The Pervasive Action of the Three Gunas

The three Gunas, or qualities, of Nature represent a powerful conceptual tool for the seeker to both understand the interplay of the elements of Nature in the world, and to begin to gain leverage on this action in the process of separating oneself from immersion in the action, and eventually gaining mastery over that action. The Gunas permeate the entire world, and through their constant interplay, constitute all forms and forces. The principle of Tamas being inertia, it is considered to be in opposition to Rajas with respect to force, and in opposition to Sattwa with respect to knowledge. The principle of Rajas being kinetic movement, it is considered to be in opposition to the inertial status of Tamas, and the calm and satisfied peaceful energy of Sattwa. The principle of Sattwa is equilibrium, knowledge, harmony and assimilation, and thus, it is in opposition in one respect to the inertia of Tamas and the dissatisfied and striving action of Rajas. We can see easily that Matter has a predominance of the quality of Tamas, Life-Energy of the quality of Rajas and the mind or reasoning intelligence, the quality of Sattwa. At the same time, none of these qualities is ever found in a “pure” state, so there is always both some amount of admixture in all things of the three qualities, despite the predominant mode, and there is always an ever-changing formulation as they mix and interplay with one another. Sri Aurobindo notes: “The whole nature of the embodied living mental being is determined by these three gunas.”

He goes on to describe them at length: “Whatever is predominantly governed by Tamas, tends in its force to a sluggish inaction and immobility or else to a mechanical action which it does not possess, but is possessed by obscure forces which drive it in a mechanical round of energy; equally in its consciousness it turns to an inconscience or enveloped subconscience or to a reluctant, sluggish or in some way mechanical conscious action which does not possess the idea of its own energy, but is guided by an idea which seems external to it or at least concealed from its active awareness.”

“The principle of Rajas has its strongest hold on the vital nature. It is the Life within us that is the strongest kinetic motive power, but the life-power in earthly beings is possessed by the force of desire, therefore Rajas turns always to action and desire; desire is the strongest human and animal initiator of most kinesis and action, predominant to such an extent that many consider it the father of all action and even the originator of our being.”

“The principle of Sattwa has its strongest hold in the mind; not so much in the lower parts of the mind which are dominated by the rajasic life-power, but mostly in the intelligence and the will of the reason. Intelligence, reason, rational will are moved by the nature of their predominant principle towards a constant effort of assimilation, assimilation by knowledge, assimilation by a power of understanding will, a constant effort towards equilibrium, some stability, rule, harmony of the conflicting elements of natural happening and experience.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pg. 657-658

The Central Role in the Instrumental Nature of the Three Gunas

For most people, there is no pattern or rational explanation for the manner that things take place in the world, nor one’s individual reactions to those events. Things seem to be random and subject to the whim of the moment. Upon a deeper examination however, the seeker can begin to recognize that the three Gunas, Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas, act as the controller of the mechanisms of Nature, and that by observing and understanding these Gunas and their interplay, we can begin to gain some understanding of the streams of energy that bring about the manifestation of the world and all the actions in it. Sri Aurobindo observes: “But in the inferior nature of thigns the play of infinite quality is subject to a limited measure, a divided and conflicting working, a system of opposites and discords between which some practical mobile system of concords has to be found and to be kept in action; this play of concorded discords, conflicting qualities, disparate powers and ways of experience compelled to some just manageable, partial, mostly precarious agreement, an unstable, mutable equilibrium, is managed by a fundamental working in three qualitative modes which conflict and combine together in all her creations.”

