Ramanuja’s Interpretation of the Bhagavad-gita

by Abani Sonowal | 2020 | 71,683 words

This page relates ‘Abstract (of the six chapters)’ of the study on Ramanuja’s interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita (a narrative between Krishna and Arjuna). While Ramanuja expounds Vishishtadvaita philosophy, this study examines his interpretation compared to the text of Bhagavadgita.

Abstract (of the six chapters)

Bhagavad-gītā presents its doctrine in the form of a dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. It is one of the most popular texts in India. Globally, it is the most widely read Indian philosophical text. It contains the essence of a major strand of India’s practical philosophy, which comprises of 700 verses in vulgate recension and is divided into eighteen chapters. Each chapter (hereafter Chapter ) is given a title as ‘Yoga of____. Yoga means ‘path’. It also means union with the Supreme. Therefore, the word ‘Yoga’ denotes both the method and the goal.[1]

Though the Bhagavad-gītā is being read widely and has secured an eminent place in world literature, the number of commentaries on it by major Indian philosophers and theologians shows that it presents interpretational challenges. Bhagavad-gītā, as a ‘classic’ not only in a historical sense but also in a normative sense, affords perennial interpretations. Many verses are extremely difficult to grasp. Chapter X.22 can be taken as an example here.

In it, the author of the Bhagavadgītā makes Kṛṣṇa say in first person:

vedānāṃ sāmovedo’smi–devānāṃ asmi vāsavaḥ/
indriyāṇāṃ manaś cā’smi–bhūtānāṃ asmi cetanā//

Of the Vedas I am the Sāma Veda; of the divinities I am Indra; in respect of the senses I am the Mind and of life-expressions I am pure Intelligence.[2] It appears that most of the commentators merely restrict themselves in giving only a literal reading in within the horizon of their own languages. This is a bind that all interpretations carry, and for that very reason the Bhagavad-gītā is more than any particular interpretation.

Arjuna along with his four brothers are expected to fight in the war against his cousins (Kauravas), other relatives, and teachers. When the war is about to begin he foresees the death of his friends, relatives and teacher and therefore refuses to fight. Here, Kṛṣṇa steps in to encourage him to fight, and the ensuing dialogue between the two is the Bhagavad-gītā. In this dialogue, Kṛṣṇa teaches Arjuna to do his duty as a warrior in the battlefield without considering its consequences.

The Bhagavad-gītā is essentially a text in which the meanings to be understood are internally connected. Many readers understand Bhagavad-gītā to be repetitive and contradictory. Chapter III.30 is repeated in Chapter XII.6 and Chapter XVIII.57, and, Chapter III.35 is repeated in Chapter XVIII.47. Moreover, Chapter IX.34 is repeated in Chapter XVIII.65. Repetitions are to be assumed as having significance. Regarding internal contradictions, as an example, verses 45 (II) and 15 (XV) present themselves as contradicting Chapter IV.14. Such contradictions form a ground and challenge for initiating re-readings. Interpretations which have not successfully dealt with these issues are to be considered inadequate. This in turn initiates a re-reading of the commentaries and interpretations with a return to the original text.

Chapter I: Introduction:

This chapter discusses the objective of the study, review of literature and statement of the problem. Moreover, in this chapter a brief discussion is made about Rāmānuja and his Gītā Bhāṣya. Rāmānuja is undeniably a great scholar, philosopher, and exponent of Viśīstādvaita philosophy. Being a successor of Yamunāchārya, Rāmānuja has written several works. Most important of them are Vedārthasaṃgraha, Vedāntasāra, Śrī Bhāṣya and Gītā Bhāṣya. Many scholars are of the view that Rāmānuja borrowed ideas for his interpretation of Bhagavad-gītā from his preceptor Yamunāchārya’s Gītārthasaṃgraha. The objective of this work is not to find out whether Rāmānuja has borrowed ideas from Gītārthasaṃgraha for interpretation of Bhagavad-gītā but is about faithfulness of his interpretation to text of the Bhagavad-gītā.

There are more than hundred commentaries on Bhagavad-gītā. Rāmānuja’s Gītā Bhāṣya is one of the notable commentaries. But it is unfortunate that such a great philosopher’s work is relatively unknown compared to Śaṃkara’s commentary. Śaṃkara’s point of view has been the predominant view on the Bhagavatgītā. This compounds the very difficult task in studying Rāmānuja’s Gītā Bhāṣya. Rāmānuja’s Gītā Bhāṣya is not taken in general as a reliable interpretation of the Bhagavad-gītā. Rāmānuja interpretes Bhagavad-gītā from a Viśīṣtādvaitic point of view and finds a distinctive meaning of the Bhagavadgītā in his Gītā Bhāṣya. But at the same time it is to be noted that Rāmānuja in interpreting the text of the Bhagavad-gītā deviates from the accepted/canonical meaning of words in some of the important verses of the chapters.

Very little work has been done which evaluate Rāmānuja’s interpretation of Bhagavad-gītā. But no attempt has yet been made to critically evaluate Rāmānuja’s interpretation of Bhagavad-gītā in the context of total text. The purpose of the research study is to make an attempt to critically evaluate Rāmānuja’s interpretation of the Bhagavad-gītā by comparing it with the text of the Bhagavad-gītā. It is an attempt to study and evaluate to find how far it is a tenable interpretation of the verses of the Bhagavad-gītā.

Many scholars have interpreted Bhagavad-gītā as essentially a document emphasising on karma yoga, jñāna yoga, even the path of devotion. But Bhagavad-gītā is much more than this. It is a superb integration of several yogas. It is hardly possible to practice any one yoga in isolation. It is this synthesis that is unique in Bhagavad-gītā. Unfortunately; this point has been overlooked by many commentators including Rāmānuja who are content with literal interpretation, preferring to rely on word for word translation.[3]

Chapter II: Metaphysics:

Kṛṣṇa’s teaching of the metaphysics of the immortality of the soul appears in the Chapter II of the Bhagavad-gītā.[4] When Arjuna was perplexed and lost his natural courage due to love, and misery and death in store, Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Being introduces the teaching of the nature of the self and the body. While Rāmānuja’s interpretation is concerned, his interpretation of Chapter II from the verses 4-29 commits some error, in its deviation from the harmonious whole of the text.

