saha-jaḿ karma kaunteya
sa-doṣam api na tyajet
sarvārambhā hi doṣeṇa
dhūmenāgnir ivāvṛtāḥ

Translation of Bhagavad Gita 18.48

Every endeavor is covered by some fault, just as fire is covered by smoke. Therefore one should not give up the work born of his nature, O son of Kunti, even if such work is full of fault.

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

In conditioned life, all work is contaminated by the material modes of nature. Even if one is a brahmana, he has to perform sacrifices in which animal killing is necessary. Similarly, a kshatriya, however pious he may be, has to fight enemies. He cannot avoid it. Similarly, a merchant, however pious he may be, must sometimes hide his profit to stay in business, or he may sometimes have to do business on the black market. These things are necessary; one cannot avoid them. Similarly, even though a man is a shudra serving a bad master, he has to carry out the order of the master, even though it should not be done. Despite these flaws, one should continue to carry out his prescribed duties, for they are born out of his own nature.

A very nice example is given herein. Although fire is pure, still there is smoke. Yet smoke does not make the fire impure. Even though there is smoke in the fire, fire is still considered to be the purest of all elements. If one prefers to give up the work of a kshatriya and take up the occupation of a brahmana, he is not assured that in the occupation of a brahmana there are no unpleasant duties. One may then conclude that in the material world no one can be completely free from the contamination of material nature. This example of fire and smoke is very appropriate in this connection. When in wintertime one takes a stone from the fire, sometimes smoke disturbs the eyes and other parts of the body, but still one must make use of the fire despite disturbing conditions. Similarly, one should not give up his natural occupation because there are some disturbing elements. Rather, one should be determined to serve the Supreme Lord by his occupational duty in Krishna consciousness. That is the perfectional point. When a particular type of occupation is performed for the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord, all the defects in that particular occupation are purified. When the results of work are purified, when connected with devotional service, one becomes perfect in seeing the self within, and that is self-realization.

Commentary by Sri Vishvanatha Chakravarthi Thakur of Gaudiya Sampradaya:

You should not think that only you have problems in executing your duties. There are problems in others’ duties also. You should not give up work according to your nature (sahajam), even with fault, because all actions performed now and in the future are covered by fault, just as fire is seen to be covered by smoke. Just as by removing the smoke, the heat of the fire is useful for removing darkness and cold, so by removing the faulty portion of one’s work, the good portion is useful for purification of your existence.

Commentary by Sri Ramanuja of Sri Sampradaya:

18.48 So, one should not relinquish one’s works, understanding that they are natural, are easy to perform and not liable to negligence. Such thoughts coupled with the idea that there are imperfections in them should not lead you to abandon them. The meaning is that though one is fit for Jnana Yoga, one should perform Karma Yoga only. All enterprises, be they of Karma or Jnana, are indeed enveloped by imperfections, by pain, as fire by smoke. But still there is this difference: Karma Yoga is easy and does not involve negligence, but Jnana Yoga is contrary to this.

Commentary by Sri Sridhara Swami of Rudra Sampradaya:

If however according to the philosophy of sankhya or analytical reasoning the idea of performing the duty of another is appealing because it is superior to the degradation of killing someone it should be pointed out although superior it is still fraught with the chance of great demerits if performed improperly. So with this in mind one should never abandon their own natural path which is ordained by one’s inherent nature from past life actions, even if it is attended with inauspiciousness. All actions and activities yielding visible and invisible results are always accompanied by some defect or other demerit as fire is enveloped by its attendant smoke. Hence by regardless of the smoke the fire is used to remove darkness, cook food and alleviate cold; in the same way by the meritorious parts of all activities alone are to be accepted for the purification of the mind. This is what Lord Krishna means.

Commentary by Sri Madhvacharya of Brahma Sampradaya:

Serenity, self-restraint, austerity, purity, forbearance, righteousness, wisdom, knowledge and faith are the natural characteristics found to be the inherent attributes of Brahmins and Vaisnavas. Some of the attributes such as righteousness and wisdom are found in a lesser extent in ksatriyas of the royal, warrior class and in special cases powerful emperors such as Yudhisthira Maharaja who ruled the entire Earth possessed these attributes even equal to that of the Brahmins. King Janaka was renown for possessing great wisdom and forbearance as well as righteousness. King Kartavirya was known to be a saintly seer with knowledge of past, present and future. The ksatriyas in general are courageous, steadfast, fearless, resourceful and righteous. The vaisyas or agriculture and mercantile class are less restrained and austere then the ksatriyas due to always being involved in activities of profit and gain supplying society with the staples of life. Because of their service to others sudras or the menial class are serving the three higher classes. If a sudra is found to possess superior qualities then based on such exemplary attributes he may become qualified to receive initiation and become a Vaisnava Brahmin. Contrarily if one born in a Brahmin family exhibits degraded qualities such a meat eating and wine drinking they have lost their caste and should be known as a sudra. Among humans those that follow righteousness and purity which are divine attributes, follow the path of God.

