Eternal Persons Under Nature's Modes

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A guide to two fundamental teachings of the Bhagavad-gita.


Individual Eternal Persons (Purusha)

Every living being in this world is an eternal soul encased in a temporary material body. Each soul has always existed and will always exist as a personal individual being [2.12]. Only the material body begins and ends [2.18], for the soul is never born and never dies [2.16–21]. The soul is God’s superior living energy [7.5], a part of God, Krishna [15.7]. And God is kindly disposed toward every soul [5.29].

Spiritual liberation entails neither giving up our individual existence nor merging into anything impersonal. Rather we shed layers of illusion and uncover our true self. Throughout Bhagavad-gita, Krishna refers to the soul as a person (purusha).1

An ever-changing material body covers the soul. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus is reputed to have said that one cannot step twice into the same river, since its waters are constantly flowing. We might also say that one cannot breathe twice in the same body, since it is ever in biological flux. The body is the field on which we play out our life; we souls are the witnesses of that field [13.2].

Just as material objects exist in space but can never taint or transform it, so the body, though affecting our consciousness in many ways, can never alter the soul’s eternal nature [13.33]. Simple reflection reveals that when we say “I was a child” or “I was an adolescent” or “I am an adult,” the fundamental “I” (the core self) is the same constant person, even as body and mind change in so many ways [2.13]. That enduring “I” is the soul, and is not an illusion. Illusion occurs, rather, when we identify the “I” with a changing mortal body instead of with our true eternal self.

Completing our tenure in one body, we enter another, just as one gives up worn clothes and puts on new ones [2.22]. Only an excessively fashion-conscious person anguishes over the loss of a mere shirt or dress. So in illusion, we lose ourselves in grief over the inevitable change of body, forgetting that the body merely garbs an eternal soul.

The irony of mundane life is that for all our vanity, we drastically underestimate ourselves. We think ourselves mortal, when we are truly immortal. We endure painful limits to our knowledge and joy, yet as eternal parts of God, Krishna, each one of us is entitled to innate and limitless awareness and joy. We need only claim them appropriately [6.20–22].

As we forget our eternal nature and cling to fleeting material objects, selfish desires drag us into illusion. Hundreds of “desire-chains” imprison souls who seek lordship of this world [16.12]. Even pious souls are bound by the mundane work born of their nature [14.6, 18.60].

Chasing the materially pleasant and fleeing the unpleasant, we fall into “duality-illusion,” as desire and aversion overcome us [7.27]. Krishna cautions us not to rejoice at the materially pleasant or grieve for the unpleasant [5.20]. Rather we should tolerate both, for both come and go, being mere products of sense perception [2.14].

Krishna cites many examples of mundane dualities that arouse desire and aversion: cold and heat, joy and sorrow [2.14, 6.7, 12.18], gain and loss, victory and defeat [2.38], honor and dishonor [6.7, 12.18, 14.25], success and failure [2.48, 4.22, 18.26], love and hate2 [2.64, 3.34, 18.23, 18.51], dirt, stone and gold [6.8, 14.24], friend and foe [6.9, 12.18, 14.25], saints and sinners [6.9], weal and woe, lamenting and hankering [12.17], slander and praise [12.19, 14.24], the pleasing and displeasing [5.20, 14.24], thrill and misery [18.27]. For those entrapped in them, all these dualities are but other names for joy and sorrow [15.5].

Throughout the Gita, Krishna explains that even in this life, within our present body, we can rise to pure consciousness, know God and live in a state of spiritual liberation. At present, our material desires conceal our true awareness [3.39]. Thus, by our decision to embrace or reject spiritual life, we act as our own friend or enemy; we alone elevate or degrade ourselves [6.5–6]. Krishna emphasizes that we are responsible for our own condition. The Lord does not force us to do good or evil, and thus is not responsible for the joy and sorrow we create in our lives [5.14–15]. We have free will.

Speaking on a historical battlefield that is also pregnant with symbolic meaning, Krishna repeatedly tells Arjuna to conquer not only the military foes, but also illusion, the greedy senses and the impulsive mind. If we are to follow Arjuna and conquer the illusion that keeps each of us from enjoying the unlimited life we crave, we must learn more about material nature and exactly how it seduces and imprisons us through its modes or qualities.