Soul in the Bhagavad-gītā is one which is collective. Chapter II.30[5] of Bhagavad-gītā clearly mentions this idea. Chapter II.21-22 also indicates the idea of collective self. But in Rāmānuja’s interpretations of metaphysical principles, it is seen that he believes in multiplicity of selves. Commenting on Ch II.12 he takes the soul to be many. Rāmānuja uses the words like ‘you’, ‘I’, ‘these’, ‘all’ and ‘we’ etc. to mean the multiplicity of the selves in his Gītā Bhāṣya. Besides, commenting on Chapter II.53[6] he also maintains the different selves of different species which indicates the multiplicity of the selves. By this, Rāmānuja tries to say that the self in human beings is different from the self in animal or others. This is odd with the text because Bhagavad-gītā does not advocate different selves of the different species. Since self is one, whether it is in animal or human beings it is one self i.e. collective self. Therefore, the self is one and it is a collective self. But Rāmānuja could not maintain this understanding in his interpretation of the Bhagavad-gītā.

Since Rāmānuja accepts the multiplicity of selves, he in Chapter II.13 has given a different meaning giving the analogy of body and soul. In the verse it is said dehino’ smin yathā dehe kaumāraṃ yauvanaṃ jarā/ tathā dehāntara–prāpir dhīras tatra na muhyati/ / The literal meaning of the verse is that just as there is childhood, infancy, youth and old age that the body transitions through so the soul passes from one body to the other. Rāmānuja giving the analogy of the body and the self or soul interprets that ‘the soul experiences the stages like childhood, youth, old age etc. The soul gives up one stage and moves to another stage like childhood, youth, old age etc. and at death also it moves into another body. It happens so because the soul is subject to beginningless karma endowed with the body.’ But this is a problem in Rāmānuja. Rāmānuja is going beyond the original idea of the text. He is trying to impose some of his own ideas in his Gītā Bhāṣya without interpreting it according to the meanings of the Bhagavad-gītā.

In the Bhagavad-gītā, the first verse of Chapter XV is very important for it conveys a key metaphysics of the Bhagavad-gītā. In this Pipalā tree or Baniyān is known as Aśvattha. This Aśvattha tree in the Bhagavad-gītā is said to be indestructible. In Chapter XV.1 Kṛṣṇa says Arjuna: urdhhamulaṃ ardhaḥśākhaṃśvatthaṃ prāhurvyayam/ chhandānsi yasya parṇāni yaḥ tvaṃ veda saḥ vedavit/ / While interpreting the verse Rāmānuja says, the Aśvattha tree is called saṃsāra tree, i.e. comparing with the saṃsāra. For him, urdhamulaṃ means ‘upward root’ which is the four faced brahmā, and ardhaśākhaṃ means ‘downward root’ which means all dwelling in the earth such as men, domestic animal, wild beasts, worms’ insects and immovable things. But going through the meanings of the verse Aśvattha tree is not saṃsāra tree as Rāmānuja has commented. It is the karmavṛkṣa, which is compared with Aśvattha, but is not saṃsāravṛkṣa. It is karmavṛkṣa because its root is upward, and its root is upward because Supreme Brahman is there and action is emerged from Him only. The meaning is that, all actions are emerged from upward roots i.e. urdhamulaṃ (Brahman). This has been supported by Chapter III.15[7] of Bhagavad-gītā. In the verse, it is said ‘all actions emerged from Brahman.’ Therefore, it is not saṃsāravṛkṣa, rather it is karmavṛkṣa.

Another problem of Rāmānuja is, since he is taking Aśvattha as the saṃsāravṛkṣa, he says Aśvattha is indestructible and eternal but Vedas speak of the means of cutting off this tree of saṃsāra. But herein lies a challenge for interpretation. If the Aśvattha tree is eternal and indestructible or if it is saṃsāra, then how would it be possible to cut off? It is felt that Rāmānuja has not taken care of this, since in one place, he says the tree is eternal and indestructible and at another place, he says it has to be cut off. What is to be cut off is taught to Arjuna in Chapter XV.3-4. Commenting on Chapter XV.3-4[8] of Bhagavadgītā Rāmānuja has committed another problem. Rāmānuja has divided Chapter XV.3 into two sections. The first half of this is read independently while the second half is read in conjunction with the first half of the 4th verse. And the second half of the 4th is read independently. While reading so, Rāmānuja interpreting the verses, has also committed mistake some hermeneutic transgression in the second half of the 3rd verse. In the verse, Rāmānuja is unable to conflate between suvirūḍmulam[9] and Aśvattha.

For him, suvirūḍmulam and Aśvattha are one and the same, and has to be cut off. Rāmānuja in commenting on it writes,

“The Aśvattha tree which has well grown roots of various kinds should be cut off by means of non-attachment.”

Since, suvirūḍmulam and Aśvattha are two different objects and in the verse it has been mentioned about chhitvā, which means ‘to cut off’, so the meaning of the verse is that the ‘suvirūḍmulam’ of the Aśvattha tree, which has grown in various forms has to be cut off by the strong weapon of nonattachment. But the Aśvattha tree is not possible to be cut off. In Saṃskṛt language, the object, which is near to the verb, is the real object related to the verb. And another object is the gratifying object and not the real object related to the verb. So, in this verse between the two objects ‘Aśvattha’ and ‘suviūḍmulam’, the word ‘suviūḍmulam’ is object near to the verb ‘chhitvā.’ Therefore, according to the grammatical principle, the object ‘suviūḍmulam’ which is near to the verb chhitvā, has to be cut off, but not the qualifying object ‘Aśvattha.’ Aśvattha is not the object to be cut off, rather it is the ‘suvirūḍmulam’ which is well grown roots of Aśvattha, which is downward, but is not upwards.

