arjuna uvāca
ye śāstra-vidhim utsṛjya
yajante śraddhayānvitāḥ
teṣāḿ niṣṭhā tu kā kṛṣṇa
sattvam āho rajas tamaḥ

Translation of Bhagavad Gita 17.1

Arjuna inquired: O Krishna, what is the situation of those who do not follow the principles of scripture but worship according to their own imagination? Are they in goodness, in passion or in ignorance?

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

In the Fourth Chapter, thirty-ninth verse, it is said that a person faithful to a particular type of worship gradually becomes elevated to the stage of knowledge and attains the highest perfectional stage of peace and prosperity. In the Sixteenth Chapter, it is concluded that one who does not follow the principles laid down in the scriptures is called an asura, demon, and one who follows the scriptural injunctions faithfully is called a deva, or demigod. Now, if one, with faith, follows some rules which are not mentioned in the scriptural injunctions, what is his position? This doubt of Arjuna’s is to be cleared by Krishna. Are those who create some sort of God by selecting a human being and placing their faith in him worshiping in goodness, passion or ignorance? Do such persons attain the perfectional stage of life? Is it possible for them to be situated in real knowledge and elevate themselves to the highest perfectional stage? Do those who do not follow the rules and regulations of the scriptures but who have faith in something and worship gods and demigods and men attain success in their effort? Arjuna is putting these questions to Krishna.

Commentary by Sri Vishvanatha Chakravarthi Thakur of Gaudiya Sampradaya:

“After describing the asuric persons, you concluded by saying that, giving up the injunctions of scripture they do as they like and do not attain happiness in this life or the next. I have a question about this.” Thus he speaks this verse.

You have spoken of those who give up scriptural authority and act out of personal desire (kama karitah). But what is the basis (nistha) of those who give up the rules of scripture, and perform worship, such as tapa yajna, jnana yajna or japa yajna, but with faith, without desire for sense objects, not whimsically (sraddhayanvitah)? Is it sattva, rajas or tamas? Please tell me that. Aho is an interrogative particle.

Commentary by Sri Ramanuja of Sri Sampradaya:

17.1 Arjuna said — Those who, ‘filled with faith but laying aside the injunctions of the Sastras,’ engage themselves in sacrifices etc., what is their ‘position or basis’? It is Sattva, Rajas or Tamas? Nistha means Sthiti. What is called Sthiti is that state in which one abides, has one’s position or basis. Do they abide in Sattva, in Rajas or in Tamas? Such is the meaning of the question. Thus questioned, the Lord, for affirming the futility of faith and of sacrifices not enjoined in the Sastras, and in order to show that the triple division in accordance with the Gunas refers only to sacrifices etc., enjoined in the Sastras — expounds here the threefold nature of faith enjoined in the Sastras:

Commentary by Sri Sridhara Swami of Rudra Sampradaya:

Among all the causes previously explained as initiating qualification for spiritual consciousness by the Supreme Lord Krishna, sraddha or faith is pre-eminent and the foremost among them. Therefore this chapter examines the threefold differentiations of faith of the three gunas or modes of material nature: sattva guna or mode of goodness, raja guna or mode of passion and tama guna or mode of ignorance.

At the end of chapter 16 Lord Krishna revealed that anyone who fails to follow the ordinances and injunctions of the Vedic scriptures and instead foolishly follows the impulses of the physical body, the whims of the mind and the dictates of their desires; will never achieve perfection, happiness or freedom from samsara the perpetual cycle of birth and death. This confirms that those who disregard and disrespect the eternal teachings of the Vedic scriptures do not qualify for spiritual knowledge.

Now to clearly understand whether or not one who ignores the Vedic scriptures but acts with faith and is not following the dictates of desire etc. can still be qualified for spiritual knowledge is queried. This does not refer to those who have knowledge of the Vedic scriptures yet transgress them purposely and spitefully; for such sinful living entities cannot be said to possess faith or perform any spiritual activity whatsoever. This query refers specifically to all those who are ignorant of the Vedic scriptures, who have had no exposure to the Vedic scriptures, who were never instructed in sanatan dharma or eternal righteousness following the line of consciousness contained in Vedic scriptures.

