The Three Modes of Material Nature

Bhagavad-gītā 14.5

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sattvaḿ rajas tama iti

guṇāḥ prakṛti-sambhavāḥ

nibadhnanti mahā-bāho

dehe dehinam avyayam

Material nature consists of three modes — goodness, passion and ignorance. When the eternal living entity comes in contact with nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, he becomes conditioned by these modes.

The “Three Modes of Nature” are a huge topic of discussion for everyone from astrologers to yogis to pundits to jnanis to devotees. This text, text 5 of chapter 14 in Bhagavad-Gita introduces the concept of the “three modes” and the rest of the chapter (even the rest of the whole book to some extent) will elaborate on this theme.

In Chapter 13 of the Gita we heard Kṛṣṇa explaining that there is mater and spirit. And in the beginning of Chapter 14 we heard that Kṛṣṇa (as Vishnu) is the “father” who puts the spiritual seeds into the womb of matter, our “mother” – mother nature. All living things are born from this act of conception.

Thus the soul is bound into matter. This same act is repeated every time a child is conceived. It is only the scale which is different, smaller. When Vishnu and mother nature conceive, infinite souls are bound into infinite varieties of bodies – it is just like regular conception, but the scale is gigantic.

The question now is this, “What is the glue that binds matter and spirit together???”

The answer is in this text – guṇāḥ prakṛti-sambhavāḥ: The “three modes” – which arise from the power of mother nature… nibadhnanti: are the ropes, the glue, the welding that binds the soul almost inexorably into a material body (dehe dehinam).

Kṛṣṇa, with a mild smile then addresses Arjuna by the term, mahā-bāho – “Big Arms.” Kṛṣṇa is saying, “You are a big warrior. You can kill anyone. Your arms are huge, and you are fearless and powerful and unstoppable. But you too are just a plaything in these three modes. You are bound up in them, and your big arms can’t get you free.” By saying this – Kṛṣṇa means to show how terrifyingly powerful the three modes of nature are. Their glue is unbeakable.

What are these “modes”?

I would like to give some time to this question. The topic of the three modes is so huge and pervasive throughout all Vedic-based thought that it is really helpful and essential almost to have as clear as possible an understanding of what these modes really are.

I have an air conditioner over here. It has four modes. One more is to cool, another is to heat, a third is self-cleaning, and the fourth is “automatic.” My vaccum cleaner has 2 modes, or 3 really – off, on, and strong. My cell phone has three modes too: off, silent, and normal. These are “modes.” A mode is the manner in which a thing operates.

In some languages fashion is called “mode.” It is a manner of operating, a manner of dressing oneself. Once can dress in business mode, punk mode, Indian mode, etc. Are you starting to have a clear idea of what a “mode” is?

Material nature has three modes.

That means it has three settings, three fashions, three manners of operation. Kṛṣṇa names them here in this verse: sattvaḿ rajas tama iti. And Srila Prabhupāda, I think, pioneered a novel English translation of them. He calls sattva the “mode of goodness,” rajas the “mode of passion,” and tamas the “mode of ignorance.”

Sattva, Rajas, Tamas… Goodness, passion and ignorance.

What is in a name? A whole lot, let me tell you that. Names are the handles by which we understand what an object is in shorthand form. So let’s explore the names of the three modes more. By doing so we will very clearly (achem, that is a mode too) understand how the world around us is operating. By understanding how the modes operate we get some sort of a grip on slackening the weld, the bond, the glue that binds our consciousness to the limited, material state of awareness.

Sattva refers to the nature of existence itself. Sat means to exist. The soul, especially the energy and willpower of the soul, is referred to by the name sattva throughout Vedic writings. Now, why would a mode or setting of material nature be called by the same word that we call the soul???

It is because this is the mode which allows the inherent nature of the soul to shine through – uncovered. So I like to refer to the mode of sattva as the “clear mode.”  When the material world functions in this manner, the mode of clarity, things become very  clear, illuminated, bright, simple, and peaceful – because this mode essentially “gets out of the way” and allows the inherent clarity and effulgence of our souls shine directly into the world and make it illuminated and peaceful. Thus the sattva mode makes us “good” – just like the soul, so Prabhupāda called it the Mode of Goodness.

Then there is rajas – the second mode in which the world operates. This word means “dust” – because this mode puts a thin layer over the soul – like dust over a mirror. The sattva mode is like a clean window, and the rajas mode is like a dusty window. This mode allows the energy and nature of the soul to come through – but diverts it and alters it. The natural willpower and enthusiasm of the soul can shine through when the world operates in rajas mode, but it gets diverted from its natural selfless, loving objectives into mundane, selfish objectives. Thus the mode of rajas takes the soul’s energy and enthusiasm and directs it into selfish, material pursuits. It makes us passionate, and that’s why Prabhupāda calls this the Mode of Passion.

Finally there is tamas. Sattva was a clear window, rajas was a dusty window, tamas is a shuttered window. Almost no light comes through.  The word literally means “dark.” When this mode is active there are blinds and shutters closed over the soul and very little of her natural quality can come into the world. Thus this mode makes us get tired and fall asleep (lack of vitality from the soul), and lose the ability to see (lack of light from the soul). So this mode is characterized by confusion, disorganization, lack of clarity, and the frustration that results. It is found in dark places that are disorderly. Because the mode of darkness blocks the souls ability to illuminate its world, Prabhupāda calls it the Mode of Ignorance… since ignorance is the lack of inherent knowledge.

