In the Bhagavada Gita, Lord Krishna talks about the three gunas (modes of instinct) that are pre-installed in all beings. These modes of Nature include sattva (goodness or purity), rajas (passion), and tamas (darkness). All jivas (souls) and their activities in the universe are bound to Nature through the three modes, and the ratio of these modes in an individual forms one’s temperament. In Hindu thought, no one in the perceptible universe is supposed to escape the three gunas as any soul outside the range of Nature is defined as Brahman (God) Himself or is assumed to have reached the state of emancipation.
Our understanding, the process of recalling memories from the past, making a judgment, adhering to our decision, or performing an act – all karma derive their functioning from a combination of the three gunas.
Imagine you have some used textbooks that you wish to donate to a library or a school. Your initial idea involves no selfish motive; you are giving your books away as you have already read them and believe that it would be virtuous to offer them to other students who may now use them. As you go to your room to pick them up, you observe an advertisement in a newspaper on your desk, which describes a trade-in offer for old textbooks. You learn that for each book you exchange, you may get a discount on a new one. You get attracted to their offer, suddenly change your initial plan, and get ready for the bookstore in place of going to the library. Lastly, you feel that the weather is not ‘appropriate’ for going outside and drop all your plans regarding your textbooks.
You forget the idea of donation, the idea of gaining a discount and instead get yourself an ice cream from the freezer. Eventually, the textbooks remain in your garage for a few years and become obsolete. In this hypothetical instance, the human mind got engaged in all the three inherent modes of Nature in a matter of few minutes. The initial thought about sharing books with fellow students was sattva, the decision to exchange them at the bookstore, guided by attachment to money, was rajas, but the final act of slackness was tamas. When the tamas mode gets activated, even attachment to money is not powerful enough to make us accomplish a task.
In the context of human actions, sattva mode represents perfect or ideal behavior, and it involves all good qualities like truth, honesty, discipline, punctuality, righteousness, perseverance, politeness, and enthusiasm in work. When we engage in this mode, there is little concern for our own physical comfort and any favorable return (profit) for our actions is not to be expected. A sense of duty, love, and sacrifice gets developed, and the sattva doer remains emotionally balanced in the success and failure (18: 26) of his or her endeavors to experience lifelong happiness. In comparison, rajas karma is money-oriented and calculative, with a tinge of egoism. Work in this mode is performed to fulfill one’s material greed (18: 27). When acting in this mode, we care about what is easy and agreeable to us, and our attachment to material desires reduces our concern about universal dharma. Though righteous actions may be performed in the rajas mode, the doer always remains attached to the gains. Tamas mode is active when we do something in a state of total confusion, when our intellect starts making wrong judgments, when we lack the understanding for doing something, or when we lack awareness of our act’s consequences. It ranges from being lazy and sleepy (14: 8) to being arrogant, deceitful, and violent (18: 25, 28).
If we use our intellect in sattva mode, we should be able to fully differentiate between right and wrong and should also understand how we can free ourselves from the cycle of death and rebirth (18: 30). Because realization of God is the aim of life in Hinduism, intellect that is incapable of guiding us towards God is not classified as sattva, no matter how exceptional one’s mental abilities in worldly matters are. As one would expect, rajas intellect, which focuses on profits, is unclear or confused over what is righteous. As for tamas intellect, it is good only at making wrong assumptions. Unlike rajas, tamas intellect is not puzzled about right or wrong but firmly assumes the wrong to be righteous. Arrogance and ignorance become strong players, and one progresses all the way towards darkness believing that he or she is on the path of Dharma.
In the context of spiritual knowledge (jnana; 18: 20-22), sattva sees the Self or One God in the entire creation, rajas perceives the same soul-material in different individuals as being different, while tamas knowledge focuses on a self-defined limited aspect of creation and assumes it to be ‘all there is’ – a kind of ‘frog in a well’ scenario. This classification reflects the level of evolution that is involved in reaching the sattva mode. Seeing the Divine in all beings or perceiving the unity in all life forms is an advanced level feature for the human mind; it is something that can only be expected from saints. Because knowledge is believed to be the final result of renunciation, work, and sacrifice, presence of knowledge at the sattva level may indicate that the seeker possesses sattva gunas in all other areas of life as well.
Our eating habits, which are often taken for granted, have also been highlighted according to the three modes. The food we intake can be used as a sign of which inherent mode is present in predominance (17: 7). Sattva mode implies health-conscious consumption and includes items like fruits, veggies, cereals, and selected dairy products that are generally good for us. Rajas mode of eating focuses on taste, not nutrition value. Like other rajas items on Lord Krishna’s list, rajas food is attached to sense gratification. It is supposedly tasty in the beginning but tends to cause disease at the end (17: 9). This category would include most items on the menu of modern-day restaurants. Tamas food includes spoiled, tasteless, and unclean items. One who ingests such items is neither attached to taste nor is health conscious but eats because of complete ignorance. Many times, the emotion with which we eat decides the mode, not the item for consumption. If we are allergic to a fruit but regularly eat it because it appears tasty, the same eatable would be counted as rajas. Along the same lines, a compulsive eating disorder involving the intake of even clean and nutritious food may be classified as tamas as the disorder is said to comprise ignorance-born impulses in addition to taste-born cravings (rajas).
One of the main messages in God-incarnate Krishna’s discourse on Nature is that all gunas, including the sattva ones, bind us. Sattva binds us to goodness. We may start imagining that we are good and relatively knowledgeable or may develop a habit of gaining enjoyment from helping out everyone we meet. Bound to sattva, scholars may enjoy collecting more and more information or read evermore material in their area of expertise. There is nothing wrong with collecting lots of worldly knowledge, but such a habit can impede further evolution towards God. Similarly, rajas binds to fruits (results of our action). We keep ourselves engaged in karma for continual growth of our financial status. Tamas binds to laziness, ignorance, or slackness. One may enjoy hurting others or wasting time. The paths through which we may reach beyond the three modes of Nature form the major focus of Krishna’s dialogue with Arjuna. Interested readers may refer to the Bhagavada Gita to learn how Nature can be transcended.