Modes of nature
The Bhagavad-gita talks at length about the "three modes of material nature." These are subtle forces that influence our behavior as well as every aspect of our physical, mental, and emotional world. The Sanskrit term for these forces is guna, "rope," and the Gita explains how they pull us to act in various ways, even against our better judgment.
The effects of sattva-guna, the mode of goodness, are seen when an atmosphere of peace, serenity, and harmony prevails in our environment and ourselves. Rajo-guna, the mode of passion, is felt as insatiable desire for temporary things, striving for more and more of them, and perpetual dissatisfaction. Tamo-guna, the mode of ignorance, is indicated when there's laziness, depression, intoxication, and insanity.
The Bhagavad-gita elaborately describes the modes, their symptoms, how they affect us, and ultimately how to become free from their influence through the practice of bhakti-yoga, or Krishna consciousness.
The painting depicts the three modes of nature as puppeteers controlling our actions.
No matter what I do, I feel peaceful some days and miserable on others. Why? Is there a way to get beyond this?
The Vedas describe three forces, or modes, whose influence pervades the universe: goodness, passion, and ignorance. “Mode” is a translation of the Sanskrit word guna, which literally means “rope,” implying that goodness, passion, and ignorance are the ropes that bind us souls to the material world. These three modes, or qualities, underlie everything we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Permutations of these qualities make up the world, mixing like the primary colors to produce countless variations.
The mode of goodness controls virtues and qualities such as joy, wisdom, and altruism; the mode of passion controls greed, anger, lust, ambition, and frustration; the mode of ignorance controls laziness, delusion, and apathy. Goodness clarifies and pacifies; passion confuses and impels; ignorance obscures and impedes.
Krishna, as the creator of the modes, is naturally above them. But the modes bind us finite souls to the body through conditioning. Once we understand how the modes work and discover what lies beyond them, we can become free of conditioning and devote our pure mind to the service of Krishna.
The fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita outlines the general characteristics of the modes, and the seventeenth chapter teaches how to perceive the modes in types of worship, food, sacrifice, austerities, and even charity. By analyzing how the modes affect people, the Bhagavad-gita helps us understand distinct personality types.
The Bhagavad-gita mainly discusses how the modes influence a person’s character, behavior, and approach to life. For example, if goodness predominates, one will aspire for (and generally achieve) long-term happiness, even if one must accept temporary inconveniences. The person overtaken by passion is usually satisfied by short-term happiness and doesn’t expect much more out of life. And the person dominated by ignorance rarely achieves happiness at all.
Krishna says that we can break free of the stranglehold of the three modes only by taking shelter of Him.
from Back To Godhead Magazine #20-12, 1985
Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
My spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, would always close his letters to his disciples with the phrase “Hoping this meets you in good health….” Of course, everyone wishes good health to those they love. But what actually constitutes good health? There are many different opinions.
For years Americans have heard that a balanced diet must include meat. The National Academy of Sciences has long recommended minimum daily requirements of vitamins and minerals. But controversy abounds. Recently the Academy advised lower recommendations. The American Heart Association advocates stricter dietary controls. Evidence from the American Medical Association linking a vegetarian diet to better health prompted the meat and dairy industry to advocate a slackening of government supervision of diet.
It isn’t surprising that in the face of today’s many divergent views on health the public takes its own course. Time and time again we engage in activities that we know are hazardous to our health. As psychiatrist Norman Tamarkin attests, “We don’t take care of ourselves, we drug ourselves, we overeat, we don’t exercise enough; It’s bound to have a depressing effect. It generally lessens our resistance to emotional stresses as well as physical viruses.”
To live a satisfying life in perfect health is possible, but one must have actual knowledge of the body and the soul and of the purpose of health. This knowledge is given in the Vedic literature. By turning to the Vedas, we can go beyond the confusion caused by shortsighted views of health and happiness.
In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna; the Supreme Personality of Godhead, explains that although we are eternal by nature, we are presently dwelling inside temporary material bodies. It is by ignorance and illusion only that we accept the body—so prone to disease and discomfort—to be our self.
To render loving devotional service to Krishna is the ultimate goal of life, and it is toward that end only that we should maintain good health. To remain fit in body and mind in order to better practice Krishna consciousness is the ultimate purpose of health. We should not keep healthy just so we can better enjoy sex or gain an edge on our business competitors. Rather than pursue those short-term, illusory pleasures, we should keep healthy for the pleasure of Krishna.
