‘Guṇa-traya’ – a spiritual concept
In the 14th chapter, Krishna discusses guṇa-traya vibhāga – the distinction of the three guṇas. The word guṇa is a spiritual concept with its unique spiritual relevance – it carries no physical, chemical or energial connotation. As a spiritual postulate, its implications are profound – a point seekers should grasp well without fail. The descriptions of guṇas, the way each guṇa has its effect on the individual’s mind, intelligence, word and deed, what is to be done ultimately with these in the context of the seeker’s spiritual advancement – all these are beautifully explained in this chapter.
Guṇa-traya is a pet concept of Krishna in all his spiritual dialogues. The postulate of guṇas appears in the sāṅkhya philosophy of Kapila. Krishna refers to it first in the 2nd chapter (2.45), where he states that Vedas deal only with prakṛti-guṇas and their creations, asking Arjuna to be indifferent to them all – a statement and exhortation quite stunning and revolutionary!
In the 3rd chapter he made it clear that every one has his existence and function only under the empowerment guṇas provide. None can escape it (3.5, 27). But for the guṇas, none would remain active in the world. Krishna emphasizes the same point in later chapters as well. He goes to the extent of saying that there is nothing animate in the earth or in the heavens or among the heavenly denizens, which does not come under the sway of the three guṇas (18.40).
Here he elaborates upon the whole subject, showing what each guṇa is, its effect, means, and how within the framework of the three there still reigns the required scope for achieving spiritual wisdom and freedom.
In the fifth chapter he hinted at how the Knower remains free, unconditioned by the guṇas (5.8,9). Again in the 13th chapter too Krishna has pointed out how prakṛti lords over all activities everywhere (13.29). Now he discusses the topic thoroughly making it a full philosophy.
Freedom is not in negating the guṇas, but understanding their range precisely, and working one’s way up in full attunement. This is the view Krishna has been propounding all along. He always speaks about transcendence, not annihilation or elimination.
It is interesting to study how he develops the theme, finally disposing of all doubts and speculations. As elsewhere, he prefaces his exposition with an alluring statement that he is disclosing the best of wisdom. By dint of this wisdom even Saints and Ascetics have attained supreme spiritual fruition. It has the potential to liberate the mind and intelligence from all cravings, doubts and speculations (14.1). And then:
By pursuing this wisdom, many have attained the Supreme. Such people are not born during the cyclic creation and dissolution, nor are they afflicted by the cycle.
Krishna begins by saying that all beings have originated from the same womb. The pañca-bhūtas and consciousness constituting creation have arisen from the Supreme. In other words, the entire creation consisting of amazing variety has emerged from a single source. Countless generations have come to be, adding variety and complexity to the creation, propelled by the same supreme source.
This fact, rather truth, gifts each individual with a graceful heredity. In other words, every individual carries within him the supreme source of all creation, the Brahman. Only in the periphery prevails the transforming aggregate, designed and administered by prakṛti. Like the pith of trees, this Brāhmic core does shine in every one, unaffected by any external interactional impact. It is only the human that can discover this supreme source and express its splendour effectively, usefully.
The human personality presents a most complex picture of how the mind, intelligence and ego interact with the constituents of prakṛti, called sattva, rajas and tamas. These alone cause the bondage by overpowering the mind and intelligence, and breeding some kind of strong delusion and distortion (14.5).
Sattva, rajas and tamas – the three guṇas
Krishna delineates the qualities and properties of the three guṇas, with a view to throw light on the sādhanā and facilitate its pursuit. This will enable the seeker to comprehend where and on what his efforts should be focused.
Sattva, by dint of its purity, brilliance and immaculate nature, O sinless Arjuna, binds one with happiness and wisdom.
Sattva binds everybody by purity, light or wisdom and blemish-freeness, says Krishna. This kind of description about sattva should go deep into the seeker’s heart. It means none can escape being pure, wise and guileless. In the potential to be so and the possibility to succeed in the effort, none can claim any insufficiency or incompetence. Like any other character or tendency, these features of sattva are also inescapably present in every individual.
That is why within a seemingly bad person, wicked or immoral, often we find the seed of purity, innocence and goodness. None in this world stands condemned. Nobody can look at Nature and say: Why have you made me accursed like this? Nature has equally bound every one, without distinction with sattva, rajas and tamas. Their proportion alone can differ.
