The Study and Practice of Yoga
An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 26: The Gunas of Prakriti

Every fulfilment is the result of a necessary relinquishment. There is always a necessity to abandon something when we want to attain something. The attainment of an object always calls for a readjustment of conditions such that it is tantamount to an abandonment of those precedent conditions that are inconsistent with those necessary for the purpose of the longed-for attainment. The practice of abhyasa, particularly ekatattva abhyasah mentioned by Patanjali in his great sutra, is coupled with what is known as vairagya or the spirit of renunciation - a most difficult thing to understand, and a still more difficult thing to practise. What is it that we are going to relinquish so that abhyasa or practice may become steady and effective? Practise becomes ineffective and does not appear to produce the expected results on account of the absence of this essential requisite called vairagya, or renunciatio.

Abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tan nirodhaḥ (I.12): The control of the modifications of the mind is made possible by the practice of concentration on one reality, and by vairagya, or the relinquishment of falsehood. Within every one of our experiences in this world there is an element of falsehood, though there is also an element of positivity, on account of which they seem to be drawing our attention towards them. Nevertheless, they are covered over with dust, dirt, mud and what not, and these aspects have to be carefully eliminated from their essentiality. The difficulty in the practice of vairagya or renunciation lies in the difficulty of discriminating between false values and true values in life.

True values and false values get mixed up in such a way that we always mistake one for the other due to erroneous judgement and wrong perception through the senses. Our experiences are illusory and do not always reveal the fact behind them. We have various kinds of experience every day, and none of them can be called wholly true, though there is something in them which is elusive in character. Due to the mysterious character of this elusive something, neither are we are able to get rid of these experiences, nor are we satisfied with them. We are in a set of circumstances such that we can neither completely get away from them to avoid the painful aspects that are present in them, nor can we completely wed ourselves to them on the supposition that there is something worthwhile in them. They seem to have a twofold character, one getting emphasised at one time and the other at another time, so that we swing from one state to another state without being able to get satisfied with any one in particular.

All of our experiences are ultimately of such a nature that they have to be abandoned one day or the other, says Patanjali. "The world is made of such stuff as dreams are made of," as Shakespeare put it. Pariṇāma tāpa saṁskāra duḥkaiḥ guṇavṛitti virodhāt ca duḥkham eva sarvaṁ vivekinaḥ (II.15). This is a pertinent aphorism of Patanjali, relevant to the practice of vairagya or renunciation. All is pain in this world, if we properly investigate into the truth of things. There is no real joy anywhere. Even the so-called joy is not really a joy – it is only a form of pain appearing as joy. If we know this truth, we will not run after the joys of this world. The joys and satisfactions of this world are pains coming in camouflage, deceiving us and putting on a counterfeit face so that we are kept under perpetual deception throughout our lives, and we are never allowed to open our eyes to see the way things are. The consequence of enjoyment in this world is painful, says Patanjali.

What is known as parinama is described in this particular sutra, pariṇāma tāpa saṁskāra duḥkaiḥ guṇavṛitti virodhāt ca duḥkham eva sarvaṁ vivekinaḥ (II.15): For a person of understanding, everything is wretched and painful in this world. If there is no understanding, everything looks all right and beautiful and happy; but let there be understanding, and we will see the truth of things. "Oh, it is horrifying! It is not as happy as it appears on the surface." The consequence of joy is sorrow. It is very strange, indeed, that the consequence of joy should be sorrow. We rather expect that the result of joy would be joy only. No, not so, says Patanjali. Whenever there is an occasion for joy in this world, a sorrow follows it afterwards. If today we laugh, tomorrow we shall cry; this is how the world is made. Whoever laughs today shall weep tomorrow because of the peculiar features of which the world is made, and of which we have no knowledge, and cannot have knowledge.

The consequence or the result of happiness or pleasure in this world is grief or sorrow, the reason being that joys are not really satisfying. No pleasure in this world can satisfy us, because it is not a pleasure at all. It is a counterfeit coin that comes in the middle and tries to introduce itself in the midst of true values, just as a false currency note or a false coin can get mixed with the real ones and then pass as currency. The false values that deceive us are responsible for the grief that follows the pleasures of life. The pleasures of life are not really pleasures, because they are brought about by false causes. False causes cannot produce right results. Why are we happy? What is the reason behind our pleasure.

