The Transmutation of the Three Gunas Required for the Integral Perfection

It has long been essentially a dogma of spiritual life that as long as the seeker remains active in the world, he is bound entirely by the action of the three Gunas, ans thus, the only way to achieve true spiritual liberation is to achieve a total quiescent state, wherein the Gunas are perfectly balanced and at rest, not in their normal status of continual change. If this were the only solution, then the integral perfection sought by Sri Aurobindo would not be possible, as all action would be subject to the limitations and weaknesses inherent in the lower nature and the action of the three Gunas. Sri Aurobindo notes: “The divine Being, we may say, may either exist in his silence or act in Nature through her instrumentation, but in that case must put on the appearance of her strife and imperfection.”

At this point, however, Sri Aurobindo diverges from the standard approach: “That may be true of the ordinary deputed action of the Divine in the human spirit with its present relations of soul to nature in an embodied imperfect mental being, but it is not true of the divine nature of perfection. The strife of the gunas is only a representation in the imperfection of the lower nature; what the three gunas stand for are three essential powers of the Divine which are not merely existent in a perfect equilibrium of quietude, but unified ina perfect consensus of divine action.”

Each of the three gunas is a reflection or stepped-down version of a power of the higher existence. “Tamas in the spiritual being becomes a divine calm, which is not an inertia and incapacity of action, but a perfect power, sakti, holding in itself all its capacity and capable of controlling and subjecting to the law of calm even the most stupendous and enormous activity; Rajas becomes a self-effecting initiating sheer Will of the spirit, which is not desire, endeavour, striving passion, but the same perfect power of being, sakti, capable of an infinite, imperturbable and blissful action. Sattwa becomes not the modified mental light, prakasa, but the self-existent light of the divine being, jyotih, which is the soul of the perfect power of being and illumines in their unity the divine quietude and the divine will of action. The ordinary liberation gets the still divine light in the divine quietude, but the integral perfection will aim at this greater triune unity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pp. 661-662

The Interplay of the Gunas in the Seeking for Liberation

All actions that start from the fundamental human nature and psychology are grounded in the three Gunas. Thus, as the human individual develops his mental capacities and awareness, and begins his attempt to gain liberation from the bondage of Nature in order to achieve spiritual realisation, it remains the activity of the Gunas that bring about the incremental changes. There is a path for development, but at a certain stage the limitations of the Gunas prevent further progress. It is at this stage that the seeker must find a way to move “beyond the Gunas” for the ultimate freedom of the Self and the Nature.

Sri Aurobindo describes the process: “Sattwa, when it wishes to intensify itself, seeks to get rid of Rajas and calls in the aid of the tamasic principle of inaction; that is the reason why a certain type of highly sattwic men live intensely in the inward being, but hardly at all in the outward life of action, or else are there incompetent and ineffective. The seeker of liberation goes farther in this direction, strives by imposing an enlightened Tamas on his natural being, a Tamas which by this saving enlightenment is more of a quiescence than an incapacity, to give the sattwic Guna freedom to lose itself in the light of the spirit. A quietude and stillness is imposed on the body, on the active life-soul of desire and ego, on the external mind, while the sattwic nature by stress of meditation, by an exclusive concentration of adoration, by a will turned inward to the Supreme, strives to merge itself in the spirit. But if this is sufficient for a quietistic release, it is not sufficient for the freedom of an integral perfection. This liberation depends upon inaction and is not entirely self-existent and absolute; the moment the soul turns to action, it finds that the activity of the nature is still the old imperfect motion. There is a liberation of the soul from the nature which is gained by inaction, but not a liberation of the soul in nature perfect and self-existent whether in action or in inaction.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pp. 660-661

Spiritual Perfection Requires Transcendence of the Three Gunas

The highest degree of refinement of which the human individual is capable within the framework of the normal life in the world is a life in which Sattwa and its qualities are predominant. This however does not constitute spiritual perfection, which implies a shift of the consciousness and standpoint of awareness from the mental to the spiritual plane of existence. Sri Aurobindo notes: “But richness of life, even a sattwic harmony of mind and nature does not constitute spiritual perfection. There is a relative possible perfection, but it is a perfection of incompleteness, some partial height, force, beauty, some measure of nobility and greatness, some imposed and precariously sustained balance. There is a relative mastery, but it is a mastery of the body by life or of the life by mind, not a free possession of the instruments by the liberated and self-possessing spirit.”

