Gunatrayavibhaga Yoga

The three gunas or nature-modalities with which this chapter
is concerned belong to nature as expressed in the personality
or the Self We have already seen in the previous chapter that
there are two eternal Selfs both having an equal status, and
it was stated as a law that it was from the union between
these two aspects that all creatures came to be (xiii, 26).
It was further clarified in the last chapter (xiii, 21) that
attachment to the modalities in nature was the cause of birth
in "good or bad wombs". The outline of the theory which is
going to be discussed in the present chapter was thus laid
in the last chapter. What follows in this chapter is a further
clarification of this theory of modalities in nature, and it
may be said to be one of the important contributions of the

We noticed in the previous chapter that the two aspects of
the Self which were postulated there for purposes of
discussion had an equal and eternal status. In Verse 32 it
was further stated that the Self lodged in the body was not
affected by the body. Thus it was in the name of the higher
Self that the discussion in the previous chapter was carried

In this chapter the same discussion is continued in a rather
lopsided fashion. The perfect symmetry and equality of status
of the kshetra (field) and the kshetrajna (knower of the field),
representing the body and the spirit respectively, is seen to
be somewhat violated by making the lower Self pertaining to
the kshetra (field or body) the centre of the discussion.
This lower or bodily Self belongs to the domain of nature
and necessity rather than to the free contingent spirit.
As such it is subject to the modalities of nature as
implied in the theory here. These modalities have, all
of them, the effect of binding


or conditioning the Self. The Self which is subject to natural
bondages is not the higher Self but one that is merely a
"dweller in the body" or the "body owner", which is subject
to birth, death, old age and sorrows. The three modalities
refer only to this lower Self and, what is more, a man who
conforms to the description given in Verses 22 to 25 at the
end of this chapter transcends the three modalities and
becomes released from their binding force, and gains full
spiritual status. The requirement laid down in Verse 19 for
crossing over the domain of the lower Self which is under
the influence of the modalities to the higher, free and eternal
Self is very simple. He has only to see that there is no agent
other than the modalities of nature which keep him bound.
Knowledge thus effects ready release. How a simple knowledge
of this kind could win such a precious release is further
explained in the last section of this chapter as consisting
of a certain attitude of neutrality or balance between
opposites. The lower Self which is given primacy in this
chapter and even referred to as the "basis of the Absolute"
in Verse 27 interacts with the higher or intelligent Self,
and the overall wisdom about the two Selfs establishes an
equilibrium between them. This is the yoga or unitive
discipline implied here. The primacy given to the lower
Self in this chapter for purposes of discussion is quickly
corrected, as we shall see in the next chapter, where
both the Selfs are revalued in terms of a supreme Self called
the purushottama.

In evaluating the importance of this chapter we have to
remember that it is the domain of necessity or action which
forms the subject here. On final analysis necessity has an
irreducible minimum implicit in it which is itself eternal,
and therefore has to be given due recognition in the context
of the Absolute. The Absolute which is merely conceived
in terms of an idea has no power to release one from the
bonds of nature. It is simple neutrality between the dual
aspects of the Absolute itself which helps in the release of
the person seeking liberation through wisdom.


Sribhagavan uvacha
param bhuyah pravakshyami
jnananam jnanam uttamam
yaj jnatva munayah sarve
param siddhim ito gatah

Krishna said:
I shall again declare that superior wisdom, the best of all
wisdom, by knowing which all sage-recluses (munis) have
passed to transcendental perfection from here.


The word guhyam (secret) is not found in the discussion of
the kind of jnanam (wisdom) specifically referred to in the
opening line of this chapter. On the other hand, the superior
character and the special quality of the aspect of wisdom
that is meant to be dealt with here, is asserted with striking

After the thirteen chapters have been covered, how such
an important aspect of wisdom has been so far neglected,
can only be explained by the fact that we are here entering
into the domain of what was referred to as vijnana (specific
or specialized aspect of wisdom) in ix, 1. This specific
quality of wisdom has now attained a maturity in the last
four chapters, so that the author is now able in this chapter
to confront the modalities of natural expression in the actual
world of human values, which are not necessarily spiritual
in the best or usual sense of the term, but yet deserve
attention as belonging to the principle of a necessity which
is also eternal.

The reference to munis (sage recluses, silent ones) is to a
type of spirituality whose pattern of behaviour is visibly
different from others who belong more closely to social life.
The muni is still a contemplative who gives importance to a
certain kind of behaviour over and above the theoretical
wisdom which he might have as a seer.

The siddhi (attainment) refers to perfection belonging to
this sage-recluse pattern.

The word itah (from here) indicates that the subject is
approached from this side, i.e., the necessary side of the
here and now, from which these sages may be said to have
ascended to the transcendental values implied in wisdom.


idam jnanam upasritya
mama sadharmyam agatah
sarge 'pi no' pajayante
pralaye na vyathanti cha

Having resorted to this wisdom, and having attained to
conformity in (express) features pertaining to Me, they are
neither born at creation nor are they adversely affected at


Sarga (emanation) and pralaya (reabsorption or melting
back) refer to two phenomenal aspects of life that we
experience from this side, i.e. taking the world to be real
and not treating it as an illusion. It is a world of time, and
the interval between these two opposing events here is often
alluded to in the Indian legends as consisting of many
millions of years.

