Feature 1: Modes of Combat
Feature 2: Passion to Misery to Goodness—A Drama
Knowledge of the three modes (guṇa–traya) proves to be fruitful on a variety of levels. The principles that offer insight into the working of individuals also illuminate the characteristics of entire cultures or civilizations. Prabhupāda demonstrates this application in a comment on the Gītā: “Modern civilization is considered to be advanced in the standard of the mode of passion. Formerly, the advanced condition was considered to be in the mode of goodness.”
Prabhupāda’s remark provides us with an illuminating and useful way to comprehend recent western history.
We can clearly recognize the shift from the standard of goodness to that of passion in the great historical transformation from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy—or “modernization” as it is called.
The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century was a watershed in the process, but neither the beginning nor the end of it. Industrialization has kept on going: Agriculture did not become fully industrialized until after World War II, when traditional family farms became replaced by huge “factory farms,” agri-businesses controlled by multinational corporations.
We’ve got the fact that, as Pollan puts it, the production of food has changed more in the last 50 years than it did in the previous 10,000. With the massive application of fertilizers, pesticides and economies of scale after World War II, raising crops and animals for food ceased to be a rural lifestyle based on many small farmers and ranchers, and rapidly became a heavily mechanized (and lightly regulated) industry dominated by a handful of big companies who run on low-wage labor.
Most recently, computer technology has been transforming “white collar” occupations—including those of medicine and education—into factory-style assembly-line labor.
The rajo–guṇa gospel of “progress” has converted nearly the whole world, and everyone worships at the feet of Economic Development.
What can we expect of all this progress? The answer is not in dispute: rajasas tu phalaṁ duḥkham. The fruit of the mode of passion is suffering.
Our refugees from the Wall Street storm, reflecting on their travail, call on the President to lead us away from a culture of greed and avarice, of “more is better,” in effect to lead us from passion to goodness. Yet the great government bail-out of financial firms seems mostly to have prompted an additional frenzy of greed.
In terms of our science, we recognize that modernity is a hypertrophy, a monstrous overdevelopment, of rajo–guṇa and the predicted, inevitable outcome—misery—is arriving big time, on multiple fronts: the financial storm crashing around is just the leading edge of the mother of all hurricanes on the way: the global climate crisis.
The reactions to the misery engendered by rajo–guṇa will be in the three modes also. As often happens, Lewis and Cohan are at least attracted to sattva–guṇa, and the Lewis Family Farm, “devoted to the principles of organic sustainable agriculture” seems a laudable attempt to return to a purer, more sattvic way of life.
Unfortunately, he has some way to go. Those who know the science of the guṇas doubt that much will be gained by exchange of this:
Knowledge of the three guṇas is greatly needed to help us deal effectively with our overwhelming crisis, the ever-growing global misery engendered by the hypertrophy of the mode of passion.
Whenever rajo–guṇa yields its harvest of suffering and misery on which we feast, we undergo the typical reactions to such a diet—for instance, rage and its internalize form known as depression, sedation by low- or high-tech drugs, escape into illusions and delusions—such reactions convey us into tamo–guṇa.
Yet there is also the chance that with a little help we can also elevate ourselves to goodness.
Prabhupāda asserts that we have choices.
Here in his account of struggles of the individual spiritual self (the ātmā) with the modes, Prabhupāda describes our options:
When a living entity comes in contact with the material creation, his eternal love for Kṛṣṇa is transformed into lust, in association with the mode of passion. Or, in other words, the sense of love of God becomes transformed into lust, as milk in contact with sour tamarind is transformed into yogurt. Then again, when lust is unsatisfied, it turns into wrath; wrath is transformed into illusion, and illusion continues the material existence. Therefore, lust is the greatest enemy of the living entity, and it is lust only which induces the pure living entity to remain entangled in the material world. Wrath is the manifestation of the mode of ignorance; these modes exhibit themselves as wrath and other corollaries. If, therefore, the mode of passion, instead of being degraded into the mode of ignorance, is elevated to the mode of goodness by the prescribed method of living and acting, then one can be saved from the degradation of wrath by spiritual attachment.
(The word “lust” here—kāma in Sanskrit—denotes the strong desire to enjoy the pleasures of the sense. Kāma is not limited to sexual desire, although sex, as Freud said, “is the prototype of all pleasure.”)
