Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 5 (Part-1) Karma Sannyaasa Yogah: Yoga of Renunciation of Action


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.

The Text

arjuna uvaacha

sannyaasam karmanaam krishna punar yogam cha shamsasi

yacchreya etayorekam tanme broohi sunishchitam // 5.1  //

Arjuna said

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.


saankhyayogau prithagbaalaah pravadanti na panditaah

ekam apyaasthitah samyag ubhayor vindate phalam  //5. 4 //

Children, not the wise, speak of Sankhya (knowledge) and Yoga (Yoga of action) as distinct; he who is truly established in one obtains the fruits of both.

This verse clarifies that there is no contradiction between the paths of Sankhya (knowledge) and Yoga (action).

There are two ways of making an ordinary action into a divine action of dedication and worship viz.

1. By renouncing the idea of agency or doership in every action or

2. By performing actions without any anxiety for their fruits and maintaining equanimity in success and failure.

The former is called Sankhya method and the latter is Karma Yoga.

The Lord says that only the ignorant people (here referred to as children) who have no knowledge of the Self find a contradiction between the two methods.  But the wise who have lived through either of the paths say that both the paths lead to the same goal viz. liberation or God consciousness.


yatsaankhyaih praapyate sthaanam tad yogair api gamyate

ekam saankhyam cha yogam cha yah pashyati sa pashyati  // 5.5 //

The state (of liberation) reached by the Sankhyas (Gnanis) is reached by the Yogins (Karma Yogins).  He truly `sees’, who `sees’ Sankhya (knowledge) and Yoga (performance of action) as one.

Sri Krishna emphasizes that the goal reached by the Sankhya method is also reached by those who practice Karma technique. Those who have renounced the world and immersed themselves in the knowledge are the Sankhyas.  Through Sravana (hearing of Vedantic texts). Manana (reflecting on what is heard) and Nidhidhyasana (profound meditation) they attain liberation directly. The Karma Yogis who engage in selfless service, who perform their actions as offerings to The Lord, also reach the same state as is attained by the Sankhyas indirectly through purification of the heart, renunciation and the consequent realization of the knowledge of the Self.

He who sees that Sankhya and Yoga are one and that both lead to the same goal, is the one who really understands the Truth of the Vedas.

It is to be noted that Karma Yogins perform actions, surrendering the result to God, attain purity of mind and thus qualify themselves for the path of knowledge i.e. Sankhya, the path of knowledge, through which the final experience of Bliss is achieved. Thus both ultimately produce the same result, viz. liberation through Self-Knowledge.


sannyaasastu mahaabaaho duhkham aaptumayogatah

yogayukto munir brahma na chirenaadhigacchati  // 5.6 //

But renunciation of action, O Mighty Armed, is hard to attain without performance of action (Yoga); the sage purified by devotion to action, quickly reaches Brahman.

The Lord means that the method of performance of action is easier for a beginner and qualifies him for the higher path by purifying his mind.  Hence it is the proper and therefore the superior course, specifically for such beginners. Without performing action the renunciation of action is impossible.

Mind gets purified by performing right actions which enables one to have a deeper meditation leading to renunciation of all activities. If this process is cut short and activities are renounced in the beginning itself it will amount to physical inactivity where the purity of mind and meditative power cannot be gained.

One who is engaged in selfless and unattached activities develops single pointed meditative power. He is called a Muni (sage) who will reach the Supreme experience of the Self in him before long. A sage, purified by the performance of selfless action, soon attains Brahman.

The true renouncer is not he who remains completely inactive but he whose work is done in a spirit of detachment. Renunciation is a mental attitude, the casting off of desire in work; true work is work with all desire renounced.

yogayukto vishuddhaatmaa vijitaatmaa jitendriyah

sarvabhootaatmabhootaatmaa kurvannapi na lipyate  // 5.7 //

With the mind purified by devotion to performance of action, and the body conquered and senses subdued, he who realizes his Self, as the Self of all beings, is not tainted though he is acting.

