In the opening chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, Shree Krishna listens patiently to Arjun’s lamentations and educates him about the immortal soul. The Lord then reminds Arjun of his duties and the nature of the soul. He then begins to focus his advise on the path of action, Karm Yog.
Shree Krishna explains that all beings are compelled to work by their intrinsic modes of nature, and nobody can remain without action for even a moment. Those who display external renunciation by donning the ochre robes, but internally dwell upon sense objects, are hypocrites. Superior to them are those who practice karm yog, and continue to engage in action externally, but give up attachment from within. Shree Krishna then stresses that all living beings have responsibilities to fulfill as integral parts of the system of God’s creation. When we execute our prescribed duties as an obligation to God, such work becomes yajña (sacrifice). Those who do not accept their responsibility in this cycle are sinful; they live only for the delight of their senses, and their lives are in vain.
He then reminded Arjun of his duty as a warrior, and said that performing it would result in glory and the celestial abodes. After prodding Arjun to do his occupational work as a Kshatriya, Shree Krishna then revealed a superior principle—the science of karm yog—and asked Arjun to detach himself from the fruits of his works. In this way, bondage-creating karmas would be transformed into bondage-breaking karmas. He termed the science of working without desire for rewards as buddhi yog, or Yog of the intellect. By this, he meant that the mind should be detached from worldly temptations by controlling it with a resolute intellect; and the intellect should be made unwavering through the cultivation of spiritual knowledge. He did not suggest that actions should be given up, but rather that attachment to the fruits of actions should be given up.
Arjun misunderstood Shree Krishna’s intention, thinking that if knowledge is superior to action, then why should he perform the ghastly duty of waging this war? Hence, he says, “By making contradictory statements, you are bewildering my intellect. I know you are merciful and your desire is not to baffle me, so please dispel my doubt.”
śhrī bhagavān uvācha
loke ’smin dvi-vidhā niṣhṭhā purā proktā mayānagha
jñāna-yogena sāṅkhyānāṁ karma-yogena yoginām
The Blessed Lord said: O sinless one, the two paths leading to enlightenment were previously explained by me: the path of knowledge, for those inclined toward contemplation, and the path of work for those inclined toward action.
Shree Krishna explained the two paths leading to spiritual perfection. The first is the acquisition of knowledge through the analytical study of the nature of the soul and its distinction from the body. Shree Krishna refers to this as sānkhya yog.
People with a philosophic bend of mind are inclined toward this path of knowing the self through intellectual analysis. The second is the process of working in the spirit of devotion to God, or karm yog. Shree Krishna also calls this buddhi yog. Working in this manner purifies the mind, and knowledge naturally awakens in the purified mind, thus leading to enlightenment.
Amongst people interested in the spiritual path, there are those who are inclined toward contemplation and then there are those inclined to action. Hence, both these paths have existed ever since the soul’s aspiration for God-realization has existed. Shree Krishna touches upon both of them since his message is meant for people of all temperaments and inclinations.
In verse 4 of the 3rd chapter, Shree Krishna says,
na karmaṇām anārambhān naiṣhkarmyaṁ puruṣho ’śhnute
na cha sannyasanād eva siddhiṁ samadhigachchhati
One cannot achieve freedom from karmic reactions by merely abstaining from work, nor can one attain perfection of knowledge by mere physical renunciation.
The first line of this verse refers to the karm yogi (follower of the discipline of work), and the second line refers to the sānkhya yogi (follower of the discipline of knowledge).
In the first line, Shree Krishna says that mere abstinence from work does not result in a state of freedom from karmic reactions. The mind continues to engage in fruitive thoughts, and since mental work is also a form of karma, it binds one in karmic reactions, just as physical work does. A true karm yogi must learn to work without any attachment to the fruits of actions. This requires cultivation of knowledge in the intellect. Hence, philosophic knowledge is also necessary for success in karm yog.
In the second line, Shree Krishna declares that the sānkhya yogi cannot attain the state of knowledge merely by renouncing the world and becoming a monk. One may give up the physical objects of the senses, but true knowledge cannot awaken as long as the mind remains impure. The mind has a tendency to repeat its previous thoughts.
Such repetition creates a channel within the mind, and new thoughts flow irresistibly in the same direction. Out of previous habit, the materially contaminated mind keeps running in the direction of anxiety, stress, fear, hatred, envy, attachment, and the whole gamut of material emotions. Thus, realized knowledge will not appear in an impure heart by mere physical renunciation. It must be accompanied by congruent action that purifies the mind and intellect. Therefore, action is also necessary for success in sānkhya yog.
It is said that devotion without philosophy is sentimentality, and philosophy without devotion is intellectual speculation. Action and knowledge are necessary in both karm yog and sānkhya yog. It is only their proportion that varies, creating the difference between the two paths.