Chapter 18. Liberation

1Krishna, what is the real difference
between sanyasa and tyaga?
Arjuna asks this question because both the words -– sanyasa and tyaga -– have the same literal meaning: ‘to give up’.

2Sanyasa is giving up actions driven by selfish desire.
Tyaga is giving up attachments to the results of all actions.

3Some thinkers declare that
every action is tainted and should be given up;
others say that yajña, dana, and tapah
are not to be given up.
Yajña is the traditional fire ritual. In a broader sense,
it refers to worship and a sense of dedication to one’s work.
Dana is charity, but bordering on philanthropy.
Tapah refers to austerity, penance, and single-minded focus on work.

4-6Arjuna, I shall reveal to you
the ultimate truth about tyaga.
First of all, one shouldn’t give up
yajña, dana, and tapah
because they can sanctify life
when followed wisely.

However, one should do these actions
by giving up attachment and desire for rewards.

Without doubt,
this is the best way to act.

Further, note that tyaga is of three kinds.

7It is not right to abandon work
that is meant to be done.
‘Work that is meant to be done’ refers to one’s responsibilities or to the work that is in tune with one’s inherent nature.

When one abandons work
out of delusion –
that tyaga is of the nature of tamas.
Tamas is the state of deluded lethargy.
It is an extreme form of laziness and stubbornness.
8When one abandons work
because it is inconvenient,
merely to avoid physical exertion –
that tyaga is of the nature of rajas.
It does not lead to liberation.
Rajas is the state of relentless activity.
It is an excessive indulgance in luxury.

9When one engages in work
considering it as a responsibility,
abandoning attachments and desires –
that tyaga is of the nature of sattva.
Sattva is the state of saintly goodness.
It is a mindful and balanced mode of existence.

10Established in sattva
and with doubts dispelled,
the wise one renounces.

He doesn’t crave for work that is pleasant;
he doesn’t avoid work that is unpleasant.

11As a matter of fact, one can’t give up all actions;
one has to act, at least to take care of his body.
See 3:5.

But one who gives up desire
for the Fruits of action
is said to have relinquished.
‘Fruits’ of action are the rewards or results of our work.
One should ideally focus on work and not on the Fruits.

12For those who are attached to Fruits of action,
three kinds of rewards --
good, bad, or mixed --
will follow them even upon their death.
‘…will follow them even upon their death’ refers to the vasanas (residual impact of actions) that we carry to the next life. See 15:8.

There is no such baggage
for those unattached to Fruits of action.

13The scriptures proclaim that
five factors govern the outcome of all actions:
14the situation,
the individual,
the tools he has,
how he uses the tools,
and unknown forces.
‘Tools’ can refer to knowledge, skills, or resources.

15Whatever one does
with his body, speech, or mind,
with good or bad intention,
the same five factors
determine the outcome.

16That being the case,
when one sees himself as the sole cause,
he is truly of limited understanding.
He fails to see the truth.

17One who is free from ego
and has complete understanding,
even if he kills, he does not kill;
he is not bound.
He is not bound because neither actions nor outcomes affect him.

18Factors that inspire action are:
the knowable, the knowledge,
and the knower.

Action comprises
the individual, the tools,
and the act.

19Knowledge, Action, and Individual
are also of three types,
in accordance with the three gunas.
This is explained in
the principles of the gunas.
Gunas are the inherent tendencies of a human being.

20The knowledge that helps one to see
the sole imperishable reality in all beings,
undivided in the divided,
that Knowledge is of the nature of sattva.

21The knowledge that makes one to see
only division everywhere and
to perceive each individual
as different from all the others,
that Knowledge is of the nature of rajas.

22The knowledge that drives one
to cling on to an insignificant pursuit
as though it were the only important thing,
without rhyme or reason and
without foundation in the truth,
that Knowledge is of the nature of tamas.

23Action that is performed as prescribed,
free from attachment, and
without obsession or aversion,
by one who is not affected by the outcome
is of the nature of sattva.

24Action that is performed merely for selfish reasons,
with the thought: “I am doing this”
and moreover with undue excitement,
is of the nature of rajas.

25Action that is undertaken blindly,
not considering one’s own ability,
without regard for the consequences,
and leading to loss or injury,
is of the nature of tamas.
The loss or injury could be to oneself or to others.

