Srimad Bhagavad Gita: Teachings on Gunas.
[This Attahcment 2 in the post entitled -Response to Commentary on the18th Chapter of Bhagavad Gita]
Archived by Velandy Manohar, MD
Descriptions of the gunas form an important part of one of the most revered texts of the yoga tradition, the Bhagavad Gita. In chapters 14, 17, and 18, Krishna portrays the gunas in marvelous detail. He begins (in verse 14.5) by describing the power of the gunas to “bind the immutable embodied One.” The Gunas: Nature’s Three Fundamental Forces (yogainternational.com) Natures three fundamental forces – is an essay by Rolf Sovik, based on the SBG Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Rama.[Himalayan Institute Press.]
Life’s complex journey has the potential to bind as well as to liberate. In order to navigate this dual nature of experience, the ancient school of Indian philosophy called Samkhya (“that which sums up”) divides reality into two categories: the knower (purusha) and the known (prakriti). Arjuna asked very specific questions to elucidate truths that are difficult to grasp for mere mortals and Lord Sri Krishna, patiently, and carefully addressed the queries and elucidated the key facts. The outcome was fully satisfying and successful to the pupil and Preceptor and all others including Sanjaya.
At the end Lord Sri Krishna offers an opportunity to his pupil Arjuna to clarify “if ignorance and delusion been destroyed, O Conqueror of Wealth.”[18:72] Arjuna declares in the affirmative, and in a humble and gracious manner responded that he would act as you command. Because by your grace I have gained wisdom and my delusion is removed” [18 : 73] It behooves us all the recipients of your email with this precious video that gives us a head start in this process. In last verse of the 18th Chapter Sanjaya proclaims to Dhritarashtra and the whole world as recorded by Bhagwan veda Vyasa. Wherever there is Shree Krishna, the Lord of all Yoga, and wherever there is Arjun, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be unending opulence, victory, prosperity, and righteousness. Of this, I am certain.”
Purusha, the Self, is never an object of experience; purusha is the subject—the one who is aware, the one who knows. Prakriti, on the other hand, encompasses everything that comes before us in the objective universe—whether psychological or material. Prakriti is all that can be known.
Unmanifest prakriti is a reservoir of limitless potential consisting of three fundamental forces called the gunas—sattva, rajas, and tamas—in balance with each other. Through the interplay of these forces, prakriti manifests as the universe. Therefore, all that can be known in this world, tangible and intangible, is a manifestation of the gunas in their various forms.
Cultivating awareness of how the gunas operate can be a valuable tool on the spiritual path. By apprehending the “feel” of each guna and using that knowledge as a guide, you can move toward recognition of the knower—the purusha—in you.
THE GUNAS CLOSE UP
The word guna literally means “strand” or “fiber” and implies that, like strands of a rope, the gunas are woven together to form the objective universe. Philosophically, the theory of the gunas explains what this universe is made of and how it came to manifest itself as mind and matter. But more important for yoga practitioners, awareness of the gunas tells us whether we are genuinely moving forward in life (sattva), running in place (rajas), or losing our way (tamas).
For yoga practitioners, awareness of the gunas tells us whether we are genuinely moving forward in life (Sattva), running in place (Rajas), or losing our way (Tamas).
Each guna has its own characteristics. The essence of sattva is to act like a transparent pane of glass, allowing light—the light of conscious awareness—to reveal itself in the operations of the mind and in nature. Sattva is not enlightenment itself, but it unveils what is true and real (sat). It shows itself as beauty, balance, and inspiration, and it promotes life, energy, health, and contentment. Cultivating sattva—by making choices in life that elevate awareness and foster unselfish joy—is a principal goal of yoga.
Rajas is the energy of change. It is distinguished by passion, desire, effort, and pain. Its activity may cause movement either toward sattva (increased spiritual understanding) or tamas (increased ignorance). Thus, it may act positively or negatively. But it is most often characterized as unsteady, agitated, and unhappy—prompting change for change’s sake alone. If freshly picked tomatoes are sattvic, spicy tomato sauce is rajasic—good for a Friday night pizza, but perhaps not an everyday meal choice. Rajas brings happiness by prompting the coupling of the senses with their objects. Thus, rajas also binds us to attachment, to the fruits of action, and to sensory pleasures of every kind.
