Bhagavad Gita 2.47 : Karmanyeva Adhikaarasthe

Happy Friday. A slightly detailed post on Bhagavad Gita (on one phrase from one shloka to be more precise). One of the most well-known (and also most misunderstood) shlokas / maxims which goes Karmanyeva Adhikaarasthe Ma Phaleshu Kadhachana - कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन which is Chapter 2, Verse 47.

A disclaimer

I said “detailed” -> so watch out. And I still consider this length as only “slightly” -> so watch out again for my writings. I won’t apologize but happy to Mark Twain (or Hemmingway) my way out “Sorry didn’t have time to write a shorter letter”. This is Bhagavad Gita, a religious text - especially given the current situation of things - so could trigger some folks - in which cases, best do what internet does - just move on. If you knowingly get in and want to go, “someone is wrong on the internet” (ref: xkcd) - please keep it civil, technical and to this particular post/interpretation. We all can learn together. Each chapter of BG ends with a line that has the phrase “Krishna-Arjuna Samvaadhe”. Vaadham means argument; Samvaadham means discussion. As Swami Dayananda says, “Vaadham/agrument creates heat; Samvaadham/discussion creates light”.


The Bhagavad Gita is a 700 verses (about 1400 lines) work in the massive epic Mahabharatha (~100,000+ verses) - which is mainly in the form on a dialogue between Krishna, the charioteer and Arjuna, the warrior. There is a reason why it stands the test of time as it is power packed and each reading brings out something new. It is also not considered one of the “Prastana Trayam” (three main works right up there with the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras for no reason). It appeals differently even to the same person. Which then explains why it is one of the most misunderstood text. That by itself is a separate essay or book. And this post is an illustration of one such example. There are two more motives : 1. There maybe some who have straddled with this text(s) and want to go deeper and this is maybe a motivation. 2. Such discussion introduces me to new friends / acquaintances from whom I learn a lot. Many a time I have found that I start / think that I am giving but I receive more. To all of them, I am truly indebted. I almost always write for myself - since it deepens my understanding - but sometimes it ends up being useful for others.

This is probably the second most famous shloka in BG – or definitely in the top 5. Thanks to the Mahabharatha series in Doordarshan TV on Sunday mornings, anyone who watched it would belt out “Yadha Yadha hi Dharmasya” (chapter 4, verses 7 and 8). Of course, 4.8 (Paritraanaaya saadhunam) is also part of Vishnu Sahasaranamam (VS). Many might know 9.22 (Ananya Chintayantomaam) or 18.78 (Yatra Yogeshwara Krishna) since those two shlokas occur in VS too. And there there is 4.24 (Brahma Arpanam Brahma Havihi) - which is generally chanted before food (although it has a much more profound meaning and that shlokas 4.19 to 4.24 themselves are only a commentary on the even more important sutra shlokam 4.18 (Karmanyakarma Yah Pashyed).


The shloka of discussion Chapter 2, Verse 47 goes thus:

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि

The meaning goes “You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.” (From the holy-bhagavad-gita site).

Oh well, you can even make cute saying like 2 47 24 by 7 and this is a great way to internalize that it is good to DO your duty, (the right duty, the right way).

If you ask a random Gita-reader (or even who hasn’t read but knows about gita) what the message of the Gita is, they would belt out this one line “do your duty; don’t expect results”. There is some logical contradiction here in the way it is generally stated. So a good correction could be “don’t be attached to your results; accept what comes”. But that by itself is not the issue.

The multiple meanings possibility comes up because of the word “adhikaarasthe”. “Adhikaaraha” has two meanings. One is the usual interpretation “the right to”. Hence the shloka (“कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन”) is interpreted as “you have the right to your duties but not to its results” and popularly in Tamil as “கடமையைச் செய், பலனை எதிர்பார்க்காதே”.

Now Adhikaari has a second meaning - which is also known in Tamil (or Hindi & other languages) too - the performer - one who has the right to perform. In this interpretation, the teaching is “You are more set for doing your duties/Karma; This is your only way for now; so do that without being attached to the results”.

Alternate meaning

The second meaning makes for the following reasons with some background:

1. Chapter 1: Setup

Ch 1 : It is all Arjuna lamenting endlessly and imagining how things would turn out. Krishna does not even a single dialogue (other than an indirect phrase and a big mischief. This is very critical mischief indeed. Arjuna says, “Krishna, park my chariot in the middle of the battleground. I want to take a good look at these ‘arrogant minded’ ones who I am going to kill”. Krishna could’ve parked it before Duryodhana and/or Karna - both of whom are arch enemies … but no .. cheeky fellow, parks the chariot before Bheeshma and Drona - his grandfather and Guru. Arjuna loses it).

