We are doing a scripture study together: reading along through some scriptures and discussing the passages. Here are all of the posts on the previous verses for the Gita: Bhagavad Gita Study
16. He who does, here on earth,
Turn the wheel thus set in motion,
Maliciously, full of sense delights, and in vain.
17. He whose delight is only in the Self,
Whose satisfaction is in the Self,
And who is content only in the Self;
For him the need to act does not exist.
18. He has no purpose at all in action,
Or in non-action,
And he has no need of any being
For any purpose whatsoever.
19. Therefore, constantly unattached,
Perform that action which is your duty.
Indeed, by performing action while unattached,
Man attains the Supreme.
Notes on the Sanskrit
The literal translation of the last part of verse 17 (“For him the need to act does not exist”) is “the to-be-done, not it is found.” To me this makes me think of my to-do list and the harried way I try to race through a mountain of tasks. Error 404, to-do list not found!
The word at the end of verse 18 “For any purpose whatsoever.” Purpose there is the word arthas, which is often given as one of the goals of life. Success in the material realm of the world, acquisition. Here it is translated also as aim and purpose. This verse says that an enlightened person has no need of arthas, or pursuing worldly success.
In verse 19, “constantly unattached” is satatam asaktas. Asaktas is both “unattached” and “not clinging.” I like the image of “not clinging” more than “unattached.” I imagine something happening and you try to grab hold of it and you get dragged for miles clinging desperately to the thing. Or you enjoy the thing, let it pass in its own time, and look on to the next thing.
Commentaries of GurusSri Shankaracharya examines whether verse 16 is saying that only people ignorant of the Self need to do karma yoga/work or if everyone should “conform to the established cycle of activities.” His interpretation of verse 17 is that if a person has truly become satisfied by the Self alone, that person does not have a duty.
Continuing into verse 18, he has “no purpose of his own to accomplish through any work done.” This person also does not incur karma (sanskara) from not doing work because he is plugged into the universal and no longer is or acts as an individual. This is, of course very rare!
So Verse 19 is basically saying that you have not attained that situation and should continue to do work, perform duty, but (as stated before) do so without attachment or desire for the fruits of that action. “By doing works for the sake of God, man attains supreme liberation, though the purification of the mind.” –Bhagavad Gita Bhaasya of Sri Shankaracharya
As my mom and I were discussing these verses she suggested that “duty” means acting for the greater good. Like, she said (speaking from personal experience), you’ve been asked to help at an environmental fair but you’d rather be studying Sanskrit! And yes, she performed her civic duty and did good work for the environmental fair even though she had to cancel a Sanskrit class that she looks forward to all week.
Shankaracharya’s commentary reminds me of Crime & Punishment, the Russian novel. In it, a man believes that he is the “Ubermensch” (extraordinary person) that the philosopher Nietzsche writes about and says is above the law. So this man takes it upon himself to kill someone who is unjust, thinking he is above earthly law. But the act haunts and destroys him. I think we have the danger of our ego trying to tell us that we are advanced to the state of not needing to do work or perform duty!