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Commentary on the Bhagavadgita

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Discourse 41: The Fourteenth Chapter Concludes – Rising Above the Three Gunas; The Fifteenth Chapter Begins – The World as an Inverted Tree

What do these gunas do? What is their effect on a person? When a particular guna is preponderating in a person, what happens to that person? That is the description of the Fourteenth Chapter, part of which we have already studied yesterday.

Sattvam sukhe sa njayati (14.9): When sattva has the upper hand in us, we feel satisfied, contented, relieved, and happy. Rajah karmani bharata: When rajas is preponderating, we feel like getting up and doing this work and that work, and never want to sit quiet. This is what rajas does. Jnanam avrtya tu tamah pramade sanjayaty uta: When tamas is predominating, we have no idea as to what to do and what not to do. There is confusion about the pros and cons of things. There is no proper judgment as to the way any step has to be taken in a given direction; and even if some step is taken, it will be a wrong step and it will end in some fumbling and catastrophic conclusion. This is what tamas does. Sattva leads to happiness and satisfaction, rajas to intense activity, and tamas to ignorance and inability to decide what is proper and what is improper.

Rajas tamas chabhibhuya sattvam bhavati bharata, rajah sattvam tamas chaiva tamah sattvam rajas tatha (14.10): No particular guna can be operating always in any person. They have a cyclic movement, as it were. Partly due to their fickleness and partly due to some karmas that a person has done in a previous birth, certain gunas operate for a shorter period or a longer period; but no guna can operate continuously throughout the life of a person. There is a coming and going of the gunas.

When sattva rises up into action, it suppresses rajas and tamas for the time being. When rajas rises into action, it suppresses sattva and tamas for the time being. When tamas is predominant, it suppresses rajas and sattva. It doesn’t mean that the suppressed qualities are destroyed. They are only made inoperative for the time being on account of the vehemence of the activity of a particular guna. Why they should be so very predominant at a particular time in the case of an individual is difficult to explain, except in terms of the karmas of the past – because in some cases a guna may be there for a fraction of a moment, or it may there for days; but why this difference? This has to be attributed only to the deserts of the individual in terms of what one has done in the previous birth. Anyway, the principle behind the operation of the three gunas is that when one is active, the other two are inactive.

Sarva – dvareshu dehe’smin prakasa upajayate, jnanam yada tada vidyad vivrddham sattvam it i uta (14.11): When all the sense organs are in a kind of radiance, as it were, there is brightness in the face; there is a kind of composure in the personality of an individual, and there is a kind of calm and quiet aura around that person. If this is recognised in any individual, we must conclude that sattva is predominant in that person. There will be sparkling of the eyes, clarity of perception, radiance of face, and perspicuity even in speaking and expression.

Lobhah pravrttir arambhah karmanam asamah sprha, rajasy etani jayante vivrddhe bharatarshabha (14.12): When rajas becomes active, there is greed in the mind of a person. There is a sense of possessiveness: “I want this, I want that,” and the person is never satisfied with anything. The more we have, the still more we want; that is called greed, and it is one of the characteristics of rajoguna. Always starting new projects but not being able to bring them to conclusion, never ceasing activity, and going on creating occasions for activity till the end of one’s life – with desire at the back of all these projects of action – these are supposed to be the basic qualities of rajoguna.

Aprakaso’pravrttis cha pramado moha eva cha, tamasy etani jayante vivrddhe kuru – nandana (14.13): When tamas predominates, what happens? There is no light in front of oneself. There is no radiance or hope on the horizon at all and, therefore, there is no inclination to do anything. There is an inactive tendency in the person. As mentioned already, there is always the committing of mistakes whenever any kind of initiative is taken. There is delusion at the back of all these things. That is the essential nature of tamoguna.

