trai-guṇya-viṣayā vedā
nistrai-guṇyo bhavārjuna
nirdvandvo nitya-sattva-stho
niryoga-kṣema ātmavān

Translation of Bhagavad Gita 2.45

The Vedas deal mainly with the subject of the three modes of material nature. O Arjuna, become transcendental to these three modes. Be free from all dualities and from all anxieties for gain and safety, and be established in the self.

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

All material activities involve actions and reactions in the three modes of material nature. They are meant for fruitive results, which cause bondage in the material world. The Vedas deal mostly with fruitive activities to gradually elevate the general public from the field of sense gratification to a position on the transcendental plane. Arjuna, as a student and friend of Lord Krishna, is advised to raise himself to the transcendental position of Vedanta philosophy where, in the beginning, there is brahma-jijnasa, or questions on the supreme transcendence. All the living entities who are in the material world are struggling very hard for existence. For them the Lord, after creation of the material world, gave the Vedic wisdom advising how to live and get rid of the material entanglement. When the activities for sense gratification, namely the karma-kanda chapter, are finished, then the chance for spiritual realization is offered in the form of the Upanishads, which are part of different Vedas, as the Bhagavad-gita is a part of the fifth Veda, namely the Mahabharata. The Upanishads mark the beginning of transcendental life.

As long as the material body exists, there are actions and reactions in the material modes. One has to learn tolerance in the face of dualities such as happiness and distress, or cold and warmth, and by tolerating such dualities become free from anxieties regarding gain and loss. This transcendental position is achieved in full Krishna consciousness when one is fully dependent on the good will of Krishna.

Commentary by Sri Vishvanatha Chakravarthi Thakur of Gaudiya Sampradaya:

Give up all sadhanas of dharma, artha, kama and moksa, and just take shelter of bhakti yoga.

The Vedas have the ability to reveal only karma and jnana and other topics of the three modes (traigunya visaya) for personal gratification. The suffix ya in traigunya visaya here denotes self interest. This statement of course means that the majority of texts deal with material subjects. However the srutis do say:

bhaktir evainam nayati

Bhakti alone leads to the Lord. – Mathara Sruti

yasya deve para bhaktir yatha deve tatha gurau

One should have as much devotion in guru as one does in the Lord. Svetasvatara Upanisad 6.23

As well the pancaratra and smrti scriptures, and other srutis like the Gita Upanisad and Gopala Tapani Upanisad make nirguna bhakti the subject of discussion. If the Vedas did not speak of bhakti at all, then bhakti could not be substantiated.

Do not involve yourself with those statements of the Vedas dealing with jnana and karma affected by the three gunas (nistraigunya bhava). But you should always follow the Vedic statements dealing with bhakti. By following those injunctions, you are free from fault:

sruti-smrti-puranadi-pancaratra-vidhim vina aikantiki harer bhaktir utpatayaiva kalpyate

Without following the rules of sruti, smrti, puranas and pancaratra, pure bhakti to the Lord creates disaster. Bhakti Rasamrta Sindhu, 1.2.101 quoted from Brahma-yamala

By this, one can understand that the Vedas deal with both material and spiritual topics, topics involving the three gunas and topics beyond the gunas. But you should be devoid of the gunas (nistraigunya bhava).   By following the path of nirguna bhakti offered to me, cross over the paths dealing with the three gunas.

Then, such a person will be free of the dualities (nirdvandah) within the gunas, such as respect and disrespect, and will remain with the eternal living entities (nitya sattva), my devotees. If one were to say that nitya sattva sthah means to be situated in sattva guna, that would be a contradiction to the statement nistraigunya bhava.

You will be free from the desire to acquire what you lack (yoga) and protect what you have attained (ksema), because of your taste for my bhakti rasa. This is because I, out of affection for my devotee, carry the responsibility: yoga ksemam vahamy aham. (BG 9.22) You will be fixed in the intelligence (buddhi yukta) given by me (atmavan).