Unless this basic variance is there, where is the role for individual effort at all? All the guṇas with their varying characteristics give the required scope for every one to exercise his option and strengthen that guṇa, which he chooses to imbibe. Understood well, this is the best arrangement one can think of to uphold individual freedom and its proper display.
Every one under this arrangement has a clear scope for gaining wisdom, live in its light, free himself of all mento-intellectual defects or lacks to experience the inner spiritual delight. The question is merely of availing the opportunity in time, making use of it diligently. None can plead or complain of any deficiency.
Thus, in the scheme of Nature, this sattva is juxtaposed with two other guṇas. Krishna also explains their implications. The analysis enables the sādhaka to examine and determine how much rajas and tamas are operative in him, how he can then diligently strive to moderate their influence, by reinforcing the share of sattva-guṇa. The presence of rajas and tamas should not dissuade anyone. In fact, it is they that induce and compel spiritual seeking and Self-knowledge.
Rajas binds one with passion, triggered by greed, possessiveness and the resulting attachment, leading to different types of intense activity. Tamas causes ignorance and delusion, leading to carelessness, lethargy and sleep. Present in every one, it acts as the strong cause of bondage for all.
Krishna adds that although all the three are present in every one, their proportions are subject to moderation and selective modification. This option is given to humans only. All the rest of beings continue with their characteristics, none attempting to change their nature any time. Sattva has the power to subdue rajas and tamas. Likewise, rajas also can predominate subduing sattva and tamas. Equally so, tamas has the power to dominate over sattva and rajas.
This is what makes people different in their natures and tendencies. But the analysis is meant to help the seeker strive properly to make sattva pronounced, sublimating rajas and tamas, so that the quality of life becomes the best, brilliant and joyful.
Krishna now elucidates the actual expression of each guṇa:
When all the senses in the body become brilliant, then know it as the effect of sattva-guṇa enhancement.
In all the organs of the body there arises a unique brilliance, radiance. When sattva-guṇa becomes preponderant, a kind of spiritual brilliance and sensitivity engulfs the person. His senses as well as the mind and intelligence will be astute to display discretion, discrimination and sensibility. Ephemeral nature of the world and eternal character of the Soul will start guiding his interactions in every way. This will be a marked change.
When sattva-guṇa becomes sufficiently pronounced, it results in all-fold sublimity. In place of sensory enjoyment, the delight from the Soul within makes its appeal and persuasion. The fact that the inner fullness is independent and unconditioned, adds magnificence to it. Knowledge shines as Supreme, persuading the seeker to imbue spiritual refinement and sublimity to all that he does, be it any word, deed or thought. It is that blessed state when wisdom begins to shine forth in all brilliance (14.11).
In contrast, greed, activity, craving for fresh undertaking every time, restlessness and yearning for enjoyment are the characteristics of preponderant rajo-guṇa. Predominance of tamas is marked by ignorance, dullness, inactivity, inattention and delusion.
With Krishna’s enumeration as the yardstick, it becomes helpful and easy for a discerning seeker to know where he stands with respect to each of the guṇas in him. After assessing the situation, the seeker must strive consistently to elevate himself to generate an abundance of sattva. For this, he must first reflect upon the characteristics of the respective guṇa and then consistently and diligently work towards achieving a preponderance of sattva in him.
This is the greatness of the Bhagavadgītā. It verily describes the full-fledged course of sādhanā. It enables the sādhaka to know where he stands and where exactly he should reach. It also prescribes the requisite way or means to reach the destination.
To strengthen the enunciation and make it more purposeful, Krishna also adds the possible after-death consequence, which each guṇa leads to. Whether one likes it or not, the thought of what will follow an individual after his bodily death has always been a genuine doubt and curiosity in the human mind. To be wisely indifferent to all such consideration by dint of enlightenment is the ideal, no doubt. But the ordinary mind looks for some assurance. That will naturally entail promises as well as threats, to become really useful. Unless such contrasting prospects become part of the religio-spiritual enunciation, the discussion will not be complete and effective.
