Introduction to the Three Gunas or Modes of Nature

The idea of liberation from the bondage of Nature and its action has been a central tenet of spiritual traditions the world over. Sri Aurobindo sets forth the additional goal of achieving mastery over the actions of Nature to be able to express the Will of the Supreme in the world of manifestation. This requires, therefore, not simply a dissolution of the bond between soul and external nature, but a way to gain leverage on the actions of Nature. For this purpose, a detailed understanding of the action of Nature in the manifested universe is essential, and this comes down to the important concept of the three Gunas of Nature, the modes or qualities that combine together to determine our actions and responses. “But this inferior Nature can only be mastered if she is surmounted and used from above. And this can only be done by a transcendence of her forces, qualities and modes of action; otherwise we are subject to her conditions and helplessly dominated by her, not free in the spirit.”

Western thinkers and scientists have tried to understand nature by disassembling the constituent parts and analyzing down to basic building blocks, which they call atoms, molecules or even smaller electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, neutrinos, etc. (or in the biological field, chromosomes, genes, amino acids, etc.) They have then tried to control nature by manipulating these elements but have not thereby been able to rise above them but have been further bound by them. The deeper they go, the more they search, the more attached they become to the material processes and functions and the cause and effect relationships they are able to understand, without seeing a bigger picture.

In ancient India, a different path was taken. They looked for ways to shift the awareness outside the frame of reference of the material manifestation, and from there to be able to observe and understand the functioning of the universe from a wider and higher perspective. This led them to develop the concept of the three Gunas, modes or qualities. “These modes are termed in the Indian books qualities, gunas, and are given the names sattva, rajas, tamas. Sattwa is the force of equilibrium and translates in quality as good and harmony and happiness and light; Rajas is the force of kinesis and translates in quality as struggle and effort, passion and action; Tamas is the force of inconscience and inertia and translates in quality as obscurity and incapacity and inaction. Ordinarily used for psychological self-analysis, these distinctions are valid also in physical Nature. Each thing and every existence in the lower Prakriti contains them and its process and dynamic form are the result of the interaction of these qualitative powers.”

The importance of this framework for the spiritual practice of Yoga is underlined by the extraordinary focus that is placed upon them in the Bhagavad Gita, with several chapters devoted to a deeper understanding of the action of the three Gunas.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 10, The Three Modes of Nature, pp.220-221

Moving From Human to Divine Action

For the awareness to shift from that of the ego-individual as the “doer” to that of the Divine Consciousness, Sri Aurobindo has outlined several steps along the way. The seeker must be able to separate himself from the actions of Nature through adoption of the witness consciousness, the status of the Purusha observing, and eventually, influencing Prakriti. Here the knowledge of the three Gunas and their effective action becomes essential. As the witness of the nature, the seeker must begin to see and understand the movement of the three qualities, Gunas, tamas, rajas and sattwa. “Nature works in us, says the Gita, through the triple quality of Prakriti, the quality of light and good, the quality of passion and desire and the quality of obscurity and inertia. The seeker must learn to distinguish, as an impartial and discerning witness of all that proceeds within this kingdom of his nature, the separate and the combined action of these qualities; he must pursue the workings of the cosmic forces in him through all the labyrinth of their subtle unseen processes and disguises and know every intricacy of their maze.”

The next step is for the Purusha to take up the power of sanction and choose which movements to permit and which to deny. “At first he must induce the Nature-Force in its action on his instruments to subdue the working of its two lower qualities and bring them into subjection to the quality of light and good and, afterwards, he must persuade that again to offer itself so that all three may be transformed by a higher Power into their divine equivalents, supreme repose and calm, divine illumination and bliss, the eternal divine dynamis, Tapas.”

Sri Aurobindo makes the point that the earlier phase, the reduction of the influence of tamas and rajas in favor of a sattwic poise to the being, can proceed quite a distance using the mental framework of the human instrument; eventually, however, this cannot lead either to a complete, total and irreversible success, nor can it carry out the additional phase of transcending sattwa. It is here that the process of the self-surrender to the Divine takes up the process and brings about the ultimate transformations: “By degrees his mind of an imperfect human intelligence will be replaced by a spiritual supramental Truth-Light; he will then no longer act from his nature of the Ignorance with its three modes of confused and imperfect activity, but from a diviner nature of spiritual calm, light, power and bliss.”

At the end of this process, the seeker no longer acts based on his individual will or promptings of desire in the lower nature. “Thus can he utterly renounce to the supramental Shakti his works as well as the fruits of his works and act only as the conscious instrument of the eternal Worker. No longer giving the sanction, he will rather receive in his instruments and follow in her hands a divine mandate….No longer willing the fulfilment of his own mental constructions and the satisfaction of his own desires, he will obey and participate in an omnipotent Will that is also an omniscient Knowledge and a mysterious, magical and unfathomable Love and a vast bottomless sea of the eternal Bliss of Existence.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 9, Equality and Annihilation of Ego, pp.217-219

The Process of Abandoning the Sense of the Ego As the Doer of Works

When Sri Aurobindo sets forth the requirement that the seeker abandon the consciousness of being the “doer” of works, and recognize the Supreme as the actual doer, he makes it clear that this cannot be simply an intellectual recognition. It is one thing to hold a belief in the mind that the Divine does all, while yet living and acting from the inherent standpoint of the ego; it is yet another to experience this realisation at all times and in all forms of action.