It has been found that Rāmānuja has interpreted Bhagavad-gītā from Viśiṣtādvaitic philosophy and applies this system in his Gītā Bhāṣya. Though the Bhagavad-gītā accepts that the body of God is constituted of soul and the world i.e. the matter, but the Bhagavad-gītā does not advocate this triadic method as the only metaphysics of Bhagavad-gītā. It is more than this method.

Chapter III: Karma Yoga:

An attempt is made in this chapter to discuss details of karma yoga of Bhagavad-gītā and examine Rāmānuja’s understanding of different kinds of kartā and karma. Besides, it is also critically examined how Rāmānuja interprets the idea of yoga, viyoga and saṃyoga in the Bhagavad-gītā. This chapter also includes examination of Rāmānuja’s understanding of svadharma in his Gītā Bhāṣya.

In the Bhagavad-gītā, karma simply means action of yajña. Karma yoga is a way by which one acts in accordance with what is to be done without consideration of desire, likes or dislikes. A karma yogi performs works without craving for fruits. One can also reach highest Reality or salvation by performing desireless action.[10] In the Bhagavad-gītā Kṛṣṇa teaches Arjuna how action originates. In Chapter III.15 it is taught that karma or action originates from Brahman (karmabrahmud bhavaṃ viddhi). In studying the Gītā Bhāṣya of Rāmānuja we find that, commenting on the Chapter XIII.12, he says that karma originates because of ignorance.[11]

He writes,

“The association of the self with the two states of the effect and cause, however is brought about its being wrapped around by the ignorance consisting of karma; it is not brought about by its essential nature.”[12]

By this statement Rāmānuja wants to say that karma is brought about by ignorance. But a question can be raised: how can action or karma be originate from ignorance or how can ignorance be the cause of the action since Kṛṣṇa Himself in Chapter III.15 says “karmabrahmud bhavaṃ viddhi” which means action originates from Brahman. In this verse Rāmānuja also commits another problem in accepting the concept of karmavāda. While Bhagavad-gītā says “to be free from bondage of action or karma” Rāmānuja has in mind about the theory of karmavāda. Karmavāda or the theory of the law of karma simply means believing in the past and future life based on the result or fruits of karmas. According to this theory, the present life of a person is the consequence of the previous life’s deeds, and the future life of a person is based on the consequence of the present deeds. Therefore, the theory advocates the cycle of death and birth of a person on the consequence of the action. But this is wrong. Freedom from birth and death means freedom from the action only and what is free from action is not bound by the action. That means one is free from the attachments to the fruits, and one does not perform action with ahaṃkāra when he is free from bondage of action. But at the same time one has to continue to perform action because action always takes place.

Karma in the Bhagavad-gītā is yajña karma. It is a Collective Action. It is not personal or individual action. But Rāmānuja is unable to accept this idea of collective action in Gītā Bhāṣya. The idea of collective action is to be understood from the Chapter III.9 of Bhagavadgītā. The verse says: yajñārthāt karmaṇānyatra lokoyaṃ karmabandhanaḥ/ tad-arthaṃ karma kaunteya mukta-saṃgaḥ samācara/ /The meaning of the verse is that perform action for the sake of the yajña which does not lead to the karmavandhana. But any other action, other than yajña karma, is an action of karmavandhana or leads to karmavandhana. Therefore, perform action for the sake of yajña and move free from the attachment or bondage of action. If one performs action for the sake of yajña, then karma will not bind him. But, when one performs action for own sake or for the enjoyment only then it will lead to the karmavandhana. One needs to perform action i.e. yajña karma, being free from all the desires, which never binds.

But, such a concept is very difficult to unfold for Rāmānuja in his interpretation. This is for the reason that Rāmānuja is interpreting the verse from the point of view of karmavāda i.e. the theory of law of karma. For, Rāmānuja in this verse, saṃsāra is understood as the world of bondage i.e. saṃsāravandhana. The idea of saṃsāra in his interpretation is that the same individual soul takes birth again and again, in a cycle of death and rebirth. But, this idea is actually alien in this verse. Here what the verse says is clear and straight forward i.e. perform action for the sake of yajña karma. If one performs action keeping in the mind the result of action for own sake and not performing action for sake of yajña, it will lead to the karmavandhana. Here it is not talking about the karmavandhana of the past life etc. The reason is that when one performs action as yajña -karma then karma will not bind the agent.

Yajña[13] karma means the Collective Action. Brahman is yajña or Yajña Purūṣa which is Collective Person. But the question arises: how Brahman is a Collective Person? The answer is in Chapter VI.29 and Chapter V.7 of the Bhagavad-gītā. The Chapter VI.29 says ‘sarvabhūtasṭhamātmanaṃ sarvabhūtāni cātmanī’ meaning the Self is in all the bhūtas and also all the bhūtas are in the Self/Him. On the other hand, Chapter V.7 says ‘sarvabhūtātmabhūtātmā’ meaning the Self which is the self of all the selves/beings is Supreme Self. He is the Collective Person/Self since He is in all the bhūtas. Therefore, the Supreme Self i.e. Brahman is Collective Self/Person since He is in everything and everything is in Him. Besides, in Chapter IX.29 Kṛṣṇa says: ‘samoham sarvabhūtesu’ which means ‘I exist equally in all the bhūtas or beings.’ Again in Chapter X.20 we find that ‘ahamātma sarvabhūtaśayasṭhita’ which means ‘I am the Self who is existent in all the selves or beings i.e. bhūtas.’ Moreover in Chapter VII.7 Kṛṣṇa says “mayi sarvam idam protam sutre monigaṇāḥ eva” which means I [Kṛṣṇa/ Brahman] am strung in a single string in all the bhūtas just as the jewels are strung in a single string. Therefore, from the above discussion it can be assumed that the Self i.e. Supreme Self is Collective Self/Person and He is the Brahman. In Gītā Bhāṣya such a teaching of the Bhagavad-gītā. Nowhere in his Gītā Bhāṣya is mentioned Brahman as Collective Person or Yajña Purūṣa and action performed for His sake as Collective action or yajña karma.

