Arjuna asks about what renunciation and letting go truly entail. Krishna explains that renunciation is “the leaving aside / of action based on desire” while letting go is “giving up / of all fruit of such action.” Some wise people think all action should be relinquished because it is “full of wrong,” but others think there are good actions, like “discipline, / giving and sacrifice,” that should not be relinquished.
Although Krishna praised renunciation in the fifth discourse, he now argues that renunciation often stems from clinging to desire. Most likely, his terminology has shifted because he was still introducing the concept of renouncing the fruits of action in the fifth discourse but is now concerned with the difference between renouncing action and renouncing action’s fruits.
Krishna thinks these actions are important purifiers and must be undertaken, but only after one learns to stop clinging to action’s fruits. Renouncing such prescribed actions is actually tamasic; quitting actions because they are difficult or painful is rajasic; but undertaking prescribed action for its own sake, without an attention to its fruit, is sattvic. Intelligent actors neither “cling to / auspicious actions” nor hate inauspicious ones.
The path of devotion is entirely predicated on action, so (even though it belongs to the lower self) action in accordance with dharma and without attachment to desire is actually indispensible to moral progress. In this way, Krishna begins circling back to his argument for why Arjuna should go to war.
Anyone with a body cannot abandon action entirely, but one who successfully abandons an interest in action’s fruit is known as a tyagi. A tyagi dies without the fruit of action, but one who cannot renounce it dies with wanted, unwanted, and mixed fruits. There are five causes behind all actions of any sort: the body, the agent, the means, the motions, and divine will. But one who believes they are the only agent lacks insight, whereas one without a sense of ownership is neither stained nor bound by action, and indeed truly “does not kill” when he kills others, even others who are also tyagis.
To falsely believe oneself the agent of action is to forget about the distinction between the eternal fragment of Brahman that constitutes the true self and the material gunas that actually drive all action in the world. Krishna hints that Arjuna should have no qualms about killing his cousins. Before, Krishna tried to dissuade Arjuna from desiring the preservation of his familial ties, but now that he has shown Arjuna that wisdom is the only measure of an individual, he also shows that, even if the Kauravas are wise, dharma requires Arjuna to fight them.
There are three impulses behind action: wisdom, the knower, and the object to be known. There are also three factors: an agent, an act, and a means. These all follow the gunas: in sattvic action, one sees all beings as eternal and multiplicities as a whole; in rajasic action, one sees separate natures in different beings; and in tamasic action, one clings to action without motives, missing action’s “true aim.” Similarly, in sattvic action one has no desire for the fruits, in a rajasic action one does have such a desire, and in tamasic action one does not even properly consider the act’s consequences.
For Krishna, the source of action is actually a will to knowledge: a tyagi (the knower) will act sacrificially as a means to wisdom and enlightenment. Acting with discipline means practicing detachment from desire and better understanding the gunas that form the material self (the object to be known). A tyagi sees Brahman everywhere, at all times, as the true essence of every being. In contrast, a rajasic actor mistakes differentiated material bodies for beings’ true identities.
There are also three varieties of insight and courage, corresponding to the gunas: sattvic insight understands what is and is not to be done and feared, rajasic action does not discern these distinctions, and tamasic action inverts them, leading people to perform the opposite of dharma. Steadiness in yoga, actions, and breath are sattvic; steadiness in wealth, desire, and dharma for the sake of action’s fruits is rajasic; and the steadiness of a “dull-witted” attachment to “pain, fear and sleep” is tamasic. Similarly, there are three forms of joy. Sattvic joy begins like poison but turns into nectar, for it stems from clear insight about the self. Rajasic joy starts like nectar but transforms into poison. And tamasic joy is deluded throughout, stemming from “confusion, laziness / and sleep.”
Krishna also circles back to the concept of dharma, for valuable insight is precisely insight into dharma. Sattvic joy might feel poisonous at first because one has to find pleasure in the abstract knowledge that one is performing dharma and coming closer to God rather than the familiar, concrete fulfillment of desire. Conversely, sensitization to achieving what one desires can lead to greed and gluttony, which makes rajasic joy later turn to poison.