“The Sadhaka has not only to think and know but to see and feel concretely and intensely even in the moment of the working and in its initiation and whole process that his works are not his at all, but are coming through him from the Supreme Existence. he must be always aware of a Force, a Presence, a Will that acts through his individual nature.” For those who have not had any experience of this Force, it may seem to be something metaphorical; however, for those that have felt its action and recognised the action as something beyond and outside the realm of his normal actions and capacities, it is clear that this Force is real, palpable and manifest.

Sri Aurobindo cautions, however, that the vital ego is expert at misleading the seeker into believing that the action is being done by the Divine Presence, when it is actually a sublimated or disguised form of ego that is acting. “He may fall into a common ambush of this lower nature and distort his supposed surrender to a higher Power into an excuse for a magnified and uncontrolled indulgence of his own self-will and even of his desires and passions. A great sincerity is asked for and has to be imposed not only on the conscious mind but still more on the subliminal part of us which is full of hidden movements. For there is there, especially in our subliminal vital nature, an incorrigible charlatan and actor. The Sadhaka must first have advanced far in the elimination of desire and in the firm equality of his soul towards all workings and all happenings before he can utterly lay down the burden of his works on the Divine. At every moment he must proceed with a vigilant eye upon the deceits of the ego and the ambushes of the misleading Powers of Darkness who ever represent themselves as the one source of Light and Truth and take on them a simulacrum of divine forms in order to capture the soul of the seeker.”

We see in the traditional teaching of Raja Yoga, that the first stages are various forms of internal and external discipline of purification, “yamas” and “niyamas”. These form the basis upon which any higher powers may safely come into action within the practitioner of the Yoga. In the Integral Yoga, these restraints are not external moral or ethical codas, but the development of true non-attachment and the dissolution of the motive force of desire as the central driver of action.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 9, Equality and Annihilation of Ego, pg.217

The Necessity of Overcoming the Sense of the Individual As the Doer of Works

Overcoming the force of desire and achieving equality of soul is intimately tied to the knot of the ego-consciousness at the center of the individual’s awareness. Thus, in order to fully achieve the results the central ego-complex must also be removed and replaced by the new standpoint that is aware of the Divine as the doer of all works, and the individual simply as a “nexus” of that divine action for the purposes of the play of the manifestation.

The first step as enunciated by the Bhagavad Gita is to give up the desire for the fruits of work, but the second step is the critical one that Sri Aurobindo focuses on here as the knot to be unravelled: “But for the worker the renunciation of the egoism of action is the most important element in this change. For even when by giving up the fruits and the desire of the fruits to the Master of the Sacrifice we have parted with the egoism of rajasic desire, we may still have kept the egoism of the worker. Still we are subject to the sense that we are ourselves the doer of the act, ourselves its source and ourselves the giver of the sanction. It is still the “I” that chooses and determines, it is still the “I” that undertakes the responsibility and feels the demerit or the merit. An entire removal of this separative ego-sense is an essential aim of our Yoga.”

The shift of the consciousness that must take place: “That true centre is a luminous formulation of the one Consciousness and a pure channel and instrument of the one Existence. A support for the individual manifestation and action of the universal Force, it gradually reveals behind it the true Person in us, the central eternal being, an everlasting being of the Supreme, a power and portion of the transcendent Shakti.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 9, Equality and Annihilation of Ego, pp.216-217

Attaining the Joy That Surpasses All Understanding

The stages of equality of soul are a transitional phase as the consciousness moves from the individual, human standpoint to the divine standpoint. The experience of the seeker along the way is so powerful that many will consider one of the other of these stages to be the ultimate perfection being sought, and essentially stop at that point. Sri Aurobindo reminds us of a supreme status of consciousness which goes far beyond either the equality that suffers and bears, or the equality that proceeds from a philosophic abstract view of things, events and forces. “If we can pass through these two stages of the inner change without being arrested or fixed in either, we are admitted to a greater divine equality which is capable of a spiritual ardour and tranquil passion of delight, a rapturous, all-understanding and all-possessing equality of the perfected soul, an intense and even wideness and fullness of is being embracing all things.”

This next stage comes about through a complete self-giving where the ego-personality surrenders to the Divine Being, Knowledge, and Force, where there is no longer any struggle of the individual ego to achieve anything, but rather, a recognition that it is the Divine who is the doer of all works and the creator of all forms and forces in the universal manifestation.

The entire quality of the experience changes as the seeker moves beyond struggle, effort and an self-exceeding: “For strength is then crowned by a happy mastery, peace deepens into bliss, the possession of the divine Calm is uplifted and made the ground for the possession of the divine movement.”

