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


Chapter 29: The Play of the Gunas

Now we have to consider a rather new aspect of what we have been studying in the previous several chapters, namely, the positive association of consciousness with the nature of reality, known as ekatattva abhyasah, in conjunction with a dissociation of consciousness from factors which are not relevant to the task taken up by the seeker of yoga. The new aspect is that neither the positive practice, nor the negative dissociation, is an easy matter. Both of these are terribly difficult things. It was said that by daily practice one can gain steadfastness in abhyasa and vairagya. This is true to some extent, but it is not the whole truth. While daily practice is the main road to success, there is something else which may upset the entire practice in spite of a daily sitting and a continuous effort generated even from a sincere heart, and that is, namely, an internal readjustment of the attitude of consciousness. If that is not done, outward efforts may not succeed to any appreciable extent. This point has been hinted at by Patanjali in one of his sutras – mentioned, of course, in his own language.

There are what are known as the gunas of prakriti – sattva, rajas and tamas – to which we have already made reference. It is the position and velocity of these gunas that is responsible for either our attachments or detachments. Just as modern scientists tell us that the position and velocity of the electrons revolving round a nucleus in a particular atom is responsible for the structure of any particular physical object, and that the structure can change if the velocity and the position of the electrons change, in a similar manner, with equal emphasis, we can say that the position and velocity of the three gunas tell upon the entire pattern of things – internal as well as external.&nbs.

Na tadasti pṛithivyāṁ vā divi deveṣu vā punaḥ (B.G. XVIII.40). In the Bhagavadgita, in the eighteenth chapter, Bhagavan Sri Krishna says that there is nothing, either on earth or in heaven, which is not controlled by the gunas. Right from the bottommost hell to the topmost heaven, we will find that everything is constituted of, controlled and regulated by the gunas. Even the mind is under subjection to the operation of the gunas. The mind is nothing but the gunas in a subtle form. A rarefied form of the gunas is the substance of the psychological organs – manas, buddhi, ahamkara, citta – the mind, the intellect, the ego and the subconscious. A gross form of the same gunas appears as the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether. Therefore there is a fraternity of feeling between the mind inside and the object outside, since both of these are constituted of the same gunas, as it has already been referenced in a statement of the Bhagavadgita: guṇā guṇeṣu vartante (B.G. III.28).

Inasmuch as the gunas are almost everything, and there is nothing outside them, our efforts in the direction of the practice of yoga should take into consideration the constitution of the gunas in respect of our own individual personality. Here, we have to study our own self, we have to make our own self, and we are concerned with our own self, ultimately speaking. As I am the seeker of yoga, I am the student of yoga, and I am the practician, I should know where I stand in respect of these gunas. My entire personality is made up of them, and the attitude of my personality depends upon the pattern of the arrangement of the three gunas. My likes and dislikes also are dependent on the gunas. To what percentage have I risen in the preponderance of any particular guna in myself – sattva, rajas, or tamas? Which guna preponderates in me? Among the three gunas, which is the strongest in my personality? Is it sattva, or rajas, or tamas.

From our general attitude to things, our daily feelings and reactions, and our longings, from the bottommost of our hearts, we can have an idea as to where we stand in respect of the gunas. The nature of our deepest feelings throughout the day and our general reactions to things outside will be an outward symbol of our inward constitution. Though one cannot know one's own self deeply, profoundly, and wholly, by the observance of certain insignia or symbols outside, one can know what is happening inside. The way in which we speak and the opinions that we hold about things and persons, as well as the deep-seated longings in our hearts, expressed or otherwise, will tell us what we are. Others cannot know it – we have to know it for ourselves. We are the students, we are the aspirants, we are the seekers, and we are struggling to achieve this Supreme Goal; therefore, we have to be very cautious in knowing our own self.

As a matter of fact, there is nothing to be known in this world except our own self. There is no need to bother about things, because all of the difficulties arise from us only, and not from others, and there is no use opening our eyes and looking at other people and things to study them. It will not profit us in any manner whatsoever. Rather, we should close our eyes and look within, and see where we stand in the scheme of things. As long as this internal structure of our deeper personality is not properly investigated into and understood, the outward efforts will not bring much result. We mostly concentrate on external effort and forget the internal tendencies in our mind, and our general attitude of consciousness.