Most of us can see everywhere the increase in the effect of the mode of ignorance. Mental disturbances proliferate all around us. In America, one out of four adults suffer in a given year from a diagnosable mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Look it up—or just turn on a television or take a walk through the city streets. . . . Based on a 2001 study, the World Health Organization predicted that by 2020 mental illness would become the second leading cause of death and disability in the world.
Politically, the increase in tamo–guṇa can be seen in the rise of social or cultural rage, resentment, panic, and despair. The rant has become a favorite form of political discourse (check out “Rant of the Year”), with a concomitant rise of ideologically motivated violence.
The economy in the mode of ignorance is chronically depressed (and depressing), and prosperity turns out to be illusory, producing fortunes as insubstantial as the airy nothing of day-dreams, made only of “bubbles.” Livelihoods increasing depend on the black market or underground economy. Prisons, mental facilities, addiction recovery centers, and similar institutions that care for those overwhelmed by tamo–guṇa become a vital element of the visible economy.
Although those committed to the culture and economy of rajo–guṇa see and fear the increase of tamo–guṇa, they do not know how to deal with it effectively. This is because their own solution to the problems caused by rajo–guṇa is simply more rajo–guṇa.
In dealing with mental illness, for example, it rarely occurs to them that if many people are disturbed it is because the conditions of their lives are in fact disturbing. If they should recognize this, they have no idea of how to deal with it; or if they do have some inkling, they think the solution “impracticable.” They rely on the mode of passion, and put their hopes in “big pharma.”
I remember well the first great oil shock that rocked the country in 1973. Many saw it as a harbinger of things to come, especially in light of a study published the previous year, which argued that in view of the earth’s finite resources, we were approaching The Limits to Growth. The book sold thirty million copies.
People began to give serious consideration to proposals that we should live in ways that had many features of what would be, in our terms, an economy in the mode of goodness: local self-sufficiency in food and energy (features of an agrarian economy), shift to a largely vegetarian diet, employ appropriate technology, and so on.
The idea of limits to growth is anathema to those in the mode of passion. I remember receiving several issues of a newsletter, put out by some consortium of large energy corporations, assailing the idea of limits to growth as sacrilege against Progress itself. Whatever problems human ingenuity creates, that same ingenuity solves. When the “cavemen” learned to control fire, and found the flames of their hearths filled their shelters with smoke, did they abandon fire? No! That is not the human way! They “advanced” by devising further technology—in this case, chimneys. The problems of technology will be solved by more technology.
Now that further technology threatens apocalyptic catastrophe produced global climatic changes, scientists are busy developing ingenious technological fixes. The cavemen now must erect a chimney on the earth. Well, not that, exactly.
Here’s one plan: We have already seen that erupting volcanoes produce global temperature drops by pouring vast amount of sun-blocking sulfur dioxide into the air. We engineer the same effect, thus counteracting the temperature increase from greenhouse gases. Imagine, then, an armada of 1,500 zeppelins hovering at 65,000 feet, each one studded with nozzles that continuously spew a mist of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Flexible hoses trail from each airships like strands of vermicelli from an uplifted fork; the sulfur dioxide aerosol is pumped aloft through these conduits from production plants on the ground at a rate of ten kilos per second. This process goes on 24/7, no end in sight.
Graeme Wood surveys a number of such breathtaking geo-engineering plans under development in his article “Moving Heaven and Earth” in the latest issue of The Atlantic.
Wood is concerned to emphasize the great risk such solutions pose. We are messing with our entire ecology, and there is a distinct danger of unforeseen consequences on a catastrophic scale. If we employ the sulfur dioxide or other sun-blocking schemes—because reduction of greenhouse gas emissions proves politically or economically unworkable—then those gases will continue to build up in the atmosphere. If, for any reason, one of these projects stops, then the accumulated atmospheric carbon could produce a sudden and drastic temperature rise, with calamitous results.
Wood notes that these schemes are considerably cheaper than the cost of sufficiently reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Estimates that geo-engineering could completely reverse human caused climate change for $100 billion—and some say for much less. Reducing emission will cost an estimated one trillion dollars, yearly.
