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 Bhagavad Gita in English >> Path of Selfless Service- Chapter 3

Bhagavad Gita in English - Chapter 3
Path of Selfless Service - Chapter 3

Arjuna asked: If You consider acquiring transcendental knowledge is better than working, then why do You want me to engage in this horrible war, O Krishna? You seem to confuse my mind by apparently conflicting words. Tell me, decisively, one thing by which I may attain the Supreme. (3.01-02)

Arjuna was in the mode of delusion; he thought that Lord Krishna meant a contemplative life (BuddhiYoga) was better than doing one’s normal duty in life in verse 2.49. Some people are often confused and think that salvation is possible only by leading a life devoted to scriptural study, contemplation, and acquiring Self-knowledge. Lord Krishna clarifies this by mentioning two major paths of spiritual practice---depending on the nature of the individual---in the following verse:

Lord Krishna said: In this world I have stated a twofold path of spiritual discipline in past---the path of Self-knowledge (for the contemplative ones) and the path of unselfish work (Seva, KarmaYoga) for all others. (3.03)

‘Seva’ or ‘KarmaYoga’ means sacrifice, selfless service, unselfish work, meritorious deeds, giving away something to others. Some people often get confused like Arjuna and think that leading a life devoted to scriptural study, contemplation, and acquiring transcendental knowledge may be better for spiritual progress than doing one’s worldly duty.

A God-realized person does not consider oneself the doer of any action, but only an instrument in the hands of the divine for His use. It should be further pointed out that both metaphysical knowledge and selfless service are means to attain the Supreme Being. These two paths are not separate, but complementary. In life a combination of these two modes is considered the best. Carry both selfless service and a spiritual discipline of acquiring Self-knowledge with you as stated in the following verses:

One does not attain freedom from the bondage of Karma by merely ab­staining from work. No one attains perfection by merely giving up work because no one can remain actionless even for a moment. Everything in the universe is driven to action---helplessly indeed---by the forces of Nature. (3.04-05)

It is not possible for anybody to completely abandon action by thought, word, and deed. Therefore, one should always be active in serving the Lord by various means of one’s choosing, and never be without work because an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Performing action till death with a desireless frame of mind is better than abandoning work and leading the life of an ascetic---even after God-realization---because even an ascetic cannot escape the im­pulse of action.
The ignorant one, who restrains the organs of action but mentally thinks of sense pleasures, is called a pretender. (3.06)
One’s growth comes from working selflessly rather than giving up work and practicing sense-control before one is naturally ready for it. Bringing the mind under control is difficult, and spiritual life becomes a mockery without mastery over the senses. Desires may become dormant and rise again to give trouble, just as a sleeping person wakes up in due course of time.

The four goals of human life---doing one's duty, earning wealth, material and sensual enjoyment, and attaining salvation ---were designed in the Vedic tradition for gradual and systematic growth of the individual and the progress of society.

Success in spiritual life does not come from prematurely wearing saffron clothes just to maintain an Ashram or livelihood without first conquering the six enemies---lust, anger, greed, pride, attachment, and envy. It is said that such pretenders do a great disservice to God, society, and themselves and become bereft of happiness in this world and the next (BP 11.18.40-41) A pretending monk is considered sinful and a destroyer of the ascetic order of life.


One who restrains the senses---by (a trained and purified) mind and intellect---and engages the organs of action to KarmaYoga or selfless service without attachment, is considered superior. (3.07)

Perform your obligatory duty because working is indeed better than sitting idle. Even the maintenance of your body would be impossible without work. (3.08)

Human beings in this world are bound by work (Karma) that is not performed as a selfless service (Seva, Yajna). Therefore, becoming free from attachment to the fruits of work, do your duty to the best of your abilities as a service to Me (for the good of humanity). (3.09)


In the ancient time, the Creator created human beings together with selfless service (Seva, Yajna, sacrifice) and said: By serving each other you shall prosper, and the sacrificial service shall ful­fill all your desires. (3.10)

Help the celestial controllers with selfless service and they will help you. Thus helping each other, you shall attain the Supreme goal. (3.11)

The celestial controllers, being nourished and pleased by selfless service, will give you all desired objects. One who enjoys the gift of celestial controllers without sharing with others is, indeed, a thief. (3.12)

A celestial controller or guardian angel means a supernatural ruler, a celestial person, an angel, an agent of God, the cosmic forces that control, protect, and fulfill desires. Even the gates of heaven shall be closed to those who try to enter alone. According to the ancient scriptures, helping others is the best meritorious deed one can do. The wise seek to serve themselves in the service of others while the ignorant serve themselves at the cost of others. To serve each other is the original or first commandment of the creator that has been restated by Lord Krishna in the Gita. God has given us talents to help us serve, and in serving others we grow spiritually. We take birth to help each other, to understand, care, love, give, and forgive each other. Actually, we serve ourselves by serving others. Giving makes the world a better place for all humanity. According to Muniji “Giving is Living”.