Every pleasure in life is an effect produced by a cause. If the cause is real, the pleasure would be real. But is the cause real? Go deep into it and find out. The cause is an inscrutable, un-understandable set of circumstances; and if we go deep into the nature of the cause of any happiness in this world, we will find that we cannot locate it. We cannot know why we are happy and where the pleasure lies. We are simply tossed from one centre to another centre – tossed with such vehemence and force that we have no time to think and our brains become giddy. If a person is to be deceived and not allowed to think properly, it is essential to brainwash the person. False ideas are hammered into that person, again and again, as some politicians are accustomed to doing, and this repeated hammering of false ideas produces such a habit of thinking in the mind that it loses control over its essential way of thinking. It is impossible to find the cause of happiness, by any stretch of the imagination. We are simply happy without knowing why we are happy. If we know why we are happy, then we will never have the occasion to be happy again, because we will know that there is something seriously wrong at the back of things.

We are pushed and pulled by forces of which we have no knowledge, and over which we have no control. Certain biological conditions inside are mostly responsible for our pleasures, or so-called joys. These biological conditions are connected with sociological and psychological states. We cannot understand all these things. Even the best sociologist or psychologist cannot understand them, because they are very, very deep-rooted. Our existence is a multi-faceted complex and not an indivisible unit, which cannot even be called this body. We are not merely a physical body. Connected with this physical existence is also a social aspect, and we are well aware of the degree to which we are connected to human society and how much its conditions can influence our joy or sorrow. We have a physical constitution, a biological set-up, and a psychological pattern of thinking, which is also influenced by a social order. And more than all this, there is the natural set-up of things – the conditions, or the rules or laws of nature itself.

These things press upon us from every side for a particular reason of their own, and to yield to a pressure is a joy. This is a very interesting thing for us to understand. Whenever we yield to a very pressing, emphatic, annoying and irritating compulsion, to which we have been accustomed for a long time and which we have made a part of our nature due to a habitual frequenting with it, we immediately feel a sense of relief from tension.

Suppose you are carrying a heavy load on your head – perhaps two mounds of wheat. Upon throwing down the weight, you feel happy. A great joy has come because you have thrown down the load. You were unhappy due to the nervous tension caused by carrying such a weight, and when it is thrown, there is happiness. Can you call this happiness, merely because you threw off a load from your head? Very strange, indeed. When you had no load on your head, you were neither happy nor unhappy; you were not even thinking about it. Suppose I put one mound on your head, and then remove it – you would feel happy. The very moment I removed it, a feeling of happiness would come over you for no reason other than the act of removing the load and throwing it down. If the absence of a load on the head is to cause you happiness, you must be very happy just now. All of you must be terribly happy, because you have no load on your heads. How terribly happy you must be, and all because you have no load on your heads. But you are not happy. So why don't I just put a load on your heads, and then remove it? Immediately, you will be happy. Now, look at this strange, peculiar, causative factor behind your happiness. It is not merely the absence of a load that causes you happiness, in which case you would all be happy just now. I must put a load on your head and then throw it down – this is what you want.

This is what happens to us every day. A load is kept on the entire nervous system by social conditions, biological conditions and natural conditions, and we have no knowledge of any of these conditions. We are ignorant of social laws, ignorant of physical laws and ignorant of biological laws, because we are utter slaves of these conditions. An utter slave, a bonded slave, cannot know anything. He is simply an automaton, a machine driven by the master. The masters are these forces - the biological forces, the natural forces and the social forces. We have been born into these forces like bonded slaves. If my father was a slave, I am also a slave because I am his son – hereditary slavishness is continuing. So we are all slaves and slaves and slaves, to the core of our being. We are slaves to forces which are external to us, which compel us, impress upon us, press upon us, and we are forced to yield to this pressure. A yielding to a pressure from outside cannot be called an act of freedom.

So, a joy in life is not an act of freedom; it is slavishness that makes us happy. What a pity. Can this be called a pleasure when it is caused by a slavish mentality? When we yield to a compulsive external pressure, do we call it freedom? Where there is no freedom, can there be happiness? And yet, how is it that we are happy merely because of the absence of freedom? This is the reason why every so-called joy in life is followed by a real sorrow. Sorrow is at the back, and the joy is only an outer whitewashing that has been given to the real substance that is behind it, namely, subjection to forces, which is the essence of pain and sorrow of every kind.