26The Individual who is
without any attachments,
endowed with firmness and enthusiasm,
unperturbed by success or failure, and
never indulging in self-praise
is of the nature of sattva.

27The Individual who is
impure, greedy, overly aggressive,
excessively passionate, and
desires for the rewards of his actions
and is easily affected by their outcomes
is of the nature of rajas.

28The Individual who is
lazy, fickle, wicked, crude,
dishonest, depressed, stubborn,
and forever postponing work
is of the nature of tamas.

29Arjuna, let me now describe
the three kinds of distinctions that prevail
in Intellect and Resolve
as governed by the three gunas.

30The Intellect that knows
when to act and when to let go,
what to do and what to give up,
what to fear and what not to fear, and
what is bondage and what is liberation,
is of the nature of sattva.

31The Intellect that has a wrong notion
of the difference between
what is right and what is wrong, and
what to do and what to abandon,
is of the nature of rajas.

32The Intellect that is engulfed in darkness,
imagines wrong to be right, and
sees all things contrary to what they truly are,
is of the nature of tamas.

33The serenity with which one unites
the prana, the senses, and the mind
by pursuing the path of yoga,
that Resolve is of the nature of sattva.
Prana is the vital force of an organism; it is the life energy.
It can also be called the vital breath,
for without breathing, how can we get energy?

34The tenacity with which
one vehemently hangs on to the pursuits of
dharma, artha, and kama,
out of selfish desire for the Fruits of action,
that Resolve is of the nature of rajas.
Dharma (good deeds), artha (wealth), and kama (pleasures) are three of the four goals of life, the fourth being moksha (liberation).

35The rigidity with which
one is foolishly preoccupied with
sleep, fear, grief, despair, and arrogance,
that Resolve is of the nature of tamas.

36The pleasure that people seek
to put an end to their pain
is also of three kinds.
Now hear from me what they are.

37The right course of action
as conceived by a clear mind
at first seems like poison but often ends up sweet;
such Pleasure is of the nature of sattva.

38The Pleasure that arises from
the contact between senses and sensates
is sweet at first but ends up bitter;
it is of the nature of rajas.

39The Pleasure that comes
from being lazy and careless
is only a delusion from start to end;
it is of the nature of tamas.

40There is no creature either on earth or elsewhere
that is free from the influence of the gunas,
which are born of prakriti.
Prakriti refers to nature or environment.
See 14:5.

41Pursuits of brahmins, kshatriyas,
vaishyas, and shudras are prescribed
in accordance with their own basic nature.
Each of us has certain inherent talents and interests,
which make us naturally suited to fulfill certain roles.
The classification of individuals into four groups:
brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras
is based on their basic aptitudes.
This doesn’t mean they totally lack other attributes.

42Serenity, self-discipline, austerity,
honesty, purity, forgiveness, knowledge,
wisdom, and faith in the almighty
are the basic traits of brahmins.
Any individual with natural aptitude for learning,
analyzing, researching, teaching, and
probing into nature’s mysteries is called a brahmin.

43Valor, majesty, firmness, skill, courage,
generosity, and lordly disposition
are the basic traits of kshatriyas.
Anyone with natural aptitude for warfare,
governance, politics, administration,
and management is called a kshatriya.

44Farming, raising cattle, and trade are
the natural activities of vaishyas as per their nature.

Any individual with natural aptitude for managing money,
trading, farming, and skilled labor is called a vaishya.

Serving others is the basic trait of shudras.
Anyone with natural aptitude for service and physical work
is called a shudra.

We are defined by our innate talents and interests; later on, our nurturing environment and mentors shape us.
Who we are has little to do with who we are born to, because every child is an experiment in life.

Medieval societies of India misunderstood the system of classification of individuals based on natural aptitudes and casted a rigid social structure where one’s birth determined what profession one was allowed to take up. Some were even excluded from this misguided social setup and labeled as outcastes.

45One attains perfection
when he is committed to his work.

I will tell you how one can find fulfillment
by pursuing one’s own profession.

46One finds fulfillment
by working in harmony with his natural abilities
and making that as an offering to the One,
who pervades this universe and
from whom all creatures have arisen.