Sri Krishna explains the different stages of development and change that would take place in an individual through Karma Yoga. One who is established in Karma Yoga gets his intellect purified which reduces agitations caused by desires or emotions from within. With the selfless action and no anxiety for the fruits, his intellect becomes immune from disturbances which are reflected in his mind.

When a man gains inward peace at intellectual and mental levels, it becomes easy for him to control his sense organs from their tendency to run after sense objects. A seeker who controls his body, mind and intellect in this manner is qualified for the highest meditation because all the stumbling blocks for purposeful meditation arise from desire-motivation and emotional agitation. If these obstacles are removed, meditation becomes natural and the rediscovery of the Self is easier to achieve.

This realization of the Self is complete and not partial.  He sees the divinity of the Self as all pervading.  He finds divinity everywhere at all times.  Hence The Lord says `realizes one’s own self as the Self in all beings’.

When an individual after achieving the inner change comes to realize the Infinite Divinity and performs actions in the world, his actions cannot have any reactions on him because no sense of ego is left in him. This verse highlights that it is the desire motivated egocentric activities alone that create vasanas in the intellect which block the discriminative power to experience one’s own essential nature of Eternal Divinity.

naiva kinchit karomeeti yukto manyeta tattwavit

pashyan shrunvan sprishan jighrann ashnan gacchan swapan shwasan // 5.8 //

pralapan visrijan grihnan nunmishan nimishannapi

indriyaaneendriyaartheshu vartanta iti dhaarayan  // 5.9  //

The knower of the Truth, being centered in the Self, thinks `I do nothing at all’ – though seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, letting go, seizing, opening and closing the eyes – convinced that it is the senses that move among the sense objects.

It is explained that a man of wisdom will not have any egoism even in the common, natural and unavoidable activities of the world, where he happens to live, like eating, sleeping, breathing, speaking, closing and opening of eyes etc.

He remains as a witness to all the activities of the senses, endowed with the knowledge of the actionless Self, with an `I do nothing at all’ feeling. He identifies himself with the Self and sees inaction in action for he realizes that in all works the senses occupy themselves with their objects and the Self remains inactive. He may be said to have renounced action, for he sees no action as performed by himself.

brahmanyaadhaaya karmaani sangam tyaktwaa karoti yah

lipyate na sa paapena padmapatram ivaambhasaa  // 5.10 //

He who performs actions, offering them to Brahman, abandoning attachment is not tainted by sin, just as a lotus leaf remains unaffected by the water on it.

A life of detachment where one renounces the sense of doership is not easy to attain. This verse instructs us how to live the Gita way rather than talk about it i.e. how to lead a life of intelligent detachment. One should be clear that total detachment is impossible for the human mind.  So long as there is a mind it has to attach itself with something because that is its nature. The only practical way of achieving detachment therefore is to disassociate the mind from the false and attach it to the Real.

The advice given is to surrender the sense of Agency and do the actions without egoism and attachment to their fruits, considering all actions as offerings to The Lord.  The more the thoughts on The Lord the less will be the attention on one’s own ego. Once this is realized, the actions of the body, mind and intellect will not leave any impression on the Self. Such a yogi has no attachment even for liberation.

Having thus realized the Self the Yogi lives in the world of objects with perfect detachment like the lotus leaf existing in the water without getting itself moistened. The sage lives in the world of objects detaching himself from his own perceptions of the world, likes and dislikes etc.

kaayena manasaa buddhyaa kevalair indriyairapi

yoginah karma kurvanti sangam tyaktwaatmashuddhaye  // 5.11 //

Yogis perform actions only with the body, mind, intellect and the senses without attachment, for the purification of the heart.

The Karma Yogis always utilize their organs of action, knowledge, mind and intellect renouncing all attachments .The sage remains as if he were a mere observer of all that is happening around him.

