Continuing our series on Getting Spiritually Better, we now present Part 15 which deals with Gunas. Gunas are tendencies encoded into us, especially from earlier births. They tend to tie us down in many ways to the phenomenal world. Unless we rise above the Gunas or at least try very hard to, there is no hope of becoming one with God, which is the true goal for all Spiritual aspirants. What are these Gunas, and how do we manage them? That is what you will learn about if you read what follows.
The word Guna basically means tendency. The Guna of a person provides an index of the personality of that person. Gunas are not restricted to humans alone; in fact, they are intrinsic to Creation and come in all sorts of shades and varieties. Without Gunas, it is not possible to have the diversity one sees in Nature.
To understand the role of Gunas in Creation, let us first start with God. The Lord in His Pristine Form is, so to say, ‘structureless’, i.e., without structure. There is just an Infinite Oneness. But when He projects Himself as the Cosmos or Nature, God injects the element of differentiation so that there is diversity. This diversity is needed because the different entities have to perform different functions and play different roles, of course according to His Grand Master Plan.
This sort of thing has actually happened to all of us. Each and every one of us began as a single cell. This cell divided to become two identical cells. Two cells then became four and so on it went. During this period, the cells were all identical; no difference. However, at some stage, due to a mechanism not yet understood, differentiation set in. The new cells were of different types. This was Divinely ordained, because the human body requires different types of cells for the various organs such as the eye, the stomach, the liver, the brain, and so on. In other words, differentiation is an integral part of Nature/Creation, and Gunas provide the basic chemistry for this differentiation to occur.
The word Guna essentially means characteristics. Entities differ in physical characteristics, behavioural characteristics, and in attitudes. There are three basic Gunas, and the bewildering variety that one observes in Nature is simply the result of a mixture of these three basic Gunas. An analogy might help in understanding this fact. In colour TV, we see millions of colours on the screen. Surprising as it might sound, this wide range of colours arises basically from a mixture of three basic colours in appropriate proportions. The basic colours are: Red (R), Green (G), and Blue (B). In the TV industry, one says that colours arise from suitable mixtures of R, G, B. In the same way, there are three basic Gunas. They are: Tamas, Rajas, and Sattva. Roughly speaking, the three Gunas are associated with the following characteristics: Tamas with inertia, Rajas with activity, and Sattva with calmness. All the diversity one sees in nature is the result of mixtures of these. All kinds of mixtures can be conceived, and every possible mixture represents one type of composite Guna. [NOTE: Usually when one talks of the Guna of a person, one is referring to his ‘composite’ nature.]
At the very beginning of Creation, the three basic Gunas were in ‘balance’. At this stage, there was no differentiation yet; differentiation was still latent. Imbalance is what triggered off the appearance of diversity in Nature. This imbalance occurred due to Divine Will, and the wheels of Creation were set in motion.
There is a feeling that Gunas are per se undesirable and ‘bad’. This is not a correct view. Gunas have been built into Nature by God Himself; how then can they be bad? This kind of confusion arises because seekers are asked to ‘rise above the Gunas’, ‘go beyond the Gunas,’ etc. Yes, seekers must achieve these goals but that does not mean one must jump to conclusions about Gunas. Let us try to understand why Gunas are there in the first place, and how we must handle them in order to register spiritual progress.
To proceed with this analysis, we must address the issue of Gunas at the level of the body, and the mind separately. [Gunas manifest and operate essentially only at these two levels. The Heart which is the seat of God, is deemed to be above the Gunas.] Let us start with the body. The body needs rest, needs to be active at other times, and be stable at still other times. Sleep gives rest to the body. Sleep is built into every living being by God; it is a must. Sleep is associated with Tamas, and in this sense, Tamas cannot be frowned upon. Likewise, the body requires activity; otherwise, it would just atrophy. Thus, in the sense under discussion, Rajas also cannot be condemned. And there are times, when one is not asleep, one is not active, but awake though still. This is a required discipline, and is associated with Sattva.
