The gunas

The gunas

1 August 1986

Patanjali, in his commentary deals with the Gunas at length. As you know, there are three Gunas in the Vedanta and the Yoga philosophy, which consist of Tamas, which is the Guna of darkness, inertia, and a sort of confusion. The River Thames is the River Tamēssa. It comes actually from that word, Tamas, dark; it’s a dark river. A man of Tamas is a man of inertia, he just wants somehow to survive. He doesn’t so much meet the shock of life as try somehow to take refuge, to get by.  Then Rajas, which comes originally from a word meaning red, to redden and it may be connected with our word rage. It stands for passion and struggle. A man of Rajas throws himself into the battle of life with enthusiasm and joy, but his every action is for his personal advantage or the advantage of his family or clan or country and he can’t remain calm. He’s identified with his individual self-interest. Then the third one is Sattva, which literally means truth. This is the Guna, the aspect of matter and mind, which is balanced, clear-sighted, sees clearly, is rational, intelligent, and is harmonious.

In the Chinese system, they have only two Gunas and it makes a great difference to the fundamental outlook. They have only two. They have the yin, which corresponds to Tamas, the inertia, darkness. It means the shady side of a hill, and yang, which is the positive and the thrusting forward, “Here I am,” the shouting, excited achiever element. They have these two. It’s noteworthy the Chinese say, “Yin, Yang.” We say, “Positive, negative.” To a Chinese, that means that Westerners are rather on the yang side, at first positive, then the negativeness follows after.  It’s less informed, but in the Chinese, it’s yin first and then yang, which corresponds to the Rajas.

One reading of [a diagram TPL has put up] is you’re born, almost in darkness, then gradually you increase in your activity, your intelligence, your ambitions, your hopes, your affections, until you are about, say, 25. Then, in this section, say 25-50, you’re in full bloom. Man’s seriously trying to achieve his ambitions and very often, tragically failing; and the woman’s building up a world of her own, she’s bringing up the children and she’s becoming really somebody in the social life of the neighbourhood.  Then after 50, things are beginning to tail off; and then the dark element of nothingness is beginning to come in, and then we enter the darkness again. Then [after] this period of complete darkness [we’re] born again. Of any of these two, where does spiritual awareness come in? In the Vedanta system, Tamas is dark. This furious, flaming red is Rajas, connected with rage. The white, which you can’t really see because it’s transparent, is Sattva – and this is awareness, intelligence, balance.

Sattva can utilize both the others but it has judgment. It’s not the inertia, “Oh leave me alone” of Tamas. It’s not the, “I’ll show you” of Rajas. It’s something balanced, which can use activity when it’s time to be active; it can be very active. When it’s time to be still, it can be very still – but has clear awareness of both. In the Chinese system, they have only yang and yin, which is furiously active. The spiritual element has to enter into the yin, has to be included in the yin because there’s no third Guna. So the Chinese say, “He who knows from birth but who holds to the yin is the sage.” Which is the difference between the sage and the man lying drunk.

The Chinese seem to have considerable difficulty in distinguishing the two. They succeed but it does tend to be a confusion, and the result of the Chinese philosophy has sometimes been rather passive and negative. Holding to merely witnessing, not taking part intelligently. They’ll say, “Watch the great flow of nature.” Well, this is alright when the great flow of nature is not getting around my ankles too much.  But if the great flow of nature is sending a flood of water up round my little cottage, then I need to build a little dyke round myself. Then the other cottages in the neighbourhood will build dykes around in anticipation of future floods.  But they will all be the yang, the active, while the true sage will just accept the flow of nature, even if it drowns him.

The Chinese have been tending rather to the witnessing side. “It’s enough, where we are, this is enough, this is good enough.” There was a great reluctance in China to bridge the rivers. For centuries and centuries, no bridge was built over the rivers – a dangerous habit. They didn’t want to bridge nature, to go against the great flow of things. The word for China in their own language is ‘The Central Kingdom’, the centre of the Earth. We are the centre. They had no interest in other countries at all. The Chinese points of the compass read east, west, south, north. East is the first one. Then west, then south and north is the last one. We say, north, south, east, west.

East and west, they’re agricultural people.  The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. This is the important thing for agricultural people who are sitting where they are.  The Chinese will say, “Well, yes, east and west that’s the sun, that’s for agriculture.  That’s, of course, for us. The south, well that’s where the life and light is, isn’t it? The more south you go, the more habitable the area, more vegetation – the easier it is to live. North, there’s nothing in the north, just snow and ice.  And the more north you go the less there is. Naturally, north comes last.”

You say to them, “Isn’t it odd that we Westerners all say north, south, east, west?” “Ah,” they say, “Yes because you’re brigands, you’re Vikings. Vikings sailing round the world on ships, conquering everything. Exploring, looking for things. You’re not satisfied on your island. You had got to go out and sail immediately to the north star to navigate by, didn’t you? That’s why north comes first. The Pole Star.”

They view us as a rather furious yang-like people and their ideal Chinese tends to be mixed up with the yin. In the Vedanta, the Indian system, there are three.  There is this inertia and stillness as, for instance in sleep, which is necessary; and the furious activity which you need.  But there’s a balance which can check ambition, which can stir up laziness and finally, which can lead beyond itself. It becomes almost transparent.

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: The gunas

Part 2: Patanjali and Sattva

Part 3: Transform Tamas and Rajas to Sattva

Part 4: Don’t think in long waves think in short waves

Part 5: Intense karma fructifies quickly

Part 6: Patanjali and meditation on God



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