Faith in the Vedic scriptures is firm belief in sacred traditions tested and proven by time to be eternal spiritually as instructed by the Vaisnava spiritual master. Those who purposely act contrary to the knowledge in the Vedic scriptures as taught by the Vaisnavas are completely incompatible with the spiritual current of bonafide disciplic succession in one of the four authorised sampradaya’s due to their belligerent transgressions. Yet these unfortunate transgressors of the Vedic scriptures is not what is indicated here. What is indicated here refers to all those who out of ignorance, laziness or indifference simply follow mere tradition and occasionally perform some religious activity with faith. The query is specifically questioning whether such actions are in sattva, raja or tama guna. Faith in the Vedic scriptures itself is sattva guna, whereas opposition to the Vedic scriptures is in raja guna and laziness and indifference is in tama guna. So if their faith however little is based on sattva guna then at least these jivas or embodied beings are entitled to knowledge of the atma or immortal soul and spiritual consciousness.

Commentary by Sri Madhvacharya of Brahma Sampradaya:

Hari OM! In this chapter the Supreme Lord Krishna explains the attributes and results of the three gunas or threefold modes of material nature: sattva guna or the mode of goodness, raja guna or the mode of passion and tama guna or the mode of ignorance. The words sastram-vidam refers to the ordinances, injunctions and prohibitions of the Vedic scriptures. An example of a prohibition is that the Vedic scriptures declare that it is forbidden to marry a virgin maiden no matter how qualified if her mother and father have a sapinda relationship with each other, meaning that the two grandmothers of the virgin are sisters. Those who disregard this rule and marry such a maiden anyway verily commit sin, as only after seven generations of sapinda free marriages are the sinful reactions of such incestuous relationships neutralized. Possessing this knowledge the Vaisnavas and the twice born Brahmins act accordingly and steadily progressing in their spiritual development advance with clarity and comprehension.

What is prescribed in the Vedic scriptures is sanatan dharma or eternal righteousness and anything contrary to this is against eternal righteousness. Those in sattva guna always acknowledge the authority of the Vedic scriptures and never act contrary to the ancient, perennial principles of sanatan dharma. So the word utsrjya meaning rejected does not refer to them. It applies to those in raja guna who belligerently and insidiously oppose the Vedic scriptures and those in tama guna who out of lack of effort and intelligence ignore and are indifferent to the Vedic scriptures. Those who were never properly taught the knowledge of the Vedic scriptures or who were never exposed and are unaware of the teachings of the Vedic scriptures or who were unqualified to learn the knowledge of the Vedic scriptures due to circumstances is what is indicated here. It is reasonable and plausible to assume that there must be some gradation in this rejection and this is the purpose of Lord Krishna delineating the three fold positions of the gunas. So such denial is the result of non- awareness of the universal values enshrined within the Vedic scriptures for the ultimate benefit of all creation.

Commentary by Sri Keshava Kashmiri of Kumara Sampradaya:

In the preceding chapter the Supreme Lord Krishna spoke of the difference between those endowed with the divine nature and those possessing the demoniac nature. He described the qualities of each and emphasised that the divine endowments should be cultivated and embellished while the demoniac nature should be rejected and avoided by all means. This confirms the reality that to become qualified for spiritual knowledge an aspirant must be exclusively situated in sattva guna or the mode of goodness which empowers one to perform only actions that are in harmony with the Vedic scriptures. Furthermore Lord Krishna established the fact that the absolute authority of the Vedic scriptures is the exclusive reference to understand what is proper and what is improper, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable and no other source is warranted. One should accept the impeccable authority of the Vedic scriptures wholeheartedly and act in accordance with the Vedic ordinances and injunctions which bestow the highest benefit for all creation while avoiding the prohibitions as they lead only to degradation and sin. Acting contradictory to any aspect of the Vedic scriptures are activities of raja guna the mode of passion while indifference to them is tama guna the mode of ignorance. Both of these modes definitely insures that one will incarnate into lower and lower species of life such as dogs, pigs and reptiles. Those who spitefully disregard the Vedic scriptures and insidiously disrespect the authorised promulgators of the Vedic scriptures are certainly of the demoniac nature and as such they degenerate into the most degraded existences.