Essential to health is diet. But whose authority are we to trust when it comes to selecting a diet? In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna describes various diets and their effects.
Everything in the material world, Lord Krishna explains, acts under the influence of three factors, or forces, known as the three modes of material nature. These three modes—goodness, passion, and ignorance—and their interactions create the great variety of thoughts, feelings, and sensory perceptions that we experience in material consciousness. Just as the three primary colors—yellow, red, and blue—combine to produce all other colors, so the three modes of material nature—goodness, passion, and ignorance—combine to create all the varieties, gradations, and nuances of our experience. And that includes diet.
In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna explains, “Foods in the mode of goodness increase the duration of life, purify one’s existence, and give strength, health, happiness, and satisfaction” (Bg. 17.8). These palatable and nourishing foods include grains, milk products, fruits, and vegetables. Foods that are overly bitter, sour, salty, dry, or hot are in the mode of passion. These foods disturb the mind and cause disease. We also read, “Food cooked more than three hours before being eaten, which is tasteless, stale, putrid, decomposed, and unclean, is enjoyed by people in the mode of ignorance.”
In commenting on these verses, Srila Prabhupada writes, “The purpose of food is to increase the duration of life, purify the mind, and aid bodily strength. This is its only purpose.”
So we should not eat just to gratify our tongues; rather, we should eat to have strength and vitality for serving Krishna. This is a very important factor in maintaining health. And the foods that give the most vitality are those which maybe eaten in natural form, such as fruits and vegetables prepared in salads or lightly steamed. (It is best to eat sparingly of fried foods and sweets.) By dieting according to Krishna’s instructions, we can best appreciate the purpose of eating. And of course everything one eats should first be offered to Krishna.
Good health results naturally when we live and eat in a regulated, spiritual lifestyle. When the mind is filled with spiritual thought and is thus free from greed and envy, the body will naturally be healthy and lustrous. The ancient sage Kardama Muni exhibited such a state of health even while practicing severe physical austerities:
His body shone most brilliantly, though he had engaged in austere penance for a long time. He was not emaciated, for the Lord had cast His affectionate sidelong glance upon him, and he had also heard the nectar flowing from the moonlike words of the Lord. (Srimad- Bhagavatam 3.21.45-47)
Devotees practicing Krishna consciousness today enjoy similar health. Srila Prabhupada, in Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, describes the benefits of Krishna consciousness to mental and physical health as follows:
"We have practical experience of this with our students in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Before becoming students, they were dirty-looking, although they had naturally beautiful personal features; but due to having no information of Krishna consciousness, they appeared very dirty and wretched. Since they have taken to Krishna consciousness, their health has improved, and by following the rules and regulations, their bodily luster has increased."
Good health is the natural condition of the body, as is Krishna consciousness, and as one practices bhakti yoga, one’s health improves naturally. By chanting Hare Krishna and by avoiding sinful habits such as meat-eating, intoxication, illicit sex, and gambling, one can achieve far better results than he would by any concocted "health program."
Are we free? Or are we—like the behavioural psychologist B. F. Skinner’s rats—simply products of our environmental cages?
“Psyche,” from the Greek word for soul, connotesan inner spirit as distinguished from its vehicle, the material body. In Greek mythology, Psyche, a personification of the soul, falls in love with Eros, the god of love. Eros later deserts her, and Psyche, brokenhearted roams the world in search of him, performing difficult tasks until at last she becomes an immortal and rejoins him.
I was not acquainted with Psyche’s story when I chose, as a college freshman, to major in psychology, her namesake science, but if I had been, her plight would have touched me and spirited my studies. Like Psyche, I had a romantic desire to roam the world searching for, in my case, something I felt was missing in my own self and in the self of all human beings, something that would make me whole and fill mankind with peace and love. Like Psyche, I was ready to work hard, patiently submitting to earthly trials to achieve my goal.
In fact, I had submitted to plenty of earthly trials already. I had, for instance, lived at home with my mother and teenage sister, while my father was usually away on business. My brother was in the Marines in Vietnam. My best friend, a twelve year-old beagle, was gray and arthritic. These and countless other hardships had, I sensed, nurtured in me a natural intuitive genius, as yet untapped, for things psychological. Having paid my dues, I felt ripe for union with my missing inner self. Sort of like Psyche. Too bad we hadn’t met.