Bhagavad-gītā speaks of three guṇas of prakṛti such a Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. In the Bhagavad-gītā, it is taught that every action is performed by the guṇas or the prakṛti. One should remember that, the self which is different from the body i.e. prakṛti, does not perform action at all. It is the body which is made up of prakṛti that performs action. This idea can be understood from Chapter III.27. The verse says: prakṛte kriyamāṇāṇi guṇeḥ karmāṇi sarvaśaḥ/ ahaṃkaraḥ vimurātmā kartāhāṃiti mānyte// While Rāmānuja’s interpretation is concerned, it is unable to grasp what the verse actually is about. He has just given a literal meaning while commenting on the verse. In this verse there is a hidden truth indicated by the author of the Bhagavad-gītā which his interpretation misses. In the verse the word ‘Kartāhāmiti’ meaning ‘I am the doer’ refers to Brahman or the Samaṣtipurūṣa. He is the doer and at the same time He is non-doer or akartā. This is because He performs action by the means of prakṛti or guṇas. Prakṛti or guṇas are means or instruments only. The person who knows that actions emerge from Brahman and are done by Brahman through the means of prakṛti, i.e. guṇas as the instrument, is not attached to the action and does not have the feeling that ‘I am the doer.’ He who thinks kartāhāmiti as ‘I am the doer’ is ignorant. Because, he cannot discriminate the self from the body. He thinks that the body is the self and self is the doer of action, therefore, he thinks ‘I am the doer.’ But he cannot think that all actions are being performed by the Supreme Person by the means of prakṛti since he is deluded and ignorant.

The idea of kartā/ akartā in the Bhagavad-gītā has an important place. In the Bhagavad-gītā the Self is both kartā and akartā. In Chapter IV.13 Kṛṣṇa clarifies this idea to Arjuna. But many commentators including Rāmānuja are unable to harmonize the meaning of the verse and say that Brahman as both kartā and akartā is contradictory.

The verse says:

cāturvarṇyaṃ mayā sṛtaṃ guṇa karma vibhāgasa/
tasya kartārampi māṃ viddhi akartāraṃ avyayaṃ

According to the verse:

“I [Kṛṣṇa] have created four varṇas[14] according to the division of the guṇa and karma. Of that being the agent or doer i.e. kartā, know Me [Kṛṣṇa] to be imperishable and non–agent or non–doer.”

Here, in this verse, for the critics, Kṛṣṇa is both kartā and akartā, which is contradictory. In this context, Chapter III.20-21 are also of significance in the Bhagavad-gītā where Kṛṣṇa, to teach and persuade, Arjuna has given the name of king Janaka as an example of result of performance of action. In Chapter III.20 Kṛṣṇa says:‘karmaṇyeva ḥi saṃsiddhim āsthitā janakādayḥ’ which means that even king Janaka by performing action had attained perfection. In the verse, it is not said that action has to be performed for the achievement of the self only. But, even a realised person has to perform action that action has to be done. For example, great persons like Janaka and Kṛṣṇa as human being. Have not Janaka and Kṛṣṇa realised self? Kṛṣṇa is the self in Himself, He has realised self, yet he is performing action. Therefore, it is not such that actions are to be performed only for the attainment of the self.

If we study Rāmānuja’s interpretation then, we see that Rāmānuja is commenting on Chapter III.20 with his prior understanding, i.e., karma yoga is superior to jñāna yoga. For him, for the ajñānī who has not obtained knowledge, karma yoga is necessary, because he wants to achieve jñāna and who has achieved jñāna, for him karma yoga is necessary. Since, for Rāmānuja it is superior to jñāna yoga. But what the verse says is, the foremost sage Janaka had performed action not because he had to achieve jñāna, but he had to perform action because of the lokasaṃgraha. Janaka had already realised the self. But why he continued to perform action? He should stop performing action after realisation if Rāmānuja is right in his interpretation. But Janaka continued to perform. The idea is that it is for lokasaṃgraha i.e. unity of the loka or people. Keeping in mind this lokasaṃgraha one has to perform action even if one has realised the self.

Besides, Rāmānuja has interpreted this lokasaṃgraha as ‘the guidance and protection of the world,’ but it should be ‘guidance and protection of the unity of the loka.’ Chapter III.20 has immediate reference in Chapter III.21.[15] Here, in this verse pramāṇaṃ means ratio of action or principles of action. People follow the principles of actions when a great man applies such principles in performance of action. But they do not exactly follow the action as stated by Rāmānuja in this verse. He writes ‘whatever a distinguished man does that alone other men also do. To whatever extent he does the world follows.’ It means, Rāmānuja is saying that whatever a great man performs action ordinary people follow that action only. But this is not the meaning taught in this verse.