Nature’s Three Modes (Guna)

Krishna defines the primary material elements, physical and cognitive,3 as His inferior nature [7.4]. As clothes cover the body, these temporary physical and cognitive elements cover the eternal soul [2.22], who is Krishna’s superior nature or energy [7.5].

All material objects, whether bodies or planets, are ever in flux [8.4], endlessly transforming into different forms and qualities. Yet material energy itself, the substance underlying nature’s protean forms, is beginningless and permanent [13.20].4

Importantly, material nature manifests with primary perceptible qualities. The Gita frequently uses the Sanskrit word guna to refer to nature’s three basic qualities or modes: goodness, passion and darkness. Indeed, the entire fourteenth chapter focuses on these material modes.

As human color vision is trichromatic, based on three primary colors, so worldly life exists within a tri-modal system of goodness, passion and darkness. Just as we seldom find natural objects in pure primary colors, so the things of this world seldom embody pure primary modes. People and objects tend to show complex mixtures of the modes. Thus a person has a good side, but also a passionate side, and even a dark side. The material modes permeate every object, emotion, act and ambience in this world, including food, faith, work, worship, charity, philosophy, bodies and buildings. Indeed every free choice we make is a mode choice: good, passionate or dark – with infinite combinations.

Krishna declares that nothing on earth or among gods in heaven is free of nature’s modes [18.40]. How does this work in practice? Consider our attraction to other human bodies. Mere atoms or molecules do not send us swooning, for every physical body basically contains the same types of atoms and molecules. Rather when we see a body that exudes the modes that are right for us, we fall in lust. Conversely, opposing modes arouse our hatred. Thus bodies that are biologically the same but that exude different modes either bewitch or disgust a given observer.

Similarly, many houses are built of the same basic materials: wood, stone, cement, etc. But a house with a certain style or feel – i.e., a certain mode – either attracts, repels or leaves us unmoved, depending on the mode of consciousness we have cultivated in life.

In choosing friends, spouse, music, career, food, neighborhood, movies, recreation and everything else, we choose and attach ourselves to particular combinations of modes. Thus we either reinforce or transform the quality of our life.

For example, when we give charity for a good cause, solely to help others, and with no desire for return, we give charity in goodness [17.20]. When we help others, but also seek fame or profit through our gifts, we give in passion [17.21]. And giving that does more harm than good is in darkness [17.22], such as a gift that enables one with clear criminal intent to harm the innocent. Thus the quality or mode of our giving affects the quality of our life.

Krishna gives a similar modal analysis of faith, food, sacrifice, austerity, renunciation, knowledge, action, the doer, reason, determination, happiness and vocation, explaining how each mode binds us, leading to varieties of future lives.5

Good, passionate and dark acts are all habit-forming. As we choose friends, places, music, food, work, etc. in various modes, we give those modes power over our lives [13.22]. Virtuous acts beget virtue; passion engenders passion; and dark behavior such as addiction, wanton violence, etc., traps one in darkness.

Our mode choices also shape our perception of reality. Thus consciousness in goodness perceives a deep spiritual unity within all differences of race, gender, species, etc. [13.31, 18.20], whereas passionate perception sees such differences as fundamental and final, with no ultimate unity [18.21]. Finally, cognition in darkness sees no truth at all in the world, and lacks any power of abstract thought [18.22].

Thus the modes are both moral and epistemic. That is, they reflect and condition the moral quality of our acts, and also govern how, and to what extent, we understand the world and ourselves. A passionate person may read piles of books, perform many experiments and contribute vastly to our material knowledge, but only the virtuous soul rises to the clear consciousness by which is seen the ultimate purpose and meaning of life.

Rising or falling in the universe, or staying where we are, depends on the mode we cultivate in life – the quality that motivates us and shapes our perception [14.18]. Nature’s modes are not mere passive qualities, but rather active powers that force us to act [3.5]. Thus the passion mode gives rise to lust and anger, which compel us, even against our rational will, to act badly [3.36–37] or even wickedly [17.5–6].

When we falsely see ourselves as ephemeral flesh, bodily cravings shroud our pure cognition [3.39], just as smoke covers fire, dust covers a mirror, or a womb covers an embryo [3.38]. Indeed lust, anger and greed are “gateways to darkness that ruin the soul” [16.21–22].