As long as the individual remains within the realm of nature and the action of the Gunas, the most refined harmonious action predominating in Sattwa is subject to dilution by the intrusion of Rajas and Tamas, as well as to constant change and loss of that balance through the interplay of the Gunas in the life in the world. Each of the Gunas, even Sattwa, have their limitations and make up the action of the ego-sense. There is a tamasic ego, a rajasic ego and also a sattwic ego. All of these forms prevent the liberation from occurring and the action of the divine force remains weak and limited by the obstacles provided by the ego-personality.

“The gunas have to be transcended if we would arrive at spiritual perfection. Tamas evidently has to be overcome, inertia and ignorance and incapacity cannot be elements of a true perfection; but it can only be overcome in Nature by the force of Rajas aided by an increasing force of Sattwa. Rajas has to be overcome, egoism, personal desire and self-seeking passion are not elements of the true perfection; but it can only be overcome by force of Sattwa enlightening the being and force of Tamas limiting the action. Sattwa itself does not give the highest or the integral perfection; Sattwa is always a quality of the limited nature; sattwic knowledge is the light of a limited mentality; sattwic will is the government of a limited intelligent force. Moreover, Sattwa cannot act by itself in Nature, but has to rely for all action on the aid of Rajas, so that even sattwic action is always liable to the imperfections of Rajas; egoism, perplexity, inconsistency, a one-sided turn, a limited and exaggerated will, exaggerating itself in the intensity of its limitations, pursue the mind and action even of the saint, philosopher and sage. There is a sattwic as well as a rajasic or tamasic egoism, at the highest an egoism of knowledge or virtue; but the mind’s egoism of whatever type is incompatible with liberation. All the three gunas have to be transcended. Sattway may bring us near to the Light, but is limited clarity falls away from us when we enter into the luminous body of the divine Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pg. 660

The Three Gunas in Human Psychology

The three Gunas are always active, even when one particular Guna may provide a predominant characteristic to an individual. Each one brings to play its characteristics, which then become modified or vitiated by the action of the other Gunas. The individual personality and capabilities are heavily colored by the primary Guna, but due to the ever-changing nature of the balance, there is no fixed personality type that invariably carries out the character of even a heavily prominent Guna.

Sri Aurobindo describes the contribution provided by each Guna to the total psychological makeup of man: “Tamas brings in all the ignorance, inertia, weakness, incapacity which afflicts our nature, a clouded reason, nescience, unintelligence, a clinging to habitual notions and mechanical ideas, the refusal to think and know, the small mind, the closed avenues, the trotting round of mental habit, the dark and the twilit places. Tamas brings in the impotent will, want of faith and self-confidence and initiative, the disinclination to act, the shrinking from endeavour and aspiration, the poor and little spirit, and in our moral and dynamic being the inertia, the cowardice, baseness, sloth, lax subjection to small and ignoble motives, the weak yielding to our lower nature.” Similarly, the basic qualities of Tamas can infect the emotional being, leading to “want of sympathy and openness…, the callous heart,…and “all that makes in man the course, heavy and vulgar spirit.”

“Rajas contributes our normal active nature with all its good and evil; … it turns to egoism, self-will and violence, the perverse, obstinate or exaggerating action of the reason, prejudice, attachment to opinion, clinging to error, the subservience of the intelligence to our desires and preferences and not to the truth, the fanatic or sectarian mind, self-will, pride, arrogance, selfishness, ambition, lust, greed, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, the egoisms of love, all the vices and passions, …, the morbidities and perversions of the sensational and vital being.”

“The gifts of Sattwa are the mind of reason and balance, clarity of the disinterested truth-seeking open intelligence, a will subordinated to the reason or guided by the ethical spirit, self-control, equality, calm, love, sympathy, refinement, measure, fineness of the aesthetic and emotional mind, in the sensational being delicacy, just acceptivity, moderation and poise, a vitality subdued and governed by the mastering intelligence.”