It is believed that selfishness saps our natural health and immune system also. When we take steps to move ourselves away from self and think about the needs of others and how to serve them, a physical healing process seems to set in motion. This is especially true if we personally help a person we may never meet again in life.

One who makes no sacrifice, but grabs everything without helping others, is like a thief. It is said that celestials are pleased when people help each other. The capacity of the giver increases by the grace of God, fulfilling all desires to give. The spirit of cooperation---not competition or confrontation---be­tween human beings, between na­tions, and between organizations seems to be hinted here by the Lord. All the necessities of life are produced by dedicated sacrificial services of other people. We are created to depend on each other. The world has been called a cosmic wheel of cooperative action by Swami Chinmayananda. Cooperation, not competition, is more conducive to overall progress of the individual, as well as society. Nothing worthwhile can be achieved without cooperation and help from others. The world would be a much better place if all inhabitants cooperated and helped each other, rather than fight or compete with each other. It is the selfish motive that prevents cooperation even between spiritual organizations. One who can truly say all organizations, temples, mosques, and churches are our own, is a true leader and a real saint.

The righteous who eat after sharing with others are freed from all sins, but the impious who cook food only for themselves (without first offering to God or sharing with others), in fact, eat sin. (3.13)

Food should be cooked for the Lord and offered first to Him with love before consuming. Children should be taught to pray before taking food. The house rule should be: No food before prayer and thanking the Lord. Lord further states that helping others is divine:

Living beings are sustained from food grains; grains are produced by sacrificial work (or duty performed by farmers and other field workers) and rain. Duty is prescribed in the scriptures. Scriptures come from the Supreme Being. Thus the all-pervading Supreme Being or God is ever pre­sent in selfless service. (3.14-15)

One who does not help to keep the wheel of creation in motion by sacrificial duty (Seva) and rejoices in sense pleasures, that sinful person lives in vain. (3.16)

Saints, human beings, trees, rivers, and earth are for the use of others. However, there is no prescribed duty for the enlightened ones as explained below:
For one who rejoices only with the Supreme Being, who is satisfied with the Supreme Being, and who is content with the Supreme Being alone, for such a Self-realized person there is no duty. Such a person has no interest, whatsoever, in what is done or what is not done. A Self-realized person does not depend on anybody (except God) for anything. (3.17-18)
Lord Rama said: One who considers himself as my devotee but depends on others for anything, tell Me what kind of faith does he have in Me? Such a person’s faith is weak (TR 7.45.02).

All duties, obligations, prohibitions, regulations, and injunctions are meant to lead one to perfection. Therefore, a perfect yogi who has Self-knowledge, detachment, and devotion has nothing more to gain in this world by doing worldly duty.


Therefore, always perform your duty to the best of your abilities without any attachment to the results, because by doing work without attachment, one reaches the supreme goal of life. (3.19)

In no other scripture, written before the Bhagavad-Gita, has the philosophy of KarmaYoga---unselfish devotion for the welfare of humanity---been so beautifully expounded. Lord Krishna has elevated the idea of altruism to the highest form of wor­ship and spiritual practice. By altruism, one obtains grace, by grace one gets faith, and by faith the ultimate Truth is revealed. One immediately feels better by helping others and comes one step closer to perfection.

Swami Vivekananda said: Work done for others awakens the subtle and dormant divine power, Kundalini, within our body. An example of attaining Self-realization by persons while doing their worldly duties is given below:

King Janaka and many others attained perfection of Self-realization by selfless service (KarmaYoga) alone. You also should perform your duty with a view to guide people and for the wel­fare of society. (3.20)

Those who do selfless service are not bound by Karma and attain salvation (VP 1.22.52). Nothing is beyond the reach of those who have others’ interest in mind. Swami Harihar says: Selfless service to humanity is the true service to God and the highest form of worship.

