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The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness

Part 85 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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Now hear the three kinds of intellect and steadfastness according to the gunas, set forth completely and severally (18:29).

This is an interesting juxtapositioning: intellect and will-power. For what good is intelligence without the will to act upon it, and what use is a strong will with no intelligence to guide it? Again we see how perfect the Bhagavad Gita is, and how unique in the world.

We have considered buddhi quite a bit, but it is good to remember that buddhi is intellect, understanding, and reason–the thinking, analytical mind. Dhrita has not been covered before. A Brief Sanskrit Glossary defines it as “steadfastness; constancy; sustained effort; firmness; patience; endurance.” Basically, it is the exercise of the will. And in this verse it means the will itself.

Sattwic intellect

That intellect which knows the paths of work and renunciation, when to act and when not to act, what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, what is to be feared and what is not to be feared, bondage and liberation, is sattwic (18:30).

Intelligence and just plain good sense is the trait of a sattwic intellect. This embraces both mundane and spiritual matters. A sattwic individual always knows what is appropriate action, inaction, speech, and silence. He is keenly aware of both the practical and the ethical aspects of acting and not acting–and of the character and value of both. He lives according to an inviolable code that of necessity is elaborate and subtle–though to him it is simplicity and clarity itself because he grasps the underlying principles of thought and conduct.

The sattwic person knows when to fear and when not to fear, what is rightly feared and what is rightly disregarded. This is a profound thing, for human beings are continually being influenced by those around them as well as the conditions in which they live. Knowing what to be wary of and what to regard lightly is a secret of great happiness and freedom from stress. Pressures are exerted on us continually from both internal and external sources. Understanding what merits our conformity and what has no real claim on us is wisdom beyond price.

But the most important knowledge is that of bondage and liberation–not just the philosophical concepts of bandha and moksha, but those things which either produce or abrogate them.

We see from this that the sattwic person is in total charge of his internal and external life–not by mere will power but by insight into the truth of himself and all he encounters.

Rajasic intellect

That intellect which incorrectly understands dharma and adharma, what should be done and what should not be done, is rajasic (18:31).

This does not mean being wrong all the time, but being right sometimes and wrong sometimes, sometimes on the beam and sometimes off. This is the experience of nearly everyone: you win a few and you lose a few. This is because our understanding is imperfect and also because it can be clouded by various mental factors, not the least of which is simple ignorance. At the root of this condition is fluctuation of the very mind-substance, the chitta, so it cannot perfectly intuit the nature of objects and actions. Desires and fears flaw our judgment.

Tamasic intellect

That intellect enveloped in darkness, regarding adharma as dharma, and seeing all things pervertedly (turned backward: that is, seeing all things completely opposite to their true nature or state), is tamasic (18:32).

The key to this state is the word viparitan, which Sargeant translates “perverted,” but which actually means “contrary” or “turned backward.” The idea is that the mind is in a state of continual reversal that sees things opposite to what they really are. The mind has become like a photographic negative: what is really light is dark, and what is really dark is light. This is the habitual state of a tamasic intellect. Everything is consistently false, contrary to reality. This is the state of literal negativity. It is a terrible thing.

The only positive thing about it is that when we know such a person we can tell the nature of anything by their reaction to it. If they like something then it is harmful or evil. If they dislike something it is beneficial and good. I have known several people like this and I often used them as a kind of aberrant oracle. I would present something to them and see how they reacted. They were one hundred percent trustworthy in their response–if they liked something I knew it was poisonous, and if they detested something I knew it was truly good. Even in the field of religion I found them to have an unerring accuracy, as long as I took everything opposite to their opinion, of course. In relation to religion, politics, people, even health matters, and especially morality and ethics, they are perfect judges. They can be trusted to always see (or claim they see) things opposite to what they really are.

Sattwic firmness (steadfastness)

That firmness of intellect or purpose by which through yoga the functions of the mind, the vital force (prana) and the senses are restrained, is sattwic (18:33).

Another, equally legitimate translation is: “The firmness by which, through the unswerving practice of yoga, one holds fast the functions of the mind, vital force and the senses–that firmness is sattwic.” Of course, the core idea of both versions is that sattwic firmness is produced by the practice of yoga. For only through yoga can there be any appreciable or permanent control of the mind, prana, or senses. The key word is avybhicharinya, which does mean “unswerving,” but also means “not going astray” in the sense of not departing from the right practice of yoga. I say this because most that is called yoga either does nothing or harms and confuses the mind, whereas the Upanishads, the Gita, and the Yoga Sutras all agree on the right yogic process. The sadhaka who studies those texts and holds steadfastly to what he learns there will unerringly reach the Goal.

Rajasic firmness

But that firmness by which one holds to dharma, enjoyment and wealth from attachment and desire for the fruits of action, is rajasic (18:34).

Besides desire for the fruits of action, this verse includes desire for what is brought to a person by the possession of duty, pleasures, and wealth. Since the dharma of a rajasic person is based on self-interest, on the ego itself, it cannot be real dharma, and cannot produce the positive effects of dharma. Rather, it compounds the enslavement to the demands of ego. It is adharma: “not dharma.”

Tamasic firmness

That firmness by which a stupid person does not abandon sleep, fear, depression and arrogance, is tamasic (18:35).

Obviously we all need sleep to live normally, but Krishna mentions swapna (sleep) here to indicate being asleep in the mind, whatever the bodily state. At the same time it is true that tamasic people sleep too much, and are continually dropping off the moment they sit still. Many of them take refuge in sleep so they will not have to face the mess they have made of their life. I have known negative people that would fall asleep the moment they came into a positive spiritual atmosphere. It was their way of blotting it out.

Krishna is not speaking of those that have a physical problem which saps their vitality. Such people are not tamasic but ill and need the assistance of professional health care. For example, I knew a woman who, when asked how she was, invariably answered: “Oh, I am so tired….” Much later it was discovered that she was suffering from leukemia. Anemic people have this symptom as well.

Anyhow, tamasic people will not give up “lazing around” mentally or physically. Even more, they are addicted to fear (often in the form of worry), and grief (often in the form of discontent and generally being “out of sorts”). They love to blame and they love to brood and they love to be “hurt” and “wronged.” Their depression (vishadam) is a wallowing in self-pity and blame of others. It often takes the form of pessimism and distrust of others.

Vishadam also can mean a kind of lassitude, and “what’s the use?” lack of motivation. Although such people are as boring and tiresome as possible, Krishna says another trait is madam, which means pride and conceit to the level of virtual intoxication of ego. You would not expect this of dreary, “poor me” people, but I have seen it to be true. The more tamasic, the more inwardly arrogant and proud, even to the point of psychosis. Such a person is called durmedha, which means dull-witted as well as outright stupid. A lot of tamasic people I have known were not mentally limited–some were quite intelligent–but they were dull, dreary, and boring by choice. And they were all steadfast in their tamasic slough.

This study may have been a bit tedious, and certainly not very inspiring, but it is necessary for us to know all this.

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Three Kinds of Happiness

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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

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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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