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The Three Gunas (Part 2)

The Bhagavad Gita presents an extensive coverage of the three gunas. Chapter 14 is entirely devoted to the discussion on the gunas. Many of the finer points of the gunas are brought out again in chapter 18. Of course, elsewhere also in the Gita, gunas are discussed, where applicable, in many other chapters. 

At any given time, one of the three gunas is dominant while the other two play a subservient role. In fact, gunas compete against each other, vying for supremacy. When sattva is dominant, the light of intelligence shines through all the senses and sense organs (BG 14.11). When Rajas is dominant, greed and the striving for selfish activities would appear (14.12). With the dominance of tamas come darkness, inactivity, recklessness and delusion (14.13).

We must remind ourselves that the purpose of such a detailed discussion on the gunas in Gita is not to get hung up on bringing about a state of mind where sattva guna is more dominant than the  other two. In fact, the Gita tells us that we should strive to transcend all the gunas and become "gunatita" (going past the gunas). What are the characteristics of the person who transcends the gunas? A person who overcomes the three gunas:

  • Remains unshaken, unconcerned, knowing that the gunas are carrying out their actions (BG 14.23).
  • Alike in pleasure and pain, remaining the same towards a piece of gold, or a lump of clay, towards the desirable and the undesirable, equal in defamation and self-adulation (BG 14.24).
  • Alike in honor and dishonor, same to friends and foes, without any egoistic effort in performing actions (BG 14.25).

Let us take a brief look at some of the concepts mentioned in the Gita relating gunas with food, sacrifice, austerity, intellect etc. What is given here is a subset of what is presented in the Gita.

Gunas and food (ahara)(BG 17.8-10):

  • Sattvik: Foods which increase life, purity, strength, health, joy and cheerfulness, which are lightly oiled and savory, substantial and agreeable.
  • Rajasik:  foods that are bitter, sour, saline, excessively hot, dry, pungent and burning; they produce pain, grief and disease.
  • Tamasik: food that is stale, tasteless, putrid, rotten and impure refuse.

Gunas and sacrifice (yajna) (BG 17.11-13)

  • Sattvik: offered, observing the scriptures, without desire for fruit, concentrating the mind only on the thought, “This is to be sacrificed”.
  • Rajasik: performance of sacrifice for outward show, and in the hope of divine reward.
  • Tamasik: disregarding the scriptural instructions: no food-offering, no prayer of dedication, no gift to the chief priest, and no faith at all.

Gunas and Tapas (austerity) (BG 17.14-19)

Three types of ‘tapas’ have been defined – tapas of the body, tapas of speech, and tapas of the mind. (BG 14.14-16)

  • Tapas of body: worship of the gods, Brahmins, and teachers, straightforwardness, harmlessness, physical cleanliness and sexual purity.
  • Tapas of speech: To speak causing no pain to another, to be truthful, to say always what is kind and beneficial, and to study the scriptures regularly.
  • Tapas of mind: The practice of serenity, sympathy, meditation upon the Atman, withdrawal of the mind from sense-objects, and integrity of motive.

I have had trouble understanding the definition of the tapas of the body as given here. It is not clear to me how the worship of the gods, Brahmins and teachers as well as straightforwardness constitute tapas of the body. To me these are more of mental functions rather than relating to the body. If you have some insight into these concepts, I would appreciate your thoughts.

  • Sattvik Tapas: this threefold austerity practiced with the highest faith by those who are not desirous of fruits and are steadfast.
  • Rajasik Tapas: practiced with hypocrisy for the sake of honor, respect, and reverence; is known to be unsteady, and impermanent.
  • Tamasik Tapas: practiced for some foolish purpose, or for the excitement of self-torture, or in order to harm another person.

Gunas and the Intellect (buddhi) (BG 18.30-32)

  • Sattvik: knows when to/not to act, what is to be/not to be done, and what is to be/not to be feared, along with the knowledge of bondage and liberation.
  • Rajasik: distinguishes incorrectly between the right and the wrong, and between that which is to be done and that which is not to be done.
  • Tamasik: enveloped is darkness, imagines wrong to be right, and all things to be perverted.

Gunas and firmness (dhriti) (BG 18.33-35)

  • Sattvik: unswerving firmness by which, one holds fast the functions of the mind, vital breath, and senses.
  • Rajasik: by which one holds to duty [dharma], pleasures [kama], and wealth [artha], with attachment and desire for the fruits of actions.
  • Tamasik: by which a stupid man does not abandon sleep, fear, grief, depression, and conceit.

Gunas and happiness (sukham) (BG 18.37-39)

  • Sattvik: which in the beginning is like poison but in the end like nectar – born from the tranquility of one’s own mind.
  • Rajasik: which in the beginning, through contact between the senses and their objects, is like nectar, and in the end like poison.
  • Tamasik: which both in the beginning and afterwards deludes the self, arising from sleep, indolence, and negligence.

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