By Navina Syama Dasa
Understanding the gunas described in the Vedic literature provides a unique perspective on God, the world, and ourselves.
The most striking building in Philadelphia is the Museum of Art. One of the largest museums in the United States, it sits atop a hill overlooking the Schuylkill River like a tawny-columned Greek monument. Within its more than two hundred galleries, one can find over 225,000 objects showcasing the creative talents of American, European, and Asian artists over the last several thousand years. A highlight is the world-renowned collection of French Impressionist paintings. Within its hundreds of constituent pieces (especially ones like Monet’s “Poplars” and Cezanne’s “Mont Sainte-Victoire”) one can spot thousands of varied shades and hues. Yet all of the visual variety in the Impressionist gallery-and ultimately in the entire museum-arises from only three primary colors: yellow, red, and blue.
As amazing as it is to conceive of such complexity and beauty proceeding from this tripartite simplicity, Lord Krishna makes an even more remarkableassertion in the Bhagavad-gita. There He explains that the entire universe itself is ultimately just a product of the three gunas: sattvam, rajah, and tamah. In fact, Srila Prabhupada often analogized to the primary colors to explain the enigmatic gunas: “Originally there are three colors, red, blue, and yellow, and if you mix them together, they become green, orange, pink, and so many other colors. Similarly the combination of three qualities of material nature, sattvam, rajah, and tamah, has created so many forms of living entities.” (From “Manifestation of Dharma in Human Being,” an early article published in the magazine Dharmaprakash ) Making the same point in a lecture (Bombay, 1973), he concluded: “In this way, material nature is the greatest artist.”
Just as a painter applies different blends of the primary colors to produce a masterpiece on canvas, so the Lord uses the gunas as a palette for universal creation. Srila Prabhupada even correlated yellow with sattvam, red with rajah, and blue with tamah, explaining that these colors were “representations” of the gunas. And he often described how when the three modes are “mixed with one another,” they give rise to nine different combinations, and when these nine are mixed again, they produce eight-one combinations, and so on.
The gunas are a feature of reality described only within the religious traditions of India (the Three Fates of ancient Greece being a possible exception; see the sidebar “The Three Fates”), yet they are not a technical detail or arcane subtlety; rather, the gunas play a pivotal role in shaping the world as we know it. Krishna speaks of them throughout the Bhagavad-gita, and every extended prayer in the Srimad-Bhagavatam refers to them. In fact, so essential and pervasive is their function that one can use the gunas to differentiate between the principal categories of existence, namely God, the world, and the living beings.
Before we use the gunas to paint the big picture, however, let’s understand them better. Though the analogy to painting makes it seem like the gunas are the building blocks of matter, this is not exactly the case. Rather, Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita that the material world is made up of earth, water, fire, air, and ether, as well as mind, intelligence, and false ego. And neither are the gunas the moving force behind the universe, for that role is played by time. Instead, the gunas govern how the matter made up of the eight elements and pushed along by time moves and behaves; the gunas are the primordial forces that color and control the cosmos.
Some of the different English translations of guna help clarify the scope and nature of the term. The most common word Srila Prabhupada used was “mode.” In this sense, the gunas represent the manner in which matter is experienced and expressed. Another translation he gave was “quality.” In this sense the gunas are the three primary qualities that, in various combinations, give living beings their personality and inanimate objects their distinguishing characteristics. Yet another translation is “rope.” In this sense the gunas are what bind us and limit us to perceive, think, and act in a certain way.
Symptoms of the Gunas
Ultimately, however, the best way to understand the gunas is to review their symptoms. In Chapters 14, 17, and 18 of the Bhagavad-gita and Chapter 25 of the Eleventh Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Krishna provides a plethora of illustrations. Creation and activity characterize rajah. The deva Brahma oversees this guna, and he is, appropriately, the designer of the material world, shaping the bodies of all 8,400,000 species of life. Srila Prabhupada translated rajah as “passion,” denoting the ardor for pleasure it invariably ignites. A person influenced by rajah is always working hard to acquire prestige and fortune and thus inevitably feels anxiety; ultimately, therefore, this guna produces only sorrow. The reason for such intense endeavor is insatiable desire: No matter how much one gets, one remains unsatisfied and greedy for more. Rajas makes one proud, envious, and subject to the emotional whims of the mind. A bustling metropolis is an example of a place in the mode of passion, and food in this mode is overly spicy, salty, or sour. Because pleasure derived through rajah is based on sensual indulgence, it is ephemeral and quickly degenerates into pain.
Sattvam is characterized by conservation and contentment. Lord Vishnu oversees this guna, lying on His snake-bed Sesha Naga as He effortlessly maintains the universe. Srila Prabhupada translated sattvam as “goodness,” not so much in the moral sense (although moral rectitude is certainly a byproduct of this mode), but in the broader sense of wholesomeness. One influenced by sattva-guna sees all living beings as part of the same spiritual nature. A person acting in the mode of goodness does so, not with the expectation of a reward or future happiness, but simply out of duty. Having no selfish desires, such a person is never frustrated; whatever the result, he or she continues to act with determination and enthusiasm. Eventually, such steadfastness yields knowledge, satisfaction, and simplicity. Natural spaces like forests are in the mode of goodness, and food in this mode is juicy, fatty, and wholesome. Because sattvam happiness is derived from the self, it takes some initial effort to access, but once obtained, it bestows lasting fearlessness.
