The Gunas and the Qualities of Happiness

The “pursuit of happiness” is considered by many to be one of the primary directives of human life, and is even enshrined as a guiding principle in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Happiness, however, is not something that can be understood universally, as there are different forms and definitions of happiness. To the Upanishadic sages, true happiness was determined to be a state of bliss, achieved by overcoming the force of desire! For most of humanity however, happiness is a much more qualified state of consciousness, and its character is determined by the predominance of one or another of the three Gunas.

Sri Aurobindo describes these differences: “…the tamasic mind can remain well-pleased in its indolence and inertia, its stupor and sleep, its blindness and its error. Nature has armed it with the privilege of a smug satisfaction in its stupidity and ignorance, its dim lights of the cave, its inert contentment, its petty or base joys and its vulgar pleasures. Delusion is the beginning of this satisfaction and delusion is its consequence; but still there is given a dull, a by no means admirable but a sufficient pleasure in his delusions to the dweller in the cave.”

“The mind of the rajasic man drinks of a more fiery and intoxicating cup; the keen, mobile, active pleasure of the senses and the body and the sense-entangled or fierily kinetic will and intelligence are to him all the joy of life and the very significance of living. This joy is nectar to the lips at the first touch, but there is a secret poison in the bottom of the cup and after it the bitterness of disappointment, satiety, fatigue, revolt, disgust, sin, suffering, loss, transience.”

“What the sattwic nature seeks, therefore, is the satisfaction of the higher mind and the spirit and when it once gets this large object of its quest, there comes in a clear, pure happiness of the soul, a state of fullness, an abiding ease and peace. This happiness does not depend on outward things, but on ourselves alone and on the flowering of what is best and most inward within us….it has to be conquered by self-discipline, a labour of the soul, a high and arduous endeavour.”

“The self-exceeding of the sattwic nature comes when we get beyond the great but still inferior sattwic pleasure, beyond the pleasures of mental knowledge and virtue and peace to the eternal calm of the self and the spiritual ecstasy of the divine oneness. That spiritual joy is no longer the sattwic happiness…, but the absolute Ananda. Ananda is the secret delight from which all things are born, by which all is sustained in existence and to which all can rise in the spiritual culmination. Only then can it be possessed when the liberated man, free from ego and its desires, lives at last one with his highest self, one with all beings and one with God in an absolute bliss of the spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 19, The Gunas, Mind and Works, pp. 487-489