Now begins the summation.

It is acknowledged that when each class performs their prescribed Vedic activities some attributes from another class have been known to manifest. For example a ksatriya may possess the attributes of serenity and self- restraint for in their absence propitiation to the Supreme Lord is not possible. Devotional activities unto the Supreme Lord require serenity of mind and restraint of the senses to be considered actual worship. This conforms to the earlier maxim that yagna or ritualistic activities of propitiation along with tapah or austerities and danam or charity should never be abandoned. The mind must be tranquil and the senses must be controlled and combined with purity, austerity and righteousness glorifies a ksatriya and are most appropriate and praiseworthy such as Emperor Yudisthira Maharaja’s immense wisdom and self restraint or like King Janaka’s exemplary equanimity and serenity. Yet the prime duty of ksatriyas is ruling and protecting the citizenry and so to be fearless in times of war never fleeing from the battlefield until victory is secured is what is exceptional and praiseworthy.

The preceding attributes apply to ksatriyas, the attributes of vaisyas are cow raising and cow protection along with farming and mercantile affairs. For the sudras it is loyal service to the other three classes for acquiring sustenance. Brahmins of course study and teach the Vedas, perform yagnas and receive donations. These are the perennial principles established by the Supreme Lord but do not apply to others outside the pantheon of Vedic culture.

Valour, courage, fearlessness, dexterity, resourcefulness, etc. are to be found primarily in ksatriyas, some Brahmins possess such qualities as well, vaisyas may show a little from them in times of adversity and in sudras they hardly exist at all. The Brahmins may exhibit such attributes according to situation but it is not for the sake of livelihood but rather to set an example for society and educate the noble minded. Educating society according to dharma the eternal principles of righteousness is the principle activity of the Vaisnavas and Brahmins to the ksatriyas and vaisyas who learn from them. The sudras are prohibited from studying the Vedic scriptures and thus their duty is to offer service to the other classes as a donation or for renumeration.

Sometimes in extraordinary circumstance due to the force and rapidity of events even the natural attributes have to abandoned and the enactment of contrary activities must be enacted in emergency for example to save one’s very life. Other times even those opposed to prescribed Vedic activities participate for their best interests and benefit. Yet for the spiritually qualified and evolved yagnas, tapah and danam must never be abandoned by the Vaisnavas and Brahmins as they are most auspicious and no other acts are more propitious.

Confiscating wealth obtained by unrighteous means, disciplining the disobedient, destroying parasitical economic power, imposing punishment and executions for heinous transgressions are the signs of the mighty and are enforced exclusively under the jurisdiction of the ksatriyas. The mleechas or low caste meat eaters and other outcastes who are not followers of the Vedic culture should be properly governed by the ksatriyas according to a minimum standard of adherence.

The Vaisnavas and Brahmins can punish their disciples without causing any bodily injury. The disciples who have voluntarily accepted the position as celibate student to learn the knowledge of the eternal Vedic scriptures and have been accepted by a Vaisnava spiritual master will learn their lesson and continue serving the guru. Teachers and relatives can administer punishment also ithout bodily harm according to the degree of the infraction. If a teacher is found to be defective due to following questionable activities then one should dispense with his services and according to applicable laws cancel the engagement. If an ordinary teacher unknowingly challenges one who is superior to him then this should be brought to his attention. They should be firmly disciplined but not abandoned as that would be offensive. Those teachers who are devoted to the Supreme Lord should never be abandoned or penalised as this would be opposed to righteousness. Disciples never have the right to criticise or chastise the Vaisnava spiritual master who gave one initiation into Krishna bhakti. Even if famous persons are seen performing activities contrary to the Vedic scriptures they should not be punished if such actions do not interfere with the mission of the spiritual master.