The Karma yogis are those who are devoted to the path of action, free from egoism and selfishness, who work for the purification of their hearts without any attachment to the results of their actions and who dedicate all their actions to The Lord as their offering.

yuktah karmaphalam tyaktwaa shaantim aapnoti naishthikeem

ayuktah kaamakaarena phale sakto nibadhyate  // 5.12 //

A selfless man who has renounced the fruit of his action attains Peace, born of steadfastness; but the one, who is not selfless, led by desire, is attached to the fruit of action and therefore bound.

The harmonious man who does actions for the sake of The Lord without expectation of the results and who considers all his actions as offerings to The Lord only and not for any personal gain or profit attains peace arising out of steadfastness or devotion. Steadfastness is achieved through the following four stages of development viz.

  • purity of mind

  • gaining of knowledge

  • renunciation of action

  • steadiness in wisdom.

Peace is not a product of external origin but it is a mental condition in an individual when he is not agitated by any kind of disturbing thoughts. Peace is an unbroken feeling of joy and a symbol of an integrated personality. Sri Bhagavan says that this can be brought about through selfless actions undertaken in a spirit of Yagna . When a worker renounces his egocentric sense of agency and desire for the fruits of his actions he immediately becomes an integrated personality and experiences peace.

The one who is unbalanced or unharmonised, who is motivated by desire and attachment to the fruits of actions and who is full of egoism and sense of agency gets himself bound and tortured by the reactions of his own actions.

Concepts and Issues

Sri Krishna earlier explained the greatness of both the paths of renunciation of actions (Sannyaasa or Sankhya Yoga) and the performance of actions (Karma Yoga). Arjuna had therefore doubts and asked Him to clarify which is better for him.

Sri Krishna tells that the paths of renunciation and performance of actions will both lead the man to the same spiritual goal to provide inner freedom.  But performance of actions for the welfare of all with no selfish motive is far better than non-performance of action because pure meditation is impossible to any one who has not offered himself and his belongings in the service of others.

The ignorant alone thinks that Karma Yoga and Sankhya Yoga are different. But both are inseparable and lead to the same goal. A Karma Yogi lives in the world without bondage like a lotus leaf on water. Without offering selfless service in Yajna spirit, it is difficult to gain the true spirit of renunciation-Sanyasa. The performer of selfless actions- Karma Yogi- has the spirit of renunciation in him and renounces the desire for the rewards of his actions.

A Sankhya Yogi who is established in the Self, does not identify himself even with such activities as seeing, hearing, touching, smelling etc., but feels he is a witness to all the actions of the body, senses, mind and intellect. He lives in a world untouched by the happenings around. He, who has identified himself with the Pure Self, stands aside, not contaminated by the effects of actions and enjoys eternal peace within

Live as the Gita Teaches You to Live

Verse 10 of this Chapter instructs us how to live the Gita way rather than talk about it i.e. how to lead a life of intelligent detachment. One should be clear that total detachment is impossible for the human mind. The practical way of achieving detachment is to disassociate the mind from the false and attach it to the Real. Surrender the sense of Agency and do the actions without egoism and attachment to their fruits, considering all actions as offerings to The Lord.  The more the thoughts on The Lord the less will be the attention on one’s own ego. Once this is realized, the actions of the body, mind and intellect will not leave any impression on the Self. Such a yogi has no attachment even for liberation and he lives in the world of objects detaching himself from his own perceptions of the world, likes and dislikes the lotus leaf existing in the water without getting itself moistened.

Points to Ponder

  1. How do the paths of renunciation of actions and performance of actions lead to the same goal?

  2. If both the above mentioned paths lead to the same goal, how then the Yoga of action is superior?

  3. How one should work so as not to be tainted by sin and attain Brahman?

  4. How does a Sankhya Yogi remain untainted by even physical functions?

  5. What is the difference between performing actions with and without selfishness?

Next time we will proceed from the Verse 5.13


Harih Om

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