47Try to excel in your own dharma,
even if it is less glamorous.
It is better than following
the dharma of others.
You will never feel guilty
if you follow your inherent nature.
Here, ‘dharma’ is a reference to the essence of one’s personality including his attitude, talent, and nurturing environment.

48It is only natural that
all pursuits have some defect,
just as fire is often obscured by smoke.

But one should not
abandon work suited to one’s own nature,
simply because it is less glamorous.
No pursuit is perfect or ideal -– there are always hurdles in the way. When our work is suited to our aptitude and interest, the hurdles seem insignificant, however big they might be. When we work against our own nature, even small hurdles seem big.

49One who masters himself and
is free from desires and attachments
attains supreme perfection
through renunciation and
transcends all bondages of action.

50Listen now, as I explain how
one who has attained perfection
also attains brahman.

51Endowed with clear reasoning and firm self-restraint,
he relinquishes sound and all other sensations
while remaining impartial and selfless.
52Living in solitude, he eats lightly and
regulates his body, mind, and speech
through meditation.
53Free from ego, greed, desire, arrogance,
anger, aggression, and possession;
he is at peace with himself and others,
and is fit to become one with brahman.
54In that serenity of oneness,
unmoved by sadness or anxiety,
treating everyone in the same manner,
he gains utmost devotion to the supreme.
55He realizes the essential nature of the supreme
through that ultimate devotion.
After knowing the fundamental truth,
he is instantly united with the supreme.

56Even while constantly engaged
in worldly activities,
by taking refuge in the supreme
he will reach that eternal, imperishable state.
Such is the divine grace!

57,58With firm understanding,
regard me as the supreme,
think of me always, and
consciously dedicate your actions to me.
You shall overcome every hurdle by my grace.

But, out of arrogance
if you refuse to listen to me,
you will perish.

59,60Even if you say,
“I will not fight”
out of ego or ignorance,
you can’t abide by your decision
because you will be forced
by your own nature
to do so against your will.
We are all obliged to act in accordance with
our own inherent nature.

61Arjuna, the lord resides equally
in the hearts of all beings and
by maya causes them to move about
as though driven by a machine.
Maya refers to the divine power of illusion.

62Take refuge in him alone
with your whole being and
by his grace you will attain
that state of eternal peace.

63Thus, I have taught you the wisdom
that is the greatest of all secrets.

Reflect deeply on these teachings
and then do as you please.

64Listen again to my final words,
the greatest secret of all.

I shall repeat what is good for you
because you are dear to me.

65Fix your mind on me,
be devoted to me,
make every act an offering to me,
bow down to me, and
you shall certainly come to me;
this I promise,
for you are dear to me.

66Giving up all forms of dharma
take refuge in me alone.
I will liberate you from all sins,
do not grieve!
Here, dharma is used in the widest sense of the word –-
law, virtue, support, religion, duty, path, etc.

After explaining all the various paths,
Krishna finally gives a simple path to liberation:
the path of surrender to the Supreme.

This path is readily accessible to everyone,
without the need for an organized religion or a mediator;
it is free from rules and distinctions.

Giving up dharma refers to moving beyond them.
Compared to the divine presence in the universe (the highest dharma) and its assurance for ready liberation, all other dharmas invariably become insignificant.

67Don’t share this sacred truth with
one who lacks discipline and diligence,
one who doesn’t care to listen, or
one who speaks ill of me.
The message is ready for all, but not everyone may be ready or interested; and even if they are ready, they may not have faith in the message. Advice is best given when sought; else it might not be taken seriously.

68But whoever teaches this great secret
with sincerity and devotion
to those who wish to learn it,
he will surely come to me.
69Further, none can render more pleasing service to me
than the one who teaches this secret to my devotees,
and no one else on earth is dearer to me.

70Whoever earnestly studies this sacred dialogue –
I consider that person to have honored me
through jnana yajña.
Jnana yajña is pursuit of knowledge.
In other words, making an effort to understand what was taught.
This is the respect that one can show to the wise.

71Full of reverence and free from malice,
one who merely hears these words
attains liberation and
goes to the happy worlds
of the righteous.

72Have you heard this teaching with full attention, Arjuna?
Has your confusion caused by ignorance been clarified?

