The Three Gunas
Jai Guru Deva. Thank you for tuning into my podcast, The Vedic Worldview. I’m Thom Knoles.
[00:56] Bhagavad Gita – Song of the Supreme Consciousness Field
Today we’re going to spend a few minutes on a subject that comes to us from a text that is something on the order of 5,000 years old, known as the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavad means the Supreme Consciousness Field, and Gita means song, the song of the Supreme Consciousness Field.
It is a discourse between a great master, Krishna, and his cousin, who also in this particular context is the student of Krishna in a very particular and unusual setting. A little backstory is necessary.
Bhagavad Gita is the central few verses and really relative to the larger document out of which it’s extracted, it is just a few verses of an epic known as the Maha, Maha means great; Bharata, Bharata is another word for India. Great India.
This book, the Mahabharata, is attributed to Vyasa. Vyasa, the great master of enlightened vision, the great master, one of the Rishis of our tradition. A Rishi is a seer.
Going back many thousands of years in India there was a time when two factions of one family decided to go to war over who was in charge. There were classic elements identifying one group as the more egregious and greedy and power hungry group of cousins, and another group who were more inspired by life in tune with the laws of Nature, and Krishna. Krishna, interestingly, a second cousin to each of these two cousin groups.
[03:20] Cousins Go to War
The groups that were about to go to war with each other were first cousins, and Krishna was a second cousin to each side.
At a certain juncture in the preparation for a war, a gathering of hundreds-of-thousands, perhaps even millions according to the Guinness Book of World Records, one of the largest gatherings of human beings ever anywhere on Earth was the Mahabharata war.
A war that has some historicity although we’re not going to dive into historic facts, we’re going to make use of the legendary retelling of the Bhagavad Gita. Bhagavad Gita meaning the central chapters where Arjuna, the protagonist of this particular story, and his mentor, Guru Krishna are standing on a chariot being drawn by white horses in the middle of a no-man’s land, about one mile across on each side, the combatants preparing for all out war.
One group of cousins had raised an army of several million. The other group of cousins had raised an equivalent army. And standing in the middle of the no-man’s land on a chariot having just requested his charioteer, Krishna, to drive him up and down the line of combat so he could view the enemy with a little bit more clarity.
Arjuna had selected Krishna as his charioteer when Krishna had offered to both sides of his family something of his resources.
[05:30] Arjuna Deeply Conflicted
Krishna had said to the egregious cousins, the ones who were more bound by material concepts, “One of you can have my entire army of 10,000 fighters and archers who are so well trained by me that they will fight to kill anyone, including me, if I instruct them to do so. The other of you can have me just on my own, but only as a charioteer and advisor and wise-and-trusted counselor, and I won’t fight. I won’t enter into the combat in any way, shape, or form.”
The Kaurava where we get our English word coward. The Kaurava were the brothers who were usurping the right to rule, immediately chose the killer army of Krishna. Arjuna immediately chose Krishna himself as the wise-and-trusted counselor, non-combatant.
Now we find them in a chariot in the midst of a no-man’s land watching as a few stray arrows fly over, some kettle drums yielding, the harbingers of war have already started to be beaten.
Opposite sides of the fight already shouting different epithets in the direction of others. Some conches, the shells that you can blow like a trumpet, were being blown with great might. Tremendous cacophony of sound was beginning to rise into the atmosphere.
Arjuna, deeply conflicted about having to be a fighter against his own first cousins who comprised the opposite side, found himself in complete turmoil. Though he was the mightiest archer of his era, he took off his bow, Gandiva, name of his bow, and threw it onto the ground.
[07:57] “You Could Have Avoided All of This”
And looked at Krishna and said, “I see on the other side my cousins with whom I played, as playmates, though we were rivals, we were playmates, nonetheless. In their faces I’m reminded of the faces of their mothers. I’m reminded of our common sources. I’m reminded of our common goals as once they were.
“I can’t fight. I won’t fight them. It’s better if they just cross the battlefield and do what they wish to do, which is to take me and dismember me. And I will surrender and allow that to happen. And my army can just back away and go home.”
