The Three Modes of Nature

When we look at the activities of Nature, it quickly becomes clear that without some key we will be overwhelmed by the myriad forms, shapes, energies, actions and beings that are all interacting on a constant basis. There are an untold number of “details”. The ancient sages sought for and discovered a key that would allow us to understand and interact with the creation with much greater insight and power. That key they called the Gunas, the modes or qualities of Nature. They were able to explain the process of natural change through the interaction of these three Gunas. The Gita focuses primarily on the psychological characteristics that impact how we actually perceive and respond to people, things and events, but in reality, the concept and key has application in other aspects of our existence, including the very nature and energetic response of material things.

Sri Aurobindo provides a quick overview of the action of the three Gunas, sattva, rajas and tamas. “If we look for a more general definition, we shall perhaps catch a glimpse of it in the symbolic idea of Indian religion which attributes each of these qualities respectively to one member of the cosmic Trinity, Sattwa to the preserver Vishnu, Rajas to the creator Brahma, Tamas to the destroyer Rudra. Looking behind this idea for the rationale of the triple ascription, we might define the three modes or qualities in terms of the motion of the universal Energy as Nature’s three concomitant and inseparable powers of equilibrium, kinesis and inertia.”

There is both an outer form as well as an inner sense of these Gunas: “Therefore, since consciousness is always there even in an apparently inconscient Force, we must find a corresponding psychological power of these three modes which informs their more outward executive action. On their psychological side the three qualities may be defined, Tamas as Nature’s power of nescience, Rajas as her power of active seeking ignorance enlightened by desire and impulsion, Sattwa as her power of possessing and harmonising knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 14, Above the Gunas, pp. 412-413