māṁ ca yo’vyabhicārena bhaktiyogena sevate
sa gunān samatītyai’tān brahmabhūyāya kalpate
One who serves Me with love and unswerving devotion transcends the three modes of material Nature and becomes fit for Nirvana. Trans. Prasad (14.26).
Chapter fourteen explains in detail the three gunas or modes of material nature and the way to transcend them. The lowest or most damaging guna is called tamas, which can be described as lethargy, laziness, inertia, or ignorance. The person in whom this quality predominates will have a hard time transcending the physical nature and the life of the senses. Addictive and self-destructive behavior is likely for someone stuck in this mode, for he or she lacks the energy, the dynamism, the force of will necessary to fully engage with the world. Such a person likely uses other people in a manipulative sort of way in order to make it from day to day, for this type of person does not have the wherewithal necessary to become a support and refuge for others. The quality of tamas is very strong in the present adharmic age or age of darkness (kali yuga). Someone who only has a few tamasic tendencies can still be quite a good person but will feel stuck in life or bound by present conditions.
The guna or quality of tamas can be defeated by rajas, the second mode of material nature, which can be called passion, assertion, or willfulness. This type of personality is much more dynamic than the tamasic individual and may even have excellent leadership ability. This guna is characterized by attachment to the fruits of action. This pragmatic personality type is willing to work hard but always expects to see the rewards of his or her action. The rajasic individual is therefore likely to be short-sighted, concentrated only on the needs of the present moment, and still quite attached to the life of the senses. The quality of rajas, when it predominates, does not lead to lower birth unless it is accompanied by a heavy dose of tamas. Many great people in the world have a predominance of rajas: they are not necessarily good or bad but do not pursue liberation either. For this reason, they reap the fruit of rebirth into cyclic existence, likely in the same sort of incarnation that they inhabit now.
The third and final guna is called sattva, which can be translated as clarity or goodness. Just as rajas defeats tamas, so sattva defeats rajas. The final guna leads individuals to strive for liberation. At this point, one begins to practice selfless service, study the scriptures, and meditate. ONe begins to seek the company of saints and sages and begin to serve the deities. This quality still belongs to material nature and does not itself produce liberation. It just makes one prepared to receive liberation. Sattva cures the wounds that have been caused by the other two gunas and leads one up to the threshold of enlightenment.
In the key verse above, Sri Krishna says that one becomes fit for liberation by serving God. This can be done in many ways: through work, through ritual practice, through asanas and pranayama. Gradually the sattvic nature triumphs over the other gunas. The sattvic individual makes him or herself a living sacrifice to the gods and becomes irresistible to the Supreme Being. A great effort over a long period of time culminates in release, called moksha or enlightenment. There are many smaller enlightenments that everyday spiritual aspirants experience in the course of sadhana, but the highly realized being can enter the state of samadhi at will and does not take rebirth.
It should be stated that the vast majority of people have a combination of all three gunas in their constitution, and these three qualities fluctuate over time, depending on one’s life circumstances and the conditioned responses that one chooses in response to these circumstances. Free will can be exercised within any guna, but it is very difficult for less realized beings to exercise free will. For this reason, we should have strong compassion for those who are trapped within any sort of addiction. We should also avoid diagnosing others with having a preponderance of this or that guna and apply these labels only to ourselves and only in private contemplation. It will do no good to bemoan having a tamasic or rajasic constitution: the only thing to be done is to continue to strive for improvement, to keep accessing the sattvic nature and strengthening it according to the guru’s instructions. Those gunas which are most exercised are the ones that grow in strength, while the less-exercised gunas atrophy.
There are also adjunct practices that can lead to a more sattvic nature. The science of ayurveda can teach sattvic diet and prescribe herbal remedies that can ease both health conditions and various addictions. Jyotish, the science of light, also called Vedic astrology, can prescribe planetary remedies to ease the transition to the higher gunas. Someone who has a tamasic nature, might say Mars (Mangala) mantra, for example, to increase his or her power of willpower and action. Both ayurveda and jyotish require expert advice, as the wrong remedy can actually make the situation worse. Shri Krishna, in this chapter, advises only regarding God as the doer and standing back from the three gunas to watch their play. Taking this observer stance, the stance of detachment, requires no expert advice, can be practiced by anyone, and is highly effective.
Just to recap the three gunas in everyday language, the predominating question for the tamasic individual is, “How can I avoid having to act in the world?” This person resorts to manipulation and bad behavior to get what he or she wants, expending the least amount of effort possible, acting not out of a desire for liberation but out of a slothful nature. The predominating question for the rajasic person is, “How can I act in the world to get what I want?” This person has come a long way from the tamasic point of view but still demands immediate recompense for all action. The predominating question for the sattvic person is, “How can I act in the best possible way?” This person may outwardly perform some of the exact same actions as the rajasic person, but the emphasis has changed. This person seeks to infuse actions with love and devotion, whether these actions are practical or religious in nature. So, with each guna, the emphasis becomes more internal and qualitative. Notice that there is action involved in all three gunas, but the quality of that action changes as the person evolves. The quick fix of the earlier stages gives way to patient action with the overall goal of liberation.