The sage in question here, when he has passed on to the
transcendental wisdom, is no longer affected by these
phenomenal aspects of the universe because, as this verse
itself states, whatever personal expression the sage might
have in any relativist context has attained conformity to the
function, if any, of the Absolute itself. Whether, as Sankara
says, the sage, by this kind of conformity, has attained
perfect union with the Absolute, is neither raised nor
answered in the Gita. This is evidently because such a
question is not necessary for the purposes of this chapter.
If Sankara in his comments respected more closely the
intention of the author in each chapter, he would have
conceded that it was not quite necessary for Vyasa at this
stage of the discussion to say whether or not perfection was
implied by the conformity with the Absolute that is here
referred to. That he did attain perfection goes without
saying from the mere fact that he is already a muni (sage
recluse) and that he is learning only the most superior
aspects of wisdom remaining to be taught now after thirteen
previous chapters.

Further, this verse only extols the type of sage meant
here, promising him the highest possible limits of perfection
open to him to obtain, without specifically putting any limit
to his perfection, if any, remaining beyond the context of this
chapter. Such a question is rightly left open, although in
the last verse of this chapter some indications of the
perfection that lies beyond the point covered in this chapter
are also indicated. Never-decreasing immortality, eternal
way of conduct and the lonely path of ultimate happiness
are items yet to be covered by him.

The term sadharmya (conformity in express features) may
therefore be taken to mean simply that the sage, by
conforming to a way of life belonging to the lower or
necessary aspect of the Absolute, gets an initial status
in the transcendental higher aspect of the Absolute which
liberates him from the bondage of phenomenal cosmological
events within time, such as emanation and dissolution.
That two such stages of perfection are to be distinctly
thought of is implied in the Gita from Verses vi, 3, and
xv, 11.


In the Samkhya (rationalist) philosophy, as we have already
noticed, emanation and retraction are often referred
to by the terms sankara (evolution) and pratisankara
(devolution) which happen in contrary directions in the
matrix of the avyakta (unmanifested root nature or matter).


mama yonir mahad brahma
tasmin garbham dadhamy aham
sambhavah sarvabhutanam
tato bhavati bharata

My womb is great Brahma (supreme deity); in that I place
the germ; thence is the birth of all beings, 0 Bharata


The Upanishads speak of a higher and a lower Absolute.
The Isa Upanishad (Verse 15) has the words:
"What is thy fairest form that of thee I see. He who is
yonder, yonder Person I myself am he!"

There are terms such as hiranya-garbha (the golden germ
or embryo) and parabrahma (supreme aspect of the Absolute),
and Siva (masculine principle of the Absolute) and Sakti
(feminine principle of the Absolute) whose interaction
makes the phenomenal world come into view from the
unmanifested matrix. Thus in many ways the central idea
of this verse is familiar in the context of Indian

Samkhya (rationalist) philosophy contains the same elements
under the name of prakriti (nature) and purusha (spirit)
but with an implicit duality which makes it slightly
different from what is described in this present verse.
Prakriti (nature) in the Samkhya (rationalist) system
is itself the cause of all created things, but here the
absolute principle common to, both nature and spirit is
spoken of as the fecundating factor producing all beings.
That the Gita strongly disapproves of such a dualism is
clear from xvi, 8. In the present verse there is an implied
androgynous image which is intended to express the non-
duality of nature and spirit.


sarvayonishu kaunteya
murtayah sambhavantiyah tasam
brahma mahad yonir
aham bijapradah pita

Whatever tangible forms are produced in all the wombs,
0 Son of Kunti (Arjuna), great Brahma (supreme deity) is
their (common) womb and I am the seed-bestowing Father.


There is a slight variant in the figure of speech here
which is important to notice. The multiplicity of wombs
is here abolished in favour of one common to all, and the
multiplicity of beings do not seem to require separate
wombs for their birth.

The converse of the same, which is that all the varieties
of beings belong to one great womb, which is that of the
Absolute, is perhaps more suitable for the discussion
to follow, which has the problem of distinguishing Peter
from Paul, rather than seeing the principle uniting them.
In spite of such a need, we find here that the one and the
many wombs; the father and mother aspects of the Absolute in
nature - all tend to come near to one another in the treatment
of the subject in these two Verses, 3 and 4.


sattvam rajas tama iti
gunah prakritisambhavah
nibadhnanti mahabaho
dehe dehinam avyayam

The, pure-clear (sattva), the affective-active (rajas),
and the inert-dark (tamas); these nature-necessity-born
modalities (gunas) bind, 0 Mighty-armed (Arjuna), the
imperishable embodied one.