One of the highly debatable teachings of Bhagavad-gītā is the teaching of svadharma. Svadharma in the Bhagavad-gītā is mostly discussed with reference to Chapter II.31-33[16] , Chapter III.35[17] and Chapter XVIII.47[18] . Scholars generally understand svadharma from the point of view of varṇa or caste. Even Rāmānuja is not free from such an understanding. Rāmānuja in his Gītā Bhāṣya has not given any clear interpretation on svadharma in the Bhagavad-gītā. His idea of dharma is different from the idea of dharma in the Bhagavad-gītā. For him, the dharma in the Bhagavad-gītā is varṇa dharma or dharma of the four castes. In commenting Chapter IV.7 he writes, ‘for whenever there is decline of dharma, of that which is ought to be done, as determined by the arrangement of the four castes and stages in life.’ On the other hand, commenting on Chapter II.31 he takes this verse from the point of view of dharma of the caste or varṇa which is understood by readers to be svadharma. But in Chapter II.31 Krṣṇa says ‘svadharmampi cāvekshya na vikampitum arhasi–dharmādhi yudhāt śreyaḥ anyata kṣhatriyasya na vidyate.’ Here the literal meaning of the verse is that do not be scared, and you are not fit to be scared of seeing your own dharma i.e. kṣhatriya dharma, because for the kṣhatriyas, there is nothing higher than the dharma of yuddha.

It has been observed that Rāmānuja in his Gītā Bhāṣya is unable to give a clear conception of akarma, vikarma, yoga, viyoga and saṃyoga regarding karma or action. He fails to give a natural interpretation of the idea of the Bhagavad-gītā. Even in his Gītā Bhāṣya, we do not find the idea of action as collective action which means yajña karma. Yajña karma means the action of the Brahman. Every action in the Bhagavadgīta has to be performed as yajña karma.

Chapter IV: Jñāna Yoga:

In chapter IV an attempt is made to articulate jñāna yoga of Rāmānuja’s Gītā Bhāṣya. Rāmānuja in his Gītā Bhāṣya makes a distinction of knowledge and action and says that jñāna and karma are independent of each other. But that is a misunderstanding since jñāna and karma cannot be separated and they are not independent of each other. This point has been critically examined in Chapter IV of the thesis.

Jñāna yoga generally means path of knowledge, the knowledge of the true nature of the self, and it also means the knowledge of the performance of the action. The central theme of the jñāna yoga is the realization of the true nature of the self and to know how to perform action prescribed in the Bhagavad-gītā. In the Bhagavadgītā, Arjuna was confused as a common man whether karma yoga or jñāna yoga leads to the realization. Therefore, Arjuna asks Kṛṣṇa to specify the one means of attainment of the self. Kṛṣṇa replies that karma yoga and jñāna yoga are not separated from each other, but are interrelated. One cannot be fulfilled without the other. Actions cannot be separated from jñāna, for they go together. They are one and the same i.e. they are the two aspects of the same thing. But in Rāmānuja’s Gītā Bhāṣya, we do not find combination of knowledge and action i.e. jñāna- karma- sammuchāya. [19] There is no combination of jñāna and karma in his Gītā Bhāṣya. Rāmānuja in Chapter XVIII.47[20] makes a distinction of karma and jñāna.

In the verse, he comments that:

“The discipline known as karma yoga though defective in performance is better (for one) than the discipline which is suitable to another, that is, jñāna yoga.”

What it means is both jñāna and karma are separated and exclusive to each other. On the other hand, commenting on Chapter V.2[21] Rāmānuja is making a distinction of knowledge and action, and writes that both karma and jñāna yoga are independent of each other and both bring highest good independently.

He comments that,

“Even to one who has the capacity for jñāna yoga (both) renunciation i.e. jñāna yoga and karma yoga are independent (of each other) and bring about the highest good.”

In the verse, Rāmānuja also comments that, karma yoga excels over the jñāna yoga i.e. renunciation of action, and karma yoga is better than jñāna yoga. Again, for him, renunciation of action means jñāna yoga, that is, giving up of action or cessation of activities means jñāna yoga, which he comments in Chapter V.1 and 3[22] also.

Besides, in Chapter III.19[23] he also comments that:

“Only till the attainment of the self action has to be performed.”

This for Rāmānuja is that for the jñānī who has attained jñāna, there is no need of performance of action. Here, Rāmānuja himself makes contradiction, because at one place in Chapter V.1-2 he says that, jñāna means renunciation of action or giving up of action and in Chapter III.19 says that, jñāna requires performance of action. But renunciation of action does not necessarily mean jñāna yoga. Since, jñāna requires performance of action. Rāmānuja seems to be unclear about the concept.

Moreover, in Chapter V.3[24] Rāmānuja makes the distinction of karma yoga and karma sannyāsaṃ or renunciation of action. But, karma yoga and karma sannyāsaṃ or renunciations of action are both one and the same where knowledge of the self is involved. These are not two different things. A yogi or karma sannyāsin has to be free from kāngsati i.e. desire (V.3) He should not be attracted and aversed to the result of action and should not make any difference i.e. ‘dvando’ of good-bad, happiness-unhappiness arising from the result. If he is of this nature he is a yogi and a karma sannyāsin. The person who knows or understands, and who never hates or loves and who has no attraction or revulsion, he is everyday a renouncer; and he, knows that there is no ‘dvando’ or difference or division of good and bad of any result of action, he becomes free from both sukha and duḥkha or bondage easily. Therefore, in Chapter V.3 there is no mention of karma yoga by the author of the Bhagavad-gītā. It focuses only on karma sannyāsaṃ or karma sannyāsin who is nityasannyāsin. The moment when the author uses sannyāsin, it is all about sannyāsa or karma sannyāsa.

Since it has been said above that jñāna requires the performance of an action and nobody even a jñānī, can remain without performing action. The person who is jñānī and continues to engage in activities he sees action in inaction and inaction in action. In Chapter IV.18 of Bhagavad-gītā, Kṛṣṇa talks of this idea. He says: karmaṇyakarmayaḥ paśyedakarmaṇi ca karma yaḥ/ saḥ buddhimāna manuṣyeṣu saḥ yuktaḥkṛtsnakarmakṛt/ /This is two-folded concept. Only a jñānī or a yogi understands this concept. What is said in this verse is that there is akarma in karma i.e. inaction in action and karma or action in akarma or inaction and only a jñānī knows this distinction. Rāmānuja in his interpretation in Chapter IV.18 has not gone to the deeper meaning of the verse and its significance in one’s practical life. Here in this verse, he interprets that inaction for him is knowledge of the self which is different from the Self. But inaction does not only mean knowledge of the self but maybe also the knowledge of the performance of the action in inaction. From the very beginning, Rāmānuja has identified knowledge with inaction. This is a problem for Rāmānuja.

