that “I” is none other than God is self-realization.

We will continue from verse 22 in the next part.

ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पुर्णमुदच्यते
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ॥
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

Om Puurnnam-Adah Puurnnam-Idam Puurnnaat-Purnnam-Udacyate
Puurnnasya Puurnnam-Aadaaya Puurnnam-Eva-Avashissyate ||
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||
My Pranams to you!