Prasthana Traya: The Triple Canonical Base of Vedanta Scriptures Followed by Shankara – Part 3/4: Bhagavad Gita


  1. Introduction
  2. Smritis as Recollections of Conduct of Realized Beings
  3. Importance of Bhagavad Gita As Smriti
  4. Dissimilarities Between Gita and the Upanishads
    1. Gita as a Synthesizer of Various Traditions
    2. Gita’s Re-Interpretation of Renunciation: Inaction in Action
  5. Theism in Gita
  6. Vedantic Strands of Shankara, Bhaskara and Ramanuja in Gita
  7. Shankara on Bhagavad Gita
    1. Differing Opinions of Shankara and Gita on Action and Renunciation
  8. Conclusion
  9. Notes


This article forms part 3 of the series of articles I started to discuss the canonical base of scriptures utilized by Shankara in explicating the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. The reader may read Part 1 which is an introduction to the canonical or prasthana traya and read Part 2, on the Vedas/Upanishads. This section deals with smriti prasthana, canonical scriptures based on recollection rather than revelation as was the case with the Upanishads. As indicated in the title itself, special reference is made to Shakara’s interpretation of this work.

1. Introduction

A 19th-century Sanskrit manuscript of the Bhagavad Gita, Devanagari script

At one point in my inquiry, which in retrospect I can label as the middle phase of my Advaitic inquiry, Bhagavad Gita was my favourite text. It was my spiritual bread for sustenance. In my real life, there were many questions and situations which were akin to Arjuna. Arjuna is an archetype of all seekers. The questions he asks Krishna in the dialogue of Bhagavad Gita are what all seekers hold at some point or the other. Several of them have to do with ethical and spiritual dilemmas related to daily life, which one does not find being addressed so much in the srutis/Upanishads, as in the Gita. Also, the Gita has some formulations not so explicitly expanded in the Upanishads, which drew me to it in my middle phase of inquiry. Let’s dip into what makes Gita an invaluable addition to the Upanishads.

2. Smritis as Recollections of Conduct of Realized Beings

After śruti or Revelation, Vedānta accepts a second point of departure, smriti or Recollection. However, great be the guidance of scripture in matters of high truth and ultimate destiny, it frequently is insufficient to guide the conduct of the believer. The Christian Church recognizes Tradition next to Revelation. Islam has formed a large collection of hadīth, traditions concerning Muhammad’s reactions and responses to problems and questions that were not completely provided for by the Qur’ān. Likewise, Indian religion has added to the monument of śruti the hostel of smriti. Literally the word means “memory” or “recollection.” Generally it has become a technical term to describe an enormous corpus of texts and treatises. The transition between the two usages is not too difficult. We have seen that Revelation, which is beginningless and authorless, came to the vision of the seers at the dawn of creation. [6]

The seers thereupon started an uninterrupted transmission to a series of pupils that stretches until today. At the same time these seers conducted themselves in certain ways: in the first place their conduct was in accordance with the dictates of the Vedas, but they observed also customs and practices not explicitly mentioned in the Vedas. Such behavior they also transmitted to their pupils and it is such behavior, not explicitly Vedic but inferable from the Vedas, which is deemed smriti, “recollection.” This behavior was subsequently written up as dharma in the smritis, for instance the smriti of Manu—here the word practically approaches the notion of a book of law. The usage was extended to any work that dealt with the dharma, and indeed hardly any work from early Sanskrit literature does not qualify as such. Nevertheless, these smritis do not have an independent authority as the Upanishads have. They are authored and therefore fallible. The only bases of their authority are that they are put into practice by those who also adhere to the precepts of the Veda and that they are not in conflict with the Veda. Thus the smritis of Manu and Yājñavalkya are authoritative, but the smriti of the Buddha, for instance, is not. [6]

3. Importance of Bhagavad Gita As Smriti

While Vedānta accepts as a matter of course the authority of a number of smritis, it gives first place to one text, the Bhagavadgītā, thus bowing to the popularity the text had acquired. The Bhagavadgītā is referred to in the Brahmasūtras, and the fact that all the early Vedāntins of the classical period, Śankara, Bhāskara, and Rāmānuja, felt called upon to write a commentary on it—even Śankara to whom the text is not at all congenial—shows that it had acquired an authority so wide that it could not be overlooked by Vedānta.[7]

An idea of its status and popularity can be gleaned from the colophon at the end of each chapter of the Bhagavadgita makes it clear how it has been elevated from its original position as an Itihasa into an independent authority like the Vedas. The actual words are: 

According to this, Bhagavadgita is not only an Upanishad, but it is also a Brahma Vidya, a Yoga Sastra, and a Samvada.