It is observed that Rāmānuja is unable to make a combination of jñāna and karma. In his Gītā Bhāṣya we do not find jñāna-karma-samucchāya. But jñāna and karma or even bhakti, they are not independent of each other rather interdependent.

Chapter V: Bhakti Yoga:

After studying Rāmānuja’s interpretation of bhakti in his Gītā Bhāṣya, it has been observed that his concept of bhakti is not ṚgVedic bhakti, but is the Bhāgavatapurāna’s bhakti. But Bhagavad-gītā’s bhakti is not Bhāgavatapurāna’s bhakti; it is the ṚgVedic bhakti which the author Vyāsa has used. This understanding of Rāmānuja has been critically examined. Besides, Rāmānuja also introduces the concept of prāpatti as the means of attaining the Supreme which for him is the ultimate means of salvation. Since, the Bhagavad-gītā does not formulate any such kind of ultimate means of attaining the Supreme, it has been critically examined how far Rāmānuja is faithful to the text of the Bhagavad-gītā.

The fundamental teaching of Rāmānuja’s Gītā Bhāṣya is the attainment of God through bhakti only.[25] But, Bhagavad-gītā teaches that all the yogas in the Bhagavad-gītā such as Karma yoga, Jñāna yoga Dhyāna yoga, the yoga of Renunciation, the yoga of Devotion, etc. are equally significant for salvation or mokṣa. [26] But Rāmānuja in his Gītā Bhāṣya does not give room for these other yogas.

In this chapter we have also discussed about bhakti, śraddhā associated with gūṇas, four kinds of bhaktas i.e. devotees and bhakti which is exclusive or onepointed i.e. ananya bhakti. Bhakti in Bhagavad-gītā has an internal relation with śraddhā. Śraddhā precedes bhakti and bhakti should be based on śraddhā. It is said that performance of action through the true knowledge of the self leads to śraddhā and leads to bhakti in the Bhagavad-gītā. Śraddhā and bhakti are not separated but they are distinct. This śraddhā in the Bhagavad-gītā is of three kinds. In Bhagavad-gītā, Chapter XVII.2 Kṛṣṇa says to Arjuna: trividhā bhavati śraddhā dehinām sā svabhāvajā–sāttvikī rajasī caiva tamasī ceti tām śṛṇū. The meaning of the verse is that ‘śraddhā is of three kinds such as sattvika, rajasika and tamasika according to the innate or inborn nature’. In the verse svabhāva means own nature or inborn nature of a person, but svabhāva is not such that which is constituted of the three guṇas. It is beyond guṇas.

Kṛṣṇa While teaching Arjuna in Chapter IX says that bhakti associated with jñāna has to be carried out by śraddhā.

In Chapter IX.3 Kṛṣṇa says:

aśraddhadhānāḥ purūṣāḥ dharmasya asya parantapa/
aprāpya mām nivartante mrṛtyusaṃsāravatarmani//

“The devotees or persons who are devoid of śraddhā or faith in worshipping live in this cycle of death and birth without attaining Me.”

What it means is, bhakti or worship of God has to be grounded on śraddhā, because without it one fails to attain Him. Since, Kṛṣṇa teaches Arjuna in the first two verses of Chapter IX, that the knowledge with which one attains freedom from the miseries of saṃsāra is called rājavidyā which is most secret and purifying. But in this vidyā or knowledge, a devotee or a person has to depend on śraddhā i.e. grounded on śraddhā. Without śraddha this knowledge is vain. But Rāmānuja makes the sense of bhakti and jñāna equal in Chapter IX.1. But the knowledge which is called jñāna in the Bhagavad-gītā and devotion or worship which is called bhakti is not the same and cannot be equated. Bhakti and jñāna are distinct, but although they are distinct, yet they are interrelated and interconnected. Both bhakti and jñāna have to be dependent on each other. In the Bhagavad-gītā, it has been taught that, by any means of yoga, it is possible to attain the Supreme Brahman, which is called emancipation or mokṣa. Bhakti, which is yukta with yoga, is called bhakti yoga. Bhagavad-gītā says that the devotee who with full faith and the inner self-abiding in God, worship Him, is completely united with Him. (VI.47)

In Chapter VII of Bhagavad-gītā Kṛṣṇa teaches about four kinds of bhaktas. He says in Chapter VII.16[27]:

“Four kinds of devotee worship Me O best of bhārata Arjuna–the distressed, the seeker of worldly fulfilment, the curious or inquisitive and the knower.”

These are ārta, arthārthī, jñānī and jijñāsū. First problem of Rāmānuja in this verse is he reduces these ‘four bhaktas’ into three. The other two jījñāṣu and jñānī are separated from them. For Rāmānuja Ārta and Arthārthī are classed together into one, as some worldly objective is common to both of them. But this classification is not faithful to the text of the Bhagavad-gītā since the text clearly exposed the four kinds of bhaktas. Secondly, Rāmānuja appears to have missed to take something significant in his interpretation of the verse. For Rāmānuja ‘ārta’ means ‘who has no honourable position, dispossessed of wealth, and desire to attain it again.’ But this idea is problematic. Rāmānuja is interpreting ‘ārta’ as ‘dispossessed of wealth’ as if someone had possessed of wealth earlier and now he is dispossessed because it is taken away. But this is not a correct explanation of ‘ārta.’ Ārta means the one who is afflicted person from beginning or seeking relief from miseries. He may be born in a poor family. So, the question of dispossessed does not arise, because he might not have the possession.

