The Sattwic Intelligence and Will

Each of the 3 Gunas, while acting throughout all levels of activity, has its own primary seat and strength in different parts of the being. Thus, Tamas is most active in the physical being, Rajas in the vital and emotional being, and Sattwa comes into its own natural sphere most effectively in the higher Reason and Intelligent Will, the Buddhi. When the Reason is heavily influenced by Tamas or Rajas, it is either cloudy, deluded or misled through the impulsion of desire. When there is a clear action of Sattwa, the higher Reason takes on its own true character and can guide and uplift the working and the consequent results.

Sri Aurobindo describes the sattwic intellience and will: “The sattwic understanding sees in its right place, right form, right measure the movement of the world, the law of action and the law of abstention from action, the thing that is to be done and the thing that is not to be done, what is safe for the soul and what is dangerous, what is to be feared and shunned and what is to be embraced by the will, what binds the spirit of man and what sets it free. These are the things that it follows to the degree of its light and the stage of evolution it has reached in its upward ascent to the highest self and Spirit.”

The sattwic intelligence not only uplifts the action of the human individual but also prepares and supports the eventual transcendence of the Gunas through the movement that leads to achievement of the divine standpoint. “There the soul is enshrined in light and enthroned in firm union with the Self and Spirit and Godhead. Arrived upon that summit we can leave the Highest to guide Nature in our members in the free spontaneity of a divine actino: for there there is no wrong or confused working, no element of error or impotence to obscure or distort the luminous perfection and power of the Spirit. All these lower conditions, laws, Dharmas cease to have any hold on us; the Infinite acts in the liberated man and there is no law but the immortal truth and right of the free spirit, no Karma, no kind of bondage.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 19, The Gunas, Mind and Works, pp. 486-487

The Doer of Works and the Three Gunas

The doer of works is the nexus of action. The consciousness of the ego creates the sense of separateness of the doer. Depending on the characteristics of the individual and the predominant action of any of the three Gunas, the sense of the doer takes on differing characteristics that reflect the Gunas.

Sri Aurobindo describes the action of the Gunas in relation to the “doer” of works: “The tamasic doer of action is one who does not put himself really into the work, but acts with a mechanical mind, or obeys the most vulgar thought of the herd, follows the common routine or is wedded to a blind error and prejudice. He is obstinate in stupidity, stubborn in error and takes a foolish pride in his ignorant doing; a narrow and evasive cunning replaces true intelligence; he has a stupid and insolent contempt for those with whom he has to deal, especially for wiser men and his betters. A dull laziness, slowness, procrastination, looseness, want of vigour or of sincerity mark his action. The tamasic man is ordinarily slow to act, dilatory in his steps, easily depressed, ready soon to give up his task if it taxes his strength, his diligence or his patience.”

The character of the rajasic doer is defined by the qualities of desire and greed, seeking of the fruit, whether it be wealth, fame or power of some sort or another, and characterized by violence and cruelty without regard to the needs or feelings of others in his seeking for satisfaction of his egoistic claims. “He is full of an incontinent joy in success and bitterly grieved and stricken by failure.”

“The sattwic doer is free from all this attachment, this egoism, this violent strength or passionate weakness; his is a mind and will unelated by success, undepressed by failure, full of a fixed impersonal resolution, a calm rectitude of zeal or a high and pure and selfless enthusiasm in the work that has to be done.”

There is also a status beyond that of Sattwa where the quality and nature of the doer becomes simply a point of focus for the divine Master to carry out his Will in the development of the world and its manifestation. “At and beyond the culmination of Sattwa this resolution, zeal, enthusiasm become the spontaneous working of the spiritual Tapas and at last a highest soul-force, the direct God-Power, the mighty and steadfast movement of a divine energy in the human instrument, the self-assured steps of the seer-will, the gnostic intelligence and with it the wide delight of the free spirit in the works of the liberated nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 19, The Gunas, Mind and Works, pp. 484-485

Sattwic Renunciation and Works

The type of inner renunciation recommended by the Gita starts from the basis of the application of Sattwa in the understanding and approach taken. Sattwic renunciation develops an inner freedom from bondage while the individual undertakes whatever work needs to be done. Sri Aurobindo describes the characteristics of sattwic renunciation: “The sattwic principle of renunciation is to withdraw not from action, but from the personal demand, the ego factor behind it. It is to do works not dictated by desire but by the law of right living or by the essential nature, its knowledge, its ideal, its faith in itself and the Truth it sees, its sraddha. Or else, on a higher spiritual plane, they are dictated by the will of the Master and done with the mind in Yoga, without any personal attachment either to the action or to the fruit of the action.”