4. Dissimilarities Between Gita and the Upanishads

The Gītā is in many respects very dissimilar to the Upanishads. There is first the fact that it forms part of the huge epic of the Mahābhārata, which gives it a very different tone. It is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the epic Mahabharata (chapters 23–40 of Bhishma Parva), commonly dated to the second century BCE. In the Indian tradition, the Bhagavad Gita, as well as the epic Mahabharata of which it is a part, is attributed to sage Vyasa, whose full name was Krishna Dvaipayana, also called Veda-Vyasa. It is not a “mystery,” accessible only to those whose birth and education had singled them out for the study of it, but, as part of the popular epic, in principle within the scope of all and sundry (although Bhāskara will object to that). It is a discourse from one warrior to another, even if one of them will be discovered to be God himself. Although there are some discontinuities in it, it presents itself as, and largely is, a continuous discourse which is more extensive than any such in the Upanishads. As part of a different tradition, it could without difficulty draw on a far larger reality of beliefs and practices than the Upanishads, which remain tied to the Vedic tradition of sacerdotalism. [7]

The Gītā is a dialogue formally, between the warrior Arjuna who, when finally faced with a family war in which he finds close relatives, friends, and gurus drawn up against him and his party, has second thoughts and refuses to engage in the battle. But beyond that it is a dialogue, sometimes approaching a debate, between diverging attitudes concerning and methods toward the attainment of release (moksha). Transmigration, still muted in the Upanishads, is now completely axiomatic. But having become axiomatic it has raised new questions. The entire thrust of the Vedic tradition, only partly parried by the Upanishads, was the supreme significance of ritual action, which was seen to be for the benefit of the world. There is an underlying assumption that this world is a good world and that the meticulous performance of the appointed ritual tasks are essential to the proper operation of this world. This world view can do comfortably without any assumptions of transmigration and the necessity to seek release from the world. Yet these very assumptions have now intersected with the established tradition.[7]

a.) Gita as a Synthesizer of Various Traditions

Given the fact that the Gita was written around 200 BCE, the Gitakara’s religiophilosophical landscape comprised not only the Vedas and Upanisads, early Sarnkhya and Yoga, ritualistic Brahmanism and varna-dharma, but also Buddhism, Jainism (though we find only two probable allusions to it in the (Gita), the Narayana sects (Ekantins, Bhagavatas, and Pancaratras), the Rudra sect of the Pasupatas (Svetasvatara Upanisadis quoted at least in XIII, 13) and the cult of Sankarsana Krsna of the Mathura region. This implies that he must have been familiar with the different conceptions of karma which were upheld in this diversity.

Bhagavad Gita, therefore integrates various schools of thought, notably Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga, and other theistic ideas. It remains a popular text for commentators belonging to various philosophical schools. According to eminent Indian philosopher Mysore Hiriyanna, the Gita is “one of the hardest books to interpret, which accounts for the numerous commentaries on it–each differing from the rest in one essential point or the other”. The discontinuous intermixing of philosophical verses with theistic or passionately theistic verses makes Indologists like Arthur Basham, speculate that there were three or more authors or compilers of Bhagavad Gita

The Gita synthesizes several paths to spiritual realization based on the premise that people are born with different temperaments and tendencies (guna). The text acknowledges that some individuals are more reflective and intellectual, some affective and engaged by their emotions, some are action driven, yet others favor experimenting and exploring what works. It then presents different spiritual paths for each personality type respectively: the path of knowledge (jnana yoga), the path of devotion (bhakti yoga), the path of action (karma yoga), and the path of meditation (raja yoga). The guna premise is a synthesis of the ideas from the Samkhya school of Hinduism.

