This is the third part out of three in the series of articles about the cultural background of yoga. See the first part and the second. In this part, we’ll discuss the three Gunas and the Bhagavad Gita.
The Three Gunas
Nature (Prakriti), that is, the world of matter, is described by the Samkhya and even by the tradition summarized by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras as we saw in Part B of this series. The author of the Bhagavad Gita is bound by three aspects or foundational qualities: Tamas, Rajas, and Satva. This is an important contribution of the yoga tradition and the Samkhya to Indian philosophy. These qualities differ to the extent to which desire and consciousness are blended in with them and they incorporate a hierarchy. From low to high, from gross to pure.
The Tamasic is the murky, the blind, the inert, the instinctive, and the passionate. Almost no organizing or restraining consciousness exists. The Rajasic is eager greediness, a desiring activity pursuing its own fruit. There is an organizing pattern and an ability to plan and restrain impulses for the sake of achieving complex goals. The Sattvic on the other hand is a state of quiet and clear awareness. It is attained by restraining activity and thinking motivated by desire. The Gunas are basic particles constituting the entire world of nature, perhaps similar to the elementary quantum of modern physics. It is important to keep in mind though, that Prakriti is much vaster than the field explored by the natural sciences and it also includes the human consciousness.
According to the Samkhya and the Yoga Sutras, the yogi’s purpose is to achieve the sattvic state. When one achieves it, one’s sight becomes clear and he or she is not misled by illusions. Having said that, the sattvic quality is only a distillation of nature, the purifying of matter into a fine all-encompassing noble being. However, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna presents himself as being above the Gunas; a being that exists beyond the material world, with whom one can connect if one’s abandons all his illusions and selfish attachments. Furthermore, Krishna’s divinity exists in matter itself, it dwells in nature in countless forms and essences. There is nothing the divine is not a part of. Krishna is the sacrifice, the one who makes the offering and the consuming fire. He is the knowledge and the knower.
Juan Mascaró in his book The Bhagavad Gita writes that a composer, like Beethoven, could have composed the story of the Gita. This could have been a wonderful symphony. In the beginning, there would have been sounds of a war about to break and of a desperate soul about to abandon the battle, tempted to quit the fulfillment of his Dharma. The soul fears death: the death of desires and lusts. It is also afraid of the death of the body. Then, in chapter two we would hear an eternal sound saying that in fact, we are all immortal.
Then there is a call to action, an eternal action – Karma yoga – an act of selfless service, not for personal gain. This is followed by sounds of eternal silence, this is a vision of knowledge and wisdom – Jnana yoga. As a counterpart to these harmonies, a gentle sound of love emerges. The god receives an offering of love served with a pure heart – Bhakti yoga.
Later (in chapter 11), the entire universe is revealed as God. This is an occasion full of awe and fear because the God that creates is also the one who destroys. The God of immortality is also the God of life and death. Then there is a vision of God as a man, as a friend to the struggling soul. And later melodies of light, fire, and darkness – the three Gunas, the three forces that drive the universe. At the end of the symphony, the melodies of the previous chapters are woven together into one. The melodies of seeing, labor, and love (Jnana, Karma, and Bhakti).
The Gita expressed the idea that internal yoga is beyond the texts, the spiritual experience always comes before the written tradition:
“When thy intelligence shall cross the turbidity of delusion, then shalt thou become indifferent to what has been heard and what is yet to be heard.
When thy intelligence, which is bewildered by the Vedic texts, shall stand unshaken and stable in spirit (Samadhi) then shalt thou attain to insight (yoga)”. (2.52-53)
The motto that goes through the entire epic as a thread is Dharma. That is the first word in the text and if we connect the first syllable in the text is ‘dhr’ with the last one, ‘ma’, we arrive at dharma. The 700 verses are therefore situated within the idea of Dharma – the duty, the work, the truth, the conscience.
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The origin of the word Karma is in the root word Kri in Sanskrit. From which the word Kriya is also derived, and in English – creation. Karma Yoga is a sacred action. Just as every inhalation can be a merging with infinity and every exhalation – a letting go and devotion. Each humble action we take in the pure spirit of giving and service can become a sacred act of creation and therefore salvation. ( see Shloka 9.26)
Karma Yoga is in our hands. We can perform it and it is the way to transcending the ego and our animalistic nature. When we act for the sake of others, we do it out of love, or it is an act that creates love, and therefore Karma Yoga leads to the second layer which is Bhakti yoga. It is possible to read verses in the Gita that are reminiscent of Jesus’s words. See 9.31 and also 6.31, 18.55, and 11.54.
Love leads to understanding. Without love, one cannot truly and deeply comprehend something and therefore Bhakti Yoga leads to Jnana Yoga. However, the last two are given to us by the grace of God while Karma Yoga is our own action.
The Vision of the Gita
The three manifestations of the Brahman: Sat Cit Ananda are found in the Gita. It can be translated to Being, Joy, and Consciousness, in capital letters, or ‘To be, to Know, to find Joy’. The meaning of Being is a state of great bliss in both body and mind, a state where the fluctuations of the mind are ceased and even though there is no thinking, there is a deep sense of presence. It is an experience of a merging with infinity described by the saints and seers of every generation and religion.
The Gita presents a great vision of hope: no action in the right direction is lost, in the battle for eternal life there can be no defeat unless we avoid the fight. The Gita also conveys a spirit of tolerance, it does not dictate a single doctrine but represents universal truths. For example, Shlokas 4.11 and 9.23.
The Gita attributes importance not only to work, love, and devotion but also to wisdom: 2.49 and 18.51, 18.55. Wisdom is the ability to discern between true emotion and sentimentality, between true faith and fanaticism, between imagination and fancy, and between true vision and a visual illusion.