The consequences of the pleasures of life are only sorrows. No person who is happy today can be happy always. Today's joy is followed by tomorrow's sorrow, because these pleasures have not been caused by real or true factors; they are unreal factors. Also, says Patanjali, there is an ensuing anxiety. When we are enjoying a pleasure, we have an anxiety in our minds, "Oh, something is not all right." Who is telling us that something is not all right? If something is not all right, how can it cause pleasure? How very strange, again. Everything is strange if we go into it.

A person who is possessed of an empirical happiness has an anxiety at the back of his mind, because there is a feeling that this pleasure may pass away. How long will it continue? How long we can be happy? We know that it will pass away in a very short time, and so there is a feeling of anxiety, "Oh, it is going. It is bound to go, and after that, what happens? I will be left at sea. I will lose it, and I will be unhappy once again." The pleasure comes like a lightning flash and vanishes, and because of the apprehension of such a possibility, the mind is unhappy even at the time of enjoying. A rich man is unhappy because of the fear that he may lose his wealth one day or the other. He knows very well: "I will lose it; something will happen." So even when we are possessed of a large amount of wealth, there is a subtle insecurity felt within which is gnawing away inside at the subconscious level. Therefore, the consequence of happiness is sorrow, and there is anxiety even at the time of enjoyment of the pleasure, so we are not secure; we are insecure, even at that time.

Another contributing factor is samskara, an impression produced in the mind at the time of an enjoyment. The mind is something like a gramophone plate on which there are grooves. If we sing a song into a microphone and arrange the mechanism in such a way that a copper plate is manufactured simultaneously for the production of a gramophone plate, the grooves are formed on the plate. Then we can go on replaying this plate and our song can be heard a million times. We have sung only once, and it can be repeated any number of times merely because of the grooves that have been formed on the plate. These grooves are the samskaras, the impressions formed by a particular experience. So, if there is an urge for the satisfaction of a particular desire, and it is fulfilled temporarily by false means as mentioned earlier, an impression is formed in the mind of that condition which produced that temporary happiness. Then what happens? There is a desire to repeat that happiness again and again on account of the presence of that groove in the mind, formed like a gramophone plate. A particular experience produces a particular groove in the mind. A samskara or impression is formed, a vasana is generated, and this groove becomes the cause for a further desire to repeat the experience indefinitely. No matter how many times we go on repeating it, we will never be satisfied. The second experience produces another groove that calls for further experience of a similar type which, when fulfilled, produces a third groove, a fourth groove, etc., until there are grooves and grooves and grooves in the mind, so that the mind becomes a dustbin. It is not at all a clarified, clean slate. It is a muddled something, a hotchpotch, a confused heap of unclear notions and hazy impressions of past experiences which have made us what we are today – hopeless individuals who can know neither the beginning nor the end of our life. So, the samskara that is formed as a consequence of a pleasurable experience is also a cause of sorrow, because that will be repeated again, not merely in this life but even in future lives. Pariṇāma tāpa saṁskāra duḥkaiḥ (II.15): For this reason, everything is painful in this world, says Patanjali. There is a last reason that he gives as to why things are unhappy, when he says, guṇa vṛitti virodhāt ca duḥkham eva sarvaṁ vivekinaḥ (II.15): These experiences are caused by the operations of the gunas called sattva, rajas and tamas. We do not know why we are happy, for instance. The happiness that we experience is due to a sudden and temporary surge of sattva guna in our minds, maybe for a flash of a second, and the pressing down of rajas and tamas due to certain reasons.

The motion of prakriti or nature is something like the movement of a wheel. We know that wheels have spokes, and the spokes move together with the movement of the wheel, as in a cart. When the vehicle moves, the wheel also moves, and when the wheel moves, the spokes also rotate. The spoke that is up or at the top comes down, and that which is down goes up. So there is a repeated going up and coming down of the spokes of the wheel when the wheel moves, on account of the motion of the vehicle. Likewise, nature is in perpetual motion – it is not static. Nothing can be permanent in this world. Everything moves. And in this motion, what actually moves is nothing but a set of conditions or forces called the gunas of prakriti, or nature, we may say – sattva, rajas and tamas.

