karmaṇo hy api boddhavyaḿ
boddhavyaḿ ca vikarmaṇaḥ
akarmaṇaś ca boddhavyaḿ
gahanā karmaṇo gatiḥ

Translation of Bhagavad Gita 4.17

The intricacies of action are very hard to understand. Therefore one should know properly what action is, what forbidden action is, and what inaction is.

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

If one is serious about liberation from material bondage, one has to understand the distinctions between action, inaction and unauthorized actions. One has to apply oneself to such an analysis of action, reaction and perverted actions because it is a very difficult subject matter. To understand Krishna consciousness and action according to its modes, one has to learn one’s relationship with the Supreme; i.e., one who has learned perfectly knows that every living entity is an eternal servitor of the Lord and that consequently one has to act in Krishna consciousness. The entire Bhagavad-gita is directed toward this conclusion. Any other conclusions, against this consciousness and its attendant actions, are vikarmas, or prohibited actions. To understand all this one has to associate with authorities in Krishna consciousness and learn the secret from them; this is as good as learning from the Lord directly. Otherwise, even the most intelligent persons will be bewildered.

Commentary by Sri Vishvanatha Chakravarthi Thakur of Gaudiya Sampradaya:

One should understand the truth about vikarma – that performance of forbidden actions leads to misery. As for the truth about akarma, avoidance of action by the sannyasi, how can that lead to auspiciousness? How will one obtain the highest goal without knowing the truth about these? The real truth (gati) about karma, akarma and vikarma is hard to understand. In the last line the word karma is used to represent all three types.

Commentary by Sri Ramanuja of Sri Sampradaya:

4.17 There is something which ought to be known in regard to action (Karma) which forms the means of attaining release. So also is the case in regard to ‘multi-form or varied forms of action’ (Vikarma). These are what have acquired variegation as obligatory, occasional and desire-prompted works requiring numerous requisites. There is also something to be known about non-action, i.e., knowledge of the self. Therefore, deep, i.e., difficult to understand, is the way of action to be pursued by the seeker after release. What should be known as regards multi-form or variegated forms of Karma is that the attribution of differences leading to differences of fruits in obligatory, occasional and desire-prompted rites and acquisition of things required for their performace, etc., must be renounced, realising that the Sastras aim at only one result, i.e., release (and not several results said to accrue from these works). This has been declared in connection with the teaching, ‘The resolute mind is one-pointed’ (2.41) and is not elaborated here. Sri Krsna explains what must be known in regard to action and non-action.

Commentary by Sri Sridhara Swami of Rudra Sampradaya:

A question may arise from the previous verse that if bodily activities are action and the absence of bodily activities is inaction then how is it that even those possessing discrimination are deluded in this matter? To answer this question Lord Krishna reveals that there are some special considerations to understand about the true nature of activities prescribed in the Vedic scriptures as well as the real nature of non performance of actions along with the factual nature of prohibited actions which are forbidden. The intricacies of action and inaction are mysterious and hard to fathom and are not commonly known in the world. For example action implies inaction as well as prohibited actions. How this is to be understood is very mysterious and will be explained next.

Commentary by Sri Madhvacharya of Brahma Sampradaya:

Moksa or liberation from the material existence will not be achieved by mere knowing of the do’s and don’ts of action. Only by correct knowledge of the nature of actions can one achieve moksa. Factually this means without knowledge of the resplendent Supreme Lord and how all actions are ultimately performed in relation to Him, it will be impossible to ever be delivered from samsara or the repetitive cycle of birth and death. Realisation of the Supreme Lord Krishna as paramatma or the Supreme Soul within the etheric heart of every living being is the indispensable ingredient for moksa, how can there be success any other way. Karma is performing actions, akarma is the non-performance of actions and vikarma is performing improper actions, which are prohibited. Actions filled with desire and craving are vikarma and prohibited. Why are they prohibited? Because they create bondage for the living entity to material existence. Therefore the wise after reflecting and contemplating the intricacies of action in this light should perform actions accordingly. Such sagacious persons do not become deluded and deviate from this course during adverse situations even though it is deluding and bewildering for others.

Now begins the summation.

Actions also have originated from Lord Krishna so for this reason as well, one desirous of their best welfare should by all means become knowledgeable of Him. Since everything has ultimately emanated from the Will of the Supreme Lord, including even the energy behind every action it is superfluous not to accept Him completely but at least every being should understand His supreme position. Only by knowledge of Him can one tread the path that leads to moksa or liberation from the material existence.

Commentary by Sri Keshava Kashmiri of Kumara Sampradaya:

Action is generally understood to be the activity of the body and senses while inaction is the opposite of this. How is it that those with discrimination and intelligence are bewildered by this? The true nature of action must be known as well as the real nature of inaction which includes the non-performance of prohibited actions. For the intricacies of action, sinful action and prohibited actions are mysterious and not generally known. The use in the genitive sense of the word karmano meaning actions infers the mysterious characteristics of the true nature of action, inaction and prohibited actions.

Commentary by Sri Adi Shankaracharya of Advaita Sampradaya:

4.17 Hi, for; there is something boddhavyam, to be known; api, even; karmanah, about action enjoined by the scriptures; and there is certainly something to be known vikarmanah, about prohibited action; so, also, there is something to be known akarmanah, about inaction, about sitting quietly. (The words ‘there is’ are to be supplied in all the three cases.) Because gatih, the true nature, i.e. the essential nature; karmanah, of action-implying karma etc., viz action, prohibited action and inaction; is gahana, inscrutable, hard to understand. ‘What, again, is the essential nature of action etc. which has to be understood, and about which it was promised, “I shall tell you…” (16)?’ This is being stated:

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:

karmano hy api boddhavyam
boddhavyam ca vikarmanah
akarmanas ca boddhavyam
gahana karmano gatih

Sanskrit to English Word for Word Meanings:

karmaṇaḥ — of work; hi — certainly; api — also; boddhavyam — should be understood; boddhavyam — should be understood; ca — also; vikarmaṇaḥ — of forbidden work; akarmaṇaḥ — of inaction; ca — also; boddhavyam — should be understood; gahanā — very difficult; karmaṇaḥ — of work; gatiḥ — entrance.