Next let us go to tendencies. People exhibit all kinds of tendencies. Tendencies vary from person to person. Indeed, even in a given person, the tendency exhibited at a particular moment may depend very much upon the circumstance prevailing. Even so, every person can be type-cast as gentle, violent, aggressive, pliable, etc., etc. The tendency of a person reflects the person’s [composite] Guna. Once the Guna is known, one can more or less predict how the person would actually behave under various circumstances. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna gives a detailed elaboration of different behavioural patterns. He describes, for example, how a Sattvik person would worship, how a Rajasik person would worship, and how a Tamasik person would worship, and so on. To illustrate with a modern example, a Tamasik person would produce music that is loud, noisy, and appealing to baser instincts [a rock band in a smoky den would be a good example!]. A Rajasik person would produce music that is lively, invigorating, exciting, and evoking romantic emotions [Indian film music of the fifties and sixties was essentially of this type!]. A Sattvik musician would produce music that is sweet, sublime, blissful, and inducing Divine Feelings in the listener [many good examples in Western classical music]. It is very illuminating to go through Krishna’s analysis of behaviour based on the Gunas.
Why are Gunas so important? The answer is simple. We must shape our personality such that it helps in the Spiritual path. One cannot, for example, be of Tamasik disposition and hope to progress rapidly towards God. What it means is that no matter with characteristics we are born, we MUST SHAPE our being into the right mould. Before we get down to the question of the right mould, a few words about the ‘characteristics with which we are born’.
When a person is born, the physical characteristics of the person are controlled by the genes. In turn, this implies that many characteristics are directly inherited from the parents and in some cases from more distant ancestors too. In short, the genes decide physiology. What decides behaviour? Is that also inherited from parents? The answer is NO. Genes are not responsible for behaviour. [Of course, modern science seems to say that some segments of the DNA do favour certain types of tendencies like, violence etc. But this does not appear to be a fully settled issue.] For example, in a family, all the children do take after the parents in appearance but their behaviour can be widely different. Sometimes, there is such difference even between so-called identical twins. What then controls the behaviour? Sociologists would no doubt say that the environment in which the person is brought up would have a lot of say in the matter. True. But what about the ‘genes’ of behaviour? Where from do they come?
Swami says that our behavioural genes are determined by our own past lives. Suppose, for example, a person is enjoying human birth for the first time, having spent previous lives in lower forms [like animals, insects, etc.] Then animal tendencies are likely to dominate in such a person. [Hislop says that Swami told him that Sai Geetha the pet elephant of Baba will be born a human for the first time in her next birth. Having had Divine proximity in this birth, having shown love to God, and having been blessed by God on numerous occasions, her next birth as human is more than likely to be a noble one.] Past tendencies are referred to as Vasanas. These Vasanas will control our behaviour in this birth. In other words, our Guna in this birth would be determined primarily by the Vasanas we have inherited from the past. They would of course be further shaped by the environment we get exposed to. But the basic direction of the trajectory would be determined by the inherited Vasanas.
OK. Does this mean that man is a helpless prisoner of his Gunas? He will be reduced to that, unless he takes conscious steps to unbind himself. And he MUST! This is the main point of this chapter. No matter what handicap we are born with [by way of Vasanas, that is], we must, guided by the teachings of the Lord, shape our Gunas in such a manner that we progress towards God. This important objective is lost sight of by 99 % of the devotees, because they don’t bother about Gunas, how they originate, how they shape us, and how strongly they influence our future.
Agreed we must shape our behaviour so that we have the right destiny. What really should one do? First of all, let us be clear that when we talk of controlling the Gunas, we mean primarily in relation to the effect they have on the mind. Next, let us take note of the hierarchy. At the bottom of the totem pole is Tamas. The mind should definitely be free of Tamas – of this, there cannot be any doubt. Tamas is simply not good for anyone, particularly a seeker. Tamas implies sloth. What is the best way of fighting sloth? Obviously, activity. In other words, Tamas has to be fought with Rajas. But Rajas too can and does create problems. It promotes aggression, greed, jealousy, excessive desires, uncontrolled ambition, a lust for power, etc. Thus, while Rajas might be a useful weapon for vanquishing Tamas, it must be sparingly used and abandoned immediately after the job is done. How to keep Rajas in check? This is where Sattva comes into the picture.
