The Three Gunas of Nature and the Evolution of Consciousness

As a follow up to the Sankhya distinctions of the separation of Purusha and Prakriti, Sri Aurobindo points out that: “The individual soul or the conscious being in a form may identify itself with this experiencing Purusha or with this active Prakriti.” When it is identified with the Purusha, the witness consciousness, it attains freedom from the bondage of the action of Nature and the machinery of the Lord of Creation found in Nature. When it is identified with Prakriti, the active Nature, it experiences the bondage and is manipulated by the operative machinery of the three modes, called the three Gunas of Nature, Tamas, Rajas and Sattwa. These three modes are all present in all existences, in varying proportions, and undergo constant changes, which leads to action and reaction in the universal creation.

Sri Aurobindo links the operation of the Gunas and the varying proportion of those Gunas in various states of existence with the stages of the evolution of consciousness: “…by an entire immersion in Prakriti, this soul becomes inconscient or subconscient, asleep in her forms as in the earth and the metal or almost asleep as in plant life. There, in that inconscience, it is subject to the domination of Tamas, the principle, the power, the qualitative mode of obscurity and inertia; Sattwa and Rajas are there, but they are concealed in the thick coating of Tamas. Emerging into its own proper nature of consciousness but not yet truly conscious, because there is still too great a domination of Tamas in the nature, the embodied being becomes more and more subject to Rajas, the principle, the power, the qualitative mode of action and passion impelled by desire and instinct. There is then formed and developed the animal nature, narrow in consciousness, rudimentary in intelligence, rajaso-tamasic in vital habit and impulse. Emerging yet farther from the great Inconscience towards a spiritual status the embodied being liberates Sattwa, the mode of light, and acquires a relative freedom and mastery and knowledge and with it a qualified and conditioned sense of inner satisfaction and happiness. Man, the mental being in a physical body, should be but is not, except in a few among this multitude of ensouled bodies, of this nature. Ordinarily he has too much in him of the obscure earth-inertia and a troubled ignorant animal life-force to be a soul of light and bliss or even a mind of harmonious will and knowledge. There is here in man an incomplete and still hampered and baffled ascension towards the true character of the Purusha, free, master, knower and enjoyer. For these are in human and earthly experience relative modes, none giving its single and absolute fruit; all are intermixed with each other and there is not the pure action of any one of them anywhere. It is their confused and inconstant interaction that determines the experiences of the egoistic human consciousness swinging in Nature’s uncertain balance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 3, Self-Surrender in Works–The Way of the Gita, pp. 91-92