There are four ashramas(stages) of human life according to Vedic tradition. They are brahmacharya (student life), grihastha(householder), vAnaprastha(gradual withdrawal from family), and sannyAsa ( renunciation). They are compatible with four purushArthas (human goals): artha(wealth), kama(desires), dharma (morality and ethics), and moksha (liberation). Moksha is the ultimate goal. It has two aspects, namely, freedom from suffering in the present life and freedom from rebirth. Two important spiritual sAdhanAs(disciplines) for moksha are karma yoga and jnAna yoga. As the name suggests, karma yoga is action-oriented and jnAna yoga is knowledge-oriented. For the purpose of simplicity, karma yoga is taken to include all action-based disciplines, e.g., rituals and upAsanA (meditation). Brahmacharya is preparatory to grihastha and vAnaprastha is preparatory to sannyAsa. Accordingly, grihastha is taken to include brahmacharya and sannyAsa includes vAnaprastha. Thus, there are broadly two lifestyles: grihastha and sannyAsa, and two sAdhanAs: karma yoga and jnAna yoga. Sri Krishna praises both karma and jnAna in Bhagavat Gita (BG)
Sri Krishna praises knowledge: verses 2.11, 2.52, 2.54, 2.55 and 2.72
2.11. Sri Krishna questions Arjuna that he grieves for those who need not be grieved for and at the same time he speaks as if he is wise. A wise person does not grieve for the dead or for the living. Here, Sri Krishna is seen praising wisdom, i.e., knowledge.
2.52. When the intellect is free from delusion about what is important and what is unimportant in life, then one attains dispassion towards all known or yet to be unknown external dependencies. He becomes independent. Here again, the value of knowledge is stressed.
2.54. Arjuna asks Sri Krishna to describe sthitpragyAn, a wise man who is established in the Self: how does he speak, sit and walk?
2.55. Krishna says sthitpragyAn is one who has got inner contentment by giving up all desires originating in the mind. Such a person is said to be of firm knowledge.
2.72. Krishna describes brahmsthitiḥ. It is the state of a person who has a clear understanding of his/her true nature as consciousness. S/he is not deluded and attains oneness with Brahman.
3.6. A deluded person mentally dwells on sense objects even if s/he physically restrained the sense organs. S/he is called a hypocrite.
Sri Krishna praises action in verses 2.47and 2.48
In verse 2.47, Sri Krishna describes the essence of karma yoga. A karma yogi knows that he has a choice over action and not over the result of the action. The result depends on many factors and not only on the doer’s action. If the result of the action is not in one’s control, there may be a tendency to not perform the action. It is not desirable. One must perform the action. In 2.48, it is advised that action should be performed without attachment to the result of the action. It additionally means that the doer maintains equanimity whether the result is favourable or otherwise.
Arjuna’s confusion- verses 3.1, 3.2, 5.1 and 5.2
Sri Krishna has highlighted the importance of both action and knowledge. Arjuna is therefore confused. In 3.1, he asks Krishna: If according to Sri Krishna, knowledge is
superior to doing the action, then, why He is asking Arjuna to engage in a war full of cruel deeds of killing, etc? Therefore in 3.2, Arjuna says to Sri Krishna that he is bewildered by Sri Krishna’s seemingly conflicting statements. In 5.1, Arjuna raises the same question to Sri Krishna in a different way: You are praising karma-sannyasa and karma yoga. Arjuna has no choice but to plead with Krishna to clarify in clear terms which is better, knowledge or action so that he can attain the supreme.
Krishna’s replies: verses 3.3, 3.4, 3.5, 3.7,4.15,4.38, 5.2,5.4,5.5,5.6 and 5.11
3.3 Along with the creation of the world twofold disciplines have been taught by Him in the form of jnAna-yoga for those who have discriminative knowledge and in the form of karma yoga for performers of work, i.e., action-oriented.
3.4. By avoiding action or mere renunciation a person does not attain liberation.
3.5. Sure enough, no one can remain without action even for a moment, because
everyone is helplessly made to engage in action by the force of gunAs.