Tamas is characterized by destruction and oblivion. Shiva oversees this guna, and when it is time for the universe to be wound up, his calamitous dance sets the terminal process in motion. Srila Prabhupada translated tamah as “ignorance,” and a person under its influence is certainly of meager knowledge and unable to tell right from wrong. He or she laments the past, procrastinates in the present, and futilely dreams of the future. Stingy, thoughtless, and violent, such a person is doomed to depression and ultimately madness. Dark and dirty places, like urban gambling dens, are in the mode of ignorance, and food in this mode is stale, tasteless, and contaminated. The illusory pleasure derived from tamah has its roots in sleep and degradation.
God, the World, the Gunas, and Us
Now that we have a sense of what the gunas are like, we can return to our original project of using them as a philosophical lens through which to view the universe. Based on their relationship to the modes, we can differentiate among the principal categories of existence. We begin with this world. The realm of matter is a product of the three gunas, in that they determine what shape it takes and how it operates. As a result of its contact with them, this world continually undergoes various cycles of existence, from dormancy to development to continuation, and then back to dormancy. And the living beings who dwell here are similarly pushed and pulled by the influence of the gunas.
But there is another realm, composed of spirit and not subject to the gunas. Or, more precisely, it is not subject to any trace of rajah or tamah. Rather, it exists in a state known as shuddha-sattva, or pure, unadulterated goodness. Thus, the spiritual world always remains as it is, and its inhabitants enjoy a steady state of full awareness and bliss.
Then there is the Lord. He is perpetually beyond the reach of the gunas; on the contrary, they are an exhibition of His own power and function under His supervision. He takes on various forms within the spiritual world, and when there is need, He also descends to the material world. Those bewildered by rajah or tamah believe that His terrestrial humanlike form consists of matter and is controlled by the gunas. But those in knowledge understand that God remains, under all conditions and at all times, the undisputed master of all existence.
Finally, we have the living beings. Like the Lord, they originally reside in the spiritual world beyond the gunas. And they too can choose to come down to the material world. But, unlike the Lord, when they do so they fall under the gunas’ control. The majority of jivas never make that fateful choice, content to remain with the Lord in His spiritual kingdom. There they live on practically the same level as God, endowed with the same form, a shared residence, and equal opulence. But those who give in to their morbid curiosity take on various forms, according to the gunas to which they are attracted. As an artist mixes the primary colors to create a particular hue, so the Lord combines the modes to create a specific type of mind and body for each living entity. This distinct amalgamation acts like a colored filter on the jiva’s pure consciousness, affecting how he or she perceives and acts upon the external world.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets rose-colored glasses. Depending on their previous desires and activities, human beings develop and express different qualities, in some blend of the sublime peace of sattvam, the unabating turbulence of rajah, and the shadowy delusion of tamah. Even the various animal species are divided thus, the cow being associated with sattvam, the lion with rajah, and the monkey with tamah.
Applied Knowledge of the Gunas
Though this unique feature of Indian theology certainly illuminates the various categories of existence, helping us understand the relationship between the living beings, the world, and God, knowledge of the gunas also serves a practical purpose. First, we can use this knowledge to decipher which gunas influence us as individuals. Am I an overachiever, full of energy and motivation to pursue my goals, but generally carried away by my successes, crushed by my failures, and overwhelmed by the incessant flow of my desires? The strong sway of rajah is likely to blame. Am I subject to bouts of laziness or anger, or addicted to the diversion provided by intoxication? If so, tamah has surely taken hold.
When we identify the influence of these two lower gunas in our lives, our next step is to alter our habits by striving to think, speak, and act in the mode of goodness, letting go of the anxiety of rajah and shaking off the torpor of tamah. Krishna assures us that association with the quality of goodness has an elevating effect, and that the practice of acting in goodness can help us regain our position with Him in the spiritual kingdom, where everyone and everything is saturated with pure sattvam. But if the inborn tendencies of our conditioned nature seem insurmountable, we need not fear. The renowned speaker of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Shukadeva Goswami, informs us that serving Krishna with a heart full of love is the quickest and easiest way to cultivate goodness. Indeed, completely offering ourselves to God is the only means by which we can transcend the gunas entirely and be reinstated in our natural condition of shuddha-sattvam, goodness without a tinge of passion or ignorance. So whether the canvas of one’s life is colored like the periwinkle of Monet’s “Flowers in a Vase” or the jade of Pissarro’s “Vegetable Garden,” the common goal of every being in this world should be to try and bring a little more “yellow” into the picture. If we make the attempt, for the sake of pleasing Krishna and in full consciousness of Him, He’ll finish the job Himself, quickly flooding the canvas of our lives with His golden mercy.