Purusha Limited By the Nature Of the Three Gunas

The three Gunas of Nature provide a key that we can use to understand the evolutionary development of the soul as it begins to awaken to self-consciousness and grows in its identification with the Jiva, the divine portion of the immortal Purusha.

We gain a clear insight into the obstacles as well as the opportunities presented to the soul at each stage. While it is clear that no individual is fixed in the status of one Guna and that they both interact and tend to move from one to the other being predominant, we may nevertheless be able to see certain characteristics of the systematic growth in consciousness and energy as the individual moves through a stage controlled by one or another of these Gunas.  

Sri Aurobindo describes these stages:.”…the tamasic man inertly obeys in a customary mechanical action the suggestions and impulses, the round of will of his material and his half-intellectualised vital and sensational nature.”

“In the middle intervenes the kinetic law or Dharma; the rajasic man, vital, dynamic, active, attempts to impose himself on his world and environment, but only increases the wounding weight and tyrant yoke of his turbulent passions, desires and egoisms, the burden of his restless self-will, the yoke of his rajasic nature.”

“At the top presses down upon life the harmonic regulative law or Dharma; the sattwic man attempts to erect and follow his limited personal standards of reasoning knowledge, enlightened utility or mechanised virtue, his religions and philosophies and ethical formulas, mental systems and constructions, fixed channels of idea and conduct which do not agree with the totality of the meaning of life and are constantly being broken in the movement of the wider universal purpose.”


To achieve the full identification with the Supreme, eventually all three of the Gunas must be overpassed.


Sri Aurobindo, <a href=”http://www.lotuspress.com/item.php?item=990205&#8243; title=”Essays on the Gita”>Essays on the Gita</a>, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 22, The Supreme Secret, pg. 525

The Process of Liberation From the Gunas

Before taking up the next subject of the Gita, Sri Aurobindo provides a summary conclusion of the spiritual process that has been recommended. With a clear understanding of the qualities and characteristics of each of the three Gunas, it is now possible for us to examine our own lives and actions and begin systematically to encourage and develop a predominant balance emphasizing Sattwa. This step helps free us from the bondage of the instinctive and desire-bound drives of the animal nature which are clearly active in all human beings, particularly in the physical and vital parts, and thereby prepare the human instrument for the succeeding step of transcending even Sattwa by moving into the divine standpoint and becoming purely an occasion or nexus of the divine action in the world.

“It is then by a liberating development of the soul out of this lower nature of the triple Gunas into the supreme divine nature beyond the three Gunas that we can best arrive at spiritual perfection and freedom. And this again can best be brought about by an anterior development of the predominance of the highest sattwic quality to a point at which Sattwa also is overpassed, mounts beyond its own limitations and breaks up into a supreme freedom, absolute light, serene power of the conscious spirit in which there is no determination by conflicting Gunas.”

The result: “The sattwic mind and will change into that spiritual knowledge and dynamic power of identical existence in which the whole nature puts off its disguise and becomes a free self-expression of the godhead within it. The sattwic doer becomes the Jiva in contact with his source, united with the Purushottama; he is no longer the personal doer of the act, but a spiritual channel of the works of the transcendent and universal Spirit….What was sattwic action becomes the free activity of the perfected nature in which there is no longer any personal limitation, any tethering to this or that quality, any bondage of sin and virtue, self and others or any but a supreme spiritual self-determination. That is the culmination of works uplifted to the sole Divine Worker by a God-seeking and spiritual knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 490-491

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

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