yajante sāttvikā devān
yakṣa-rakṣāḿsi rājasāḥ
pretān bhūta-gaṇāḿś cānye
yajante tāmasā janāḥ

Translation of Bhagavad Gita 17.4

Men in the mode of goodness worship the demigods; those in the mode of passion worship the demons; and those in the mode of ignorance worship ghosts and spirits.

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

In this verse the Supreme Personality of Godhead describes different kinds of worshipers according to their external activities. According to scriptural injunction, only the Supreme Personality of Godhead is worshipable, but those who are not very conversant with, or faithful to, the scriptural injunctions worship different objects, according to their specific situations in the modes of material nature. Those who are situated in goodness generally worship the demigods. The demigods include Brahma, Shiva and others such as Indra, Candra and the sun-god. There are various demigods. Those in goodness worship a particular demigod for a particular purpose. Similarly, those who are in the mode of passion worship the demons. We recall that during the Second World War a man in Calcutta worshiped Hitler because thanks to that war he had amassed a large amount of wealth by dealing in the black market. Similarly, those in the modes of passion and ignorance generally select a powerful man to be God. They think that anyone can be worshiped as God and that the same results will be obtained.

Now, it is clearly described here that those who are in the mode of passion worship and create such gods, and those who are in the mode of ignorance, in darkness, worship dead spirits. Sometimes people worship at the tomb of some dead man. Sexual service is also considered to be in the mode of darkness. Similarly, in remote villages in India there are worshipers of ghosts. We have seen that in India the lower-class people sometimes go to the forest, and if they have knowledge that a ghost lives in a tree, they worship that tree and offer sacrifices. These different kinds of worship are not actually God worship. God worship is for persons who are transcendentally situated in pure goodness. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.3.23) it is said, sattvam vishuddham vasudeva-shabditam: “When a man is situated in pure goodness, he worships Vasudeva.” The purport is that those who are completely purified of the material modes of nature and who are transcendentally situated can worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

The impersonalists are supposed to be situated in the mode of goodness, and they worship five kinds of demigods. They worship the impersonal Vishnu form in the material world, which is known as philosophized Vishnu. Vishnu is the expansion of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, but the impersonalists, because they do not ultimately believe in the Supreme Personality of Godhead, imagine that the Vishnu form is just another aspect of the impersonal Brahman; similarly, they imagine that Lord Brahma is the impersonal form in the material mode of passion. Thus they sometimes describe five kinds of gods that are worshipable, but because they think that the actual truth is impersonal Brahman, they dispose of all worshipable objects at the ultimate end. In conclusion, the different qualities of the material modes of nature can be purified through association with persons who are of transcendental nature.

Commentary by Sri Vishvanatha Chakravarthi Thakur of Gaudiya Sampradaya:

The Lord clarifies what he has said. Those with sattvika antah karana, with sattvika faith, with rules of sattvika scripture, worship devatas. Because of having faith in those devatas, they are said to be deva. In the same way, those with rajasic and tamasic antah karanas take up such faith, and worship raksasas and bhutas or pretas, and are said to be raksasas and bhutas.

Commentary by Sri Ramanuja of Sri Sampradaya:

17.4 ‘Those who have abundance of Sattva quality and are conjoined with Sattvika faith worship the gods. The meaning is this: The faith in the worship (sacrifice) of the gods which causes supreme joy unmixed with pain is of Sattvika nature. The Rajasika types worship Yaksas and Raksasas. And the others, i.e., the Tamasika types, worship the departed ancestors and hosts of Bhutas. The faith born of Rajas brings about limited joy mixed with pain, while the faith born of Tamas gives rise to extremely limited joy which verges almost on pain. Therefore, there is difference in fruits according to the Gunas regarding sacrifices etc., which are enjoined in the Sastras and associated with faith. However, no happiness whatsoever will result from penances, sacrifices etc., not enjoined in the Sastras and therefore antagonistic to My commandment. On the contrary, calamity results from them. Sri Krsna proceeds to explain this more fully.

Commentary by Sri Sridhara Swami of Rudra Sampradaya:

The three fold nature of sraddha or faith can be determined by a jivas or embodied beings mode of worship. Those situated in sattva guna the mode of goodness worship the Supreme Lord Krishna and His authorised incarnations. Those situated in raja guna the mode of passion pay homage to demoniac entities for power, wealth, fame and pleasure. Those situated in tama guna the mode of ignorance pray to abstract gods with vague qualities as well as to ghosts and spirits. Thus by their actions their position and quality of faith can be clearly discerned.

Commentary by Sri Madhvacharya of Brahma Sampradaya:

Sri Madhvacharya did not comment on this sloka.

Commentary by Sri Keshava Kashmiri of Kumara Sampradaya:

Lord Krishna is stating that the position and status of all jivas or embodied beings and their category can be determined by understanding their sraddha or faith. The three kinds of sraddha can be observed and specifically categorised from indicatory signs in the form of their mode of worship, whom they worship, whether or not the worship is abstract or finites, etc. Those endowed with a preponderance of sattva guna or mode of goodness worship the Supreme Lord and their faith is saturated with goodness. Those possessed with a preponderance of raja guna or mode of passion pay homage to demoniac entities for power and dominion and their faith is saturated with passion. Those possessed with a preponderance of tama guna or the mode of ignorance pray to ghosts and spirits and their faith is saturated with ignorance.

Commentary by Sri Adi Shankaracharya of Advaita Sampradaya:

17.4 Sattvikah, those having the sattva quality, those steadfast in sattva; yajante, worship; devan, the gods; rajasah, those having rajas; (worship) yaksa-raksamsi, the demi-gods and ogres; and anye, other; janah, people; tamasah, possessed of tamas; yajante, worship; pretan, ghosts; and bhuta-ganan, the hosts of spirits-Sapta-matrkas (the Seven Mothers) and others. Thus, in the context of abandonment of scriptural injunctions, the states of sattva etc. have been determined through their effects. As regards that, it is only one in thousands who, being established in sattva, becomes devoted to the adoration of gods. But, to be sure, creatures are mostly rooted deeply in rajas or tamas. How?

Commentary by Sri Abhinavagupta of Kaula Tantra Sampradaya:

17.4-6 Yajante etc., upto asura-niscayan. Unintelligently : i.e. due to their lack of discrimination. Emaciating Me too : Because they do not follow the purport of the scriptures. That is why they undertake practising austerities invented by their own intellect and they are rather men of the Tamas (Strand). Like faith, the food also is of three types, differentiated by the Sattva etc., so are the sacrifice, austerity and charity. That is being detailed as :

Sanskrit Shloka Without Transliteration Marks:

yajante sattvika devan
yaksa-raksamsi rajasah
pretan bhuta-ganams canye
yajante tamasa janah

Sanskrit to English Word for Word Meanings:

yajante — worship; sāttvikāḥ — those who are in the mode of goodness; devān — demigods; yakṣa-rakṣāḿsi — demons; rājasāḥ — those who are in the mode of passion; pretān — spirits of the dead; bhūta-gaṇān — ghosts; ca — and; anye — others; yajante — worship; tāmasāḥ — in the mode of ignorance; janāḥ — people.