The low cost of such schemes makes them more attractive. And, in fact, it brings some of them within the scope of unilateral action by even a poor nation—or of a single very rich individual. Those who worry about these things dread the emergence of a hypothetical “Greenfinger,” the environmental cognate of Goldfinger, the mega-villain of the James Bond sagas.
Wood, in fact, hopes that these geo-engineering solutions are so frightening and affordable that these very features may prompt—through sheer terror—a serious effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the possibility of geo-engineering would remain, lurking in the near shadows, poised to pounce like the monster in a horror movie, the price of our failure.
It is typical for those controlled by rajo–guṇa to try to assuage the resulting misery by means of the very mode that produced it. At best, these efforts can no more than retard the fruition of misery, and the delay only amplifies the suffering when it arrives with tamo–guṇa in its train, smothering the earth.
One thing is sure: We are soon to be instructed and entertained by some of the several dozen eco-disaster-horror-thriller novels and screenplays now filling up hard drives across the land. Greenfinger! Who could resist?
Wood’s overview of geo-engineering plans provides us with a textbook-worthy study of rajo–guṇa in large scale action. Be very scared.
Under these circumstances it is encouraging to see a widespread increase in attraction for what is, in effect, the mode of goodness. Impelled by danger and dire need, Wordsworth’s “plain living and high thinking,” disappearing in his own time, awaits a revival.
Here the science of the modes has a major contribution to make: how to free the human heart from the control of rajas and tamas and situate it in sattva. Such an effort attacks our social, political, and environmental problems at their very root. This treatment of the disease of the heart, including “the prescribed method of living and acting,” is proven efficacious: Prabhupāda’s ISKCON may be seen as a kind of pilot program in this regard. Where the treatment has been properly applied, it has worked.
Where the treatment has failed of proper application, it should be implemented once more, with greater care. This is an urgent matter. In our global emergency, any who undertake a renewed and revivified effort to elevate themselves to goodness by the “proscribed methods” will bring inestimable benefit not only to themselves, but also to all humanity—more—to all living beings on earth.
The clock is ticking.
“The Economy Is Still at the Brink,” warns Sandy Lewis and William Cohan in a full-page op-ed piece in the Sunday Times of June 7. With the coverage and mayhem of a shotgun blast, the authors let loose at the President’s remedial programs and advance their own remedies. Periodically the text balloons into sections of bold-faced, screaming, headline multi-sized fonts—the usual signal of a rant in progress. (A first for the staid and sober “paper of record?”) For example:
The tone of the piece, reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets, is notable; the inquisitive reader may savor the authors’ secular jeremiad in its entirety here. Sandy Lewis is himself a confessed and pardoned Wall Street sinner. Now he is an organic farmer (“grass-fed beef” unfortunately included) in the Adirondacks. His co-author William Cohan, a seventeen-year Wall-street veteran turned journalist, has offered the nation his tell-all account of gluttony at the Bear Stearns financial pig-trough in his narration of the foundering of that Titanic among investment banks, House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street. They have survived the shipwreck to tell us.
Of all the bullet-pointed proposals blasted at us, a short one struck me hardest:
Instead of promising the imminent return of good times, why isn’t Mr. Obama talking more about the importance of living within our means and not spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need? We used to be a frugal nation. The president should be talking about kicking our addictions to easy credit, to quick fixes and to a culture of more is better . . . .
Gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s, cigarette boats, no-income mortgages and private jets should be relegated to the junk heaps of history, or better yet, put in a museum dedicated to never forgetting the greed and avarice that led us so far astray.
Its opening question distinguished as a graphical howl, this proposal strikes me as the most fundamental of all, as the most necessary, as the most radical, and for those reasons the most nearly impossible: Forswearing “greed and avarice”? Kicking our addiction to “a culture of more is better”?
These undertakings would uproot the very foundation of our American way of life; they demand a profound change of culture, of individual lifestyle and outlook.
Yet it is just this sort of remedial cultural transformation that Prabhupāda hoped to bring about in the world through his offerings of Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, calling the latter “a cultural presentation for the respiritualization of the entire human society.”
THE STORM indeed is a long way from over, yet so far as I can tell neither the traumatized survivors of Wall Street nor the President understand how to effect the necessary changes—change you really can believe in.
