In this fourth post in the series exploring the Bhagavad Gita, “The Song of the Lord,” we have left Arjuna in the middle of the battlefield of Kurukshetra, afflicted with grief at the upcoming battle. In his despair he has turned to Lord Krishna for wisdom and guidance. Here in this post, Krishna expands on his teachings on the wheel of karma, which we explored in the previous post, and explains why none of us can step away from our lives, from the actions that are ours to perform.
The Necessity of Action
Each of us is instinctively linked to the perpetual unfolding of life: we eat and breathe, work and play, think and feel, all out of a certain necessity. This is the nature of turning the wheel of karma, or more simply, daily life. At times we may question the wisdom of the actions we perform in life, but rarely do we question the necessity of action, the turning of the karmic wheel itself. It is precisely that necessity, however, which forms the starting point for the advice Krishna gives to Arjuna. It is a starting point so radical, so fundamental to life, that even after hearing it many times over we are likely to remain struck by its immediacy.
No one can remain without performing actions even for a moment. Every creature is helplessly made to perform action by the forces born of nature. (BG 3:5)
Krishna’s teachings point to the fundamental force of the universe, the energy propelling life’s unceasing activity. For this, Krishna uses the Sanskrit term prakriti. Prakriti is the mother of all, the source of every action and every form of being, from an atomic particle to the universe itself. Unlike a visible mother, however, prakriti is the unseen force behind the seen, the power or shakti by which life is designed, takes shape, and finally becomes manifest.
Yoga philosophers explain that prakriti consists of three underlying elements, termed gunas (goo-nas). It is the gunas that the above verse refers to as the “forces born of nature.” Experience of the gunas is what we mean by experience of the world. Just as when the three strands of a rope are woven together they comprise the rope itself and are not different from it, so the gunas are experience, are Mother Nature, and are not different from her.
We know life to be what it is by witnessing the unceasing interplay of the gunas. Even our own self-identity, both physical and psychological, arises out of these forces. But what are they? What can we learn about them? How do they relate, as Krishna claims, to the unfolding of life, to the turning of the karmic wheel? Answering these questions sets the stage for a more personal understanding of Krishna’s advice to his beloved student.
The Three Gunas
The three gunas are sattva, rajas, and tamas. Descriptions of them occur widely in the Gita, and you will find it pivotal to gain a working knowledge of each of them. Since they are so important, let’s start with their pronunciation.
The a’s in this word are short, and both are pronounced like the vowel in cut. The t’s are mildly doubled. The v sounds much like a w. The first of the two syllables is mildly accented. Thus, SAT-twa.
Again, the a’s are short and pronounced like the u in cut. The letter j is sounded as in jelly. The first syllable is mildly accented. Thus, RA-jas.
Once more, both a’s are short and pronounced like the u in cut. The first syllable is mildly accented. Thus, TA-mas.
Sattva is the force of nature that fosters purity and luminescence. Other descriptions of sattva include clarity, peacefulness, lightness, goodness, happiness, and tranquility. Sattvic influences promote intelligence, wisdom, and understanding. Whenever nature displays the dominance of sattva, it proves conducive to spiritual practice. A person under the influence of sattva might think, “I am happy,” “I know,” or “I am aware.”
Although rajas can be a source of positive change, it is most often described in yogic scriptures as an embodiment of passion and attachment to action. Rajas is the source of hankering for sense experiences of all kinds. Rajasic influences are competitive and demanding, unaccepting and critical. They desire what has yet to be possessed and hold tightly to what is currently owned. Rajas fosters change and a sense of painful dissatisfaction with life as it is now. Falsely thinking of itself as the agent of change, it is, according to Krishna, the fundamental enemy of spiritual peace and stability. A person under the influence of rajas might falsely think, “I will do this,” “My happiness lies in that,” or simply, “I want that.” It is the influence of rajas that prompts the desire for the fruits of action, rather than action itself. It is largely rajas, unfulfilled desire, that turns the wheel of karma.
Despite the role it may play as a stabilizing influence, tamas, the third of the gunas, is the antithesis of sattva and rajas. It is the embodiment of dullness, ignorance, and sloth. With respect to one’s state of consciousness it is sleep. Tamasic influences are delusive, heavy, concealing, dependent, and marked by lethargy, darkness, and inertia. Tamas fosters illness and a tendency to passivity. Identified with inactivity, tamas nurtures the couch potato in all of us. A person under the influence of tamas might think, “I am most happy doing nothing,” or “My actions make no difference.”
Weaving the Gunas Together
Every object, experience, and thought; every relation between objects and thoughts; and every moment in the awareness of thoughts or in the awareness of their relations comprises the three gunas. The gunas define the nature of the universe, and every object and relation in it.
The difficulty in understanding the material world as an interplay of the gunas is parallel to the contemporary challenge of grasping matter as a form of energy. Just as physicists have redefined the universe as an equivalency of mass and energy, yoga philosophers envision the everyday world as a field of gunas. The gunas describe the “stuff” from which the universe is generated and by which it is known. In the gunas we find the reduction of matter and thought into one basic substrate—a fusion of sattva, rajas, and tamas. The gunas are not physical atoms. They portray a psychophysical rather than a purely physical explanation of experience. They depict life as the ebb and flow of desire—sattvic in its most spiritual form and tamasic in its least spiritual form.
For a yoga student this provides a unique understanding of the spiritual framework in which all things have a place. The Gita offers many practical examples of the gunas, each demonstrating how an object or experience, the perception of that object or experience, and our desire for or aversion to it play out. For example, consider food options: Sattvic food is flavorful and substantial. It promotes good health and positive energy. But sometimes rajasic food—food that is bitter, stimulating, and likely to promote ill health if it becomes your staple diet—nonetheless seems appealing. And when tamasic foods prevail—foods that are tasteless, impure, and stale—you can be sure that imbalances will follow.
Food is just one example. From chapter 14 through the Gita’s final chapter, Krishna offers a series of additional examples of the play of the gunas in our daily life. Gift giving, forms of worship, forms of knowledge, spiritual efforts, the nature of one’s faith, one’s sense of duty, the ability to maintain concentration, and many other examples find a place in Krishna’s teaching. What turns the wheel of karma is the subtle play of the gunas around us and within us.
There is nothing either on this earth or in the divine realm, even among the divinities, with an existence that is freed from these qualities born of primordial nature. (BG 18:40)
Thus each of us, in our own way, is uniquely bound to nature’s presence. Sattva binds us to happiness and to knowledge; rajas to passionate desire; and tamas to the lethargy, and stability, of inertia. Constantly shifting in relation to one another, the three gunas carry out their incessant dance within and without.
Although bound to the wheel of karma, is it possible for us to fashion a smoother ride? The Bhagavad Gita offers grounds for hope: “First recognize sattva, then aspire to embody it,” seems to be Krishna’s advice. Ultimately, efforts to nurture higher instincts, coupled with the uplifting grace of the Infinite, provide us with a path. Keep the Gita on your bedside table and work your way through its concluding chapters (specifically verses 14:5–18:40) for a fuller perspective. Then, in the next blog post, we will turn our focus to the four paths of yoga, each providing an approach to cultivating sattva and finding peace on nature’s turning wheel.
[The translation of verse 3:5 is taken from Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Rama, and the translation of verse 18:40 is taken from Bhagavad Gita by Graham M. Schweig.]