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Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas

Part 84 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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Understanding the three gunas and their application in life is obviously very important to Krishna. Right away in his instructions to Arjuna that begin in the second chapter, he introduces the subject of the gunas in verse 45, saying: “The Vedas are such that their scope is confined to the three gunas; be free from those three gunas.” Scattered throughout the Gita are teachings on the gunas, and now here in the closing chapter he takes up the subject.

It is said in the doctrine of the three gunas (the Sankhya Philosophy) that knowledge, action and the doer are of three kinds: hear them also duly (18:19).

Sattwic knowledge

That by which one sees the one indestructible Being in all beings, undivided in the divided (many)–know that knowledge to be sattwic (18:20).

Notice: real knowledge is a matter of seeing, not merely thinking or believing. And the true seeing is the vision of Unity. Simple, but not easy.

Rajasic knowledge

But that knowledge which sees in all beings different beings of various kinds, know that knowledge to be rajasic (18:21).

This is a very problematical viewpoint, whether taken socially, religiously, or personally. To conceive of oneself as a isolated point in space, absolutely separate from everything, a spirit separate from the mind, the body, the surrounding world, all other sentient beings, and even God, is a terrible seed that grows into the multi-headed monster of dual consciousness: a through ticket to constant rebirth and accumulating ignorance. The suffering inherent in such a view is potentially colossal. The only view more unfortunate is that of tamas, whose description Krishna now gives.

Tamasic “knowledge”

But that knowledge which clings to a single effect as if it were the whole, and without reason, without basis in truth and trivial–that is declared to be tamasic (18:22).

Since the world of humanity is in the death-grip of tamas, we need to analyze this, for we have become so used to it that we often miss the awful implications in such a view.

Clings to a single effect as if it were the whole. This is a constant in modern society. People are absolute idolators of their mentally lazy clichés–whether social, political, religious, scientific, or personal. There is only one right way to do a thing, or to think, worship, eat, behave, etc., etc. “My way is the only way” is the fundamental principle. “All the ills of the world will vanish if everyone thinks and acts like me,” is the doctrine. Often a single thing is chosen and harped on constantly, as if there is no wider picture. Simplistic is the watchword. Simple, lazy, and stupid–that sums it all up. A refusal to learn anything new is necessary for the maintenance of this tamasic condition.

Without reason. “The says it and I believe it!” The same with prophets, teachers, parents, and whoever has put a thumbprint in their brain. No need to think: they have been told. Religion and science–including medicine–are the two major offenders, working untold harm. Put a label on it and that is what it is! Deny its existence and it ceases to be. No need for facts or intelligent consideration, they only confuse us and make trouble….

Without basis in truth. One of the first things I observed about people was their utter purposelessness because they had no grasp of the truth, the reality, of things and situations. Even when only a few years old, I saw that the people around me were learning nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing. I realized that when they died it would be as though they had not even been born. And the whole society was set up to produce and perpetuate this state of pointlessness. I had no intention of being caught in the net. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew it would not be what they were doing.

This trait also implies living or thinking in a manner that simply leads nowhere. “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 3:7), is how Saint Paul described it. Most people are just running in the hamster wheel made for them, thinking that they are living and going somewhere.

Trivial. Small-mindedness is a requisite for contemporary life. The absurd popularity of trivia books, games, and suchlike demonstrates this. People hardly read books, and when they do they are unbooks–books of trivia facts, the first of which was the bestseller The Book of Lists. It is considered an advantage if a book need not be read completely, but just picked up and grazed in at random. As Dietrich von Hildebrand, the great Catholic philosopher, pointed out in his writings, modern people suffer from what he called “discontinuity,” the inability to sustain anything that requires more than minimal thought or will. So of course the previously-cited traits apply to them. It is as though everyone has ADD. For this reason society is run by those whose greed and lust for power (and often simple dedication to evil) motivate them and enable them to sustain their intentions and endeavors. The loonies and racketeers really have taken over the asylum because the staff is sleepwalking through life.

Sattwic action

Action which is ordained and free from attachment, done without attraction or aversion [raga-dwesha], with no desire to obtain the fruit–that action is said to be sattwic (18:23).

