Śaṅkara’s Presentation of the Gītā Paths


Yoga means a method, and in the Gītā several times the Lord teaches two methods: the method of Action (karma-yoga), and the method of Knowledge (jñāna-yoga). Note that Knowledge too is a method, which is often called Renunciation, because that is its chief characteristic.

In a few places, the Lord says that the Action path is better than, or easier than, the Knowledge path of renunciation. From these statements, it can be supposed that the paths are self-contained alternatives. It is tacitly assumed that the path of Action is for an extravert who feels alive only when acting. The path of Knowledge is then thought to be for an intellectual introvert who acts only reluctantly. In spite of his actual experience that he is the body, this withdrawn introvert is supposed to cherish a belief, or hope, that somehow he is not. The Gītā is then cited to the effect that either path, followed through to the end, will give liberation. That is supposed to be either a state of active and interested divinity (for the extravert, who somehow always keeps his characteristics even in transcendence) or a state of featureless abstraction (for the introvert).

But Śaṅkara holds the Upaniṣadic view that the path of Action comes first, to be followed by the path of Knowledge. The Gītā itself says (V.6) that Knowledge-renunciation can hardly be attained without having performed Action yoga. This modifies the previous statement that one alone might be enough. Śaṅkara has the first discussion of the Two Paths in II.21. He quotes the revered Vyāsa, reputed author of the Mahābhārata epic itself: ‘There are two paths…. Of these, the path of Action comes first, then the path of Knowledge.’

The analysis has already been looked at. It can be summed up:

The State of Ignorance

‘I do this to get that result for myself. I am happy or sad. I age and die.’

Yoga of Action (karma-yoga)

‘I do this, but whatever the result I remain calm, through meditation practice (III.7). I submit my feelings to God and meditate on him.’

Yoga of Knowledge-Renunciation (jñāna-yoga)

‘I do not act at all, though body and mind may continue to act. The freedom of the great Self casts off false memories of bondage.’

The clue to Śaṅkara’s arguments against opponents is that the opponent takes renunciation in the literal sense of living as a beggar-monk. The Gītā says that in itself this has no value. Śaṅkara shows that the Gītā teaches two inner renunciations: (a) renouncing the fruits of action, and later on, all self-interested actions; this is karma-yoga renunciation; (b) renouncing the whole feeling ‘I do’, out of realization of the great Self. The central feature of both paths is meditation, practised in stillness but finally interpenetrating the whole of life.

There is a parallel with mastering a foreign language. To be a master, one must be able to speak and hear, read and write, freely and with individual expression. He must be able to do this even when angry or depressed. He must also be able to understand and express (not necessarily agree with) the foreign thoughts and concepts for which his own language has no words.

He has to begin with grammatical structures, preferably under a teacher. To try to learn ‘naturally, from the people’ leads, for example, to pidgin English – comprehensible, but confined to elementary levels.

As he gets skill, he can translate internally foreign sentences he hears, and translate some of his own thoughts into correct foreign sentences. But that language is still something other, from which and into which he translates.

In yoga, this corresponds to karma-yoga – he translates his natural feelings and impulses into spiritual ones; he worships God, but as something other.

In the language study, the time comes when some of the foreign words occasionally appear spontaneously in response to a situation. Now is the time when he has to make a jump. He has to trust himself to think in that language, and allow the thought to express itself directly. It takes some courage to do this, and some experts fail to make the leap. Their use of the language then always remains awkward and often pedantic. But for those who make the leap (and usually it has to be made a number of times) the foreign language is now part of himself. There is no otherness about it. Still, it can take a little time before old habits of ‘inner translation’ drop away, and it is firmly established.

In the yoga, the time comes when the essence is purified, and shafts of light from the divine occasionally appear. Then the jump has to be made from worship of a divine other into being the divine Self. This too takes courage, and some draw back. But, as the Gītā says, finally the Lord manifests himself in the heart, and limitations fall away.

Even then it can take a little time before memories of individual agency are dropped off completely, and the discarding process is what is meant by Knowledge-yoga.

Śaṅkara presents the stages of the two paths again and again. Typical is the commentary on V.12:


the steady-minded one (yukta = set in samādhi-meditation).

‘I do actions for the Lord alone’ – giving up personal claim to the fruits

purity of mind (sattva-śuddhi)


attainment of Knowledge (‘I am That’)

abandoning action (physically, or by thought – V.13)

Knowledge-devotion (jñāna-niṣṭhā – casting off delusive memories)


Mokṣa – transcendental peace

Śaṅkara makes the point that the karma-yogin cannot practise the Knowledge path, because he still feels ‘I am acting’. While that is his living experience, his repetition of a Knowledge text like ‘I am the unchanging Self’ will have no conviction at all. However Dr Shastri told pupils practising devotion to the Lord as external, that the time would come in the meditation when the Lord would reveal a glimpse of himself within. At that time their practice would become Knowledge. Then on returning to the world, they could practise devotion again on the karma-yoga basis.

The Two Paths