In times of adversity Brahmins may performed occupations ordained for ksatriyas or even vaisyas. But the sudras are never permitted to perform the occupations of the ksatriyas or Brahmins. Ksatriyas in adversity may perform the occupation of a vaisya and in extreme cases even the rites of the Brahmins but they are prohibited to beg for their food. Vaisyas in times of adversity may only accept the occupations of sudras and no other and become carpenters or blacksmiths, etc. which are known as the occupations of sudras. The sudras sometimes must accept the occupation of vaisyas but they are prohibited from any endeavour to study the Vedic scriptures. In times of greatest adversity a ksatriya may offer service to the Brahmins or otther well to do ksatriyas but they should never offer obeisance to their feet. It is not that such acts of a ksatriya are unworthy or ignoble for performed expressly for the purpose of concealing oneself incognito it is equal to even the activities of the Brahmins. The most meritorious actions are those sanctioned and ordered by the Vaisnava spiritual master, who are all followers of the Supreme Lord Krishna or any of His avatars or authorised incarnations and expansions revealed in Vedic scriptures. It is much more meritorious to follow the spiritual masters commands rather then to remain neutral not opposing him.

Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasadeva has stated that by the powerful arms of the ksatriyas and the spiritual wisdom and devotion to the Supreme Lord of the Vaisnava Brahmins, then the protection and evolution of the world is secured.

Commentary by Sri Keshava Kashmiri of Kumara Sampradaya:

It may be postulated that if prescribed Vedic activities qualify one for moksa or liberation from material existence then one should abandon deeds which are violent and lethal and strive exclusively for moksa. Lord Krishna refutes this conception with the word sahajam or according to one’s natural propensity. One should never relinquish their own ordained duty in favour of anothers because all endeavours are tainted by some defect or blemish just as fire is tainted by smoke. Although dispelling darkness and cold by providing heat and light fire is accompanied by smoke which burns the eyes and irritates the nose, similarly in the quest for moksa there will be some difficulties and irritations but without clarity of intention and purity of heart it will not be possible for moksa to be achieved. Hence on should perfom their natural duty with the intention to propitiate the Supreme Lord according to qualification and relinquish all desires for rewards. When the heart becomes pure then all imperfections are dissolved and dissappear. So by worshipping the Supreme Lord following one’s own natural prescribed duty one attains self-realisation and achieves moksa. The Isa Upanisad, verse 11 beginning vidyam cavidyam ca yas states: One who knows what is nescience and what is transcendence can overcome samsara the perpetual cycle of birth and death.

Commentary by Sri Adi Shankaracharya of Advaita Sampradaya:

