There are three Gunas in the Vedanta and the Yoga philosophy
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 tamasa ,it comes actually from that word tamas dark ,it’s the dark river. 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 struggle. A man of tamas is a man of inertia he just wants somehow to survive he doesn’t sort of so much meet the shock of life as try somehow to take refuge and get by. 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 and this is the Guna or the aspect of matter and mind which is balanced clear sighted sees clearly and is rational intelligent and is harmonious. In the Chinese system they have only two Gunas.
They have the Yin which is 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 and to a Chinese that means that Westerners are rather on the Yang side. Positive and then the negative is follows afterwards less important but in the Chinese it’s Yin first and then Yang. Now there’s no place this is corresponds to the rajas . One reading of it is you’re born here almost in darkness and gradually you increase in your activity your intelligence your ambitions your hopes your affections until you’re about say 25. Then here in this section say at 25 to 50 you’re in sort of full bloom. A man’s furiously 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. And then after 50 things beginning to tail off the dark element of nothingness is beginning to come in here, and then we enter the darkness here. This is a period of complete darkness and then born again. Well there are only these two. Where does spiritual awareness come in? In the Vedanta system tamas is dark. This is a furious flaming red rajas is connected with rage. Now the white which you can’t really see because it’s transparent is sattva and this is awareness intelligence balance. It can utilise both the others but it has judgement. It’s not the inertia ‘Oh leave me alone’ of tamas. It’s not the ‘I’ll show you’ of rajas But 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 this furiously active the spiritual has to enter into the Yin has to be included in the Yin because there’s no third Gunas. So the Chinese say ‘Well he who knows from both but who holds to the Yin is the sage’. We say ‘Well what’s the difference between the sage and the man lying drunk?’ The Chinese thinkers 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 while the great flow of nature is not getting round 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. And then the other cottages and they will build dykes round in anticipation of future floods but that will all be the Yang the active and the true sage will just accept the flow of nature even if it drowns him. The Chinese has been tended rather to the witnessing side it’s enough where we are this is enough this is good enough. They there was a great reluctance in China to bridge the rivers. For centuries and centuries no bridge over the rivers dangerous ferries they didn’t want to bridge nature to go against the great flow of the things. The word for China in their own language is the ‘central kingdom’ the centre of the earth ‘We are the centre’. So 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 And the Chinese will say ‘Well yes East and West that’s the sun that’s for agriculture that’s sensible of course for us. The South well that’s where the life and light is isn’t it? the further South you go the more luxuriant the 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 so 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 yes. Because you’re brigands you’re vikings you see vikings sailing round the world in your little ships conquering everything exploring looking for things. You’re not satisfied on your island.
You’ve got to go out and so you needed the North star to navigate by didn’t you? That’s why North comes first the pole star.’ So they view us as rather a sort of furious and young-like people and their ideal in Chinese tends to be mixed up with the Yin. But in the Vedanta the Indian system there are three and there is this inertia and stillness like for instance in sleep which is necessary 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. Now the in the yoga system of Patanjali the Gunas to be cultivated is sattva and rajas and tamas have to be controlled.
Now I give one or two examples. For instance a they the Indian princes they are men of rajas tremendous courage or they were and they used to send their sons to a British school in India a school for princes which was run by a British headmaster. And one of the things they admired and said that they admired about the British system as it then was was that there was a capacity to rise above into sattva Our sense of humour is a manifestation of sattva . We can rise above the humiliation rise above the anger and laugh. Wilde when one of his plays was a total flop he was asked afterwards it must have been a very bitter experience for him ‘How did the play go?’ He said ‘Oh, the play was a success but the audience was a failure’. Now this is very much admired in India and Japan and China this capacity to rise above the personal situation completely and proof of having risen above it is the ability to make a brave joke like that even in the failure and the humiliation. Well the I knew the headmaster of that school and he told me that one of the princes of a kingdom of Tewari .
The boy turned up at school sent by his father and after he’d been there about a week they were to write an essay and he made a very slipshod job of this essay. And the headmaster told me ‘I looked at this thing and I said to him in front of the whole class Oh this is a very poor piece of work so you’ll have to do very much better than this’ and handed it back to the boy. Called him up and handed back to be taken away ‘Do it again’. And he said afterwards that young boy about fourteen asked to see him. So the headmaster saw him in his study and he said he looked at me and he said ‘Of course sir, you don’t know but we of the royal house of Tewari are never reprimanded in front of other people. Never.’ He said ‘If I’ve done a bad piece of work, I’ll take any punishment you give me. Tell me to put my hand in the fire and I’ll do it’. And the headmaster told me he said ‘He would have done it’. He said I told him I said ‘No. Your father has sent you here to learn independence and freedom from this tremendous pride of yours which can’t admit to a failure in front of other people. This is what he sent you to learn.’ The boy accepted that. Now that is an example of rajas the young prince was pure rajas and he was prepared to accept any consequence of that rajas but he wasn’t able to rise to something beyond it to be able to say ‘Yes, I’ve done a bad piece of work and it’s right that I should be reprimanded in front of the others’. Sometimes rajas tries to imitate sattva imitate that rising above.