What are these gunas? These gunas are the constituents of nature, the substance of prakriti. The tendency to stability of a particular condition, inertia as we call it, is what is known as tamas. The tendency to movement or action, and an urge towards external things is called rajas. Sattva is a peculiar thing which cannot be properly analysed, because it is a state which supervenes when both the conditions of tamas and rajas subside. Sattva is an equilibrated condition of the mind that is neither static nor inert – of an unconscious nature – nor is it an urge towards an external something. In the state of sattva, we are neither urged towards an external object, nor are we unconscious. We can imagine what that state is. What is that condition of mind where it is not thinking of an object and yet is not unconscious? That is sattva. But that state is very rare, and we cannot be in that condition for all times; either we are thinking of something outside, or we are asleep. But, is it possible to be in a condition where we are not sleeping, and yet not thinking of an object? How many times could such a state be experienced in life? Sattva is a via-media between rajas and tamas, a balance between inert unconsciousness and a diversifying, externalising urge towards objects of sense.

These gunas of prakriti are perpetually in motion, like the spokes of a wheel. The evolution of nature is similar to the movement of a vehicle, and these gunas are the spokes of the wheel of nature. When there is evolutionary movement, a movement of everything in the world, these conditions called the gunas are also set in motion. These gunas constitute not merely the external physical objects, but also the mind inside. The mind is also a part of nature – it is not a subject, par excellence. The mind is an object, ultimately speaking. Though the physical object is external to the mind, the mind itself is external to consciousness. So, from the point of view of pure consciousness, the mind is also an object; it is not a subject, though it appears as a subject in respect to physical objects outside. Inasmuch as the mind also stands in the position of an object, it comes within the law of nature and is conditioned by the gunas; it is constituted of sattva, rajas and tamas. In this movement of the three gunas, the mind is also set in motion. That is why the mind is restless.

The mind never rests for a moment, because it is urged by the law of evolution. When the universe evolves, moves forward, the mind and body and every blessed conceivable thing is drawn, dragged together by the force of the evolutionary urge. In this motion, the gunas of prakriti are not in a state of balance. They are perpetually moving. There is up and down, progression and retrogression, coming down and going up, etc., so that there is an unintelligible activity going on both outside and inside oneself. When the rajas spoke comes up, we are distressed and distracted, agonised and disturbed, and are placed in a state of insecurity and unhappiness. Sometimes we are disturbed and unhappy, and the moment we get up in the morning there is the feeling, "Oh, something is wrong. I am not all right." We do not know what has happened to us. We put on a Sunday face or a castor oil face and don't want to speak to anybody. If someone asks what has happened, we reply, "I do not know. I am not well." This is rajas coming up. Sometimes in the morning we say, "I do not want to get up. I will sleep. Don't talk to me." This is tamas. Either we do not want to do anything at all and would like to be in a torpid condition on account of the supervening of tamas in the mind, or we are dejected and in a melancholy mood due to the operation of rajas.

Occasionally, due to a coincidence of various rare factors, especially when the mind comes in contact with certain conditions that it regards as desirable, there is a cessation of the activity of rajas and tamas. There is no such thing as an object, ultimately speaking – it is only a set of conditions, and the mind also is a set of conditions. When there is a temporary compromise between the internal set of conditions of the mind and the external set of conditions known as the object, there is a sudden flash of similarity, a sympathy established between the mind and the object. Then there is a flash of a so-called imagined unity between the subject and the object and, in that instant, happiness is experienced like a flash of lightning. The flash of happiness is occasioned by a temporary subjugation of rajas and tamas, brought about by this momentary sympathy established between the mind and its object outside, due to the equilibrium or the equality of the frequency in the operation of the mind and the character of the object.

Buddhist psychology is very fond of emphasising that all things in this world are unsubstantial, by which is meant that nothing in this world is solid – the solidity of an object is only an illusion created by the sympathy that has been established between the experiencing of a mental condition at a given moment of time and the prevailing condition outside at a particular point in space, with which these internal conditions get connected. This connection, temporarily established, creates the illusion of a permanent and solid object in front of the mind, and it feels happy by coming into contact with it.

The happiness which the subject experiences in its connection with the object is due to a temporary pressing down of the rajasic and the tamasic activity of nature, and the sympathetic character experienced between the mind and the object outside. This condition will suddenly go down when the other spoke comes up, namely rajas or tamas, so that immediately after the joy there is sorrow due to the coming up of rajas or tamas. So, gunavritti virodhat – on account of the opposition of the gunas, which are never in a state of equilibrium, there cannot be permanent happiness in this world.

For all these reasons, God bless us, there is only pain in this world. Therefore, withdraw yourself from attachment to things and resort to true practice of yoga, says Patanjali.