One should consider the meaning of nistraigunya and traigunya. It is said in the eleventh canto of Bhagavatam:

mad-arpanam nisphalam va sattvikam nija-karma yat rajasam phala-sankalpam himsa-prayadi tamasam

Work performed as an offering to Me, without consideration of the fruit, is considered to be in the mode of goodness. Work performed with a desire to enjoy the results is in the mode of passion. And work impelled by violence and envy is in the mode of ignorance. SB 11.25.23

In this statement nisphalam va means “occasionally devoid of desires for the results of execution of duties.”

kaivalyam sattvikam jnanam rajo vaikalpikam ca yat prakrtam tamasam jnanam man-nistham nirgunam smrtam

Absolute knowledge is in the mode of goodness, knowledge based on duality is in the mode of passion, and foolish, materialistic knowledge is in the mode of ignorance. Knowledge based upon Me, however, is understood to be transcendental. SB 11.25.24

vanam tu sattviko vaso gramo rajasa ucyate tamasam dyuta-sadanam man-niketam tu nirgunam

Residence in the forest is in the mode of goodness, residence in a town is in the mode of passion, residence in a gambling house displays the quality of ignorance, and residence in a place where I reside is transcendental. SB 11.25.25

sattvikah karako ‘sangi ragandho rajasah smrtah tamasah smrti-vibhrasto nirguno mad-apasrayah

A worker free of attachment is in the mode of goodness; a worker blinded by personal desire is in the mode of passion, and a worker who has completely forgotten how to tell right from wrong is in the mode of ignorance. But a worker who has j taken shelter of Me is understood to be transcendental to the modes of nature. SB 11.25.26

sattvikyadhyatmiki sraddha karma-sraddha tu rajasi tamasy adharme ya sraddha mat-sevayam tu nirguna

Faith directed toward spiritual life is in the mode of goodness, faith rooted in fruitive work is in the mode of passion, faith residing in irreligious activities is in the mode of ignorance, but faith in My devotional service is purely transcendental. SB 11.25.27

pathyam putam anayastam aharyam sattvikam smrtam rajasam cendriya-prestham tamasam carti-dasuci

Food that is wholesome, pure and obtained without difficulty is in the mode of goodness, food that gives immediate pleasure j to the senses is in the mode of passion, and food that is unclean and causes distress is in the mode of ignorance. SB 11.25.28

sattvikam sukham atmottham visayottham tu rajasam tamasam moha-dainyottham nirgunam mad-apasrayam

Happiness derived from the self is in the mode of goodness, happiness based on sense gratification is in the mode of passion, and happiness based on delusion and degradation is in the mode of ignorance. But that happiness found within Me is transcendental. SB 11.25.29

The last verses, after showing the objects in the three modes of nature, explain the conquest of the three modes situated to some degree within oneself by the process of nirguna bhakti, in order to reach complete transcendence of the modes.

dravyam desas tatha kalo jnanam karma ca karakah sraddhavastha-krtir nistha traigunyah sarva eva hi

Therefore material substance, place, result of activity, time, knowledge, work, the performer of work, faith, state of consciousness, species of life and destination after death are all based on the three modes of material nature. SB 11.25.30

sarve gunamaya bhavah purusavyakta-dhisthitah drstam srutam anudhyatam buddhya va purusarsabha

O best of human beings, all states of material being are related to the interaction of the enjoying soul and material nature. Whether seen, heard of or only conceived within the mind, they are without exception constituted of the modes of nature. SB. 11.25.31

etah samsrtayah pumso guna-karma-nibandhanah yeneme nirjitah saumya gunajivena cittajah bhakti-yogena man-nistho mad-bhavaya prapadyate

O gentle Uddhava, all these different phases of conditioned life arise from work born of the modes of material nature. The living entity who conquers these modes, manifested from the mind by the process of devotional service, can dedicate himself to Me and thus attain pure love for Me. SB 11.25.32
Thus, only by the process of bhakti can one conquer over the three modes. There is no other way. Later, in answer to the question, “How can one surpass the three modes of nature?” the Lord says:

mam ca yo ‘vyabhicarena bhakti-yogena sevate
sa gunan samatityaitan brahma-bhuyaya kalpate
BG 14.26

Sridhara Swami explains that verse as follows: the ca word indicates exclusiveness. He who serves only me, the Supreme Lord, through undeviating bhakti yoga, surpasses the gunas.

