The first chapter of the Bhagavad Geeta is the Introduction (upodghāta adhyāya). It prepares the ground by presenting the sorrow and delusion of Arjuna. It tells us what prompts Arjuna to seek the highest wisdom.
The second chapter of the Bhagavad Geeta is the summarization (vastusangraha adhyāya) of the entire text in prospect. In the second chapter, Sri Krishna provides a description of the knowledge of the Self (ātmajñāna), how to perform actions (karma yoga), and a person of wisdom (shithaprajñā).
In the first chapter, Prince Arjuna got convinced that he shouldn’t be fighting the war. But as he was logically stating his reasons, he also was quite confused. So, he surrendered to Sri Krishna and listened to the entire second chapter. In the second chapter, while mentioning that everyone has to do their duties in the spirit of karma yoga, Sri Krishna also glorifies a person of steady wisdom and declares that being in the state of Self-abidance is the noblest.
At this point, Arjuna is confused and unable to understand why Sri Krishna is pushing him toward action when the path of contemplation is nobler. The third chapter answers Arjuna’s doubts, followed by Sri Krishna’s explanation of karma yoga and its purpose in detail.
Chapter 3, Verse 1
ज्यायसी चेत्कर्मणस्ते मता बुद्धिर्जनार्दन ।
तत्किं कर्मणि घोरे मां नियोजयसि केशव ॥१॥
jyāyasī cetkarmaṇaste matā buddhirjanārdana,
tatkiṁ karmaṇi ghore māṁ niyojayasi keśava. (1)
If, by you, knowledge is considered to be superior to action O Janardhana, then why do you ask me to engage in this terrible action O Keshava?
When we hear a chain of arguments/thoughts on a subject we know, thoughts interact. If we do not have complete knowledge of the subject, doubts come up in our minds.
In the first chapter, Arjuna is almost convinced that he shouldn’t be fighting the war, but he is also confused. Hence he surrendered to Sri Krishna and requested his guidance. In the second chapter, Sri Krishna explains karma yoga and lays out descriptively the qualities of the man of steady wisdom. He indicates that one has to perform actions with a feeling of surrendering and without expecting any results, but the noblest is to retire and contemplate.
Arjuna is now confused. He wonders why Sri Krishna did not encourage him earlier when he wanted to go into the forest to retire and meditate. To clarify his doubts, Arjuna asks Sri Krishna why he was being encouraged to do this terrible action (engage in the war) if he considers knowledge superior to action. Arjuna doesn’t seem to have understood chapter 2 in the right context as he still sees fighting in the war to be a terrible action.
Chapter 3, Verse 2
व्यामिश्रेणेव वाक्येन बुद्धिं मोहयसीव मे ।
तदेकं वद निश्चित्य येन श्रेयोऽहमाप्नुयाम् ॥२॥
vyāmiśreṇeva vākyena buddhiṁ mohayasīva me
tadekaṁ vada niścitya yena śreyo’hamāpnuyām. (2)
By your ambiguous Speech, my intellect is confused. Please tell me decisively the one way by which I may attain the highest good.
Arjuna expresses his confusion to Sri Krishna because he mentioned the path of contemplation and the path of yoga. He requests Sri Krishna to tell him firmly and decisively which path to follow to achieve the highest good.
Krishna now starts answering these questions in detail.
Chapter 3, Verse 3
लोकेऽस्मिन्द्विविधा निष्ठा पुरा प्रोक्ता मयानघ ।
ज्ञानयोगेन साङ्ख्यानां कर्मयोगेन योगिनाम् ॥३॥
loke’smindvividhā niṣṭhā purā proktā mayānagha,
jñānayogena sāṅkhyānāṁ karmayogena yoginām. (3)
O sinless one, in this world, there are two paths as explained previously by Me: the path of knowledge, for those inclined toward contemplation, and the path of action for those inclined toward action.
There are two paths so that it can serve all kinds of people just like how a university has different branches to serve different students based on their inclinations or interests. Every individual thinks and feels a different way. If there is just one path, every individual cannot benefit.
One who has a pure mind (sātvic) which is free of rāga (likes), dveśa (dislikes), kāma (lust/craving), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moha (delusion), mada (pride), mātsarya (jealousy); has an alert intellect. For such a person the path of Knowledge is prescribed. For a person who is restless and dynamic in action (rājasic), the path of action is prescribed to purify the mind.
Karma yoga is the first step in the spiritual path to purify the mind and develop the fourfold qualities (sādhana-catuśtaya) required to study, reflect and contemplate.
Chapter 3, Verse 4
न कर्मणामनारम्भान्नैष्कर्म्यं पुरुषोऽश्नुते ।
न च सन्न्यसनादेव सिद्धिं समधिगच्छति ॥४॥
na karmaṇāmanārambhānnaiṣkarmyaṁ puruṣo’śnute,
na ca sannyasanādeva siddhiṁ samadhigacchati. (4)
One cannot reach a state of ‘actionlessness’ by merely abstaining from work, nor can one attain ‘perfection’ by mere renunciation.
It is impossible to define the God state of Consciousness as it is beyond the comprehension of the mind and intellect. It may be explained by negating all that it is not.
‘Vāsanāless’ (vāsanās are unmanifest tendencies) is that state. Vasanas manifest at the intellectual level as desires. ‘Desirelessness’ is that state. Desires manifest as thought agitations in the mind. ‘Thoughtlessness’ is that state. Thoughts in the mind result in selfish actions. ‘Actionlessness’ is that state.
Arjuna misunderstood and thought he could go retire into the forest and sit in meditation to be in the ‘actionlessness’ state. It is not possible as only when vāsanās are burnt, there will be no desires and thought agitations which result in selfish actions.
No one can attain the state of perfection by running away from the action. Through action performed with the right attitude, by the practice of karma yoga, the inner equipment is purified for the seeker to walk the path of knowledge for self-unfoldment.
Chapter 3, Verse 5
न हि कश्चित्क्षणमपि जातु तिष्ठत्यकर्मकृत् ।
कार्यते ह्यवशः कर्म सर्वः प्रकृतिजैर्गुणैः ॥५॥
na hi kaścitkṣaṇamapi jātu tiṣṭhatyakarmakṛt,
kāryate hyavaśaḥ karma sarvaḥ prakṛtijairguṇaiḥ. (5)
There is no one who can remain without action even for a moment. Everyone is compelled to act helplessly by the qualities born of material nature.
Our vāsanās will compel us to act helplessly under the influence of the three gunas (sattva, rajas, tamas). We cannot remain inactive even for a single moment. Life is nothing but activity (physical, mental, physiological activity). It is not possible to be alive and not act. If a person is not active physically, the person’s energy will be drained in thoughts. So how do we conserve all this energy without wasting it to grow in ourselves is what Bhagavad Geeta teaches us. That is the practice of karma yoga.