That the Bhagavad Gita has many lessons regarding human nature has now become a cliché of sorts. Pundits have been lecturing in the universities, religious teachers have been speaking to the corporate sector explaining the observations in the Gita and calling it a psychological treatise too. It is, of course, incorrect to read too much of psychology into Gita, as it would undermine the basic message of Gita, i.e., that of giving a perspective of man in the totality of universe besides his equation with the Supreme Self. We may incidentally draw several lessons which are also dealt with in psychology.
Man has been a great student of his own nature throughout centuries and in all cultures. In the Vedic culture this study is integrated with philosophy and with man’s quest to attain the Ultimate, which is, liberation. Human nature has been studied in this context. Three schools of Indian thought, i.e. sA~Nkhya, yoga and the Vedanta, have talked about a three-fold division of human nature – sattwa, rajas, and tamas – the saintly, the kingly and the lazy, to make a very simplistic translation of the terms for immediate understanding. It is difficult to say which school advanced the theory first, but from the commentaries on the Upanishads, it appears that it is the contribution by the first two schools noted above, and that Vedanta accepted the same as it is not in discordance with the Veda. Vedantins have only made a simple modification – what is an independent entity in the sA~Nkhya school, has been termed as the power of the one and only Brahman and thus dependent on Brahman.
Gita tells about the guNa-s in great detail. The fourteenth chapter is wholly dedicated for this. The three types, if we may call so temporarily, are called guNa-s. The guNa-s are said to be the constituents of prakRRiti, another name for mAyA, the veiling force of Brahman. It is supposed to display twin powers, one to veil the truth and the other, to unfold the unreal as real, like a magician. Brahman has no characteristics but his power, the mAyA, is said to unfold the world. The diversity of the world is due to the interaction of the three guNa-s, otherwise, the world would be unbearably monotonous.
GuNa is a term to be understood. Normally, guNa means a quality, a property or characteristic of a substance. It is dependent on a substance, like sweetness is a property dependent on sugar. In Vedanta, however, the guNa-s are not properties, but the very self of mAyA, and non-different from mAyA. They are like three colored films through which the light of Brahman gleams (to borrow the metaphor from sage vidyAraNya), and the individual self, which is none other than the Brahman is made to appear as though it is having some characteristics. They are not the real nature of the self, as they are negatable by the knowledge of the Self. As they are negatable, they are termed illusory, or creations of mAyA. They make the unbound self appear as bound. The word guNa has two meanings – one meaning is ‘rope’, and the other is ‘property’ which is noted above. True to its meaning of being a rope, it is said to bind the otherwise unbound self (avyayam, the immutable Self, Gita-14-5).
How do they manifest in nature? The rope or chain called sattwa manifests as saintly, serene, contented, intellectual disposition and binds a person to knowledge-seeking and pleasure. Rajas manifests in a person as the achieving and acquisitive tendency, never contented with the present and craving to be the best among all. It continuously drives one to work. On the other hand, tamas manifests as laziness, ignorance, indolence and sleepiness. This is the antithesis of rajas.
Their binding is interesting. Vedanta teachers have a figurative way to explain the subtle nature of bondage. They say that the sattwa binds us in golden chains, rajas in silver chains and tamas binds in iron shackles; they are bondage all the same. One with sattwa disposition may get more and more attached to good and noble deeds and the fame and name that are attached to them. Knowledge-seeking can be like that of Narada in the ChAndogya Upanishad where he has all the worldly knowledge, but his mind was not directed inwards. Noble deeds enable him to take birth in higher worlds, but that is also not liberation, because there is a return from that state as soon as the merit his goods gets consumed. The same activity, if done with the spirit of Ishwara-arpaNa, i.e. doing it as a dictate of the Lord, and as part of dharma for the welfare of the world, becomes an important aid for spiritual practice. It implies that sattwa can be of two types, one leading to worldly knowledge and noble actions and the other leading to knowledge of self. One is binding and the other is liberating.
Rajas can also be of two types; first, a purely ambitious disposition and second, actions done with the spirit of Ishwara-arpaNa. The latter would advance his spiritual pursuit irrespective of his rajasic disposition.
A person with sattwa disposition has a future, one with rajas has a present and a hope for the future, but the one with tamas has no present nor future, nor any hope for it. Therefore, tamas has to be avoided altogether, as it is no way helpful to self-enquiry.
The modern psychological types are somewhat different, as they are categorized on the parameter of social interaction. An extravert can have sattwa or rajas or even tamas. An introvert need not be a non-achiever. Inferiority and superiority can coexist as (Alfred Adler says) and they may fall into any of the guNa-s. The categorization of guNa-s is more on the lines of the popular classification of good, bad and ugly; where good includes both sattwa and rajas, while bad and ugly come under tamas. It is also on the parameter relating to achievement and contentment. We talk of Human Development Index and a Human Happiness Index separately, but here in Vedanta it appears to be a combination of both, a case for achievement in accordance with dharma.
According to Vedanta, it is not only the humans who have the dispositions, but the deities in higher planes and demons in the lower planes are the result of the three guNa-s. The guNa-s are said to be in a flux perennially, and create the vast diversity in the universe. Shankaracharya, in his writings frequently points out that these deities and demons are but our own thought processes (chitta-vRRitti) refined or defiled by the relative dominance by one of the three guNa-s. This flux makes the three categories move up and down by their good or bad conduct. One is not eternally destined to be either good or bad, but he has a chance to come up or go down. This is where we see the intervention of shAstra and the teacher. There is nothing perpetually good or perpetually evil. Even the demons attain liberation after they make amends for their behavior, as we see in the purANa-s. This may be the reason for the absence of the concept of devil in the Indian thought or mythology.
Gita declares that it is not only the sentient but also the insentient which are colored by the three dispositions. They are all creations of prakRRiti and hence they are necessarily colored by the guNa-s (Gita 18-40). This probably has influenced the Indian medicine and other systems like yoga which have studied the nature of food to be taken or alternately, the type of food relished by persons of different guNa-s. In fact, a description of sattwic, rajasic and tamasic food can be seen in the chapter seventeen of the Gita.
If one is eternally bound by the above three chains there can be no discussion on liberation. Hence Vedanta suggests that going beyond prakRRiti and its effects is the way to mokSha or liberation. All the Vedas and scriptures talk of good deeds and the worlds to be achieved through them, but they are all part of prakRRiti or mAyA. So long as a person sees himself as the doer in all these actions or ordained deeds, he is bound by the consequences, as the Gita points out repeatedly. Coming out of the guNa-s, therefore, would mean that one has to be a witness to the activities of the guNa-s, see them as dRRishya, the scene, and posit oneself in the position of dRRik, the seer. (Gita 14-19). The seer is one who is immutable whereas the scene is something that changes. Identification with the guNa-s and the scene is bondage; witnessing the guNa-s is liberation.