While some commentators beleive that none of these paths are superior of inferior, the influential Advaitin commentator Madhusudana Sarasvati divided the Gita‘s eighteen chapters into three sections of six chapters each. Swami Gambhirananda characterizes Madhusudana Sarasvati’s system as a successive approach in which Karma yoga leads to Bhakti yoga, which in turn leads to Jnana yoga:

  • Chapters 1–6 = Karma yoga, the means to the final goal
  • Chapters 7–12 = Bhakti yoga or devotion
  • Chapters 13–18 = Jnana yoga or knowledge, the goal itself

Some scholars treat the “yoga of meditation” to be a distinct fourth path taught in the Gita, referring to it as Raja yoga. Others consider it as a progressive stage or a combination of Karma yoga and Bhakti yoga. Shankara considered its discussion in the 13th chapter of the Gita and elsewhere to be an integral part of the Jnana yoga. The above scheme of Karma Yoga leading to Jnana Yoga is the scheme endorsed by Shankara. For in his introduction to Bhagavad Gita commentary (trans. by A.M. Sastri) he writes,

“Though the Religion of Works,—which, as a means of attaining worldly prosperity, is enjoined on the several castes and religious orders,—leads the devotee to the region of the Devas and the like, still, when practised in a spirit of complete devotion to the Lord and without regard to the (immediate) results, it conduces to the purity of the mind (sattva-suddhi). The man whose mind is pure is competent to tread the path of knowledge, and to him comes knowledge ; and thus (indirectly) the Religion of Works forms alsoa means to the Supreme Bliss. Accordingly, with this very idea in mind, the Lord says:

“He who does actions, placing them in Brahman,” …… Yogins perform actions, without attachment, for the purification of the self.” (Bhagavad Gita, verse 5. 10, 11).

b.) Gita’s Re-Interpretation of Renunciation: Inaction in Action

The Brahminist tradition, down from Vedic times, had exalted the significance of dharma as the instrument of goodness. The tenet of transmigration now has come to hold that a man who acts perpetuates, by his very action, the cycle of rebirth, even if the acts he accomplishes are good acts. In the Upanishads, this ethics of duty has been transcended by a different, seemingly incompatible ethics of release, which demands that man quit acting at all and rise “beyond the good and evil” of being of this world. [8]

Formally, Arjuna’s dilemma is to choose between conflicting dharmas: as a warrior his dharma is to fight a just war; as a man of honor, facing on the battlefield his kinsmen and betters, this war, however just, is unjust and against dharma since it attacks the family, the basic unit of dharma ethics. This dilemma is a real one, but Krisha transforms it to restate the newer dilemma of whether to act at all, and by so doing condemn oneself to transmigration, or renounce all actions in favor of a solitary, unbeholden pursuit of release. While apparently forbearing to judge between the Way of the Action (karma-yoga) and the Way of the Knowledge (jñāna-yoga), Krisha’s emphasis is very strongly on the Action, and he offers the solution that the Action, if accomplished without attachment to its reward, leads equally to an escape from bondage as does the Way of the Knowledge, which harbors its own hypocrisies. Krishna reveals himself as a practician of Action, descending to this world not for any unfulfilled wish of his own, but to restore dharma and hold the world together. [8]

This aspect of Gita, according to me is the most precious gift as it makes Moksha or liberation available to the householder rather than limiting it to renunciates as in the Upanishads. It states the dharmic householder can achieve the same goals as the renouncing monk through “inner renunciation”. He outlines this unique philosophy in Chapter 4 of Gita called Jnana Karma Sanyasa Yoga (Renunciation of action through knowledge). A representative verse of this is

Just as well lighted fire reduces wood to ashes, so to, Arjuna! The fire of knowledge reduces all actions and results of actions to ashes. (Bhagavad Gita, 4.37)

