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The three Gunas - a Universal Ethic


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The three Gunas - a Universal Ethic

Since time of Einstein, scientists have always sought a Grand Unified Theory that will condense all "natural laws" to a universal formula which explains both matter and consciousness.

The three gunas are as frequently mentioned in Sanskrit metaphysical texts as is the term "natural law" in modern physics texts. This word guna is usually translated as "mode of material nature" or "rope", indicating the binding power of the gunas.

Compared to the field governed by metaphysical laws, the field governed by natural laws is relatively less comprehensive. While natural laws of gravity, entropy and electromagnetism are limited to the workings of matter, the gunas effect the workings of both matter and consciousness. The gunas neither equate matter and consciousness nor reduce consciousness to a function of matter, but rather show how matter and consciousness behave as interlinear functions. Although the conscious living entity, or the soul, animates matter, the three gunas are the underlying forces of material nature which irrevocably bind the living entity to the material world. In many places in the Vedas, it is mentioned that the living entity is "infected" with the material disease, or the material modes of nature, just as surely as one comes in contact with a contagious disease and is bound to fall ill with that disease.

Basically, the gunas correspond to the functions of material existence: creation, maintenance and destruction:

"Sattva-guna" characterized by Vishnu the personification for maintenance, is the mode of goodness, knowledge, beauty, purity and real happiness.

"Rajo-guna" characterized by Brahma the personification for creation, is the mode of passion, unlimited desires and great endeavor for sense gratification.

"Tamo-guna" characterized by Shiva the personification for destruction, is the mode of ignorance, darkness, madness, uncleanliness, indolence and sleep.

These modes of material nature constantly influence the consciousness of the living entities. An individual will see the world from an entirely different perspective depending upon how he is controlled by a particular balance of gunas. Even different kinds of animals have different ways of seeing things; what to speak of human beings. By carefully and consciously choosing the modes of nature we live by, we can actually direct the quality of our existence. The oft quoted idea that "we create our own reality" begins to make practical sense.

Since the three gunas govern the resonance of our consciousness, and the resonance of our consciousness "creates our reality," it is important to know the science of the gunas. Many divisions of the Vedic scriptures elaborate upon these gunas. The Ayur-Veda even analyzes diseases according to the influence of the gunas. The Bhagavad Gita devotes three chapters to fully analyze the subtle nuances which the modes of material nature cause in the daily existence of a living entity. In the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita we find the following:

"Material nature consists of three modes -- goodness, passion and ignorance. When the eternal living entity comes in contact with nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, he becomes conditioned by these modes." (Bg. 14.5)

"O sinless one, the mode of goodness, being purer than others, is illuminating, and it frees one from all sinful reactions. Those situated in that mode become conditioned by a sense of happiness and knowledge." (Bg.14.6)

"The mode of passion is born of unlimited desires and longings, O son of Kunti, and because of this the embodied living entity is bound to material fruitive actions." (Bg. 14.7)

"O son of Bharata, know that the mode of darkness, born of ignorance, is the delusion of all embodied living entities. The results of this mode are madness, indolence and sleep, which bind the conditioned soul." (Bg.14.8)

"O son of Bharata, the mode of goodness conditions one to happiness; passion conditions one to fruitive actions; and ignorance, covering one's knowledge, binds one to madness." (Bg.14.9)

"Sometimes the mode of goodness becomes prominent, defeating the modes of passion and ignorance, O son of Bharata. Sometimes the mode of passion defeats goodness and ignorance, and other times ignorance defeats goodness and passion. In this way there is always competition for supremacy." (Bg.14.10)

"The manifestations of the mode of goodness can be experienced when all gates of the body are illuminated by knowledge." (Bg.14.11)

"O chief of the Bharatas, when there is an increase in the mode of passion the symptoms of great attachment, fruitive activity, intense endeavor, and uncontrollable desire and hankering develop." (Bg.14.12)

"When there is an increase in the mode of ignorance , O son of Kuru, darkness, inertia, madness and illusion are manifested." (Bg.14.13)

"When one dies in the mode of goodness, he attains to the pure higher planets of great sages." (Bg.14.14)

"When one dies in the mode of passion, he takes birth among those engaged in fruitive activities; and when one dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal kingdom." (Bg. 14.15)

"The results of pious action is pure and is said to be in the mode of goodness. But action done in the mode of passion results in misery, and action performed in the mode of ignorance results in foolishness." (Bg.14.16)

"From the mode of goodness, real knowledge develops; from the mode of passion, greed develops; and from the mode of ignorance develop foolishness, madness and illusion." (Bg.14.17)

"Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on earthly planets; and those in the abominable mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds." (Bg.14.18)

As we see, the Vedic literature directly describes that even the planets in the universe are influenced by different combinations of the three basic gunas. In this way the Vedic guna concept shows the entire cosmos as an interlinear living organism.

