The Play of the Gunas in the Spiritual Path

The Bhagavad Gita places considerable emphasis on the need to understand the play of the Gunas, Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas, in all things. Yogic practice is not exempted from this play. Each of the Gunas has a specific set of characteristics, and they are not stable. The Gunas are always in motion. Doubt, fear, darkness, lack of effort, despondency or depression, all are signs of the predominance of Tamas. Ambition, energetic action, desire, grasping are all signs of the action of Rajas. Light, balance, harmony and understanding, steady, calm effort are the signs of Sattwa. As they go through their natural cycles, they intersect with the action of the divine Force as it descends into the being. As the intensity of the force alternates between periods of high intensity and low intensity, the receipt of the force and the assimilation phase, the practitioner may respond to these alternations based on the action of any of the Gunas, and thus, in some cases, there will be despondency, fear and a feeling of failure (Tamas) when the action is not visibly apparent. Similarly there may be attempts to grasp for the force and “storm the gates of heaven”, so to speak, if Rajas is ascendant. Ideally, the seeker will recognise the predominant Guna and take action to create balance and insight, the quality of Sattwa, which provides a smoother path forward as these alternations take place. At some point, the action of the Force and its impact on all the different aspects of human nature, the mind, the emotions, the vital and nervous being and the physical sheath, will resurface and whatever resistance or obstacles prevented its steady and visible action on the surface will have been worked out. The Gita provides the assurance that there need be no fear, as no effort at spiritual development is ever lost. Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that “he who chooses the Infinite has been chosen by the Infinite.” Thus, what cause is there for depression or despondency when the action takes on a less visible phase?

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The length of your period of dullness is also no sufficient reason for losing belief in your capacity or your spiritual destiny. I believe that alternations of bright and dark periods are almost a universal experience of yogis, and the exceptions are very rare. If one inquires into the reasons of this phenomenon, — very unpleasant to our impatient human nature, — it will be found, I think, that they are in the main two. The first is that the human consciousness either cannot bear a constant descent of the Light or Power or Ananda, or cannot at once receive and absorb it; it needs periods of assimilation; but this assimilation goes on behind the veil of the surface consciousness; the experience or the realisation that has descended retires behind the veil and leaves this outer or surface consciousness to lie fallow and become ready for a new descent. In the more developed stages of the yoga these dark or dull periods become shorter, less trying as well as uplifted by the sense of the greater consciousness which, though not acting for immediate progress, yet remains and sustains the outer nature. The second cause is some resistance, something in the human nature that has not felt the former descent, is not ready, is perhaps unwilling to change, — often it is some strong habitual formation of the mind or the vital or some temporary inertia of the physical consciousness and not exactly a part of the nature, — and this, whether showing or concealing itself, thrusts up the obstacle. If one can detect the cause in oneself, acknowledge it, see its workings and call down the Power for its removal, then the periods of obscurity can be greatly shortened and their activity becomes less. But in any case the Divine Power is working always behind and one day, perhaps when one least expects it, the obstacle breaks, the clouds vanish and there is again the light and the sunshine. The best thing in these cases is, if one can manage it, not to fret, not to despond, but to insist quietly and keep oneself open, spread to the Light and waiting in faith for it to come; that I have found shortens these ordeals. Afterwards, when the obstacle disappears, one finds that a great progress has been made and that the consciousness is far more capable of receiving and retaining than before. There is a return for all the trials and ordeals of the spiritual life.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 8, The Triple Transformation: Psychic, Spiritual and Supramental, The Spiritual Transformation, pp. 209-229

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.