śrī-bhagavān uvāca
sannyāsaḥ karma-yogaś ca
niḥśreyasa-karāv ubhau
tayos tu karma-sannyāsāt
karma-yogo viśiṣyate

Translation of Bhagavad Gita 5.2

The Personality of Godhead replied: The renunciation of work and work in devotion are both good for liberation. But, of the two, work in devotional service is better than renunciation of work.

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

Fruitive activities (seeking sense gratification) are cause for material bondage. As long as one is engaged in activities aimed at improving the standard of bodily comfort, one is sure to transmigrate to different types of bodies, thereby continuing material bondage perpetually.

Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.5.4–6) confirms this as follows:

nunam pramattah kurute vikarma
yad indriya-pritaya aprnoti
na sadhu manye yata atmano ’yam
asann api klesa-da asa dehah
parabhavas tavad abodha-jato
yavan na jijnasata atma-tattvam
yavat kriyas tavad idam mano vai
karmatmakam yena sarira-bandhah
evam manah karma-vasam prayunkte
avidyayatmany upadhiyamane
pritir na yavan mayi vasudeve
na mucyate deha-yogena tavat

“People are mad after sense gratification, and they do not know that this present body, which is full of miseries, is a result of one’s fruitive activities in the past. Although this body is temporary, it is always giving one trouble in many ways. Therefore, to act for sense gratification is not good. One is considered to be a failure in life as long as he makes no inquiry about his real identity. As long as he does not know his real identity, he has to work for fruitive results for sense gratification, and as long as one is engrossed in the consciousness of sense gratification one has to transmigrate from one body to another. Although the mind may be engrossed in fruitive activities and influenced by ignorance, one must develop a love for devotional service to Vasudeva. Only then can one have the opportunity to get out of the bondage of material existence.”

Therefore, jnana (or knowledge that one is not this material body but spirit soul) is not sufficient for liberation. One has to act in the status of spirit soul, otherwise there is no escape from material bondage. Action in Krishna consciousness is not, however, action on the fruitive platform. Activities performed in full knowledge strengthen one’s advancement in real knowledge. Without Krishna consciousness, mere renunciation of fruitive activities does not actually purify the heart of a conditioned soul. As long as the heart is not purified, one has to work on the fruitive platform. But action in Krishna consciousness automatically helps one escape the result of fruitive action so that one need not descend to the material platform. Therefore action in Krishna consciousness is always superior to renunciation, which always entails a risk of falling. Renunciation without Krishna consciousness is incomplete, as is confirmed by Srila Rupa Gosvami in his Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.2.258):

prapancikataya buddhya
mumuksubhih parityago
vairagyam phalgu kathyate

“When persons eager to achieve liberation renounce things related to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, thinking them to be material, their renunciation is called incomplete.” Renunciation is complete when it is in the knowledge that everything in existence belongs to the Lord and that no one should claim proprietorship over anything. One should understand that, factually, nothing belongs to anyone. Then where is the question of renunciation? One who knows that everything is Krishna’s property is always situated in renunciation. Since everything belongs to Krishna, everything should be employed in the service of Krishna. This perfect form of action in Krishna consciousness is far better than any amount of artificial renunciation by a sannyasi of the Mayavadi school.

Commentary by Sri Vishvanatha Chakravarthi Thakur of Gaudiya Sampradaya:

Karma yoga is better. Even for the jnani, performing action is not at all a fault. Rather, by performance of niskama karma, the heart becomes fixed in purity. From that, jnana becomes fixed. Sometimes there may arise disturbance in the heart of the sannyasi. In order to alleviate that disturbance, is it forbidden to engage in karma? Impurity in the heart obstructs the practice of jnana, but taking up enjoyment of sense objects is a real degradation.

Commentary by Sri Ramanuja of Sri Sampradaya:

5.2 The Lord said — Even while granting that some persons are competent for the practice of Jnana Yoga exclusively, it has to be conceded that renunciation, i.e., Jnana Yoga, and Karma Yoga can be practised as independent of each other in the pursuit of the highest excellence. Still, of these two, Karma Yoga excels over the renunciation of actions, i.e., Jnana Yoga. Sri Krsna explains why this is so.

