In Chapter Three the subject of the gunas was introduced. They were briefly mentioned in Chapter Four, and now this fourteenth chapter is devoted to them.
The first two verses are reminiscent of others we have encountered already: “I shall declare, further, the highest knowledge, the best of all knowledge, having known which all the sages have gone from here to supreme perfection. Resorting to this knowledge, and arriving at a state of identity with Me, even at the creation of the world they are not born, nor do they tremble at its dissolution” (14:1, 2).
Simplistic, linear (two dimensional) thinking characterizes Western thought, including religion. In some instances the entire range of their beliefs can be summed up in a moderate-sized paragraph. Neatly tied up theological and philosophical packages are the delight of the Western mind. As I. K. Tamini points out in The Science of Yoga, there is little interest in the reality of the theories as long as they hang together, are logical, and sound right. The competing Western ideologies are empty packaging, hollow boxes whose appeal lies only in their external impression. As the prophet said: “A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so” (Jeremiah 5:30, 31).
In contrast we have the rich, multilevel, and wide-embracing philosophies of the East, philosophies that are demonstrable, whose esoteric principles are proven by the observable changes in those that fulfill them. Much of the time they appear inconsistent, even contradictory, but that is a characteristic of reality itself. They often say the same thing about differing subjects. For example, in Hinduism all the sahasranamavalis (collections of one thousand titles) addressed to various deities declare each of them to be the only true deity, and a great deal of the same titles are attributed to them all. It is, furthermore, usual for a Hindu to recite several of these over a period of time without any unease whatsoever. I have known yogis who would say: “The one thing you need is…,” and then name differing things at different times. Of course. Eastern religion does not “make sense” it IS sense, and it makes the adherent sensible.
More than once already, Krishna has stated his intention to give us the highest wisdom. And has spoken differently each time. Now he does it again, but giving us an understanding of what true wisdom really does for the wise.
Beyond this wisdom there is simply nothing more to be known, because Wisdom and Brahman are the same. That is, Truth is not a set of intellectual ideas, but Reality Itself. When someone asked Shankara: “What is Truth [Satya]?” he answered: “There is no such thing as Truth, there is only The True [Sat].” This is because Shankara was a yogi, not a mere philosopher, and he knew that “knowledge and realization combined, having learned which you shall be released from evil,” (9:1) was the only thing that really mattered.
Knowledge (jnana) must be sought for. True, it is already inside us, but what value is that to us who are blind to it? We must open our eyes–or remove the debris that separates us from it. In the newborn infant are all the faculties and powers of the adult. Yet that means nothing to the infant. In time the inner seeds will manifest and adulthood be gained. It is the same with us. There is a necessary search for Truth, but that search must be an inner search, the practice of yoga.
The Supreme Perfection attained by the sages is Brahman, Infinity Itself. It is not mere freedom from fault or a plenitude of good attributes. It is a transcending of the condition in which good or bad, vice or virtue, can exist–a transcendence in which there is not even the possibility of their existence.
United with Brahman, the Brahman-nature was living through them–for It was them. “This is the divine [Brahmic] state. Having attained this, he is not deluded; fixed in it, even at the hour of death, He reaches the bliss of God [Brahmanirvana]” (2:72).
“Even at the creation of the world they are not born, nor do they tremble at its dissolution.” Having no longer any need for the cosmic school, they have graduated from the plane of relativity. They are not compelled to take birth in a future creation cycle, nor are they dispossessed of a body-dwelling when the universe dissolves. They have moved beyond all such cycles into Original Being. They experience the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer: “O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5).
Prakriti: the originating womb
“Great Brahma is My womb. In it I place the egg. The origin of all beings exists from that. Whatever forms are produced in any womb, the great Brahma is their womb, and I am the seed-sowing father” (14:3, 4).
Brahma is the creator of the three lower levels of the seven-level creation. Since creation is really only a dream, the egg or seed of that dream is placed within his consciousness, and all develops from there. Creation is often spoken of as an egg (garbha) in Sanskrit texts. And that egg is prakriti, so that subject is being continued here. Just as an egg is warmed in order for it to hatch, so Brahma focuses his consciousness on the prakriti-egg, and its potentials are realized. So both Brahma and prakriti are the wombs of all things.
Prakriti is the great field of creative energy, but the seeds planted therein are the individual spirits who are evolving through the vast span of creation cycles. Thus, Prakriti is our Mother and Brahma is our Father–the only real parents we will ever have, all others being but temporary reflections of these divine archetypes. We need to realize that we are divine in origin, and that our purpose in being here is to manifest our innate divinity. We must also keep in mind that sincere there is only One, Prakriti is really Purusha, that what we mistake for matter is really Spirit. Although there appear to be many separate beings, in essence they are one in Brahman.