I would like to point out that the tendencies in our internal set-up are more important objects of investigation and study than anything else outside. An object outside us may be the target of our particular inward tendencies, and it is possible that we give too much importance to our external attitude towards objects and persons and do not pay sufficient attention to the causes of our relationships to objects, the causes being the tendencies within. Our likes and dislikes are not to be taken merely as an external expression of our personality, as they are only outward symbols of what is happening inside us. Different types of urges within us become responsible for certain types of relationships to objects outside. When we like something, there must be a reason why we like it. How can we like something or dislike something for no reason? That reason is the inward tendency or the particular preponderance of a guna. It is not that a single guna is preponderant at any given moment of time. We cannot say that today, or at this moment, sattva is preponderant, or rajas or tamas is preponderant.

Many a time, or we may say almost always, there is a mix-up of a certain percentage of these gunas, so that we are not wholly sattvic, or rajasic, or tamasic at any time. We have some element of something, and some element of some other thing, mixed up in a certain proportion so that we have all the tendencies grouped in ourself, and we may look like a mixed-up personality, which makes it all the more difficult for us to understand our own self.

These tendencies inside are the objects of study in a deeper investigation. The necessity for it is pointed out in the sutratatparaṁ puruṣakhyāteḥ guṇavaitṛṣṇyam (I.16). In respect of the practice of vairagya, about which we have been studying up to this time, Patanjali says that real vairagya cannot arise unless we gain freedom over the gunas. The spirit of renunciation does not get confirmed and does not become steadfast merely by a readjustment of an outward attitude towards things. What is essential is an adjustment of inward tendencies, and if the tendencies persist, our outward adjustments will not be of much consequence, because what liberates us and what binds us is the tendency inside, and these are the gunas. These gunas are terrific forces, and they cannot be controlled by ordinary effort. They are terrific because they are our masters. We are entirely made up of them, and we are subjected to them in every sense of the term. Every fibre of our being is nothing but the gunas. This is actually the difficulty of self-mastery. The mastery over the gunas is mastery over one's own self.

We have been observing that there are degrees of the observation and experience of self. The selfhood goes on expanding and deepening as we advance further and further. This means that the gunas, in their readjustment of pattern, go on becoming thinner and thinner, rarer and rarer, more and more ethereal in their structure, so that the light of the Truth gets reflected in a greater and greater intensity. It is the opaqueness of the pattern of the gunas that prevents the reflection of Truth in our own self, just as the light of the sun cannot penetrate through a brick wall because it is opaque and throws back the light outwardly rather than absorbing it, whereas the light of the sun can pass through translucent or transparent objects like glass, mirror, etc. In a thickened personality, with a preponderance of tamas and rajas, the reflection of Truth is not so apparent, and it becomes more and more capable of being experienced when the gunas become more and more sattvic in their tendency, which means to say, more and more transparent in their structure. It is then that we feel that the self is progressing in its onward journey and becoming wider in its comprehension and deeper in its profundity.

How are we to tackle these tendencies – the gunas? Most of our practices are outward; this is what we call the religions of the world. We have religions, but no spirituality in the world, and that is why religions do not help us much. We are very much concerned with rituals and forms, routines, traditions, scriptures, customs, manners, etc., as they have come down to us from ancestry, but these are not going to change us. We may have hundreds of religions with all of their rituals and tradition, but man will be man – he will not change. This is because outward adjustments and disciplines become objects of utility, and have a meaning and significance only if their intention is an inward regeneration. The intention of religions should be a revival of spiritual values inside the individual; and if this is the intention, religion will have meaning.