Commentary by Sri Ramanuja of Sri Sampradaya:

2.45 The word Traigunya means the three Gunas — Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Here the term Traigunya denotes persons in whom Sattva, Rajas and Tamas are in abundance. The Vedas in prescribing desire-oriented rituals (Kamya-karmas) have such persons in view. Because of their great love, the Vedas teach what is good to those in whom Tamas, Rajas and Sattva preponderate. If the Vedas had not explained to these persons the means for the attainment of heaven etc., according to the Gunas, then those persons who are not interested in liberation owing to absence of Sattva and preponderance of Rajas and Tamas in them, would get completely lost amidst what should not be resorted to, without knowing the means for attaining the results they desire. Hence the Vedas are concerned with the Gunas. Be you free from the three Gunas. Try to acquire Sattva in abundance; increase that alone. The purport is: do not nurse the preponderance of the three Gunas in their state of inter-mixture; do not cultivate such preponderance. Be free from the pairs of opposites; be free from all the characteristics of worldly life. Abide in pure Sattva; be established in Sattva, in its state of purity without the admixture of the other two Gunas. If it is questioned how that is possible, the reply is as follows. Never care to acquire things nor protect what has been acquired. While abandoning the acquisition of what is not required for self-realisation, abandon also the conservation of such things already acquired. You can thus be established in self-control and thereby become an aspirant after the essentail nature of the self. ‘Yoga’ is acquisition of what has not been acquired; ‘Ksema’ is preservation of things already acquired. Abandoning these is a must for an aspirant after the essential nature of the self. If you conduct yourself in this way, the preponderance of Rajas and Tamas will be annihilated, and pure Sattva will develop. Besides, all that is taught in the Vedas is not fit to be utilised by all.

Commentary by Sri Sridhara Swami of Rudra Sampradaya:

It may be submitted that if heaven and enjoyment of heavenly realms is not the highest goal, why do the Vedic scriptures prescribes duties and rites as a means of attaining them ? The answer to this is being given in this verse that the Vedas mainly deal with those aspirants who influenced by fruitive desires are controlled by the three modes of material nature. This means that aspirants are given the incentive of reward by adhering to specific activities for a specific period of time to get a specific result. But Arjuna is being instructed by the Supreme Lord to be above the three modes of material existence and free from desires remain beyond the dualities of happiness and misery, pleasure and pain and the rest by enduring them. How is this to be accomplished? By remaining always established in the pure light of spiritual consciousness that is being steadfast. Likewise regardless of gain which is accepting what one has not or preservation which protecting what one already possesses without any exertion for either. Established in the self denotes vigilance. Certainly it is not possible for one influenced by the dualities of opposites, embroiled merely in the acquisition and preservation of tangible things to transcend the three modes of material nature inadvertently.

Commentary by Sri Madhvacharya of Brahma Sampradaya:

Up until this verse the intelligence of yoga which is the individual consciousness attaining communion with the Ultimate consciousness and other matters regarding the three modes of material existence being goodness, passion and ignorance has been discussed. The Vedic scriptures give the outward appearance of having as their purpose in relating how those living entities in goodness, passion and ignorance can achieve the joys of the heavenly spheres. But the Vedic scriptures also contain confidential meanings as well and thus it has been instructed by Lord Krishna not to accept only the external form of the Vedic scriptures; but to understand the Vedic scriptures by the light of the confidential meanings.

It is also declared that unauthorised interpretations by those outside disciplic succession within the Vedic culture and of course to all the unqualified interpretations by those who are not even attempting to follow the Vedic culture must bring about doubts and confusion even if they do not deny the truth because although they may possess adequate academic intelligence they are not properly situated in spiritual intelligence.

In all the Vedic scriptures which include the Ramayana, the Puranas, Upanisads and Mahabharata, the Supreme Lord Krishna and His direct expansions and incarnations are continuously eulogised in the beginning, middle and end. All the Vedic scriptures speak of His form.

