Learning the Ropes: An Analogical Look at the Three Modes of Material Nature
By Satyaraja Dasa
We like to think we’re in control, but material nature has us tied up in knots.
The three modes of material nature are subtle forces that influence every aspect of our physical, mental, and emotional existence. The Sanskrit term for these forces is guna, literally “strand,” “rope,” or “quality.” The modes pull us in various directions, both on the gross, physical plane and on the subtle, psychological one.
I recently learned that although there are hundreds of varieties of knots, there are three overarching categories – loop knots, bends, and hitches. And while I have no idea how these different knots are used, or even what they look like, I was fascinated to discover that there are three of them, since this correlates with the number of modes described in Sanskrit texts. The modes are knotted ropes that keep us bound in various ways – bound to the material world, that is.
Besides “rope,” the word “mode” is also appropriate when rendering guna into English. The word comes from the Latin modus, which means “measure.” This correlates with the Sanskrit maya, defined by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura as “that which is measurable,” i.e., the material world and everything in it.
In Sankhya, the classical Indian school of thought that seeks to understand reality by separating its components into purusha (consciousness) and prakriti (the realm of matter), the modes are revealed as sattva (lightness, equilibrium, goodness), rajas (passion, motion, attachment), and tamas (darkness, inertia, lethargy).
We find in an early Vedic text (Svetashvatara Upanishad 4.5) that the modes are part of God’s energy and can be represented as three colors: white for sattva, red for rajas, and black for tamas. This same verse tells us that prakriti, material nature, is nondifferent from the Supreme and that, consequently, the modes, which are part of prakriti, are nondifferent from Him as well – as energy is nondifferent from its energetic source.
Obviously drawing on the above verse, Srila Prabhupada throughout his books also correlates white (or sometimes yellow) with sattva, red with rajas, and black (sometimes blue) with tamas, elaborating on how the modes tend to influence people. Again, light colors are associated with goodness and purity, red with passion and longing, and darker colors with sloth and ignorance. In the Upanishadic verse, the colors white, red, and black are used symbolically to elucidate the modes in terms of colors in a general way. However, if one wanted to illustrate the endless variety of hues that could arise from mixing such colors, it would be more accurate to use the primary colors (yellow, red, and blue), as Prabhupada does. This is true because white would just give us lighter versions of red and black, whereas the primary colors can produce an infinite variety. By aligning the modes with this trichromatic truth of primary colors, we learn much about how modes interact within the material world.
The three modes are always mixed with one another, just as colors rarely exist in an unalloyed state. The combination of three times three, Prabhupada reminds us, initially allows for nine different mixtures, and when combined again, eighty-one mixtures, and so on. In other words, the modes never exist independently of each other, and as a consequence all living beings manifest as a combination of goodness, passion, and ignorance, even if one mode will predominate in a person’s life. This will dictate who they are, what they like, and the vocation to which they are inclined.
The notion of mixing colors, i.e., the interaction of multiple modes, also brings us back to the “rope” metaphor, if with a particular twist: It is to be remembered that a rope is actually a combination of threads, a mixture of smaller strands composing a braided cable.
Understanding Through Analogy
Insight into the modes can be achieved by studying the numerous ways in which the key words – sattva, rajas, and tamas – are interpreted. For example, Bhagavad-gita scholar Graham Schweig (Garuda Dasa) suggests that sattva, rajas, and tamas could be understood as self-giving, selfish, and self-destructive, respectively, or, in terms of consciousness: conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. Although he doesn’t elaborate, such musings on the three key words give us helpful hints as to what they represent.
Professor Schweig’s most telling correlation, however, is when he writes that the modes are comparable to objects that are transparent, translucent, and opaque. Let me explain this more thoroughly.
If we consider several examples of transparent phenomena, such as air, water, and clear glass, we will note that light passes directly through them, usually with minimal adulteration or obstruction. And colored light passing through something transparent (and uncolored) will retain its color. That’s the way it is with sattva-guna. A person predominantly in this mode will reflect the nature of the soul, even though that nature is still filtered through material conditioning. Such a person is clear, light, and harmonious with ultimate reality and tends to be happy and aware. It should be noted, though, that the mode of goodness is not transcendence, and so its transparent quality is always compromised to one degree or another. Even a fully transparent window naturally includes a subtle element of distortion. This limitation of goodness in terms of transparency is a subject to which we will later return.
