The Bhagavad Gita & The Three Gunas
Christina Sarich, Staff
As part of it’s heritage, India is fortunate to have produced one of the world’s greatest literary and spiritual works, the Bhagavad Gita. It is one of the gems of the world, an Upanishad, with spiritual teachings that can speak to the heart and soul of anyone whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu or Jain, Agnostic, Zen or Shaman.
The Bhagavad Gita takes place on an unlikely stage at first assumption – during a great battle on Indian soil in the city of Kurukshetra, which could just as well be the modern Nuclear Armageddon in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc. as on the ‘fields of Kurus.’ The teachings are as timely today as when they were first put forth – sometime well before Christ, but likely as old as the second century BC.
In this epic tale, Arjuna, a great warrior, entreats his charioteer, Krishna for advice. It is through the teachings of Krishna, disguised as a lowly driver, that we learn how to fight the biggest battle – that of conquering the ego. Arjuna represents each one of us and our questions about how to live in this world created by Maya. Krishna is the incarnation of Infinite wisdom, or God. This practical advice about how to conquer the internal battle is the overarching message of the Bhagavad Gita, and it comprises the true teachings of yoga: Jnana-yoga (the yoga of intellectual wisdom or study), Bhakti-yoga (the yoga of selfless devotion), Karma-yoga (renouncing the fruits of our actions), and Raja-yoga (the yoga of meditation).
The Gita is written in 700 perfectly crafted verses, and countless sages from ancient history to modern times have commented upon its message. Gandhi once said, ” … When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of tragedies and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.” (Young India: June 8, 1925)
These 700 versus abound with practical ways to attain an enlightened mind – that is, one that is not weighted down with erroneous assumptions about the Self. Just one of the Gita’s greatest teachings is about the gunas.
You can think of the gunas as a sort of creation story, and while modern physics comes close to matching the meaning behind the different aspects of creation, there is still no western equivalent to explain these three terms completely. Guna literally translates to mean a string or thread, but more like a strand – a singular thread which is part of the veil that hides the true nature of existence – a tendency of being which causes the world, both mental and material to exist.
In Samkhya philosophy, founded by the great sage Kapila, universal nature, called prakriti in Sanskrit, is made up of fundamental operating principles, not unlike string theory in modern quantum physics. These are: sattva guna, rajas guna and tamas guna. They are all required for manifest creation, but as Eknath Easwaran puts so eloquently in his translation of the Gita, each is like the three states of matter in physics: one guna is like ice, inert, unmoving, with the energy trapped in a big block. This is tamas – frozen energy. Rajas energy is like water when the ice begins to melt. It flows uncontrollably like a swollen river, going in every which direction. It has no focus. Sattva energy is harmonized energy that can be compared to steam used to propel a locomotive or harnessed in some other beneficial way. Each guna is a necessary state of energetic activity, but they ideally lead to sattvic energy, instead of frozen or wild energy. A sattvic person, is therefore, one who has learned how to control their energy to be used in service to others and the world.
Most of us can relate to these different types of energy even if we have never heard the term – guna. We all experience them in cycles, perhaps more often inert and lazy or crazy and chaotic more than balanced and sure.
A rajasic mind is one that is like the swollen river – forever worrying, fretting, calculating, competing, scheming, frustrated and frustrating. It is the full ego in its power. It is desire gone wild. It is passion without temperance.
A tamasic mind can be described as the collective unconscious which Carl Jung referenced. It is the ‘dumping ground’ of all our animal experience, and our basic human needs. We have no choice in a tamasic mind, no consciousness. We are simply guided by food, sex and animalistic urges without care for others.
A sattvic person realizes that both of these states are part of our greater evolution. We must first become aware of our unconscious drives, then develop a will (ego) to move into desire or purpose, and then finally, we develop an unattached, self-controlled, unruffled consciousness that is the progression of the previous two energies. None are seen as bad or wrong, all are necessary in our spiritual evolution. When the less desirable states of mind – directed bytamas or rajas arise – as they will – we can realize there is no need to act on them. As we practice directing our energy into a more balanced state, we become one with sattva – the energy of highest consciousness. This is one of the greatest lessons of the Gita. The Self simply observes the game of the gunas. It becomes a witness instead of a partaker.
Without senses itself, it shines through the functioning of the senses. Completely independent, it supports all things. Beyond the gunas, it [Self] enjoys their play. ~ Bhagavad Gita 13:14
About the Author
Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao Tzu, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rob Brezny, Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing the Body And Mind Through the Art of Yoga.
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