Yada sattve pravrddhe tu pralayam yati deha – bhrt, tadottama – vidam lokan amalan pratipadyate (14.14): If a person leaves this body while sattva is predominant, then that person reaches higher worlds such as heaven, and even regions above heaven. Rajasi pralayam gatva karma – sangishu jayate, tatha pralinas tamasi mudha – yonishu jayate (14.15): But if a person dies while rajas is predominant in the mind, he is then reborn into conditions of intense labour, work and attachment. Mudha-yonishu jayate: If one dies while tamas is predominant, he will be reborn in a subhuman species as some kind of animal; and even if he is born as a human being, he will be a non-utilitarian individual with no understanding and no consciousness of the purpose of life – the kind of person who is usually called idiotic.

Karmanah sukrtasyahuh sattvikam nirmalam phalam (14.16): The result of meritorious deeds, which are sattvic in nature, is purity, internal illumination, and satisfaction. If actions are rajas-ridden, pain is the result that follows. If actions are done under the influence of tamas, there is some increase in one’s own ignorance. This is because every action done under the influence of tamas, because of its being motivated by ajnana or ignorance, will be only capable of producing an effect which will be another form of ajnana.

Sattvat sanjayate jnanam (14.17): Knowledge arises through sattva. Intellectuality, rationality, understanding, education, wisdom – all these are qualities of sattva. Rajaso lobha eva cha: Greed is the quality of rajas. Pramada – mohau tamaso bhavato’jnanameva cha (14.17): Ajnana (ignorance) and the inability to do anything with a consciousness of the effect of the action are results of tamoguna p rakriti.

Urdhvam gacchanti sattva-stha (14.18): Those who live in a state of sattva and depart while sattva is preponderating go to higher worlds. Madhye tishthanti rajasah: Those with rajoguna pravritti and those who die when the rajoguna pravritti is predominant will be reborn into this world. Madhya means middle-region, which is this earth. Jaghanya-guna-vrtti-stha adho gacchanti tamasah: Those who are predominantly tamasic and die while tamas is preponderating will be born in regions lower than the earth. The scriptures call them nether regions.

When a person with his eye of wisdom sees that all the drama of life is only a performance of the three gunas, and nobody does anything anywhere except the three gunas, and knows at the same time there is something above the three gunas – such a person attains to unity with Brahman. Nanyam gunebhah kartaram yada drashtanupasyati, gunebhyas cha param vetti madbhavam so’dhigacchati (14.19): “He attains to Me, attains union with Me in my Eternal State provided that there is a vision perpetually maintained by that person that there is no actor in this world, no performer of deeds other than the three gunas of prakriti, and one’s own real self is transcendent, above the three gunas. Such a person is liberated even while in this life itself.”

Gunan etan atitya trin dehi deha-samudbhavan, janma-mrtyu-jara-duhkhair vimukto’mrtam asnute (14.20): He attains immortality, free from the sorrow of birth, death, old age and the like; such a person attains the Eternal Abode. Who is that person? One who has transcended the three gunas, and is unaffected by sattva, unaffected by rajas, and unaffected by tamas.

What are the insignia of a person who has transcended the three gunas? Arjuna puts a question: “How can we recognise a person who has transcended the three gunas? What are his qualities? How does he behave?” Here is found the gunatita lakshana, which is almost similar to the qualities described as sthitaprajna lakshana in the Second Chapter.

Arjuna uvacha. Kair lingais trin gunan etan atito bhavati prabho; kim acharah katham chaitams trin gunan ativartate (14.21): “What are the marks of a person who has transcended the gunas? What are the ways in which he conducts himself in the world? Please tell me.”

Sri Bhagavan uvacha. Na dveshti sam-pravrttani na nivrttani kankshati (14.22): The Lord says, “When some effects follow due to the operation of sattva or of rajas or of tamas, the person who has transcended the qualities of prakriti neither is elated nor is disgusted, nor is there any resentment towards their operation.” When sattva operates, he does not exult. When rajas and tamas operate, he is not in any way affected. Whether the gunas are actively operating or whether they withdraw themselves into a state of inactivity, it makes no difference to this person, because he sees them as they are – objects of the witness consciousness – and he does not identify his consciousness with the three gunas.