In my first semester, girded with intuition and away from home at last, I leafed through my course catalog and found a course description that went something like this: “B.F. Skinner and Behaviorism ... for sophomores and other students who have completed their introductory studies in psychology and who want to begin a scientific analysis of behaviour.”
Perfect. Whoever this B. F. Skinner was, my life experiences, I reasoned, would more than suffice for “introductory studies.” And what to speak of sophomores, I was prepared to rub shoulders with the very best.
But B. F. Skinner, it so happened, though the very best in his field of behavioural psychology, was not, and still isn’t, a beautiful maiden. Nor does his research into patterns of behaviour much resemble Psyche’s search for her lover or my quest for an inner self. Skinner doesn’t believe in an inner self, in a psyche as the Greeks conceived it. Skinner and other behaviourists say that the inner self and the mind, if they exist at all, are things we cannot study or measure scientifically. Only our behaviour is plainly visible. “The picture which emerges from a scientific analysis,” Skinner contends, “is not of a body with a person inside, but of a body which is a person in the sense that it displays a complex repertoire of behaviour.”
Skinner is famous for his experiments with caged animals. His cage, known now as a Skinner box, was equipped with a mechanism that automatically gave the animal food, water, or some other reward. A rat, for instance, might find himself in a cage with a lever and a dish, and when he pressed the lever a food pellet would fall into the dish. Using variations on this simple arrangement, Skinner was able to show how patterns of rewards and punishments control an organism’s behaviour.
Skinner’s idea, in short, is that we are products of our environment and consequently not responsible for our actions. We are not to blame for our failures, nor do we deserve credit for our achievements. All is done by the environment. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, his best- known work, Skinner argues that we possess neither freedom nor dignity in the ordinary sense of those words.
This is not what I wanted to hear. If the Skinner box was an experimental model of the world as Skinner perceived it, then in Skinner’s eyes, I figured, I was little better than a rat, responding predictably to food, water, and other stimuli. What irked me further was that although we were all supposedly products of our environmental cages, Skinner and other “social engineers,” as he called them, could step outside their cages to study and manipulate the rest of us. I hadn’t the least desire to join the ranks of the Skinnerian engineers, and besides, with my intuition flagging, I was nearly flunking the course.
Twenty years later I still disagree with much of the Skinnerian creed, but I can more easily admit that I have never been wholly free. I have my own family now, and the crying or laughter of my children, my wife’s moods, the arrival of bills or checks in my mailbox, and a host of other stimuli, cause me to behave in quite predictable ways. Even if I wanted to break away, disappearing over the hill and into oblivion, wouldn’t that only make me the servant of a different passion? Skinner quotes Voltaire: “When I can do what I want to do, there is my liberty, … but I can’t help wanting what I do want.”
So do I have any freedom? Or am I boxed?
In the Third Chapter of the Bhagavad-gita,Lord Krishna confirms that the environment, or nature, controls behaviour: “The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.” Nature is so fully in control, in other words, that we could say that nature, not ourselves, behaves. When “nature,” or the environment, is a Skinner box, we might therefore say that the box and its controller, B. F. Skinner, are acting, not the rat, although we would have to take into account that all three—the box, the rat, and Skinner—are under the influence of a larger controlling environment.
Unlike Skinner, however, Lord Krishna makes a clear distinction between the body and the self, or the person, and between the mind, which is a subtle body, and the person. A human being, He asserts, is indeed a body with a person inside, and that person, or soul, is an eternal individual, an individual who exists both before and after the body’s existence.
For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time.... He is unborn, eternal, ever existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain. (Bhagavad-gita 2.20)
How do we perceive the soul? By consciousness. The consciousness that pervades our body is the soul’s energy, just as sunlight is the energy of the sun.
That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul. (Bhagavad-gita 2.17)
The material body and mind are temporary clothing for the eternal self, which does not mix with matter, just as oil and water do not mix. What nature controls is the gross body and subtle mind, since they are, after all, part of nature. Nature does not control our eternal self, which is part of Krishna’s spiritual energy. But because we are bewildered, we, the eternal selves, identify with the material body and mind, thinking that when the body and mind act, we are acting. This is called false ego. Real ego is to think “I am an eternal person and a part of Krishna.” False ego is to think “I am this material body and mind.”