Does it mean that one has arrived when Sattva has been reached? Not quite! Why is that? Baba has answered that one. He says that all Gunas bind; Tamas is like a copper chain; Rajas is like a silver chain; and Sattva is like a golden chain. Sattva, a chain? How can it be? Does it not imply being good, devoted to God, abiding by the scriptural injunctions and all that? Yes of course, but if one is not careful, Sattva also can bind! How? This is the common doubt of most devotees. The point needs some examination.
It is easy to understand how Tamas and Rajas bind. Basically, they keep one trapped in animal and demonic qualities, and that clearly is not desirable; one must rise above these – that is easy to understand. What about Sattva? A Sattvik person is human; he is good, kind, considerate, etc., all of which are very good plus points. Nevertheless, he has his limitations. Basically, he is still in a DUAL world. He sees certain things as good and others as bad. He veers towards the good and avoids the bad, which is OK as far as it goes. But he is not free from a certain amount of selfishness. He would tend to pray more often for his near and dear, than for the whole of humanity. He would feel joy when his kith and kin meet with success, and feel pain when there is tragedy in the family. There is nothing intrinsically evil about having such feelings, but in the journey towards God, one must rise to the higher level of giving up body attachments. A Sattvik person is not necessarily above Body Consciousness, no matter how soft, nice and good he is. That is why it is said that even Sattva Guna binds.
What then is expected? One must rise above even the Sattva! A person who achieves this is called a Gunatheetha. Krishna strongly recommends this as a goal. What are the characteristics of a Gunatheetha? Krishna has clearly explained. Firstly, a Gunatheetha is unaffected by the events of the world. He does not swing to joy at one moment and plunge into sorrow the next. Thus, he is the very embodiment of equanimity. This extra-ordinary virtue enables the Gunatheetha to look upon saints and sinners alike. He is totally indifferent to the pairs of opposites.
Is this not being insensitive? How can a person not feel affected when say there is a great natural disaster like an earthquake in which tens of thousands have perished? No, the Gunatheetha is NOT insensitive, but he does not roll over the floor crying, weeping and tearing his hair. Instead, he is calm, cool, and collected, and, moved by compassion, organises relief. He is not overwhelmed by the disaster but rises to the occasion. Incidentally, it should be obvious that only a Gunatheetha can be the ideal leader. This is because he refuses to be swept by emotion. At the same time, he is not a dry and soulless robot. He is full of Divine feelings of compassion, forbearance, selfless love, and sacrifice.
A Gunatheetha is also what may be called a Witness [what Swami refers to as Saakshi Bhootam]. He sees the happenings of the world and is not affected by them, be they ‘good’ or be they ‘bad’. For him, there is neither good nor bad. He is in a state where he is above the dual, i.e., all pairs of opposites like pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, success and failure, praise and calumny, gold and dust, etc. What on earth does such a ‘strange’ person feel about what’s going on around him? He simply says: “Everything is God. God has assumed innumerable forms and is playing with Himself. At one time He appears to cry; how can the One who is eternally Blissful ever cry? It is just play acting, that’s all. Everything is just one big Cosmic Drama. This body of mine is one puppet in this drama of God. Is a movie real? Is there real sorrow and real pleasure in a movie? It is all make believe. The only thing real in this Cosmic Drama is the Supreme Actor who appears in all roles.”
The Gunatheetha is an ideal person. Avatars are the perfect examples of Gunatheetha. In the Rama Avatar, the Lord stages a little drama so that this lesson about being in the world and still not getting affected by it is taught to humanity. It happens like this.
Young Rama [about fourteen years old] goes on a pilgrimage to various holy places. When He comes back, He is in a very sulky mood. He appears to have become totally disenchanted with the world. He behaves ‘strangely’, exhibiting all the oscillating moods common amongst adolescents. This is of course play acting by the Lord, as a part of His Drama. Sage Vasishta is sent for, and he seeks to ‘advise’ Rama. The advice is not really meant for Rama. It is given so that it would become a manual for all times to be used by parents and elders while dealing with adolescents. Vasishta says:
Steady in the state of fullness that shines when all desires are given up, and peaceful in the state of freedom in life, act playfully in the world, O Rama!