Now another example. I give an example from these princes because they were very good examples of the best kind of rajas . They were very brave and they had tremendous sense of honour. Well one of them there were always of course petty little points of etiquette and so on coming up. One of them was insulted or thought he’d been insulted by another rajah this was a full mature rajah he thought he’d been insulted by another rajah and he was talking about this to Sir Maurice Garnier Hallett who was then the Chief Justice of India and who told me this. And he said this rajah said to me ‘You’ve heard of course of the of what happened what A said about me’. So Sir Maurice said ‘Well yes’. And the rajah said ‘This is a matter of complete indifference to me what A may have said’. So Sir Maurice said ‘Well that’s no more than I should have expected Your Royal Highness ‘. He said ‘No. Supposing I’m sitting in my palace. My wife is reading Persian poems to me she’s a beautiful reader and then some dog barks in the street. Am I to get up and rush to the balcony and shout Shut Up No of course not. I simply sit there and I go on calmly listening to my wife.’ So Sir Maurice Hallett said ‘Well, that’s no more than well naturally of course Your Highness Your Royal Highness is above it all.’ ‘Am I to take notice if a washerwoman in the palace happens to shout at another one and I happen to overhear it am I to be disturbed by that? Of course not.’ So Sir Maurice said ‘No no of course not no no no’. He said ‘I’m quite indifferent to these remarks A has been making. But I must say he has behaved as no gentleman would behave.’ Well there was an attempt to imitate the sattva by a man who was purely of rajas . Now in the Gita it gives a number of very vivid illustrations of these three Gunas how they apply to the same action. For instance the action of giving. The giving the gift made by a man of tamas is made contemptuously and it’s made at an inappropriate time and place and it’s made without any sort of proper style of gift it’s just… The man of rajas gives in order to get something back or he gives under pressure ‘They’re all giving I’ve got to give something but I don’t want to but I have to’. But the man of sattva gives because he sees that this is right to give he doesn’t expect any return at all and he hides the fact that he’s made the gift. Now this is the same action as seen through these three Gunas.
Now one more illustration. Firmness. The firmness of the man of sattva is the firmness by which the man of meditation is able to control his body and his senses and his mind by yoga and meditation this is the firmness of sattva . Shankara says ‘Without yoga meditation he will not always be able to control them’. The firmness of a man of rajas is the firmness with which he does actions expecting to get the return from them. When he gives in charity he makes sure his name goes up. He makes sure people know about it and he makes sure that there will be some sort of return. And he firmly holds to that. His virtue which he firmly holds to is always for gain. The man of tamas this is a very very acute psychological observation the firmness of the man of tamas is the firmness with which he holds firmly to grief, pain, despair and laziness. Now at first we think ‘What? Holds firmly to pain and grief?’ And then we come to see that it’s true. People hold to their pain and suffering. The neurotic as Freud says holds to the neurosis ‘No-one can help me It always goes wrong It’s no good No good I’ve tried before.’ Well it’s holding firmly to pain. The man of rajas comes up and says ‘I’m going to help you if it kills both of us’. And the man of tamas says ‘No-one can help me’.
The man of sattva sees both clearly and he is able to help in the way in which it will be effective. Well these are the three Gunas . Now Patanjali makes a great deal of the transformation of our actions from tamas and rajas to actions of sattva when they begin to become transparent because they’re no longer tied up with building a personality building a prestige in the world building a nice little comfortable circle they’re not tied up with those they begin to become transparent. And when they become transparent then the divine element begins to shine through. Now this is the first point. The purification it’s called by Shankara the purification of the being of man. The rajas and tamas become subservient and of minor significance. He still sleeps and he’s still active but they can be controlled. There are people in everything they do they’re ceaselessly active. He’s always looking for something. If he’s a boxer he’s constantly on the attack constantly waiting for the chances. And the funny thing is the man who does that in boxing or judo always on the attack his chess is just the same from the very beginning he’s on the attack. Then you get the other man of tamas now he waits defends in boxing or judo or chess now he waits. The other chap wears himself out boxing defends and then when the man of rajas is exhausted the man of tamas comes in with a counter. And it runs right through their whole lives. When they go to a meeting a committee meeting a parents/teachers association
A man of rajas he’s making speeches from the very beginning he wants to force it through. The people of tamas they think ‘Oh no he’s getting all excited about these things, you know. No no. They try new things but maybe they won’t work. At least what we’ve got it works a bit. Why get all bothered about it?’ There’s a man in Japan who tells old people he says ‘Don’t fret about being called an obstinate and angry old man or a venomous old woman that’s the role a nagging old woman an obstinate and angry old man that’s the role. Don’t bother about it if they call you that. But is it worthwhile why not be just like an old cat? It has its milk it doesn’t get excited about anything it’s not worried about mice or anything like that it just sits in the sun and laps its milk.’ So he’s telling them to go back into a state of tamas. But in the yoga it says to transcend both these two the tendency to inertia the tendency to furious activity and to be able to alternate them. And an expert in any field is able to do both. At a meeting an important meeting the real expert sometimes he’ll wait for an hour and a half all the proposals and counter proposals and rows and hobby horses are passed over then he makes his speech with tremendous energy and everybody’s so exhausted they say ‘Yes yes yes Yes, pass this this is what we want this is what we want’. Now he can do alternating tamas and rajas he can remain still motionless or he can move rapidly. Now he is a man who can manipulate both.
Patanjali makes a great point about having the ability to look at our behaviour to be able to modify it. Not to say ‘I’m like this I’m like that’ but to be able to change it to realise that it can be changed. And when we begin to realise that these things are changeable and soft then we can alter the routes of the mind. But if we have a fixed conviction ‘This is me I’m like this We’re like that in our family’ it’s fixed ‘But no Couldn’t change’. Well now passing on now this is the basis which Patanjali says ‘unless this is done meditation will not be possible’ Unless the surface activity and the routes of that of the mind are partially at least purified partially made sattvawic and with this tamasic and rajasic convictions thinned out meditation will not be possible. Now we move onto the actual points of meditation.
© Trevor Leggett