Shankara, however, was a staunch advocate of monasticism and in accordance with the Upanishads, he saw any form of action (even good acts for the benefit of the world) as a product of ignorance. He accepted Karma Yoga, which Gita extols as equal to Jnana Yoga to gain liberation, only as a preparatory means to enter Jnana Yoga and the path of renunciation/monasticism. I will be speaking more on his later in the article

5. Theism in Gita

Like some Upanishads, the Gita does not limit itself to the nirguna Brahman. It teaches both the abstract and the personalized Brahman (God), the latter in the form of Krishna. It accomplishes this synthesis by projecting the nirguna Brahman as higher than saguna or personalized Brahman, where the nirguna Brahman “exists when everything else does not”. The text blurs any distinction between the personalized God and impersonal Absolute Reality by amalgamating their equivalence, using it interchangeably in the later chapters. This theme has led scholars to call the Gita as panentheistic, theistic and monistic. While bhakti is mentioned in many chapters, the idea gathers momentum after verse 6.30, and it is chapter 12 where the idea is sustainably developed. Being staunchly embedded in the reality of nirguna Brahman, I find this aspect of Gita distracting, as do many other scholars. But one can see that it is helpful for seekers who find the concept of nirguna Brahman foreboding in their initial stages.

6. Vedantic Strands of Shankara, Bhaskara and Ramanuja in Gita

In outlining these attitudes and methods and attempting to forge a harmony between them, the Gītā at the same time presents us with a typology of Vedānta, if not of all Indian thought. There is the strand that holds the world so lightly that it can conceive of release only as the utter negation of it, and the only way to be pursued is that which leads to the liberating insight into the absolute otherness of the Brahman; this is exemplified by Śankara. There remains the strand that dharma must not be ignored, that the world must be kept together, and if indeed the insight in Brahman’s nature is necessary, this nature cannot be absolutely other than this world. There must be a continuity between this and that as there must be between living in this world and fulfilling one’s task, and the insight that liberates from bondage; this is exemplified by Bhāskara (proponent of Bhedabheda school of Vedanta). And finally there is the strand which holds that the very purpose of Vedānta is to explicate and glorify God and that both task and insight come together and are sublimated in devotion; this is exemplified by Rāmānuja (founder of Vishisthadvaita school of Vedanta). [9]

Thus, it is – according to Indologist Karl H. Potter – that many Vedantic philosophers have written commentaries on the Bhagavadgitä, finding in Krishna’s teachings an appropriate foil for expressing their particular slant. [10]

7. Shankara on Bhagavad Gita

It may well be this universalism of the Gītā which gave rise to its popularity, which in turn demanded that Vedānta, whose intentions became more and more universal, deal with it. It is in no way a systematic treatise, although it has a greater inner cohesion than the Upanishads. It reveals the influences of schools other or later than those represented by the earlier texts. It adds a new dimension to Vedānta which henceforth is not content to limit itself to the Upanishads, but needs respect the more open, popular, theistic assertions that have since been made. [9]

Swami Vivekananda, the 19th-century Hindu monk and Vedantist, stated that the Bhagavad Gita may be old but it was mostly unknown in the Indian history till early 8th century when Shankaracharya made it famous by writing his much-followed commentary on it. Some infer, states Vivekananda, that “Shankaracharya was the author of Gita, and that it was he who foisted it into the body of the Mahabharata.”[11] This attribution to Adi Shankara is unlikely in part because Shankara himself refers to the earlier commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, and because other Hindu texts and traditions that compete with the ideas of Shankara refer to much older literature referencing the Bhagavad Gita, though much of this ancient secondary literature has not survived into the modern era.

