Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 41: The Fourteenth Chapter – Rising Above the Three Gunas

Lord Krishna is never tired of speaking. He goes on even without being questioned by Arjuna. “Now, listen again! I shall tell you something more.” They must have had a good breakfast that morning that they could afford to go on speaking like this when there was a terrible situation in front of them! Anyway, Sri Bhagavan now speaks: “I shall now tell you something which is a great secret.” He has already told two or three secrets, and now he is telling a fourth secret. Paraṁ bhūyaḥ pravakṣyāmi jñānānāṁ jñānam uttamam, yaj jñātvā munayaḥ sarve parāṁ siddhim ito gatāḥ (14.1): “I shall tell you that secret of wisdom, by knowing which, ancient sages and saints have attained perfection.”

What is this great knowledge? Idaṁ jñānam upāśritya mama sādharmyam āgatāḥ (14.2): “People have become almost Me; they have attained My form; they have attained My permanent Eternal Abode; they have practically become Me. How? Because of the knowledge which I am going to describe to you now, they shall not be born at the time of creation: sargepi nopajāyante. People who know this secret will not be born in the beginning of creation, and they will not be dissolved into prakriti at the time of cosmic dissolution: sargepi nopajāyante pralaye na vyathanti ca.”

When the cosmic pralaya, or dissolution, takes place, all of us are helplessly driven into the bosom of prakriti’s three gunas. In the process of creation and activity as we see before our eyes, the three gunas are in a state of disturbance. The qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas—the properties of prakriti—are not in equal proportion, and are not equally distributed. Because of the preponderance of one at the cost of another, we see varieties of things and manifold objects in front of us. At the time of dissolution, the three gunas lie in a state of equilibrium. There is no activity at that time, and even sattva does not operate. It is complete darkness, as it were. There is neither the solar system, nor is there anything else. All the galaxies get dissolved into it. The jivas who have not been liberated at the time of dissolution are thrown into this vast cosmic sea of prakriti, and they remain sleeping—like seeds which have not yet found the opportunity to germinate. They sleep there for as many years as Brahma sleeps when his day of a hundred years is over. When a hundred years of Brahma’s night are over, Brahma’s day dawns. Then gradually, one by one, all those sleeping jivas manifest themselves, as sleeping seeds inside the earth begin to germinate and become tendrils and plants when there is rainfall. But one who knows this truth, this secret wisdom, is not dissolved, and is not reborn when creation again begins.

Once again, Lord Krishna emphasises this fact. “I am the source of all things. The entire universe is originating from Me. I am the abode, the source, the very womb of all things.” It is Mahat-brahma. It is called Brahma because it is all pervading—universal in its nature. It is equal to what is called Hiranyagarbha, wherein all the seeds of creation are potentially lying. In Sankhya parlance, Mahat is a condition where the potency for future creation lies in a latent form as very subtle possibilities, not actualised. “The entire Mahat-brahma—that great Universal Brahma, through which I generate the entire variety of creation—is my womb, as it were, wherein I place the seed of manifestation in all its variety through this potential Mahat-tattava, Hiranyagarbha-tattava.” Saṁbhavaḥ sarvabhūtānāṁ tato bhavati bhārata (14.3): All beings originate from this seed of all creation.

Sarvayoniṣu kaunteya mūrtayaḥ saṁbhavanti yāḥ, tāsāṁ brahma mahad yonir ahaṁ bījapradaḥ pitā (14.4): “Mahat-brahma is the field in which I sow the seed of creation; and I am the Father who sows this seed into the Mahat-brahma.” That is to say, the field is mulaprakriti itself, which is all-pervading in its nature. Because of the disturbance of the three gunassattva, rajas and tamas—it has the potency to manifest itself into variety. But it cannot act of its own accord. It cannot move, it cannot divide itself into three qualities, unless there is a spirit pushing it forward. That spirit is Supreme Consciousness, which is referred to here by Lord Krishna. Here God is referring to Himself when He says, “I am the Supreme Father that causes the germinating of the seeds of all the jivas through this Mahat-brahma.