3.7 One who engages in karma-yoga using the organs of action (controlled by the mind) and is unattached excels.
4.15 Having known thus, works were performed even by the ancient seekers of liberation. Therefore, you too undertake action as was done by the ancient ones.
4.38 There is nothing as purifying as knowledge. One who is perfected by karma yoga realizes the Self in course of time.
5.2. Both sannyAsa and karma yoga are conducive to liberation. However, of the two, karma yoga is better than sannyAsa.
5.4The fools alone, not the wise, regard the path of knowledge and karma as different. One who properly undertakes even one (of them) gets the result of both.
5.5The status reached by sAmkhyAs is also reached by yogis. He who perceives so correctly perceives, i.e., both are the same.
5.6 It is difficult to attain renunciation without karma-yoga. Equipped with yoga, the silent sage attains Brahman without delay.
5.11 Yogis perform work, without attachment, merely through the body, mind, intellect, and organs, for their own purification.
There are two broad disciplines, namely, karma yoga and jnAna yoga. According to Advaita, human problems of suffering and bondage are because of ignorance of one’s true nature (Self) that is Sat, Chit, and Ananda. Since ignorance is the cause, the solution is Self-knowledge. In other words, jnAna yoga is the ultimate means of moksha. This knowledge is not ordinary knowledge of worldly objects. It is about oneself, the subject. As it is subtle and has to take place in mind, it requires a mature and prepared mind. Karma yoga is the means to prepare the mind. Therefore, karma yoga is as important as jnAna yoga. Though karma is necessary, it is insufficient. If moksha is the goal, karma yoga is incomplete without jnAna yoga and conversely, jnAna yoga is not possible without karma yoga.
The two broad lifestyles are grihastha and sannyAsa, the former is primarily action-based, and the latter is knowledge-based. Does it mean that for moksha, a seeker has to necessarily take to sannyAsa to pursue jnAna yoga? The answer is no. Janaka was a king and he was a jivanmukta. There are also examples of sages who have pursued knowledge while living a family life. It means that in grihastha ashrama a seeker can purify and prepare the mind by following karma yoga and then pursue jnAna yoga as a grihastha, i.e., the objective is to become a grihastha jnAni. Verse 4.20 is relevant: remaining ever satisfied and independent, and renouncing the attachment towards the result of the action, he never performs any action, though very much engaged in action. There is a second option. A mature grihastha instead of continuing in grihastha ashrama, can at some stage take up sannyAsa for spiritual pursuits of knowledge. There is a third path that is suitable for a minority of seekers. A seeker can skip grihastha and directly take up sannyAsa. In this case, a seeker has to purify the mind by following prescribed karmas of a sannyAsi and become an adhikAri (prepared) to pursue knowledge, the goal being sannyasi jnAni. It is a risky path and is meant for very few seekers who are mature enough to navigate through the challenges of a sannyAsi. Verse 4.21 is relevant: after renouncing all possessions and restraining the mind and body and being free from desires, a seeker is engaged in the minimum activity required for the maintenance of the body without attachment. Such a seeker does not incur sin. He is free from karmAs.
It is worth mentioning that both grihastha and sannyAsi lifestyles have merits and demerits. In grihastha life, there is security whereas there is minimal security in sannyAsa. Furthermore, a sannyAsi is not permitted by scriptures to return to grihastha. In grihastha, there are distractions that are absent in sannyAsa.
Conclusion A seeker has a choice to choose between the two lifestyles: grihastha and sannyAsa. S/he has no choice as regards two sAdhanAs: karma yoga and jnAna yoga. S/he has to undertake both serially, first karma yoga primarily to purify and prepare the mind and then jnAna yoga. It seems that Sri Krishna recommends the path of a grihastha jnAni because it is suitable for the majority of seekers, Arjuna included.
Primary source: Swami Parmarthananda’s lectures on Bhagvat Gita, available on https://arshaavinash.in/