To anyone committed to bringing about a transformation in the iniquitous ways of this world’s misdirected civilization I recommend an ancient system as guide for this undertaking. The system is a science, containing, like any science, both theory and practice. By theory I mean an organized set of categories that illuminate the workings of the world, and by practice I mean the application of the theory to the world so as to bring about desired changes. Through science we can both understand how things are working and use our understanding to predict and control the course of events.
The scientific knowledge I’m concerned with has been developed in India among followers of the Vedas, and it is basic enough to be common to nearly all the various traditions of knowledge (vidyā) and application (yoga).
A concise and accessible exposition of this science can be found in the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā, which concerns itself with the “three modes of material nature” (guṇa traya), distinguishing each category from the others and the triad of guṇas from the state of transcendence (nir–guṇa).
Over the ages, the human race has embraced an extraordinary diversity of systems of thought. As social beings, we absorb a cultural world-view practically with our mother’s milk, and as we mature that view is enriched by friends and relatives, by teachers and other guides. We look at the world around us through the lenses so provided.
It has been said that every “seeing” is really a “seeing as,” that our perceptions of the world come to us to a degree already processed and interpreted, pre-consciously shaped by our biological, social, and historically conditioned mind and senses.
If you spend time studying philosophies and ideologies—as I did once—you’ll find that each makes it possible to comprehend reality as a unified, intelligible whole, and eventually you will be able to mentally browse through a succession of realities as comprehended, say, by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Spinoza, by Hegel, Marx, and Whitehead, and so on. In a sense, each of these systematic thinkers lives in a different world. Or each one lights up the given world—the inaccessible “thing-in-itself”?—in a certain idiosyncratic way, a way that may turn out to be quite satisfying or fruitful for some purpose or other. And each leaves parts in shadows, too: ignored or unexplained.
When I began to absorb the teachings of the Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and viewed the world through their categories of thought, the world became illuminated in a new, fascinating, and extremely useful way. Not only did my study transform the way I saw the world: it transformed me. Bhagavad-gītā calls this phenomenon jñāna cakṣuṣaḥ, becoming endowed with eyes of knowledge.
An important element of that knowledge is seeing nature (prakṛti) working according to three guṇas.
The dictionary’s first definition of guṇa is “cord” or “strand.” Think of prakṛti as a rope made of three cords (guṇas) plaited or twisted together. As one of the constituent features of nature, guṇa denotes a “quality” or “attribute” of prakṛti, a way or manner in which it acts. Accordingly, Prabhupāda consistently translates guṇa by the English word “mode.”
All of us experience nature acting in three ways or modes—there’s nothing esoteric about this. Nature moves in repeating cycles made of three phases: creation, maintenance, and destruction. Whenever entities are being created, procreated, or constructed, nature is said to be acting in the mode of passion, rajo–guṇa. When entities are being maintained, conserved, or preserved, nature is acting in the mode of goodness or purity, sattva–guṇa. And when beings undergo deterioration, decay, or destruction, nature’s mode of ignorance or darkness, tamo–guṇa, is at work.
Entities come into being, endure for a time, and finally deteriorate and break down into their constituent parts. The end products of destruction are then taken up as raw materials to be assembled in the next cycle beginning with rajo–guṇa. Such cycles continue perpetually, from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic levels.
In the Vedic world-view, this cycle is one of many manifestations of the three guṇas at work, for the three guṇas constitute the universal defining categories for all productions of nature. For example, the devas, or demigods, are as a group situated in sattva–guṇa; the human species in rajo–guṇa; the animal, tamo–guṇa. And then those groups are further subdivided according to the guṇas. Among animals, for example, the cow is said to be in sattva–guṇa; the lion, rajo–guṇa; the monkey, tamo–guṇa.
Or consider dwelling places: Prabhupāda writes (SB 4.12.29, purport): “It is said, therefore, that to live in the forest is in the mode of goodness, to live in the city is in the mode of passion, and to live in a brothel, liquor shop or slaughterhouse is in the mode of ignorance.” You can see the point:
Similarly, diversity among humans is also produced by the guṇas, and the Gītā describes the resultant symptoms of each.
