The Gunas Bhagavad Gita Chapter 14

Chapter XIV The Guṇa-s

The doctrine of the three guṇa-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 ‘guṇa’ 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. Guṇa-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.
XIV.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 Śaṇkara adds, appears to bind) the Self in a particular Field.

The guṇa-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 guṇa-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 guṇa-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 guṇa-s
And knows the higher-than-the-guṇas, 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 guṇa-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.

The Gītā sets out the effects of the guṇas on human personality and action. The sattvic agent is detached, non-egoistic, firm and vigorous, but unaffected in success or failure. The rajasic agent is passionate, greedy, cruel, impure, and elated or depressed according to how things turn out. Dominated by tamas, he is unreliable, crude in his methods, unteachably obstinate, sly, wicked, lazy and easily discouraged.

Main points are summarized in the chart Qualities to be Cultivated by Karma-Yogin-s in Chapter XVI reproduced here:

 XVIXVIIXVIIIleading to Knowledge, Chapter XIII
occuring in all four lists
occuring in three lists
steady yogaoBrahmin
occuring in two lists
purity of essenceoo
giving up fruitsoo
no prideo
occurring in one list
realization: all is pain
yoga meditation on Cod
steadiness in self-Knowledgeo
freedom as goal
no angero
no slandero
no cravingo
no ficklenesso
not injuringo
brahmacarya (chastity)o
true and beneficial speecho

To read the chart horizontally gives the different phases, with a view to recognizing the present phase, and bringing it ultimately to sattva. To read vertically gives unalloyed pictures of the predominance of sattva, or rajas, or tamas.

Some of the points of the analysis are subtle. The action of rajas is said to be ‘with tiring effort’. This means that things are forced through, by employing means against the nature of the situation. On a small scale, this would cover gripping the pen very tightly, or banging the keys of a typewriter. There is no love for the nature of the instruments used.

Again, the firmness of tamas is said to be that by which a dull person holds fast to fear and grief. At first sight, this can seem surprising, but the Gītā is pointing out how neurosis protects itself: it is somehow ‘me’, as some sufferers frankly admit. Then those who practise ‘terrifying austerities’, with self-torture, are said to be imbued with the strength of lust; thus the Gītā discourages such feats as sexual perversions.

Reading down the column of sattva, some feel a distaste for the repeated phrase ‘it is to be done’, ‘it is to be sacrificed’, ‘it is to be given’. They feel that it is compulsive morality, lacking in the human feeling which should be the basis of action. There is an echo of a tight- lipped character in Ibsen, saying coldly, ‘It was my duty, and I did it,’ clearly without much pleasure. The advocates of ‘human feelings’ believe in a gift from a spontaneous uprush of sympathy.

That is not the Gītā basis for gift or action. The analysis is profound. Gifts can be made from a rush of feeling, but feelings are of many kinds. A feeling of love for some unfortunates often leads to hatred of those who are regarded as their oppressors. Marx’s idealism soon led him to destructive hatred of the capitalist class: he hated them even though on his own reasoning they were bound to behave as he predicted. On this point, Marx’s opponent, the anarchist Bakunin, saw more clearly: ‘Put peasants where the nobles now are, and they will behave exactly as the nobles are doing.’

To feed the starving in a famine-stricken village in a remote, cut-off country must be good, but if done simply from sympathy it may lead to agonizing decisions. The amount of food is limited: is it better to share it out evenly, in which case everyone will die before the next harvest anyway; or is it better to let some die now, and give the relatively strong all the food, to keep them going and working till they can get the next harvest in?

Sometimes midwives in primitive communities have been shown simple means of saving some babies who otherwise died: but those children died of starvation after a very few years, because there was not enough food to support an increase in population.

Again, some tribes are marauders, practising skill with weapons, and living by plunder. In one famine, when the United Nations relief convoys came, the tribes who worked the land begged them not to feed the equally starving robber tribe. ‘When they get strong again, they’ll come down at the next harvest time and plunder our grain stocks. They kill any of us who resist.’ The relief convoy did in fact distribute food to all, but one of them said afterwards: ‘I am haunted by the uncertainty whether we did right or not.’