The much misunderstood theory of the three gunas
(modalities in nature) is given a whole chapter here and
applications of the theory in the various departments of
moral, social, religious and philosophical life constitute
the greater part of the remainder of the Gita. In the popular
mind these three modalities have been closely associated
with the question of the four varnas (colours, divisions of
society) and this has vitiated popular thought in India
through centuries. The disastrous consequences of this
association have been evident to every modern mind. In the
Gita, however, these three modalities are applied not only
to the subject of psychological types and problems of
vocational guidance, but to schools of philosophic thought
and to contemplative disciplines and attitudes in general.
Even diet is not omitted.


To reduce this theory to a fetish and cling to it too easily
as a rule of thumb whenever racial, religious or caste
superiority or inferiority is to be discussed has been a bane
which has given rise to many forms of injustice and
inequality in social, economic and even educational fields,
stifling and submerging or suffocating large groups of
people in respect of their natural freedom and self-
expression. Men like Mahatma Gandhi have fallen under
the false spell of such a misinterpreted and misunderstood

Therefore, in entering into the subject of the three nature-
modalities we should be quite aware of its full implications
and should avoid treating it, as the popular mind has done,
in too easy a fashion. To treat it as supporting a particular
theory of caste, instead of taking it as generally meant to
explain subtle deep-seated problems of necessary human
life has been the great error since the time of Manu.

In the first place the three nature-modalities do not suggest
any differentiation within the human species itself, giving
rise to any sub-species or race as many might suppose by
the constant use of the word jati (kind, species) in
connection with varna, often taken as the same as "caste"
questions. The modalities in nature implied in the gunas are
not such as to make it possible for anyone to separate
people physiologically or even scientifically into any
watertight groups. Even here, dietary, tribal or clan
groupings are not envisaged by the theory as presented in
the Gita.

When we include deeper traits of the personality, to arrive
at any such classification, we see in common life that the
modalities mentioned here alternate and change over in the
same person during the course of his growth or development
as an individual, and even from moment to moment in his
daily behaviour. Moreover, if we take the case of Arjuna's
own kshattria-hood (warrior status) we find it true and valid
only when the occasion of a righteous or absolutist war is

Killing would be right for Arjuna at best for a few

Inertia, motion and stability are suggested by the three
modalities, and may be said to be at the basis of tamas
(inert-dark), rajas (affective-active) and sattva (pure-clear),
respectively. They could also be said to express themselves
in dullness, alertness and steady intelligence; or as sloth,
excitement and contemplative capacity. We could similarly
speak of three gradations based on harmony, or on unitive
philosophical insight, or again in terms of affectivity.
In fact this is what the


Gita has attempted, in Chapter xviii, after explaining and
defining as completely as possible the origin of these
modalities of nature and their field of operation, which
is limited to the lower Self.

This theory as applied here contributes one of the
grandest positive contributions of Vyasa to philosophy.
He has stated here the rationale of many departments of
spiritual life, especially in India, which otherwise would
have remained shrouded in a mysterious confusion
favourable to every kind of superstition in the name of
a common belief. By the help of this theory, Vyasa has
succeeded in grading and arranging spiritual life.
The three gunas (nature-modalities) should be viewed
dynamically and not statically; as a triple-stranded
regulative necessary principle which interferes with the
flux of becoming; and above all as something that still
pertains to the relative side of life only, without having
anything to do with spirituality properly understood. They
are normative and not experimentally fixed in character.
Above all they have to be understood only in conjunction
with the objective counterparts belonging to each, without
which they are absurd in themselves.

Such is the only sense of ii, 45, where Arjuna is asked to
transcend the three nature-modalities and not to cultivate
them. We can also see in this chapter in Verse 25 the
recommending reference to gunatitah (one who has transcended
the three modalities of nature).

We have already drawn attention to the fact that the Self
is bound to necessity, as implied in the word nibadhnanti
(bind). Anything tending to bind the Self, however, even if
the bondage is with a golden thread, cannot be called truly
spiritual, because all spirituality implies release or freedom.
Even a person conforming to the highest or the purest
modality of the three, the sattva guna, can lay claim at
best only to an exalted form of holiness and not to true
spirituality which is quite another thing. The first
qualification of a spiritual person is anahamkara (ego-
lessness) which is an attribute belonging properly to the
kshetrajna (the perceptual side of life, the "knower of the
field"), while simple egoism belongs to the opposite
counterpart, the kshetra (the actual, relative, the "field",)
as stated in xiii, 5.

A person conscious of his own holiness to the slightest
degree is tainted by ahamkara (egoism) revealing his self-
sense as


belonging to the actual rather than to the perceptual. This
field to which the three gunas (nature-modalities) belong
should therefore be understood to be relativistic in
character, and so all the modalities, including the sattva
(pure-clear) have the tendency of binding rather than
releasing. A sattvic brahmin would automatically degenerate
to the status of an untouchable even if the most superior
of the egoisms arising from the gunas (modalities) should
taint him.


tatra sattvam nirmalatvat
prakasakam anamayam
sukhasangena badhnati
jnanasangena cha 'nagha

Of these, the pure-clear modality (sattva) from its purity,
causing brightness and expressing normal well-being, binds
by pleasure-conditioning and by knowledge-conditioning,
0 Sinless-One (Arjuna).


