na karmaṇām anārambhān
naiṣkarmyaḿ puruṣo ‘śnute
na ca sannyasanād eva
Translation of Bhagavad Gita 3.4
Not by merely abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from reaction, nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection.
Commentary by Sri A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada of Gaudiya Sampradaya:
The renounced order of life can be accepted when one has been purified by the discharge of the prescribed form of duties which are laid down just to purify the hearts of materialistic men. Without purification, one cannot attain success by abruptly adopting the fourth order of life (sannyasa). According to the empirical philosophers, simply by adopting sannyasa, or retiring from fruitive activities, one at once becomes as good as Narayana. But Lord Krishna does not approve this principle. Without purification of heart, sannyasa is simply a disturbance to the social order. On the other hand, if someone takes to the transcendental service of the Lord, even without discharging his prescribed duties, whatever he may be able to advance in the cause is accepted by the Lord (buddhi-yoga). Sv-alpam apy asya dharmasya trayate mahato bhayat. Even a slight performance of such a principle enables one to overcome great difficulties.
Commentary by Sri Vishvanatha Chakravarthi Thakur of Gaudiya Sampradaya:
This verse explains that without purity of heart, jnana does not take place. By not engaging in activities recommended in the scriptures, one cannot attain jnana (naiskarmyam). One with an impure heart cannot attain jnana by renunciation of activities recommended in the scriptures (sannyasat).
Commentary by Sri Ramanuja of Sri Sampradaya:
3.4 Not by non-performance of the acts prescribed by the scriptures, does a person attain freedom from Karma, i.e., Jnana Yoga; nor by ceasing to perform such actions as are prescribed in the scriptures and are already begun by him. For, success is achieved by actions done without attachment to the fruits and by way of worshipping the Supreme Person. Hence devoid of it (Karma-nistha), one does not achieve Jnana-nistha. By those persons who have not worshipped Govinda by acts done without attachment to fruits and whose beginningless and endless accumulation of evil has not been annulled thereby, constant contemplation on the self is not possible. It can be done only if it is preceded by the attainment of a state in which the operation of the senses have been freed from disturbance. This view is put forward by the Lord:
Commentary by Sri Sridhara Swami of Rudra Sampradaya:
Therefore until the light of knowledge dawns within a completely purified mind prescribed actions in the Vedic scriptures must be performed for purification by the different castes in various stages of life called varna- asrama. This is what Lord Krishna is explaining here. Otherwise due to a lack of purity in the mind spiritual knowledge will not manifest. This is the purport. In the Brihad IV.IV.XXII it states: The renunciates realising the Supreme Lord became liberated. So it can be understood that renunciation leads to moksa or liberation. But there might arise the question that if moksa is the result of renunciation then what is the need for actions? Apprehending such a doubt the verse states na ca sannyasanad eva meaning not only by renunciation. The import is that renunciation alone is not sufficient in itself to attain moksa if there is not sufficient spiritual knowledge accompanying it.
Commentary by Sri Madhvacharya of Brahma Sampradaya:
The actions Lord Krishna is referring to in this verse are the ordained actions prescribed in the Vedic scriptures. By the abstention of ordained actions or by the renunciation of ordained actions one will not ever be able to achieve moksa or liberation. By the cultivation of spiritual knowledge only is liberation possible. This is the purport. Why is this so? Because of the word purusah in the verse meaning person. The jiva or living entity is enclosed in a subtle body along with a corporal body. If by abstention of action moksa was possible then it would be available to inanimate things as well. Neither by the abstention of actions or the absence of reactions from the renunciation of actions will liberation come into effect.
The effects we are experiencing in the present life are reactions both positive and negative caused by our innumerable actions in previous lives. It is not that all the reactions have been terminated at birth, Males up to the end of 14 years and females up to the end of 10 years complete their life span of the effects of prior activities from past births. Living entities are capable of innumerable actions even in a single lifetime and each of these actions may be the cause of a future birth or even result in many future lives. Contrarily by performing even a single action one can receive a human life which is the culmination and conclusion of all one’s remaining lives. Thus accumulation of actions can never end indefinitely.
The Brahma Purana states that: The primordial world is eternal and so are the effects of actions. Therefore how can there be release from actions without realisation of the Supreme Lord? If the primordial world came about by accident without any relation ship with casual actions then how could there be any relationship between human beings and the primordial world? The state of being liberated can only be achieved by one who is completely free from all desires including the desire for liberation. All desires are manifesting as appropriate and inappropriate actions. Factually it is the absence of desires that result in the state of liberation. Actions performed without desire for rewards with spiritual consciousness contribute to the fulfilment of liberation. When fulfilment is achieved one attains the ultimate consciousness and liberation is automatically included. By performing actions in this manner a living being becomes verily a being of non-action. Renunciation is relinquishing the desire for rewards attached to appropriate actions as Lord Krishna explains later in chapter XVIII verse two kamyanam karmanam nyasam meaning the renouncing of fruitive activities. Performing actions in spiritual consciousness without desire leads to liberation. For one who has become effulgent, purified by actions performed in spiritual consciousness, renunciation appears in their heart. Only one with a pure heart, free from desire and attachment is known as one situated in spiritual knowledge. Just as one seeing delightful things in a dream does not let that interfere for a moment the pleasures of daily life. For such a one there is no clarity in the principles nor faith in the Vedic injunctions.
