Bhagavad Gita Wisdom: Chapter Seventeen Commentary

Sanskrit verse from Bhagavad Gita

aśraddhayā hutaṁ dattaṁ tapas taptaṁ kṛtaṁ cay at

asad ity ucyate pārtha na ca tat pretya no iha

Whatever is done without faith—whether it is sacrifice, charity, austerity, or any other act—is useless.  It has no value here or hereafter, O Arjuna (17.28 Trans. Prasad).   

The seventeenth chapter continues the discussion of the three gunas from the previous chapter, exploring each in greater detail, but always with the understanding that all forms of worship must be done with faith if they are to be effective.  The explanation of the gunas must take into account that God alone is the doer, and that the human devotee and the human mind channel this greater power.  Without faith, the ritualistic actions amount to nonsense, for the mantras and the practices associated with them will not reach the intended valence of cosmic energy.  That said, we can identify tendencies associated with each of the gunas.  As with the last chapter, we should avoid using the Gita to criticize others and apply these descriptions only to increase our understanding of where we are on the journey to liberation and what still needs to be done in order to make progress.  This chapter can help us to see our predominant tendencies and make necessary adjustments to nudge our habits towards greater sattva (The charts below follow Prasad’s translation except where the Sanskrit terms have been retained).

gita 17 triguna

The sattvic person worships the devas, the guru, and the twice-born according to the instructions laid down in the scriptures, expecting nothing in return, while taking pure vegetarian food.  Sattvic food excludes meat, eggs, onions, and strong spices.  The food should be flavorful but not burning.  The rajasic person worships yakshas (earth spirits, spirits of wealth) and rakshasas (demonic beings) with the intent of gaining riches, fame, or some other reward.  The rajasic person takes luxurious foods and has a tendency to live beyond his or her means.  The rajasic person craves very strong flavors but may still keep to a vegetarian diet.  Moving down the ladder to the third rung, the tamasic person worships bhutas and pretas, the ghosts trapped between worlds as a result of past karma.  The tamasic person cares only about filling his or her belly, eating meat and even spoiled food.  The tamasic person does not care about flavor and eats mostly for quantity.  Note that a person can be of one guna with respect to eating and another guna with respect for worship.  We can imagine that someone may worship the gods but stick to meat eating.  Other combinations are also possible, but, over time, the prevailing guna will triumph.

gita 17 mode of austerity

When it comes to the attitude or motivation for worship, the sattvic person worships with faith, believing that the objective for meditation will be achieved without knowing the how or when.  The devotee should fix his or her belief on the objective for the puja or homa based on the dhyanam of the particular sadhana.  The devotee may desire to draw near to this or that deity, but he or she should not expect to receive siddhi or bhoga and certainly not on any timetable conceived in the mind of the devotee.  He or she may desire moksha, but with the understanding that this takes time according to the past karma of that individual.  A primary cause of falling away from the spiritual life is that the devotee expects too much, too soon. By renouncing expectation, the sadhana can unfold peacefully at the pace required for that individual.  The rajasic devotee likely seeks wealth or supernatural ability more than liberation but will be concerned with appearing to have a strongly spiritual nature.  It is pretty common for spiritual seekers to have an experience of bliss but to then fall away with the realization of the amount of work involved.  The rajasic person may make excursions into sattvic meditation but is unable to remain in that mode for very long.  The tamasic person performs austerity out of a low sense of self or low regard for others.  The objective is to punish the body rather than lose identification with it, and such an individual remains in the ego nature.  He or she easily becomes angered with others and may practice black magic and various kinds of adharmic behavior.

gita 17 thought word deed

The text then turns to the austerity of thought, word, and deed, and here the dividing line between sattva and rajas becomes more clear.  Anyone may put on a show of spirituality, but only the truly dedicated person can transcend feelings of resentment and anger.  The truly sattvic person does not see the flaws in others and looks upon all experiences, good or bad, as opportunities to practice detachment and kindness.  The truly sattvic person governs his or her speech, saying only those things that will be beneficial and will not be harsh in nature.  The sattvic person avoids half-truths and lies, telling the whole truth so long as it will not hurt anyone.  The sattvic person practices non-harming in all aspects of life and is actively engaged in the service of others.  Whoever practices this three-fold austerity will burn negative karmas very quickly, traveling the royal road to liberation.

gita 17 mode of charity

Giving to others can be a way of reaching liberation, but it can also create attachments if done in the wrong manner.  The sattvic person gives according to the five debts, as discussed in the previous chapter.  He or she does not give indiscriminately but searches into the recipient to see if that person has good intentions for the gift.  Giving to temples, priests, twice-born, and guru will be especially important, but not when the giving is done to increase stature in the community.  In that case, the gift becomes rajasic in nature and keeps the giver bound to the material world.  The rajasic person wants to be seen as a giving person and accordingly will not give without an audience.  The tamasic person does not have the wherewithal to give for strategic reasons and gives according to impulse, to similar individuals who reinforce destructive tendencies.  The tamasic person must learn to give strategically, while the rajasic person must learn to let go of rewards and focus on duty.

The seventeenth chapter becomes a kind of introspection by which the devotee comes to know which gunas dominate his or her disposition. A template for transformation begins to form in the devotee’s mind for which areas need the most work, and concrete steps for action begin to emerge.  Some people may need to give up eating meat, others may need to watch out for harsh speech, and still others may have trouble with detachment.  Individuals at all stages must press onward with great faith, believing that the gods and liberation are quite real, more real than the passing rewards of the senses.  Shri Krishna has provided here a road map for liberation, a clear series of stages by which the seeker can attain to the sattvic state.  But even the sattvic state is just a way station along the way, and it must be maintained diligently in order for liberation to happen.  The devotee seeks to become worthy of liberation, but it happens when it happens.