We are doing a scripture study together: reading along through some scriptures and discussing the passages.
From the Winthrop Sargeant translation of The Gita…
1. Arjuna spoke:
If it is Your conviction that knowledge
Is better than action, O Krishna,
Then why do You urge me to engage
in this terrible action?
2. With speech that seems equivocal,
You confuse my intelligence.
Tell me surely this one thing:
How should I attain the highest good?
3. The Blessed Lord spoke;
In this world there is a two-fold basis (of devotion)
Taught since ancient times by Me, O Arjuna:
That of knowledge– the yoga of the followers of Sankhya
And that of action–the yoga of the yogins.
4. Not by abstention from actions
Does a man attain the state beyond karma,
And not by renunciation alone
Does he approach perfection.
Notes on the Sanskrit
One of the epithet’s for Krishna here is “Mover of men, agitator of men” and I think that’s particularly appropriate, since that’s what he’s doing for Arjuna, shaking him from his despondency.
The intelligence being confused is Arjuna’s buddhi, which is often translated as discrimination, ability to discern.
Remember that the word yoga in this context means a system of practice or disciplines.
Commentaries of Gurus (all of these are Vaishnava perspectives)
Here in this verse Arjuna is thinking that he was blamed earlier in chapter two, verse 11 for lamenting for those who should not be grieved for. He was subsequently tutored in jnana yoga, the path of knowledge to alleviate this error. Now Lord Krishna is presenting a way to allieviate this error from the point of view of karma yoga, the path of actions without attachment. –Kesava Kasmiri’s CommentaryDue to the praising of both jnana yoga and karma yoga in a seemingly equal manner some conflict arises in Arjuna’s mind and he became confused…So Arjuna is beseeching Lord Krishna to clarify definitively which is the superior path of the two that gives blessedness and leads to final beatitude being moksa or liberation. –Sridhara Swami’s Commentary
Lord Krishna’s reply begins with O sinless one infering that Arjuna is fit to be instructed. But as you are doubting understand that the Lord did not prescribe two unrelated paths, karma yoga the yoga of actions and jnana yoga the yoga of knowledge. Lord Krishna states that in this world these are the two paths aspirants can take which lead to moksa or liberation. But they both depend upon qualification as jnana yoga is suitable for one type of human being and karma yoga is suitable for another type. What has been presented in the previous chapter was from the point of view of jnana yoga. –Kesava Kasmiri’s Commentary
It’s good that Krishna is going to go into more detail about everything he spoke about in the previous chapter. Like Arjuna, I am overwhelmed by all the information!
As Arjuna listened, what he heard was that Lord Krishna was saying that knowledge is better than action, yet here Arjuna is afraid of the action he must perform. So Krishna begins to clarify that both action and knowledge have their place.
I think here Krishna is saying that Arjuna has misunderstood and that knowledge is very important because knowledge informs how we act. We are going to act, but we need knowledge to help us act in the best way.
He is also clarifying that to act without attachment to the rewards of action is not the same as abstaining from action. Actions will be taken and one can act without counting on a reward.