Because whatever noble persons do, others follow. Whatever standard they set up, the world follows. (3.21)

People follow whatever great persons do (BP 5.04.15). A leader is obliged to set higher ethical, moral, and spiritual standards for the general population to follow. If the leader fails in this regard, the quality of the nation’s life declines, and the progress of society is greatly hampered. Therefore, leaders have a great burden on their shoulders. The life of a true leader is the life of service and sacrifice. Leadership should not be an enterprise for becoming rich or famous.
A political leader or the head of a state uses negotiations, bribery or gift, physical force, and division. These are the four noble pedestals on which welfare and defense of a country stands, according to the Vedas.

O Arjuna, there is nothing in the three worlds---heaven, earth, and the lower regions---that should be done by Me, nor there is anything unob­tained that I should obtain, yet I engage in action. (3.22)

If I do not engage in action relentlessly, O Arjuna, people would follow the same path in every way. These worlds would perish if I did not work, and I would be the cause of confusion and destruction. (3.23-24)


The ignorant work with attachment to the fruits of work for themselves, and the wise should work without attachment for the welfare of the society. (3.25)

The wise should not unsettle the minds of the ignorant who are attached to the fruits of work, but should inspire others by performing all works to the best of one’s abilities (without attachment to results). (See also 3.29) (3.26)

Doing one’s duty without a personal, selfish motive is an exalted state given only to the enlightened ones. This may be beyond comprehension of ordinary people. The mark of genius lies in the ability to handle two opposed ideas and paradoxes, such as living in the world with de­tached attachment. Most people work hard only when they have some motivat­ing force, such as enjoyment of the fruits of work. Such persons should not be discouraged or condemned. They should be introduced slowly to the beginning stages of selfless service. The ex­cessive attachment to possessions, not the possessions themselves, becomes the source of misery.

Just as one has to pray and worship with single-minded attention, similarly one should perform worldly duties with full attention, even while knowing full well that the world and its affairs are transitory. One should not live thinking only of God and neglect­ing one’s duty in the world. Yogananda said: Be as earnest about meditation as about earning money. One should not live a one-sided life. The importance of controlling the senses and ways to combat ego are given below:


All actions are performed by various forces (or Gunas) of Nature, but due to delusion of ego or identity confusion people assume themselves to be the sole doer. (See also 5.09, 13.29, 14.19, and 18.14) (3.27)

Indirectly, God is the doer of everything. The power and the will of God do everything. One is not free even to kill oneself. One cannot feel the presence of the omnipresent God as long as one feels: “I am the doer”. If one realizes---by the grace of God ---that one is not the doer, but just an instrument, one at once becomes free. A Karmic bondage is created if we consider ourselves the doer and enjoyer.

The same work done by a Self-realized master and an ordi­nary person produces different results. The work done by a Self-realized master becomes spiritualized and produces no Karmic bondage because a Self-realized person does not consider oneself the doer or the enjoyer. The work done by an ordinary person produces Karmic bondage.

One who knows the truth about the role of the forces of Nature (Gunas) in getting work done, does not become attached to work. Because such a person knows that it is Gunas that get their work done by using our organs as their instruments. (3.28)

Those who are deluded by the illusive power (Maya) of Nature become attached to the work done by the forces of Nature (Gunas). The wise should not disturb the mind of the ignorant whose knowledge is imperfect. (See also 3.26) (3.29)

The enlightened one should not try to dissuade or de­tract ignorant ones from performing selfish actions that they do, deluded by the forces of Nature, because doing work---and not the renunciation of work in the initial stages---will ul­ti­mately lead them to realize the truth that we are not the doers, but divine instruments only. Working with attachment also has a place in the development of society and in the life of common people. People can easily transcend selfish desires by working for a noble goal of their choice.

Do your prescribed duty, dedicating all work to Me in a spiritual frame of mind, free from de­sire, attachment, and mental grief. (3.30)

Those who always practice this teaching of Mine---with faith and free from criticism---become free from the bondage of Karma. But those who find fault with this teaching and do not practice it, should be considered ignorant, senseless, and confused. (3.31-32)

All beings follow their nature. Even the wise act according to their own nature. (as If we are but slaves of our nature) Then what is the value of sense restraint? (3.33)

While we cannot and should not suppress our nature, we must not become victims but rather controllers and masters of the senses by using the discriminative faculties of human life for gradual improvement. The best way to control the senses is to engage all our senses in the service of God.