Inwardly free from all desires, dispassionate and detached, but outwardly active in all directions, act playfully in the world, O Rama!
Outwardly full of zeal in action but free from any zeal at heart, active in appearance but inwardly peaceful, work playfully in the world, O Rama!
Quite unattached at heart but for all appearance acting as if with attachment, inwardly cool but outwardly full of fervour, act playfully in the world, O Rama!
Basically, Vasishta describes the characteristics of a perfect human being, a role that Rama had actually come to play. In the Gita, Krishna too describes such a person in many places. Krishna does not mention though that He Himself is the best example of a perfect person – God very rarely advertises Himself. [To boast, is a human tendency.] And now, we have the living example of the Sai Avatar. To us, He appears to be in the thick of things, swayed by moods, etc. Such a perception is inevitable when it is worldly in outlook. In actual reality, the Avatar is always apart from the world [although this may not be quite evident]. He is the Embodiment of Sat, Chit, Ananda, that is, of Being, Awareness, Bliss. That is why Swami sometimes says:
BABA = Being + Awareness + Bliss + Ananda!
To get back to the theme of this Part,
Gunas are a part of Creation. Without Gunas, differentiation is not possible.
Gunas at the physical or gross level are OK. There is nothing wrong with them; nor need they be shunned.
But Gunas at the mental level must be handled with care, because they control behaviour.
We inherit Gunas from our past lives. The Gunas of the past get encoded as Vasanas and come with us into the world when we are born. However, that does not mean we have to live with them.
We must not be subservient to bad tendencies accumulated in the past. Human birth has been given for achieving self-improvement. The opportunity must not be wasted.
These days, the media has a tendency to glorify body instincts and encourage indulgence in sensual pleasures. Such indulgence is a sign of weakness, and drags one to the lowest level, that of Tamas.
Tamas must be quelled by Rajas and in turn, Rajas must be checked by Sattva.
Sattva is no doubt admirable in many ways. Yet, it also binds, chaining one to a dual world.
One must really aspire to go even above Sattva. This is the state of Gunatheetha or one who has transcended the Gunas.
Is this really feasible? Can anyone ever become a Gunatheetha? This is the standard doubt expressed before quitting. Nothing happens unless one tries. No one will try unless there is a strong urge, bordering on burning passion. Who ever thought man could fly? One day, the Wright brothers showed that it could be done. Who ever thought that tens of millions would be flying every year and tens of thousands would be flying across the Atlantic and the Pacific every day? But when the effort was made the impossible did happen. Who ever thought the Everest could be climbed? Now hundreds have done it. Who ever thought that man would walk on the Moon? But man has done it.
The human mind is VERY powerful. If it wants something very badly, it will see that the goal is reached. It has that kind of power. This is no ordinary power, having been given by God Himself. Yet, hardly one in a billion wants to use this power to get back to God. Hardly one in a billion even says to himself: “Let me try to see what is it to become a Gunatheetha.” People quit readily even before trying, using the excuse, “This is just impossible.” It is tough but not impossible. It seems impossible because we have made up our mind that it is so. People have attempted to go over the Niagara in a barrel; they did not think it is impossible! People have attempted to cross the Niagara by rope walking; they did so in the belief that such a feat is possible. They made all such foolhardy efforts because of the yearning in them. But when it comes to God, the yearning vanishes at the slightest excuse!
God gives us so much. Can we not at least try? God says, “Bangaru, you don’t have to become a Gunatheetha; just TRY to become one; just try to take the very first step; that would do, and I shall take care of all the rest.”