As we try to enjoy nature’s modes, and cling to them, we take birth in good and bad wombs, based on the quality of our acts and choices [13.22]. By conditioning us to act materially, the modes bind us to this world [14.5]. Goodness, for example, fosters worldly joy and wisdom; but a good person clings to these [14.6] and thus cannot transcend temporary goodness to reach eternal life.

Our troubles begin when we meditate on a material sense object, attracted by its qualities. Attachment (sanga) arises and the mind clings to that object, be it another person, a fancy car, a big house, a prestigious position, intellectual power or whatever. If we continue to contemplate that object, our clinging attachment turns into intense longing (kama) – we lust for that object. When we do not achieve our wish or obtain the object of our lust, anger (krodha) arises; and even when we do, anger comes anyway, since no material object can satisfy the soul. In cases of intense desire, anger bewilders us and we forget what is truly important in life. Once we forget, we lose our reason and our real spiritual identity vanishes from our mind. Krishna describes this entire sequence [2.62–63].

Sanga, “attachment, clinging,” is the mental glue that fastens us to objects embodying this or that mode. Thus we rotate through high and low bodies [13.22].

One might conclude that the mode-driven soul has no free will; but, in fact, the modes act upon us only when, and to the extent that, we try to exploit them. Consider this example: once we purchase a ticket, board a commercial flight and take off, we must accept the consequence of our act – we must fly to our destination. Yet even aboard the plane, we still have free will. We may chat, sleep, watch a movie or even cause a disturbance that will lead to legal difficulties.

The Sanskrit word vasha means “control,” and the opposite, a-vasha, means “without control, against one’s desire or will.” Repeatedly, Krishna uses this word a-vasha to show that our attempts to exploit nature cause us to fall helplessly under nature’s control.6 On the other hand, by spiritual practice one achieves real control over one’s life.7 Similarly, the law imprisons precisely that person who tries to live above the law. One who obeys just law, lives in freedom.

The modes bind us to this world, and in that bound state we cannot fix our mind on our eternal existence. Again and again we compulsively try to enjoy the world, regardless of what our pure reason, in the form of muffled, gagged conscience, tries to tell us about true self-interest. To transcend this illusory state, we must change our association. By associating with spiritual energy, spiritual people, etc., we revive our spiritual nature. We then easily, spontaneously, naturally act for our highest self-interest.

We do have free will, but we cannot avoid the consequences of our choices. The cosmic system that responds to our mode choices and delivers their consequences is called karma.

From A Comprehensive Guide to Bhagavad-gita with Literal Translation, Parts II and III. Copyright 2015 by H.D. Goswami (Howard J. Resnick). Available at the Krishna.com Store and elsewhere. (The citations in brackets here refer to Gita verses.)

NOTES

1. 2.15, 2.21, 2.60, 3.4, 9.3, 13.1 (Arjuna), 13.20–22, 13.24, 17.3.

2. Here love and hate indicate a passionate dualistic mentality in which one emotion feeds the other: we adore one person and neglect or denigrate others. Krishna does not refer here to pure or spiritual love.

3. The primary elements of nature are earth (solids), water (liquids), air (gases), fire (radiant elements), ether (space), mind (the seat of emotions and senses), reason (our analytic faculty), and ego (our full material identity).

4. This notion of matter is somewhat analogous to Aristotle’s substance.

5. 17.2–4, faith; 17.8–10, food; 17.11–13, sacrifice; 17.14–19, austerity; 18.7–9, renunciation; 18.20–22, knowledge; 18.23–25, action; 18.26–28, the doer; 18.30–32, reason; 18.33–35, determination; 18.37–39, happiness; 4.13, 18.41–44, vocation; 14.5–8, bondage; 14.14–15, 18, our next life.

6. 3.5, 3.34, 8.19, 9.8, 18.60.

7. 2.61, 2.64, 5.13, 6.26, 6.35–36.

About the Author: 

Hridayananda Dasa Goswami

Hridayananda Dasa Goswami accepted sannyasa from Srila Prabhupada in 1972. He has a PhD in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Harvard University and is currently developing Krishna West, a project dedicated to making Bhagavad-gita's ancient spiritual wisdom accessible and user-friendly in Western countries.