kiḿ karma kim akarmeti
kavayo ‘py atra mohitāḥ
tat te karma pravakṣyāmi
yaj jñātvā mokṣyase ‘śubhāt

Translation of Bhagavad Gita 4.16

Even the intelligent are bewildered in determining what is action and what is inaction. Now I shall explain to you what action is, knowing which you shall be liberated from all misfortune.

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

Action in Krishna consciousness has to be executed in accord with the examples of previous bona fide devotees. This is recommended in the 15th verse. Why such action should not be independent will be explained in the text to follow.

To act in Krishna consciousness, one has to follow the leadership of authorized persons who are in a line of disciplic succession as explained in the beginning of this chapter. The system of Krishna consciousness was first narrated to the sun-god, the sun-god explained it to his son Manu, Manu explained it to his son Ikshavaku, and the system is current on this earth from that very remote time. Therefore, one has to follow in the footsteps of previous authorities in the line of disciplic succession. Otherwise even the most intelligent men will be bewildered regarding the standard actions of Krishna consciousness. For this reason, the Lord decided to instruct Arjuna in Krishna consciousness directly. Because of the direct instruction of the Lord to Arjuna, anyone who follows in the footsteps of Arjuna is certainly not bewildered.

It is said that one cannot ascertain the ways of religion simply by imperfect experimental knowledge. Actually, the principles of religion can only be laid down by the Lord Himself. Dharmam tu sakshad bhagavat-pranitam (Bhag. 6.3.19). No one can manufacture a religious principle by imperfect speculation. One must follow in the footsteps of great authorities like Brahma, Shiva, Narada, Manu, the Kumaras, Kapila, Prahlada, Bhishma, Shukadeva Gosvami, Yamaraja, Janaka, and Bali Maharaja. By mental speculation one cannot ascertain what is religion or self-realization. Therefore, out of causeless mercy to His devotees, the Lord explains directly to Arjuna what action is and what inaction is. Only action performed in Krishna consciousness can deliver a person from the entanglement of material existence.

Commentary by Sri Vishvanatha Chakravarthi Thakur of Gaudiya Sampradaya:

Moreover, action is not to be performed by the intelligent person just in an imitative way, but after having understood its varieties. First, the difficulty in understanding karma is described.

Commentary by Sri Ramanuja of Sri Sampradaya:

4.16 What is the form of the action which should be done by an aspirant for liberation? And what is non-action? Knowledge about the true nature of the acting self, is spoken of as non-action. The wise, even the learned scholars, are puzzled, i.e., do not truly know, both these — the proper form of the actions to be performed and the proper form of knowledge included in it. I shall teach you that action which includes knowledge within itself. Knowing, i.e., following it, you will be released from evil, i.e., from the bondage of Samsara. Knowledge about the work to be performed results in its performance. Why is it so difficult to know this Karma? Sri Krsna replies:

Commentary by Sri Sridhara Swami of Rudra Sampradaya:

Beginning from the previous four verse where Lord Krishna explains: In whatever way one worships Him then that offering He will accept. By this He refuted any conception of partiality of God and allowed Him to propound karma yoga or the performance of prescribed Vedic activities according to status and position in life. Thus knowing that actions performed without egoism do not bind one to material nature. Ancient seekers of moksa or liberation such as King Janaka the father of Sita who performed great deeds of yore for the benefit of the world and for purification of their minds. Therefore Lord Krishna is encouraging Arjuna to follow in their footsteps.

Commentary by Sri Madhvacharya of Brahma Sampradaya:

Even after realising the eternally, transcendental position of the Supreme Lord one should still perform Vedic actions as a matter of principle following the tradition of the ancients. The performance of Vedic actions of the ancients means without desires or attachments.

Commentary by Sri Keshava Kashmiri of Kumara Sampradaya:

So Lord Krishna sums up His conclusion for this theme by stating that having known that He is completely free from desire and attachment although performing such magnificent activities like creation of all the worlds He is never implicated by it. But great beings like Manu and Janaka performed actions according to the injunctions of the Vedic scriptures and being free from egoism without desire for rewards also achieved moksa or liberation as such actions are never binding. Therefore Arjuna and anyone else should perform such actions following in their footsteps as they have come down through the ages in parampara or diciplic succession.

Commentary by Sri Adi Shankaracharya of Advaita Sampradaya:

4.16 Kavayah api, even the intelligent; mohitah, are confounded in this subject of action etc.; iti atra, as to; kim karma, what is action; and kim akarma, what is inaction. Therefore, pravaksyami, I shall tell; te, you; of karma, action; akarma ca, as also of inaction; jnatva, by knowing; yat, which-action etc.; moksyase, you will become free: asubhat, from evil, from transmigration. ‘And you should not think thus: What is called karma is the movement of the body etc. as are well-known in the world; and akarma, inaction, is not doing those, (i.e.) sitting quietly. What is there to understand (further) in that regard?’ ‘Why?’ The answer is:

Commentary by Sri Abhinavagupta of Kaula Tantra Sampradaya:

4.16-17 Kim karma etc. Karmanah etc. The classification of [good] action and non-action is difficult to comprehend. That is to say there is bad action even among the action that has been ordained [in the scriptures], just as the animal-slaughter in the [pious] Agnistoma sacrifice. Again, even in the midst of action, that goes against [the scripture], there is auspicious action; for example there is an end for the trouble of the people in the act of killing a murderous animal. Even in the case of non-performance of action, there do exist [both] the auspicious and inauspicious acts; for there will be necessarily [some] acts performed by the sense of speech and by the mind as they are difficult to avoid without wisdom. Therefore on account of its mysterious nature, even hte experts have not properly understood the action as : ‘Prosperity would be for as by this [particular] auspicious action; and emancipation would be for us by that [particular] non-undertaking of [certain] actions’. Therefore, it is the fire of wisdom taught in the sequel, that alone is capable of positively burning down the fuel of all the auspicious and inauspicious actions; and hence that is to be sought after as a refuge. This is what is intended by the Bhagavat. In order to calrify the same, [the Lord] says –

Sanskrit Shloka Without Transliteration Marks:

kim karma kim akarmeti
kavayo ‘py atra mohitah
tat te karma pravaksyami
yaj jnatva moksyase ‘subhat

Sanskrit to English Word for Word Meanings:

kim — what is; karma — action; kim — what is; akarma — inaction; iti — thus; kavayaḥ — the intelligent; api — also; atra — in this matter; mohitāḥ — are bewildered; tat — that; te — unto you; karma — work; pravakṣyāmi — I shall explain; yat — which; jñātvā — knowing; mokṣyase — you will be liberated; aśubhāt — from ill fortune.