Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Ramanuja | Discourse 14 verse 1-10
Guṇa -traya-vibhāga Yogaḥ
The Threefold Division of the Modes of Material Nature
Summary of the Teaching
In the thirteenth chapter it was taught that after learning the truth concerning the nature of Prakṛti and Purusha and their mutual conjunction, one should cultivate the virtues of humility etc., together with devotion to the Lord as the means for liberation from bondage.
And it was also stated in the verse —“Its attachment to these Guṇas is the cause of birth in higher and lower wombs” (13.21) — the cause of bondage is attachment to pleasure etc., which arise from affiliation with the Guṇas.
Now, this chapter deals with the manner in which the Guṇas become the cause of bondage and how their hold can be eliminated.
śri bhagavān uvāca
paraṃbhūyaḥpravakṣyāmi jñānānāṃjñānam uttamam |
yaj-jñātvāmunayaḥsarve parāṃsiddhim ito gatāḥ|| 1 ||
The Blessed Lord said
1. I shall teach again another kind of knowledge: the best of all forms of knowledge, by knowing which, all the sages have attained the state of perfection beyond this world.
Now in this chapter the Lord Krishna propounds how the guṇas or three modes:
1. sattva guṇa or mode of goodness,
2. raja guṇa or mode of passion and
3. tama guṇa or mode of ignorance
- all individually and conjointly cause the jīva or embodied being to be bound to samsāra, the perpetual cycle of birth and death and gives the remedy by which one may be redeemed and delivered therefrom.
The word pravakṣyāmi means I will declare. What will Lord Krishna declare?
He will declare jñānānāṃ jñānam uttamam, meaning the topmost knowledge and wisdom.
What knowledge and wisdom is this?
Knowledge of the three guṇas whose qualities directly influence the combination of prakṛti and Puruṣa effected as the jīva or embodied being.
What wisdom is this? Wisdom that surpasses all that has previously been told about this combination.
The munis are the great sages and seers or munayaḥ who possessing this wisdom in deep meditation achieve self-realisation and release from samsāra, ascending to the supreme state.
The excellence of this wisdom is extolled next.
idaṃjñānam upāśritya mama sadharmyam āgatāḥ|
sarge’pi nopajāyante pralaye na vyathanti ca || 2 ||
2. Resorting to learning this and participating in My Being, they are not born at the time of universal projection, nor do they suffer at the time of its dissolution.
This knowledge and wisdom which the great sages possess is what Lord Krishna is elaborating about in this chapter.
The words mama sadharmyam means endowed with a similar divine eternality like the Supreme Lord.
The word sarge, meaning “creation” denotes the time of beginning and the word pralaye denotes the time of dissolution.
Those who have acquired this knowledge and realised its wisdom, having transcended, are exempt from both and subject neither to birth nor death.
The explanation of how all existing beings result in their forms by the combination of matter and spirit
and how the qualities of prakṛti or the material substratum pervading physical existence come to manifest was already eloquently delineated in chapter 13 verse 22.
mama yonir mahad-brahma tasmin garbham dadhāmyaham |
saṃbhavaḥsarva bhūtānāṃtato bhavati bhārata || 3 ||
3. My womb is the great Brahman (i.e. Mūla-Prakṛti), in that I lay the germ. From that, O Arjuna, are all beings born.
Inanimate and inert earth, water, fire, air, ether along with manas or mind, buddhi or intelligence and ahaṁkāra or ego all constitute Lord Krishna's eightfold differentiated aspects of matter.
But they only comprise His external energy and are inferior.
The mahad-brahma signifies the infinite extension of prakṛti or the material substratum pervading physical existence by dint of its being the primal source of all variegations of species and subspecies which emanate thereof correspondingly in the forms of manas, buddhi and ahaṁkāra.
Passages found in various Vedic scriptures sometime refer to prakṛti in specific circumstances in the purview of the Brāhman or spiritual substratum pervading all existence.
An example is seen in the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad II.II.VII. beginning yah sarvajnah sarvavid which states:
“The Supreme Lord is omniscient and omnipotent and His glory is pervading through all of creation”.
He eternally dwells in Vaikuṇṭha, the eternal, transcendental spiritual worlds and simultaneously with the heart of every jīva or embodied being.
The term garbha means seed as in embryo in the form of all the animate myriad trillions of ātmas or immortal souls manifesting within the jīvas en masse at the time of their appearance.
