Art by Devdutt Pattanaik
By Devdutt

The essence of the Bhagavad Gita:
Understanding the significance of sattva-guna, rajo-guna and tamo-guna

Published on 22nd August, 2020, in Economic Times.

The Bhagavad Gita informs us that the world is made of two intertwined entities: the material (prakriti) and the spiritual (purusha). The latter is technically not an entity as it cannot be measured. It is what makes us alive.

Matter has three qualities (guna): the lucid (sattva), the passionate (rajas) and the sluggish (tamas). Everything in nature displays these three qualities in different proportions. The human mind has decided that the lucid state (sattva-guna) takes us towards spirituality. Unfortunately, the human mind is drawn towards achievement and that stokes passion (rajoguna). It is also drawn towards laziness and that stokes sluggishness (tamo-guna).

We are told that the world will be a better place if we choose sattva-guna over rajo- or tamo-guna. Yet, all children are encouraged to be aspirational, achievement driven, rather than contentment driven. This stokes rajo-guna. The child prefers getting lost in video games and self-gratifying partying. That generates tamo-guna.

Most gurus tend to make a virtue of sattva-guna, traditionally associated with Brahmins as well as religious and spiritual activities. They present tamoguna, traditionally associated with Shudras or service-providers, as something to be frowned upon, but are reluctant to condemn rajo-guna, traditionally associated with Vaishyas and Kshatriyas, those involved in economic and political activity. But this reveals the typical class and caste bias of any elitist society: children and servants are lazy, leaders and entrepreneurs are hardworking, and holy men are just perfect.

People look at the world around and blame the horrors around — obesity, war, poverty, pollution, climate change, hunger, crime — as tamo-guna, which has become a shorthand for negativity. But what causes tamo-guna? Is it the same as entropy or implosion, tendency to collapse, to give up energy? Does that make sattva-guna extropy, drawn up by energy, intelligence, until it becomes excessive and turns into rajo-guna resulting in explosion? These are typical engineering terms, from the world of physics, used for objects. They cannot be applied to organisms, especially humans — organisms with imagination.

It has been observed that most activists in the world are from the field of humanities, and most terrorists are graduates with an engineering degree. Both are trying to save the world, change the world — their way. One uses psychological force of protest, the other uses physical force of violence. But each one believes they have the answer to the world’s problems. Both are led with rajo-guna, aspiration, desire, passion. Neither is sluggish or lazy. Both have problems with the rich and the powerful, who they feel suer from tamo-guna, as they are too lazy and too comfortable to challenge the status quo or hierarchy that benefits them. The rich and the powerful feel those who complain a lot suer from tamoguna. For Marists, tamo-guna is with holy men who sell the opiates of religion and spirituality to the rich and powerful. Everyone feels those they don’t like have tamo-guna, and what they do not like is tamo-guna. Thus Bhagavad Gita’s triguna theory is used by all to serve their own purpose. There is a different way to look at tri-guna. And it involves a radical re-reading of the Bhagavad Gita.

The Bhagavad Gita insists that the spiritual exists both within organisms and without. So atma is within you and outside. We tend to see this as self and the infinite. To quote Meera’s famous lines, “I have no one in this world but you, Krishna.” So, a spiritual-seeker ( jiva-atma) finds himself lonely in the world, with only God (param-atma) as refuge. We are told that we are all like gopikas lost in the forest, seeking Krishna, yearning to bask in his glory, dance around him in Madhu-vana, like planets around the sun. Yet, does Krishna, who narrates the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna, want Arjuna to forget the world, and focus on him, and do as he says? Is the confused Arjuna the embodiment of rajo-guna, and the selfish corrupt Kauravas the embodiment of tamo-guna, and Krishna’s yoga the path of sattva-guna? Or is there a different way to look at this?

The Kauravas think of themselves only. That is because they have no faith in anyone or anything. Hence, the self-absorption. This is rajo-guna, the drive to be autonomous, independent, to care for no one as no one cares for you. The helpless and lost Arjuna is tamo-guna, hoping someone will save him, take care of him. Krishna is asking Arjuna to see the purusha around him, not some cosmic transcendental energy, but people around him: the para-atma (the other) not the param-atma (the innite). To empathise with them, to see their fear, their loneliness, which drives them to be greedy or lazy, succumb to rajas or tamas. And to be dependable enough to uplift others, until they are capable of uplifting still others. This makes Bhagavad Gita a journey from dependence (tamas) and independence (rajas) to dependability (sattva).

Abrahamic faiths such as Christianity and Islam are linear faiths — between those who believe and an almighty God. This forms the template of most guru conversations, especially when the guru is presented as greater than mother, father and God. The sun with planets around. But Hinduism is a cyclical faith — located in the relationship between the self (jiva-atma) and the other (para-atma), the infinite others around us creating the innite divine (param-atma).The guru is supposed to redirect our gaze of the sun back to the earth, to people around us.

As long as we don’t empathise with people, we will seek to isolate ourselves from the world (tamo-guna), like Shiva, or seek conquest over them (rajo-guna), like Brahma’s children, the devas and the asuras. Vishnu teaches us to descend down (avatarana) and uplift (uddhara) until those uplifted can uplift others. This empathy for others is sattva-guna, sorely missing in the modern discourse. In the end of the Mahabharata, when Yudhishtira is furious to find the Kauravas in heaven, Dharma tells him, “In life, Kauravas did not share the earth with Pandavas and in death Pandavas do not wish to share heaven with Kauravas. How are you different? How can you ever be truly liberated?”