From this perspective there is “…no attachment to pleasant, desireable, lucrative or successful work…”

“There must be no aversion to unpleasant, undesirable or ungratifying action or work that brings or is likely to bring with it suffering, danger, harsh conditions, inauspicious consequences; for that too has to be accepted, totally, selflessly, with a deep understanding of its need and meaning, when it is the work that should be done, kartavyam karma.

To give up the desire for the fruit also encompasses rewards that we expect in some future life or location. The idea of attaining a place in heaven, for instance, incorporates a “reward” that is not part of the sattwic form of renunciation. Only such a poise can liberate the individual from the bondage of the chain of cause and effect, karma. “Action he will do, for some kind of action, less or more, small or great, is inevitable, natural, right for the embodied soul,–action is part of the divine law of living, it is the high dynamics of the Spirit. The essence of renunciation, the true Tyaga, the true Sannyasa, is not any rule of thumb of inaction but a disinterested soul, a selfless mind, the transition from ego to the free impersonal and spiritual nature. The spirit of this inner renunciation is the first mental condition of the highest culminating sattwic discipline.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 19, The Gunas, Mind and Works, pp. 479-480

The Three Gunas and the Nature of Giving

Many religious traditions focus the concept of good works on “charitable giving”. There is no distinction made as to the underlying motivation of the giving that is occurring. For the seeker of the spiritual realisation, however, every action takes on its importance as part of a systematic development of divine qualities within oneself, and thus, the motivation and energy behind the act must be understood. “Giving” in the sense of the Gita ultimately is about a recognition of Oneness and the pouring of one’s existence into works that are beneficial to the universal manifestation. Giving is not therefore limited or defined to some kind of charitable gift, but includes all manner of self-giving, including thought, emotion, vital energy, physical activity as well as more material gifts. In this sense, teaching someone a skill is a form of giving, as also sharing an emotion. With this understanding, we can then look at the characteristics of giving based on the influence of the three Gunas.

Sri Aurobindo describes them thus: “The tamasic gift is offered ignorantly with no consideration of the right conditions of time, place and object; it is a foolish, inconsiderate and in reality a self-regarding movement, an ungenerous and ignoble generosity, the gift offered without sympathy or true liberality, without regard for the feelings of the recipient and despised by him even in the acceptance.”

“The rajasic kind of giving is that which is done with regret, unwillingness or violence to oneself or with a personal and egoistic object or in the hope of a return of some kind from whatever quarter or a corresponding or greater benefit to oneself from the receiver.”

“The sattwic way of giving is to bestow with right reason and goodwill and sympathy in the right conditions of time and place and on the right recipient who is worthy or to whom the gift can be really helpful. Its act is performed for the sake of the giving and the beneficence, without any view to a benefit already done or yet to be done to oneself by the receiver of the benefit and without any personal object in the action.”

The sattwic form of giving prepares the seeker to take on the complete self-giving of the Divine in His creation. “All this manifold universe comes into birth and is constantly maintained by God’s giving of himself and his powers and the lavish outflow of his self and spirit into all these existences; universal being, says the Veda, is the sacrifice of the Purusha. All the action of the perfected soul will be even such a constant divine giving of itself and its powers, an outflowing of the knowledge, light, strength, love, joy, helpful Shakti which it possesses in the Divine and by his influence and effluence on all around it according to their capacity of reception or on all this world and its creatures.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 18, The Gunas, Faith and Works, pg. 474

Sattwic Tapasya

A sattwic tapasya is characterized by balance and harmony, as well as appropriate control over body, speech and mind. Sattwic tapasya prepares the nature for its evolutionary advancement, focuses and purifies the energies, and helps liberate the soul from the bondage of the lower nature.