Udasinavad asinao (14.23): He remains silent, taking no initiative in anything, appearing to be a person who has no intention of doing anything at all. He keeps quiet, knowing all things. He seems to be doing nothing, yet is internally doing many things. He is not affected then by the operation of the gunas even when they blow like a whirlwind on his person.

Guna vartanta ity eva yo’vatishthati nengate: Fickleness of the mind is caused by the coming and going of the three gunas, which sometimes makes the mind feel satisfied, sometimes makes it restless, sometimes makes it feel fatigued or slothful. These operations of the psyche will be witnessed by his consciousness, and he will not identify himself with the properties of the psyche which are usually affected by the gunas.

Sama-duhkha-sukhah svasthah (14.24): Pleasure or pain, let it be. It matters little. Svasthah means always calm and quiet, reposed in himself. Sama-loshtasma-kanchanah: Whether he sees a nugget of gold or a big boulder of granite, it makes no difference to him. A clod of earth and a wall of gold have the same value to the eye of this great soul who has transcended the operation of the three gunas. Manapamanayos tulyas (14.25): Praise and censure mean the same thing. It makes no difference to such a person whether he is glorified or condemned. Tulyo mitrari-pakshayoh: Let a friend come or let an enemy come – no difference. Sarvarambha-parityagi: He will still do nothing. He will be like a kutastha. He will be seated calm and quiet in himself, as if the world does not exist at all for him. Such a person is gunatita, one who has transcended the operation of the three gunas.

Mam cha yo'vyabhicharena bhakti-yogena sevate, sa gunan samatityaitan brahma-bhuyaya kalpate (14.26). After having given us so many instructions regarding the details of the working of the three gunas, finally Sri Bhagavan says, "I shall give you a final recipe how you can get over the three gunas. Undividedly love Me; then you will find that the gunas have no effect upon you. You need not have to struggle to observe the operation of the gunas with your witness consciousness, and put forth great effort in your mind. Effortlessly they will vanish; they will leave you of the own accord, provided you genuinely love Me." Yo'vyabhicharena bhakti-yogena sevate: Such a person, the greatest devotee of God who wants only God and has no other thought in his mind, automatically rises above the three gunas. Brahma-bhuyaya kalpate: He becomes fit for absorption into Brahman.

Brahmano hi pratishthaham amrtasyavyayasya cha, sasvatasya cha dharmasya sukhasyaikantikasya cha (14.27): "I am the very source of the bliss of Brahman." Or it may mean: "Brahman is the origin, the source, of every kind of incarnation or manifestation." The literal meaning of the verse is: "My abode, My highest realm which is the Eternal Realm, is Brahman. It is the Absolute Being; It is the source of all things; It is the source of immortality, of imperishability, of perpetual existence, of all goodness and righteousness, of happiness of every kind, of infinite bliss – ekantika sukha."

While the Fourteenth Chapter has been very busy with a psychological analysis of the properties of prakriti, it has finally clinched the whole matter by saying that love of God is supreme and every other effort on the part of a human being comes afterwards.

We will find that from here on, every chapter has a peculiarity of its own; every chapter has its own characteristic as distinguished from other chapters. From the First to the Eleventh Chapter there is a kind of sequential ascent of thought. But the chapters maintain a kind of individuality of their own from the Thirteenth Chapter onwards; they take up one specific subject, and go into detail on that subject.

We are now face to face with a very important section of the Bhagavadgita known as the Purana Purushottama Yoga Chapter, the Fifteenth Chapter. It is considered very sacred, and people chant it every day before they take their lunch because it glorifies God; it describes what God is in respect of this world and individuals, how we are related to the world and God finally. This subject is briefly touched upon in a very short chapter of only twenty verses, but these twenty verses are very, very important.                 

This world, this creation, is – to put it in a modern language – something like the running away of a force from its centre to its circumference or periphery, and becoming less and less connected to the centre.  It loses its soul, as it were, more and more as it runs away from the centre, until it reaches the very edge of the periphery and remains like a rock without any sensation whatsoever. Inanimate life is the lowest category of existence that we can conceive. But as the movement is in the other direction – from the periphery to the centre – there is greater and greater consciousness of one's selfhood. As one realises one's greater and greater nearness to the centre, there is also a larger comprehension of the dimension of one's being.

