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
20. Perfection was attained by kings like Janaka
With action alone.
For the mere maintenance of the world,
You should act.
21.Whatever the greatest man does,
Thus do the rest;
Whatever standard he sets,
The world follows that.
22. For Me, O Arjuna, there is nothing whatever
To be done in the three worlds,
Nor is there anything not attained to be attained.
Nevertheless I engage in action.
23. Indeed, if I, unwearied, should not engage
In action at all,
Mankind would follow
My path everywhere, O Arjuna.
24. If I did not perform action,
These worlds would perish
And I would be the cause of confusion;
I would destroy these creatures.
Notes on the Sanskrit
Janaka is a famous king, a warrior who decided he could find enlightenment himself without guidance of the brahmins (also, Sita’s father).
Commentaries of Gurus
This section seems to be pretty straightforward. The commentary is not adding very much to the basic translation. There is this part, though:
“Now you may think that even these ancient Kshatriyas, Janaka and so forth, discharged their duties because they were ignorant of Self, and, therefore, that another, a perfect man with the right perception, need not follow suit. Still, being subject to operative past works, you ought to work in order to promote the world’s welfare i.e., to safeguard people from falling into wrong paths of conduct.”
Another interesting place is on verse 24. “Seeking to confer a blessing on them, I might work their ruin. It will ill accord with My character as God.” God seems to be saying that doing the work for us would harm us more than help us. While we might want God to do all the action for us, that would actually be a detriment to our souls.
I believe this is what is being said: basically, some people can attain enlightenment from work alone but they had to have the “right perception” about that work. It’s better to do that, and continue to engage and work even if you haven’t got the mindset quite right then to renounce all action. Even if you are renouncing all actions in a proper way, others will see you not connecting with the world and they will also stop connecting. For this reason even Sri Krishna, God Himself, continues to act and work and engage in the world. If He didn’t, others would follow suit and that would destroy those who don’t know how to renounce properly.
I like these verses a lot. This is a perspective on action v.s. non-action that I haven’t heard much. It explains why we should keep on caring about the world, even if it is maya. And it encourages us to care about and help others. I think that is so important. The welfare of all is a part of our duty in the world.