The Three guNas

What is guNa?

During the course of hundreds of lives, the actions of the jIva will accumulate certain tendencies or impulses that make the jIva in the current life to react in a friendly or unfriendly attitude towards any object or entity (including living beings). Such a power or characteristic of the jIva expressing as a propensity in the prakriti (nature) is described as guNa. guNa is therefore, the inborn impulse or propensity of a jIva that guides its behavior. This inborn propensity is an expression of the past samskAras (samskAra is the training/experience in life management) of the jIva. Therefore the propensity fulfilled in this life, forms the seed for the guNa in the next life. The guNa is dynamic and not static. The discrimination that an individual exhibits may arrest the negative propensities and promote positive propensities. Even during a life time, gunA can be managed through knowledge of the shAstras and following the instructions there in.

gIta says

"satvam rajah-tama iti guNAh prakriti sambhavAh
nibhadnanti mahAbAho dEhE dEhinam avyayAm" - (14.5)

Three guNas - satva, rajas and tamas- born in prakriti, bind the jiVa to the body (we will see the mechanics of binding shortly). The three guNas are described in gIta (14-6,8).

Satva is of the nature of pure, divine, shining (or clear) and knowledge. Pure indicates absence of defects or blemishes. Contemplation, analytical and logical are the expressions of satva. This expression towards Brahman is divinity. The consequence of such expressions is knowledge or jnyAna (however, the jIva is yet to experience the Brahman). The knowledge (worldly or spiritual) creates a sense of happiness in jIva. The jIva exults in such happiness and knowledge. Such identification with happiness arrests spiritual progress in the realization of Brahman. The jIva comes back in another body to continue the spiritual quest - the jIva binding to the body due to satva.

Rajas is of the nature of action driven by passion and attachment. The rajas expresses as activity to fulfill the desires created by passion and
attachment. The actions lead to fruits of action, which need to be experienced. If all fruits are not experienced in the current life, jIva comes back in another body to experience the remaining fruits - jIva binding to the body due to rajas.

Tamas is of the nature of delusion, ignorance, negligence, carelessness and lethargy. The tamas expresses as inefficiency, excessive sleep, neglect of duty, shirking of work and idleness. gIta (14-8) says tamas expresses as pramAda - wasteful engagement in activities prohibited by shAstra and ignorance of the consequences of undesirable fruits of such engagement. Tamas also binds the jIva to body, either because the jIva has not experienced the fruits of the current life (prArabda) or to experience the fruits of wasteful engagement.

Inert objects like rock etc. are predominantly tamas with traces of rajas. Plants though are also mostly tamas, exhibit higher levels of rajas compared to inert objects. Animals exhibit a mixture of tamas and rajas. Only humans are endowed with satva guNa. All humans exhibit a combination of satva, rajas and tamas in varying proportions from person to person; the proportions will also vary in an individual from time to time, based on the discrimination exercised in behavior over time.

An infant sleeps for most of the day, indicating predominantly tamas during the infancy. As the baby grows, it starts to show rajas in increasing proportions. As the child grows, rajas and satva increase per previous samskAras and activities of current life.

The three guNas cannot exist in pure form in any entity. Life is not possible in the pure form of satva, rajas or tamas ( like gold cannot be shaped in pure form; add impurities like copper to give it a form). Every individual has a certain mixture of satva, rajas and tamas in different proportions and this proportion varies from time to time (may be above and below a mean). When tamas predominates, the individual sleeps, when rajas dominates, he works and when satva predominates, the individual is calm and happy.

The three guNas do not exist in equal proportions either - Satva dominates to overpower rajas and tamas; rajas dominates to overpower satva and tamas; and tamas dominates to overpower satva and rajas (gIta 14-10). As an example, if a thought occurs in us to do a work, which may not be legal or ethical or in accordance with dharma, we may set out to do the work, in accordance with rajas. But there comes a doubt, whether it is the right thing to do (satva domination?); we ponder over it for some time, then unable to decide, we may put away the thought for a while; procrastination sets in (tamas predominates). The thought may come back again, when we may rationalize to do the work (rajas dominates). Finally we may or may not do the work, depending on which of the guNas has a dominant sway on us. Whatever action we undertake and how we undertake, the action will add to the data points that will influence our future propensity. In this way, an individual accumulates thousands (may be even hundreds of thousands) of data points in each life. These current data points along with the infinite data points of past lives make a composite of the guNa for the next life. If we assume a guNa continuum from zero (0) to 100, the approximate breakdown may be described as follows (an arbitrary division to illustrate the guNa continuity);

The goal in each life should be to raise the guNa composite towards satva to make progress in the spiritual journey. Predominantly endowed with satva at the time of death, the jIva goes to higher worlds (heaven - comes back to the human birth after experience of the heaven), while predominantly rajas, the jIva comes back to be born as a human; predominantly tamas takes the jIva to animal and plant births (again coming back to human birth after the animal/plant life). Satva, rajas and tamas are all binding as discussed above. Therefore, in the quest for realization of the Self, the jIva must go beyond the guNas - guNAtIta (as described in gIta, 14-22,26). guNAtIta is the term that describes the state in which the jIVa is not under the influence of satva, rajas and tamas.

We will begin with the study of jagat in the next unit.

Om shAntih, shAntih, shAntih ( Om peace, peace, peace).

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