This world is a topsy-turvy presentation, as it were, like an inverted tree. The manner in which souls descend from the highest region of Godhood is compared to an inverted tree, as the sap of the inverted tree moves downward from its root through the trunk, branches, twigs, leaves, flowers, etc., so that the lower the sap goes, the greater is the ramification of its movement. That is to say, this sap – the vitality of the tree – is highly concentrated in the root, slightly diffused in the trunk, diversified in the branches, and becomes more adulterated as it gets subdivided further into the minor branches, reaching the little tendrils and leaves, where only a modicum of the vital essence of the tree remains.

Urdhva-mulam adhah-sakham asvattam prahur avyayam (15.1): This vast creation, this whole world, is like a peepul tree which has its roots above and branches below. The downward gravitational pull of space and time is the reason for the externalisation and the ramification of the original power, original vitality, which is the root of creation. The root contains everything that the tree has, but the tree's branches do not have everything that the root contains. A little bit of the essence of the original root is distributed in different proportions among the branches which are thick or thin, as the case may be.

This world is like an inverted asvattha tree, or any kind of tree, as the word asvattha may be construed to mean 'not lasting for long'. Na svatthamasvattham: It will not endure even until tomorrow. Svah stha means 'that which can continue and last until tomorrow' – that is, it will live in the future. But this will not live in the future; it's nature is perishable. It is not permanent and, therefore, it is asvattha. That is one etymological meaning of the word asvattha: it does not last long. The world will not be there for all times; therefore, it is asvattha. Or we may say that the world is like an asvattha tree – that is, a peepul tree.

Its root is an imperishable, inconceivable essence; and it is above. The aboveness is to be understood very, very carefully because we may be under the impression that for a thing to be above, it has to be distant in space – in terms of so many kilometres or light years – because we can conceive of above and below only in terms of spatial expanse. But that is not actually the meaning of the aboveness of God. As the root of this tree is God Himself, it cannot be regarded as being above in a spatial sense. He is 'above' in the quality of manifestation, 'above' in a logical sense, 'above' in the comprehensiveness and inclusiveness of spirit. It is more a conceptual transcendence and not a physical aboveness like the stars in the sky.

The distance between the world and God is not actually measurable as we can measure the distance between the root of a real tree and its branches. Here is a tree whose length cannot be measured by any yardstick of the world, in the same way as we cannot measure the distance between childhood and old age. There is a distance, of course, between the time when a person is a little baby and the time when he becomes old, but we cannot take a ruler and measure the length of the period that has been covered, because it is a time process that is responsible for the concept of distance between childhood and old age. There is a distance between the knowledge of a little child in kindergarten and a person studying in higher classes, but it is not measurable by a ruler or yardstick. It is a conceptual distance, a logical distance, a very important distance indeed – more important than a measurable distance. We may say that such distance is the distance between us and God. He is very far, and yet that far distance which appears to be there between us and God is not in any way comparable to spatial measurement or even to temporal measurement of duration.

Otherwise, it is very frightening to conclude that millions of light years may be the distance between us and God and we do not have the appurtenances to reach him at all, while the fact is that God is so close to us that there is absolutely no spatial distance at all. It is an immediate experience. Hence, some distinction must be made in understanding the analogy of the inverted tree in this sloka. It is an analogy, and we should not stretch any analogy to the breaking point. It should be taken in its spirit.

Chhandamsi yasya parnani: All the values of life – including the Vedas and all knowledge – are hanging, as it were, like the leaves and the flowers of this tree. The Veda is considered to be the highest knowledge, and it is given a place among the leaves – not the trunk or the root. Yastam veda sa vedavit: Whoever has an insight into the mystery or meaning behind this analogy knows what the Veda really is. Urdhva-mulam adhah-sakham asvattam prahur avyayam, chhandamsi yasya parnani yastam veda sa vedavit.