18.48 Kaunteya, O son of Kunti; na tyajet, one should not give up;-what?-the karma, duty; sahajam, to which one is born, which devolves from the very birth; api, even though; it be sadosam, faulty, consisting as it is of the three gunas. Hi, for; sarva-arambhah, all undertakings (-whatever are begun are arambhah, i.e. ‘all actions’, according to the context-), being constituted by the three gunas (-here, the fact of being constituted by the three gunas is the cause-); are avrtah, surrounded; dosena, with evil; iva, as;; agnih, fire; is dhumena, with smoke, which comes into being concurrently. One does not get freed from evil by giving up the duty to which one is born-called one’s own duty-, even though (he may be) fulfilling somebody else’s duty. Another’s duty, too, is fraught with fear. The meaning is: Since action cannot be totally given up by an unelightened person, therefore he should not relinquish it. Opponent: Well, is it that one should not abandon action because it cannot be given up completely, or is it because evil [Evil resulting from discarding daily obligatory duties.] follows from the giving up of the duty to which one is born? Counter-objection: What follows from this? Opponent: If it be that the duty to which one is born should not be renounced because it is impossible to relinquish it totally, then the conclusion that can be arrived at is that complete renunciation (of duty) is surely meritorious! Counter-objection: Truly so. But, may it not be that total relinquishment is itself an impossibility? Is a person ever-changeful like the gunas of the Sankhyas, or is it that action itself is the agent, as it is in the case of the momentary five [Rupa (from), vedana (feeling), vijnana (momentary consciousness), sanjna (notion), samskara (mental impressions)-these have only momentary existence. In their case there can be no distinction between action and agent, simply due to the fact of their being momentary.] forms of mundane consciousness propounded by the Buddhists? In either case there can be no complete renunciation of action. Then there is also a third standpoint (as held by the Vaisesikas): When a thing acts it is active, and inactive when that very thing does not act. If this be the case here, it is possible to entirely give up actions. But the speciality of the third point of view is that a thing is not ever-changing, nor is action itself the agent. What then? A nonexistent action originates in an existing thing, and an existing action gets destroyed. The thing-in-itself continues to exist along with its power (to act), and that itself is the agent. This is what the followers of Kanada say. [Their view is that agentship consists in ‘possessing the power to act’, not in being the substratum of action.] What is wrong with this point of view. Vedantin: The defect indeed lies in this that, this veiw is not in accord with the Lord’s view. Objection: How is this known? Vedantin: Since the Lord as said, ‘Of the unreal there is no being…,’ etc. (2.16). The view of the followers of Kanada is, indeed, this that the non-existent becomes existent, and the existent becomes nonexistent. Objection: What defect can there be if it be that this view, even though not the view of the Lord, yet conforms to reason? Vedantin: The answer is: This is surely faulty since it contradicts all valid evidence. Objection: How? Vedantin: As to this, if things like a dvyanuka (dyad of two anus, atoms) be absolutely nonexistent before origination, and after origination continue for a little while, and again become absolutely non-existent, then, in that acase, the existent which was verily nonexistent comes into being, [Here Ast. adds, ‘sadeva asattvam apadyate, that which is verily existent becomes nonexistent’.-Tr.] a non-entity becomes an entity, and an entity becomes a non-entity! If this be the view, then the non-enity that is to take birth is comparable to the horns of a hare before it is born, and it comes into being with the help of what are called material (inherent), non-mateial (non-inherent) and efficient causes. But it cannot be said that nonexistence has origination in this way, or that it depends on some cause, since this is not seen in the case of nonexistent things like horns of a hare, etc. If such things as pot etc. which are being produced be of the nature of (potentially) existing things, then it can be accepted that they originate by depending on some cause which merely manifests them. [According to Vedanta, before origination a thing, e.g. a pot, remains latent in its material cause, clay for instance, with its name and form unexpressed, and it depends on other causes for the manifestation of name and form.] Moreover, if the nonexistent becomes existent, and the existent becomes non-existent, then nobody will have any faith while dealing with any of the means of valid knowledge objects of such knowledge, because the conviction will be lacking that the existent is existent and the nonexistent is nonexistent! Further, when they speak of origination, they (the Viasesikas) hold that such a thing as a dvyanuka (dyad) comes to have relationship with its own (material) causes (the two atoms) and existence, and that it is nonexistent before origination; but later on, depending on the operation of its own causes, it becomes connected with its own causes, viz the atoms, as also with existence, through the inherent (or inseparable) relationship called samavaya. After becoming connected, it becomes an existent thing by its inherent relationship with its causes. [The effect (dyad) has inherent relationship with existence after its material causes (the two atoms) come into association.] It has to be stated in this regard as to how the nonexistent can have an existent as its cuase, or have relationship with anything. For nobody can establish through any valid means of knowledge that a son of a barren woman can have any existence or relationship or cause. Vaisesika: Is it not that relationship of a non-existent thing is not at all established by the Vaisesikas? Indeed, what is said by them is that only existent entities like dvyanuka etc. have the relationship in the form of samavaya with their own causes. Vedantin: No, for it is not admitted (by them) that anything has existence before the (samavaya) relationship (occurs). It is surely not held by the Vaisesikas that a pot etc. have any existence before the potter, (his) stick, wheel, etc. start functioning. Nor do they admit that clay itself takes the shape of a pot etc. As a result, it has to be admitted (by them) as the last aternative that nonexistence itself has some relationship! Vaisesika: Well, it is not contradictory even for a nonexistent thing to have the relationship in the form of inherence. Vedantin: No, because this is not seen in the case of a son of a barren woman etc. If the antecedent nonexistence (prag-abhava) of the pot etc. alone comes into a relationship with its own (material) cause, but not so the nonexistence of the son of a barren woman etc. though as nonexistence both are the same, then the distinction between the (two) nonexistences has to be explained. Through such descriptions ( of abhava, nonexistence) as nonexistence of one, nonexistence of two, nonexistence of all, antecedent nonexistence, nonexistence after destruction, mutual nonexistence and absolute non-existence, nobody can show any distinction (as regards nonexistence itself)! There being no distinction, (therefore, to say that:) ‘it is only the “antecedent nonexistence” of the pot which takes the form of the pot through the (action of) the potter and others, and comes into a relationship with the existing pot-halves which are its own (material) causes and becomes fit for all empirical processes [Such as production, destruction, etc.] but the “nonexistence after destruction” of that very pot does not do so, though it, too, is nonexistence. Hence, the “nonexistence after destruction”, etc. [Etc. stands for ‘mutual nonexistence (anyonya-abhava)’ and ‘absolute nonexistence (atyanta-abhava)’.] are not fit for any empirical processes, whereas only the “antecedent nonexistence” of things called dvyanuka etc. is fit for such empirical processes as origination etc.’-all this is incongruous, since as nonexistence it is indistinguishable, as are ‘absolute nonexistence’ and ‘nonexistence after destruction’. Vaisesika: Well, it is not at all said by us that the ‘antecedent nonexistence’ becomes existent. Vedantin: In that case, the existent itself becomes existent , as for instance, a pot’s becoming a pot, or a cloth’s becoming a cloth. This, too, like nonexistence becoming existent, goes against valid evidence. Even the theory of transformation held by the Sankhyas does not differ from the standpoint of the Vaisesikas, since they believe in the origination of some new attribute [i.e. in the origination of a transformation that did not exist before.] and its destruction. Even if manifestation and disappearance of anything be accepted, yet there will be contradiction with valid means of knowledge as before in the explanation of existence or nonexistence of manifestation and disappearance. Hereby is also refuted the idea that origination etc. (of an effect) are merely particular states of its cuase. As thelast alternative, it is only the one entity called Existence that is imagined variously through ignorance to be possessed of the states of origination, destruction, etc. like an actor (on a stage). This veiw of the Lord has been stated in the verse, ‘Of the unreal there is no being…’ (2.16). For, the idea of existence is constant, while the others are inconstant. Objection: If the Self be immutable, then how does the ‘renunciation of all actions’ become illogical? Vedantin: If the adjuncts (i.e. body and organs) be real or imagined through ignorance, in either case, action, which is their attribute, is surely superimposed on the Self through ignorance. From this point of view it has been said that an unenlightened person is incapable of totally renouncing actions even for a moment (cf. 3.5). The enlightened person, on the other hand, can indeed totally renounce actions when ignorance has been dispelled through Illumination; for it is illogical that there can (then) remain any trace of what has been superimposed through ignorance. Indeed, no trace remains of the two moons, etc. superimposed by the vision affected by (the disease called) Timira when the desease is cured. This being so, the utterance, ‘having given up all actions mentally’ (5.13), etc. as also, ‘Being devoted to his own duty’ (45) and ‘A human being achieves ‘success by adoring Him through his own duties (46), becomes justifiable. What was verily spoken of as the success arising from Karma (-yoga), characterized as the fitness for steadfastness in Knowledge,-the fruit of that (fitness), characterized as ‘steadfastness in Knowledge’ consisting in the perfection in the form of the state of one (i.e. a monk) free from duties, has to be stated. Hence the (following) verse is begun:

