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A few notes on the three gunas

[As described in The Dream of Ravan]


© 2003 Online Teosofiska Kompaniet Malmö 

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[Reprinted from THE THEOSOPHICAL MOVEMENT, March 1965.]

In the mystery allegory, The Dream of Ravan published first as a series of articles in The Dublin University Magazine of 1853-54, and later in book form, the unknown author gives us what is said to be ”an authoritative utterance of Hindu psychology.” As such, therefore, we have to regard it.

It will be remembered by those who have read this book with a message, based on a little known philosophical episode in the Ramayana, that Mandodari broke down with grief after she heard that there would come a time in the future when she would no longer remain Ravan's wife and would be superseded by another. The Chorus of Rishis, in its endeavour to cheer her up, told her of the three qualities arising from Prakriti or nature: Tamas (darkness or indifference), Rajas (passion or desire), and Sattva (truth or goodness). She was told that she was of the Tamasic nature and was, therefore, the complement of the predominant Tamas quality in Ravan; but when in a future birth he rose to the stage of Rajas he would need a companion and partner someone who was of a higher quality than Tamas to spur him on. But as the Tamasic quality–which is the characteristic of brute matter, that pertaining to the animal man–even when no longer predominant, is not annihilated but continues to exist as the basis which affords fuel to higher emotions, so Mandodari would always be necessary to Ravan to minister to his Tamasic nature. A strong bond would exist between them in the future, not the bond of husband and wife, but of beloved master and devoted servant.

It is important for us to note this, for it shows that Tamas is not to be despised at any stage of evolution; it is necessary to all stages. We have a hint here as to why we are told later in the book of the Rishi Maricha who ”carried to excess” severe austerities, maltreated his body and looked like a skeleton, and of Ananta, also a Rishi, but one who avoided all excesses and treated his body with care.

A further point is made that progress in the Tamas sphere of life is helped forward by love. Therefore we learn that Mandodari, in serving Ravan in the future with her love and devotion, would receive at his hands much kindness and help. Theirs would be a new relationship of mutual trust, sympathy and gratitude. Indeed, in helping Zingarel, Ravan's companion-to-be in his future appearance on earth, with a mother's tenderness, Mandodari would receive in return the blessing of her love. Love, care, service – wife, husband and servant – make the triad.

There is much practical advice for us here as to the attitude we should adopt towards those who serve us in a so-called low capacity. If we adopt this idea of mutual trust and respect, the result will be that those who minister to us as attendants now will grow towards the higher gunas in a natural way, and their devotion will be our recompense. Is it because we do not act in this way that there is so much unrest among the working classes, whose labour helps to give us comfort and to fill the coffers of their masters – for which service all they get is a meagre wage?

To understand the gunas we have to see that their base is the ”primordial and eternal unity.” This unity, we are told, divides itself into the three radical, prismatic qualities of Tamas, Rajas and Sattva, when reflected in time, through the prism of Maya, into the multitudinous universe. Every soul born into natural life partakes in greater or lesser degree of these qualities, each of which is necessary to the others. For man to evolve, he must know these gunas, how to use them and how to control them.

First, it is necessary to understand that, no matter what descriptions we are given of the qualities, the threefold egoity or self-consciousness is Sattvic, Rajasic or Tamasic, and in each of these states the power of energy peculiar to it appears radiantly developed. Tamas, for example, is not merely darkness, but the self-consciousness of darkness, and in it resides the power and energy of substance, or brute, insensible matter. Rajas is not merely passion, but the self-consciousness of passion, in which exists the power or energy of action. Sattva is the self-consciousness of truth or goodness, and in it is the power and energy of knowledge or wisdom.

Of these three qualities we and all nature partake. The consequences produced by their workings and interactions imprison us, and by observing them we get to know which is the predominant guna in us.

To help us, we are told that Tamas, which springs from ignorance and is the confounder of all mental faculties, imprisons us through intoxication, sloth and idleness. Rajas, which is of a passionate nature and arises from the effects of worldly thirst, imprisons us through the consequences produced from action. Sattva, by reason of its purity, wisdom and freedom from defect, ”entwines” us – which conveys a slightly different idea from ”imprisons” – through sweet and pleasant consequences.

