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Religion and the Three Gunas

Part 79 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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Whenever the word “sacrifice” is used in the Gita it covers the entire range of spiritual practice and spiritual life in general. In the following verses ritualistic worship–and no doubt the fire sacrifice–is certainly referred to, but it applies in the wider sense, as well.


Sacrifice which is offered, observing the scriptures, by those who do not desire the fruits, concentrating the mind only on the thought: “This is to be offered;” that is sattwic (17:11).

Sattwa alone leads to liberation, so it is wise to order our spiritual life according to its traits as listed here.

First, we are told that sattwic spiritual life is lived according to the principles of the scriptures. This includes the teachings and counsels of those who have attained higher consciousness. It is necessary for us who have not traveled the path to consider the advice of those who have successfully traversed it. We need not be slavish or idolatrous about any scripture or teaching, but we need to seriously consider the words of those who have been inspired from within to lead humanity toward higher life. Mary Baker Eddy very aptly called such persons Way-Showers. This implies a very practical attitude toward them: they are not gods or absolute authorities, but they show the way to succeed in spiritual life. They are not interested in imparting a philosophy, but in showing us how to attain the highest consciousness.

Just as a person experienced and skilled in something can teach others, so do they. It is always a clear matter of cause and effect. It either works or it does not. Belief, obedience, or “surrender” have absolutely nothing to do with it. At all times it is according to the judgment of the seeker. Sometimes we have to follow a path to find out for ourself if it works. And nothing is sadder than those who spend years getting nowhere, yet clinging to a worthless discipline because they have committed themselves to it or, even worse, have entered into some pathological personal compact (including a supposed guru-disciple relationship) that enslaves them and blinds them to the evidently valueless character of that path or association. Most unfortunate of all are those who are bound and blinded by “love” for the teacher or group that is stagnating and devastating their lives and hearts. “Loyalty” and “attunement” is the slave-collar about their neck.

Next we are told that spiritual life is not engaged in for personal gain in the external sense, but rather as an offering to the Divine both within and without. Such a way of life is not engaged in for any other motive than being in harmony with the cosmic order the ancient sages of India called Ritam. Truly spiritual people live a spiritual life because it is according to their true nature. They are expressing their inmost being. They are not trying to become something, but are moving out of darkness into the light so they can know what they really are: to behold their eternal Self, that which Buddhists call the Original Nature. Real spiritual life is not loading ourselves with an array of spiritual paraphernalia, but divesting ourselves of all that is not us.


But sacrifice which is offered with a view for the fruit and for the purpose of ostentation, know that to be rajasic (17:12).

This pretty well describes nearly all the religious or spiritual life of human beings. Those who are interested in the good will or admiration of man and God, and hope to receive whatever they desire in return for their religiosity, are in the grip of the rajasic ego. Ultimately it leads nowhere but back to more rebirth and confusion.


Sacrifice devoid of faith, disregarding the scriptures, with no food offered, without mantras, without gift or fee is declared to be tamasic (17:13).

Sometimes we have to pay attention to ignorance to figure out the ways of wisdom. And that is the case here regarding tamasic religion. This is a very full picture of deluded and confused “spirituality,” and we need to look at it so we can avoid it.

Sacrifice devoid of faith. The first quality of tamasic religion listed is shraddhavirahitam–devoid of faith or having abandoned faith. To really understand this, we must remember that as mentioned before shraddha is not mere intellectual belief, but an interior, intuitive conviction that arises as an enlivening of the inner intelligence of an individual. In other words, a religion of shraddha is a religion that is spiritually alive, and therefore inwardly perceptive. In the sixth chapter of the Gita we have this description of one who has this divine shraddha: “The yogi… having become one with Brahman,… easily touching Brahman,… I am not lost to him, and he is not lost to me” (6:27-28, 30). This is the religion we should seek, realizing that it can be hinted at outwardly, but can only be achieved inwardly. As Jesus said (Luke 17:21): “The kingdom of God is within you”–actually is you.

Contrary to the scriptures. The word used here is very interesting: vidhihinam–which means both “lacking scriptures” and “discarding scriptures.” Krishna is implying here that scriptures are necessary for real spiritual life. However, in the East any book that contains wisdom is considered a scripture, even if it was written this morning. So Krishna is speaking of the wisdom of enlightened teachers that have been put into words and set down for our help in pursuing spiritual life.

He is also referring to a spiritual tradition–not narrow and sectarian, but a tradition, nonetheless. In the West we tend wisely to shy away from tradition because of the deadly ignorance in the West of those who boast of being traditional. But in the East tradition is always subject to intelligent scrutiny and is never a matter of “the book says it, so I believe it.” Most important, authentic spiritual tradition is understood to be verifiable by each seeker for himself. In the West many are satisfied with intellectual jugglery and argumentation, but in the East it is practical experience that is sought. Whenever I quote a scripture in my writings I certainly think of it as lending authority to what I have to say, but I also use quotations simply because the scriptures say it so much better than I can.

