The Interplay of the Three Gunas

Because the three Gunas are always in flux, it cannot be said that any individual maintains at all times and in all ways, a completely sattwic, rajasic or tamasic character. There may be a predominant balance that allows us to recognize a primary mode of action and existence of a specific individual, but this balance is subject to change both with changes in circumstance and the internal state of the being. We hear of all kinds of examples where someone has lived long years in a monastery or in solitary meditation in a cave, but when brought at some point into a dynamic city, all kinds of impulses arise, whether acquisitive, sexual or angry! Similarly, there are anecdotes about men who are considered to be ruthless and violent, but who show consideration and care for someone or something that seems “out of character”. Similarly, those who are generally fearful or misguided will show, at times, a peculiar insight or courageous impulse.

Sri Aurobindo describes this interplay: “There is a constant combining and separation of their shifting relations and interpenetrating influences, often a conflict, a wrestling of forces, a struggle to dominate each other. All have in great or in small extent or degree, even if sometimes in a hardly appreciable minimum, their sattwic states and clear tracts or inchoate tendencies of light, clarity and happiness, fine adaptation and sympathy with the environment, intelligence, poise, right mind, right will and feeling, right impulse, virtue, order. All have their rajasic modes and impulses and turbid parts of desire and passion and struggle, perversion and falsehood and error, unbalanced joy and sorrow, aggressive push to work and eager creation and strong or bold or fiery or fierce reactions to the pressure of the environment and to life’s assaults and offers. All have their tamasic states and constant obscure parts, their moments or points of unconsciousness, their long habit or their temporary velleities of weak resignation or dull acceptance, their constitutional feebleness or movements of fatigue, negligence and indolence and their lapses into ignorance and incapacity, depression and fear and cowardly recoil or submission to the environment and to the pressure of men and events and forces.”

“The wise are not always or wholly wise, the intelligent are intelligent only in patches; the saint suppresses in himself many unsaintly movements and the vile are not entirely evil: the dullest has his unexpressed or unused and undeveloped capacities, the most timorous his moments or his way of courage, the helpless and the weakling a latent part of strength in his nature.”

Even the predominant balance of an individual is simply a formation created by the soul for the needs of a particular life-experience and action, and is subject to evolutionary change and development over time.

With our human tendency to look at things as “black and white” we tend to try to suppress or deny the action of one Guna or another, to be “all of a piece”, but in actuality this is both impossible and leads in many cases to artificial suppression that recoils and rebounds even more strongly when the suppressed parts or actions finally find their outlet. The process of systematic culturing of the consciousness requires therefore a fine and subtle understanding of this interplay 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. 222-223

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