arjuna uvāca
evaḿ satata-yuktā ye
bhaktās tvāḿ paryupāsate
ye cāpy akṣaram avyaktaḿ
teṣāḿ ke yoga-vittamāḥ

Translation of Bhagavad Gita 12.1

Arjuna inquired: Which are considered to be more perfect, those who are always properly engaged in Your devotional service or those who worship the impersonal Brahman, the unmanifested?

Commentary by Sri A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada of Gaudiya Sampradaya:

Krishna has now explained about the personal, the impersonal and the universal and has described all kinds of devotees and yogis. Generally, the transcendentalists can be divided into two classes. One is the impersonalist, and the other is the personalist. The personalist devotee engages himself with all energy in the service of the Supreme Lord. The impersonalist also engages himself, not directly in the service of Krishna but in meditation on the impersonal Brahman, the unmanifested.

We find in this chapter that of the different processes for realization of the Absolute Truth, bhakti-yoga, devotional service, is the highest. If one at all desires to have the association of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, then he must take to devotional service.

Those who worship the Supreme Lord directly by devotional service are called personalists. Those who engage themselves in meditation on the impersonal Brahman are called impersonalists. Arjuna is here questioning which position is better. There are different ways to realize the Absolute Truth, but Krishna indicates in this chapter that bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to Him, is the highest of all. It is the most direct, and it is the easiest means for association with the Godhead.

In the Second Chapter of Bhagavad-gita, the Supreme Lord explained that a living entity is not the material body; he is a spiritual spark. And the Absolute Truth is the spiritual whole. In the Seventh Chapter He spoke of the living entity as being part and parcel of the supreme whole and recommended that he transfer his attention fully to the whole. Then again in the Eighth Chapter it was said that anyone who thinks of Krishna at the time of quitting his body is at once transferred to the spiritual sky, to the abode of Krishna. And at the end of the Sixth Chapter the Lord clearly said that of all yogis, one who always thinks of Krishna within himself is considered the most perfect. So in practically every chapter the conclusion has been that one should be attached to the personal form of Krishna, for that is the highest spiritual realization.

Nevertheless, there are those who are not attached to the personal form of Krishna. They are so firmly detached that even in the preparation of commentaries to Bhagavad-gita they want to distract other people from Krishna and transfer all devotion to the impersonal brahmajyoti. They prefer to meditate on the impersonal form of the Absolute Truth, which is beyond the reach of the senses and is not manifest.

And so, factually, there are two classes of transcendentalists. Now Arjuna is trying to settle the question of which process is easier and which of the classes is most perfect. In other words, he is clarifying his own position because he is attached to the personal form of Krishna. He is not attached to the impersonal Brahman.

He wants to know whether his position is secure. The impersonal manifestation, either in this material world or in the spiritual world of the Supreme Lord, is a problem for meditation. Actually, one cannot perfectly conceive of the impersonal feature of the Absolute Truth. Therefore Arjuna wants to say, “What is the use of such a waste of time?” Arjuna experienced in the Eleventh Chapter that to be attached to the personal form of Krishna is best because he could thus understand all other forms at the same time and there was no disturbance to his love for Krishna. This important question asked of Krishna by Arjuna will clarify the distinction between the impersonal and personal conceptions of the Absolute Truth.

Commentary by Sri Vishvanatha Chakravarthi Thakur of Gaudiya Sampradaya:

In the twelfth chapter, the superiority of all types of devotees to the jnanis is described, and among the devotees those who are endowed with wonderful qualities like lack of hatred are praised. Arjuna heard the great superiority of bhakti at the beginning of the topic of bhakti in the following words:

yoginam api sarvesam mad-gatenantar-atmana sraddhavan bhajate yo mam sa me yuktatamo matah

But I consider he who worships me with faith, with mind attached to me, to be greater than all types of yogis. BG 6.47

Arjuna, desiring to hear about the superiority of bhakti, even if it is in summary, asks a question. Between the devotees described as being constantly engaged, who worship you as Syamasundara, mentioned at the end of the last chapter with – mat-karma krn mat-paramah (BG  11.55),   and   those   who   worship   the impersonal, unqualified aksara brahman described in the srutis with statements such as etad vai tad aksaram gargi brahmana abhivadanty asthulam ananv ahrasvam (Brhad Aranyaka Upanisad 3.8.9) (O Gargi, that aksara, which is not wide, not small and not short, is called brahman), among these two types of persons who know yoga, who are the best knowers of yoga (yoga vittamah)? Who know the best process for attaining you? Or, do they not know? In a comparison of two items usually the form yoga vittara (which of them know yoga better) would be used. The word yoga vittama should be understood to suggest that among the many very good knowers of yoga (yoga vittara), who are the best knowers of yoga (yoga vittama)?

