The Bhagavad Gita | Study Guide


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The Bhagavad Gita | Chapter 18 : Freedom Through Renunciation | Summary



In this final chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna about renunciation. Krishna makes a distinction between the concept of renunciation and that of relinquishing. Renunciation, or the act of renouncing, means letting go of action motivated by desire. Relinquishing means giving up the fruits of actions. Krishna insists that although embodied beings cannot completely relinquish action, they must relinquish the results of action. Five elements are present wherever action occurs. These elements are the physical body, the agent, the sensory organs, behaviors, and "divine providence." Persons of "limited understanding" see themselves as the sole agent of an action and fail to recognize these five components.

Krishna divides these three concepts—knowledge, action, and agent—into their respective gunas. Sattvic knowledge comprehends that all beings are "undivided among the divided," or truly one single unchanging being. The notion of being separate is relinquished. Knowledge that perceives the world as consisting of separate and disconnected individual beings is rajasic. Tamasic knowledge doesn't care about the truth of things. Action is sattvic when it is right action with pure motivations, whereas rajasic action is done to "satisfy desires" or produce results. However, Krishna warns that "even the most praiseworthy acts / should be done with complete nonattachment." Tamasic action comes from delusion and lack of care for others. The sattvic person is free from ego and attachment The rajasic person desires results and is motivated by ego. The tamasic person is lazy and often cruel. The concepts of understanding, will, and happiness are each similarly characterized by the three gunas. The happiness "which comes from long practice" for a person with a sattvic nature is difficult to obtain yet brings serenity. Happiness characterized by rajas arises from the senses and by tamas from indifference and laziness. Krishna describes happiness in terms of poison and nectar. For those with rajasic tendencies, seeking happiness through sensory experiences or greed turns from nectar into poison. For those who practice yoga steadfastly, the effort feels rigorous at first, or like poison, but turns into nectar. Those driven by tamasic natures are always in a place of delusion.

Krishna also reinforces the importance of doing one's duty according to the caste of one's birth. He defines this as a person being born with the dharma of a priest, warrior, or laborer and says, "content with his natural duty, / each one achieves success." Success, Krishna instructs, may be achieved by right actions dedicated to God. He summarizes the positive qualities needed to reach him and thus attain release from the cycle of rebirth.

The chapter ends with an emphasis on how the person of yoga must be devoted to Krishna. Therefore, he tells Arjuna not to worry and to focus all his energy and love on Krishna. Arjuna will be saved as a result. Anyone who is thoroughly devoted to Krishna will be freed in the same way. This is Krishna's secret reserved for the people who are disciplined and striving toward God. Arjuna expresses tremendous gratitude for the truth he has learned from Krishna and promises to fight. The poet Sanjaya finishes recounting the most secret doctrine directly from Krishna himself. He concludes by saying that where the "Lord of Yoga" and "Arjuna the archer" are present, so are "virtue and spiritual wealth."


This final chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is a culmination of Krishna's teachings. At Arjuna's request, the chapter begins with a discussion of how to renounce and relinquish. What Krishna means by renouncing is that actions should not be driven by desire. Relinquishing, on the other hand, means not having attachment to the results of actions. He tells Arjuna that even acts done with good intentions, such as worshipping, should be done without attachment to outcomes.

Krishna spends much time explaining how the three gunas can manifest in a person's actions and understanding. His goal is to show Arjuna how to recognize right action as opposed to action motivated by one of the gunas. When a person overcomes natural tendencies and the effect those have on the self, a person is following the path of right action. The qualities a person develops by mastering the self in this way help that person act rightly regardless of whether they are called to be a priest, warrior, or laborer. No matter into what caste people are born, they can find success by worshipping with their actions.

In this chapter Krishna describes someone who has mastered yoga and, thus, the Self. This state of freedom is evidenced by certain characteristic behaviors, such as nonattachment, being unbound to worldly pleasures, and being "absorbed in deep meditation." In lines 49–53 Krishna describes the most desirable attributes of a successful yogi. He then explains how one's heart and mind must be entirely devoted to God to obtain ultimate freedom. When Arjuna focuses on him, Krishna says, "You will surely come to me; this / I promise because I love you."

Krishna addresses aspects of human nature and the wonders of the universe in the Bhagavad Gita. One of his core teachings is the idea of doing "right action," or karma yoga, as worship to God, while the devotee remains unattached to results. This is critically relevant to Arjuna's specific situation because the entire dialogue takes place on a battlefield poised for war while Arjuna remains paralyzed with inaction. In the end, Krishna's explanations and truths reach Arjuna's heart. He leaves the conversation not only ready to enter into battle but also more spiritually enlightened than when he started out. Krishna also has a final message for all readers of the Gita, affirming the importance of the dialogue as spiritual teaching. Anyone who studies the Gita with discipline and good intent is on the pathway to reaching God. Krishna tells Arjuna that by devoted and heart-centered study of the scriptures, a person "has worshipped / and loved me with the yoga of knowledge."

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