Tamasic religion is that which has no authentic scripture(s), no viable tradition(s). It may either be the shallow and flimsy “make up my own” whimsical kind, or a religion burdened with fantasy and lies claiming to be God’s latest revelation to the world. Either way, its characteristic is the darkness, confusion, and delusion of tamas.

On the other hand, some tamasic religion may have a great deal of scriptures in which true wisdom is to be found, but the leaders and adherents prefer to ignore the wisdom and subvert the teaching to suit their own fancy. So while adulating the scriptures they really cast them aside. Consider the way nearly every religion manages to condone spiritually poisonous behavior and thought, wresting the scriptures to not only approve, but often to advocate them. Almost no religion is free from this, as anyone with open-eyed experience and observation will know. Often the divine light of holy wisdom is completely covered by the evil and untruth of a religion’s popular form.

Finally, vidhihinam can also simply mean “without knowledge (vidya)” or “discarding (ignoring) knowledge.” In other words, ignorant and ineffectual religion that boasts of its “faith” since it has no substance or reality. Today we find many religious currents in the world that were born in ignorance, and went on from there to greater ignorance. There are also religions that started out with authentic spiritual knowledge, with true spiritual revelation, but turned away from it in order to gain power and wealth. This is especially the case with state religions, or those that used to be state religions. Having remodeled their spiritual structure to suit their governing patrons, they lost their original value and often the patronage, as well. Christianity is the latest and most blatant example of this.

With no food offered. Asrishtannam means food that is either not offered, or is not shared out after the offering. This is an important part in Eastern religion of whatever kind. There is always offering of food which is then distributed to those present–usually in the form of an abundant feast. But the selfish refuse to do so, and their religion becomes one of taking but not giving. This is the mark of any cult–old or new.

Without mantras. First, there is the mantra known as the sankalpa which is recited at the beginning of any ritual, stating its purpose and dedication. Its absence would indicate religion that is vague, even purposeless, performed in a rote way simply for the doing of it, or religion whose real purpose is not at all grasped, and is therefore meaningless. But mantrahinam is like vidhihinam; it has the dual meaning of “without mantra” or “disregarding mantra.” This indicates religion that is without order or legitimacy, and especially religion that is without power, for power (effectiveness) is the fundamental characteristic of mantra. So we are looking at a religion that never had any spiritual power, or has come to discard and even deny that power. It can also be applied to the adherents of a religion that does have power and knowledge, but regarding which they are either ignorant or indifferent.

Without gift [given to the officiants]. Adakshinam simply means “without fee” or voluntary offering. This means a religion in which the members engage in take-but-not-give policy, the obverse side of the type where the religion itself only demands and takes. Such religion is proud of the fact that it expects nothing of its adherents, and they are proud of that, too. “Our religion is democratic,” they boast. “You don’t need to do anything you don’t want to.” They confuse democracy with anarchy. It is certainly true that in worthy religion the members are not coerced or cajoled in any way. But people that want to avoid all involvement, commitment, or investment of time and thought are unworthy of such a religion and will never benefit from it until they change their outlook.

Such religion often denies the fact of priesthood or hierarchical realities, refusing to recognize that some people may be more spiritually skilled or knowledgeable than others. Such religion revels in a kind of egalitarianism that suppresses anything but lock-step standardization and mediocrity. “The priesthood of all believers” sounds nice, but it often masks ineffectiveness and repression.

Adakshinam also indicates a kind of selfish materialism that hates expenditure of time, effort, or even money on religion. My great-aunt Lou Maxey not only never put anything in the collection plate, she would grimly shake her head No whenever it came by her! But she was one of the first to head to the back of the church to get a free copy of the weekly church magazine. Deadbeat religion is nothing new.

At the opposite pole are the saints–that is why they are saints. As Mirabai, the great poet/musician saint of India wrote: “I have sold everything in the marketplace of this world and bought my Khanaia (Krishna). Some laugh at me and say the price was too great, and some say that the price was too small. But Mira only knows that it was everything she had.”

Tamasic religion really has no genuine perception at all–it is only obscurity and confusion. However, there are degrees of tamas (as with the other gunas, as well), and we can encounter people who have no faith in their religion because they dimly intuit that it is nonsense. But, being tamasic–one quality of which is inertia–they stay with it and go through the motions although knowing it means nothing. Here, too, we find religions that once had a mystical aspect, but jettisoned it for material gain or from spiritual blindness resulting from impurity and dullness of heart. There are individuals that are the same. For whatever reason, they blind themselves to the insights they once had and become wanderers in the fog along with so many others. I have seen people do this for various reasons, but the result was always the same: inner death. And I have never seen one regain what they willfully cast aside. Rebirth alone will restore it to them, and after how long a struggle?

The whole subject of tamasic religion is certainly gloomy, but spiritual adults know they have to acknowledge a lot of facts that are not pretty or pleasant, just as in material life unpleasant realities must be faced. The up side of the whole thing is that having given careful consideration to the matter we can avoid slipping into its ways and ourselves losing our inner vision.

The wise traveller knows both the right and the wrong roads.

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Tapasya and the Three Gunas

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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 Swami Nirmalananda Giri (Abbot George Burke).

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

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