Attachments and aversions for sense ob­jects abide in the senses. One should not come under the control of these two because they are, indeed, two (major) stumbling blocks (on one’s path of perfection). (3.34)

'Attachment' may be defined as a very strong desire to experience sensual pleasures again and again. 'Aversion' is the strong dislike for the unpleasant. The search for peace of mind, comfort, and happi­ness is the basis of all human endeavors, including the acquisition and propagation of knowledge.

Desire ---like any other power given by the Lord---is not the problem. We can have desires with a proper frame of mind that gives us control over attachments and aversions. If we can manage our wants, most of the things we possess become dispensable rather than essential. With a right attitude, we can get mastery over all our attachments and aversions. The only necessity is to have a frame of mind that makes most items unnecessary. Those who have knowl­edge, detachment, and devotion have neither likes nor dislikes for any worldly object, person, place, or work.

Personal likes and dislikes disturb the equanimity of mind and become a hindrance on the path of spiritual progress. Likes and dislikes are another form of fulfilled and unfulfilled desires respectively. Desires must be kept under proper control.

One should act with a sense of duty without being strongly influenced by personal likes and dislikes. Selfless service is the easiest aus­terity to practice in this age by which anyone can reach God while living and working in modern society without going to the moun­tains and jungles.

Everybody benefits if work is done for the Lord, just as every part of the tree gets water when water is put at the root of the tree rather than on individual leaves. Attachments and aversions are de­stroyed in a noble person at the onset of Self-knowledge and detachment. Personal likes and dislikes are two major obstacles on the path of perfection. One who has conquered attachments and aversions becomes a free person and attains salvation by doing one’s natural duty as stated below:

One’s defective, imperfectly performed, natural work is better than faultless, perfectly performed, unnatural work. Even death in carrying out one’s natural duty is useful. Unnatural work produces too much stress. (See also 18.47) (3.35)

One who does the duty ordained by nature is freed from the bonds of Karma and slowly rises above the worldly plane (BP 7.11.32). One who takes on work that was not meant for him or her certainly courts failure. One evolves by the work best suited to one’s own nature or inborn tendencies. There is no perfect occupation. Every occupation in this world has some faults. One should keep oneself free from concern over the faults of one's duty in life. One should carefully study one's nature to determine an appropriate occupation.

Natural work does not produce stress and is conducive to creativity. Occupations that go against one’s natural tendencies is not only more stressful but also less productive, and it does not provide opportunity and leisure time for spiritual growth and development. On the other hand, if one follows a very easy or artistic path, one may not be able to earn enough to satisfy the ba­sic necessities of (family) life. Therefore, lead a simple life by limiting unnec­essary luxuries, and develop a hobby of selfless service to balance the material and spiritual needs of life. The balanced life is a happy life.


Arjuna said: O Krishna, what impels one to commit sin or selfish deeds as if unwillingly and forced against one’s will? (3.36)

Lord Krishna said: It is the lust, born out of passion, which becomes anger (when unfulfilled). Lust is insatiable and is a great devil. Know this as the enemy. (3.37)

The mode of passion is the absence of mental equilibrium leading to vigorous activity to achieve desired fruits. Lust, the passionate desire for all sensual and ma­terial pleasures, is the product of the mode of passion. Lust becomes anger if it is unfulfilled. When the attainment of fruits is hindered or inter­rupted, the intense desire for their achievement turns into fierce rage. Hence, the Lord says that lust and anger are two mighty enemies that can lead one to commit sin and turn one astray from the path of Self-realization, the supreme goal of hu­man life. Actually, mundane desire compels a person to engage in sinful activities in spite of his or her will. Control your wants because whatever you want wants you. Lord Buddha said: Desire is the root of all evils and misery.

As a fire is covered by smoke, as a mirror by dust, and as an embryo by the amnion, similarly Self-knowledge gets covered by (different degrees of this insatiable) lust, the eter­nal enemy of even the wise ones. (3.38-39)

Lust and Self-knowledge are eternal enemies. Lust can be destroyed only by Self-knowledge. Where lust resides and how one should control the senses to subjugate lust, are given below:

The senses, the mind, and the intellect are said to be the center or the origin of lust. Through these, lust deludes a person by veiling Self-knowledge. (3.40)

Therefore, by controlling the senses first, kill this devil of mate­rial desires (or lust) that destroys Self-knowledge and Self-realization. (3.41)

Lust arises at three different levels: At the physical level in any one of the ten senses, at emotional level in the mind or at the thought level in the intellect. Therefore, one must carefully guard all three doors through which lust can enter and control our life. This mighty enemy enslaves the intellect by using the mind as its friend and senses and sense objects as its soldiers. These soldiers keep the individual soul deluded and obscure Absolute Truth as a part of the drama of life. The success or failure of our role in action depends on how we handle our individual role and reach our destiny.

