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 Gunas and Action In the World

The Gita spends a considerable amount of time describing and explaining the operation of the three Gunas of Nature. This is so because it is extremely useful for the seeker to understand how the “machinery” of Nature works and drives the choices and results of what the ego-personality tends to consider to be the action of “free will”. True free will does not operate until the soul is identified with the Supreme Person, the Purushottama.

Sri Aurobindo summarizes the role of each of the Gunas in the action of the individual: “Man in his natural being is a sattwic, rajasic and tamasic creature of Nature. According as one or other of her qualities predominates in him, he makes and follows this or that law of his life and action.”

“His tamasic, material, sensational mind subject to inertia and fear and ignorance either obeys partly the compulsion of its environment and partly the spasmodic impulses of its desires or finds a protection in the routine following of a dully customary intelligence.”

“The rajasic mind of desire struggles with the world in which it lives and tries to possess always new things, to command, battle, conquer, create, destroy, accumulate. Always it goes forward tossed between success and failure, joy and sorrow, exultation or despair. But in all, whatever law it may seem to admit, it follows really only the law of the lower self and ego, the restless, untired, self-devouring and all-devouring mind of the Asuric and Rakshasic nature.”

“The sattwic intelligence surmounts partly this state, sees that a better law than that of desire and ego must be followed and erects and imposes on itself a social, an ethical, a religious rule, a Dharma, a Shastra. This is as high as the ordinary mind of man can go, to erect an ideal or practical rule for the guidance of the mind and will and as faithfully as possible observe it in life and conduct.”

As the human individual evolves, eventually the highest sattwic level gets to the point where the individual attempts to act from a fully disinterested viewpoint for the greater good, and the being is prepared for the transition to the new divine standpoint, beyond the limits of the Gunas entirely.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 24, The Message of the Gita, pp. 572-573