The Triple Qualities of Nature and the Indian Vision of Human Development – M.S. Srinivasan

imagesThe other original contribution of Sankhya philosophy to yoga psychology is the concept of three Gunas or qualities of Nature. But this is not a mere intellectual concept; like the other concept of Soul and Nature which we have discussed earlier, the concept of the triple qualities of Nature is the conceptualization of a deep experiential insight into our psychological nature. And it is an insight which can be verified by anyone through self-observation.

Nature, in the ancient Indian thought is not only physical but also psychological. Not only our Body but also our Psyche is part of Nature. And Nature is made of or functions through three qualities Tamas, Rajas, Sattwa.

Key Perspectives: inertia, dynamism and luminosity; evolutionary perspective; indian ideal of self-development; sattwic mind.

Inertia, Dynamism and Luminosity

Tamas is the principle in Inertia. Tamas is the predominant quality of Matter and the physical nature of man and the universe. In human consciousness Tamasic quality creates sloth, laziness, torpor, unwillingness to change, stupidity and darkness of ignorance. Rajas is the principle dynamism. Rajas is the predominant quality or nature of the emotions and the life-force in man and the universe. In human nature Rajas expresses itself in the form of desire, passion, energy, enthusiasm, restlessness, action, hatred, anxiety, stress, conflict and other vehement swings and upheavals of the emotional being. Sattwa is the principle of equilibrium and transparency. Sattwa is the essential quality of the Mind and the mental nature of Man and the Universe. In human consciousness, sattwa manifests itself as order, harmony, peace, purity, clarity, knowledge and the higher aspiration of the mind for light, truth, beauty and goodness. This triple qualities are present in every human being. They are the warp and woof of human nature. But in the course of natural evolution or through a personal discipline, a particular quality may become habitual and dominate the personality of the individual.

The Evolutionary Perspective

This concept of the triple Gunas of Nature has important theoretical and practical implications in our Yogic approach to human development. According to most of the Indian Yoga traditions, the triple qualities of Nature represent three stages in the psychological evolution of the human being. Every human being begins his evolutionary journey as a physical man living predominantly in his bodily consciousness driven by the quality of tamas. As he progresses, he becomes the vital man with his consciousness centred in his emotions, desire vital force and will driven by the quality of Rajas. And finally at the highest point of his psychological evolution, he becomes the fully developed mental man governed by the higher intellectual, ethical and aesthetic mind which is made of Sattwa. Thus Sattwa represent the highest point in the mental and psychological evolution. But Sattwa is not the highest ideal of human development in Yoga.

The Sattwic element in Nature may appear very spiritual, noble and disinterested. But behind the saintly appearance, there may be a big and refined ego with an intense attachment to or pride in its knowledge and virtues and nobility and the peace and happiness that come from sattwa. And this sattwic attachment and pride can become a big obstacle to spiritual development. The other defect of sattwa is that when it is too exclusively developed, tends towards a soft, gentle, and aloof poise of the mind with no willingness or the strength to face the fierce and aggressive aspects of life or Nature or else it may lead to a quietist asceticism which may result in a loss of vitality. But even if all these defects of sattwa are minimized. It represents only a limited mental and moral perfection which has to be sustained by a constant, vigilant and habitual effort of the sattwic intelligence. Sattwic realization is a limited perfection because there is the ever present danger of a collapse of the sattwic harmony by a sudden and unexpected upsurge of the long-suppresed tamasic and rajasic impulses. So the Yogic ideal of human development is to raise beyond sattwa to the self-existent and spontaneous perfection of the spiritual consciousness of the Purusha. In this spiritual consciousness, all the higher aesthetic, moral and spiritual values strenuously cultivated by the sattwic mind becomes concrete experiential realities of consciousness, felt concretely as integral part of our own being, as concretely as we feel our body as an integral part of our own self.

The Indian Ideal of Self-development

But still in the Indian Yogic tradition, the attainment of a sattwic mentality is considered as an important stage in human development. This is because, first, sattwa liberate the mental consciousness of man from the animal instincts and inertia of his predominantly tamasic nature and the brutish voilence, greed and passion of his predominantly rejasic vital nature. In other words sattwa liberates the human being, not absolutely but to a large extent, from the lower animal self and makes it truly human before becoming divine. Second, sattwa is closer and more receptive to the spiritual self and therefore, considered as the ideal condition for entering into the spiritual path and the higher meditative practices.

We must note here that the quality of Rajas which is the predominant quality of the emotions and life-force in man is not entirely of a negative character. The essence of the rajasic principle is dynamism energy, movement and action. Left to itself or uncontrolled, the rajasic quality, following the laws of entropy, tends to degenerates towards increasing disorder, becoming violence, greed and passion. But when it is kept in control and subjected to Sattwa, Rajas becomes a positive force for subjugating tamas and effectuating the sattwa. So Rajas subjugating Tamas, and Sattwa guiding and controlling Rajas is the right condition which leads to a balanced psychological development of the human being.

The Sattwic Mind

The other important insight of raja yogic psychology is on the true nature of mind. In the Indian tradition, Man, in the present condition of his evolution is essentially a mental being. And the essential quality of human mind is sattwa. And the deeper essence of Sattwa is Transparency. To be transparent like a crystal is the essence of sattwa. So the higher function of the mind is not so much to think, but to reflect faithfully and without distortion, like a transparent crystal the truth of all that is within it, the inner world of the psyche; all that is around it, the objective outer world of the senses; and all that is above it, the world of the Spirit. When the mind or consciousness acquires this highest sattwic purity, it acquires the power to identify itself with the object of knowledge and know the object by becoming one with the object of knowledge. To attain this highest state of mind, all the modifications or activities of the mind created by the unceasing cyclic and natural dynamism of the Gunas of Nature, that is Tamas, Rajas and Sattwa, here to be gradually reduced and then finally stilled. As Yoga sutra of Patanjali puts it “when the modifications (of the mind) have become weak, then (the mind) becomes like a transparent jewel and there is a cognitive blending of the knower, the knowledge and the knower.”

But to realise this highest sattwic purity, not only all the activities and “modifications” of Tamas and Rajas have to be stilled and their conditioning effect on the mind eliminated; even the nobler activities and the conditioning effect of the sattwic ego with its attachment to and pride in knowledge and virtue and its natural inclination to quietism and mental and moral judgements based on personal ideas have to be stilled and eliminated. Only then the Mind, as Patanjali points out, becomes like a transparent mirror reflecting the truth of things as it is without any personal interference or colouring by the knower.

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