Lord Krishna begins the seventeenth chapter explaining the three types of faith found in those possessing characteristics of each guna regarding the types of food one eats, the type of rituals one performs, the kind of austerities one undertakes etc. Any action executed with faith that is dominated by evil intentions resides in tama guna and is characterised by demoniac conceptions and activities hence enslavement and bondage in material existence. But there are some who out of ignorance, lack of exposure or unawareness do not adhere to the ordinances and injunctions of the Vedic scriptures. Yet they also avoid indulgence in prohibited activities due to desiring respect in society. What will be the position of such a one? Occasionally they will sincerely perform some ritual or follow some austerity with faith and even though they are not engaging in sinful prohibitions because they ignore the ordinances and injunctions of the Vedic scriptures they still possess demoniacal characteristics. So the query is how are they categorised?

Although they are indifferent to the Vedic scriptures such beings worship lesser gods and are following inferior conceptions. Some adhere to such conceptions due to fear of going to hell, some due to tradition, still others due to acceptance in society. They have no interest in the Vedic scriptures and have never even considered the meaning of existence having no desire to understand why they were born and in knowing the purpose of life. If they have heard about the Vedic scriptures they regard them as not applying to them or consider them to be below the level of their own scriptures which they have never adequately studied or comprehended. The irrefutable evidence is that there is extremely limited information about the atma or immortal soul in any of the religious conceptions on Earth except in the Vedic scriptures and any credible reference to the atma can only be taken from the Vedic scriptures as the source. The most important ingredient of human existence is immortality of the soul and it is completely missing in the consciousness of humanity except in the Vedic culture where it is fully comprehended. The word sraddhaya-anvitah means faithfully. Such faith arises from traditional belief in god and religious scriptures. One who is ignorant of the Vedic scriptures is different from one who is opposed to the Vedic scriptures. So what is the truth regarding those who are not opposed to the Vedic scriptures but only indifferent due to following their own traditions and what is there position? This is the question Lord Krishna will begin to fully explain in the next verse.

Commentary by Sri Adi Shankaracharya of Advaita Sampradaya:

17.1 Tu, but; of Krsna, ka, what; is the nistha, state; tesam, of those-whosoever they may be; ye, who; being anvitah, endued; sraddhaya, with faith, with the idea that there is something hereafter; yajante, adore gods and others; utsriya, by ignoring, setting aside; sastra-vidhim, the unjunctions of the scriptures, the injunctions of the Vedas and the Smrtis? Is the state of those who are such sattvam, sattva; aho, or; rajah, rajas; or tamah, tamas? This is what is meant: Does the adoration of gods and others that they undertake come under the category of sattva or rajas or tamas? By ‘those who, endued with faith, adore by ignoring the injunctions of the scriptures’ are here meant those who, not finding any injunction which can be characterized as ‘enjoined by the Vedas’ ‘or enjoined by the Smrtis’, worship gods and others by merely observing the conduct of their elders. But, on the other hand, those who, though aware of some scriptural injunction, discard them and worship the gods and others in ways contrary to the injunctions, are not meant here by ‘those who, ignoring scriptural injunctions, adore…’ Why? Because of the qualifying phrase, ‘being endued with faith’. For, it cannot be imagined that even when they are aware of some scriptural injunction about worship of gods and others, they discard this out of their faithlessness, and yet they engage in the worship of gods and others enjoined by those scriptures by becoming imbued with faith! Therefore, by ‘those who, endued with faith, adore by ignoring the injunctions of the scriptures’ are here meant those very ones mentioned earlier. An answer to this question relating to a general topic cannot be given without splitting it up. Hence,-

Commentary by Sri Abhinavagupta of Kaula Tantra Sampradaya:

17.1 Ye sastra – etc. The question is this : What is the goal [to be reached] by those persons who faithfully perform their worldly actions by not adhering to the scripural injunction ? Now in this regard the answer, basing on the faith, is given by the Bhagavat –

Sanskrit Shloka Without Transliteration Marks:

arjuna uvaca
ye sastra-vidhim utsrjya
yajante sraddhayanvitah
tesam nistha tu ka krsna
sattvam aho rajas tamah

Sanskrit to English Word for Word Meanings:

arjunaḥ uvāca — Arjuna said; ye — those who; śāstra-vidhim — the regulations of scripture; utsṛjya — giving up; yajante — worship; śraddhayā — full faith; anvitāḥ — possessed of; teṣām — of them; niṣṭhā — the faith; tu — but; kā — what; kṛṣṇa — O Kṛṣṇa; sattvam — in goodness; āho — or else; rajaḥ — in passion; tamaḥ — in ignorance.