Commentary by Sri Ramanuja of Sri Sampradaya:

12.1 Arjuna said — These are two types of spiritual aspirants who are contrasted thus: (1) On the one hand there are those devotees who adore You ‘thus’; namely, in the way taught in such text as ‘Whosoever works for Me’ (11.55), and who are desirous of being ever ‘integrated’ with You, namely, considering You as the supreme end. They adore You in utter devotion — You, the ocean of boundless attributes of limitless excellence like grace, affability, omniscience, true resolve etc., and endowed with all glory. (2) On the other hand there are those who meditate on the ‘Imperishable’, (Aksara) namely, the individual self in Its true nature, which is the same as the ‘Unmanifest’ (Avyakta), namely that whose nature cannot be grasped by organs such as the eye etc. The question posed is: Which of these two classes of devotees have greater knowledge of Yoga? Who would reach their respective goals sooner? Such is the meaning of the question. Sri Krsna clearly states later on, ‘O Arjuna, I become before long their redeemer from the fatal sea of recurring births and deaths’ (12.7), with reference to the speed with which the latter kind of devotees reach Him.

Commentary by Sri Sridhara Swami of Rudra Sampradaya:

The twelfth chapter conclusively determines which of the following two paths is superior. The worship of the abstract impersonal and imperishable brahman which is the spritual substratum pervading all existence or personal devotion to the Supreme Lord Krishna in His original, two armed form with personality, qualities and attributes. At the conclusion of chapter eleven Lord Krishna declared that one who performs all actions dedicated to Him and has only Him as the ultimate goal being exclusively devoted to Him attains Him. In various verses such as chapter 9, verse 31 Lord Krishna has ordered Arjuna with kaunteya pratijanihi na me bhaktah pranasyati which means declare it boldly that My devotee is never vanquished. This shows the inherent superiority of the devotees of Lord Krishna. Similarly the superiority of one who is devoted to knowledge has been given in chapter 7, verse 17 with tesam jnani nitya-yukty eka-bhaktir meaning one in knowledge of exclusive loving devotion is always in communion with Him. Such men of knowledge excel all others. Thus although both paths are exemplary Arjuna is requesting to know which of the two paths is superior being better suited for yoga or the science of the individual consciousness attaining communion with the ultimate consciousness.

Commentary by Sri Madhvacharya of Brahma Sampradaya:

Hari OM! This chapter confirms that propitiation to the Supreme Lord Krishna is superior to the unmanifest, impersonal and imperishable brahman or the spiritual substratum pervading all existence. Here Lord Krishna outlines the procedure of performing it. The procedure itself becomes the means for moksa or liberation from material existence. All who propitiate the brahman will also achieve moksa after having all their desires fulfilled. In the Agni section of the Sama Veda it states: Propitiating that which is superior to the eternal and beginningless brahman one achieves moksa from samsara or the endless cycle of birth and death. The words aksaram avyaktam refer to the indestructible, unmanifest supreme absolute or brahman whose steadfast worship eventually releases one from all constraints. So great is the result of propitiation in reference to this as revealed in the Vedas. Those who worship the goddess Sri Laksmi with four arms and hands, ever young, ever content, resplendent as the eternal consort of the Supreme Lord in the spiritual worlds being His sakti or spiritual feminine potency in the material worlds, endowed with the wealth of wisdom; such a being is blessed by the two-fold form of the Supreme Lord which manifest themselves both externally as an experience and internally within one’s heart.