The gunas never work alone. The workings of the gunas and their subtle nuances can be compared to the mixing of the three basic colors, yellow, red and blue. They can be endlessly mixed, and each further addition changes the color. For example a television can create all kinds of pictures with three colors. In this way each species or even each individual body influenced by a specific mixture of the three gunas. The gunas color our consciousness, and our consciousness colors our body.

Our consciousness not only decides our present reality but also our future reality, as the state of our consciousness at the time of death will decide where our next birth will be. In other words, our body is an expression of our consciousness. Further, our actions develop our consciousness. As we act, we take shelter of a specific mode of material nature and develop a specific consciousness. Our actions under the influence of the modes of nature create our next body to suit our consciousness. For example a soul under the predominating influence of the mode of ignorance transmigrates to a body in the animal species or even the plant species.

All animals are so strongly controlled by tamo-guna, or the mode of ignorance, they do not create new karma, but each soul gradually works its way up the evolutionary scale by suffering or enjoying the results of its activities. Although the principle mode governing all animals is tama-guna, even animals are also influenced by varying degrees of the modes of goodness and passion. A good example of a species influenced by the mode of goodness is the graceful swan, which enjoys itself in clear fresh water lakes. The ferocious tiger, on the otherhand, is influenced by the mode of passion and the pig is influenced chiefly by the mode of ignorance and filth.

These differences are to be found even within the same class of animals. Among the birds the peacocks display symptoms of goodness by their beauty and their charm. The chiefly quality of eagles and falcons can be identified with the mode of passion, while scavengers like vultures or crows are ruled by the mode of ignorance. In the same way we can differentiate for example between a butterfly, a wasp and a cockroach.

Plants can be classified in a similar manner. We come across those which are lovely or supply us with fruits, or those which are full of thorns, or those which are ugly or poisonous.

Human beings are likewise influenced by the three modes of nature, but the big difference between humans tho animals and plants is that the soul can choose in which direction he wishes to move.

Let us consider a man influenced by the mode of goodness. This man lives with a sense of knowledge and therefore happiness. By cultivating knowledge of the material world, he makes his life pleasing.

Unlimited desires and longings are born out of the mode of passion. A man influenced by this mode hankers for unrestricted sex life. Upon achieving his cherished desires, he forms a hard knot of attachment for material life. Gradually, his gross desires expand to subtler longings for family enjoyment, wealth, honor, a big house, a nice car and so forth. He is compelled to work hard constantly to acquire and maintain these things, often fearful of losing what he has gained.

Lastly the mode of ignorance conditions a man to laziness and excessive sleep, uncleanliness and often a dependency on intoxicants. The result of this mode is self-destruction and the destruction of his surroundings.

If we compare the material world to an ocean, the gunas are the waves that toss the living entity about until he learns the art of purifying his consciousness and in order to free himself from the entanglement of material nature. Sattva-guna, rajo-guna and tamo-guna are the forces that drag us higher or lower within the ocean of material existence, but sattva-guna can be compared to the warm waters near the shore. In sattva-guna, we are still in the ocean, but we have good chance to get out of it. If we miss this chance, the waves of raja and tamo-guna will pull us back into the depths of the ocean of suffering again.

In other words, being in sattva-guna is good, but not good enough to get out. If we want to transcend the gunas, we have to leave behind even sattva-guna in order to leave ocean of the cycle of birth and death. This can be done easily through the process of liberation prescribed in the Vedic literature.

(We don't print here the verses 14.19 - 14. 27 of the Bhagavad Gita, because with those verses we are leaving the sphere of the Castalian Province. They belong to the third Biography of Joseph Knecht, the Indian Biography that describes the position of the transcendentalist.)


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