Having come this far in the Gita, on the surface this verse needs no comment, but there are some points it will be good to look at. The word niyatam, here translated as “ordained,” literally means controlled or subdued, the idea being that sattwic action is that which is done as discipline, as a symptom of mastery of the lower levels of being. Although sattwic action is done without attachment, sangarahitam also means “without clinging [sanga]” as well as without attachment. A sattwic person can let go of his actions, let what is done be done and the past truly be the past and move onward. This is no small capability.

Rajasic action

But that action done with desire for the fulfillment of desires, with self-centeredness, or furthermore is done with much effort, is considered rajasic (18:24).

Krishna is not saying that everything should be easy, but that “busyness” is rajasic. I think we all know people who are always running around doing things (often undefined) and talking about how rushed they are, but we see little results. This is the mental trait of rajas manifesting externally: people always “on the go” but staying in one place. I once saw a sign that said: “Would you rather work smarter or harder?” Rajasic people prefer to work harder. Their inner nervousness and instability manifest this way. Change for the simple sake of change is an aspect of this, as is the constant insistence of things being new or up to date. On many levels of our American society this is an obsessive compulsion.

Disorganization is also a trait of rajas.

Tamasic action

That action which is undertaken because of delusion, without regard to the consequences of loss, injury or one’s own ability–that is said to be tamasic (18:25).

This is quite clear, so I only want to say: Blessed are they that know what they can do and what they cannot do, and act accordingly. It is tamasic to underestimate or overestimate our abilities.

The other traits listed need no comment since they are going on around us all the time. We just need to watch out and not suffer the consequences of others’ foolish action and inaction.

Sattwic doer

A doer free from attachment, non-egoistic, endowed with steadfastness and resolution, and unaffected by success or failure, is said to be sattwic (18:26).

Anahamvadi (non-egoistic) means “free from talk of oneself” or “free from self-speaking,” “self” here being aham, the ego. This is not just bragging; it is continually talking about oneself, whether complimentary, derogatory or trivial. This is a major trait of spiritual fakes, whatever the type. No matter what the subject is, it somehow always gets around to them and sticks there. I have some tapes of various disciples of renowned gurus that are supposedly their remembrances of the gurus. In one tape that is over an hour in length the guru is spoken about only once, and then for only about four minutes. In another tape it is the same, but only two minutes. I also have some videotapes made of disciples that are some hours in length, and it is the same story. Sometimes an incident with the guru is briefly cited, followed by at least half an hour’s philosophical disquisition that is filled with incidents from the speaker’s life. A very famous Buddhist teacher in Europe is known for the fact that he never speaks of philosophy or spiritual texts, but talks on and on about himself, usually with very little point.

Rajasic doer

A doer that is passionate, desiring to obtain action’s fruits, greedy, violent-natured, impure, easily elated or dejected, is declared to be rajasic (18:27).

Ragi (passionate) means someone in the grip of raga–passionate desire for something.

Lubdhas (greedy) means someone who is consumed with desire for material things.

Himsatmakas (violent-natured) is someone whose very nature is violent and bent on the injury of others.

Ashucis (impure) is someone who is both impure and polluted.

Harshashokanvitah karta (easily elated or dejected) means one who is continually filled with happiness and misery–bouncing back and forth from one to the other, and often both simultaneously, so confused and unstable is such a person. So is the rajasic person, and so is rajasic religion!

Tamasic doer

An agent that is unsteady, vulgar, obstinate, false, dishonest, lazy, despondent and procrastinating, is said to be tamasic (18:28).

Ayuktas means a person who is both undisciplined and unaware of others, acting as though he is the only person around that counts.

Prakritas, means vulgar, ostentatious, and vain.

Naikritikas means dishonest as well as generally vile.

Vishadi means despondent, but also someone who is depressed and continually distressed. This is the way of life for a lot of people who have no real reason to be so. Many people are professional gloom-and-doom nay-sayers. They are so negative, literally, that they prefer misery to happiness, both for themselves and others. They love bad news or the threat of disasters.

Dirghasutri means not just procrastinating or dilatory, but someone who never really acts, however much he may talk. Those who do nothing because they are so convinced they can only fail, also are numbered among the tamasic.

There is not much inspiration in all this, is there? But Krishna wants us to intelligently understand what is going on with ourselves and others. “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself” (Romans 17:7).

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

Visit our e-library page for Free Downloads of this and other ebooks in various formats.

Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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