Again ‘arthārthī’ refers to ‘he who is desirous of acquiring wealth, is one who longs for wealth, not having attained it before.’ From Rāmānuja’s explanation of ‘ārta’ and ‘arthārthī’ he seems to make a distinction between ārta and arthārthi, but by using the word ‘wealth’ he seems to make no distinction between them. They are the same who is after seeking wealth only. If we compare the explanation of ‘arthārthī’ ‘who is desirous of acquiring wealth’ and ‘ārta’ ‘who is dispossessed of wealth but wants it back’, then we find that these two are same only. Because ‘desirous of acquiring wealth’ means ‘he might have had it earlier and wants it back again’ and ‘dispossessed of wealth and wants it back’ means he had earlier which means the same. From this, it seems that he makes no distinction between ārta and arthārthī. But these two are completely different concepts and have different meanings in the Bhagavad-gītā. Because ārta means sufferings, i.e. who suffers and wants to get relief from suffering and suffering may be anything–while arthārthī means one who may not have been suffering, but only desirous of acquiring wealth.

Bhakti in the Bhagavadgita is Anannya bhakti and is taught in Chapter VIII.22, Chapter IX.14-22, and 54-55 of Bhagavad-gītā. In Chapter VIII.22[28] Kṛṣṇa says Arjuna the ‘anannya bhakti’, which is called ‘one-pointed’ or ‘one bhakti’ only by which one attains the Purūṣa. Rāmānuja’s interpretation of this verse is theological. He in his interpretation takes the word ‘anannya bhakti’ as ‘anya anya bhakti’ which means ‘another bhakti’ i.e. one after another by which one attains the purūṣa. But ‘anannya bhakti’ is ‘eka bhakti’ or one bhakti i.e. exclusive bhakti. In this verse, the relationship of purūṣa with all these bhūtas is like a circular relationship. Like everything is in Him and He is in everything. And therefore He is obtained by this ‘eka bhakti’ i.e. ‘anannya bhakti’ and because of this bhakti all bhūtas belong to Him and He belongs to them. Although bhakti means ‘sharing’ it also means ‘belongingness.’ Rāmānuja in commenting on this verse commits an error. For him ‘yena sarvam idam tatam’ means ‘by whom the whole of the universe is pervaded.’ But if we go by the actual meaning of the text then it should be ‘by whom all these i.e. all the bhūtas are pervaded in the universe’. For, ‘sarvam idam’ means ‘all these’ i.e. the bhūtas, which are in Him and so He is pervading all the bhūtas. Because when it is said ‘whole’ it grounds a wrong interpretation. Since the meaning is ‘all’ i.e. ‘sarvam’ but not ‘whole.’

One of the most discussed topics of Rāmānuja’s Gītā Bhāṣya is the means of attaining salvation through prapatti apart from bhakti. For the readers, Rāmānuja introduced the concept of prapatti as means of attaining Supreme Self or salvation. Many readers[29] argue and attribute that Rāmānuja introduced prapatti in his Gītā Bhāśya also. The Bhagavad-gītā does not advocate prapatti as an alternative means to salvation. Gītā’s point is that everyone is fit to attain mokṣa without any distinction of caste, creed or sex. In Chapter IX.32, Chapter XVII.62 and 66 where it is mentioned that the word ‘śaraṇam’ does not mean what prapatti is in Rāmānuja’s philosophy. In the verses śaraṇam means ‘being devoid of shameful, fear and attachment to Him i.e. by giving up of the attachment, egoness from the body thinking that Lord is the only refuge and all in all. Thinking so one has to perform his actions which are to be performed for Him i.e. by giving up of the attachment to the fruits, agency and depositing everything to Him is called taking refuge in Him i.e. śaraṇam.

Moreover, the word prapatti is used nowhere in the Bhagavadgītā. Although ‘surrender’ may mean śaraṇāgati or prapatti which Rāmānuja applies in his religious philosophy and his works Gadyatraya[30] which are three in numbers, yet we cannot say that Rāmānuja tries to attribute prapatti in his Gītā Bhāṣya. Even if we say that Rāmānuja introduced prapatti then this idea contradicts with his interpretation of Chapter XVIII.44.

Chapter VI: Conclusion:

In the concluding chapter, we have summed up the findings of the preceding chapters. In this chapter is also mentioned some of the major findings. Rāmānuja being influenced by Gītārthasaṃgraḥa[31] of Yamunāchārya has interpreted Bhagavad-gītā from bhakti point of view. Although all the three yogas are mutually exclusive, Bhagavad-gītā prescribes all the three yogas for the attainment of Highest Reality, Rāmānuja nonetheless emphasized on bhakti. Perhaps, the reason is that Rāmānuja was very much influenced by the bhakti movement of Vaiṣṇavas in South India. On the other hand, it may be that Rāmānuja was one of the disciples of Yamunāchārya[32] though they had not met each other. When Yamunāchārya heard of Rāmānuja’s great study of scriptures and famous learning through his disciple Kāṇcipuraṃ in Srīrangam, he called for Rāmānuja to be his disciple. But unfortunately before Rāmānuja’s arrival, Yamunāchārya’s had died and left three wishes to be fulfilled by Rāmānuja. These are a) propagation of bhakti cult[33] , b) composition of a commentary on Brahma- Sūtra and c) a commentary on Bhagavad-gītā from a devotional point of view.[34] Rāmānuja promised that he would fulfil these three desires one by one.