Commentary by Sri Abhinavagupta of Kaula Tantra Sampradaya:

18.41-60 Brahmana – etc. upto avasopitat. Surely the intrinsic nature of the Brahmanas etc., does not voilate what has been difined (above) by way of classifying their duties. Therefore, as far as you are concerned, you have the intrinsic quality of the Ksatriya (warrior), and your nature i.e., intrinsic quality, does, without fail, assume the part of the inciter of yourself, even though you don’t like it. For, a person who acts simply being incited by that (natural condition), there is the strong bondage of the merit or demerit. Therefore, perform actions following the means of correct knowledge, taught by Me. In that case, the bondage would disappear. The intention of the principal sentence (statement of the entire passage under study) is to help to get this idea. The meaning of the subordinate sentences (statements) is evident. Briefly (verse 50) : in short. Knowledge : i.e. the one which has been explained earlier. Nistha conveys, avoiding verbal jugglary, the meaning ‘what has been determined’. He who is endowed with intellect totally pure etc. : All this has been almost explained already. Hence, no more trouble is taken [to comment upon it].

Sanskrit Shloka Without Transliteration Marks:

saha-jam karma kaunteya
sa-dosam api na tyajet
sarvarambha hi dosena
dhumenagnir ivavrtah

Sanskrit to English Word for Word Meanings:

saha-jam — born simultaneously; karma — work; kaunteya — O son of Kuntī; sa-doṣam — with fault; api — although; na — never; tyajet — one should give up; sarva-ārambhāḥ — all ventures; hi — certainly; doṣeṇa — with fault; dhūmena — with smoke; agniḥ — fire; iva — as; āvṛtāḥ — covered.