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In the purview of gunas

The mystical nature of the universe has always perplexed man. In an attempt to understand this nature, he came up with several philosophies. The Greek have suggested that the cosmos is made up of indivisible particles. The Chinese believe that it comprises two opposing forces known as Yin and Yang. Whereas, the Hindu Samkhya philosophy puts forth that the universe is dualistic in nature.

According to the philosophy, what constitutes the duality is Purusha (pure consciousness) and Prakriti (matter and energy). Purusha is an abstract primordial entity, believed to be ‘uncaused’. It has unlimited potential, however, it is inert. It neither paves way for evolution nor causes any change in the world. Prakriti, on the other hand, is the primal energy that manifests Purusha‘s potential in the physical realm. Albeit an ‘uncaused’ concept like Purusha, it allows for further evolution by virtue of its three qualities or Gunas.

Gunas constitute Prakriti and help manifest the physical world. They are present in all things living and non-living in the world. They are of three types–sattva, rajas and tamas. According to Dr Manikantan Menon, an Ayurvedic physician, sattva represents creation. It represents day. This form of energy is said to possess clarity and goodness. Rajas, says Dr Menon, is transformative in nature. It represents the transition from night to day and day to night. It is the passion that is necessary to bring about change. And finally, tamas is the destructive force of darkness (night). It represents fear, lethargy, ignorance and chaos, the expert explains. Together, the three gunas are responsible for creation, sustenance and destruction. And this cycle, as we know, is essential for the functioning of the cosmos.

If the entire universe is a manifestation of Prakriti, then so is every individual. In fact, within each of us, the three gunas compete for supremacy and try to suppress one another. As a result, the gunas remain in a constant state of fluctuation. This fluctuation determines our mental disposition. For instance, whenever sattva is dominant, we feel calm, clear, virtuous and peaceful. When rajas takes over, we become self-centered, driven, egoistic and action-oriented. When tamas gains control, we feel lethargic, stagnant, dull or even depressed.

The Samkhya philosophy talks about transcending the three Gunas (and hence Prakriti) to break free from this cycle and attain moksha (enlightenment).


Of the three gunassattva seems to be the ideal state to be in. After all, who wouldn’t want to have clarity of thought and experience peace of mind? Luckily, it is quite possible (although, not easy) to increase Sattva within us by practising yoga and mindfulness. However, according to Samkhya philosophy, increasing Sattva is not the end goal of life. Founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in his book Bhagavad-gita As It Is writes: “O sinless one, the mode of goodness, being purer than the others, is illuminating, and it frees one from all sinful reactions. Those situated in that mode become conditioned by a sense of happiness and knowledge.”

What the excerpt means is that when we manage to increase the Sattva within us, we may inadvertently become too attached to the happy state of mind. We could be lured by the illuminating knowledge this guna brings. This desire could, in turn, propel us to act passionately to sustain this high level of Sattva within us and we may, in turn, increase the Rajas in us. Or, we could become fearful of losing our Sattvic dominance and consequently become more Tamasic.

It seems the three gunas could set us up in a vicious cycle. We might progress from being Tamasic and Rajasic to Sattvic by walking the arduous spiritual path. But, in the end, we could lose it all in a fraction of second because we’ve inadvertently allowed our Rajasic and Tamasic nature to take over. It is no wonder then that the Samkhya philosophy talks about transcending the three Gunas (and hence Prakriti) to break free from this cycle and attain moksha (enlightenment).

The attainment of moksha is anything but easy. It not only requires us to be Sattvic, but also to remain unperturbed by the very goodness that the Sattva brings. By achieving equanimity, we can break free from the clutches of Prakriti. We would transcend the three Gunas completely. It is then that we would discover the seat of consciousness or Purusha within ourselves. We lose discernment between happiness and sorrow, good and bad, and eventually ‘me’ and ‘not me’. We hence remain unperturbed and unscathed by the ups and downs of life–heaven or hell, rain or sun, pleasure or pain. We become enlightened and virtuous, yet unstoppable, fearless and free. 

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