There are three gunas. It has been mentioned many a time that there are three gunas, that prakriti has three properties—sattva, rajas and tamas. What are these? Sattvaṁ rajastama iti guṇāḥ prakṛtisambhavāḥ (14.5): These properties are the very constituent elements of prakriti. They are not qualities like the whiteness of a cloth, which is different from the cloth, and the blueness of a flower, which is different from the flower. That is not the way in which we have to understand the qualities of prakriti. The gunas are qualities of prakriti in the same way as the three strands of a rope are qualities of the rope. We cannot say that the strands are qualities; they are the very substance of the rope. These qualities, these properties, are the very substance, the very stuff, of prakriti; and they cause bondage to the individual—nibadhnanti. Dehe dehinam avyayam: They bind us.

Rajas cuts one part away from another part. It segments the one universal existence into bits of individualities, and prevents every part from knowing that it has any connection with other parts. The vehemence of rajas is twofold. Firstly, it divides the one universal existence into little bits of individuality, into all the species of creation. Then, secondly, it compels the individual to be conscious only of that location, that little part, and does not permit it to be aware of its having any connection with other individuals. Thus, it gives a double blow when it acts—firstly, it cosmically distinguishes one thing from the other, then it compels the individual to be conscious only of this body and this personality located in one place only. We always feel that we are only in one place, and not in two places. That is because rajas prevents us from knowing that we can also be in other places by our internal connection with other bodies. It binds us in this manner. Sattvaṁ rajas- tama iti guṇāḥ prakṛtisambhavāḥ, nibadhnanti mahābāho dehe dehinam avyayam.

Tatra sattvaṁ nirmalatvāt prakāśakam anāmayam, sukhasaṅgena badhnāti jñānasaṅgena cānagha (14.6): If, by chance, the sattva guna preponderates in a person and the qualities of rajas and tamas are subjugated and suppressed, then what happens? Because of the purity, the transparency and the perspicuity of the sattva guna, it shines like a mirror. Immediately we feel happy. Whenever we are happy, for any reason whatsoever, it is because at that moment rajas has been suppressed by the rise of sattva. But we cannot be happy always, because then rajas immediately rises up into action and suppresses sattva, and after a mood of happiness and elation, we are once again in a mood of anxiety, worry, responsibility and sleeplessness. When we are tired and fatigued of this activity, tamas comes in and makes us go to sleep. Where sattva is predominant, joy, happiness is experienced—sukhasaṅgena badhnāti—and we are full of brilliance, sharpness of understanding, and clarity of perception, which are all qualities of sattva guna.

Rajo rāgātmakaṁ viddhi tṛṣṇāsaṅgasamudbhavam (14.7): Illumination, knowledge, rationality, perspicuity and happiness are the characteristics of sattva; and desire, distraction, passion and attachment are the qualities of rajas. Sattva makes us calm and quiet, and satisfied with ourselves. Rajas makes us dissatisfied with ourselves, so we run about here and there, and purchase appurtenances to make us happy. Trishna is the word for insatiable desires, and it compels us to toil from morning to evening: karmasaṅgena dehinam. People say they have so much work, and they are never in peace.

What is tamas? Tamas tvajñānajaṁ viddhi mohanaṁ sarvadehinām (14.8): Tamas is total ignorance, idiocy, lethargy, fatigue, and a desire to not do anything. It deludes the intellect so that we always confuse one thing with another thing. “Oh! I forgot it. Oh! I did not know it!” is the kind of attitude we develop. An illusion is spread before the mind by tamoguna, and it is deluding in its character as far as the individual is concerned. It causes us to blunder and make mistakes. We make mistakes everywhere, and we cannot even speak a good sentence; everywhere there is some confusion. Also, we are fatigued immediately—pramādālasyanidrābhis. These are some of the results that follow from the preponderance of tamas.

Thus, Lord Krishna describes to Arjuna the specialties of sattvaguna, rajoguna and tamoguna. 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.

Sattvaṁ sukhe sañjayati (14.9): When sattva has the upper hand in us, we feel satisfied, contented, relieved, and happy. Rajaḥ karmaṇi bhārata: 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. Jjñānam āvṛtya tu tamaḥ pramāde saṁjayatyuta: 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 tamaś cābhibhūya sattvaṁ bhavati bhārata, rajaḥ sattvaṁ tamaś caiva tamaḥ sattvaṁ rajas tathā (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. When tamas is predominant, it suppresses rajas and sattva. It does not 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.

