Arjuna doubts which of the two ways - whether renunciation of action or participation in action - is the nobler and the greater. To Arjuna action meant ritualism and renunciation meant a total retirement from everything and running away to a place of solitude. Sri Krishna attempts here to give deeper insights to these oft misunderstood terms. The Lord propounds the theory of self-development in three stages viz. through desire-prompted activities, through desireless activities and through pure meditation.
Having practiced the Yajnas prescribed in the preceding chapter and gained wisdom, a seeker sheds his vasanas / desires and develops a dispassion for the world. He enters into a state of renunciation, an essential pre-requisite for practicing meditation. This chapter elucidates this stage of development preliminary to meditation and realization.
This Chapter answers the questions: What is the spirit of renunciation? How the Yoga of renunciation of action can be practiced? What are its effects on the human personality? Thus this Chapter deals with both Action and Knowledge and is therefore a link between Karma Yoga and Pure Meditation.
In the opening verse of the chapter Arjuna asks Krishna to advise him conclusively as to which is better of the two – the path of action or the path of renunciation. Krishna clarifies the doubt by explaining the three distinct stages of spiritual growth. A seeker embarking on his spiritual journey with vasanas / desires is termed Yogi. Through Karma Yoga, the path of action, he sheds the bulk of his vasanas. As he does so, he becomes dispassionate towards the world and becomes an ascetic, a Sanyasi. A Sanyasi following the path of knowledge practices contemplation and meditation until he reaches the ultimate state of realization to become a Jnani, an enlightened soul. Both Karma Yogi and Sanyasi reach the supreme goal. Thus, one takes up either the path of action or the path of renunciation according to one’s basic nature.
The above three types of individuals (Karma Yogi, Sanyasi, Jnani) relate differently to action. The enlightened one, the Jnani, having merged with the Self, realizes that the Self does not act at all. In and through all actions, external and internal, the Jnani remains a silent witness while the senses contact the sense objects. The Sanyasi, in his state of dispassion, dedicates all his actions to Brahman. He acts without any attachment. Consequently, his actions are not sinful and do not leave a residue of vasanas / desires. Such a person, like a lotus leaf in water, remains in the world, but detached from and unaffected by it. The Karma Yogi, the one at the beginning of the spiritual journey, detaches himself from worldly entanglements and directs all his physical, mental and intellectual activities towards his own self purification.
sannyaasam karmanaam krishna punar yogam cha shamsasi
yacchreya etayorekam tanme broohi sunishchitam // 5.1 //
Renunciation of actions, O Krishna, you praise and again Yoga, performance of actions. Tell me conclusively that which is better of the two.
In Chapter IV, verses 18, 19, 21, 22, 24, 32, 33, 37 and 41 The Lord has spoken of the renunciation of all actions and in the verse 42 He exhorted Arjuna to engage in Yoga, the performance of action. Owing to the mutual contradiction between these two injunctions, action or renunciation, as they cannot be followed by the same individual at the same time, Arjuna asks Sri Krishna to indicate decisively that one path which will lead to spiritual welfare.
sri bhagavaan uvaacha
sannyaasaah karmayogashcha nihshreyasakaraa vubhau
tayostu karmasannyaasaat karmayogo vishishyate // 5.2 //
Sri Bhagavan said
Renunciation of action and Yoga of action both lead to the Highest Good; but of the two, performance of action is superior to the renunciation of action.
Man is essentially prone to be inert and inactive. He prefers to get the maximum benefit from the outside world with the minimum exertion. From this stage of utter inactivity he goes to the first stage where he works because of the promptings of his desires; the second stage of his evolution is from the desire motivated activities to dedicated activities in the service of others with the least ego. In this stage when the ego is subordinated his vasanas get exhausted and mind becomes pure. With the purity of mind he reaches the third stage where he meditates for realizing the ultimate goal of joy and peace.
Thus the spiritual path of self-evolution falls into three stages viz. a) desire prompted activities b) selfless dedicated activities and c) meditation.
The first - Karma Yoga - was dealt with in Chapters III and IV while the technique of Meditation will be taken up in Chapter VI.
This Chapter deals with as to how one can renounce the desire oriented ego-centric actions and take up selfless dedicated activities. In this Chapter, Yoga means Karmayoga and Sankhya means the intellectual way with renunciation of works.
The Lord says renunciation of action (Karma Sanyas) and performance of action (Karma Yoga) both lead to the liberation or the highest bliss. Yet of these, performance of action is much better than renunciation of action without the knowledge of the Self. However, it will be seen later that renunciation of action with the knowledge of the Self is decidedly superior to performance of action without such knowledge.
jneyah sa nityasannyaasi yo na dweshti na kaangkshati
nirdwandwo hi mahaabaaho sukham bandhaat pramuchyate // 5.3 //
He should be known as a perpetual Sanyasi (as constantly practicing renunciation) who neither hates nor desires; for, free from the pairs of opposites, O Mighty Armed, he is easily set free from bondage.
According to The Lord he is a true Sanyasi who `neither likes nor dislikes'. Likes and dislikes, gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and censure, success and failure, joy and sorrow and similar other pairs of opposites are the attitudes of mind by which it gains life's experiences.
The Karma Yogi, a true worker, is known as a nitya sanyasi or a true renouncer, for he does his work in a detached spirit without being influenced by the pairs of opposites. A man does not become a Sanyasi merely by giving up actions for whatever reason. One need not take Sanyasa formally; if he has the mental frame of renunciation of egoism and desires he is a true Sanyasi. Mere physical renunciation of objects is no renunciation at all.