Stating in more precise terms what sattva (pure-clear
modality) means is the object of this verse. The expression
sukhasangena badhnati (binds by pleasure-conditioning)
implies an element of a paradox, inasmuch as what is truly
pleasurable need not be considered binding. The conditioning
factor of happiness here is not therefore to be identified
with unconditioned happiness which can only be the attribute
of the Absolute Self. The status of the happiness here is
compromised and left as vague as the notion of the Absolute
itself is bound to be. The word anamayam (normal well-being)
suggests that the spirit conditioned by sattva (pure-clear
modality) has not been disturbed from the equilibrium that
is normal to nature. A plant which is heliotropic seeks light
normally and is naturally erect when undisturbed. The clarity
and the purity implied in sattva (pure-clear modality) are
therefore normal or natural qualities of the psyche when
it submits neutrally to nature's laws. There is goodness
in nature itself, as Rousseau would put it. Bliss and jnana
(knowledge) point in the same general direction of light.


rajo ragalmakam viddhi
trishnasanga samudbhavam
tan nibadhnati kaunteya
karmasangena dehinam

Know you the affective-active modality (rajas) as being of
the nature of attachment, conditioned by thirst for life
and the adhering tendency; it binds fast, 0 Son of Kunti
(Arjuna), the embodied one, by action-association.


The conditioning factors in regard to rajas (affective-
active modality) are of a non-specific nature belonging to
life in general, more subjective than objective. There is a
vital urge which is the prompting force behind all activity
characteristic of what is firstly implied in this modality
of nature called rajas (affective-active).

As the word rajas implies, the principal character of this
modality is raga (attachment to various objective values in
life). The two inner conditioning items of life's urge are
here named trishna (thirst for life, or will to live in general)
and asanga (adhering tendency). There is a general thirst
for life and also a tendency for life to reach towards and get
attracted to pleasurable values of ordinary life.


tamas tv ajnanajam viddhi
mohanam sarvadehinam
pramadalasya nidrabhis
tan nibadhnati bharata

But the inert-dark modality (tamas) know you, is born of
ignorance, deluding all embodied beings; it binds,
0 Bharata (Arjuna), by delusion, lassitude and somnolence.


The reference in the phrase sarvadehinam (all embodied
beings) indicates that no specific virtue is implied in tamas
dark) which forms, as it were, the inert basis of
material life itself. Animals and men can be equally
included as representing this modality in nature. Even a
sattvic brahmin if he does not make an effort against natural
inertia will still be bound by it. This is implied in the word
dvija (twice-born) applied to him.

A cow scared by a red rag is negatively conditioned by a
false cognition owing to a lack of wakeful intelligence.
Men suffer from hallucinations and their spirits sink into
negative states. The imagination becomes active at the
expense of intelligence. The subnormal hypnotic or
sleeping state is


common to such beings. A basic inertia which is stable and
common to all beings is implied in this mortality which
comes closest to earthiness or to inert matter. In this latter
quality literary figures like Caliban and Falstaff or a Bhima
or Kumbhakarna are representative types.


sattvam sukhe sanjayati
rajah karmani bharata
jnanam avritya tu tamah
pramide sanjayaty uta

The pure-clear modality (sattva) conduces to pleasure,
and the affective-active modality (rajas) to action,
0 Bharata (Arjuna), while the inert-dark modality
(tamas), shrouding wisdom, conduces to delusion.


Each modality is referred to here more briefly from the
side of its expression rather than from its source, for
diagnostic purposes. The confusion or delusion caused by
the modality called tamas is here further explained.
Mistaking one value for another, or getting confused
generally through appearances, and not being guided by
realities which correct knowledge alone can bring - such is
the expression by which this modality is to be recognized.
The word avritya (shrouding, veiling) suggests what is
elsewhere known in Vedanta as avarana sakti (veiling
power) which is to be distinguished from vikshepa sakti
(projective attributing power), both described by Sankara.
Pramada (delusion, madness) - not heedlessness as often
translated - may be taken to include hallucinations, because
when wisdom is shrouded appearances become deceptive.


rajas tamas cha 'bhibhaya
sattvam bhavati bharata
rajah sattvam tamas chai
'va tamah sattvam rajas tatha

Now the pure-clear modality (sattva) dominates, overpowering
the affective-active (rajas) and the inert-dark (tamas);
and the affective-active (rajas) over the pure-clear (sattva)
and the inert-dark (tamas); likewise the inert-dark (tamas)
over the pure-clear (sattva) and the affective-active (rajas),
0 Bharata (Arjuna).



How the modalities come into play one at a time, the one
eclipsing or dominating over the other two, which lie
dormant or recessive for the time being, and how necessity
conditions nature and limits its scope with one or other of
these three factors is described in this verse.