If we would recognize our jailers or entwiners we must familiarize ourselves with their moral characteristics. Tamas tends towards gloominess, idleness, foolishness and distraction of thought; when, therefore, we give way to any of these tendencies, we must know that we are in the Tamasic state. If we are industrious, if we like to begin works and love to gain from them, if we are intemperate and our desires are immoderate and unrestrained, we must know that it is Rajas which has imprisoned us. If we are wise in all we do, and are happy, but still are attached to the consequences springing from wise action, then we must know that Sattva entwines us. If we continue to remain in the Tamasic sphere we shall become distracted and unstable. If we continue in Rajas we shall become covetous. If we dwell in Sattva we shall have wisdom.

A further description of these qualities is given, which helps us to understand them from another angle. Tamas is said to be the absence of all knowledge, feeling, motion, penetrability or transparency, its demerit thus being negative. it is ”that stolid state or form of spirit, which causes it to appear and be what we call matter.” It is, in fact, ”the moral basis of matter.” Its highest form of organic development cannot go beyond the mere animal life and the region of sense.

Still it must be kept in mind that this quality is necessary for evolution and therefore necessary for both Rajas and Sattva and also for the condition when these three qualities will blend into one. Without Tamas, which is the characteristic of stolid, brute matter, there could be no basis either for Rajas, consciousness in action, or Sattva, consciousness in goodness. Neither of these could function or even come into being without a form through which to work. Without some kind of stability there could be no form. We are told that ”within it is the movement, the fire, and the anguish of the Rajas, and the light and joy of the Sattva. And in proportion to the large basis of the Tamas quality is the intensity and power of that Rajas fire and Sattva light, which movement can evolve.” For ”heroic greatness and energy of character,” a basis in the animal or Tamas energies of man is needed.

To help us see that Tamas contains within itself potentially the other two qualities, which have to evolve from it, we are given an illustration: Tamas is the coal, and coal is necessary if we want fire, steam, or light. ”Through the anguish of the fire alone can the black coal of the mine become transmuted into light. And so the sorrow and anguish, which result inevitably from the passions in the Rajas, or emotional life, constitute the purifying fire designed to purge away the dross of our Titanic nature, and transmute it into the pure Sattva, where purity, goodness, and truth are predominant.”

The ”dark plastic love” of Tamas, the ”simple, unreflecting, spontaneous kindness of nature,” devoid of passion and unawakened to the light of knowledge, is necessary for our material existence. Therefore it is that Mandodari's love for Ravan, which is of the Tamas quality, her affectionate discharge of her duty in looking after his physical needs and comforts, is necessary to him at his present stage and also will be needed by him in the future when he advances to a higher stage.

As the human progresses from Tamas to Rajas, brute appetite and blind impulse are superseded by passion, and the life of the senses becomes the life of emotion and desire and therefore of pain, which in time awakens the mind. Yet it is this very emotional life which is the fire that purges this quality in time because of the sorrow and suffering connected with it. It is only through pain that we begin to reflect and try to gain knowledge so as to alleviate or avoid this pain and suffering. In doing so, we begin to reach outside our own Rajasic nature and turn to a still higher sphere of ideal life. Reason, knowledge, universal sympathy grow up within us and awaken the Sattvic quality. Passion dies, ”killed by its own pain and swallowed up in love and absolute resignation.” The restless activity of the emotions is transformed into the unruffled constant activity of Sattva, which is universal Joy. All other passions expire in giving birth to an eternal sentiment of justice and love, which are ultimately one.

The Dream of Ravan also gives a description of these qualities in terms of colour. Tamas, matter, is dark purple or violet; Rajas is red; Sattva is orange. When Sattva re-enters into Rajas and Tamas and penetrates them with its influence, all three isolated prismatic colours coalesce into pure universal light, and a consciousness of divine reunion. This is a stage beyond Sattva, the stage of pure being, pure truth, pure goodness, all merged into one, and is attained only when all isolation is renounced.

When Sattva, which is the characteristic of spirit in antithesis to body and soul, matter and life, escapes from the chains of individuality and limitation and loses itself in pure light, then we are beyond the three qualities. As our book puts it, this is attained

”When man becomes God”...when the plastic, and the emotional, and the ideal, become absolutely one, and there is properly speaking, neither matter, nor soul, nor spirit, but something which is all and yet none of these–call it Brahm; call it the constant or eternal Life; call it, if you will, that true Hindu trinity in unity – SACH – CHID – ANANDA-GHANA – ”SOLIDARITY OF BEING, THOUGHT, and JOY,” in which the eternal going-forth and reintrocession of the One, is expressed in the most perfect harmony with the deepest speculation of Platonism....


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