“Tamas is the principle and power of inertia; Rajas is the principle of kinesis, passion, endeavour, struggle, initiation…; Sattwa the principle of assimilation, equilibrium and harmony.” “…in its psychological and spiritual bearing it is of immense practical importance, because these three principles enter into all things, combine to give them their turn of active nature, result, effectuation, and their unequal working in the soul-experience is the constituent force of our active personality, our temperament, type of nature and cast of psychological response to experience. All character of action and experience in us is determined by the predominance and by the proportional interaction of these three qualities or modes of Nature. The soul in its personality is obliged, as it were, to run into their moulds; mostly, too, it is controlled by them rather than has any free control of them. The soul can only be free by rising above and rejecting the tormented strife of their unequal action and their insufficient concords and combinations and precarious harmonies, whether in the sense of a complete quiescence from the half-regulated chaos of their action or in the sense of a superiority to this lower turn of nature and a higher control or transformation of their working. There must be either an emptiness of the Gunas or a superiority to the gunas.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pg. 656-657

The Conditions of Bondage of the Nature and Its Liberation

The Shwetashwatara Upanishad decribes two birds sitting on a common tree, one eating the sweet fruit and the other not eating but observing. This is an illustration of the relationship of the soul and the nature. The soul observes and sanctions the actions of the nature, while the nature carries out the actions through the interplay of the three Gunas and the “pairs of opposites” which give rise to the duality that we experience during action in the world. The Bhagavad Gita provides extensive and detailed analysis of the operation of the three Gunas, tamas, rajas and sattwa. Each of the Gunas has characteristics that represent one “pole” of one of the pair of opposites, and thus, they are constantly balancing against each other and bringing about the interplay of light and dark, action and inaction, calm and disturbance that we experience in our lives.

The soul in observing and thereby supporting the action of nature becomes enamoured of the action and gets involved in the changes provided by the constantly interacting Gunas. The focus becomes so all-encompassing that the soul forgets its true nature of divinity and believes itself to be bound within the natural play. Sri Aurobindo observes: “The acceptance of the instrumental ego-consciousness and the will-to-desire are the initial consent of the self to the lapse into the lower ranges of experience in which it forgets its divine nature of being; the rejection of these things, the return to free self and the will of the divine delight in being is the liberation of the spirit.”

This still leaves, however, the nature unreformed and bound. “A complete liberation from the ego and the will of desire must bring with it a superiority to the qualitative modes of the inferior Nature, traigunyatitya, a release from this mixed and discordant experience, a cessation or solution of the dual action of Nature. But on this side too there are two kinds of freedom. A liberation from Nature in a quiescent bliss of the spirit is the first form of release. A farther liberation of the Nature into a divine quality and spiritual power of world-experience fills the supreme calm with the supreme kinetic bliss of knowledge, power, joy and mastery. A divine unity of supreme spirit and its supreme nature is the integral liberation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pg. 655-656

Bondage and Liberation

Sri Aurobindo has subtly redefined the classical concepts of “bondage” and “liberation”. The Indian spiritual tradition for the most part has held that bondage comes with the focus on life in the world and the attempt to find fulfillment in carrying out the desires that accompany that life. Liberation on the other hand is defined as non-attachment that leads to renunciation of the life of illusion. Many examples of given of those who have abandoned the opulence of their lives, and devoted themselves to austerities and the life of the renunciate. On the other hand, the Bhagavad Gita began the process of re-defining these terms by stressing, not the outward austerity or renunciation, but the inner renunciation with action done in a state of desireless devotion to the highest spiritual being. Sri Aurobindo continues to develop this line of approach.

“The will to the imperfect separative being, that wrong Tapas which makes the soul in Nature attempt to individualise itself, to individualise its being, consciousness, force of being, delight of existence in a separative sense, to have these things as its own, in its own right and not in the right of God and of the universal oneness, is that which brings about this wrong turn and creates the ego. To turn from this original desire is therefore essential, to get back to the will without desire whose whole enjoyment of being and whole will in being is that of a free universal and unifying Ananda. These two things are one, liberation from the will that is of the nature of desire and liberation from the ego, and the oneness which is brought about by the happy loss of the will of desire and the ego, is the essence of Mukti.”

