What is a guṇa? A certain innate characteristic or natural power of a thing that causes affinity or otherwise with another thing is its guṇa. Thus the guṇa is an intrinsic power of a thing that attracts or repels another. It requires a counterpart just as love requires a suitable recipient; beauty requires a connoisseur; valour a competitor; scholarship a disciple; magnanimity requires one who seeks; pomp and show require an audience; the taste of a dainty dish requires a diner; darkness requires light; sorrow requires one who can take it away; pleasure requires one to renew it; infamy requires fame, and so on. Inviting or repelling another thing is the effect of a guṇa. Hence guṇa is something that requires something else to be with it. The graha-pratigraha section of the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad 3.2 deals with the importance of guṇa. The relationship between Brahma and guṇa has two sides. While Brahma does not require anything else, guṇa is that which requires another for its existence. From guṇa rise the world and this life. The world exists as long as the guṇa exists. He who transcends the guṇas goes beyond the world.
In our current discussion, the guṇa is a natural disposition, tendency or impulse that manifests itself in man’s antaḥ-karaṇa. One could call guṇa an inner impulse. Guṇa is normally translated into English as ’quality,’ but a translation as ’impulse’ or ’propensity’ is better. A guṇa manifests itself externally – up from the depths of man. There are two effects stemming from this propensity –
- Eroding of the past
- Seeding the future.
The guṇa expresses a jīva’s saṃskāras from past lives and rarefies them. Saṃskāra here refers to a jīva’s learning from its trials and tribulations as well as persistent experience and practice. Every jīva carries a bundle of saṃskāras from its lives from its beginningless past and its repeated contact with the world in each of its lives. Such residual impressions in a jīva are termed vāsanas. The natural guṇas expend each of these vāsanas from previous lives by expressing them. When a jīva contacts the world in its present life, its guṇas from previous lives are used to interact with other jīvas who in response express their own guṇas. This response from the world and other jīvas gives more saṃskāras to our jīva. These new saṃskāras seed the jīva’s future. In this way, our latent propensities or innate guṇas are the results of our previous saṃskāras as well as seeds for future lives.
A guṇa is usually defined as an internal quality of a thing that causes a distinct and definite effect. Examples are fragrance in sandalwood or coolness in water. A guṇa could also mean a rope or thread. Binding is a rope’s function. Therefore the statement “guṇā nibadhnanti” (guṇas bind) is apt even in this way.
It is by philosophical convention that guṇas are three in number. In reality, there is no guṇa that exists purely by itself without an admixture of other guṇas. Is there just air in a city’s atmosphere? Especially on a busy public road with buses travelling on it? There are several substances mixed in it – rattling noise from the bus’s engine, dust arising at its tyres, diesel fumes from its exhaust pipes, its pungent odour, and so on. These substances are always mixed in a busy road’s air. Similarly, the three guṇas coexist, and found always mixed with one another. The proportions of the guṇa mixture vary with each individual jīva. Each jīva has a unique ratio of the guṇa-combination. Infinite jīvas imply infinite ratios in which guṇas are combined.
When only one of the three guṇas exists, activity cannot take place in the world as even when they are in equal proportion. This is an important concept. If the world has to be the world that is, in constant movement, two circumstances are necessary –
- The guṇas have to be intermixed.
- The guṇas should not be mixed in equal proportion.
For the world to be dynamic, the guṇas have to be mixed in unequal proportions.
What should one with viveka do then? He knows that sattva is conducive towards wellness and that he cannot escape from rajas and tamas. With the inevitable presence of all the three guṇas and only one of them preferred, the best help one’s discernment could give is towards the elevation of one’s sattva-guṇa. One should strive to increase one’s level of sattva and maintain a higher proportion of rajas than tamas as much as possible. This is the only freedom one has.
Pure sattva, by itself, cannot accomplish anything in this world. It needs rajas for it to act. But even when much rajas is accumulated, it must be subservient to sattva. Rajas should not lord over sattva. This combination is referred to as brahma-kṣatram in the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad (1.4).
brahma vā idam-agra āsītka ekam-eva |
tad-ekaṃ sanna vyabhavat |
tacchreyo-rūpam atyasṛjata |
yānyetāni devatrā kṣatrāṇi |
dharmaṃ tad-etat kṣatrasya kṣatram |
yad-dharmaḥ.... tad-etat brahma-kṣatram |...
“Brahma existed first. Only it existed. It created an excellent form. That is kṣatra. Those qualities that can protect even devatās are kṣatra. Dharma can be established through kṣatra and not just through brāhmaṇya, which is pure sattva. If dharma, of the form of obedience of men to devatās, has to be established in this world, the guṇa of brāhmaṇya - sattva, should unite with rajas – the guṇa of kṣatra. Pure sattva is insufficient for this world’s work.”