Rāmānuja in his interpretation maintains an undercurrent of a conception of the cycle of death and rebirth i.e. the theory of karmavāda. The abiding concept of Rāmānuja while interpreting Bhagavad-gītā is the Law of Karma. He brings in this idea of the law of karma though Bhagavad-gītā does not say anything about the Law of Karma. It forms a recurring concept his permanent in his interpretation. Bhagavadgītā says about karmavaṇdhana but not karmavāda i.e. Law of Karma. He mixed up karmavaṇdhana of Gītā with karmavāda of Indian philosophy. Karmavaṇdhana and karmavāda are different from each other. In the Bhagavad-gītā there are no concepts of karmavāda i.e. the theory of the law of karma. But there is the karmavaṇdhana i.e. the bondage of action. Bondage of action i.e. karmavandhana and karmavāda are not the same. Though it is said in Chapter III.9 about karmavaṇdhana here it is not about the karmavaṇdhana of the past life etc. but people wrongly interpret karmavaṇdhana as karmavāda like Rāmānujachārya.

Footnotes and references:


Srinivasan, N.K (2006): Essence of Srimād Bhagavd Gita, Pushtak Mahal, J-3/16, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002,page-16


Yati, N. C (1993): The Bhagavad Gita, D. K Printworld Pvt. Ltd, Bali Nagar, New Delhi-110015, page-232


Srinivas, N.K (2006): Essence of Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Pushtak Mahal, J-3/16, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002, page-12.


Starting from the verses 11-29.


dehī nityam avaddhyo’yaṃ dehe sarvasya bhārata.


śrūtivipratipannā te yadā sthāsyati niśchalā/
samādho achalā buddhiḥ tadā Yogam avāpsyasi//


karmabrahmodbhavam viddhi/


na rūpam asya īha tathā upalabhyate na antaḥ na ca ādiḥ na ca sampratiṣthā/
asvattham enam suvirūḍmulam asangaśastreṇa dṛḍena cchitvā//
tataḥ padam parimārgitavyam yasmin gatāḥ na nivartanti/
tam eva ca ādyam purūṣam prapadde yataḥ pravṛtiḥ prasṛtā purāṇī//


Suvirūḍmulam means intertwined roots, which are downward roots of the Aśvattha. Since Aśvattha is karmavṛkṣa, its upward root is Brahman which is not possible to cut off. Only the downward root i.e. suvirūḍmulam is to be cut off from the saṃsāravṛkṣa.


B.G. Chapter III.20.


Sampatkumaran, M.R. (2002): The Gita Bhasya of Ramanuja, Prof. M Rangacharya Memorial Trust, Chennai, pg-377


The Bhagavadgītā mentions different kinds of yajña, dāṇa and tapaḥ such as sāttvika, rajasika and tamasika. The three kinds of yajñas are sāttvika yajña, rajasika yajña and tamasika yajña. The three kinds of dāṇaḥ (charity) are the sattvika, rajasika and tamsika dāṇaḥ and the three kinds of tapaḥ (penance) are sattvika, rajasika and tamasika tapaḥ.


Such as Brahmana, Kṣhatrya, Vaiśya and Sūdra.


yad yad ācarati śreṣṭhaḥ tat tad evetaro janaḥ -saḥ yad pramāṇaṃ kurute lokas tad anuvaratate//


svadharmampi cāvekṣya na vikampitum arhasi/
dharmāthi yuddhāt śreyaḥ anyata kṣtriyasya na vidyate//
yadtīcchayā ca upapannam svargadvāram apāvṛtam/
sukhinaḥ kṣatriyāḥ pārtha labhante yuddham īdṛśyam//
atha ceta tvam īmam dharmyam saṃgrāmam na karisyasi/
tataḥ svadharmam kīrtim ca hitvā pāpam avāpsyasi//


śreyānsvadharma viguṇaḥ paradharmāt svanuṣthitāt/
svadharme nidhanam śreyaḥ paradharmaḥ bhayāvaḥ//


śreyānsvadharma viguṇaḥ paradharmāt svanuṣthitāt/
svabhāvaniyatam karma kurvan na āpnoti kilviṣam//


Ādidevananda, S (2014): Śrī Rāmānuja Gītā Bhāṣya–with Text and English Translation, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai, pg-17


śreyānsvadharma viguṇaḥ paradharmāt svanuṣthitāt/
svadharme nidhanam śreyaḥ paradharmaḥ bhayāvaḥ//


sannyāsaḥ karmaYogaḥ ca niḥśreyasakarou ubhou/
tayusto karmasannyāsāt karmaYogaḥ viśiṣyate//


jñeyaḥ saḥ nitya sannyāsī yaḥ na dveṣti na kāngsati/
nirdvandvoḥ hi mahābāho sukham bandhāt pramuchyate//


tasmāt asaktaḥ satatam kārya karma samāchara/
asakto hi ācharan karma paramāpnoti purūṣaḥ//


jñeyaḥ saḥ nitya sannyāsī yaḥ na dveṣti na kāngsati/
nirdvandvoḥ hi mahābāho sukham bandhāt pramuchyate//


Ādidevananda, S (2014): Śrī Rāmānuja Gītā Bhāṣya–with Text and English Translation, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai, page-24


N.K, Srinivas (2006): Essence of Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Pushtak Mahal, J-3/16, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002, page-27.


catūrvidhā bhajante mām janāḥ sukṛtinaḥarjuna/
ārtaḥ jijñāsūḥ arthārthī jñānī ca bharatarṣabha//


purūśaḥ saḥ paraḥ pārtha bhaktayā labhyaḥ tu ananyayā/
yasyāntaḥ sthāni bhūtāni yena sarvam idam tatam//


Rāghavachār, R.M. Sampatkumaran, Nancy Nayar,


Śaraṇāgatigadya, Śrīrangagadya and Śrīvaikuṇthagadya.


Commentary on Bhagavadgītā with thirty two verses in light of bhakti or devotion.


Yamunāchārya was a great Vaiṣṇava scholar who was in search of a young man to propagate bhakti cult in proper manner and spirit.


That is Rāmānuja is said to be the first systematic propagator of bhakti cult in South India.


A. Sen, Gupta (2008): A Critical Study of the Philosophy Rāmānuja, Chaukhamba Amarabharati Prakashan, page-5

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