Sri Aurobindo describes the Gita’s view of sattwic tapasya: “First comes the physical, the askesis of the outward act; under this head are especially mentioned worship and reverence of those deserving reverence, cleanness of the person, the action and the life, candid dealing, sexual purity and avoidance of killing and injury to others. Next is askesis of speech, and that consists in the study of Scripture, kind, true and beneficent speech and a careful avoidance of words that may cause fear, sorrow and trouble to others. Finally, there is the askesis of mental and moral perfection, and that means the purifying of the whole temperament, gentleness and a clear and calm gladness of mind, self-control and silence. Here comes in all that quiets or disciplines the rajasic and egoistic nature and all that replaces it by the happy and tranquil principle of good and virtue.”

As the sattwic tapasya progresses it begins to transcend its roots in the Gunas and bring about an increasing identity with the Divine spirit and presence which finds a suitable foundation in the nature prepared by this discipline. “And what will remain then will be the spirit’s immaculate Tapas, a highest will and luminous force in all the members, acting in a wide and solid calm and a deep and pure spiritual delight, Ananda. There will then be no farther need of askesis, no Tapasya, because all is naturally and easily divine, all is that Tapas. There will be no separate labour of the lower energism, because the energy of Prakriti will have found its true source and base in the transcendent will of the Purushottama. Then, because of this high initiation, the acts of this energy on the lower planes also will proceed naturally and spontaneously from an innate perfect will and by an inherent perfect guidance. There will be no limitation by any of the present Dharmas; for there will be a free action far above the rajasic and tamasic nature, but also far beyond the too careful and narrow limits of the sattwic rule of action.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 18, The Gunas, Faith and Works, pp. 472-473

Sattwic Sacrifice

The sattwic form of sacrifice begins the process of liberating the individual from the bondage of action based on desire which is the hallmark of the rajasic sacrifice, as well as from the action based in ignorance and mechanical ritual which represents the tamasic sacrifice.

Sri Aurobindo describes the characteristic principles upon which sattwic sacrifice is based: “The true sattwic sacrifice, on the other hand, is distinguished by three signs that are the quiet seal of its character. First, it is dictated by the effective truth, executed according to the vidhi, the right principle, the exact method and rule, the just rhythm and law of our works, their true functioning, their Dharma; that means that the reason and enlightened will are the guides and determinants of their steps and their purpose. Secondly, it is executed with a mind concentrated and fixed on the idea of the thing to be done as a true sacrifice imposed on us by the divine law that governs our life and therefore performed out of a high inner obligation or imperative truth and without desire for the personal fruit,–the more impersonal the motive of the action and the temperament of the force put out in it, the more sattwic is its nature. And finally it is offered to the gods without any reservation; it is acceptable to the divine powers by whom–for they are his masks and personalities– the Master of existence governs the universe.”

Since sattwa is still one of the three Gunas, and is subject to the normal play of the Gunas, even this high sattwic form of sacrifice cannot be the ultimate goal or process, and the Gita makes it clear that the seeker must transcend the action of the three Gunas in order to attain liberation and conscious oneness with the Divine Master of existence, the Purushottama. The highest form of sacrifice exceeds this sattwic form and lies beyond the action of the Gunas. Sattwic sacrifice is a step that helps the seeker curb the impulsions of the lower nature, but eventually its limitations must be overpassed.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 18, The Gunas, Faith and Works, pp. 470-471

The Divine Truth Behind the Quality of Sattwa

The progression towards realisation of a spiritual consciousness and standpoint in life involves the development, more and more, of predominantly sattwic qualities in the being. Sri Aurobindo describes Sattwa: “…the power that makes for assimilation and equivalence, right knowledge and right dealing, fine harmony, firm balance, right law of action, right possession and brings so full a satisfaction to the mind…”

At the same time, it must be recognised that Sattwa, too, is a deformation and limitation of the true spiritual light and joy of the divine consciousness, and it too, must be overcome eventually to achieve the status “beyond the Gunas” about which the Gita speaks. Sattwa is both in itself bound and limited in its power, and suffers from the ever-present opportunity for the other Gunas, Rajas and Tamas, to overpower it and thereby dominate and cloud the action of Sattwa. Additionally, the sattwic ego can block the rise of the soul to the next status through its own limitations.

Sri Aurobindo points out that “…there is at its high and distant source a greater light and bliss free in the free spirit. That is not limited nor dependent on limitation or rule or condition but self-existent and unalterable, not the result of this or that harmony amid the discords of our nature but the fount of harmony and able to create whatever harmony it will. That is a luminous spiritual and in its native action a direct supramental force of knowledge, jyotih, not our modified and derivative mental light, prakash. …That light is full of a luminous spiritual will and there is no gulf or disparateness between its knowledge and its action. That delight is not our paler mental happiness, sukham, but a profound concentrated intense self-existent bliss extended to all that our being does, envisages, creates, a fixed divine rapture, Ananda.”