Just as a reflection of the sun on a pool of water moves with the movements of the pool, so the soul whose consciousness is fixed on matter appears to move with matter. The fact is, however, that the soul is aloof and—as long as it identifies with matter—inert.
But we are not forever bound to inertia and false ego. As Skinner is the creator and controller of his boxes, Krishna is the creator and controller of nature. “The material world is working under My direction,” He says in the Ninth Chapter of the Gita.The universe, therefore, is a Krishna box, and Lord Krishna has kindly described how His box works and how to free ourselves from the false ego that renders us inert under the spell of material nature.
Krishna explains that nature acts in three modes: goodness, passion, and ignorance. These modes force upon the soul a variety of insurmountable desires to enjoy and control nature. The mode of goodness is characterized by the development of knowledge, and by austerity, steady determination, and sense control. The mode of passion is characterized by the attraction between man and woman, by intense longings for sense enjoyment, and by hard work to acquire material wealth. The mode of ignorance, which Krishna calls “the delusion of all embodied living beings,” is characterized by sleep, indolence, madness, and intoxication.
These three modes of nature compete for supremacy over our consciousness, and one mode or another is usually prominent in an individual’s behavior throughout life, although all three are always present. In the mode of goodness there is always at least a tinge of passion and ignorance. And even in the darkest ignorance, which is the predominant mode of the lower animals, there exists a degree of passion and goodness.
The modes direct us to various kinds of enjoyment in the material world, but none of them can bring us to a full understanding of our eternal self or a full realization of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Rather, the modes distract us from selfrealization. This is because the modes are material while our selves and the supreme self are pure spirit situated in the spiritual mode of pure goodness. Pure goodness is transcendental, untouched and untouchable by the three material modes.
While the material nature is composed of three modes, the spiritual nature is composed entirely of unalloyed goodness. But the Vedic literature informs us that both natures are in fact one nature,one energy of Krishna acting in different ways. When we want to forget Krishna, His nature acts in three modes, both to assist us in that forgetfulness and to punish us with repeated birth and death, thus bringing us to our senses. When we want to remember Krishna, however, the same nature acts to encourage and assist us in the activities of pure goodness.
Activity in the mode of pure goodness is called bhakti, or devotional service to the Supreme Person. Bhakti is both means and end. As the means, the practice of bhakti cleanses us of false ego and revives our pure consciousness that we are eternal servants of Krishna. As the end, bhakti is the eternal activity of the liberated souls who are absorbed in love of God and have no other desire than to serve Him.
The assistance rendered to us by the spiritual nature is nothing like the activities of the three modes, which force us to act contrary to our eternal constitutional identity as pure spiritual individuals. Because the three material modes are presently forcing us to serve material desires, we get a bad experience of servitude. We feel boxed. But service to Krishna in the spiritual world, assisted by the spiritual nature, is not forced service, because there we serve out of spontaneous love, and because there we are in full harmony with nature, which is as fully conscious and fully devoted to the Lord as we are.
So am I free? Or am I boxed?
I am free to choose to associate with the three modes of material nature or with the spiritual mode of pure goodness. Within the three modes, I also have some freedom to choose the mode I prefer. I can, by practice, develop in my life the mode of goodness, the mode of passion, or the mode of ignorance.
The Bhagavad-gita describes the different kinds of work, knowledge, determination, happiness, food, charity, faith, and so on characteristic of each mode. So we have some freedom, in other words, to choose which mode will dictate our desires. And if we like, we can take credit for our successes in fulfilling those dictated desires. But in any case, if I choose to maintain my false ego, I must serve the modes within the cycle of birth and death.
I may also, however, choose to develop the mode of pure goodness through the practice of bhakti in the association of pure devotees of Krishna. If I thus choose to revive my original Krishna consciousness, then I gradually regain my pure status as an eternal servant of Krishna, free to render Him varieties of devotional service with the full cooperation of His deathless spiritual nature.
Clearing up some misconceptions about the "Hindu Trinity"
From Back to Godhead Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 6 (June 1982)
The three interesting-looking persons depicted here are Brahma, the world-creator, Vishnu, the world-maintainer, and Shiva, the world-destroyer. Perhaps you’ve heard them characterized in that very misleading cliché of introductory World Religions texts as “the Hindu trinity.” And perhaps you’re simply inclined to dismiss them as the fanciful projections of a primitive mythologizing imagination run riot. But, if you go to the proper sources, the venerable Vedic texts Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, you’ll find Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva accurately explained in the context of an exacting and comprehensive account of God and His creation, an account that is unrivaled in completeness and coherence by any other philosophical, scientific, or religious literature, and that is not only intellectually satisfying but also aesthetically captivating and spiritually fulfilling.