It is not easy to visualize such a process as taking place
in very concrete or visible terms. In modern biology and
psychology we have terms like synergism, and ambivalence.
We have also in theology the two antinomial principles, and
there are terms like dichotomy used by certain philosophers.
In electricity and magnetism we have positive and negative
charges which have become more and more perfected when
understood in atomic physics under the name of proton and
neutron. We do not propose to enter into a comparative study
of the theory of the modalities of nature as presented here,
as this would presuppose a common frame of reference which
would be difficult to supply. We shall therefore adhere
closely to the text and content ourselves with the author's
own version for the present.

When he states that rajas and sattva recede when tamas
dominates, we have to infer that there is an organic
interdependence between them. This is suggestive of the
principle of ambivalence. Psychologists know how strong
emotions can counteract intelligence and vice-versa.
Emotivity and intelligence are therefore two modalities
corresponding to tamas and sattva which we can easily
concede to be reciprocal and ambivalent.

Taking the case of rajas, it puts into the background the
capacity for both intelligence and delusion. The here and
now of a situation occupies the whole of the stream of
consciousness, as when in India village cattle run after
moving motor-cars. The field of consciousness contains
nothing other than the given situation in which the subject
is related to the object. For a hunter who chases a rabbit,
only himself and the rabbit enter into the situation. Thus
hunting becomes a passion. Such are the broad outlines of
what is implied in this verse.

How such a succeeding rotation of modalities operate in the
spirit of man, and how the spirit itself which belongs to
the side of actuality could establish another kind of bipolar
relationship with one of the two purushas (spirits) discussed
in the next chapter, are matters of philosophical speculation
of a very subtle kind. This is stated in so many words by the
author in xv, 10 and 11. One has to be both a yogi and a
wise man


together to be able to clearly visualize the determinative
and indeterminative factors which enter into the situation.
All we want to emphasize here is that there are two sets
of polarities to be distinguished; one within the limits of the
kshetra (field or actuality) as in this chapter, and the other
in the larger context of the purushottama (the supreme
spirit) which term itself comprises two distinct purushas
(spirits). We must bear in mind these broad distinctions, so
as not to confound values belonging to the limited polarity
here with those more general and truly spiritual values
discussed in the next chapter.

These modalities should not be treated too concretely.
They have to be taken in a manner which would enable us
to fit our understanding of them in the larger context of
a science of the Absolute to which they belong. Even when
apparently concrete problems are confronted in the light
of the theory presented here, particularly in chapter xviii,
we should remember to take the subject as belonging to the
science of the Absolute. This will be greatly facilitated if
we keep in mind that it is various contemplative values as
they pertain to each department of life which is the subject
of the Gita throughout, rather than any static notion of


sarvadvareshu dehe 'smin
prakasa upajjyate
jnanam yada tadd vidyad
vivriddham sattvam ity uta

When light which is wisdom streams forth from all the doors
of the body, then it may be understood that the pure-clear
modality (sattva) is predominant.


The gates of the body referred to here are the indriyas
organs) which put the body in living touch with
their corresponding objects of perception. Consciousness
consists of both subject and object; and as consciousness
is comparable to light, here it is stated that when the
healthy spirit belonging to nature and pertaining to
necessity, expresses itself normally, there is a fullness
of consciousness in relation to the various senses which
may be said to be doors or windows of the soul.

The reference to the streaming of light should not be taken
too literally, but in the sense indicated above. It only
means that life is in good condition. A healthy cat rolling
in sunlight


in the snow may be said to enjoy something akin to a yogic
state of its own kind.

In the properly human context sattvik (pure-clear) well-being,
though it applies to the bodily side, can reflect on the mind
and be conducive to brilliancy of intelligence, either in the
matter of learning or philosophical insight or in terms of
yogic clarity of vision comparable to the turiya (mystical
"fourth" state beyond waking, dreaming and sleeping) which
is neither inside nor outside the body limits.


lobhah pravrittir arambhah
karmanam asamah spriha
rajasy etani jayante
vivriddhe bharatarshabha

When the affective-active modality (rajas) dominates, there
arises greed, activity, initiation of works, impatience,
and covetousness, 0 Best of Bharatas (Arjuna).


From the enumeration of the symptoms of a man in whom
rajas (active modality) is dominant, we find
qualities that involve a relation with an outside object
or value. The interest here may be said to be horizontally
directed towards things in the world, such as goods or
possessions. A kshattriya (warrior) who is said to typify
these characteristics, as portrayed in xviii 43, reveals a
striking difference compared to the usual type of warrior.
The revaluation in the Gita must be kept in mind so that
he may not be taken merely as a representative of rajasik
(affective-active) qualities, but rather as one who has
sublimated such qualities through contemplative disciplines
recommended in the Gita. A brahmin is similarly promoted
almost to the grade of a samnyisin (renouncer) in XVIII, 42,
and as against such a promotion, the status of a sudra
(proletarian) as representing tamas (inert-dark modality)
makes him a mere worker or servant, caught in necessity
slavishly without freedom at all. These are departures from
the conventional pattern of the four castes mentioned by
Manu. They represent a revalued pattern special to the Gita
which treats of the castes, not in a social or political
setting, but as proper to a textbook on contemplation.
The picture in this verse is too inferior in value to
conform to the pattern of a true kshattriya (warrior) of
the Gita.