Let us now look at the characteristics and differences across the three guṇas in this table. This has been described in twelve verses. A summary is given below.
|Higher worlds - svarga
|Desire and anger
|Being excessive, agitation
|Middle world - earth
|Error, Laziness, Sleep
|Lower world - naraka
We have already discussed that these three guṇas are always found combined in unequal proportions.
rajas tamaś-cābhibhūya sattvaṃ bhavati bhārata
rajaḥ sattvaṃ tamaś-caiva tamaḥ sattvaṃ rajas tathā ||
“Sattva pushes Rajas and Tamas down; Rajas in turn tries to dominate Sattva and Tamas; Tamas also tries to overpower Sattva and Rajas. This contest between these guṇas results in world activity.”
If these guṇas were to settle down in equal proportions, world activity will come to a standstill. Śrī Śaṅkara and Śrī Rāmanuja have indicated the same in their commentary on the following Brahma-sūtra.
aṅgitvānupapatteśca | (2.2.8)
The bhāṣya of Śrī Rāmanuja is as follows –
guṇānām-utkarṣa-nikarṣa-nibandhan-āṅgāṅgi-bhāvāddhi jagatpravṛttiḥ ।
sāmyāvasthānāṃ sattva-rajas-tamasām anyony-ādhikya-nyūnatv-ābhāvāt aṅgāṅgi-bhāvā-nupapatteḥ na jagatsarga upapadyate |
(The increase and reduction in the proportion of guṇas and subsequent bondage and one guṇa being subservient to another results in world activity. When sattva, rajas and tamas are in equal proportions, due to their not being more or less than each other, there is no relation of principal or subordinate between them, and hence there is no creation of the world).
People who ardently aspire thus – “Wars should stop on this earth. Peace should be established. There should be universal upliftment” – should remember this. When there is infection in the gut, pus in the blood, and lice in the hair, there is no point in distributing face powder as the means towards happiness. The situation is similar to aspiring for world peace while their interiors are filled with rajas and tamas. Of what good is nuclear disarmament when the insides are boiling with poison?
Don’t ask if peace isn’t needed. Who doesn’t want peace? There is no wealth greater than peace for those belonging to Vaidika-dharma. There is no happiness greater than peace.
pṛthivī śāntā sa’gninā śāntā sā me śāntā śucagṃ śamayatu।
...pṛthivī śāntirantarikṣagm śāntirdyauḥ śāntirdiśaśśāntiḥ...।
puruṣaśśāntirbrahma śāntirbrāhmaṇaśśāntiśśāntireva śāntiśśāntirme astu śāntiḥ ..॥
The above is the daily prayer of Vaidika-ṛṣis. However, such a prayer does not yield fruit with no efforts on our part. They have shown us the path to attain that peace.
śrīśca hrīśca dhṛtiśca tapo medhā pratiṣṭhā śraddhā satyaṃ dharmaścaitāni |
This path is difficult. Peace can definitely be attained by those who accept this path and walk on it. This path, however, is not for politicians who desire their own victory and the defeat of their enemies which they confuse for peace. Will a person affected by scabies be cured by constant instructions of “Do not scratch!”? Only when the person consumes medicine that purifies the blood and destroys disease-causing micro-organisms will the itch be resolved. The path for those who desire world peace is similar. They have to first cross the three guṇas and bring those with a preponderance of rajas and tamas to the path of sattva. Who are those that can accomplish this? Do such people exist?
Bhagavān said –
“nānyaṃ guṇebhyaḥ kartāraṃ yadā draṣṭānupaśyati
guṇebhyaś cha paraṃ vetti mad-bhāvaṃ so’dhigachchhati ||
“When the seer sees that there is nothing other than the three guṇas that performs action, he realises the one beyond the guṇas and attains the nature of Īśvara.”
To be continued...
The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.
vāg-vai grahaḥ sa nāmnā'tigrāheṇa gṛhīto vācā hi nāmānyabhivadati ।
jihvā vai grahaḥ sa rasenātigrāheṇa gṛhīto jihvayā hi rasān vijānāti ।
cakṣur-vai grahaḥ sa rūpeṇātigrāheṇa gṛhītacakṣuṣā hi rūpāṇi paśyati ।
śrotraṃ vai grahaḥ sa śabdenātigrāheṇa gṛhītaḥ śrotreṇa hi śabdāñśruṇoti ।
mano vai grahaḥ sa kāmenātigrāheṇa gṛhīto manasā hi kāmān kāmayate ।
haste vai grahaḥ sa karmaṇā'tigrāheṇa gṛhīto hastābhyāgṃ hi karma karoti ।
tvagvai grahaḥ sa sparśenātigrāheṇa gṛhītas-tvacā hi sparśān vedayata ityete'ṣṭau grahā aṣṭāv-atigrahāḥ ।
Internal organ comprising manas, buddhi, citta and ahaṅkāra