All of the Vedic scriptures and their revelations, the historical activities of the noble and the knowledge revealed regarding the soul are all based on dharma or eternal righteousness. What the Vedic scriptures speak as dharma is righteouness and whatever is contrary to righteousness is spoken of as adharma. Thus in the Vedic scriptures the supremacy of the Supreme Lord Krishna as ever residing within the heart of every living entity is declared and anything in harmony with this understanding in known as dharma or righteousness and anything contrary to this understanding is known as adharma or unrighteousness.

Now begins the summation.

The Vedic scriptures are known for speaking about the three modes of material existence being the qualities of goodness, passion and ignorance because they give instructions about ameliorating the effect of these three modes of material existence. Taking full protection of the Vedic scriptures those of spiritual intelligence free themselves from the three modes of material existence and become fully devoted to the Supreme Lord Krishna. Because all of the qualities and attributes and activities of the Supreme Lord Krishna are in themselves the Ultimate Truth and also because he is situated in the heart of every living entity as the Ultimate Consciousness in the soul; meditating on Him incessantly situates one unceasingly in the Ultimate Truth. The Supreme Lord is within every living entity, recognising this eternal truth is spiritual intelligence and is understood to be an eternal principle of existence. This clearly elucidates that any idea or conception of being the same, non-different or one with him is categorically negated because it is not possible for anyone to be within the heart of every living entity; so the Supreme Lord simultaneous seperatness and oneness can thus be correctly comprehended.

When Lord Krishna speaks about being free from gain and preservation this does not mean to deny the things one needs to survive and flourish but relates only to having desires for acquisition of possessions; or else one would be forced to conclude that such instructions such as arise and be equipoised would have no relevance.

Since the injunctions of Vedic scriptures are the means of ameliorating the three modes of material existence, the Vedic scriptures are often spoken of as being the objective of the theses three modes.

Taking refuge in the Vedic scriptures a living entity can be emancipated from the material existence and gains the heavenly planets but taking refuge solely in the Supreme Lord Krishna one attains the spiritual world and is thus far superior. This living entity possessing noble attributes, being ever in goodness, illuminated in the self the soul becomes an ever source of illumination. Continuous remembrance of the Supreme Lord Krishna is ever present within. The full acceptance of the Supreme Lord verily within ones own-self effectively dissolves any conception of being one and the same with the Supreme Lord. This means that one should not only abstain from undertaking any action contrary to realisation of the Ultimate Truth but also one should also refrain from even having any desire for any action which would be contrary to realising the Ultimate Truth.

Commentary by Sri Keshava Kashmiri of Kumara Sampradaya:

If the rewards like heaven are of such an impermanent nature then why do the Vedas which are eternally perfect and beneficial for all beings enjoin practices aimed at achieving heavenly spheres. To answer this Lord Krishna states that the Vedic scriptures deals with the three modes of material nature which are goodness, passion and ignorance and all beings are born into these three modes of material nature. Some beings have a preponderance for goodness, others for passion and others for ignorance while some are mixed. These modes are conditioned within the mind and they typify the three types of created beings. With exception of the Upanisads the Vedic scriptures dealing with the three modes gives prescribed activities and their results. Whatsoever one desires to obtain in heaven the prescription is enjoined for them to achieve it and the description of the various rewards are eulogised as well as the rituals for their fulfilment. If the Vedas were not to reveal and elaborate a way for those within the three modes to benefit themselves according to the three modes of material nature. Then those locked in the cycle of birth and death would forfeit both their opportunities. Firstly unaware of the reward of liberation beyond the three modes and thus being oblivious to it would miss it altogether and secondly if their was no material goal which they could strive for they would lose faith in spiritual knowledge without rituals and practices giving them the means to acquire their cherished goals such as heavenly delights and thus they would lose both chances bequeathed to them with birth into material existence. So it is justly so that the Vedic scriptures deal with the three modes of material nature as they explain the rituals that bring benefits for all those subject to the influence of these modes. But Lord Krishna is instructing through Arjuna to be free from desires of reward and go beyond the influence of the three modes maintaining no faith in heaven and the rituals prescribed for enjoyment therein for these things are temporary even though they are enjoined in the scriptures.