The essential difference between bondage and liberation, then is not the abandonment of action in the world, but rather the shifting of the standpoing from the individual human ego as the central point around which all revolves to the divine standpoint which is unified with the transcendent and universal aspects of existence and carrying out in action the will of that divine Being. Bondage is an “inner” bondage of the egoistic nature. Liberation is an inner liberation in the spiritual nature.
Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 8, The Liberation of the Spirit, pg. 654

From Limited Ego-Self to the Soul’s Own Eternal Divinity

The suffering we experience in our human lives is due to the identification with the fictitious ego-consciousness rather than the true identity with the Eternal Spirit. If we can borrow a description from one of the major religions, this self-identification with the ego-being can be called the “original sin” that needs to be cured in order to achieve the unalloyed existence, knowledge, power and bliss of the divine status. Along the way, the ego-consciousness is limited through its identification with the divided and separative mentality, and thus, continually tries to build up a comprehensive understanding from individual parts without a true grasp of the whole. Similarly, the ego-consciousness struggles with its natural weakness and lack of power as it tries to build up its power out of limited forces divided from their universal unlimited source; and, the soul tries to obtain joy through limited experience while unable to receive and sustain the true divine Ananda.

Sri Aurobindo describes this state of affairs: “The struggle to return to a true knowing is imposed upon it, but the ego in the separative mind is satisfied with shows and fragments of knowledge which it pieces together into some false or some imperfect total or governing notion, and this knowledge fails it and has to be abandoned for a fresh pursuit of the one thing to be known. That one thing is the Divine, the Self, the Spirit in whom universal and individual being find at last their right foundation and their right harmonies. Again, because it is limited in force, the ego-prisoned soul is full of many incapacities; wrong knowledge is accompanied by wrong will, wrong tendencies and impulses of the being, and the acute sense of this wrongness is the root of the human consciousness of sin. This deficiency of its nature it tries to set right by standards of conduct which will help it to remove the egoistic consciousness and satisfactions of sin by the egoistic consciousness and self-satisfaction of virtue, the rajasic by the sattwic egoism. But the original sin has to be cured, the separation of its being and will from the divine Being and the divine Will; when it returns to unity with the divine Will and Being, it rises beyond sin and virtue to the infinite self-existent purity and the security of its own divine nature.”

“Again, because it is limited in the delight of being, it is unable to lay hold on the secure, self-existent perfect bliss of the spirit or the delight, the Ananda of the universe which keeps the world in motion, but is only able to move in a mixed and shifting succession of pleasures and pains, joys and sorrows, or must take refuge in some conscient inconscience or neutral indifference. The ego mind cannot do otherwise, and the soul which has externalised itself in ego, is subjected to this unsatisfactory, secondary, imperfect, often perverse, troubled or annulled enjoyment of existence; yet all the time the spiritual and universal Ananda is within, in the self, in the spirit, in its secret unity with God and existence. To cast away the chain of ego and go back to free self, immortal spiritual being is the soul’s return to its own eternal divinity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 8, The Liberation of the Spirit, pp. 653-654

The Ego and the Divine Existence

While we may intellectually grasp the concept of earth rotating around the sun, and the entire solar system being part of the milky way galaxy and moving through space as part of that larger unity in a yet larger universal framework encompassing innumerable galaxies, yet we still experience in our daily lives, our practical vital existence, that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, moving around earth as if it is the center of the universe.

Analogously, the ego-consciousness creates the false and illusory experience of separation and division from other beings and the world which cuts us off from the Oneness and the greater omnipresent reality of our existence, to which we belong and of which we partake. It is thus essential for the ego-consciousness to give way through a shift of standpoint to the divine standpoint, that recognises, accepts, and experiences that larger universal being and purpose of which our individual ego-consciousness is a distorted appearance.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “The sense, the idea, the experience that I am a separately self-existent being in the universe, and the forming of consciousness and force of being into the mould of that experience are the root of all suffering, ignorance and evil. And it is so because that falsifies both in practice and in cognition the whole real truth of things; it limits the being, limits the consciousness, limits the power of our being, limits the bliss of being; this limitation, again, produces a wrong way of existence, wrong way of consciousness, wrong way of using the power of our being and consciousness, and wrong, perverse and contrary forms of the delight of existence. The soul limited in being and self-isolated in its environment feels itself no longer in unity and harmony with its Self, with God, with the universe, with all around it; but rather it finds itself at odds with the universe, in conflict and disaccord with other beings who are its other selves, but whom it treats as not-self; and so long as this disaccord and disagreement last, it cannot possess its world and it cannot enjoy the universal life, but is full of unease, fear, afflictions of all kinds, in a painful struggle to preserve and increase itself and possess its surroundings,–for to possess its world is the nature of infinite spirit and the necessary urge in all being.”

