niyatasya tu saṁnyāsaḥ karmaṇo no’papdyate
mohāt tasya parityāgas tāmasaḥ parikīrtitaḥ
Giving up one’s duty is not proper. The abandonment of obligatory work is due to delusion and is declared to be in the mode of ignorance (18.07 Trans. Prasad).
Chapter eighteen is a reflection on the proper role of work in life. It is not uncommon for beginning spiritual aspirants to abandon regular work in the thought that more time devoted to devotional activity will produce quick results. Such individuals do, indeed, quickly attain lofty spiritual states. They may have visions of divinity and experience various occult powers. Unfortunately, these quick realizations will not last, since the earnest seeker has not yet incorporated spirituality into the whole of life. His or her work and relationships will suffer from a lack of attention, and crises will begin to develop, which will eventually result in abandonment of devotion. The seeker who abandons work will end up more or less like a drug addict, looking for a “quick fix” of God-realization but not thinking about the consequences.
In order to reach stabilization in the spiritual life, in order to practice long-term, one must attend to all of the responsibilities of life while also undertaking spiritual practices. The chapter discusses two paths, that of the sannyasin and the tyagi. The sannyasin takes formal religious vows and devotes his or her whole life to spiritual practices. This would seem to be the obvious way to eliminate the conflict between worldly and spiritual existence. We should note, however, that even sannyasins must work, whether that work is begging for food, running a religious institution, teaching lay devotees, or simply practicing austerities. By no means does the sannyasin escape the life of action. Great perils also come with this life, as the sannyasin must avoid the temptations to pride that come along with wearing the cloth. The same law that applies to the lay devotee also applies to the sannyasin, in that he or she must work without regard for the fruit in order to obtain liberation.
The second path mentioned in chapter eighteen is that of the tyagi. The tyagi continues to work in the world but performs all action as worship, renouncing the fruit of action. The tyagi is a sort of “secret sannyasin” and renounces the world in his or her heart. The tyagi has abandoned likes and dislikes and performs all work out of a sense of duty alone. The tyagi also faces great spiritual danger, chiefly the danger of living among worldly people and the possible temptation to abandon the disciplined life. The inner renunciation provides protection to the devotee living in the world, as the tyagi no longer cares about the status symbols and accolades that entrap so many people. The tyagi stands outside the law of karma, since, by the action of worship he or she cancels out the past sinful actions. The path of the tyagi is very efficient and guides the sincere devotee down the path of liberation. The tyagi works, all the while saying “Hari, Hari” in his or her heart.
The Gita recommends that we avoid both overwork (stemming from a rajasic constitution) and underwork (stemming from a tamasic constitution). The sannyasin and the tyagi alike must work with great energy and enthusiasm, cheerfully and without regard for the result, offering up every action as worship. In this way, confused and wavering consciousness can be replaced with a single-mindedness that conquers all anxiety. This chapter in the Gita reveals a course of action that allows for continued engagement in the world while simultaneously seeking God, welcome advice for the spiritual seeker facing many responsibilities.
Secular society often views religion as a crutch for broken, neurotic people, a coping mechanism for those who simply can’t hack it in the competitive world. Indian philosophy, beginning with the Vedas and continuing through the Upanishads and epic poems, regards religious practice as the crowning touch on an already good life. Spiritual practice is not a prop for a broken life: it is rather the rays of glory streaming through a fully functioning life. The renunciate does not practice because she cannot do anything else well: the renunciate fully engages with the world and has become hyper-responsible, to God and gods, to guru and lineage, to family and work. Such a person comes alive as a result of renunciation. Such a person becomes unstoppable through no longer caring about rewards and recompense, or, conversely, about punishments and condemnation. Such a person rises above the crowd and becomes a refuge for others, transcending even time and death.
This applies to both sannyāsins and tyāgīs. The householder disciple, Mahendranath Gupta, known simply as ‘M,’ recorded the masterwork, Ramakrishna Kathamrita (The Gospel of Ramakrishna), the great work of Bengali devotional literature. Ramakrishna himself remained married, even though he took on many of the aspects associated with monastic life. Without ‘M,’ we would not know the teachings of Ramakrishna, and without Ramakrishna, ‘M’ would not have been inspired to write. Many great saints, like Sant Tukaram of Maharashtra, the great bhakti poet, were married and did not take monastic vows. This is to say that the sannyāsin path and the tyāgi or grihastha path converge at a point beyond ordinary experience, and both have their part to play in living the dharma. Although sannyāsins are generally called renunciates, these are really two different types of renunciation, centering around the core idea of detachment from the fruits of action. Chapter eighteen returns to this central theme of the Bhagavad Gita, as one more reminder to act according to duty without regard for the fruit.