There is a great point in religion, of course, but the point will be missed if the aim is missed. The movement of the religious attitude should be not outward, but inward. Unfortunately, we have become more and more formal and externalised in our religious attitude, so that we appear to be religious only for the sake of other people. If we are alone, unobserved in the world, perhaps religions would not be of much meaning to us. Suppose we are absolutely alone, and nobody sees us; what does it matter to us whether we are a Hindu, or a Christian, or a Buddhist? Nobody is there to call us a Buddhist or a Hindu. We have no name at that time, and we can put on any dress we like – nobody bothers. But if we are in society, we dress in a particular way, we speak in a particular way, and we designate ourselves in a particular fashion as belonging to a particular faith, and so on and so forth. So it looks as if we are religious only because society exists – otherwise there is no religion. This is very strange. But religion is not social. It is something quite different from what we mean by social relation, because social relation is an outward movement of the human mind for certain purposes, while religion has a different aim altogether. If we are conversant with the philosophy of religion, we know that the very word means, 'that which binds us back to God'. Not that which makes us externalised and a social being, but that which ties the soul back to God is religion.

So religion is an inward journey of the soul towards contact with larger realities and greater forms of comprehensiveness, which cannot be achieved by any amount of external movement. Reality is not outside, in the sense that reality is not a relationship; it is not any kind of contact or coming into union with anything in this world. We cannot bring reality into contact with anything. Being independent and self-existent, it is non-contactual, and any conscious tendency towards it should also be imbued with the characteristic of reality. If religion is the tendency towards the real, it should exhibit in its structure and function the character of the real, which is inwardness and a greater tendency to 'being' rather than a tendency to activity and relation. Religion is not an action; it is a tendency towards being, and though it begins with action, it does not end with action. It ends with an absorption of all outward contact and relation, including every type of activity, into a more comprehensive state of being, which point is mostly missed by religious people. We have no religious people in this world, really speaking, if we go deep into it. We have only outward practitioners of the formalistic traditions of religion, but there are no religious people who have gone to the root of the matter, as religion is ultimately inseparable from spiritual consciousness.

The spiritual sense in the individual is the determining factor of the validity of any kind of religious attitude. If the spiritual sense is missing, religions will cease to exist. They cannot survive in this world and, unfortunately, this seems to be what is happening today. The spiritual sense is sinking back into the clouds of unknowing and we become, more and more, formality-ridden automatons, driven by impulses of social sense. There is a feeling today that a day may come when religions will die altogether. There would be no religion in this world and, God forbid, we might live like animals. But this may not happen if at least a few people in this world, even a handful of people, rise up to the occasion and strike on the qualitative aspect of religion and live up to the requisitions of true spirituality, which will shed a force and power and aura around it that can counteract all these outward diversifying elements that we see prevailing today, both in smaller circles like the family and in larger circles like the international systems.

The practice of yoga, therefore, goes into this vital issue of human existence and points out that any amount of makeshift arrangement or contrivance is not going to succeed. Kaś cid dhīraḥ pratyag-ātmānam aikṣad āvṛtta-cakṣur (Katha II.1.1), says the Katha Upanishad. Our eyes are now turned outward, and we judge everything from the point of view of outward relationship and society, on account of the externalised movement of the organs of perception. Āvṛtta-cakṣuris one who has an introverted vision. The introverted vision alone can tell us what we really are; an extroverted vision can tell us how we appear to others.

From the point of view of our ultimate achievements in life, how we appear to others is not important. What we are really in ourself cannot be seen by any outward-turned observation, either of the senses or of the mind. But this inward movement, which is what is meant by avrita cakshutva or introverted vision, is again capable of being misconstrued. What do we mean by internal vision, or introverted observation, or avrita cakshutva? Does it mean that we close our eyes and go on looking inside the body? Nothing of the kind – that is not the meaning of introverted vision. We will find that the more deeply we go into this subject, the more difficult it becomes to entertain ordinary, tradition-ridden thoughts.

The introverted vision, which is required in order to understand the tendencies within for the purpose of controlling the gunas, does not mean closing our eyes or looking inside our physical body. This is, again, a peculiar twist of consciousness that is actually taking place. Vision does not mean physical vision or looking through the eyes. It is not opening the eyes or closing the eyes – nothing of the kind. It is neither of these. The introversion that is spoken of here has no reference either to the opened eyes or to the closed eyes. Introversion is an attitude of consciousness. We may open the eyes, or we may close the eyes – it makes no difference. I may open my eyes and appear to be looking at things, and yet see nothing if my consciousness is introverted. On the other hand, if my consciousness is extroverted, I may be seeing things even if I my eyes are completely closed. We may close the eyes and yet be in contact with things. We may open our eyes and yet not be in contact with anything. So there is no point in overemphasising this opening or closing of the eyes. The point is: what it is we are feeling, and what it is we are thinking, and where do we stand in the scheme of things. The introverted vision is a vision of consciousness; it is not a vision of the eyes or a function of the senses.