The Gītā teaching on this point would say that such a gift would not be ‘to a worthy person’, and would not be a yogic gift. It could still be given, but it would not contribute to the ultimate welfare of the world. Looking at the pathetically starving marauders, fellow-feeling will say; ‘Give!’ Looking at the graves of those whom they recently killed, fellow-feeling will say: ‘Don’t set these killers up again!’

The Gītā itself says:

XVIII.48 One should not give up the action proper to one’s role, though it may have some bad effects,
For all actions have something defective in them, as a fire has smoke.

The dilemma in hoping to do unqualified good is summed up by an Eastern poet: He who is kind to tigers is a tyrant to sheep.

Until the inner instruments are so purified that the divine impulse flows through them, totally devoid of individual self-reference, actions have to be governed by tradition as laid down in the great scriptures. Control of the mind has to be practised, so that there is no elation or depression at results, nor picking and choosing to follow only selfselected rules of conduct.

XVI.23 Those who disregard the injunctions of the divine Law and live according to their own wilful desires,
Do not attain perfection, nor bliss, nor the supreme goal.
24 Therefore let the injunctions of the Law be your authority
In determining what should and should not be done.
XVIII.9 When such required action is done simply because it ought to be done,
Abandoning attachment to it, and also to the fruit of it –
That abandonment is said to be of sattva.

10 The man of sattva who has thus abandoned attachment is wise and has no doubts:
He does not recoil from unpleasant action (when righteousness demands it), nor does he cling to an agreeable one.

Sattva leads to happiness, rajas leads to pain, tamas to delusion. Happiness arises when the mind becomes serene. To attain serenity of mind requires effort at detachment, distinguishing what is real from what is not, and specially practice of meditation (dhyāna) and samādhi. Strong and persistent efforts have to be made. The Gītā humorously compares them to ‘poison at first’, leading to inner peace which is ‘nectar in the end’.

XVIII.37 The happiness of sattva is said to be like poison at first and nectar when it develops;
Arising from serenity of the mind (reflecting) the inner Self.

There is a momentary experience of happiness when some strong rajasic desire has just been fulfilled. The happiness in fact does not arise from the fulfilment, for repetition often yields less and less happiness from it. The happiness comes from the temporary peace and stillness of the mind. The desire had become the whole world; the other considerations of the world had for the time being vanished.

So on fulfilment there is a feeling that everything has been done, everything has been successful, everything has been fulfilled. There is a stillness; other desires have vanished. But very soon they return: fears, jealousies, ambitions, tense expectations, return with greater force because they have been neglected.

38 The happiness of rajas is declared to be like nectar at first and poison as it develops,
Arising as it does from attaining union with some object of the world.

The happiness of tamas is silliness and delusion from beginning to end: it has been compared by a Japanese Buddhist to the happiness of a man drunk in a night-club on a fake expense account. It does not last long.

This Japanese was a famous counsellor, whose recommendations were supported by some wealthy charitable men. His spiritual advice, often very short, had saved a number from suicide. He remarked that though the physical wants could be met a little, the mental sufferings were often worse.

He added that there is little genuine happiness in the mere fact of trying to do good: the one who does good is by that very fact in a superior position, and any supposed happiness is often disguised self- congratulation, or even domination. It has a reaction. ‘Confronted all day with endless misery, I knew that what I can do of myself is little enough. Only when I feel the Buddha’s hands moving in my hands, the Buddha’s speech behind anything I might say, is there real happiness.’

Mother Teresa of Calcutta has commented about social work without a religious basis: ‘It is very good, but it is not the work of Christ. To do the work of Christ, there must be love of silent contemplation in solitude.’

Rajas in the form of desire to dominate is always seeking to take over undertakings that began as sattva. Without meditation, it is not easy to recognize. But through meditation:

XI.55 Doing My work, intent on Me, devoted to Me, free from attachment,
Without hatred for any being – who is so, goes to Me

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