At present the description of rajas is only meant for diagnostic
purposes, but the rajas implicit in the attitude of a correct
kshattriya (warrior) will be revised and revalued in chapter


aprakaso 'pravrittis cha
pramado moha eva cha
tamasy etani jayante
vivriddhe kurunandana

When the inert-dark modality (tamas) dominates, dullness,
lack of initiative, delusion, infatuation arise, 0 joy of
the Kurus (Arjuna).


Even here we can see that the diagnostic qualities of a
tamasik (inert-dark) person do not conform even to the
minimal requirements of a good servant, who cannot be at
least without some initiative in his work. How women and
vaishyas (merchant-farmers) can also fit into the threefold
scheme of the gunas (modalities of nature) raises other
problems, tending to make the theory vaguer in its
application to the four castes understood contemplatively.
We shall, however, have a chance of discussing these
aspects more fully in Chapter xviii, where the theory is
more completely applied to objective cases.

yada sattve pravriddhe
tu pralayam yati dehabhrit
tado 'ttamavidam lokam
amalan pratipadyate

rajasi pralayam gatva
karmasangishu jayate
tatha pralinas tamasi
mudhayonishu jayate

If the body-bearer goes to dissolution when the
pure-clear modality (sattva) predominates, then it
attains to the pure worlds of those who understand
the best (values).

Meeting with dissolution when the affective-active
modality (rajas) dominates, he is born among
those attached to action; and likewise if dissolved
in a state of inert-dark modality (tamas) he is born
in the wombs of the foolish.


Both these verses have the same line of reasoning found in
viii, 10, in referring to death and after-death states to be
attained. just as a tree is judged by its fruit, so the three
modalities and their values are to be determined by their
corresponding counterparts, death itself being the equating
principle between them.

In the case of rajasik (affective-active) and tamasik
(inert-dark) men, the worlds in which they are to be born
seem to be the earth that we are familiar with, but in the
case of the man in whom sattva (pure-clear) predominates,
it is not clear whether the superior values attained in the
pure worlds belong to the immanent or the transcendent order.
Those worlds, whatever they are, cannot be different from
that attained by the yogabrashta (one fallen from Yoga) of vi,
41. It is not necessary to think here that this statement
implies any possibility of being born in hereditary watertight
caste groups as we see them actually in any country who
might follow what they claim to be a sattvik (pure-clear) or
brahmin tradition. Such visible social groupings may or may
not have much in common with the pure worlds of Verse 14,
or of the intelligent environment suggested in vi, 41.

Note that in the case of the tamasik (inert-dark) death state,
it is not any transcendental world of values, but the
physical environment itself that constitutes the counterpart
or result.


karmanah sukritasya 'huh
sattvikam nirmalam phalam
rajasas tu phalam duhkham
ajnanam tamasah phalam

The benefit of good action is said to be pure-clear
(sattvik) and pure; while the benefit of the
affective-active modality (rajas) is pain; and
ignorance the benefit of the inert-dark modality


The same truth of Verses 14 and 15 is restated with the
counterparts brought closer together as action and its
corresponding benefit. Here the modalities refer to karma
(action) and not to global personal attitudes at the time of
death. Action is a positive expression of life rather than an
attitude, and has


its corresponding result here or hereafter. Instead of going
from effect to cause, here we trace the effect from the
cause. This shows that the equation of the counterparts
involved could be both ways.


sattvat samjayate jnanam
rajaso lobha eva cha
pramadamohau tamaso
bhavto 'jnanam eva cha

From the pure-clear modality (sattva) arises wisdom;
as also from the affective-active modality (rajas) greed;
and both delusion and infatuation and also ignorance from
the inert-dark modality (tamas).


The same operation of equating the three modalities with
their counterparts is carried out here as a slight variant
to the others. Cause and effect are treated more unitively.


urdhvam gachchhanti sattvasthi
madhye tishthanti rajasah
jaghanyaguna vrittistha
adho gachchhanti tamasah

Those who abide in the pure-clear modality (sattva) go
upwards; the affective-active (rajasik) dwell in the
middle, and the inert-dark (tamasik) abiding in the
function of the lowest modality of nature, go downwards.


This verse restates the same verity in terms of high and
low values. The ambivalence represented by the three
modalities of nature which were somewhat veiled by being
judged in the light of their diagnostic marks or expressions,
now emerges in its proper symmetry of opposition.
There are ordinary middle-state values from which we
could have arrows representing a series of sattvik (pure-
clear) values that may be said to ascend a scale upwards;
and correspondingly there is a downward scale, reaching to
the lowest values known to man, here referred to by the
expression jaghanya-gunavrittistha (abiding in the function
of the very lowest modality of nature). It goes without
saying that the middle values belong to the rajasik
(affective-active) modality.


na 'nyam gunebhyah kartaram
yada drashta 'nupasyati
gunebhyas cha param vetti
madbhavam so 'dhigachchhati

When the seer beholds no other agent than the modalities
of nature, and knows that which lies beyond the modalities,
he attains to My state of being.


