Noticing the Qualities (Gunas or Modes) of Nature
There are many modern and ancient ways to describe the subtle building blocks, or constituents, of the material world for different purposes. However, looking through the lens of the Bhagavad Gita, we find a perspective of the physical world which is most helpful for yoga, or spiritual practice. While many people are at least casually familiar with the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang, the Gita's outline of the gunas, or modes/qualities/karmic-blueprints of nature, will be more helpful for those interested in understanding their material conditioning for making spiritual advancement. The Gita devotes a whole chapter to giving us a basic template for noticing the gunas in our life, and in subsequent chapters goes into more detail. This knowledge is so powerful that it is considered the best of all knowledge regarding the material world, by which even great sages have attained perfection (BG 14.1-2)
To understand exactly what the gunas are, we need to understand some basic yogic philosophy. The metaphysic of the Gita is that our true identity is spiritual--we are eternal consciousness, an atomic fragment (atma or soul) of serving disposition, or a spiritual particle of God. Our intrinsic nature is to serve or cooperate with our Source, the Supreme Whole, revealed to be Krishna--the speaker of the Gita. The world of matter is foreign to the soul, as a confining spacesuit is confining to a human being. In order to function in this realm of matter we are given physical bodies with unique characteristics built by various combinations of the gunas, further limited by additional laws of Nature, such as time and space. The Sanskrit word guna, means rope, or a type of binding force created as a manifestation and instrument of a soul's karma, or reactions to work from previous lives.
We can think of the soul as a pure spark of consciousness, which in contact the gunas, becomes covered, altered, filtered, or dimmed to varying degrees. The gunas provide the subtle design for each unique material body. Being three in number--goodness, passion, and ignorance--they are often compared to the three primary colors, which combine together to create countless varieties of colors. Since our "guna body" is a covering of our soul, we can also view the modes as incremental intensifications of material contamination from light to heavy.
The more covered or polluted the consciousness, the greater the tendency toward imperfection and ignorance. Our material imperfection is sometimes summarized in terms of four material defects: 1) imperfect senses, 2) the illusion of identifying our soul with the body and mind, 3) tendency to make mistakes, and 4) in spite of the previous 3 disqualifications, cheating others with one's tiny knowledge. These imperfections increase the more one is covered by the modes. Only the quality of goodness allows one to come in touch with one's spirituality, and experience the beginning of freedom.
In the 13th chapter of Bhagavad Gita Shri Krishna gives us a good introduction to how the modes function: "The living entity in material nature thus follows the ways of life, enjoying the three modes of nature. This is due to his association with that material nature. Thus he meets with good and evil among various species." [Bg 13.22] We read about the specific way the modes condition the soul in the 15th chapter: "The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another./ The living entity, thus taking another gross body, obtains a certain type of ear, eye, tongue, nose and sense of touch, which are grouped about the mind. He thus enjoys a particular set of sense objects." [Bg 15.8-9] You might consider printing this out to help you see the modes in action in your life and in the world, and also consider how you may act in goodness, and pure goodness, as you are able.
Seeing the Energy of the Gunas at Work
General characteristics of the Modes:
Ignorance:Darkness and delusion, resulting in madness, indolence, and sleep, all of which further bind the soul and tend to further degrade one./ Destination after death: Hellish worlds or animal kingdom./ Object of worship: Ghosts and spirits.
Passion: Unlimited desires and longings, binding one to continually seeking happiness through future selfishly motivated (fruitive) actions./ Destination after death: With other fruitive workers on earthly planets/ Object of worship: Demoniac, powerful people, self proclaimed, imitation gods.
Goodness: Purer than the others; illuminating; frees one from sinful reaction; BUT, conditions one by a sense of happiness and knowledge./ Destination after death: devas (celestial beings in higher planets) or the impersonal conception of God.
Pure (spiritual) Goodness: Complete, unmotivated, continual devotion to the Supreme Person; full knowledge, purity, illumination, happiness, freedom from sinful reaction./ Destination after death: The eternal abode of the Supreme Lord./ Object of worship: The Supreme Lord.
The material modes compete for dominance in one's life. In the present age of Kali, our default tendency, reinforced by materialistic education, culture and entertainment, is to be influenced naturally by passion and ignorance. Thus it takes real effort strengthened by spiritual practice, saintly association, and scriptural study to establish and increase the mode of goodness in one's life. The following list taken from various chapters of the Gita, is meant to help us at least aspire to act in the mode of goodness, since goodness is the gateway to uncovering our soul. Furthermore, by cultivating spiritual knowledge with spiritually minded friends, we will understand that our--the soul's--true self interest is to act transcendentally, beyond the modes. We learn this early on in the Gita: "The Vedas deal mainly with the subject of the three modes of material nature. O Arjuna, become transcendental to these three modes. Be free from all dualities and from all anxieties for gain and safety, and be established in the self." [Bg 2.45]
Foods in the Modes and Beyond
In Ignorance: Tasteless, stale, putrid, decomposed, unclean; prepared long before; remnants of others, or of untouchable things like all types of meat, or intoxications.
In Passion: Too bitter, hot, sour, salty, pungent, rich, or dry; causes pain, distress, or disease.
In Goodness: Increases longevity, purifies one's existence, gives strength, health, happiness, and satisfaction; nourishing, sweet, juicy, fatty, and palatable.
In Pure Goodness: The holy vegetarian food prepared by devotees and offered to the Supreme Lord in great affection and devotions, or remnants of a saintly person's meal, frees one from sinful (karmic) reactions and protects one from future contamination; invokes one's dormant spiritual (Krishna) consciousness.
Sacrifice in the Modes and Beyond
In Ignorance: performed with no reference to scripture, no distribution of spiritual food, no Vedic hymns, or remuneration to the priests, absence of faith
In Passion: performed proudly, ostentatiously, for only material benefit, now, or after death in heavenly worlds.