2. Chapter 2: Preamble

Ch 2: After all such laments, finally Arjuna gets to senses and gets to his real problem. “How can I kill my grandfather and guru? Is it not better to beg and live? Why can’t i get killed by them?”. At least at this point, he has gotten to the crux of it all - even though it is still an imaginary loss of the two sires!

3. Chapter 2: Becoming a student (sishya)

Thankfully for the story and for us .. Arjuna realizes maybe Krishna can help and says in 2.7, “I am your sishya. teach me what’s best for me. I surrender to you.”. A nice touch here since there are three preconditions for knowledge to be effective. a. Realize I have a problem. b. Identify that this person can solve this problem for me. c. Asking such person with humility. As the saying goes, Knowledge cannot be given, it can only be taken. Also importantly he did not ask, “teach me strategy to beat them” … etc, and the way he worded “teach me what’s best for me”.

4. Chapter 2: Teaching begins (2.11)

Thus in 2.11 the real Gita teaching begins: Since Arjuna asked for the best teaching, Krishna is obligated and goes you don’t have a dharma problem, you have a fundamental Jnana (knowledge) problem. So you are worrying about things that the wise don’t worry about. And goes into straight on Jnana Yoga - that there is only one atman, and that all the jiva and the paramatma are all the same and that we just play out our roles.

5. Chapter 2: Teaching part 2

The teaching goes till 2.25 … and our boy Arjuna is still dazed … so Krishna goes, okay, let me switch from Jnana yoga to a bit of ethical / moral discussion and belts out a few more reasons … our boy is still not convinced (apparently; otherwise he would’ve interrupted or taken action). So Krishna goes, Okay, I have taught you Jnana Yoga, let me now teach you Karma Yoga - if you do this, there is nothing to worry about and this will lead you to the right way (of jnana yoga).

6. Chapter 2: Teaching part 3

Thus goes the teaching from 2.31 all the way to 2.53. Finally, Arjuna speaks but is way more spellbound and dazzled that he just asks, “okay, how does a self-realized person talk / walk? How does he behave?” [Did he just ask, “who is John Galt?”]. And the rest of the chapter is, if you will, then how the ideal self-realized person’s character is, how they live their life - and which can be thought of also as what is the “phalam” / the fruit of such a vedantic karma yoga / jnana yoga pursuit. This then also gives a nice checklist of what any seeker should aspire to. And while not recommended that we do this checklist for anyone who says they are a swami or a guru or … so&so … it does become inevitable.

7. Chapter 2: Verse 47

Now given this context, it makes better sense that Krishna tried to give the real wisdom .. but Arjuna was not prepared and hence Krishna had to lead him via the karma yoga way. And thus in 2.47 says, you are suited to this path and hence follow this first - which will prepare you for the next step.

8. Chapter 2: Following verses

2.48, 2.49 and 2.50 are (especially 48 “समत्वं योग उच्यते” and 50 “तस्माद्योगाय युज्यस्व योग: कर्मसु कौशलम् “ are two power packed shlokas - far important in a way - as it preaches one to be equanimous attitude which is the ideal mindset to have when solving problems).

9. Still a Question and Two paths

This type of logical reasoning further makes sense since at the beginning of Ch 3 (well, if Arjuna again had gotten the whole teaching, at the end of ch2, he should’ve said, “sir, yes sir” and marched on, but no … ) -> he has a question and says, “Krishna, you just praised jnana yoga to be the way but then you are asking me to do karma yoga which is doing these harmful acts (battle/killing)”.

10. Same Questions, More Questions

Arjuna would again ask the same question in Ch 5 …. and wait for it, he would yet again ask the same question in Ch 18. Finally it does all conclude in ch 18 and towards the end Arjuna does declare that “Hey thanks for clearing it all up; i will do as you say and will fight this battle”. But lest you think Arjuna a “mandha adhikaari” (see? the second meaning here) - a subpar student - NO, his questions are very subtle and different in each instance. And yet again, we owe our thanks to him as he sits in the first bench and kept raising hand and asked all the questions for further explanations and clarifications. Further, in 3.1 and 3.2 and also in 5.1 and in a few other instances too, we can learn humility from Arjuna. He does not say, “you are wrong” or “this is nonsense” - he only asks “this is seemingly confusing to me” or “seemingly contradictory” and follows it up with “can you please clarify?”. A small test : if you are going to point out and argue about this post to me, please call out ch 3 in your comment - I will know you got past this. And in later chapters would in more laudatory verses go “who but you can help me understand this”.