It has always puzzled me why Shankara chose to comment on Bhagavad Gita which is such a mixed bag of schools of thought. But as noted above, the Gita had a very popular appeal. So Shankara rolled up his sleeves and set himself to task right away, casting Gita into the tradition of Advaita through his daunting skills of scholarship. He perhaps could not let a popular text like Gita slip away from the fold of Advaita. In his introduction to Bhagavad Gita Bhashya he writes,

“This famous Gita-Sastra is an epitome of the essentials of the whole Vedic teaching; and its meaning is very difficult to understand. Though, to afford a clear view of its teaching, it has been explained word by word and sentence by sentence, and its import critically examined by several commentators, still I have found that to the laity it appears to teach diverse and quite contradictory doctrines. I propose, therefore, to write a brief commentary with a view to determine its precise meaning.” [12]

a. Differing Opinions of Shankara and Gita on Action and Renunciation

As I have already noted in my earlier section, “Gita’s Re-Interpretation of Renunciation: Inaction in Action”, Shankara and Gita differ in the status of actions for a liberated being. Shankara advocates complete inaction and monasticism for a liberated being. Bhagavad Gita, on the other hand seems to state that action can and should continue for a liberated being because actions of a liberated being do not taint him. For we have the following verses of the Gita:

“The four castes have been created by Me through a classification of the guṇas and duties. Even though I am the agent of that (act of classification), still know Me to be a non-agent and changeless.” (Bh. Gita, verse 4.13)

“Actions do not taint Me; for Me there is no hankering for the results of actions. One who knows Me thus, does not become bound by actions.” (Bh. Gita, verse 4.14)

“Having known thus, duties were performed even by the ancient seekers of Liberation. Therefore, you undertake action itself as was performed earlier by the ancient ones.” (Bh. Gita, verse 4.15)

“He who finds inaction in action, and action in inaction, he is the wise one among men; he is engaged in yoga and is a performer of all actions!” (Bh. Gita, verse 4.18)

“The wise call him learned whose actions are all devoid of desires and their thoughts, and whose actions have been burnt away by the fire of wisdom.” (Bh. Gita, verse 4.19)

These verses, read literally, mean that a liberated man does actions because he knows that he is not the perfomer of actions, but his gunas. He as actionless Self does not act.

Reference to gunas being the agent of action is mentioned in the following verse:

“When the seer does not see an agent other than the gunas and when he knows himself as beyond the gunas, he gains(understands) my nature.”  (Bh. Gita, verse 14.19)

Shankara does grant action to liberated beings, albeit grudgingly as we can see in his commentary to the verse 4.19 where he writes:

“However, one who is a perceiver of ‘inaction’ etc. is free from actions owing to the very fact of his seeing ‘inaction’ etc. He is a monk, who acts merely for the purpose of maintaining the body. Being so, he does not engage in actions although he might have done so before the dawn of discrimination. He again who, having been engaged in actions under the influence of past tendencies, later on becomes endowed with the fullest Self-knowledge, he surely renounces (all) actions along with their accessories as he does not find any purpose in activity. For some reason, if it becomes impossible to renounce actions, and he, for the sake of preventing people from going astray, even remains engaged as before in actions—without attachment to those actions and their results because of the absence of any selfish purpose—, still he surely does nothing at all! His actions verily become ‘inaction’ because of having been burnt away by the fire of wisdom.” (Shankara’s Commentray on Verse Bh. Gita verse 4.19)

So Shankara grants action to Self Realized beings under the following conditions

  1. A monk who has renounced all actions and does actions only for maintaining his body
  2. A self realized being acting under the action of past tendencies/prarabdha karma and who later on becomes endowed with ‘fullest self knowledge’ and renounces all actions (becoming a monk, as above) I Have written a note on prarabdha karma in case of a Jnani here: “The Jnani Does Not Cease to Act After Dawn of Knowledge”
  3. If it becomes impossible to renounce actions, he does actions only for the sake of people going astray, without any selfish purpose.

In his last concession for action, I feel that Shankara is very grudgingly accepting the dictates of the Gita. For Shankara’s staunchly Upanishadic views on monasticism are very evident in a dialogue he stages with an opponent in his Bhagavad Gita’s commentary’s introduction to Chapter 3 (Karma Yoga):

“With regard to the seekers of Liberation, renunciation of all actions has been prescribed as an accessory of Knowledge by all the Upaniṣads, History, Purāṇas and Yoga-scriptures. And this follows also from the sanction in the Vedas and the Smṛtis for following the stage of life either optionally or successively. (5)

Objection: In that case, is it the conclusion that Knowledge and action should be combined by people in all stages of life?