Tamas conceals the presence of consciousness. It causes dullness and ignorance through its power to obscure. Its nature is heavy and dense. One Sanskrit synonym for tamas is sthiti, or “steady.” In its more sattvic garb, tamas can supply a steadying influence in life—for example, bed rest can lead to healing. But tamas is primarily immobilizing: tamasic foods are lifeless, stale, or impure; tamasic entertainment is mindless and intoxicating. Tamas leads to inaction when action is required. Each of us has experienced the binding power of tamas—the appeal of lethargy, procrastination, and sleep.
The three gunas are constantly interacting with one another. We can discern hints of this interplay in English phrases such as “innocent pleasure” (sattva-infused rajas) or “rabid addiction” (rajas-propelled tamas). But while the gunas themselves are permanent in essence— having emerged from primordial nature (prakriti)—their interactions are transitory and afford only a false impression of permanence. In this way, the play of the gunas obscures the real (sat) and attracts and binds us to what is ultimately unreal (asat).
THE GUNAS AT WORK
We can begin to explore the gunas’ tangible presence on the yoga mat. Imagine you are in a class performing Janu shirshasana, head-to-knee pose, without a great degree of mindfulness. As you fold halfheartedly toward your extended leg, your back rounds, your shoulders hunch, and your foot collapses to the side. Your head falls forward and your mind sinks into a sleepy reverie. Except for a dull sense of discomfort in the pose, you might as well be taking a nap. This is tamas—a sense of lethargy and inattentiveness.
Compare this to another occasion when, determined not to be outdone by the person next to you, you find yourself making tenacious efforts in your pose. You struggle, painfully, to lengthen the back of your leg, but consequently round your shoulders as you strain to touch your toes. Meanwhile, preoccupied with the painful end of a romantic relationship, you fantasize about meeting the person three mats down. This is rajas—a generous serving of agitation, exertion, competitiveness, pain, and enticement.
Yet, on still another day, your pose unfolds differently. The class is smaller, and you are in a calm mood. Following your teacher’s cues, your attention shifts inwardly from one element of the pose to another, and you find yourself working a challenging but safe edge. Longer, more stable holds in the posture yield a subtle awareness of breathing. And while much of what you are doing in the pose is invisible to those around you, your mind is pleased and relaxed by your inner efforts. This is sattva—clarity, mindfulness, and a spontaneous sense of contentment.
Identifying the sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic aspects of a yoga pose—and then cultivating rajas and tamas in service of sattva—is a surefire method for advancing your practice.
Identifying the sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic aspects of a yoga pose—and then cultivating rajas and tamas in service of sattva—is a surefire method for advancing your practice. But there is more to these three qualities than simply improving your seated forward bends. Insert these same principles of self-observation into daily affairs, and you will have the power to transform every aspect of your life.
The process of working with the gunas unfolds systematically in four stages:
1. The interplay of the gunas occurs almost entirely outside of your conscious awareness.
2. You begin to notice the gunas in the world around you (the rajasic display at the checkout counter, the sattvic sounds of a Mozart sonata), and learn to recognize the feel of their distinctive qualities.
3. You witness your own sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic tendencies.
4. Finally, you begin to sculpt your involvement with the gunas—cultivating sattva, softening rajasic urges, and engaging tamas in the service of stability and rest.
THE GUNAS IN LIFE
Descriptions of the gunas form an important part of one of the most revered texts of the yoga tradition, the Bhagavad Gita. In chapters 14, 17, and 18, Krishna portrays the gunas in marvelous detail. He begins (in D14.V5) by describing the power of the gunas to “bind the immutable embodied One.” He goes on to provide an account of the nature of each guna. Later (in verse 18.40), Krishna dramatically summarizes the scope of the gunas’ activities:
There is nothing on the earth, in heaven, or even among the gods, that is free from these prakriti-born gunas.
But if the gunas are so pervasive, how are we to work with them? Krishna’s advice is to sharpen our powers of self-observation and discernment. His recurring message is that with practice and the right resolve, we can learn to witness the activities of the gunas and employ them with a sense of balance and purpose.