This has been documented in other Vedic scriptures as well in the Puranas. Having started with the declaration in Rig Veda X.CXXV that: Sri Laksmi wanders wherever the different vibhuti or divine, transcendental opulence of the Supreme Lord appear such as the Rudras, the Vasus, the Adityas, the Visva-devas etc. She is the gatherer of treasures and the empress of Lord Krishna’s direct expansion Narayana the Lord of all Vaikuntha, the eternal spiritual worlds and being the personal sakti of the Supreme Lord she also expands herself as the consort of each and every incarnation and expansion of Lord Krishna and thus also merits worship. Thus the demigods and elevated beings have established her worship in many places and homes to abide in, on the left side of the Supreme Lord. Through her alone all eat the food that feeds them as well as sees, breathes and hears the sound of the word outspoken, although they know it not and are unaware. Hear now one and all the truth as she declared it: The one who she benedicts excels above others and is most powerful becoming a sage, yogi or brahmana. It is by her energy that the bow of Rudra is bent and his arrows are propelled to strike and slay those who disrespect, despise and offend the devotees of the Supreme Lord. On the worlds summits she designates the powerful. Her home is in the waters of the casual ocean far, far beyond the material worlds and far beyond even the heavenly planets. Sri Laksmi the universal mother is majestic in her grandeur. One who pleases her is blest to become a Brahmin, opulent and wise. Because the Vedic scriptures state like this there may be some doubt as to whether Sri Laksmi has the capacity to grant moksa or liberation by the power of the Supreme Lord. To discern this subtle truth and for the sake of knowledge Arjuna uses the word evam meaning in which way.

Arjuna is requesting reassurance since experiencing the reality of Lord Krishna’s visvarupa or divine universal form, he was puzzled and unsure if avaktya or the unmanifest being the brahman or spiritual substratum pervading all existence should be meditated on or should he meditate on prakriti the material substratum underlying physical existence which is the source of the three gunas or modes of material nature being tama or ignorance, raja guna or mode of passion and sattva guna or mode of goodness The word aksaram means eternal, absolute and Sri Laksmi is also eternal and absolute and prakriti arises completely out of her but the Supreme Lord is superior to all that. Then he is wondering should he not worship the atma or eternal soul within or should he just directly worship the Supreme Lord Krishna with loving devotion? The indestructible brahman is a direct reflection of the Supreme Lord and none other then He. Always being blissful He appears as Vasudeva and is all pervading. He is also paramatma the Supreme Soul within the etheric heart of all sentient beings. This has been given in chapter two. His form and qualities have been given in chapter three and meditation has subsequently been advised as the consequent activity.

Knowledge of the prodigious manifold forms of the Supreme Lord, His manifold expansions, His manifold incarnations, His visvarupa or divine universal form and the unlimited lilas or pastimes of them all begins the revelation that Lord Krishna is the immortal, eternal Lord of all lords, from whom everything emanates in existence and to whom all paths return back to Him. In the Sama Veda, Saukarayana section we find that Rudra the mind born son of Brahma approaches him and asks to know who is verily the ultimate goal of all existence, the eternally established, creator of all beings who bestows moksa or liberation upon the aspirants, the righteous and the noble. How does one meditate upon such a Supreme Being and how can one meditate upon a Supreme Being who is completely spiritual without any material qualities or attributes? Brahma replied it is verily the Supreme Lord Krishna who is the ultimate goal as well as the object of meditation by the aspirants and the granter of moksa. Of unlimited avatars or incarnations, expansions and manifestations, appearing in many colours surrounded by a golden hue. He verily is shining like the sun and should be meditated upon within the heart as a personality resembling a human the colour of a radiant dark blue sapphire with gentle smile and hands giving blessing surrounded by a golden hue. He is camouflaged by the brahman the spiritual substratum pervading all existence and which emanates an impenetrable dazzling light throughout all creation which effectively covers His all pervading form. It is for this reason that He is also propitiates as avyaktam or immutable and aksaram or unmanifest because He cannot be perceived by material vision.

Now begins the summation.

Hari OM! Here is explained the means of achieving spiritual practice.

The immutable, unmanifest known as the brahman although without form by the will of the Supreme Lord arises from His sakti or spiritual, feminine potency known as Sri or Laksmi. For her propitiation an aspirant must leave home and for being initiated in tattva or knowledge about her one must approach and accept a spiritual master in her line. Whomsoever learns to propitiate her attains moksa. Thus the objective of both the aspirant and the guru are fulfilled. Those who propitiate Sri Laksmi, the consort of the Supreme Lord is His sakti which controls the material existence and is also known as Ambika, Agrya, Aupala, Hri and Sivdya are granted moksa, If Sri Laksm is pleased then the Supreme Lord becomes pleased also and if she is not pleased then the Supreme Lord remains unpleased as well.