To which Krishna replied, “Well, you can do that. And they will come and they will dismember you. But they won’t stop there. They’ll be dismembering your entire army and decimating it. And see now already, the opposite side are cheering because they’ve seen you throw your bow on the ground, and your side have become completely disheartened and are moving into defeatist mentality.
“And let me remind you that had you wished to become a pacifist, you should have told me some 14 years ago when there was an opportunity for me to intervene in a diplomatic way and to bring peace with your cousins, with our cousins. You could have avoided all of this. However, now we’re facing this.
[09:45] “Your Cousins will Destroy the Entire Culture of India”
“Your cousins, the opposite side, and the leaders of that army will absolutely no doubt destroy the entire culture, knowledge culture, wisdom culture of India that is thousands of years in the making, and from which India will never recover.
“And if you choose to leave your bow lying on the ground there, and they advance and destroy your army, and you allow them to do this. Though you will be satisfied in your desire to be a pacifist, they will be unstoppable in terms of the complete debauchery of the Indian culture.
“And when it comes to karma, which evidently you’re concerned about, the results of action and its results, and its fruits, the destruction of India will be your karma. It will not be the karma of your cousins because their nature is known. They have a rather bestial nature, and they’re just living according to their nature. Your nature is your capability to stop them from destroying everything.
“And so I call upon you to lift your bow from the ground and engage, and do your best to bring an end to destroy their destructive power. You have to do it, Arjuna.”
And Arjuna is in complete confusion and bewilderment. He does pick up his bow, but he’s uncertain. And he’s not resolute in his task to move forward into battle.
It’s in this scene that Krishna chooses to teach Arjuna Vedic Meditation, a very interesting situation.
[11:53] Nistraigunyo Bhavarjuna
So for those of us who wonder whether we learned Vedic Meditation under the best circumstances in our life, whether or not we learned Vedic Meditation in the best settings, let’s go back to the setting in which Arjuna learned Vedic Meditation.
Krishna starts off with saying when Arjuna says, “Tell me decisively. How I can come out of this confusion. How I can regain my resolution. My heart is heavy and I can’t even see clearly.”
Krishna, when he spoke, spoke in a sing-song fashion. This is why it’s called the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita means the song. The song of Supreme Intelligence. Krishna, and in his sing song fashion, Krishna calmly and smilingly spoke. I love this allusion to Krishna smilingly speaking even under the extreme circumstances in which he was about to teach.
And he says to Krishna in the Sanskrit, “Nistraiguṇyo bhavārjuna,” which means step beyond the three gunas. G-U-N-A, guna, and to give it the English plural we put an S on the end, although in Sanskrit you wouldn’t do that, but we’ll give ourselves license to be able to do that. Gunas, gunas, three. Step beyond the three gunas. Nistraiguṇyo bhavārjuna, be without the three gunas, be.
[13:51] Yogastha Kuru Karmani
And then a few moments later says to Arjuna, “Yogastha kuru karmāṇi.” Yogastha kuru karmāṇi. Yogastha; established in the yoga state of consciousness, perform action. And now the task is left for me to make commentary and explain what all of this means, and I have to say that I’m greatly aided by having listened to my master Maharishi Mahesh Yogi wax lyrically on this subject year after year, in the quarter century and more that I spent training with him.
Nistraiguṇyo bhavārjuna -be without the three gunas.
Let’s look at the three gunas. What are they? These are balancing agents of the way in which evolution progresses. Balancing agents in the progressive change, which we refer to as evolution.
Evolution has certain elements that allow it to progress with a theme. The theme is that everything has to become progressively more and more sophisticated. Sophistication in this regard does not mean the kind of sophistication that we superficially describe, people having if they are well-read professors or something. Sophistication here means the integrated functioning of complexity. If I take all of the parts of my wrist watch apart and lay them out on a table, there are a whole lot of parts. We can’t really call it sophisticated.
[15:56] Evolutionary Force is Causing Ever More Elegant and Sophisticated Forms
If I integrate all of them by putting them in a very specific recipe, which little wheel, which little gear, which little spring goes into the watch casing at what particular stage, and then if it’s a self-winding watch, under what circumstances can you move the casing around, cause the watch to wind itself just based on the kinetic activity of my arm, my wrist, and then it can keep time to within one second of accuracy in a year.