73Yes! My doubts are cleared.
I am not confused any more.
I am enlightened by your grace, Krishna.
I stand firm.
I will follow your advice.
74This wonderful dialogue
between the two great souls
is so thrilling that
it makes my hair stand.

75By the gift of Vyasa,
I saw this supreme yogic mystery
being revealed right in front of my eyes
by the master of yoga himself.
Before the war began, sage Vyasa offered divine vision to Dhritarashtra. But the blind king refused to see this terrible war between brothers. So, Vyasa gave the ability of remote viewing to Sanjaya, who could witness the events on the battlefield without leaving the palace and narrate it to Dhritarashtra.

76As I recall again and again
the splendid and sacred dialogue
between Krishna and Arjuna,
I rejoice over and over again.

77I am spellbound, O King,
as I recollect Krishna’s fabulous form.

I rejoice over and over again.

78I firmly believe that there will be
prosperity, victory, splendor, and justice
with Krishna, the lord of yoga
and Arjuna, the wielder of the bow
coming together!
Action guided by wisdom leads us to success. The ideal for life is a combination of spiritual insight and mastery of work.

<< Chapter 17. Attitudes at Work


  1. Excellent work. You have made Gita easily readable. Thanks for bringing Gita to the current and future generations.

  2. Thanks Krishna!
    Warm regards,
    Koti and Hari

  3. Anonymous2/05/2014

    Dear Hari and Koti,

    Thank you so much for presenting the Gita in such a simple yet powerful form. I am a medical student, and the Gita (which I have been reading through your website for the past 3 years) has been a guiding light through the academic, social, and intellectual difficulties that I have faced and am currently facing. It almost seems magical how much stronger you get once you learn to look beyond your false ego.

    I have read through all 18 chapters in this website several times and there seems to be one concept that I absolutely cannot seem to wrap my head around.
    In one of the earlier chapters the Lord says to Arjuna that even through sattva is the only righteous guna of all the three gunas, the real enlightened being is he who transcends even sattva to become one with the supreme lord. The goal is clear: to transcend all gunas (as described in 14:22).

    As someone who is not an expert on the gita, this concept is very hard for me to understand. I always thought that performing sattvik actions of "saintly goodness", as outlined by God in the 18th chapter, is the end goal of all yogis. So how can it be possible for a person to transcend sattva (which is implied to be the greatest manifestation of all virtues and wise actions)? If it is possible, how does one achieve it?

    Some argue that the purpose of transcending sattva is to go so close to God as to entirely give up the notion of "good and bad". But this is a failed argument: If the ultimate goal is to transcend the duality between good and bad, why should we perform good actions? If the entire world (including the Supreme Lord) are inherently neutral, then why should I perform actions which clearly espouse good morals (such as sattvic actions) in order to realize the presence of the Lord in myself and others?

    My apologies for the long-windedness of the question. I really appreciate all the good work you have done in benefiting this world.

    (An Aspiring Sthithaprajna)

  4. Dear friend (and aspiring sthithaprajna)

    Thank you for your kind words. I'm so thrilled to know that you have read our work on the website and found it useful.

    Coming to your questions:
    1. On good and bad
    Good and Bad are only valid in the human world (see 5.14-15) because nature is amoral/neutral. A wise person goes beyond good and bad.

    2. On Gunas
    The states of sattva, rajas, and tamas bind us in some way or the other. Of the three, the preferred one is sattva but one must transcend gunas to reach wisdom (see 2.45). The state of sattva is like being in a pool of honey, rajas is like being in a pool of dirty water, and tamas is like being in an pool of shit.

    3. What is good and what is bad
    In the larger scheme of things, good refers to something that is dharmic. In other words, something that promotes sustainability, something that reduces the overall entropy. When we do good, we are aligning with nature and hence increasing the sustainability of the world. Take a simple example: If we cut trees, we are affecting the environment and if we plant trees, we are improving the environment. When we do good, we are improving the chances of the sustenance of the world in whole. Therefore, we should do good acts, being a part of the living world.

    4. How to transcend Gunas
    Probably the clearest explanation can be found in verses 14.19-26 but there are also other verses like 3.28 and 7.14 that give a hint.

    Hope this somewhat addresses your concerns. If not, we can have a longer discussion by email. You can reach me at hari dot ravikumar at gmail dot com.

    With warm regards,