The doctrine of the three guṇa-s or basic elements of the cosmos is presented in the Bhagavad Gita.6 min read

The doctrine of the three gua-s or basic elements of the cosmos is presented in the Gītā. It is not a central Upanisadic doctrine.

The Gītā prescribes a knowledge of them as an aid to practice in daily life. The treatment is mainly in Chapters XIV and  XVII, with a group of verses in  Chapter XVIII.

Chapter XIV in fact begins with one of the analogies of the world- process, which come in several places in the Gītā. It is represented in terms of fertilization of Nature by the Lord. A major point of the analogies is, that the world-appearance is a conscious divine projection; delusive and a source of suffering when not recognized as such, it is bliss when realized as the Lord. The Lord must be realized not only externally, but as the Self, the Knower of the Field. Each analogy is intended as a stimulus to experience; they are not mutually consistent in details, though they are often introduced as a great ‘secret’. As was pointed out in the section on Teaching Down, each successive revelation is for some people the final clue or ‘secret’ which makes all clear. Only in so far as they do not ‘see and know’, is further instruction needed.

The word ‘gua’ meant originally the strand of a rope, but soon came to be used for an attribute, especially a good attribute. But the sense of an actual thing or element was not lost. Gua-s are the fundamental constituents of the cosmic manifestation, and as such have phases: physical, mental, and causal. There are three of them: sattva, goodness, relative truth, and by extension, light, purity, balance and calm; rajas, passion-struggle, and by extension selfishness and pain; tamas, darkness, and by extension inertia and delusion. The three bind the embodied self, by their respective forces of attachment:

XIV.6 Sattva, pure, illuminating, and healthy
Yet binds by attachment to happiness and by attachment to knowledge.

IV.7 Know that rajas, whose nature is to desire because of thirst and clutching attachment,
Binds the embodied by attachment to action.

8 Know that darkness of tamas, arising from ignorance, deludes all the embodied,
Binding them by heedlessness, laziness and sleep.

Even sattva is a binding force, though the bonds are light; they are silver chains which can be taken as prestige symbols in life. Even the purest sattva is part of the Field, and it binds (or, as Śakara adds, appears to bind) the Self in a particular Field.

The gua-s are all present all the time in the whole of Nature, including of course the Field. A yogin’s life is predominantly sattvic, but still his body or mind sometimes feels slack or restless. He can modify these impulses. In the ordinary way, tamas is overcome by rajas, and then rajas has to be purified and calmed by sattva. Sattva does not so easily influence tamas directly. At the outset of the Gītā, it is by rajas that the Lord rouses Arjuna out of complete tamas; he brings forward frankly rajasic considerations, of honour and disgrace and so on. Arjuna is roused from the inert T will not fight’ of II.9 to at least listening to the teaching, and so to the ‘What shall I do?’ of III.2. He had said this earlier on, but it was swept aside by ‘I will not fight’. This time he is beginning to mean it.

The habitually dominant gua-attitude during life will determine the state at death, and some of the conditions of future lives. Some account of this is given in the Gītā. But in the West, where reincarnation is merely a hypothesis, such passages are often a distraction. They can lead to fruitless discussions for or against. When yoga practice advances, there may be experiences which settle the matter for the individual. Sankara confirms this. But in general, the stress in the Gītā is on attainment of freedom in this very life. It is the gua-s that bind, or seem to bind; they are to be transcended either by Knowledge, as in II.45 and XIV.19, or by devotion and service of the Lord as in XIV.26.

19 When the Seer sees no other agent than the gua-s
And knows the higher-than-the-guas, he becomes what I am.

Towards the end of XIV, Arjuna asks one of his questions, this time about the marks of the one who has gone beyond the gua-s. It shows that he does not yet have much idea of the Self free from all attributes; any marks could apply only to the purified Field, from which the feeling of self is now withdrawn. The Lord answers the question in the terms in which it has been put. He gives the main characteristics of the body-mind complex which is practising jnâna-nisthâ; they are mainly negative:

XIV.24 ‘to whom loved and unloved are equal, to whom blame and praise are equal… alike to friend and foe,… to whom pain and pleasure are alike, abiding in the self, to whom clods, stones and gold are all one;

25 abandoning all undertakings . . .’

Most of them have been given in the Knowledge-yoga sections at the end of II, the end of XII, and elsewhere; ‘to whom clods, stones and gold are all one’ comes also in VI.8; ‘abandoning all undertakings’ was one of the qualities listed in XII. 16.

Important for practice is a new theme:

XIV.22 Light (i.e. sattva), activity (rajas), and delusion (tamas), arising in him,
He does not hate when they come, not long for them when they have ceased.

This can be misunderstood as a sort of fatalism. But that is against the clear words of the verse. The yogin takes energetic action to remove tamas in his mind, for instance by study or service; he calms the disturbance of rajas by meditation. But he does not hate rajas and tamas: he just removes them. Nor does he long for sattva when it is temporarily absent: ‘Oh, alas! I have fallen away from the state of purity.’ He simply restores it, without getting excited. In the same way, on a cold morning a musician knows that his hands will be slow and imprecise. But he does not curse the weather, or long for it to change. He knows that it will take more of the usual exercises to warm up the hands, and he calmly does them. Profound is the meaning of a Japanese Zen poem:

Every day we sweep up the fallen leaves in the garden;

But we do not hate the trees for dropping them.

© Trevor Leggett