This is a chronograph, a highly sophisticated thing. Sophistication in this respect means that we bring all of the disparate parts together in a highly integrated complexity. Complexity doesn’t mean complicated. Complicated is a whole other thing. It means problematic.
This is complexity that is integrated, functional, and produces a desirable outcome, and we’re going to call this sophistication. So, the evolutionary force is a force that is causing matter to move into ever more elegant and sophisticated forms.
Think of the human condition, physiologically, anatomically. If we look at the brain of the little critters who were around and about after the great extinction event, that brought an end to the era of the dominance of the giant lizards, the dinosaurs. Those little critters, those little furry critters that ended up evolving step by step, stage by stage over millennia and over millions of years into that form and function that eventually got upright, upright on two feet, we use the word bipedal.
[18:13] Humans – Relatively Inept Athletes
The body of the human became neuro centric. What do we mean by that? We’re not particularly good athletes. If we compare one human to another human in a running race, then one of the humans is likely to be a better runner than the other. Either a longer distance or simply a short distance, but faster than the other.
But if we compare a human’s athletic capability to a household cat, then a human is absolutely a terrible athlete. Any cat can run faster than any human. This is why we don’t allow cats or dogs or any other running animals into the Olympics.
The Olympics is only for inept athletes. People who are not adept athletes, I mean beings that are not adept athletes, squirrels are not allowed in the Olympics. They would completely disgrace the human race.
Cats are not allowed in the Olympics. Dolphins are not allowed in Olympic swimming pools competing against humans because compared with a dolphin, a human is a terrible swimmer. Compared with other inept athletes, if we compare a human to a human, and we are inept athletes, there are some of us that are less inept than others , and we give each other awards for being the least inept of the athletes.
The person who, though not actually a natural born swimmer, can swim better than the other person who’s not a natural born swimmer. And we consider ourselves to be high and mighty if we have gold medals in how to be a relatively inept athlete compared with other relatively inept athletes.
[20:03] But a Highly Sophisticated Human Brain
Compared with the animal kingdom, humans are terrible athletes. However, we are neuro centric. There is no octopus or chimpanzee, no matter how elegant their brains are relative to other critters that can play chess against a chess-playing human.
Humans have the capability with their brain to be able to see cascades of cause and effect, which other animals simply do not possess. We love to talk about nature versus humans, but let’s get rid of that idea. That’s a nonsense idea. Nature and humans are the same thing.
One of the pinnacles of natural evolution is the highly sophisticated human brain.
So bipedal means we got up onto our two feet about 3 million years ago. Then about 120,000 years ago or so, give or take, was the cognitive revolution when the human brain went kaboom and began to develop, over a relatively small number of reproductive generations, a highly sophisticated cortex, and the cerebral cortex, and the frontal lobes particularly gave us the ability to see long, long cascades of cause and effect.
So if a Bengal tiger from India is about to pounce upon its primary dietary preference, which is a chital deer, if that chital deer happens to be the last reproducing member of the chital deer family and killing it and eating it will cause all future generations of tigers to starve to death.
[22:01] Capacity to See Cascades of Cause
What do you think the tiger will do when it sees the, gets the chital deer in its sight, in it sights with its yellow murderous eyes salivating? The tiger is not going to run a study with other tigers on the long term impact of eating this chital deer right now, and change its diet or modify its approach to anything.
The tiger simply will pounce and eat the chital deer, even if the effect is to cause that tiger and all future tigers to die.
A human being on the other hand, has the capacity, whether or not human beings act on these capacities, we do have the capacity to see cascades of cause and effect. We have the capability, whether we do it or not, to put into play standards of behavior, which may change a short term survivability destiny into a long term survivability destiny for our entire species, and even indeed for other species. And so this is the sophistication of the neurocentric brain.
Our brain is neurocentric. We humans are neurocentric. We are upright arthropods. We stand on two feet, we’re upright. Our brain has learned how to move up and away from the rocks and the bushes. This is why we are up on our hind legs and our arms, which once upon a time were legs, are now used for other things.
[23:42] Upright Neurocentric Arthropods
Generally speaking, if we want to defend ourselves, we use our front legs, our arms, to keep dangers away or to strike out. We generally don’t take our head into combat, unless of course we come from certain places in Scotland or other places where smacking people with your face is considered to be a combat tool.