To drop one’s body when sattva dominates will be, says Krishna, to gain the best of higher worlds reserved for the noble and meritorious. Rajas will take one to the midst of those given to extreme attachment to action and sensory enjoyment. Likewise, tamas will throw him down into the lowest wombs.
Briefly put, good and noble actions have sāttvika and pure effect. Rajas on the other hand gives rise to grief and misery, while tāmasika actions will lead to sheer ignorance and delusion. Wisdom is the outcome of sattva-guṇa, greed of rajas and inattention and delusion of tamas. The prudent seeker should thus foster a wholesome perception to guide him always:
Sāttvika people go upwards, rājasika ones remain in the middle, while the tāmasika lot, given to basest qualities and activities, go downwards.
The general sāttvika influence of prakṛti will cause the birth and growth of individuals who will be imbued with preponderance of sāttvika characteristics. They will always strive for goodness, purity and evolution. Equally so, there will be those given to neither extreme purity nor its opposite. Governed by rajo-guṇa, its propensities, they will go after a variety of actions motivated by desire and the rest. As a counter to both, will be the others dominated by the tāmasika tendencies. They will be courting degeneration and downfall.
The world at any time will be a good mixture of all the three groups. Prakṛti is a charming blend of these three guṇas, resulting in the preservation of the good, the bad and the otherwise. To live in the world is to be accepting all these and being in harmony with them.
This is where spiritual wisdom excels in its enunciation. It does not delude people by drawing a blemishless or all beautiful picture of the world, God or the relationship between the two. It tells you what the world is at its best, worst and in between. Every individual, whether he likes it or not, will always be surrounded by an intriguing admixture of the guṇas and their tendencies. Given this inescapable situation, every one has the option and freedom to choose his guṇa level and successfully pursue it to the fulfillment he aspires. Is this possible? Does the world offer scope for it? In answer, Krishna says:
When the Seer does not see anything other than the guṇas as the doer, and at the same time perceives that which reigns superior, then, transcending the guṇas he verily attains to My state.
As he explained the jñeya in the preceding chapter, Krishna here emphasizes how the whole guṇa display is to be viewed and evaluated by the seeker, so that it will help and empower his sādhanā.
Good and noble individuals do form part of the world. Their sight and thought will naturally stimulate the seeking mind towards those characteristics. At the same time the bad and ignoble individuals, who too have an inevitable place in the world, will evoke a negative response in the seeking mind. The question is: should the sight and experience depress and deter the seeker? Equally so, what about those who stand in the middle?
Krishna says that this kind of admixture of the society is a help and compulsion for the seeker to arrive at his ideal. When dealing physically or mentally with any individual or the society, consider that the characteristics displayed belong to prakṛti. Guṇas instill or instigate all actions everywhere, in every one. As guṇas are prakṛti’s constituents, none can blame or credit anyone for anything. In the matter of assessing anyone’s goodness or badness, one should only discern prakṛti’s hand and its display.
Draṣṭā guṇebhyaḥ anyaṃ kartāraṃ na paśyati – The Seer does not see anything other than the guṇas as the doer.
The proposition Krishna makes is quite clear, emphatic. No doership of any kind should be ascribed to anyone. Why? All actions are instigated by the guṇas of prakṛti. What we see is but the peripheral aggregate in an individual, which is constituted by the complex prakṛti.
The seeker should go a step further, to be true to his sādhanā. He should search for and find out what lies beyond the guṇas. Guṇebhyaśca paraṃ vetti are the words Krishna uses here. The seeker should discern with spiritual insight that the peripheral guṇa display is around a spiritual base or nucleus. And that is the focal base of the individual. In other words, true individuality consists in the central guṇa-atīta state, not in the guṇa display level.
Once this kind of perception dawns, whereby the seeker looks at the individual as beyond the guṇas, as the unconditioned and unaffected Soul, he will then have no mental or intellectual confrontation with the world at all. In seeking Self-knowledge as well as on having attained it, this kind of integral perception about the world becomes crucial.
It is, no doubt, a transcendental perception. To transcend does not mean to annihilate or eliminate. It verily means to be above what prevails. In this process, the guṇa display is left as it is. Only the seeker’s perception about it undergoes significant change or evolution.
(From Essential Concepts of Bhagavad Gita - Volume 5)