Sarvadvāreṣu dehesmin prakāśa upajāyate, jñānaṁ yadā tadā vidyād vivṛddhaṁ sattvam ityuta (14.11): When all the sense organs release 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 the face, and perspicuity even in speaking and expression.

Lobhaḥ pravṛttir ārambhaḥ karmaṇām aśamaḥ spṛhā, rajasyetāni jāyante vivṛddhe bharatarṣabha (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 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.

Aprakāśo’pravṛttiś ca pramādo moha eva ca, tamasyetāni jāyante vivṛddhe kurunandana (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.

Yadā sattve pravṛddhe tu pralayaṁ yāti dehabhṛt, tadottamavidāṁ lokān amalān 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 pralayaṁ gatvā karmasaṅgiṣu jāyate, tathā pralīnas tamasi mūḍhayoniṣu jāyate (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. Mūḍhayoniṣu jāyate: 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.

Karmaṇaḥ sukṛtasyāhuḥ sāttvikaṁ nirmalaṁ 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, due to its being motivated by ajnana, or ignorance, will be only capable of producing an effect which will be another form of ajnana.

Sattvāt saṁjāyate jñānaṁ (14.17): Knowledge arises through sattva. Intellectuality, rationality, understanding, education, wisdom—all these are qualities of sattva. Rajaso lobha eva ca: Greed is the quality of rajas. Pramādamohau tamaso bhavatojñānam eva ca: Ajnana (ignorance) and the inability to do anything with a consciousness of the effect of the action are results of tamoguna prakriti.

Ūrdhvaṁ gacchanti sattvasthā (14.18): Those who live in a state of sattva, and depart while sattva is preponderating, go to higher worlds. Madhye tiṣṭhanti rājasāḥ: 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. Jaghanyaguṇavṛttisthā adho gacchhanti tāmasāḥ: Those who are predominantly tamasic, and die while tamas is preponderating, will be born in regions lower than the earth. The scriptures call them the 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 only the three gunas do anything anywhere, and knows, at the same time, that there is something above the three gunas—such a person attains to unity with Brahman. Nānyaṁ guṇebhyaḥ kartāraṁ yadā draṣṭānupaśyati, guṇebhyaś ca paraṁ vetti madbhāvaṁ so’dhigacchhati (14.19): “He 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.”

Guṇān etān atītya trīn dehī dehasamudbhavān, janmamṛtyujarāduḥkhair vimuktomṛtam aśnute (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 uvāca: kair liṅgais trīn guṇān etān atīto bhavati prabho, kim ācāraḥ kathaṁ caitāṁs trīn guṇān 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.”

Śrībhagavānuvāca: prakāśaṁ ca pravṛttiṁ ca moham eva ca pāṇḍava, ta dveṣṭi saṁpravṛttāni na nivṛttāni kāṅkṣati (14.22): The Lord says, “When some effects follow due to the operation of sattva, rajas or tamas, the person who has transcended the qualities of prakriti neither is elated nor is disgusted, nor is there any resentment at 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—as objects of the witness consciousness—and he does not identify his consciousness with the three gunas.

Udāsīnavad āsīno (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 then not affected by the operation of the gunas even when they blow like a whirlwind on his person.

Guṇā vartanta ityeva yo’vatiṣṭhati neṅgate: 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.

Samaduḥkhasukhaḥ svasthaḥ (14.24): Pleasure or pain, let it be. It matters little. Svasthaḥ means always calm and quiet, reposed in himself. Samaloṣṭāśmakāñcanaḥ: 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. Mānāpamānayos 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 mitrāripakṣayoḥ: Let a friend come or let an enemy come; there is no difference. Sarvārambhaparityāgī: 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 a gunatita, one who has transcended the operation of the three gunas.

Māṁ ca yo’vyabhicāreṇa bhaktiyogena sevate, sa guṇān samatītyaitān brahmabhūyāya 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 their own accord, provided you genuinely love Me.” Yo’vyabhicāreṇa bhaktiyogena 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. Brahmabhūyāya kalpate: He becomes fit for absorption into Brahman.

Brahmaṇo hi pratiṣṭhāham amṛtasyāvyayasya ca, śāśvatasya ca dharmasya sukhasyaikāntikasya ca (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 from the Thirteenth Chapter onwards the chapters maintain a kind of individuality of their own; they take up one specific subject, and go into detail on that subject.