Generally speaking, we protect our brains very, very carefully because it is with our brains that we can think through solutions that help us to survive to reproduce in the next generation.
Upright neurocentric arthropods. How did we evolve into this sophisticated state? It was by virtue of the processes of nature’s evolutionary force, the movement of less sophisticated molecules and combinations of molecules, into progressively more sophisticated molecule packages.
[24:45] Sattva, Rajas and Tamas – Three Balancing Agents
And to look at it from the Vedic perspective, there are three balancing agents that bring this about. And let’s enumerate those now, the three gunas are referred to as Sattva. Sattva can be defined in a vast variety of words. Probably the very best word for it is purity. And we’ll come back to what purity means in this regard. And then Rajas. Rajas means movement. Movement from one state to another.
And then Tamas. Tamas is probably best defined, if we have to use a singular English word to define it as inertia.
Purity, Sattva. Rajas, movement. Tamas, inertia.
Now, let’s think of this in terms of a very crude juxtaposition, and I apologize for the crudeness of it, but it’ll be functional for the moment. We want to drive our motor vehicle, our Tesla, or whatever it is we’re driving, from A to B.
[26:09] Inertia of Stillness
First of all, we have to have a mission. Where am I going? I’m going out the gate and out onto the street and heading off somewhere, wherever it may be. I have a strategy. I’m gonna navigate my way to a spot. There’s a plan. And that plan, that mission, let’s think of that as being sattva.
And then I have to break the inertia. The car is sitting still. There are two types of inertia. The inertia of stillness. That’s the tendency of something which is sitting still to continue sitting still. Think of a boulder, it’s hard to get it moving because it’s big and heavy and it’s sitting down in the ground and you want to roll this big round, giant marble. It’s hard to get it started. So it has inertia of stillness.
Once you start it rolling, it has inertia of motion. It’s hard to stop the boulder from rolling, once you start rolling it. So we have to break the inertia of the motor vehicle by getting it to move.
And we start the process of moving away from our stationary position, but we’re doing so with a mission. We want to move in a way that is obedient to our travel mission. Sattva is the travel mission, so that movement, rajas has to occur.
[27:46] Inertia – A Way to Stop the Vehicle
The thing that we’re also going to need to use is when we want to restrict movement, the brakes in the car. So if we think of the accelerator as the thing that moves the car forward at a variety of speeds, or indeed you could put it in reverse and move backward at a variety of speeds.
Rajas, movement forward or movement backward. Tamas, T A M A S, tamas. Rajas is spelled R-A-J-A-S. Sattva is spelled S-A-T-T-V-A, sattva. Sattva, rajas, R-A-J-A-S, movement and tamas, inertia.
The inertia aspect is going to be the brakes. The stationary position where the car has its parking brake on, and you don’t want it rolling unless you have a mission for it to roll, in which direction it’s rolling. And then Rajas, the tendency of a thing that’s not moving to start moving.
And then, does it move forward? Does it move sideways? Directionally, which way does it move? This is going to be ruled in some way by your mission. If you only have forward movement or reverse movement, but you don’t have any way of stopping the vehicle. You don’t have any inertia to apply, tamas, then you could be in trouble.
I remember once a car mechanic saying to me when I was a very young man with a very ancient vehicle, and the brakes needed some work and some attention. He said, “Look, your engine is fine and you’ll be able to move from A to B, and it may be a problem if you can’t start the car, but it’s a total disaster if you can’t stop the car. So let’s get those brakes fixed.”
[29:46] Change is Inevitable
I really loved his analogy. He didn’t realize that he was giving me an example I would use for years later to explain sattva, rajas and tamas. Tamas is that tendency of a thing to either remain inert or once moving to remain moving. Tamas gives us that inertia quality, inertia of stillness or inertia of motion. It gives us the capability to keep going if once we are rolling, or to start going if we haven’t yet commenced rolling.
Sattva is the mission. That is to say, the consciousness at play that’s giving purpose to the entire process of forward movement. And then rajas, that which accelerates from one position to the next.
