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The Three Gunas

by Swami Sivananda

A clear understanding of the three Gunas and their operations is very necessary for a Karma Yogi. He who has knowledge of the three Gunas can do his work in a better and more efficient manner.

Prakriti is composed of the three Gunas or forces, namely, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Sattva is harmony or light or wisdom or equilibrium or goodness. Rajas is passion or motion or activity. Tamas is inertia or inaction or darkness. During Cosmic Pralaya these three Gunas exist in a state of equilibrium. During Srishti or projection a vibration arises and the three qualities are manifested in the physical universe. The three qualities bring bondage to the Jiva or the individual soul. Though Sattva is a desirable quality, yet it also binds a man. It is a golden fetter. Rajas is the source of attachment and thirst for life. It causes attachment to action. Tamas binds man to heedlessness (Pramada), laziness (Alasya) and sleep (Nidra).

These three qualities are inseparable. No one is absolutely Rajasic or Sattvic or Tamasic. Sometimes Sattva prevails in man. He is calm and serene. He sits quietly and entertains sublime, soul-elevating thoughts. He studies religious scriptures. He talks on divine topics. When Sattva prevails, the other two qualities are overpowered for the time being. At other times Rajas prevails. He does action. He moves about. He plans, schemes, speculates. He craves for power, wealth and action. When Rajas prevails, Sattva and Tamas are overpowered for the time being. Sometimes Tamas prevails and the man becomes slothful. He feels lazy, indolent and lethargic. He is dull and feels sleepy. When Tamas prevails, Sattva and Rajas are overpowered for the time being.

In some people Sattva is predominant; in others Rajas is predominant; and in some others Tamas is predominant. When the wisdom-light streams forth from all the gates of the body, then it may be known that Sattva is increasing. Greed, outgoing energy, undertaking of action, restlessness and desire-these are born of the increase of Rajas. Darkness, delusion, stagnation, heedlessness-these are born of the increase of inertia. If Sattva is predominant at the time of one's death, then he goes to the spotless world of sages. If Rajas is predominant at the time of one's death, he will doubtless be born among those that are attached to action. If one dies when Tamas is predominant, he will be born in the womb of the senseless.

The fruit of a Sattvic action is harmonious and spotless; the fruit of a Rajasic action is pain, and of a Tamasic action is ignorance. Those who are established in Sattva rise upwards. The Rajasic people occupy a middle place and the Tamasic people go downwards, shrouded in the vilest of qualities.

Intense Rajas takes a Sattvic turn. A man who is immersed in deep Rajas will take to Nivritti Marga or the path of renunciation. He will, as is the law, be fed up with activities. In the Gita you will find:

Arurukshormuneryogam karma karanam uchyate,
Yogarudhasya tasyaiva shamah karanamuchyate.

"For a sage who is seeking Yoga, action is called the means; for the same sage when enthroned in Yoga, serenity is called the means." Ch. VI-3.

It is impossible to rise or jump to Sattva all of a sudden from Tamas. One should convert Tamas into full Rajas first. Then he can reach Sattva. Sattva is intense activity. Just as the wheel of an engine appears to remain stationary when it moves very swiftly, so also a Sattvic man appears to be calm through his self-restraint or control. A Sattvic man is most active. He can turn out tremendous work within the twinkling of an eye. He has full concentration.

Prakriti does all action. It is the Gunas that operate. Owing to ignorance the body is mistaken for the Self. Egoism of man asserts at every step, nay, at every second. Just as the motion of the clouds is falsely attributed to the sun, so also the movements of the body and the Indriyas are falsely attributed to the Self. The Self is always silent and is the witness of all actions. He is Nishkriya or Akarta. You will find in the Gita:

"All actions are wrought by the qualities born of nature only. The self, deluded by egoism, thinketh: 'I am the doer.' But he, O mighty-armed, who knoweth the essence of the divisions of the qualities and functions, holding that the qualities move amid the qualities, is not attached." Ch. III-27, 28.

"'I do not do anything' should think the harmonised one, who knoweth the essence of things. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, moving, sleeping, breathing, speaking, giving, grasping, opening and closing the eyes, he holdeth: 'The senses move among the objects of the senses.'" Ch. V-8, 9.

"The Lord of the world produceth not the ideas of agency, nor actions, nor union together of actions and their fruit; nature, however, manifesteth:" Ch. V-14.

"He who seeketh that Prakriti, verily performeth all actions, and that the Self is actionless, he seeth." Ch. XIII-29.

"When the seer perceiveth no agent other than the qualities and knoweth That which is higher than the qualities, he entereth into My nature." Ch. XIV-19.

The mind and the five organs of knowledge, viz., ear, skin, eye, tongue and nose, are formed out of the Sattvic portion of the Tanmatras or rudiments of matter. The Pranas and the five organs of action, viz., tongue, hands, feet, genitals and anus are formed out of the Rajasic portion of the Tanmatras. This physical body is formed out of the Tamasic portion of the Tanmatras.

By meditation on the significance of the above Slokas of the Gita, one can transcend the three Gunas. The Atman or Brahman is beyond the three Gunas (Trigunatita). One should increase his Sattva Guna by development of virtuous qualities, by taking Sattvic food, doing charity, practising austerities, doing Japa and meditation, controlling the Indriyas, and studying religious books. Then he should go beyond Sattva Guna also by identifying himself with the Atman or Sakshi, and practising Brahma Abhyasa or Atma-Chintana or Nididhyasana.

When the dweller in the body has crossed these three qualities whence all bodies have been produced, liberated from birth, death, old age, diseases and sorrow, he drinketh the nectar of immortality. He who has crossed the three qualities has the following signs as described in the Gita: "He who hateth not radiance nor outgoing energy, nor even delusion when present, nor longeth after them when absent; he who, seated as a neutral, is unshaken by the qualities; who saying: 'The qualities revolve', standeth apart, immovable; balanced in pleasure and pain, self-reliant, to whom a lump of earth, a rock and gold are alike; the same to loved and unloved, firm, the same in censure and praise, the same in honour and ignominy, the same to friend and foe, abandoning all undertakings-he is said to have crossed over the qualities. And he who serveth Me exclusively by the Yoga of Devotion, he, crossing beyond qualities, is fit to become the Eternal." Ch. XIV-22, 26.


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