To make this process more visible, Krishna contrasts the look and feel of the three gunas in a variety of contexts. For example, he notes that:
The food you eat may (D17. V8–10):
Taste good and promote health, strength, and a pleasant mind (sattva)
Be oversalted, highly spiced, and cause illness and depression (rajas)
Be stale, unwanted by others, and not fit as an offering (tamas)
The gifts you offer to others may be (D 17.V20–22):
Given at the right time, with nothing expected in return (sattva)
Given reluctantly, or with the aim of gaining a returned favor (rajas)
Given at an inappropriate time or place, with disrespect or contempt (tamas)
The steadfastness with which you approach your spiritual path may (D 18. V33–35):
Help you bring your mind, breath, and senses into harmony (sattva)
Depend on your acquiring something you want (rajas)
Preoccupy you with fears, grief, and excessive sleep (tamas)
Your happiness may (D 18. V37–39):
Arise from inner discrimination and increase over time (sattva)
Be overly sensual; sweet in the beginning, poisonous in the end (rajas)
Arise from sleep, lethargy, and negligence (tamas)
As you read this list or turn to the more extensive teachings in the Gita, don’t let the stringent characterizations mislead you. They are not meant to promote self-criticism or condemnation. The gunas act as signposts—guides that indicate where you are and where you are inspired to be.
Samkhya philosophers say that life exists for the purpose of acquiring experience and knowing the Self. The gunas are meant to facilitate this spiritual endeavor. They reveal, conceal, and stir us up—all for the purpose of drawing us closer to purusha, the knower.
Samkhya philosophers say that life exists for the purpose of acquiring experience and knowing the Self. The gunas are meant to facilitate this spiritual endeavor. They reveal, conceal, and stir us up—all for the purpose of drawing us closer to purusha, the knower. Krishna, the voice of the knower, sums up this relationship (in verses 14.19–20) with a lofty description of life’s goal—one in which ego identification with the activities of the gunas is transcended altogether. Though challenging, this millennia-old teaching continues to inspire seekers today:
When the seer observes no agents of action (no “doer”) other than the gunas, and knows the transcendent beyond the gunas, such a one attains My being.
The body-bearer, transcending these three gunas which create the body, freed from the sorrows of birth, old age, and death, enjoys immortality.
English translations of the Bhagavad Gita based on Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Rama (Himalayan Institute Press).
For yoga practitioners, awareness of the gunas tells us whether we are genuinely moving forward in life (sattva), running in place (rajas), or losing our way (tamas). Samkhya philosophers say that life exists for the purpose of acquiring experience and knowing the Self. The gunas are meant to facilitate this spiritual endeavor. They reveal, conceal, and stir us up—all for the purpose of drawing us closer to purusha, the knower.
The Bhagavad Gita Discourse 3 Summary & Analysis | LitCharts
Arjuna asks how Krishna can consider Insight higher than action yet still encourage him to fight, which seems contradictory. Arjuna wonders how he might achieve “the higher good.”
Krishna explains that he has always taught a “double foundation”: the yoga of knowledge and the yoga of action. One cannot surpass action without acting, nor can one find fulfillment through renunciation alone; everyone is constantly acting because the gunas in their nature compel them to. Some choose to sit and relinquish the senses, all the while imagining the sensory experience of objects that are not present. This is misleading, for only one who restrains the senses while undertaking “the yoga of action” can truly temper the senses. Restrained action is preferable to non-action, for the body could not even survive without action.
In the previous discourse, Krishna suggested that wisdom is the route to bliss, which does not seem to explain why Arjuna should go to war. Again, Arjuna returns to the apparent contradiction between insight and action.
Action for the sake of sacrifice is the only pure form. Since “the lord of beings” created humans and sacrifice, sacrifice allows humans to “cause the gods to be” as the gods “cause you to be.” In mutually sustaining the relationship between gods and humans, the lord of beings explained, sacrifice brings people to “the higher good.” The gods give humans pleasures, but people who do not give back to the gods are thieves—“the true ones” can eat what they are left with after sacrifice, but “the evil ones” only cook for themselves. Food comes from the rain, but sacrifice creates the rain, and sacrifice is a form of action that originates with Brahman.
Krishna suggests that, despite his argument in the previous discourse that wisdom is sufficient for knowledge, action is necessary as a means to achieving full insight (indeed, yoga is itself a form of action). The paths of knowledge and action are mutually supportive, not mutually exclusive—one must actively undertake the path of knowledge through yoga, and pure action requires the knowledge of reincarnation and the absolute.
One who does not “set the wheel / in motion” by sacrifice “lives uselessly,” harming others and embroiled in the senses, but one who is “happy in the self” has no goal in action or non-action connected to other beings. By dutifully performing the proper sacrificial actions, without clinging to the fruits of those actions, one can gain fulfillment and set a standard for others. If he himself decided not to act, Krishna suggests, humankind would follow him, the worlds “would sink down,” and humans would be destroyed.