“The accomplished types of the sattwic man are the philosopher, saint and sage, of the rajasic man the statesman, warrior, forceful man of action. But in all men there is in greater or less proportions a mingling of the gunas, a multiple personality and in most a good deal of shifting and alternation from the predominance of one to the prevalence of another Guna; even in the governing form of their nature most human beings are of a mixed type. All the colour and variety of life is made of the intricate pattern of the weaving of the gunas.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pp. 658-660

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 Three Modes of the Divine Nature

The three Gunas, or modes of Nature that are operative in the lower nature, are actually deformations of the three qualities they inadequately represent existing in the higher or divine nature. The transition from the bondage to the Gunas in the lower nature to taking on the nature and action of the Divine nature involves the transformation from the deformed to the pure and original quality.

Sri Aurobindo describes the higher modes thus: “Tamas is replaced by a divine peace and tranquil eternal repose out of which is released as from a supreme matrix of calm concentration the play of action and knowledge….Rajas is replaced by a self-possessed power and illimitable act of force, that even in its most violent intensities does not shake the immovable poise of the soul or stain the vast and profound heavens and luminous abysses of its peace….Sattwa is replaced by an illumination and a spiritual bliss identical with the depth and and infinite existence of the soul and instinct with a direct and authentic knowledge that springs straight from the veiled glories of the secret Omniscience. This is the greater consciousness into which our inferior consciousness has to be transformed, this nature of the Ignorance with its unquiet unbalanced activity of the three modes changed into this greater luminous supernature.”

This transition does not come about all at once and can be attained by any of the paths, knowledge, love or works: “This is a state of freedom which can come in the Yoga of works through renunciation of ego and desire and personal initiation and the surrender of the being to the cosmic Self or to the universal Shakti; it can come in the Yoga of Knowledge by the cessation of thought, the silence of the mind, the opening of the whole being to the cosmic Consciousness, to the cosmic Self, the cosmic Dynamis or to the supreme Reality; it can come in the Yoga of devotion by the surrender of the heart and the whole nature into the hands of the All-Blissful as the adored Master of our existence.”

Beyond this stage comes an ultimate transformation of the nature: “But the culminating change intervenes by a more positive and dynamic transcendence: there is a transference or transmutation into a superior spiritual status, trigunatita, in which we participate in a greater spiritual dynamisation; for the three lower unequal modes pass into the equal triune mode of eternal calm, light and force, the repose, kinesis, illumination of the divine Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 10, The Three Modes of Nature, pp. 229-230

The First Step of Liberation from the Modes of Nature Through the Witness Consciousness

When the seeker decides to apply the leverage of the bifurcation of the Witness from the action of Nature, there is a process that takes place to systematically disentangle oneself from attachment to and involvement with the changes in the three Gunas and their corresponding reactions. The change also does not take place overnight, and appears to progress in stages, as the habit of non-attachment takes hold on ever-deeper levels.

Sri Aurobindo describes this first step: “The soul is inwardly separated and free from the lower Prakriti, not involved in its coils, indifferent and glad above it. Nature continues to act in the triple round of her ancient habits,–desire, grief and joy attack the heart, the instruments fall into inaction and obscurity and weariness, light and peace come back into the heart and mind and body; but the soul stands unchanged and untouched by these changes. Observing and unmoved by the grief and desire of the lower members, smiling at their joys and their strainings, regarding and unoverpowered by the failing and the darknesses of the thought and the wildness or the weaknesses of the heart and nerves, uncompelled and unattached to the mind’s illuminations and its relief and sense of ease or of power in the return of light and gladness, it throws itself into none of these things, but waits unmoved for the intimations of a higher Will and the intuitions of a greater luminous knowledge. Thus doing always, it becomes eventually free even in its dynamic parts from the strife of the three modes and their insufficient values and imprisoning limits.”

By withholding any sanction, but simply observing and noting, the seeker sends a message to the external nature that causes it to begin to recognise that it must turn towards a higher light and sanction and not continue its habitual round of the desire-filled life of the ego in the external personality. This prepares the way for further steps that begin to receive and respond to the higher Will.

Patience and persistence are required to carry out this change in standpoint and achieve true equality and non-attachment, as this action contradictions millenia of habitual patterns bred into all human action and all forms and forces of the external world of manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 10, The Three Modes of Nature, pp. 227-228

The Power of Detachment Through the Witness Consciousness

Psychologically, as long as we remain locked within a specific frame of reference, we are unable to see the larger picture within which that frame operates, with any amount of objectivity. The subtle assumptions and axiomatic ideas lock us into a way of seeing and reacting that is consistent with that frame. The Sankhya tradition recognized this psychological truth and developed the powerful tool of the separation of Purusha and Prakriti as a means to gain a degree of independence from the reactions and impulsions 0f Nature; thereby eventually permitting the individual applying this standpoint to achieve sufficient independence to be able to view and understand the actions of the external nature, and eventually escape from their hold.