Regarding rajas: Certain plastics and frosted glass, among other objects, are translucent. When light shines through these materials, it is constricted. This disallows accurate perception because translucent objects are only semi-transparent, blocking some ultraviolet rays.
We can compare this to rajas. A person conditioned by this mode will be so consumed by longing, desire, and the need for immediate action that self-evident truth is often lost, his vision clouded by passion. The word rajas literally means “dust” or “smoke,” both of which inhibit light, but not fully, merely coloring it. This is similar to translucence: to the degree that a conditioned soul is “dusted” with desire and selfish interests, it becomes unable to see its true nature.
Opaque objects block light, since they are unable to transmit radiant energy. This includes materials such as brick, wood, stone, cardboard, and metals, which refract or repel light, making it go in another direction altogether. This is reminiscent of tamas, a quality that so covers the soul that its original nature becomes totally obscured. While the soul is eternal, conscious, and blissful, the entity conditioned by tamo-guna is involved in temporary, ignorant, and miserable acts that perpetuate the cycle of birth and death.
Other analogies help us understand the modes. For example, consider the three states of matter – solid, liquid, and gas – particularly as applied to water. Tamas might be seen as ice – motionless, hard, like a rock. It could easily be seen as frozen energy, unable to display its natural flow. Rajas, on the other hand, is like the dawn of the melting process, where things start to move fast, perhaps too fast, as water begins to drip in all directions. In contrast, sattva is like steam, which can be harnessed for positive results. When water turns gaseous, it can be used by steam engines. In fact, such engines played a central role in the Industrial Revolution and today generate more than seventy-five percent of the world’s electricity. Similarly, a person in sattva-guna is not hard and unmoving like a rock or wild and uncontrolled like an unsuppressed stream. Rather, he has calmed his passions and is able to control his actions in service to God and humanity.
These analogies are not meant to be precise; they are merely helpful indicators, assisting in our understanding of the modes.
To really understand this subject, one would do well to study the scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad-gita (chapters 14, 17, and 18) and Srimad-Bhagavatam (Canto 11, chapter 25). Although Lord Krishna first mentions the modes in the second chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, He goes on to systematically analyze them in almost one hundred of its seven hundred verses. Briefly, the Gita teaches us that God, as the creator of the modes, is naturally above them (7.13), while they bind the ordinary soul to the body through conditioning (14.5). However, once we understand how the modes work and discover what lies beyond them, we can become free of material conditioning and purely devote ourselves to the service of God (14.19).
Krishna explains the modes in various contexts, including how they apply to faith, food, sacrifice, austerity, knowledge, and action. In general, He says that we develop habits according to the kinds of activity we favor, whether “good,” “passionate,” or “ignorant.” This influences our choice in friends, music, food, work, and so on, and the more we make such choices, the less freedom we have to make newer ones (13.22) – since by each act we create deeply embedded impressions in our consciousness. Thus our modal choices affect our overall perception of reality, in which we are trapped until we have the good fortune and good intelligence to accept the guidance of a liberated soul. Only then do we gradually become free of our conditioned responses to the world and learn to transcend the modes of material nature.
All of this information is elaborated upon in the Uddhava Gita of Srimad-Bhagavatam. A few verses should suffice:
My dear Uddhava, the combination of all three modes is present in the mentality of “I” and “mine.” The ordinary transactions of this world, which are carried out through the agency of the mind, the objects of perception, the senses and the vital airs of the physical body, are also based on the combination of the modes. (11.25.6)
O gentle Uddhava, all these different phases of conditioned life arise from work born of the modes of material nature. The living entity who conquers these modes, manifested from the mind, can dedicate himself to Me by the process of devotional service and thus attain pure love for Me. (11.25.32)
A wise sage, free from all material association and unbewildered, should subdue his senses and worship Me. He should conquer the modes of passion and ignorance by engaging himself only with things in the mode of goodness. (11.25.34)
Then, being fixed in devotional service, the sage should also conquer the material mode of goodness by indifference toward the modes. Thus pacified within his mind, the spirit soul, freed from the modes of nature, gives up the very cause of his conditioned life and attains Me. (11.25.35)
This last verse is essential for understanding the modes. It is often assumed that upon attaining a life of “goodness,” which affords happiness, knowledge, and peace of mind, one has “arrived,” as it were, reaching some kind of culminating perfection on the spiritual path. But this is simply not the case. Actions impelled by sattva, an aspect of material nature, bring on material reactions, or karma. So by their very acts of goodness, even good people inadvertently bind themselves to the world of matter.