“The liberated soul participates more and more profoundly in this light and bliss and grows more perfectly into it, the more integrally it unites itself with the Divine.”

While we may approach the spiritual standpoint through one or another of the Gunas and its originating true formation, and we believe that the cannot possibly be coexistent, eventually when the new standpoint has been achieved, there is a unification of the action such that Existence, Consciousness-Will, and Bliss all support one another. “Afterwards when we are able to rise above even the spiritual mind, we can see that each divine power contains all the rest and can get rid of this initial error.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 17, Deva and Asura, pp. 451-452

Psychological Aspects of the Three Gunas

The three Gunas are not restricted to major cosmic principles of Matter, Energy and Consciousness, but are also part and parcel of our own psychology and reactive nature. Sri Aurobindo describes the psychological nature of each of the Gunas as follows:

“Sattwa…is by the purity of its quality a cause of light and illumination and by virtue of that purity it produces no disease or morbidity or suffering in the nature. … For knowledge and a harmonious ease and pleasure and happiness are the characteristic result of Sattwa. The pleasure that is sattwic is not only that contentment which an inner clarity of satisfied will and intelligence brings with it, but all delight and content produced by the soul’s possession of itself in light or by an accord or an adequate and truthful adjustment between the regarding soul and the surrounding Nature and her offered objects of desire and perception.”

“Rajas … has for its essence attraction of liking and longing. Rajas is a child of the attachment of the soul to the desire of objects; it is born from the nature’s thirst for an unpossessed satisfaction. it is therefore full of unrest and fever and lust and greed and excitement, a thing of seeking impulsions, and all this mounts in us when the middle Guna increases….Its fruit is the lust of action, but also grief, pain, all kinds of suffering; for it has no possession–and even its pleasure of acquired possession is troubled and unstable because it has not clear knowledge and does not know how to possess nor can it find the secret of accord and right enjoyment. All the ignorant and passionate seeking of life belongs to the rajasic mode of Nature.”

“Tamas … is born of inertia and ignorance and its fruit too is inertia and ignorance. It is the darkness of Tamas which obscures knowledge and causes all confusion and delusion. Therefore it is the opposite of Sattwa, for the essence of Sattwa is enlightenment,…and the essence of Tamas is absence of light, nescience…. But Tamas brings incapacity and negligence of action as well as the incapacity and negligence of error, inattention and misunderstanding or non-understanding; indolence, languor and sleep belong to this Guna. Therefore it is the opposite too of Rajas; for the essence of Rajas is movement and impulsion and kinesis…, but the essence of Tamas is inertia…. Tamas is inertia of nescience and inertia of inaction, a double negative.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 14, Above the Gunas, pp. 414-416

The Sankhya Explanation of the Existence of the Cosmos

Sankhya’s view of existence essentially posits the Purusha, essentially the non-acting, non-moving witness consciousness, and the Prakriti, the active Nature. One key insight which has serious practical application in daily life is the interaction of the 3 modes of energy.

Sri Aurobindo describes them: “For Prakriti is constituted of three Gunas or essential modes of energy; Sattwa, the seed of intelligence, conserves the workings of energy; Rajas, the seed of force and action, creates the workings of energy; Tamas, the seed of inertia and non-intelligence, the denial of Sattwa and Rajas, dissolves what they create and conserve.”

According to the Sankhya view, all action in nature is due to the disequilibrium of these three gunas and their constant interaction. “But when the equilibrium is disturbed, then the three Gunas fall into a state of inequality in which they strive with and act upon each other and the whole inextricable business of ceaseless creation, conservation and dissolution begins, unrolling the phenomena of the cosmos.”

In order for this action to take place, the consent of the Purusha to reflect this action is required. “This reflection and this giving or withdrawal of consent seem to be the only powers of Purusha; he is the witness of Nature by virtue of reflection and the giver of the sanction….but not actively the Ishwara. Even his giving of consent is passive and his withdrawing of consent is only another passivity.”

Because the soul is inactive, it means “…Soul and Nature are the dual cause, a passive Consciousness and an active Energy.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 8, Sankhya and Yoga, pp. 65-66,