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 declared in Sankhya that knowledge, action, and the doer are of three kinds, distinguished according to the gunas. Hear about these also” (18:19).
“That knowledge by which one sees one Imperishable Being in all beings, Undivided in separate beings; 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 Immortal Unity. Simple, but not easy.
“But that knowledge which sees in all beings separate entities of various kind, by differentiation, 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 dualistic 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.
“That [knowledge], however, which is attached to one single effect as if it were all, and without reason, without a real purpose and small in significance, 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.
Attached to one single effect as if it were all. 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 [insert name of scripture] 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…. As a friend of mind used to say to me: “Don’t confuse me with the facts–my mind is made up!” Fortunately it was a joke, but it rarely is.
Without a real purpose. One of the first things I observed about people was their utter purposelessness. 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,” is how Saint Paul described it (II Timothy 3:7). Most people are just running in the hamster wheel made for them, thinking that they are living and going somewhere.
Small in significance. 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 these was the bestseller The Book of Lists. It is considered a virtue 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 a 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.
“That action which is ordained and free from attachment, performed without attachment [raga] or aversion [dwesha], with no wish to obtain fruit, 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.
“But that action which is performed with a wish to obtain desires, with selfishness, or, again, with much effort, is declared to be 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 comes out 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.
“That action which is undertaken because of delusion, disregarding consequences, loss, or injury to others, as well as one’s own ability, 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.
“Released from attachment, free from ego, endowed with steadfastness and resolution, unperturbed in success or failure: such a doer is said to be sattwic” (18:26).
Anahamvadi 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 supposedly telling remembrances of their gurus. In one tape–over an hour in length–the guru is spoken about only once, and then for only about four minutes. In another, 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 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.
“Passionate, desiring the fruits of action, greedy, violent-natured, impure, subject to joy or sorrow: such a doer is proclaimed to be rajasic” (18:27).
Ragi means someone in the grip of raga–passionate desire for something. Lubdhas means someone who is greedy, consumed with desire for material things. Himsatmakas is someone whose very nature is violent and bent on the injury of others. Ashucis is someone who is impure, and polluted. Harshashokanvitah karta 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.
“Undisciplined, vulgar, obstinate, wicked, deceitful, lazy, despondent, and procrastinating: such a doer is said to be tamasic” (18:28).
Ayuktas means a person who is both undisciplined and unaware of others–at least 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 dispondent, 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
Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:
- The Battlefield of the Mind
- On the Field of Dharma
- Taking Stock
- The Smile of Krishna
- Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
- Experiencing the Unreal
- The Unreal and the Real
- The Body and the Spirit
- Know the Atman!
- Practical Self-Knowledge
- Perspective on Birth and Death
- The Wonder of the Atman
- The Indestructible Self
- “Happy the Warrior”
- Buddhi Yoga
- Religiosity Versus Religion
- Perspective on Scriptures
- How Not To Act
- How To Act
- Right Perspective
- Wisdom About the Wise
- Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
- The Way of Peace
- Calming the Storm
- First Steps in Karma Yoga
- From the Beginning to the End
- The Real “Doers”
- Our Spiritual Marching Orders
- Freedom From Karma
- In the Grip of the Monster
- Devotee and Friend
- The Eternal Being
- The Path
- Caste and Karma
- Action–Divine and Human
- The Mystery of Action and Inaction
- The Wise in Action
- Sacrificial Offerings
- The Worship of Brahman
- Action–Renounced and Performed
- Freedom (Moksha)
- The Brahman-Knower
- The Goal of Karma Yoga
- Getting There
- The Yogi’s Retreat
- The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
- Union With Brahman
- The Yogi’s Future
- Success in Yoga
- The Net and Its Weaver
- Those Who Seek God
- Those Who Worship God and the Gods
- The Veil in the Mind
- The Big Picture
- The Sure Way To Realize God
- Day, Night, and the Two Paths
- The Supreme Knowledge
- Universal Being
- Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
- Worshipping the One
- Going To God
- Wisdom and Knowing
- Going To The Source
- From Hearing To Seeing
- The Wisdom of Devotion
- Right Conduct
- The Field and Its Knower
- Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
- Seeing the One Within the All
- The Three Gunas
- The Cosmic Tree
- The All-pervading Reality
- The Divine and the Demonic
- Faith and the Three Gunas
- Food and the Three Gunas
- Religion and the Three Gunas
- Tapasya and the Three Gunas
- Charity and the Three Gunas
- Sannyasa and Tyaga
- Deeper Insights On Action
- Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
- The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
- The Three Kinds of Happiness
- The Great Devotee
- The Final Words
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