It may be put forth that one may become indifferent to heavenly delights but that the basic requirements for human existence such as food, clothing and shelter which are also veritable modifications of the three modes of material nature are impossible to ignore and become indifferent too. In answer to this Lord Krishna explains to be free from dualities like praise and blame, heat and cold, pleasure and pain. Being free from them means being unattached to them. How is this to be done? By enduring them and becoming established in pure spiritual consciousness. Its characteristic is patience and endurance uninfluenced by passion or covered by ignorance. One should always be tempered by patience for one without patience is easily overpowered by passion and ignorance and becomes uncontrolled and fearful in situations involving the three modes of material nature. So we should overcome the hindrances of passion and ignorance and maintain a balanced state of equilibrium.

But in all this one with worldly possessions desirous of increasing and protecting them may wonder how they may maintain themselves in the material nature. To this Lord Krishna reiterates niryoga-ksema become free from conceptions of acquisition and preservation. But how then would one sustain their lives? By atmavan firmly established in spiritual consciousness of the soul. The essence is to understand that the Supreme Lord is the fulfiller and bestower of all desires. So one should only seek His refuge and accept His shelter. Never fear nor seek any other succour from any other source for the Supreme Lord will provide all sustenance and maintenance to those who understanding Him are fully surrendered.

Commentary by Sri Adi Shankaracharya of Advaita Sampradaya:

2.45 To those who are thus devoid of discriminating wisdom, who indulge in pleasure, [Here Ast. adds ‘yat phalam tad aha, what result accrues, that the Lord states:’-Tr.] O Arjuna, vedah, the Vedas; traigunya-visayah, have the three qualities as their object, have the three gunas, [Traigunya means the collection of the three qualities, viz sattva (purity), rajas (energy) and tamas (darkness); i.e. the collection of virtuous, vicious and mixed activities, as also their results. In this derivative sense traigunya means the worldly life.] i.e. the worldly life, as the object to be revealed. But you bhava, become; nistraigunyah, free from the three qualities, i.e. be free from desires. [There is a seeming conflict between the advices to be free from the three qualities and to be ever-poised in the quality of sattva. Hence, the Commentator takes the phrase nistraigunya to mean niskama, free from desires.] (Be) nirdvandvah, free from the pairs of duality — by the word dvandva, duality, are meant the conflicting pairs [Of heat and cold, etc.] which are the causes of happiness and sorrow; you become free from them. [From heat, cold, etc. That is, forbear them.] You become nitya-sattvasthah, ever-poised in the quality of sattva; (and) so also niryoga-ksemah, without (desire for) acquisition and protection. Yoga means acquisition of what one has not, and ksema means the protection of what one has. For one who as ‘acquisition and protection’ foremost in his mind, it is difficult to seek Liberation. Hence, you be free from acquisition and protection. And also be atmavan, self-collected, vigilant. This is the advice given to you while you are engaged in your own duty. [And not from the point of view of seeking Liberation.]

Commentary by Sri Abhinavagupta of Kaula Tantra Sampradaya:

2.45 Traigunya-etc. The Vedas bind very much [only] by means of the three Strands and they do not bind on their own accord. For, the rituals prescribed in the Vedas, create bondage if they are performed with an intention of pleasure, or of (avoiding) pain, or with an illlusion of attachment. Hence the traid of Strands in the form of desire (or in a pleasing form) must be abandoned. If the present passage were intended to condemn the Vedas, then the act of fighting the battle in question would be spoiled, because there is nothing other than the Vedas do not bind those, from whom the desire for fruit has completely gone. Because the Vedas alone are useful for proper knowledge in the case of those persons [free from the Strands] hence [the Lord] says-

Sanskrit Shloka Without Transliteration Marks:

trai-gunya-visaya veda
nistraigunyo bhavarjuna
nirdvandvo nitya-sattva-stho
niryoga-ksema atmavan

Sanskrit to English Word for Word Meanings:

trai-guṇya — pertaining to the three modes of material nature; viṣayāḥ — on the subject matter; vedāḥ — Vedic literatures; nistrai-guṇyaḥ — transcendental to the three modes of material nature; bhava — be; arjuna — O Arjuna; nirdvandvaḥ — without duality; nitya-sattva-sthaḥ — in a pure state of spiritual existence; niryoga-kṣemaḥ — free from ideas of gain and protection; ātma-vān — established in the self.