So in the inanimate, womb like nature of prakṛti the Supreme Lord casts the animate seeds in aggregate corresponding precisely to the exact finite number of ātmas for every jīva in creation.
The purport is that the Supreme Lord impregnates material nature with souls in the form of incalculable living entities that assume unlimited forms throughout material existence, the Kṣetrajña or knower of the field of activity uniting with the kṣetra or field of activity.
Thus are all jīvas from Brahma down to a one-cell amoeba manifested by the combination of the aforementioned principles; generated by the will of the Supreme Lord.
That such manifestation is actually and factually from the Supreme Lord will be given next.
sarva yoniṣu kaunteya mūrtayaḥsambhavanti yāḥ|
tāsāṃbrahma mahad-yonir ahaṃbīja-pradaḥpitā|| 4 ||
4. Whatever beings are produced in any species, O Arjuna, the Mūla-Prakṛti is their great womb and I am the seed giving father.
Whatever forms that are generated into existence from the wombs of devas, demons, human, animal, birds, reptile, fish, etc. all manifest from the great womb of inanimate existence within the Brāhman or spiritual substratum pervading all existence
and is known as prakṛti the material substratum pervading physical existence by dint of its modifications known as the three guṇas of sattva or goodness, Rājas or passion and tamas or nescience.
These modifications manifest due to circumstances based on the individual karma of unlimited jīvas or embodied beings who are embedded by the Supreme Lord with the animate aspect known as the ātma or immortal soul.
This is the cause of all created beings and thus Lord Krishna is thus the father of all.
The primary reason for such diverse generating of jīvas will be given next.
sattvaṃ-rajas-tama iti guṇāḥprakṛti saṃbhavāḥ|
nibadhnanti mahābāho dehe dehinam avyayam || 5 ||
5. Sattva, Rājas and Tamas are the Guṇas that arise from Prakṛti. They cause the bondage of the immutable Self to the body, O Arjuna.
The three guṇas or modes of material nature are sattva or goodness, Rājas or passion and tamas or nescience and all arise from prakṛti the material substratum pervading physical existence.
The guṇas in actual fact are the attributes and qualities of prakṛti and their existence can be discerned from the effects that they are responsible for producing such as intelligence, dim-wittedness or beautiful, ugly, etc.
These attributes and qualities are in a latent state within material nature when it is unevolved but manifests themselves when in an evolved state.
The results of their effects is that the immutable ātma or immortal soul is nibadhnanti, which means enslaved by material sentiments of the mind.
Due to this the ātma is impounded in a body as a captive, forced to be manufactured as a jīva or an embodied being and subject to birth and death within the body of a deva, human, animal, fish, etc.
The characteristics of the individual guṇas, along with their method of imprisoning the jīva, are given by Lord Krishna next.
tatra sattvaṃnirmalatvāt prakāśakam anāmayam |
sukha-saṅgena badhnāti jñāna-saṅgena cānagha || 6 ||
6. Of these, Sattva, being pure is illuminating and free from morbidity. It causes bondage, O Arjuna, through attachment to pleasure and to learning.
The characteristics given by Lord Krishna of sattva or the mode of goodness within the three guṇas or modes of material nature is that it is pure and lucid and shines brightly.
Purity and clarity is that which negates obscuration of brightness and happiness. As illumination and happiness can only result from sattva it is understood to be their cause.
The word prakāśakam means illuminates, enlightens, reveals the exact knowledge of.
The word anāmayam means of peaceful quality, which has no inherent cause for producing discomfort, pain or sickness, denoting that sattva is the cause of good health.
The quality of sattva produces in the jīva or embodied being the predisposition for happiness and knowledge.
When the dispositions for happiness and knowledge arise in life one embarks upon such worldly material enterprises and spiritual pursuits as correlates to the level of one's development and evolution.
Hence the jīva is propelled to take birth in such wombs that are favourably suited for the enjoyment of one's karma or resultant reactions to actions which arising out of sattva are positive.
Born in sattva the inclinations and disposition that one has again gravitates towards happiness and knowledge and in this way lifetime by lifetime in sattva guṇa the mode of goodness one has the opportunity to advance in spiritual life.