Reply: No, because it is enjoined in the Upaniṣadic texts that a man aspiring for Liberation should give up all actions:

‘(Knowing this very Self the Brāhmaṇas) renounce (the desire for sons, for wealth and for the worlds), and lead a mendicant life’ (Bṛ. 3.5.1; also see 4.4.22);

‘Therefore they speak of monasticism as something surpassing all these austerities’ (Ma. Nā. 24.1);

‘Monasticism verily became supreme’ (ibid. 21.2);

‘The few who obtained Immortality did so not through action, nor progeny, nor wealth, but through renunciation alone’ (ibid. 10.5; Kai. 2); (6) and,

‘One should take to monasticism from the stage of Celibacy itself’ (Jā. 4), etc.

Besides, (in the Smṛti) it is said:

‘Give up religion and irreligion, give up both the real and the unreal. After renouncing both the real and the unreal, give up that through which they are renounced’ (Mbh. Śā. 329.40; 331.44).

And Bṛhaspati said to Kaca: ‘Noticing that the phenomenal world is verily hollow, and desiring to realize the Essence (Brahman), they, even while remaining unmarried, take to monasticism by embracing supreme renunciation.’

(Vyāsa’s) instruction to Śuka is this:

‘A being gets bound down by actions, and he is liberated by Illumination. Therefore, the sannyāsins who have realized the Transcendental (Self) do not undertake any action. (rites and duties)’ (Mbh. Śā. 241.7).

Here (in Bhagavad Gita) also occurs the text, ‘having given up all actions mentally,’ etc. (5.13). Further, as Liberation is not a result (of action), actions become useless for one aspiring for Liberation.

8. Conclusion

My own take is that the Bhagavad Gita, although included by Shankara in his canon of Advaita Vedanta for the sake of its immense popularity, does not lend itself particularly well to the Upanishadic ideal of renunciation of action. As I showed in my last paragraph, Bhagavad Gita’s indubitable stress on action even after Self Realization, does not sit well with Shankara’s uncompromising allegiance to monasticism espoused by the Upanishads. Shankara does make concessions for continuing action but with utmost miserliness. The most glaring example is the verse on Janaka. The Gita appears to offer the legendary ruler, King Janaka, as such, the status of a liberated being (Bh.G. 3.20), yet it is less than clear whether Sankara himself accepts this. ‘As he gives two conflicting interpretations of the text, my feeling is that he intentionally adds uncertainty into the commentary (Bh.G.Bh. 3.20).

The verse states:

Indeed, by action alone, Janaka and others gain liberation. Also, by merely seeing the desirability of protecting the people from falling into unbecoming ways you ought to perform action.

Shankara’s commentary on this goes like this:

“In the olden days, the learned Kṣatriyas, Janaka and others such as Aśvapati; strove to attain; Liberation through action itself.

If it be that they were possessed of the fullest realization, then the meaning is that they remained established in Liberation while continuing, because of past momentum, to be associated with action itself—without renouncing it—with a view to preventing mankind from going astray. Again, if (it be that) Janaka and others had not attained fullest realization, then, they gradually became established in Liberation through action which is a means for the purification of the mind. The verse is to be explained thus.

On the other hand, if you think, ‘Obligatory duty was performed even by Janaka and others of olden days who were surely unenlightened. (35) There by it does not follow that action has to be undertaken by somebody else who has the fullest enlightenment and has reached his Goal.”

In the last part of this series of article on Prasthanatraya, I shall be discussing the Brahmasutras


  • [6] – Ibid, page 59
  • [7] – Ibid, page 60
  • [8] – Ibid, page 61
  • [9] – Ibid, page 62
  • [10] – Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies by Karl H. Potter, page no. 5
  • [11] – Swami Vivekananda (1958). The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 4 (12th ed.). Advaita Ashram. pp. 102–104.
  • [12] – The Bhagavad Gita with Shankara Bhashya by A. M. Sastri, pages 4,5
  • All verses of Bhagavad Gita and Shankara’s Commentary on them are translations by Swami Gambhirananda

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