This is not to say that acts of goodness should be abandoned, but rather that they should be augmented by transcendental acts – acts of devotional service to the Lord and His devotees. Devotional service transcends goodness, passion, and ignorance and thus frees one from the material world. As Prabhupada wrote in a letter (February 28, 1972): “Actually, [goodness] is not the final stage – one has to go further ahead to suddha sattva [pure goodness]. In the material mode of goodness there are sometimes tinges of the modes of passion and ignorance, but in the suddha sattva stage there is only pure love of God or pure mode of goodness; that is the difference.”
Earlier, I referred to an analogy involving transparency, translucency, and opaqueness, mentioning how sattva-guna correlates with clear vision. However, I also noted that in the ultimate analysis such clarity is always compromised, causing subtle forms of misrepresentation. Prabhupada often referred to a bona fide spiritual master as a transparent medium between the disciple and the Absolute Truth. In other words, one can actually see the truth by the grace of a legitimate spiritual teacher who acts as a clarifying lens for the sincere spiritual aspirant. This vision is not gained merely by engaging in action in the mode of goodness. Submission at the feet of a master, say Vedic texts, allows fully clarified vision, affording direct perception of the truth.
The Spiritual Modes
Philosophers have long referred to the three modes of material nature as “the Sankhyan Trinity,” since they form the groundwork of all things material. By contrast, sat-cit-ananda is known as “the Vedantic Trinity,” or the very stuff of the spiritual world. It is this latter Trinity to which we will now direct our attention.
Sat-cit-ananda refers to eternity, cognition, and bliss, which manifests only in vishuddha-sattva, or beyond the material modes of nature. Since Krishna’s material energy (bahiranga shakti) is a facsimile or a perverted reflection of the spiritual energy (antaranga-shakti), there is a correlation between them, as mentioned in Srila Prabhupada’s commentary on the Chaitanya-charitamrita (Adi 4.62, Purport): “Each of the three divisions of the internal potency – the sandhini [sat], samvit [cit] and hladini [ananda] energies – influences one of the external potencies by which the conditioned souls are conducted. Such influence manifests the three qualitative modes of material nature, proving definitely that the living entities, the marginal potency, are eternally servitors of the Lord and are therefore controlled by either the internal or the external potency.”
The above is meant to remind us that, as stated in the Bhagavad-gita (15.1), the world we see before us is like an upside-down banyan tree. Srila Prabhupada writes in his commentary on this verse:
This tree, being the reflection of the real tree, is an exact replica. Everything is there in the spiritual world. The impersonalists take Brahman to be the root of this material tree, and from the root, according to Sankhya philosophy, come prakriti, purusha, then the three gunas, then the five gross elements (pancha-maha-bhuta), then the ten senses (dashendriya), mind, etc. In this way they divide up the whole material world into twenty-four elements. If Brahman is the center of all manifestations, then this material world is a manifestation of the center by 180 degrees, and the other 180 degrees constitute the spiritual world. The material world is the perverted reflection, so the spiritual world must have the same variegatedness, but in reality.
This explains how the three modes of material nature come from similar elements that exist in transcendence. But while phenomena such as eternity, cognition, and bliss have no deficits, wholly representing God and the spiritual world without adulteration, the three modes of material nature are shot through with problems for the conditioned soul.
Since this manifestation is material, it is temporary. A reflection is temporary, for it is sometimes seen and sometimes not seen. But the origin from whence the reflection is reflected is eternal. The material reflection of the real tree has to be cut off. When it is said that a person knows the Vedas, it is assumed that he knows how to cut off attachment to this material world. If one knows that process, he actually knows the Vedas. . . . The purpose of the Vedas, as disclosed by the Personality of Godhead Himself, is to cut down this reflected tree and attain the real tree of the spiritual world. (Gita 15.1, Purport)
By learning how to transcend the three modes of material nature through the process of Krishna consciousness, one becomes the perfect follower of the Vedas and attains the spiritual dimension.
Satyaraja Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a BTG associate editor and founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. He has written more than thirty books on Krishna consciousness and lives near New York City.