And what is that very first step? Just to tell ourselves, “That other person is Swami in disguise. Therefore, I shall not hurt that person or cause harm in any way whatsoever. I shall not think ill of that person. I shall not speak ill about that person to others. I shall not speak rudely or harshly to that person. I shall instead, speak nicely and sweetly to that person. I shall, if possible, try to help that person. Even if that person is supposed to have harmed me, I shall ignore it. I shall regard the action as a test by Swami of my quality of forbearance.”
Developing this sort of attitude is definitely NOT impossible. OK, it won’t happen overnight. But if we make the effort relentlessly, then after a week or so, we would ourselves begin to see some small change in us. And soon this change would become a habit. Soon, this habit would become a way of life. All this because, the moment we start, Sai would stretch out for us and lead us by His hand. Once He takes over, how can we ever fail?
No, we would not succeed if we tried all by ourselves. We must make the try in partnership with God, with Sai. Then victory is assured,
The Gita ends with the words:
Wherever there is Krishna, the Lord of Yoga, and wherever there is Partha [Arjuna] the archer, there, be rest assured, lie Victory, Prosperity, Glory and Justice.
Gandhi says that Krishna represents the end [obviously a noble one] and Arjuna represents the means. When the end is noble and the means are good, then success is assured – that is what this Sloka is supposed to convey, according to Gandhi. No one can take exception to this interpretation. This is what we must keep in mind when we seek to return to the Lord.
One final word. Our behavioural genes, i.e., the Vasanas, are very powerful. They will drag us where they want, unless we are determined to take hold of the reins. Ninety-nine percent of the people are meek prisoners of their Gunas [shaped by the inherited Vasanas], though they might wax eloquent about how they control their destiny. The tragedy is that they do not even know that they are captives.
Some people are compulsive talkers. Sometimes, they give the excuse that they are talking about Swami. These people are prisoners of their Gunas. Swami prefers silence. Do not be like these chatterboxes.
Some people like to fraternise too much. These people are prisoners of their Gunas. Swami often tells boys, “Only rats and cats move around all the time. Are you’re a rat or a cat? Don’t unnecessarily go around looking for conversation, or buttonhole the nearest sucker.” Do not be like these people.
Some people like to find fault with everything and are always criticising others. These people also are prisoners of their Gunas. Do not be like them.
Some people think they are very straight and declare, “I always tell it like it is.” This is a sign of arrogance and not truthfulness. Such people are prisoners of their Gunas. Swami often reminds us being truthful has larger implications than mere adherence to so-called factual accuracy. If by stating facts one causes hurt, then, according to the scriptures, that is not being truthful. Do not be like such people.
Our Vasanas, through the mind and the body, shape our Gunas. This we must remember, while tackling the Gunas. If we are below the Gunas, then selfishness cannot be avoided. If we want to become selfless, then we must try to rise above the Gunas. The more selfless we are the higher we rise. Not withstanding the service or Seva one might do, true Karma Yoga is NOT possible if one is a slave of the Gunas. This we must remember.
Our destiny is not what our body or our mind decides for us, but what God would like it to be. Our destiny should be to make this the present birth the very LAST one. Our destination ought to be God and nothing else. We should not make the mistake of believing that we are in charge, when it is the Gunas that hold the controlling say. To get angry, to feel diffident, to give in to sorrow, to become jealous – all these tendencies are due to Gunas and nothing else. How can one say one is the master of oneself, when one succumbs to anger, lust, pride, and the like? One becomes a real Master when one controls the senses and masters the Mind. Thus, Mind and sense control, play an important part in breaking out of the prison called Gunas. In this context, we would do well to remember what Swami often tells us:
MASTER THE MIND AND BECOME A MASTER-MIND!
ADDITIONAL NOTES RELATING TO THE ABOVE
A good understanding of Gunas can help a lot in dealing with other persons in daily life.
Gunas explain how diversity comes about in Nature. Of course, diversity is a must for nature. At the same time, man must not meekly submit to Gunas and becomes drowned in diversity himself. While living in equilibrium with his environment, man must at the same time focus on the Unity underlying diversity, which means trying to rise above the Gunas.
According to Vedanta, the One became many when the Gunas “dormant” in the One deviated from equilibrium.