On the other hand, a proper definition of the extroverted vision is: that awareness which is dissociated from its content. Extroverted vision is that condition of consciousness or awareness where its content is isolated from itself. That is, the consciousness is aware of something, and yet it is dissociated from that of which it is aware. Therefore it is running towards that content. The content of consciousness stands dissociated from consciousness, as an external something, and then there is no other goal for consciousness than to struggle, to become one with that content from which it has been isolated for some reason or the other. This is called external perception, external activity, desire – everything. The moment the content is dissociated from consciousness, there is a struggle of consciousness to become one with that content, which is called desire. It puts forth every kind of effort to achieve this end, and that is called activity. This is what we are doing in life. The content, or the objective in front of consciousness, is isolated from it. This is what is called desire; and therefore, there is a lot of work to be done. We are very busy, every day, for this reason. This is the outcome of extroverted vision. The introversion is the readjustment of the movement of consciousness in such a way that it begins to go into the nature of that peculiar situation which has brought about the dissociation of itself from its content. This is the beginning of the introverted vision.

How do we become introverted, rather than extroverted? The first step is to go into the necessity of understanding the circumstances which have brought about this dissociation of consciousness from the object. Why is it that this has happened? What is the next step to be done? And so on and so forth, we go on investigating the nature of this difficulty that has arisen. Rather than emphasising the necessity for consciousness to come in contact with this content outwardly, we go the other way round and begin to feel the necessity to know the nature of the difficulty that has arisen, prompting the consciousness to urge itself towards its content in an extroverted manner.

Until this is achieved, until the necessity for this kind of investigation is felt, we are not on a spiritual path; we are still persons of the world. We are still like anybody else – like a straw being drifted by the wind. We should free ourselves from the peculiar crotchet in our heads that we live a spiritual life for the sake of other people. This is not true. Our fate is not in the hands of other people. It is under the control of certain other forces, and if we ignore them and empahsise the external factors, we will be doomed. It is no use judging ourselves in terms of the colours that we put on due to the relationships that we establish between ourselves and external things. We are mostly engaged in confirming the attitude of consciousness that it is dissociated from its content. This is a pitiable state of affairs. Our activities are not a remedying process of this illness. Rather, they are a confirming process and, therefore, we are getting more and more bound every day, in spite of our making it appear that we are trying for freedom or liberation. So a very acute, incisive analysis is necessary of what is happening inside us, rather than of what we are doing outside us. We need not go on analysing our outward conduct and activities as much as focusing on what is happening inside our consciousness.

This is a proper attitude to take in the direction of a real control over the forces that are responsible for what we are today, in our individual and social set-up. These are the gunassattva, rajas and tamas. Gunas are not substances. We have to remember that gunas are not things like stones that we can catch. We cannot catch them. They are elusive things which can escape the grasp of any sense organ, and they can even escape the grasp of the mind, because the mind is constituted of these gunas themselves. The mind, being constituted of the gunas, cannot control the gunas. The mind is habituated to that sort of control which is exercised upon other people and other things outside, and it is not used to a control which is called self-control. Whenever we talk of control, we think in terms of master and servant – the master controlling the servant, or somebody ordering somebody else – because we are used to this kind of control. This sort of exercise will not work in our efforts towards control of the forces called the gunas, because the gunas are not the servants of the mind that they can be restricted as a boss restrains his subordinates. The mind is not a boss, and the gunas are not subordinates. The gunas are involved in the structure of the mind itself.

Therefore the gaining of a control over the inward tendencies of our personality is a new system of educational refinement of ourselves, which has very little to do with what we regard as important in life, and which is completely different from all the values that we regard as meaningful in life. We get reborn into a new world altogether when we step into the path of yoga.