For the wise, every action is a form of sacrifice because one does not consider their personal gain or material desires in acting, but rather performs their duty for its own sake. Crucially, pure sacrifice does in fact benefit the actor, who receives a reciprocal love and sacrifice from the gods, but this only works if the actor puts the gods first. This is why they would offer food before eating what remains.
III. Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita: Third Chapter. The Way of Action (sacred-texts.com)
1. If, O Janârdana, according to Thee, knowledge is superior to action, why then, O Keshava, dost Thou engage me in this terrible action?
2. With these seemingly conflicting words, Thou art, as it were, bewildering my understanding;—tell me that one thing for certain, by which I can attain to the highest.
The Blessed Lord said:
3. In the beginning (of creation), O sinless one, the twofold path of devotion was given by Me to this world;—the path of knowledge for the meditative, the path of work for the active. 3
4. By non-performance of work none reaches worklessness; by merely giving up action no one attains perfection. 4
5. Verily none can ever rest for even an instant, without performing action; for all are made to act, helplessly indeed, by the Gunas, born of Prakriti. 5
30. Renouncing all actions to Me, with mind centered on the Self, getting rid of hope and selfishness, fight,—free from (mental) fever.
31. Those men who constantly practise this teaching of Mine, full of Shraddha and without caviling, they too, are freed from work. 31
32. But those who decrying this teaching of Mine do not practise (it), deluded in all knowledge, and devoid of discrimination, know them to be ruined.
33. Even a wise man acts in accordance with his own nature: beings follow nature: what can restraint do? 33
34. Attachment and aversion of the senses to their respective objects are natural: let none come under their sway: they are his foes. 34
35. Better is one's own Dharma, (though) imperfect, than the Dharma of another well-performed. Better is death in one's own Dharma: the Dharma of another is fraught with fear. 35
36. But by what impelled does man commit sin, though against his wishes, O Vârshneya, constrained as it were, by force? 36
The Blessed Lord said:
37. It is desire—it is anger, born of the Rajo-guna: of great craving, and of great sin; know this as the foe here (in this world). 37
38. As fire is enveloped by smoke, as a mirror by dust, as an embryo by the secundine [essential coverings], so is it covered by that. 38
39. Knowledge is covered by this, the constant foe of the wise, O son of Kunti, the unappeasable fire of desire. 39
40. The senses, the mind and the intellect are said to be its abode: through these, it deludes the embodied by veiling his wisdom. 40
41. Therefore, O Bull of the Bharata race, controlling the senses at the outset, kill it,—the sinful, the destroyer of knowledge and realisation.
42. The senses are said to be superior (to the body); the mind is superior to the senses; the intellect is superior to the mind; and that which is superior to the intellect is He (the Atman).
43. Thus, knowing Him who is superior to the intellect, and restraining
I respectfully take your leave after sharing my responses to the analysis of the magnificent 18th Chapter of the Srimad Bhagavad Gita by Srima RG Kartik a deeply devoted very insightful Gita bhaasya preceptor.
Om Tat Sat Sree Krishna Arpanam Astu. Achyuta Ananta, Govinda Krishna ! Achyuta Ananta, Govinda, Krishna! Achyuta Ananta, Govinda Krishna! Govind, Govinda, Govinda!!
Healing Mantra - Dhyanyoga Centers (dyc.org)
• ACHYUTA means one who is constant, the unchanging truth that establishes a state of constancy. ANANTA is one who is limitless and boundless. GOVINDA is VISHNU as Shri KRISHNA and indicates the state of knowing the true self—I am consciousness. I am truth. I am bliss.
अच्युतानंद गोविंद नामोच्चारणभेषजात।
नश्यन्ति सकलारोगा: सत्यं सत्यं वदाम्यहम्।’
Om Achyut Ananta Govinda namo chchāraṇa bheṣa jāta
Naśyaṇti sakalā rogā satyaṃ satyaṃ vadāmyaham
“The names Achyuta, Ananta, and Govinda act as the best medicine.
They destroy all diseases for those who repeat them.
This is an established truth that I am repeating.”
Velandy Manohar, MD
By Lord Sri Krishna’s grace a humble author of “Sadhana Path” my personal journey and my experiences in the Sree Satyanarayana Swami Temple, Middletown, CT and the companion volume, “ The Wonder of it All, Amen.” That focusses on promoting interfaith awareness, understanding and enthralling, enlightening and empowering dialogue.VM