All forms within Prakriti are really only modifications and combinations of the three gunas. So Krishna continues: “Sattwa, rajas, tamas: thus, the gunas born of prakriti bind fast in the body the imperishable embodied one [the self]” (14:5). The gunas are not three things but merely qualities of the energy that is Prakriti. They are modes or functions of energy. The primal energy moves in three different ways. So the gunas are not things of themselves, only appearances. But very significant appearances.
The three gunas are called sattwa, rajas, and tamas. When we experience them as real, they bind and limit us to body consciousness, making us undergo change and death, even though we are unchanging and immortal. So the three gunas are the basic forces of illusion. It is interesting that there are three primary colors whose combinations make all other colors. Without these three we would never see any forms whatsoever.
The next thirteen verses deal with the gunas, moving back and forth between them. To make it much easier to understand their differences, I am going to separate the verses into three sections so we can look at one guna at a time in depth.
“Of these, sattwa, free from impurity, illuminating and free from disease, binds by attachment to happiness and by attachment to knowledge” (14:6).
From this we know that sattwa is free from impurity–from any element that obstructs higher consciousness from functioning on any level. Further, sattwa illuminates the mind and whatever the mind is fixed upon. Understanding and practical knowledge arise naturally in the sattwic mind. Sattwa is free from any defect, either mental or physical. Nevertheless, sattwa is as much an element of bondage as rajas or tamas. It binds us through attachment to happiness and ease of heart and to the pursuit of spiritual wisdom. When these are sought as attributes of the Self, such seeking frees us. But if they are sought under the influence of sattwa, they are sought for their benefits–ultimately for our personal well-being and understanding. The motive is tainted–albeit only as the faintest shadow–by egoic motive. Sattwa, too, must be shed by the ascending spirit. For: “Sattwa causes attachment to happiness” (14:9).
“When prevailing over rajas and tamas, sattwa arises” (14:10). Sattwa is a force of positive introversion, of keen awareness of inward states–a condition essential for proficiency in meditation. It is a psychic sensitivity, an awareness of subtler realms of being. This is because sattwa is fundamentally an orientation toward spiritual ascension which results from the dissolving of all lower things. The ultimate sattwa (shuddhasattwa) is a melting away of all that is not spirit.
“When the light of knowledge shines through all the gates of this body, then it should be known that sattwa is dominant” (14:11). Those in whom sattwa predominate are not bewildered by life and its experiences. Rather, the sattwic person is ever gaining in understanding, being taught by life itself. The sattwic persons SEES in the fullest sense.
“When an embodied being goes to dissolution [death] under the dominance of sattwa, then he attains the stainless worlds of those who know the Highest” (14:14). Being himself a knower, at the time of death he ascends to the pure worlds of those established in the highest consciousness, his state of mind being in harmony with theirs.
“The fruit of good action is sattwic and without impurity” (14:16). Action that increases the quality of sattwa in us is the only truly good action. This is a necessary lesson for us who seek the Highest. For: “From sattwa knowledge is born” (14:17). And as has been said: “Those established in sattwa go upward [after death]” (14:18). But he must abide in sattwa, be established in sattwa, not just having occasional bouts or flashes of sattwa. Sattwa must be a steady condition.
“Know that rajas is characterized by passion [raga] arising from thirst [trishna] and attachment [sangha]. This binds fast the embodied one by attachment to action” (14:7). Rajas produces fevered desire in us, whatever the object might be. Fundamentally it makes us crave enjoyment and possession of the objects of enjoyment. It literally addicts us to action–the shackles of rebirth and karma. In sum: “Rajas [causes attachment] to action” (14:9) Pity the fool who says: “I am a doer, not a thinker,” who considers himself “a man of action,” and thinks it is an enviable virtue.
Rajas is a consuming monster, for: “Rajas prevailing over sattwa and tamas also comes to be” (14:10). The individual’s will is wiped out, at least for the moment. In the third chapter Arjuna asks: “Impelled by what does a man commit evil, even unwillingly, as if urged [commanded] by force?” (3:36) And Krishna answers: “This force is desire [kama], this force is anger [krodha]; its source [origin] is the rajas guna [rajoguna]. Voracious and greatly injurious, know this to be the enemy” (3:37). “Greed, activity, and the undertaking of actions, restlessness, desire: these are born when rajas is dominant” (14:12). And we are its slaves.
The following are self-explanatory: “He who goes to dissolution [death] when rajas is dominant, is reborn among those attached to action” (14:15). “The fruit of rajasic action is pain” (14:16). “From rajas desire [is born]” (14:17). “[After death,] the rajasic stay in the middle [in this world for more rebirth]” (14:18).
