Material nature consists of three modes – goodness, passion and ignorance. When the eternal living entity comes in contact with nature, he becomes conditioned by these modes. – Bhagavad Gita 14.5
What are the unseen material powers in the universe that drive us to act in ways sometimes against our better judgement? The Bhagavad Gita talks about the three gunas, literally “ropes” because of their binding nature. These invisible powers, or gunas, are also referred to as “qualities” or “modes”. According to our frame of mind and our choice of words and actions, we tune into a particular guna or a combination of gunas and come under their influence.
The first of the three is sattva, goodness. The Gita describes it as “illuminating”, meaning that people strongly influenced by this mode lean toward purity, knowledge, peacefulness and happiness. The second, rajas, the mode of passion, compels us to work hard and achieve as much as we can; it increases our taste for challenge and reward. The third, tamas, the mode of ignorance, pulls us toward envy, hate, anger, apathy, indifference, depression, and, in its more lethal stages, madness and suicide. The Gita (3.5) says, “All are forced to act helplessly according to the qualities they have acquired from the modes of material nature – and no one can refrain from acting for a moment.”
People respond to situations based on how they are influenced by the modes, so different people respond to, or even witness, the same situations differently. The three modes pervade all matter in both its physical and subtle forms. Just as the three primary colors – red, yellow and blue – mix to produce a wide spectrum of other colors, so goodness, passion, and ignorance blend in this way and produce innumerable combinations of influences on the things we see and our behaviour and attitudes in relation to them.
Some of these influences are easy to see, such as on food. The Gita (17.8–10) says, for example, “Food in the mode of goodness increases duration of life, purifies existence, gives strength, health, happiness and satisfaction. Such food is juicy, wholesome and pleasing to the heart. Foods that are too bitter, too sour, too salty, too hot, or too pungent are in the mode of passion. Foods that are stale, decomposed or putrid, or a product of bloodshed are in the mode of ignorance.”
The Gita analyses a number of items or acts – for example, how we give charity. Charity given without expectation of return, with the intention of genuinely helping someone, is in the mode of goodness, but charity performed for one’s gain, whether that gain is profit or prestige, or charity given in a grudging mood, is in the mode of passion. Giving something impure or without considering what effect the gift will have, or a gift that benefits no one, is made in the mode of ignorance.
A place can also be influenced by the modes. A library is a place where the mind can be calm and concentrated, so it is designed to be clean, quiet, and well lit, all sattvic qualities. Try studying in a rajasic place, like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, or in a tamasic place, like a smoke-filled and raucous bar. We’re influenced by our surroundings because we’re influenced by the modes. It’s natural to seek out places conducive to what we’re trying to accomplish at any given moment. Few people will go to a bar to meditate. Rather, people look for somewhere natural and green, or at the very least clean and peaceful. That’s because generally such spiritual practices are sattvic. It helps to perform spiritual activities in a sattvic environment because such an environment is conducive for a clear head and heart.
The mixture of modes in us reflects our interests and aspirations in past lives as well as the choices we’ve made in this one. With observation and reflection, we can identify which modes are affecting our behaviour most prominently.
But most important, it is the intent behind one’s actions rather than the actions themselves that primarily define their quality. Therefore, it is best not to judge others by what they do too quickly. External appearances can be misleading. Hard work, for instance, is not necessarily in the mode of passion; it is the selfish or materially attached objective behind the work that qualifies it as rajasic.
Goodness is characterised by preservation, passion by creation, and ignorance by destruction. Thoughtful people balance their passions with goodness to create healthy, beneficial results. And they guard against allowing their passions to be influenced by the mode of ignorance, creating unhealthy, destructive consequences or habits.
(This article is an excerpt from Radhanath Swami’s The Journey Within)