No being is free from the three gunas, regardless of caste, which reflects people’s inner nature—brahmins act from an inner purity, discipline, wisdom, and restraint; kshatriyas act from ferocity, courage, and generosity; vaishyas act from their natural inclination to “trade, cow-herding and ploughing;” and shudras’ nature is to serve. Contentment in one’s action according to these purposes can lead one to fulfillment, and this requires honoring the eternal, all-encompassing creator in all actions.
Krishna makes explicit the connection among caste, the inner nature of the gunas, dharma, and enlightenment: caste reflects human nature, and dharma calls people to fulfill this nature by dutifully acting out their inherited caste roles. This worldview has since become one of the more controversial dimensions of Hinduism, for many argue that it functions to keep lower-caste people oppressed and confined to denigrating work in the name of religious worship.
It is always better to perform one’s own dharma than another’s, even if one does not perform it perfectly—after all, first tries are usually imperfect. Insight and a renunciation of desire lead to fulfillment and Brahman, “the highest state / of wisdom.” One must cast off sense objects and passions, prioritizing the yoga of meditation and accepting “a state without passion” to overcome one’s sense of pride, ownership and grasping. This leads to a tranquility, unity with Brahman, and devotion, which engender a close knowledge of Krishna’s extent, which in turn allows people to enter him and find “an imperishable, / unchanging home” in eternity.
Just as imperfect wisdom in one life still benefits the soul, which becomes reincarnated into a superior body, it is more important to strive to fulfill dharma than actually succeed in doing so. This is why Krishna has argued that, even if Arjuna loses the war, he will still ascend to heaven because he has acted dutifully in accordance with his dharma as a warrior.
By investing in a “sense of ‘mine’” and deciding not to fight, Krishna says, Arjuna dooms himself to death and loses all hope of reaching Brahman. Krishna insists that Arjuna is bound by his nature, even to do things he does not want to do. “The lord of all beings,” which dwells in the heart, causes all things to “wander in illusion” and follow the “great cosmic map” of their varied natures.
Arjuna’s initial concern with his family stemmed precisely from his “sense of ‘mine,’” which he elevated above the task of dispassionately following his “cosmic map” in order to let his gunas work themselves out and detach himself from them.
Krishna again tells Arjuna to take refuge in the wisdom he has learned, to ponder it, and then to act as he wishes. He tells him his most secret, “highest word,” which is that “you are greatly / loved by me, / so I will speak / for your benefit.” Krishna promises that, if Arjuna can maintain a focused mind and sacrifice for his honor, he will go to him and relieve him of evil.
However, the decision is ultimately up to the individual, and action only counts as pure if one does it with the wisdom Arjuna has learned from Krishna. Accordingly, Arjuna’s search for insight and path of yoga are not instantly fulfilled in the Gita—rather, he must now learn to put Krishna’s lessons into practice.
Krishna tells Arjuna to never tell these truths to one who lacks discipline or devotion, or sneers at the god. However, he will certainly transcend life and death if he tells devoted people about “this highest, hidden truth.” Further, Krishna says that one who learns to recite their conversation undertakes a “sacrifice / of knowledge” to Krishna, as well as one who can hear it and trust in Krishna, would also achieve freedom.
Krishna asks whether Arjuna has listened “with focused thought” and overcome his “ignorance / and confusion.” Arjuna affirms that he has gained wisdom, shed delusion, and defeated his doubts. He agrees to do what Krishna asks.
Arjuna’s ability to converse deliberately with Krishna throughout the text reflects his budding ability to fixate his mind on the god, which is the key to transcendence via the path of knowledge. In this sense, learning the Gita is a form of the yoga of knowledge.
Sanjaya tells Dhritarashtra that hearing this “miraculous” conversation “caused my hair / to stand on end.” He explains that, by Vyasa’s grace, he has heard the greatest and most secret yoga before his very eyes; he continues to rejoice as he continually remembers the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, as well as the latter’s incredible form. He suggests that, wherever Krishna and Arjuna go, “splendour, / victory, well-being, / and wise conduct” will follow.
In his elation at the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, Sanjaya almost seems to begin rooting for the Pandavas over his own half of the Bharata clan. His response is a model of how observers can learn to practice yoga and pursue enlightenment through their encounters with the Gita and foreshadows Arjuna’s eventual victory in the war, to which the full version of the Mahabharata now turns.