The psychological status must change in order to reach this phase as well. This is where the principle of surrender comes in. The equality that bears and suffers all gets transformed: “This submission will be no longer a resigned acquiescence but a glad acceptance: for there will be no sense of suffering or of the bearing of a burden or cross; love and delight and the joy of self-giving will be its brilliant texture.” The equality of philosophical indifference also takes on a different character: “A lonely power, peace and stillness is the last word of the philosophic equality of the sage; but the soul in its integral experience liberates itself from this self-created status and enters into the sea of a supreme and all-embracing ecstasy of the beginningless and endless beatitude of the Eternal. Then we are at last capable of receiving all contacts with a blissful equality, because we feel in them the touch of the imperishable Love and Delight, the happiness absolute that hides ever in the heart of things. The gain of this culmination in universal and equal rapture is the soul’s delight and the opening gates of the Bliss that is infinite, the Joy that surpasses all understanding.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 9, Equality and Annihilation of Ego, pp.215-216

The Second Stage in the Development of Equality of Soul

Stoicism, even a stoicism tempered by wisdom or devotion, is not able to bring about the total equality of soul that represents a transition to the divine standpoint from the human standpoint. There is a second stage that represents a phase of “rising above” the events and actions of the world in a high and disinterested “philosophical indifference”. Sri Aurobindo describes this stage: “All things and persons and forces, all thoughts and feelings and sensations and actions, one’s own no less than those of others, are regarded from above by a spirit that remains intact and immutable and is not disturbed by these things.”

He cautions as to the specific texture of this indifference, however: “But indifference must not settle into an inert turning away from action and experience; it must not be an aversion born of weariness, disgust or distaste, a recoil of disappointed or satiated desire, the sullenness of a baffled and dissatisfied egoism forced back from its passionate aims. These recoils come inevitably in the unripe soul and may in some way help the progress by a discouragement of the eager desire-driven vital nature, but they are not the perfection towards which we labour.” This type of recoil represents the normal movement of the Gunas to fall into the mode of Tamas, inertia, darkness or depression, when Rajas, the mode of action and desire, is frustrated. The aim is not to wallow in Tamas!

“The indifference or the impartiality that we must seek after is a calm superiority of the high-seated soul above the contacts of things; it regards and accepts or rejects them but is not moved in the rejection and is not subjected by the acceptance. It begins to feel itself near, kin to, one with a silent Self and Spirit self-existent and separate from the workings of Nature which it supports and makes possible, part of or merged in the motionless calm Reality that transcends the motion and action of the universe. The gain of this period of high transcendence is the soul’s peace unrocked and unshaken by the pleasant ripplings or by the tempestuous waves and billows of the world’s movement.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 9, Equality and Annihilation of Ego, pp.214-215

The First Stage in the Development of Equality of Soul

Anyone who attempts to undertake the culturing of consciousness, through inward examination and attempts to modify reactions and behavior to circumstances or other stimuli, will understand the difficulty of this undertaking. There are strong ingrained habits of reaction, some of which clearly are part of the heritage of the species, what we call “instinctive” in animal behavior, and some of which is trained through social norms and the pervasive influence of the surrounding cultural expectations. Add to this the unique psychological makeup of the individual with a particular balance of the three Gunas of Nature working to create characteristic response patterns, and the force of the evolutionary pressure of the divine manifestation, and we can recognize how complex and difficult it is.

Sri Aurobindo, therefore, sets forth various stages of the process in the transition from purely reactive to apparent differentiating factors in people and circumstances, to one that both can see and respond to the inherent Oneness of creation, responding with equality of soul, while at the same time recognising and responding appropriately to the differentiations.

“This equality cannot come except by a protracted ordeal and patient self-discipline; so long as desire is strong, equality cannot come at all except in periods of quiescence and the fatigue of desire, and it is then more likely to be an inert indifference or desire’s recoil from itself than the true calm and the positive spiritual oneness.”

Thus the stages: “Ordinarily we have to begin with a period of endurance; for we must learn to confront, to suffer and to assimilate all contacts. Each fibre in us must be taught not to wince away from that which pains and repels and not to run eagerly towards that which pleases and attracts, but rather to accept, to face, to bear and to conquer….We shall endure tranquilly the action and impact on us of men and things and forces, the pressure of the Gods and the assault of the Titans; we shall face and engulf in the unstirred seas of our spirit all that can possibly come to us down the ways of the soul’s infinite experience. This is the stoical period of the preparation of equality, its most elementary and yet its heroic age.”

Sri Aurobindo reminds us, however, that it is best to temper this stoicism with “…a sustained sense of spiritual submission to a divine Will: this living clay must yield not only with a stern or courageous acquiescence, but with knowledge or with resignation, even in suffering, to the touch of the divine Hand that is preparing its perfection. A sage, a devout or even a tender stoicism of the God-lover is possible, and these are better than the merely pagan self-reliant endurance which may lend itself to a too great hardening of the vessel of God: for this kind prepares the strength that is capable of wisdom and of love; its tranquillity is a deeply moved calm that passes easily into bliss.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 9, Equality and Annihilation of Ego, pp.213-214