In Gītā III.20 and IV. 15 it is said that Janaka and other ancient worthies sought perfection through action alone. Śaṅkara, with his emphasis on Liberation (perfection) through Knowledge alone, has to meet objections based on these texts. Commenting on Gītā II.11, where the teachings begin, he says:
Those of them who were Knowers of truth (tattva-vid) had sought their perfection by Knowledge alone and had now reached the stage of formal saṃnyāsa: but as Kṣatriya kings they would have been already involved in actions. So realizing ‘it is guṇa-s acting on guṇa-s’, they continued in action for the sake of the other people (loka-saṅgraha), to fulfil their past karmic involvement (prārabdhatvāt), though they were seeking perfection of Liberation through their Knowledge alone.
Those of them who were not yet Knowers sought perfection through action for self-purification and (then) rise of Knowledge.
Śaṅkara explains away the phrase ‘by action alone’ in III.20 by glossing it as ‘not giving up action’. He also cites the ‘thus knowing’ of IV.15.
His account under III.20 is nearly the same, except that here (as in other places) he makes it clear that this is no mere theoretical knowledge: he calls them now samyag-darsana-prāpta and a-prāpta. Samyag-dar- śana (Right Vision) is his strongest term for Knowledge-as-experience. He describes these ksatriya Knowers (vidvāṃsāh) as engaged in going to Liberation (mokṣam gantum pravṛittāh) without abandoning action, thus fulfilling their past karmic involvement (prārabdha-karmatvāt).
The explanations under IV. 14 and 15 are similar: the Self-knowers (ātma-jna) or truth-knowers (tattva-vid) are seekers of Liberation (mumuksu) but may continue in activity for the sake of the world
Additional reasons why Knowers may continue in active involvement with the world are given here and there. Under III.21–25, Kṛṣṇa recommends vigorous action as an example to people at large.
Related to this may be ‘to avoid the displeasure of the learned’ (śiṣṭha-vigarhaṇāparijihīrṣā) under IV.20. This is probably a reference to Manu, who allows pursuit of Knowledge at any stage of life, but forbids pursuit of Liberation till the ‘debts’ to ancestors, etc. have been discharged through a householder’s life.
There are blanket phrases like kutas nimitta and kutascit nimitta ‘(from) some cause’ in the commentary to IV.22: ‘… finding that for some reason it is impossible to abandon action.
Again, in VI.31 and XIII.23 there is the phrase about the Knower: ‘however he may behave’ (sarvathā vartamāno ‘pi); and in V.7 ‘though doing, he is not tainted’ (kurvann api na lipyate). In these and other cases Śaṅkara cites prārabdha-karma, and/or lokasangraha.
There are borderline cases. The instruction to fight ‘as an instrument’ is implemented at the end of the Gītā in the consciousness, according to Śaṅkara, ‘There is nothing for me to do’ (na mama kartavyam asti).
It is noteworthy that in his commentary, when enjoining renunciation of actions on a Knower, Śaṅkara frequently quotes V.13. In line- for-line translation it would be:
Renouncing all actions by the mind, he sits happily in control,
The embodied in the citadel of nine gates, neither at all acting nor causing to act.
He cites this (sometimes the second line) in his commentary to II.21, III.1, V.19, VI.l, XVIII.10, 48 (twice), and 66.
He explains that an appearance of action remains as a result of unspent karma. He could easily have quoted from the Gītā texts on outer renunciation as a reflection of inner renunciation, for instance XII.19: ’silent, content with anything, homeless….’ But he chose this V.13 text, on renunciation by distinguishing mentally between action and non-action, and not necessarily entailing as corollary a physical renunciation. This is an indication of Śaṅkara’s recognition that the Gītā is mainly a text for those who begin yoga when already heavily implicated in obligations in the world. They are not to be loaded with impracticable injunctions to renounce all physically.