Srimad Bhagavad-gita Study Group
- Chapter 17 -
The Three Types of Faith
Arjuna asks Lord Krishna whether the faith of those who infringe the laws of the Scriptures is Sattvik, Rajasik or Tamasik, even if they perform their daily worship with faith. The Supreme Lord answers that faith is of three kinds characterised by Sattva or goodness, Rajas or passion and Tamas or ignorance. All beings have faith and their faith varies according to their nature. Men of Sattvik faith worship the gods, men of Rajasik faith worship the yakshas (nature spirts) and those of Tamasik faith worship ghosts. Men of ungodly or wicked temperament perform severe austerities inspired by egotism and pride and torture themselves within and without. The Lord then explains three types of food, sacrifice, austerity and charity corresponding to the three qualities previously mentioned. Duties performed with a faith based on any of these three mundane qualities will still always be saguna and hence ultimately inconsequential. But when the same duties are carried out with pure devotional faith in God then they are nirguna and hence purify the heart. Pure faith is the keynote of all Scripture. For this reason the brahmins perform all yajnas (sacrifices), dana (charity), tapas (austerity) with the words ‘Om Tat Sat’ as the invocation of their faith. Conversely sacrifice, charity, austerity or any action that is not performed with faith in the Supreme is always to be known as untruth or asat and never brings auspiciousness in this world or the next.
Useful Acronym to remember the chapter contents:
In the previous chapter Krishna described two extremes; the divine and the demoniac. Day-to-day experience, however, reveals that we actually have many faces and are not necessarily one or the other. Life is generally not black or white, but usually different shades of grey. The faces that we present on a daily basis reveal something about our faith – the things we trust, believe and place value upon. Chapter Seventeen describes how a person’s affiliation to a particular mode of nature will determine the type of faith they have.
E Enjoyer of everything
F – Faith (Verses 1-7) – Although religious people are often referred to as “people of faith”, the reality is that everyone has faith. We all put faith in traffic lights, doctors, and even banks to name but a few - without faith you couldn’t function in this world! To have faith means to see opportunity, reward and value in something even though it may not be immediately experienced. Therefore, according to one’s faith one identifies objects of adoration and reverence and begins to worship them in different ways. In accordance to this, individuals adopt worldviews, lifestyles and character traits. Krishna begins a discussion of this by giving examples of diet and sacrifices.
A – Austerities (Verses 14-19) – In order to achieve anything in this world, one must undergo some austerity. We sacrifice immediate pleasure and comfort for the purpose of long-term benefit. People who place faith in different things, perform different austerities in life. Krishna explains beneficial austerities pertaining to the body, mind and words, and also the varying motivations with which one may perform them.
C – Charity (verses 20-22) - The innate quality of the soul is to serve and thus we find a charitable disposition within everyone to a greater or lesser extent. According to one’s own faith, they make efforts to help others. Krishna discusses the different types of charity and explains that to truly benefit people, charity must be performed within certain parameters.
E – Enjoyer of everything (Verses 23-28) – Throughout this chapter Krishna discusses all His themes with reference to the modes of nature. It is essential to understand that all activities, even those performed in Goodness, will always yield karmic reactions to the performer and thus bind him to repeated existence in this world. But is there a way out? In Vedic hymns, God is defined as the supreme enjoyer by the three words om tat sat. Thus, if our sacrifices, penance, and austerities are dedicated to the Supreme, done for His pleasure and favour, then such activities yield permanent benefit and ultimate freedom. With this kind of transcendental aim all our activities become liberating instead of entangling.
Questions on Chapter 17
Chapter 17 slokas to learn:
oṁ-tat-sad iti nirdeśo brahmaṇas tri-vidhaḥ smṛtaḥ
brāhmaṇās tena vedāś cha yajñāś cha vihitāḥ purā 
iti–These; tri-vidhaḥ–three words: om-tat-sat–Om Tat Sat; smṛtaḥ–are known in the scriptures as; nirdeśaḥ–indicating; brahmaṇaḥ–Brahma, the Supeme Spirit. purā–In ancient times, at the universal manifestation; brāhmaṇāḥ–the brāhmaṇs; vedāḥ cha–the Vedas; yajñāḥ cha–and sacrifices; vihitāḥ–were manifested; tena–by these three words. 
23 The scriptures say that the words Om Tat Sat indicate Brahma, the Supreme Spirit. At the time of the universal manifestation, the brāhmaṇs, the Vedas, and sacrifices were manifested by these three words.
aśraddhayā hutaṁ dattaṁ tapas taptaṁ kṛtañ cha yat
asad ity uchyate pārtha na cha tat pretya no iha 
(he) pārtha–O Arjuna; yat–whatever; hutam–sacrifice is offered; dattam–charity is given; tapaḥ taptam–austerity is endured; cha–and; kṛtam–action is performed; aśraddhayā–without faith; tat–that; uchyate–is described; asat iti–as asat, untruth; (yataḥ tat)–because that; (phalati)–fructifies; na u iha–neither in this world; na cha pretya–nor the next. 
28 O Pārtha, sacrifice, charity, and austerity or any action performed without faith in the Supreme is known as asat, or untruth. Such works cannot bring an auspicious result, either in this world or the next.