Earlier it was mentioned that the wide diversity that can result from the various combinations of the three basic Gunas can be understood via the analogy with the mixture of the three basic colours, Red [R]. Green [G], and Blue [B]. Figure 01 is an illustration of that concept.
Notice how when R, G, B are fully mixed in equal proportions, one gets white colour [neutral equilibrium].
Every person can be type cast by an “average” Guna. Usually one does this with words like, meek, dynamic, lazy, crafty, etc. At the same time, there could be temporary deviations from this average. For example, a so-called meek person could become very angry and aggressive under extreme provocation. In mathematical terms, one could say that the Guna of a person is a function of circumstances and time, and represent this fact as,
Guna = f (circumstances, time).
In a human being, the Gunas are essentially encoded in the Mind.
It is necessary to examine Gunas in the context of evolution of species, and man in particular.
In Nature, one can recognise three strands of evolution as below:
Science recognises only two of the strands shown above, that relating to the evolution of gross matter and inanimate objects in the Cosmos, and the origin of life and the subsequent evolution of the living species. It gives no consideration to the evolution of Consciousness in man. That is because scientists are not able to understand and accept Consciousness as an integral part of Creation.
Diversity in Nature exists against a background of Cosmic Consciousness, and indeed evolution itself takes place against this invisible background. As a result, Consciousness permeates every entity including the so-called inanimate objects. That even inanimate objects can feel is clearly brought out by the story of the weeping sarees narrated by Hislop.
Consciousness basically means awareness. Low-level consciousness that makes living beings aware of the external world is present in all living species, but here the focus is on higher-level Consciousness that makes a person aware of his Inner-being.
Man alone is endowed with the capability to achieve awareness of his Inner-being, and when this awareness is developed fully, he becomes liberated.
This evolution of the awareness of the Inner-being can come about only when man transfers attention from diversity to the underlying Unity.
It is important to distinguish between two types of evolution – individual and collective.
At any given point in human history, a select few may rise to a very high level and achieve liberation. Saints and sages belong to this category. At the same time, the bulk of humanity also evolves in its own way.
The growth of human civilisation is one index of collective evolution. Concern for human rights is another. Concern for the environment is a third. Abolishing death penalty [which the countries belonging to the European Union have done], is yet another.
There is concern that growth of modern science and technology has made people rather selfish. This is certainly true in the short run but all hope is not lost. The people of the first world are well educated and for that reason can also switch fast to a saner way of life. In the language of the Gunas, it is far easier to climb from the Rajasic to the Sattvic level than from the Tamasic to the Sattvic level. There is only one step to climb instead of two.
What is the simple meaning of rise in Inner Consciousness? It means two things. Internally, the feelings, the thoughts, the words and the action of an evolved person are in perfect harmony. At the external level, such a person is in complete harmony with his surroundings, in fact the whole of Creation.
Guna “management” is most essential for being in harmony with one’s Inner Self and one’s external environment. This harmony can be described as follows. A violin has four strings. Unless the four strings are properly tuned, the instrument cannot produce good music even in the hands of a great violinist. It is the same in the case of humans too; perfect inner and external harmony is necessary.
What is the meaning of external harmony? Let us examine in some detail. In every society, there are strata. This is inevitable and built into Creation whether one likes it or not. Thus, even in Communist Society, for example, there was a class structure. Now class structure need not always be oppressive. When the system gets skewed, people of every category would try to escape their obligations and an imbalance would automatically arise. Sometimes the swing would be one way and at other times it would be the other way.
In autocratic societies for example, those who wield power would tend to exploit those at the bottom of the totem pole. On the other hand, in the name of socialism, labour can become intransigent and damage society. Obviously, both are undesirable.
While one clearly understands what is actually desirable, in day to day life one has to encounter imbalance rather than balance. What does one do under these circumstances? This is where a good understanding of Gunas helps to a great extent.
One who knows all about the play of the Gunas understands the psychology of the people he has to deal with and adopts the appropriate strategy. One can see this very clearly in the way Swami deals with students. These lessons are applicable to ordinary mortals also and in fact Swami teaches these lessons for all of us to follow!