The rest of the chapter makes amends for the one-sided
digression that the discussion of the three modalities
involved. The two verses that follow round off the subject
by referring again to both the immanent and transcendent
aspects of the Absolute.

The three modalities discussed hitherto cover all values
that may be said to come within the range of the body
These have to be taken together with those higher values
be longing to the transcendental aspect of the Absolute,
referred to here as gune-bhyah-param (lying beyond the
modalities). These two aspects have to be treated unitively
as always understood in the context of Yoga, so that
perfection may be attained.

gunan etan atitya trin
dehi deha samudbhavan
janma mrityu jara duhkhair
vimukto 'mritam asnute

The embodied, having transcended these three modalities
of nature, originating in the body, is freed from
sufferings of birth, death and old age, and enjoys


This verse underlines again, in non-philosophical and
popular language, lest the reader should forget, that the
modalities of nature are all deha samudbhavah (originating
in the body). In transcending them one attains to freedom
from the ills of the body and thus to immortality.
The status given in the Maitri Upanishad (iii) to the
modalities of nature resembles that in the Gita which is
revised in the light of wisdom, and unlike the picture in
the Manusmriti xii, 24-40, in Yajnavalkhya Dharma Sutras ii,
137-139 and the Mahabharata XII, 194: 29-36; 219, 25-31.
Social necessity is the mould in conformity with which
the subtle modalities


depending upon the tan-matras (conceptual aspects of the
senses) may be said to flow in, making all the different types
that appear "in the world of men" (as used in xv, 2). These
moulds, in the first place, are four in number, representing
the four koshas (sheaths) which, in turn, produce fourteen
other types (as mentioned in the Samkhya Karika 53) which
again, in turn, it is stated in the Maitri Upanishad, produces
eighty-four varieties, and which Deussen thinks is just an
arbitrary figure for "very many".


Arjuna uvacha
kair lingais trin gunan etan
atito bhavati prabho
kimacharah katham chai 'tams
trin gunan ativartate

Arjuna said:
By what marks, 0 Master, does he who has transcended those
three modalities of nature become (recognized)? What (is his)
conduct and how does he transcend those three modalities of


Arjuna asks a question on the same topic which has been
partially covered already, for a fuller philosophical
discussion of the implications of the theory of the three
modalities of nature when it is given its proper place in
the larger context of wisdom.


Sribhagavan uvacha
prakasam cha pravrittim
cha moham eva cha pandava
na dveshti sampravrittani
na nivrittani kankshati

Krishna said:
Light and activity and delusion when present, 0 Pandava
(Arjuna), he is not dissatisfied nor hankers for them when


In Krishna's words here the author has a fresh chance of
bringing out as isolated values the main characteristics
of the three modalities conceived more theoretically and

Light, energy and delusion are the conditioning factors of
the bhutatman (existential or elemental Self). The Yogi
under reference here who has transcended the gunas (nature-
modalities) is able to deal with that aspect of his own Self
which is under sway of these modalities, together with the
other higher aspect of his own Self, independent of these
modalities, the latter being merely perceptual in its
character. By treating these two aspects on an equal footing
it is suggested in this verse that a yogi transcends the
modalities. He is indifferent to the working of the
modalities and to whatever conditionings or necessary
types they might imply.


udasinavad asino
gunair yo na vichalyate
guna vartanta ity eva
yo 'vatishthati ne 'ngate

samaduhkhasukhah svasthah
samaloshtasma kanchanah
tulyapriyapriyo dhiras
tulyanindatmasamstu tih

manapamanayos tulyas
tulyo mitraripakshayoh
sarvarambha parityagi
gunatitah sa uchyate

He who, seated as a neutral, is not moved by the
modalities of nature; who, thinking that the modalities
of nature operate in rotation, who, standing apart is

the same in pain and pleasure, at rest in himself,
to whom a clod of earth and a stone and gold are
alike; firm in attitude (alike) to loved and unloved;
who regards his being blamed or praised equally;

the same in honour and disgrace; taking no sides as
between friends or foes, abandoning all initiation of
works he is said to have transcended the modalities
of nature (gunas).


This sequence of three verses portrays the neutral and
unconcerned, self-sufficient attitude of one who has
transcended the modalities. In Verse 23 he neutrally
witnesses that aspect of his own Self which is conditioned
by the three modalities, in a detached attitude of self-
reflection. In other words he is able to criticize himself as
an outsider, although he is able also to perceive the
modalities conditioning his own nature.