11. Crux of Bhagavad Gita

Some of this reasoning also goes to the crux of what is really the teaching of Bhagavad Gita? And there are many who would confidently say, “if I were to summarize it in one line .. karmanye …. 2.47”. Anyways, I too was in the camp of such understanding even probably after 2 years into gita journey and a dozen+ books. I had to get to Gita Shankara Bashyam to finally earth this meaning. So all credit goes to the Gurus for explaining thus.

12. Wrapping up: Clarification on 2.47’s meanings

A bit of explanation on the “do only your duty” and “doing your duty is your only way” as it might seem two diff semantic variations of the same thing.

The intended meaning is : Doing your karma is the ONLY option you have.

This needs some background.

The advaita vedanta route says, there are just two Yogas: Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga. (refer bg 3.3: लोकेऽस्मिन्द्विविधा निष्ठा). If you say there is ashtanga yoga, bhakthi yoga, they will all get encompassed one way or another. For e.g., Bhakthi yoga is the WHOLE path. THE earlier stages are karma yoga and the latter stages are Jnana yoga. Highest form of bhakthi is jnana and vice versa. (ch 12, verses 8-11).

Remember Arjuna’s self-proposed solution? he does not want fight and run away and become sannyasi. That typically happens after certain maturity after karma yoga. There is also misunderstanding on Sannyasi itself which is Chapter 5 -> but that’s another day another essay - but in short, far better to be a mentally renounce and in your heart/spirit be a sannyasi than just externally. In fact, in 3.6 Krishna calls them a hypocrite (Mithyacharaha).

So the proposed path is this: Do Karma Yoga … qualify yourself … Jnana Yoga. Now Arjuna is equiv. of asking I wanna skip karma and go straight to sannyasa. So Krishna says NO, you go via step 1 to step 2.

Let me let you in on a secret. The Karma that BG talks about is actually dfiferent. Even though we can take it to be anything we do (as explained above) and as we can understand it for modern times. That is another topic / another essay another day.

In ch 3, he asks the same question differently … his question is like : Should i do high shool? Or should do I masters? *(assuming PhD is his goal).

Now a real qualified student would not even ask. He would know. Hence Krishna’s nudge with the adhikaari word that you are now finishing middle school - so high school is your only option.

Bhagavad Gita Book Recommendations

Sometimes a few ask me : Okay, I want to drink this koolaid, how do I get stared?

SO here’s my preemptive answer. It is best done in doses.

My recommendation goes like this:

  1. Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran as the 10k feet view. He also writes in a more modern secular way and this is a great intro.
  2. There are two books - choose any one: Either Holy Geeta by Swami Chinmayananda or Bhagavad Gita by Swami Satchidananda.
  3. Another option is to skip (2) and just get here directly: Thus Spake Krishna by Prof. V. Krishnamurthy.

Beyond these 2 (or 3 or 4) books, there are a few others of varying schools / depth that cover in different ways. AS I told before, each reading (or same book or different book) all end up different and give you new meanings & depth. Different things click at different times. When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

If you want go deeper, then there are the 3 volume versions by Eknaath Easwaran himself, 3 volume versions by Swami Parathasarathy, 3 volume version by Nochur Venkatraman, then there is one by Swami Muktananda (holy-bhagavad-gita site), … so on.

After this point, there are the big guns: 15 volume version by Swami Chinmayananda or 9 volume version of Swami Dayananda. There are also much detailed lecture versions as well as transcribed versions by Swami Paramarthananda (my Advaita Guru). Not to leave out if you look at amazon for “Bhagavad Gita” there are 100+ books - translations as well as translations with commentaries.


Even without the religious context, it is a fascinating book for sure and there is much to learn and more importantly a lot to apply to our daily lives. At least I find it so and consider immensely practically useful. As with pretty much all religious texts, these are all BEST when applied just for one own’s self / better understanding / living and NOT to be imposed on others. That’s what Democracy / Government / Law and Order are for. But as with anything really worth understanding does take the time and effort, an open mind and even more so a reasoning mind to pick and apply as is or with a filter or a converted modified implied understanding that truly makes sense to current day too.

I look forward to your comments, suggestions, recommendations and discussions.

Well, hope that was fun! It sure was for me to write this. 🙂