But this opportunity is not accessible to those born in the two inferior guṇas of Rājas or passion and tamas or ignorance as will be described next.
rajo rāgātmakaṃviddhi tṛṣṇā-saṅga samudbhavam |
tan nibadhnāti kaunteya karma-saṅgena dehinam || 7 ||
7. Know, O Arjuna (Son of Kuntī) that Rājas is of the nature of passion arising from craving and attachment, it causes the bondage of the embodied Self through attachment to action.
Lord Krishna explains that the mode of passion is known as Rājas and is the cause of sexual desires known as carnal lust.
From Rājas arises tṛṣṇā which is desire for all forms of sensual enjoyments through the medium of the senses, such as seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and feeling.
Also arising from Rājas is saṅga or desire to be in the association of family, friends and loved ones.
Thus Rājas encourages desires and promotes activities to enjoy such desires which binds one to the reactions of merits or demerits and keeps the jīva or embodied being incessantly revolving in samsāra or the perpetual cycle of birth and death.
This propensity for constantly performing actions is inherent and also causes the jīva to take birth at a specific place with a particular body suitable to enjoy the rewards of previous actions.
Hence by instigating the desire for performing works one is kept in bondage. In this way Rājas is known to be the root cause of lust, sensual desires and attachment.
tamas tvajñānajaṃviddhi mohanaṃsarva dehinām |
pramād-ālasya nidrābhis-tan nibadhnāti bhārata || 8 ||
8. Know that Tamas is born of nescience and causes the delusion of all embodied Selves. It causes bondage, O Arjuna, through negligence, indolence and sleep.
Lord Krishna describes the word ajñāna meaning ignorance which is the antithesis of wisdom. The word jñāna meaning knowledge is the precise, accurate perception whereas ajñāna is the perverted, inaccurate perception.
The word tamas means darkness denoting the darkness of ignorance and is diametrically opposite to the light of knowledge.
The word mohanaṃ is that which deludes into illusion and the darkness of ignorance.
This tamas is also the cause of pramāda or madness and listlessness which is the inability to focus, having a fragmented attention span.
It is also the cause of alasya or indolence, sloth-like laziness which is the inability to properly execute any endeavour properly and nidrābhi or sleep is the disinclination of the senses to function terminating all activities.
All these things nibadhnāti or binds one to the material existence without reprieve.
The sublation of the external senses constitutes the dream state; but when the mind is also sublated then the dream state becomes sleep.
sattvaṃsukhe sañjayati rajaḥkarmaṇi bhārata |
jñānam āvṛtya tu tamaḥpramāde sañjayaty-uta || 9 ||
9. The Mode of Sattva generates attachment to pleasure, Rājas to action, O Arjuna. But the Mode of Tamas, obscuring wisdom, generates attachment to negligence.
The cardinal features of three guṇas or modes of sattva or goodness, Rājas or passion and tamas or nescience are now being delineated by Lord Krishna.
The main quality of sattva is its ability to confer blessedness.
The main proponent of Rājas is that it impels vigorous activity and the dominant factor in tamas is that it obscures intelligence giving a perverted view of reality which results in the tendency to perform unnatural activities.
The three guṇas are the natural effects of prakṛti or the material substratum pervading physical existence and constitute the qualities of all matter which manifests into physical bodies both gross and subtle.
How they each give rise to consequences so radically different and conflicting with each other is answered in the next verse.
rajas tamaścābhibhūya sattvaṃbhavati bhārata |
rajas sattvaṃtamaścaiva tamas sattvaṃrajas-tathā|| 10 ||
10. Prevailing over Rājas and Tamas, Sattva [sometimes] prevails, O Arjuna. Overwhelming Tamas and Sattva, Rājas preponderates, overwhelming Rājas and Sattva, Tamas [sometimes] predominates.
Lord Krishna confirms the fact that the three guṇas or modes of sattva or goodness, Rājas or passion and tamas or nescience are the three qualities that exist within all jīvas or embodied beings in the material existence.
But owing to adṛṣṭa which is conditions imposed by the effects of past karma or reactions to actions, and determined as well by the types of food that were chosen to eat in sustaining the physical body in the previous life.
Based upon this assessment any of three guṇas may be dominant or they may neutralise each other or they may be antagonistic to each other depending upon which mode is more present and dominant within a jīva.
This being the reality it can be inferred by knowledge and discerned by witnessing the visible effects of the three guṇas as manifested within any jīva.