In Verse 24, an attitude of self-sufficiency, which refuses
to be attracted or repelled by everyday values, good, bad or
indifferent, or by considerations of wanting to love or be
loved or praised, is implied.

In Verse 25, disaffiliation from society and the world of
action is complete in the case of the person here. The type
to whom such a neutrality would apply would be to a
sublimated rajasik (affective-active) person with whom
values such as honour, enmity, etc., mentioned here would
be pertinent as implied in ii, 34. Here we have one who is
neutral where parties are concerned, with no fear or favour,
and who never initiates action on his own.

These three verses together constitute what might be called
a full definition of one who has transcended the three gunas
(modalities). When read in the spirit of the rest of the
chapter, these verses show that the gunas (modalities) are
not to be respected in themselves, but only to be recognized
in order that they may be transcended. If Arjuna is to take
this part of the Gita teaching seriously, how is it possible
for him to take any initiative in fighting? This would be a
pertinent question whose answer is simple. Arjuna has
never been asked to take such an initiative. He is only
asked not to drop the initiative already taken.


mam cha yo 'vyabhicharena
bhakiyogena sevate
sa gunan samatityai 'tan
brahmabhuyaya kalpate

He also serves Me with a Yoga of devotion, never
deviating from the proper path, transcending these
modalities of nature, he is considered fit for becoming
the Absolute.


This verse hearkens back from the discussion of the modalities
to the familiar note of bhakti (devotion) pertaining to the
Bhagavatas of the Vasudeva religion. The strict bipolar relation
to be established with Krishna as a representative of the
Absolute is the teaching running throughout the Gita as a kind
of refrain.

The expression kalpate (is considered fit) suggests that the
devotee who has transcended the modalities is fully qualified
to tread the path of the Absolute, or even to become the
Absolute. The verse intends to underline the fact that there
is no essential difference between the way of transcending
the modalities in the preceding verses and the way of bhakti
(devotion) as understood in the Gita.


brahmano hi pratishtha
'ham amritasya 'vyayasya cha
sasvatasya cha dharmasya
sukhasyai 'kantikasya cha

For I am the basis of the Absolute and the unexpended
nectar of immortality, and the eternal way of right
conduct, and of lonely final happiness.


The implication of the various attributes employed by
Krishna to describe himself here has puzzled scholars and
commentators. Sankara himself gives two alternatives:
- one, that Krishna here represents the Isvara-sakti
(lordly power),capable of bestowing mercy and grace on the
- and two, that Krishna represents the unconditioned Absolute
which is the abode of the conditioned Absolute.

Ramanuja equates the aham (I) here with the emancipated soul, while
Madhva equates it with maya (principle of negation).
It is little wonder that this verse has given rise to so
many divergent opinions. As in many other places in the
Gita, there is a paradox hidden here, and in determining
the meaning in favour of a parabrahma (transcendent Absolute)
or an apara-brahma (immanent Absolute) we have to rely
completely on the nature of the chapter of which this verse
is the conclusion.

The existential or ontological aspect of the Absolute has
been the main theme of this chapter and, consistently with
this aspect in mind, Krishna describes himself in the first
place as the basic foundation of the transcendent Absolute.
The word pratishtha (basis, foundation) may be likened to
the pedestal supporting here the statue of the transcendent
Absolute. Krishna here describes himself as the ontological
basis of the Absolute,


and explain that by being the basis he does not lose the
status of representing higher values such as amrita (nectar
of immortality) or avyaya (unexpended principle).
He is also the basis of all eternal ethical values connoted
by the word dharma (right conduct) and even of happiness
pure and simple.

The word ekantika (pertaining to the lonely way) is reminiscent
of the Bhagavatas to which context the Gita has been assigned
by some scholars. The loneliness which is akin to the notion
of kaivalya (pure lonely being-in-itself) is also found in the
favourite expression from Plotinus "the flight of the alone
to the Alone". Krishna here says that he is the basis of that
type of devotion which belongs to this order of a lonely flight
of the devotee to the object of worship which is Krishna
himself. Thus he is at the foundation of such one-pointed
devotion which results in the supreme happiness referred to
side by side with it.

The multiplicity of epithets applied to the Absolute nd
the implied paradox prepares the way naturally for the
mysterious tree referred to in the first verse of the next
chapter; a tree with roots above and branches below. The
Absolute can be spoken of in the present verse as having a
basement below; or, as the next verse opening a new chapter
says, as having roots above. The multiplicity of epithets here
therefore prepares the way for what follows, not only
immediately in the next chapter, but in the chapters that
remain, the last of which may be said to culminate in the
notion of the dharma (right conduct) mentioned in this verse.

ity srimad bhagavadgitasupanishatsu brahmavidyayam
yogasastre srikrishnarjunasamvade
gunatrayavibhagayogo nama chaturdaso 'dhyayah

Thus ends in the Upanishads of the Songs of God, in the
Science of the Wisdom of the Absolute, in the Dialogue
between Sri Krishna and Arjuna, the Fourteenth Chapter
entitled The Unitive Way of Trancending the Three Nature-