A counterpoint may be raised that if the absence of desire for reward is the means for moksa then why not give up actions altogether giving no opportunity for the fruits to manifest. This opinion is neutralised in the verse by na ca sannyasanad eva meaning not only by renunciation. So it should be understood that not by mere absence of desires or even the absence of actions that liberation can be achieved but the performance of actions without desire for reward is the essential ingredient to understand.
It should be understood that renunciation is primarily for deep meditation and reflection of the resplendent Supreme Lord. This way is not suitable for those in the grihasta ashram or householder life with wife and children and who must be engrossed daily in so many material functions to provide for their family. But in later life when the children are grown the householder who by dint of actions has acquired a meditative mind can also become eligible for renunciation and please the Lord. The Supreme Lord is exceedingly pleased by those who practice renunciation. In the Narayanakshara Kalpa it is said that: Among all initiations the one that is made in the stage of renunciation is the topmost and most pleasing to the Supreme Lord. The demi-gods and many well known great and pious kings of yore in India while performing myriad’s of actions for universal management and world order always kept their minds focused on the Supreme. Therefore even when they were engaged in activities their minds never wavered from Him and the Supreme Lord Krishna was pleased.
Commentary by Sri Keshava Kashmiri of Kumara Sampradaya:
It has been established that activities prescribed in the Vedic scriptures performed without anticipation of rewards are conducive for spiritual developement. Without this inner consciousness one is not qualified for jnana yoga or the cultivation of spiritual knowledge. Many may wish for moksa or liberation and attempt to renounce the world prematurely but they do not reach perfection only by such renunciation. This is verified in the verse by the words na eva sanyasanat meaning not merely by renunciation. So it should be understood that without purity of mind and adequate spiritual knowledge a person even though appearing to be a renunciate actually has not properly qualified themselves for jnana yoga in spite of appearances.
Commentary by Sri Adi Shankaracharya of Advaita Sampradaya:
3.4 Purusah, a person; na does not; asnute, attain; naiskarmyam, freedom from action, the state of being free from action, steadfastness in the Yoga of Knowledge, i.e. the state of abiding in one’s own Self which is free from action; anarambhat, by abstaining; karmanam, from actions-by the non-performance of actions such as sacrifices etc. which are or were performed in the present or past lives, which are the causes of the purification of the mind by way of attenuating the sins incurred, and which, by being the cause of that (purification), become the source of steadfastness in Knowledge through the generation of Knowledge, as stated in the Smrti (text), ‘Knowledge arises in a person from the attenuation of sinful acts’ [the whole verse is: Jnanam utpadyate pumsamksayatpapasya karmanah; Yathadarsatalaprakhye pasyatyatmanamatmani. ‘Knowledge arises…acts. One sees the Self in oneself as does one (see oneself) in a cleaned surface of a mirror’.-Tr.] (Mbh. Sa. 204.8). This is the import. From the statement that one does not attain freedom from action by abstaining from actions, it may be concluded that one attains freedom from action by following the opposite course of performing actions. What, again, is the reason that one does not attain freedom from action by abstaining from actions? The answer is: Because performing actions is itself a means to freedom from action. Indeed, there can be no attainment of an end without (its) means. And Karma-yoga is the means to the Yoga of Knowledge characterized by freedom from action, because it has been so established in the Upanisads and here as well. As for the Upanisads, it has been shown in the texts, ‘The Brahmanas seek to know It through the study of the Vedas, sacrifices, (charity, and austerity consisting in a dispassionate enjoyment of sense-objects)’ (Br. 4.4.22), etc. whch deal with the means of realizing the goal of Knowledge under discussion, viz the Realm of the Self, that the Yoga of Karma is a means to the Yoga of Knowledge . And even here (in the Gita), the Lord will established that, ‘But, O mighty-armed one, renunciation is hard to attain without (Karma-)yoga’ (5.6); ‘By giving up attachment, the yogis undertake work…for the purification of themselves’ (5.11); ‘Sacrifice, charity and austerity are verily the purifiers of the wise’ (18.5), etc. Objection: Is it not that in such texts as-‘Extending to all creatures immunity from fear’ (Na. Par. 5.43), (one should take recourse to freedom from action)-, it is shown that attainment of freedom from action follows even from the renunciation of obligatory duties? And in the world, too, it is a better known fact that freedom from action follows abstention from actions. Hence also arises the question, ‘Why should one who desires freedom from action undertake action?’ Reply: Therefore the Lord said: Na ca, nor; samadhi-gacchati, does he attain; siddhim, fulfilment steadfastness in the Yoga of Knowledge, characterized by freedom from action; sannyasanat eva, merely through renunciation-even from the mere renunciation of actions which is devoid of Knowledge. What, again, is the reason that by the mere giving up of actions which is not accompanied with Knowledge, a person does not attain fulfulment in the form of freedom from actions? To this query seeking to know the cause, the Lord says:
Commentary by Sri Abhinavagupta of Kaula Tantra Sampradaya:
3.4 See Comment under 3.5
Sanskrit Shloka Without Transliteration Marks:
na karmanam anarambhan
naiskarmyam puruso ‘snute
na ca sannyasanad eva
Sanskrit to English Word for Word Meanings:
na — not; karmaṇām — of prescribed duties; anārambhāt — by nonperformance; naiṣkarmyam — freedom from reaction; puruṣaḥ — a man; aśnute — achieves; na — nor; ca — also; sannyasanāt — by renunciation; eva — simply; siddhim — success; samadhigacchati — attains.