Sattva is considered the best and purest of the modes. In fact, the spiritual realm, above the material guṇas, is characterized as śuddha–sattva or viśuddha–sattva—pristine or pure goodness. There sattva is free even of the slightest tinge of passion and ignorance: All is in everlasting existence, and nothing comes to be or ceases to be. However, when sattva becomes manifest within material nature, it becomes braided together with rajas and tamas, so that sattva–guṇa is never found without at least a taint rajas and tamas.
Like the other guṇas, sattva too binds the soul to matter. Because of its purity, it is illuminating and immaculate. Yet a person in sattva guṇa becomes bound—by attachment to happiness and knowledge.
Rajas is manifest by passion—especially sexual—and it is born out of lust and other sensory urges and drives. A person under the sway of rajo–guṇa becomes driven by compulsions to action.
Tamas, born of ignorance, cause the delusion of all beings. A person in tamo–guṇa becomes fettered by bewilderment, apathy, indolence, and sleep. He becomes attached to the befuddlement by intoxication and to the oblivion offered by sleep, drugs, or fantasy life.
When sattva is dominant, the senses become pure receptacles of knowledge. Attention is highly alert and inquisitive, yet detached and disinterested.
The prominence of passion is evinced by unslakeable greed and hankerings, by restlessness, and by an obsession with “getting things done” and the undertaking of many projects. Attention in this mode becomes narrow and excited, focused on the objects of desire.
The dominance of tamas is seen in a person who becomes indifferent to knowledge; avoids activity; neglects caring for himself, others, and his surroundings; and even shows clinical signs of mental disorders. In tamo–guṇa attention tends to be attenuated, flickering, or misplaced.
In addition, the Gītā tells us that work (karma) done in each mode gives rise to a particular fruit or result (phalam): the good works done in sattva–guṇa produce pure and immaculate results; the product of work in raja–guṇa is suffering (duḥkham), and tamas engenders stupidity.
Summarizing, Prabhupāda writes: “The living entities conditioned by material nature are of various types. One is happy, another is very active, and another is helpless.”
Once I was granted a vision, a revelation of Prabhupāda’s words. It happened early one summer morning as I stepped out the front door of our Boston temple, a brownstone on Commonwealth Ave., a block and a half from the Public Garden. The two traffic lanes of the avenue sandwich a broad park-like meridian or mall, complete with shade trees, grass, and a wide walkway generously supplied with benches and civic statuary. I looked down from the temple entrance, across the inbound lanes, and into the mall and saw a living allegory enacted before my very eyes.
On the near edge of the walkway stood a young temple devotee, in robes of pale fire, absorbed in chanting on his beads. Moving on the pavement behind him, a nicely tonsured corporate go-getter in running shorts rushed by on slapping Nikes toward the Public Garden, Walkman wire swinging from his ear; and behind both figures a hirsute face rose up in annoyance from one end of a heap of filthy rags ranged upon a bench that sheltered several bottles flung upon the grass, each swaddled in the iconic paper bag. I saw it in a single glance! Sattva. Rajas. Tamas. The Epiphany of the Modes. If only my eye had been a camera!
Most of you will have recognized these three personality types, each with its particular constellations of characteristics, from your own experience (although it’s rare these days to encounter a person in the mode of goodness). You probably can also remember critical times in your own or another’s life in which a predominating mode was supplanted by another. The Gītā recognizes such alterations (14.10).
Indeed, we’re not only familiar with such upheavals ourselves; we’re fascinated by them. Consider the public’s insatiable appetite for true-life narrations about people (preferably famous) who dramatically undergo alterations in dominant modes. We’re all well acquainted with the basic plot: The hero, from hard-scrabble origins in tamo–guṇa, rises by talent, luck, and labor to rajo–guṇa, only to suffer a horrifying plummet and deeper re-immersion in tamo–guṇa; then, impelled by the near miraculous intervention of an agent who personifies sattva–guṇa, the protagonist undertakes an agonizing, prolonged, and suspenseful struggle to eventually triumph by regaining rajo–guṇa, leavened this time with a dollop of sattva.
It is clear that phenomena dealt with by the science of guṇa–traya are not only familiar to us but important as well. The science teaches us how to see: it provides us categories that elucidate our experiences, guide and inform our perceptions. Offering a clear and coherent insight into the workings of the modes, it empowers us to deal with them effectively. Before, we had been travelers making our way blindly through an unfamiliar land. Now we have a map.
TO BE CONTINUED