The main part of this chapter, and a good bit of the next (XVIII.18–45) are centred on the effects of the guṇa-s. What the Gītā calls man’s ‘selfnature (sva-bhāva) consists of tendencies he is born with, as an effect of the saṃskāra dynamic latent impressions laid down in previous births. A selection of some of them, which can consistently manifest together, come together as a block, so to say, determining the conditions of the present birth. It is not unalterable fate, but comparable to the physical make-up of the present body, which can be greatly modified by persistent effort, and by other means also.
The state of the innate nature is reflected in what is technically called one’s Faith. This is what one really believes in, as distinct from surface attitudes. The super-nationalist’s belief in the divine mission of his group, for which he is willing to die, has often no rational or historical foundation: its basis may be only semi-conscious. Karl Marx did not explain how the Revolution would so change man’s nature that he would not simply rebuild an exploitative system again; he just assumed it.
The Gītā gives a three-fold classification of Faith, exemplifying the classes by the beliefs of ‘natural’ man. Sattvic faith is worship of gods who control the forces of nature and maintain order; rajasic is worship of deities of arbitrary power; tamasic is worship in fear of dark forces felt to be potentially hostile.
There is a strong warning against terrifying self-tortures, chosen and adopted for show or to impress. The Gītā adds that they may be powered by energy of sex desire – in other words, perversions. They impair the body, and impede manifestation of the divine Self in it.
After this warning, the Gītā gives some typical examples of the guṇa-s in various fields of human life. The purpose is to become aware of them in one’s conduct, and then change from tamasic and rajasic to the sattvic. In general, the latter are controlled and life-enhancing; the rajasic lead to pain, and the tamasic to delusion.
The chart given below summarizes the main points. Reading across, the same thing – for instance, giving – is shown as dominated by sattva, then by rajas, then by tamas. Reading down the column of a particular guṇa, one can see a picture of someone dominated by it. A common feature of sattvic mind is that it is independent of personal motives and claims on the results of an action; that it is done with concentration; and it is done in serenity.
XVII.11 Worship done by those not desiring fruit, in a traditional way,
Thinking simply ‘Worship should be performed’, with samādhi concentration – that worship is of sattva.
17 Austerity performed with highest faith, and not seeking fruits, in concentration of mind –
That austerity is said to be of sattva.
20 The gift to one who makes no return, with the mere thought ‘This should be given’,
At an appropriate place and time, and to a worthy recipient –
That gift is said to be of sattva.
XVIII.26 Free from attachment, not talking of himself, full of firmness and energy,
Unchanged in success or failure – such an agent is called one of sattva.
33 The firmness with which one holds fast the movements of mind, life-currents, and senses,
Unwavering in samādhi – that firmness is of sattva.
The picture of sattvic conduct is sometimes criticized on the ground that it is cold. Simply ‘I should give this’, and no spontaneous rush of sympathy and compassion. The point will come again: here it can just be said that a rush of emotion, even of kindness, easily arouses other emotions also. A subtle and profound Buddhist analysis remarks that just to seek to do good, without purification of the depths of the mind, can often end up as domination.
The fact of helping others means that the helper is in a position of superiority, which can become an unconscious motive, revealing itself as hostility to those not of the same mind. Buddhism has not inspired holy wars or heretic-burning. The sixteenth-century persecution of Christians in Japan was purely political and Buddhist priests took little part in it; the rulers heard that the Spaniards had conquered the Philippines by first creating many Christians to form a fifth column for the subsequent invasion. Christianity has often slipped from St Mark’s ‘He who is not against us is with us’, to St Matthew’s ‘He who is not with us is against us.’
|objects of worship||Sattva||
|god||deities of light||deities of power and pleasure||terrifying deities (e.g the Seven Mothers – Sankara)|
|food||invigorating, solid, juicy||over-spiced, over-stimulating, ultimately unhealthy||stale, impure|
|three-fold tapas||concentrated, with faith, desiring no fruit||ostentatious, hypocritical, unstable||deluded, self-torturing, or to gratify spite|
|sacrifice||not for gain, in proper form, concentrated: ‘this should be sacrificed’||to get some fruit, or from mere hypocritical ostentation||contemptuously, casually, sceptically|
|gift||not for a return, respectfully, to the worthy; “this should be given’||for some return or gain, or grudgingly||carelessly, contemptuously|
|renunciation of action||no attachment to action itself, or to any fruits; as duty: ’it is to be done’||giving up duty as too troublesome; futile renunciation||ignorantly and improperly giving up dunes|
|knowledge XVIII 29||see* one immortal, undivided in the divided||sees various beings of different kinds||sees one effect as all. silly; without any real object|
|action||traditionally prescribed; done without attachment to action or to results; done without love or hate||seeking pleasure, or egoistic; forced thrxmgh with tiring effort||deluded, inconsiderate, ill-considered|
|agent||detached, non-egoistic, firm, vigorous, unaffected in success or failure||passionate, greedy, cruel, impure, either elated or depressed||unreliable, vulgar, unteachable, sly, wicked, lazy, despondent|
|buddhi (higher nund)||knows when to art, and what to do; knows about fear and no-fear, bondage and freedom||misjudges nght and wrong, what to do and what not to do||sees wrong as right, and everything upside down; wholly dark|
|firmness XVIII.33||controls mind, life-currents and senses by yoga samadhi||successively pursuing vutue, pleasure, ambition, to get their expected results||stupid clinging to sleep, fear, grief, depression, lust|
|happiness XVIII37||like poison at first, in the end like nectar, produced by punty of mind in meditation, or vision of Self||like nectar at first, poison in the end taking toll of vigour, wisdom, and success||always self-deluded, based on sleep, indolence, silliness|
The Gītā compassion is to see the Self in others, and help towards its realization. Only for this is a gift made and help given, and it must be without any thought of return, and with a serene mind.
Austerity (tapas) is defined in this chapter very widely: it is almost a moral code in itself. There is austerity of the body, austerity of speech, and austerity of the mind.
XVII.14 Respect to the gods, spiritual men, elders, and the learned,
Purity uprightness, control of the instincts, and harmlessness –
This is called austerity of the body.
15 Speech that does not provoke, that is true and pleasant and beneficial;
Also recitation of the holy texts in study –
This is called austerity of speech.
16 Inner serenity, kindliness, silence, self-control, and purification of the depths of being –
This is called austerity of mind.
It is notable again how the Gītā morality stresses the example of the individual life. It believes that the vast majority of the evils besetting humankind are caused not by natural calamities like earthquakes, famine or plague, but by uncontrolled human passions like greed and war, whether national or domestic. The ‘silence’ referred to in V.l6 refers to the ability to silence the mind in meditation, and to be silent in the face of disaster or provocation.
The three main pillars of Gītā conduct are worship, gift and austerity, each practised without clutching after results of some kind. Some people believe that they do not worship, but in fact the instinct to worship is often repressed, and then projected in unsuitable forms.
Djilas, vice-president of Yugoslavia, who knew Stalin, said: ‘Stalin knows everything and can do everything. There is no problem Stalin cannot solve.’ After his disillusionment, an interviewer reminded him of these words, which could properly be applied only to God. Djilas said: ‘Yes, I think at that time I did worship Stalin.’ And he added that his impression was that Stalin mystically worshipped power, and (as mentioned above) himself as a sort of incarnation of power.
The Gītā warns against slipping into such worship, which is of tamas or rajas. Worldly cleverness or strength of will is no defence against perversions of worship. But if the whole personality is tranquillized, purified and steadied, they are seen for what they are.
© Trevor Leggett