The Brahmanda Prurana states: Sri Laksmi is known as avyaktam or unmanifest because prakriti or the material substratum underlying physical existence arises from her. She is also known as aksaram or immutable, the Supreme consciousness, the primal source, the refuge for all and the abiding one; but the Supreme Lord who empowers her is verily superior to her. So such propitiation to the avaktam is synonymous with propitiation to Sri Laksmi and the Supreme Lord. This has been asked by Arjuna for clarification of which path is more meritorious for attaining moksa. That which is abiding within is known as the immutable and never changing. This is clearly determined by such statements in the Vedic scriptures such as: That which who abides within, eternally, unlimited, all pervading, etc. These things clearly refer to the unmanifest consciousness. Otherwise such distinct queries such as who is to be propitiated and the method of propitiating Him and between the two which is superior would not have been asked. Those who consider propitiation to the abstract, indistinct, impersonal and imperishable brahman to be superior to direct loving devotion unto the Supreme Lord are verily deluded and far away from the actual tattva or conclusive truth.

Commentary by Sri Keshava Kashmiri of Kumara Sampradaya:

In the last verse of chapter 11 the prerequisite method of attaining the Supreme Lord Krishna is revealed as bhakti or exclusive loving devotion. In verse 20 of the eighth chapter Lord Krishna refers to the innermost self the atma or eternal soul which is avyaktah or unmanifest and imperceptible to eyes and other senses and any external means of proof except by the Vedic scriptures. This avyaktah is of a superior nature far beyond the aksaram or indestructible brahman or spiritual substratum pervading all existence. Continuing in verse 21 of chapter eight Lord Krishna states that the Vedic scriptures proclaim the brahman to be paramam gatim meaning the supreme destination.

Thus what can gained by achieving either of the two goals and which is more appropriate is what is being asked. Of the two ways described in chapter 8 and chapter 11 which is better? Which is the most easily achieved? What practitioners of which path are the best? With a desire to understand these things Arjuna requests Lord Krishna for clarification. The Supreme Lord’s devotees have their minds constantly fixed on Him. They adore His form, pastimes, attributes and qualities such as omniscience, omnipotence, infinite prowess, etc. Then there are those who adore as the supreme destination the abstract, impersonal, unmanifest brahman which cannot be perceived by anything material such as the mind and senses. Which of the two practitioners following different paths are the most elevated in yoga or the science of the individual consciousness attaining communion with the ultimate consciousness? They are called the most elevated because they are yoga-vittamah meaning the best knowers of yoga and because they know the best means for attaining the Supreme Lord they have achieved moksa or liberation from samsara or the perpetual cycle of birth and death.

Commentary by Sri Adi Shankaracharya of Advaita Sampradaya:

12.1 The subject-matter stated in the immediately preceding verse, ‘…he who works for Me,’ etc. is referred to by the word evam (thus). Ye bhaktah, those devotees who, seeking no other refuge; evam, thus; satata-yuktah, being ever-devoted, i.e., remaining unceasingly engaged in the works of the Lord, etc., intent on the aforesaid purpose; paryupasate, meditate; tvam, on You, in the Cosmic form as revealed earlier; ye ca api, and those others, again, who have renounced all desires, who have given up all actions; who meditate on Brahman as described (below), aksaram, on the Immutable; avyaktam, on the Unmanifested, which is so on account of being bereft of all limiting adjuncts, (and) which is beyond the comprehension of the organs-in the world, whatever comes within the range of the organs is said to be manifest, for the root anj conveys that sense; but this Immutable is the opposite of that and is endowed with qualifications that are spoken of by the great ones; those again, who meditate on that-; tesam, of them, among the two (groups); ke, who; are the yoga-vit-tamah, best experiencers of yoga, i.e., who are those that are surpassingly versed in yoga? But leave alone those who meditate on the Immutable, who are fully enlightened and are free from desires. Whatever has to be said with regard to them, we shall say later on. As for those others-

Commentary by Sri Abhinavagupta of Kaula Tantra Sampradaya:

12.1 Evam etc. The question is for getting an explanation regarding the superiority among those who are the worshippers of the Absolute with Sovereign power, by the said method and those who worship the Self alone [without any attribute].

Sanskrit Shloka Without Transliteration Marks:

arjuna uvaca
evam satata-yukta ye
bhaktas tvam paryupasate
ye capy aksaram avyaktam
tesam ke yoga-vittamah

Sanskrit to English Word for Word Meanings:

arjunaḥ uvāca — Arjuna said; evam — thus; satata — always; yuktāḥ — engaged; ye — those who; bhaktāḥ — devotees; tvām — You; paryupāsate — properly worship; ye — those who; ca — also; api — again; akṣaram — beyond the senses; avyaktam — the unmanifested; teṣām — of them; ke — who; yoga-vit-tamāḥ — the most perfect in knowledge of yoga.