“Know indeed that tamas is born of ignorance, which deludes all embodied beings. This binds fast, with negligence, indolence, and sleepiness [stupor]” (14:8). “Tamas, obscuring knowledge, causes attachment to negligence” (14:9). When this is seen in anyone or anything, tamas is prevailing–and enslaving, for Krishna says: “Tamas [arises] prevailing over sattwa and rajas” (14:10). “Darkness and inertness, heedlessness and delusion: these are born when tamas is dominant” (14:13).
“Dissolved [dying] when tamas is dominant, he is reborn from the wombs of the deluded” (14:15). Commentators say this means that the tamasic person is born either to parents of utter stupidity and torpor, or that he may even sink to rebirth in a subhuman form.
“The fruit of tamasic action is ignorance” (14:16). “Negligence and delusion arise from tamas, and ignorance too” (14:17). That is clear to any but the tamasic.
“[After death] the tamasic, established in the lowest quality, go downward” (14:18). Again, this means either birth among the stupid or the subhuman (whatever the form, human or animal); and it can also mean sinking into the regions of darkness known as “hells.”
All in all, tamas is not a good thing.
The three doers
“When the seer perceives no doer other than the gunas, and knows that which is higher than the gunas, he attains My being” (14:19).
Of course it is really Prakriti alone that does all things, the gunas simply being modes of the Primal Energy, only modes of energy behavior. Yogananda usually elucidated these concepts by the example of a motion picture. The picture itself is Prakriti, with its colors and forms being the gunas, and the white undifferentiated light is the Purusha, the Infinite. (Sometimes he likened Prakriti to the screen.) So everything that happens or that we perceive are merely joinings and disjoinings of the gunas. The gunas alone do anything. Realizing this we should be stimulated to look beyond the gunas to the transcendent Spirit which is absolute Unity. Through yoga we can enter into that Oneness and be free from the illusions of the gunas.
“When an embodied being transcends these three gunas, which are the source of the body, released from birth, death, old age, and pain, he attains immortality” (14:20). This makes it clear that we do not need some kind of mastery or control over the gunas, but rather we require a metaphysical transcendence, an awakening that will take us beyond their reach. What to the ignorant are unbreakable bonds then become nothing more than cobwebs–not even that: mere illusions.
The gunas are not only the source, the “material” of the body, they are also the forces that impel us into imprisonment in the body. When the poet wrote: “Change and decay all around I see,” he was speaking of the gunas. But when he continued: “O thou that changest not,” he was addressing the Self.
Freed from the gunas, and therefore from the body, “released from birth, death, old age, and pain, he attains immortality.” That is, he knows who he really is and dreams no more dreams of the gunas.
“Arjuna said: By what marks is he recognized who has transcended these three gunas? What is his conduct? and how does he go beyond these three gunas?” (14:21)
How do we know when the gunas are transcended? “He neither hates nor desires the presence or the absence of light or activity or delusion” (14:22).
This is an important point. We want to transcend the gunas, yet we are to be indifferent to their presence or their absence–actually, in this verse, the effects of their presence or absence. Non-interaction with them is the secret. But the even greater secret is the will and the desire to reach God Who is beyond the gunas. Finding God is the real secret. The idea that it is wisdom to just remain in the world and “skillfully” weave through the maze is absurd–and so very Western. (Like the silly idea that being able to make holograms of match-boxes in your mind is a preparation for meditation.) God must be the central focus of our consciousness and our life.
We will do well to never forget Krishna’s description of the true yogi: “He who is steadfast in yoga sees the Self present in all beings, and all beings present in the Self. He sees the same [Self] at all times. He who sees Me everywhere, and sees all things in Me: I am not lost to him, and he is not lost to Me” (6:29, 30).
The next three verses are so perfect they need no comment beyond our embodying of them.
“He who is as one seated apart [indifferent], who is not disturbed by the gunas, thinking: ‘The gunas are operating,’ and who stand firm and does not waver, to whom pain and pleasure are equal, who dwells in the Self, to whom a lump of earth, a stone, and gold are the same, to whom the loved and the unloved are alike, who is steadfast, to whom blame and praise of himself are alike, to whom honor and dishonor are equal, dispassionate toward the side of friend or foe, renouncing all undertakings: he is said to transcend the gunas” (14:23-25).
How it is done
I have given my ideas about getting beyond the gunas, but these words of Krishna far exceed them:
“And he who serves Me with the yoga of unswerving devotion, transcending these gunas, is ready for absorption in Brahman. For I am the abode of Brahman, of the immortal and the imperishable, of the everlasting dharma, and of absolute bliss” (14:26, 27).
Om Tat Sat Om.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Cosmic Tree
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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