In Goodness: performed according to the directions of the scripture, out of duty and without desire for reward or profit.
In Pure Goodness: Performed as directed by scriptural recommendations and one's guru.
Austerity in the Modes and Beyond
In Ignorance: Performed foolishly by self torture or to injure others.
In Passion: Performed out of pride, to gain respect, honor or reverence; brings only unstable results.
In Goodness: Performed with faith and without desire for personal benefit.
Three types of austerity in goodness:
With the Body: Cleanliness, simplicity, celibacy, nonviolence; offering respect to devas, brahmanas, spiritual master, and superiors like the father and mother.
With Speech: Speaking truthfully, beneficially, inoffensively, with reference to Vedic authorities.
In the Mind: serenity, simplicity, gravity, self-control, purity of thought, detachment from sensual enjoyment.
In Pure Goodness: Performed with faith and a desire to satisfy the Supreme Lord.
Charity in the Modes and Beyond
In Ignorance: Given at an impure place, at an improper time and to unworthy persons or without proper attention and respect.
In Passion: Given with expectation of return, with a desire for a good result or in a grudging mood.
In Goodness: Given with no expectation of return, at the proper time and place, to a worthy person.
In Pure Goodness: Given only to satisfy the Supreme Lord.
Renunciation in the Modes and Beyond
In Ignorance: Giving up duty because of illusion, mistaking an irresponsible or evil one for one that is honorable.
In Passion: Gives up duties if they are troublesome or out of fear of bodily discomfort.
In Goodness: Duty performed because it ought to done with no attachment to the fruits.
In Pure Goodness: Performing one's duty in spiritual, or Krishna, consciousness, while using the fruits for Krishna's satisfaction.
Knowledge in the Modes and Beyond
In Ignorance: Very meager; unrelated to the soul or God; breeds attachment to one kind of work as the be-all and end-all of life; only for fulfilling one's minimum bodily necessities similar to the animals.
In Passion: Gives rise to many types of speculative doctrines that see in every body a different type of living being, with no soul.
In Goodness: A vision of one undivided spiritual force or substance within all living things (impersonal or Brahman understanding)
In Pure Goodness: Enables one to see all living beings as eternal, individual, spiritual parts and servants of the Supreme Being, Shri Krishna.
Action in the Modes and Beyond
In Ignorance: Performed in illusion; distressing to others, irresponsible, violent; no consideration of scriptural rules or future bondage or consequences; results in foolishness
In Passion: Performed with great effort and under false egoism, to gratify desires and enjoy the fruits; results in distress.
In Goodness: Performed under scriptural regulation, as a matter of duty, without attachment, without materialistic love or hate, by one who renounces the fruits of work; results in purification.
In Pure Goodness: Performed for the satisfaction of Krishna, the guru, or advanced spiritualists.
Worker in the Modes and Beyond
In Ignorance: Disregards scriptural injunctions; materialistic, cheating, lazy, morose, procrastinating, expert in insulting others [an employee from hell).
In Passion: Attached to the fruits of their work and enjoying them; greedy, envious, unclean; overcome by happiness in success and sorrow in failure.
In Goodness: Endeavors with great determination and enthusiasm, unwavering in success or failure, without being dependent on, or attached to, the results of work.
In Pure Goodness: Unconditionally serves Krishna and the spiritual master under any and all circumstances.
Understanding in the Modes and Beyond
In Ignorance: Considers irreligion to be religion, and religion to be irreligion; under the spell of illusion and darkness; strives always in the wrong direction.
In Passion: Cannot distinguish between religion and irreligion, truth and untruth, and what should and should not be done.
Goodness: Intelligent discernment through scriptural reasoning as to what is to be done or not done, what is to be feared or not feared, and what is liberating and binding.
Pure Goodness: Knows what is favorable and unfavorable for devotional service through personal realization as guided by his guru, saints, and the scriptures.
Determination in the Modes and Beyond
In Ignorance: Cannot go beyond daydreaming, fearfulness, lamentation, moroseness, and illusion
In Passion: Fixed upon securing the fruits of religion, economic development, and material sensual enjoyment.
In Goodness: Unbreakable; sustained steadfastly by yoga practice which controls the actions of the mind, life, and senses.
In Pure Goodness: Fully fixed in spiritual or Krishna consciousness without deviation.
Happiness in the Modes and Beyond
In Ignorance: Blind to self-realization; delusion from beginning to end; comes about from over sleeping, laziness, and illusion.
In Passion: Derived from contact of the senses with their objects; seems like nectar at first, but poison at the end; epitomized by sexual enjoyment.
In Goodness: Compared to poison in the beginning, but nectar at the end, since it involves control of the mind and senses and awakens one to self-realization.
In Pure Goodness: Derived from service rendered by a purified soul to the Supreme Lord in their eternal loving relationship; ever-increasing ecstasy far beyond material experience or happiness.
I first read a chart of the Gita's verses on the gunas in a BTG article by Dhira-Govinda das, and then recently I read two excellent books on the Gita, which included their own similar lists. I borrowed much from both of these devotees very helpful writings and heartily recommend them to you. The first is "Basic Bhagavad Gita", by Sravaniya DiPecaroro, the second, Vishaka Devi's beautiful rendering, "Bhagavad Gita, a photographic essay." Both books are elaborations on Shrila Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita As It Is, and there are others as well, such as Bhurijana Prabhu's elaborate study, and Joshua M. Green's (Yogesvara das) very accessible, "Gita Wisdom: An Introduction to India's Essential Yoga Text." Our study of the Gita and other Bhakti Vedic texts is ongoing, always uplifting, and spiritually enlivening, and we may discover wisdom from unexpected sources.