To sum it up… the soul is bound into matter by three ropes which arise from material nature. One is the rope of clarity, then there is the rope of dusty consciousness directed towards selfishness, and then there is the rope of lethargy and confusion resulting from a darkness blocking the conscious soul.

I hope this will serve as a good primer for the details about the three modes that will now follow in Chapter 14.

Are there any questions or comments, discussions?

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12 Comments

  1. Great analysis of yet another topic which deserves utmost attention by anyone who wants to understand and then also practically apply Krishna’s teachings. I was happy to see that you had also analysed the literal meanings of the gunas’ names. Great job. I would just add that rajas, coming from the root ranj (to be dyed or coloured) can also be translated as “the colouring mode”, something which colours the transparent sattva.

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  2. Been thinking about this, but been quite ill lately so haven’t been able to process much. Anyways the material world has always baffled me. I remember as a young child not understanding why it was so important to accumulate material wealth. To me, that didn’t matter. I’ve always been overly generous with any money I’ve had– giving it away really. Yet the human part of me does desire to have the comforts wealth can bring. To me there is a huge difference in wanting to hoard money (greed) and wanting to feel comfortable and secure.

    I’m curious though Vic, whats your opinion on the uber-rich. I know many who don’t have their kind of money look in awe and envy — but really aren’t those the ones who are further locked in the illusions? Could it be concluded their karma is that much hard to get out of?

    That what appears to be a blessing is really their curse?

    Love to hear your thoughts if you’d share them–or anyone else who happens to read this!

    Many thanks!

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    1. The “Material World” is not just about being “Materialistic.” The “material world” in Indian Philosophy refers to the world that is made of matter, in contrast to the “spiritual world” – the world made of consciousness.

      Being materialistic is a function of the mode of passion – rajo-guna. Having lots of money doesn’t mean one is materialistic, being greedy means one is materialistic. Usually people with lots of money are also very greedy, but not always.

      All three modes bind the soul to illusion. In that sense any one is as good or bad as any other. However philosophers and experienced transcendentalists tend to give preference to the mode of goodness – because it gives a better OPPORTUNITY to reach for a condition which is beyond the three modes.

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  3. Glad I just now remembered that you replied to this! Thank you for your response here in helping me better understand this–so material world would be all things tangible in a physical sense if I’m understanding you fully.

    I remember reading somewhere–or being told by someone else; that two spiritual beings couldn’t together “enjoy” material wealth– i.e, be wealthy. I don’t know how true this is or not? Doesn’t help I don’t even recall the source– maybe it was part of a Hindu epic though? I don’t know… but nonetheless it had me curious.

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    1. It’s great if you don’t worry about being silly or not. That is awesome. If we are worried about being silly we miss golden opportunities. So keep up the good work and keep asking questions!

      The “material world” is the world is an English term. The closest thing in Sanskrit is Bahiranga-shakti or Prakriti. These both mean the EXTERNAL energy of God. The material world is a “place” in which souls exist when they wish to be in illusion and forgetful of the God-centered nature of reality. The material world is an illusion of tangible things – beginning with a selfish ego, and then unfolding into subtle, intangible elements like emotions and thoughts, and then into tangible elements like solids, liquids, gases, energies and the space that holds all of them. Simultaneously there are the senses (eyes, ears, etc.) that perceive all these objects and interact with them. This is the “material world.”

      Since the root cause of the material world is the selfish ego, we have a popular connotation of “material world” meaning a person who is “materialistic” or “greedy” etc. etc.

      As far as your new question…

      Can a spiritual being enjoy material wealth? I say it is impossible for ANY number of spiritual beings, one, two or whatever, to actually and truly enjoy material wealth of any sort because all material things are illusory and therefore only exist for a brief moment in the present tense before disappearing and transforming into a different illusion.

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  4. Thanks for your replies. They really are so helpful!! I do often worry a lot that I may be asking too many questions! 🙂 But that is how we learn by doing so, Thanks for helping reinforce this too!!!

    Wow your answers on the material world shed new light for me that is forsure. 🙂 These concepts as you describe them became very clear to me in 2009— during my breakdown. The breakdown of the former me. It was quite a trying time to see the illusions surrounding me and yet being surrounded by so many that were simply asleep to this all. By all outer appearances I probably did seem like I was going “crazy.”

    Okay as far as the material wealth– I do see what you are saying too. Because as long as one is enjoying such wealth one is further bound to such illusions right? Stuck in the material world. The material world as you’ve defined it for me above.

    Again, thank you– very much appreciated!!

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  5. The Three Modes of Material Nature is the three forces within us that allows us to exist..Nature being female, obvious has modes, three shakis or powers of a female nature and these are represented by the Three Goddesses – Saraswati – The power to Learn and Think-Intelligence:
    Lakshmi – The Power to Sustain – To Love for Love sustains all of Life. and Durga/Kali – The Power to Activate Life – Create and Destroy

    Physically, These modes of Material Nature can be measured
    Spiritually, These modes of Material Nature are immeasurable.

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  6. Well I think one has to know all modes and leave it, even if you are in the goodness mode and don’t go beyond it, you cannot see the supreme. The illusion is the goodness mode is right, but even that is a illusion. What do you think let me know?

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