The being who thus experiences this separation, division, struggle, is unable to experience the unalloyed bliss of existence, nor the knowledge, power or self-possession that accompanies the divine consciousness. “…it has not the secret of harmony, because it has not the secret of its own unity and self-possession; and, secondly, not being in possession of its highest self, it has to struggle towards that, is not allowed to be at peace till it is in possession of its own true highest being. All this means that it is not at one with God; for to be at one with God is to be at one with oneself, at one with the universe and at one with all beings. This oneness is the secret of a right and a divine existence. But the ego cannot have it, because it is in its very nature separative and because even with regard to ourselves, to our own psychological existence it is a false centre of unity; for it tries to find the unity of our being in an identification with a shifting mental, vital, physical personality, not with the eternal self of our total existence. Only in the spiritual self can we possess the true unity; for there the individual enlarges to his own total being and finds himself one with universal existence and with the transcending Divinity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 8, The Liberation of the Spirit, pp. 652-653

The Spiritual Liberation From the Ego-Sense in the Integral Yoga

For those who recognize the need to overcome the ego-sense as a condition of spiritual liberation, there is usually an attempt to simply do away with the individual consciousness through merging it with the Absolute in a deep state of trance. Action in the world is antithetical to this pursuit, and the ego is simply treated as something to be discarded. Yet there is, as with everything that exists in the world, a truth that underlies and provides the foundation for what becomes the ego-sense. Sri Aurobindo takes the approach of understanding this basic truth and living according to that, rather than taking the approach that would do away with the individual awareness as a condition of liberation from the ego. “The truth of being is that there is a transcendent existence, supreme self or spirit, a timeless soul of existence, an eternal, a Divine, or even we may speak of it in relation to current mental ideas of the Godhead as a supra-Divine, which is here immanent, all-embracing, all-initiating and all-governing, a great universal Spirit; and the individual is a conscious power of being of the Eternal, capable eternally of relations with him, but one with him too in the very core of reality of its own eternal existence.”

In order to live in the Divine and thereby take on the divine nature, the seeker must move beyond intellectual conceptions which are symbolic representations of the truth, but not the truth in its own being. “…but it can only be entirely realised, lived and made effective in the spirit. When we live in the spirit, then we not only know, but are this truth of our being. The individual then enjoys in the spirit, in the bliss of the spirit, his oneness with the universal existence, his oneness with the timeless Divine and his oneness with all other beings and that is the essential sense of a spiritual liberation from the ego.”

The ego-sense arises when the soul shifts its standpoint of focus from the divine standpoint to the individual standpoint. “But the moment the soul leans towards the mental limitation, there is a certain sense of spiritual separativeness which has its joys, but may at any moment lapse into the entire ego-sense, ignorance, oblivion of oneness.”

For the seeker in the integral Yoga, therefore, Sri Aurobindo proposes the following method: “The way proposed for the integral Yoga is a lifting up and surrender of the whole being to him, by which not only do we become one with him in our spiritual existence, but dwell too in him and he in us, so that the whole nature is full of his presence and changed into the divine nature; we become one spirit and consciousness and life and substance with the Divine and at the same time we live and move in and have a various joy of that oneness. This integral liberation from the ego into the divine spirit and nature can only be relatively complete on our present level, but it begins to become absolute as we open to and mount into the gnosis. This is the liberated perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 8, The Liberation of the Spirit, pp. 650-652