Sri Aurobindo describes the power of this stage of the yogic process: “The initial advantae of this process of detachment is that one begins to understand one’s nature and all Nature. The detached Witness is able to see entirely without the least blinding by egoism the play of her modes of the Ignorance and to pursue it into all its ramifications, coverings and subtleties–for it is full of camouflage and disguise and snare and treachery and ruse. Instructed by long experience, conscious of all act and condition as their interaction, made wise of their processes, he cannot any longer be overcome by their assaults, surprised in their nets or deceived by disguises. At the same time he perceives the ego to be nothing better than a device and the sustaining knot of their interaction and, perceiving it, he is delivered from the illusion of the lower egoistic Nature.”

This detachment is the leverage needed to free the seeker from all forms of egoism, whether based in tamas, rajas or sattwa. “Thus convinced and conscious of the essential vice of the ego-sense in all our personal action, he seeks no longer to find a means of self-correction and self-liberation in the rajasic or sattwic ego but looks above, beyond the instrument sand the working of Nature, to the Master of works alone and his supreme Shakti, the supreme Prakriti. There alone all the being is pure and free and the rule of a divine Truth possible.”

The establishment of the inner separation of Purusha from Prakriti, the Witness from the executive Nature, is a key technique to both establish the independent standpoint that can lead systematically to liberation from the bondage of the Gunas of Nature and free the seeker from the knot of the ego-consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 10, The Three Modes of Nature, pp. 226-227

Strategies for Transcending the Action of the Three Gunas

Armed with the knowledge of the action and characteristics of the three Gunas of Nature, the seeker is left with something of a dilemma when it comes to putting this knowledge into action. The first thing that can be easily grasped is that the action of Tamas, with its ignorance and inertia, cannot lead to the liberation he seeks. Similarly, the action of Rajas, with its passion, desire and unenlightened energy, cannot solve the problem. This has led countless individuals to determine that it is to the third Guna, Sattwa, that they must turn. The light, the knowledge and the clarity of Sattwa certainly are a more desirable foundation for the spiritual quest than either of the other two; however, the three Gunas are inextricably intertwined.

Sri Aurobindo illustrates the issue: “If, envisaging the quality of desire and passion as the cause of disturbance, suffering, sin and sorrow, we strain and labour to quell and subdue it, Rajas sinks but Tamas rises. For, the principle of activity dulled, inertia takes its place. A quiet peace, happiness, knowledge, love, right sentiment can be provided by the principle of light, but, if Rajas is absent or completely suppressed, the quiet in the soul tends to become a tranquility of inaction, not the firm ground of a dynamic change.”

“If we call in Rajas again to correct this error and bid it ally itself to Sattwa and by their united agency endeavour to get rid of the dark principle, we find that we have elevated our action, but that there is again subjection to rajasic eagerness, passion, disappointment, suffering, anger. These movements may be more exalted in their scope and spirit and action than before, but they are not the peace, the freedom, the power, the self-mastery at which we long to arrive.”

“And if we see a compromise between the three modes, Sattwa leading, the others subordinate, still we have only arrived at a more temperate action of the play of Nature. A new poise has been reached, but a spiritual freedom and mastery are not in sight or else are still only a far-off prospect.”

Sri Aurobindo thus guides us to the solution provided by the Bhagavad Gita in this regard: “The error that accepts the action of the modes of Nature must cease; for as long as it is accepted, the soul is involved in their operations and subjected to their law. Sattwa must be transcended as well as Rajas and Tamas, the golden chain must be broken no less than the leaden fetters and the bond-ornaments of a mixed alloy. The Gita prescribes to this end a new method of self-discipline. It is to stand back in oneself from the action of the modes and observe this unsteady flux as the Witness seated above the surge of the forces of Nature. he is one who watches but is impartial and indifferent, aloof fro them on their own level and in his native posture high above them. As they rise and fall in their waves, the Witness looks, observes, but neither accepts nor for the moment interferes with their course. First there must be freedom of the impersonal Witness; afterwards there can be the control of the Master, the Ishwara.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 10, The Three Modes of Nature, pp. 224-226