All desires cannot---and need not---be eliminated, but first selfish desires and motives must be eliminated for spiritual progress. All our actions by thought, word and deed, including desires, should be directed to glorify God and for the good of humanity.

The scriptures say: The mortal, when freed from the captivity of desires, becomes immortal and attains liberation even in this very life (KaU 6.14, BrU 4.04.07).


The senses are said to be superior to the body; superior to senses are the sense objects; superior to sense objects is the mind; superior to mind is the intellect; superior to intellect is the Self-Knowledge; and the Self is the highest. (See also KaU 1.03.10-11, 6.7-8 and MB 12.204.10) (3.42)

Thus, knowing (your true nature as) the Self to be the highest, and controlling the mind by the intellect (that is purified and made strong by Self-knowledge), one must kill this mighty enemy, lust (with the sword of true knowledge of the Self), O Arjuna. (See also KaU 1.03.03-04) (3.43)

Uncontrolled worldly desires will ruin the beau­tiful spiritual journey of life.

The scriptures provide ways and means of keeping the desires born in the mind under proper control. The body may be compared to a chariot upon which the individual soul---as pas­senger, owner, and enjoyer---is riding on a spiritual journey to­wards the Supreme Abode of the Lord. Selfless service (KarmaYoga) and Self-knowledge are the two wheels of the chariot, and devotion is its axle. Dharma (righteousness) is the road, and the divine qualities (See 16.01-03) are the milestones. The scriptures are the guiding lights to dispel the darkness of ignorance. Sense objects are the roadside green grasses; likes and dislikes for sense objects, people, and places are the two major stumbling blocks on the path (See 3.34); and lust, anger, greed, pride, attachment, and envy are the roadside plunderers. Friends and relatives are fellow travelers whom we temporarily meet during the journey.

Intellect is the driver of this char­iot. The five senses are the horses. The success of the spiritual journey depends largely on the strength and skill of the driver, the intellect, to control the mind and five sense-horses. Sense objects leave a deep footprint on our mind that is very hard to erase even after fulfillment of desire. Sense objects are more powerful than five senses.

In the hierarchy, the more powerful controls the less powerful. Thus, the senses can be controlled by the mind, because mind is the King of senses. Mind is the sixth sense. The mind is certainly very difficult to control, but it can be controlled by steady practice and detachment (See 6.33-36). Steady practice and detachment may be compared to two chords of the rein to control the mind. The mind can be controlled by the intellect with the help of the rein. Also the whip of moral restraints and regulative principles (See Yama and Niyama in PYS 2.30-32) is used to subdue the senses.

If intellect is not powerful enough to control the mind, the passenger will not reach the goal. Self-knowledge is superior to the intellect. The intellect yoked with the Self through Self-knowledge and contemplation becomes pure and strong to control the mind and the mind will control the senses. Thus it can be seen that Self-knowledge is essential for the success of the spiritual journey. Self-knowledge provides power of purification (See 4.37-38), scriptures supply necessary tools (the rein and the whip) and techniques to the intellect to be able to control the mind.

The sense-horses must be kept under control of the mind, and the mind under control of the intellect at all times. A single moment of care­lessness may lead the seeker to a downfall. A weak intellect will not be able to control the mind and senses. If intellect is weak, desires for sensual pleasures and the sense objects will control the mind instead of mind controlling the senses. The mind and senses will attack and take control of in­tellect, the weak driver, and lead the passenger away from the goal of salvation into the ditch of transmigration (See 2.67).

Finally, one must cross the river of illusion (Maya)---by using the bridge of meditation and the silent repetitive chanting of Lord’s name or a mantra to still the ripples of mind waves---and reach the spiritual shore of trance. Those who cannot control the senses will not be able to at­tain Self-realiza­tion, the goal of human birth.

One must not spoil oneself by wrongful temporary pleasures of the senses. One who can control the senses can control the whole world and achieve success in all endeavors. Passion cannot be completely eliminated, but is subdued by Self-knowledge. The intellect becomes polluted during the youthful years, just as the clear water of a river becomes muddy during the rainy season. Keeping good company and setting a higher goal of life prevent the mind and intellect from becoming tainted by the distractions of sensual pleasures. Those who cannot control the senses may not also be successful in studies and at­tain career goals.


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