sattvaḿ rajas tama iti
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?