These three things taken together form the progressive change agenda of Nature. Progressive change. Change is inevitable, there will be change. You cannot stop it. If you attempt to stop it, you’ll be overrun by it. And so change can only occur in two ways. Change where, you have been identified by Nature as not being relevant to the process of evolution, and so you change in the direction of dis-integration.
You come apart, because now you’ve become an obstacle to other things progressing. So irrelevancy will cause disintegrative change.
Or progressive change, progressive change is that kind of change, which, if we move in that direction of greater sophistication, ever greater sophistication, and we leave behind elements that were restrictive, elements that blocked our capacity to continue to expand our capability, then we have progressive change.
[32:01] Meditation – Be Without the Three Gunas
And always we advocate that since change is inevitable, it’s better to be a designer of change and happiness than to be someone who simply waits for change to come and then you have to react to it, but you don’t get to design it.
So sattva, rajas, tamas, we have some degree of definition of these three things.
Krishna says to Arjuna, “Be without the three gunas, go beyond them.” What is it that lies beyond the three gunas? It is knowledge of the Knower. There’s an element of our consciousness that is transcendental. Transcendental means, that which is beyond relativity, that which is Absolute.
During our practice of meditation, we step beyond these three governing balancing agents of evolution and we go into The Absolute. We step beyond the tendency of the mind to think, and we go into the source of thought. We retain consciousness while thought and thinking tendency evaporates.
That evaporation of a thinking tendency leaving only the Knower. Not the Knowing and not the Known. Not the processes of knowing and not the objects of knowledge, but simply pure innocent inward consciousness knowing itself.
We’re going to call that Being with a capital B, Being. And Krishna advises Arjuna, to come out of your confusion and bewilderment to gain some perspective, you have to be without the three gunas. Step beyond these three balancing agents, which you’re getting so entangled in all of them, all the pros and cons and everything else.
[34:24] The Yoga Consciousness State gives the Expanded Perspective
You have lost your capacity to have super expanded perspective. If you wish to have that super expanded perspective and the resolute intellect that comes with it, you need to step beyond the three gunas. Transcend where you are, go where you are not.
You’re in the field of thinking, step out of the field of thinking, and then yogastha kuru karmani. Established in that state, we call that state, the state of yoga.
Forget about spandex and lycra and coffees and breakthrough positions and whatnot. That’s what we call asana. Asana means positions and postures. Yoga is supposed to be the state of consciousness where our individual awareness experiences union with our Universal Consciousness. This is yoga.
Yoga doesn’t mean bending and stretching. Yoga means a state of consciousness that you attain to by stepping beyond the three gunas, stepping beyond all of these balancing agents.
What the West refers to as yoga comes from a contraction of the words hatha yoga, where you can bend and stretch your body in certain ways that might help your mind get to the yoga experience. Yoga is not a thing you can do. It’s not a doing. It’s the state of Being itself, pure silent consciousness, experiencing itself, experiencing its pure nature.
Step beyond the three gunas, step beyond these three balancing agents. Experience the yoga state. And from there Arjuna, perform the action that you see needed. The Yoga Consciousness state gives that degree of expanded perspective that allows one to move forward in a way that resets the mission, resets the entire purpose of any kind of action.
[36:41] Turiya – the Fourth Consciousness State
So this is a short lesson on the three gunas, what they are. What do we need to know about them? Well, they operate between themselves with perfect balance. If the Knower of the three, that’s a fourth thing, the fourth consciousness state called turiya in Sanskrit, T-U-R-I-Y-A, turiya. Turiya is that consciousness state, the fourth state that’s beyond the three gunas.
If there is an adequate knower, capital K, Knower, the witness of the three gunas, then the three gunas will naturally attain to balance because already they have built into them an agenda of progressive change. So the action we need to take is to stop being entangled in the processes, we need to establish ourself as the field of Being, the Knower and gain perspective from there.
And then we’ll find ourselves spontaneously drawn into what we would call spontaneous right action, kriya. Kriya is, K-R-I-Y-A, spontaneous right action, action that flows forth directly from the field of Being.
Yogastha kuru karmani, Krishna’s later verse to Arjuna, established in Being or yoga, then perform action. Don’t perform action as a small little individual only, perform action when you have cosmic perspective. That’s probably enough about the three gunas today.
Jai Guru Deva.