Commentary by Sri Sridhara Swami of Rudra Sampradaya:

The answer to the previous verse is being stated by Lord Krishna that renunciation of the rewards from one’s actions is the superior path. Lord Krishna does not prescribe karma yoga or the performance of prescribed Vedic activities to one who is situated in atma tattva or soul realisation which is only to be known through study of the Vedic scriptures taught by a bonfide spiritual master from one of the four authorised sampradayas or channels of Vedic knowledge who is already situated in atma tattva. But for others who consider the physical body and the atma or soul to be all the same, these persons should practice karma yoga or the performance of prescribed Vedic activities without desires and attachments as a means of achieving spiritual knowledge of the Brahman or the spiritual substratum pervading all existence. Thus by the sword of knowledge eradicating all delusion and lamentation due to the clear discrimination of the difference between this temporary physical body and the eternal soul. When a person has achieved a state of purity and spiritual advancement by the practice of karma yoga, at that time one is qualified to begin performing renunciation of activities as the next step on the way to attaining atma tattva or soul realisation. So it has been established that both are necessary and must be performed in tandem in order to transcend samsara or the cycle of birth and death and attain moksa or liberation from the material existence. But between the two karma yoga is superior to the renunciation of actions.

Commentary by Sri Madhvacharya of Brahma Sampradaya:

The renunciation of the rewards of action recommended here is not the same as the acceptance of asceticism because of the statement that by renunciation of all dualities such as likes and dislikes, happiness and distress, success and failure are not sufficient in themselves if not accompanied by inner adoration of the Supreme Lord. This as well as austerities must be performed to qualify for th superior position of true sannyasa or renunciation from worldly activities.. Even though renunciation appears superior due to absence of actions it is seen that ascetics also have activities prescribed for their order. Therefore there is no other dharma or path of eternal righteousness in the world superior to the order of Tridandi Sannyasa which can only be awarded to a Vaisnava brahmin intiated into one of the four authorised Vedic sampradayas by a spiritual master already established in sannyasa. Such a person who is devoted to the Supreme Lord Krishna or His Vedically authorised avatars or incarnations is superior to all beings. This superiority results from being desireless and unattached in worldly, mundane affairs as well as being completely devoted to the Supreme Lord. If such adhikari or qualification is acquired then such a person is already a renunciate. In the Narada Purana is stated: When such accomplishment is acquired one achieves the state of renunciation from the rewards of actions directly, even before realising the Brahman or the spiritual substratum pervading all existence. This is not to imply that Lord Krishna is not pleased by a persons renunciation because the absence of desire and attachment to the rewards of actions is certainly an advanced state but rather this is to emphasise that renunciation of the rewards from one’s actions by itself is not enough to realise the Supreme Being without a sense of devotion along with it.

Now begins the summation.

A person can beneficially perform karma yoga or prescribed Vedic activities as well as renunciation of the rewards of actions; but between the two karma yoga is preferable. Both are equally authorised and when karma yoga includes the renunciation of the rewards from one’s actions it becomes superior for without a sense of detachment and renunciation activities are influenced by the dualities of life such as success and failure and become a source of misery.

Commentary by Sri Keshava Kashmiri of Kumara Sampradaya:

o answer the previous verse Lord Krishna states the word sannyasam karmanam or the renunciation of actions. The path of karma yoga or prescribed Vedic ativities and renunciation of the rewards from one’s actions both lead to atma tattva or soul realisation. But of the two karma yoga is superior.

Commentary by Sri Adi Shankaracharya of Advaita Sampradaya:

5.2 Ubhau, both, to be sure; sannyasah, renunciation of actions; ca, and; karma-yogah, Karma-yoga-their performance-; nihsreyasa-karau, lead to Liberation. Though both lead to Liberation by virtue of being the cause of the rise of Knowledge, even then, tayoh, between the two which are the causes of Liberation; Karma-yoga, tu, however; visisyate, excels; karma-sannyasat, over mere renunciation of actions. Thus He extols Karma-yoga. [Karma-yoga is better than renunciation of actions that is not based on Knowledge.] Why? In answer the Lord says:

Commentary by Sri Abhinavagupta of Kaula Tantra Sampradaya:

5.2 Samnyasah etc. Renunciation and the Yoga of action-not only one, but two-are mentioned here. Happily joining together they yield salvation. (However), the superiority of the Yoga [over the renunciation] is due to the fact that but for the Yoga, renunciation does not exist.

Sanskrit Shloka Without Transliteration Marks:

sri-bhagavan uvaca
sannyasah karma-yogas ca
nihsreyasa-karav ubhau
tayos tu karma-sannyasat
karma-yogo visisyate

Sanskrit to English Word for Word Meanings:

śrī-bhagavān uvāca — the Personality of Godhead said; sannyāsaḥ — renunciation of work; karma-yogaḥ — work in devotion; ca — also; niḥśreyasa-karau — leading to the path of liberation; ubhau — both; tayoḥ — of the two; tu — but; karma-sannyāsāt — in comparison to the renunciation of fruitive work; karma-yogaḥ — work in devotion; viśiṣyate — is better.