In Srimad-Bhagavatam you’ll encounter the important distinction between the idea of “God” and the idea of “Absolute Truth.” “God” refers to any powerful controller, while “absolute truth” designates the ultimate source of all energies. There can be many gods, many controlling departmental heads of universal affairs, but only one absolute truth. This absolute truth is ultimately a person— Krishna. From Krishna everything emanates; by Krishna everything is maintained; to Krishna everything returns at the time of dissolution. This is what is meant by “absolute truth.” Anything that exists is either Krishna or Krishna’s energy.
Krishna’s main energies are three: His internal energy is manifest as the transcendent spiritual kingdom; His external energy, as the temporary material world. His marginal energy is comprised of all living creatures, the individual animate souls. Souls are “marginal” because they can dwell either in the spiritual kingdom, serving Krishna in bliss and knowledge, or in the material world, forgetting Krishna in darkness and suffering. The Sanskrit word for the soul is jiva (“living entity”), and the marginal energy is also called jiva-tattva, the category of the jiva.
Not only does Krishna expand through His energies, but He also expands Himself personally, directly. Krishna’s direct, personal expansions are called vishnu-tattva, the category of Godhead. Like the persons of the trinity in Christian doctrine, the vishnu-tattva expansions are one, but because Krishna is unlimited, His personal expansions are not merely three but unlimited divine persons, all manifested to perform unlimited divine pastimes.
One of Krishna’s pastimes is to emanate, sustain, and reabsorb the material creation in periodic cycles, and this Krishna does in the persons of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, who are called guna- avataras. Material nature acts in three ways or modes (gunas). When there is creation—construction, generation, procreation, etc.—material nature acts in the mode of passion (rajo-guna). When there is sustenance—maintenance, preservation, endurance, etc.—nature is working in the mode of goodness (sattva-guna). When there is destruction—decay, dissolution, devastation, etc.—nature acts in the mode of ignorance (tamo-guna).
Brahma is the controller of nature in the mode of passion; he is the engineer who creates the universe. Every universe has its Brahma, who appears as the first created being in it. Although Brahma is usually in the category of jiva, he is designated an avatara (incarnation) of Krishna because he is especially empowered with Krishna’s own creative potency. Using the ingredients furnished by Krishna and following Krishna’s blueprints, Brahma constructs the material universe, and then he begets the offspring, called Prajapatis, whose descendants populate all the planets.
Vishnu, who controls nature in the mode of goodness and sustains the creation, is directly the Supreme Lord. In the spiritual kingdom of God, where everything is everlasting, the quality of goodness exists without either passion or ignorance. Therefore it is appropriate that Vishnu personally controls this quality even in the material world, where it becomes bracketed by ignorance and passion.
Shiva, the lord of the mode of ignorance, devastates the universe at the end by his wild, all-annihilating dance. Shiva is a personal expansion of Krishna, not a jiva, yet because he comes into intimate contact with the quality of ignorance and with matter (which is innately ignorant), you cannot receive the same spiritual restoration by worshiping him that you do by worshiping Krishna or Vishnu. Shiva is therefore given his own category, shiva-tattva.
Srimad-Bhagavatam ( 2.7.39) sums it up like this: “In the beginning of creation there are penance, myself [Brahma], and the Prajapatis, the great sages who generate; then, during the maintenance of the creation, there are Lord Vishnu, the demigods with controlling powers, and the kings of different planets. But at the end there is irreligion, and then Lord Shiva and the atheists full of anger, etc. All of them are manifestations of the energy of the supreme power, the Lord."
by Urmila Devi Dasi
Why do children disobey or get into mischief? We might assume they’re simply rebellious, but that’s rarely the case. Let’s discuss some possible causes of misbehavior.
The Lower Modes
Lord Krishna explains in Bhagavad-gita that material nature is composed of three modes: goodness, passion, and ignorance. Everything is in one of these modes or a combination of them—food, work, games, books, clothing, knowledge, relationships, time of day, and so forth. Children whose environment is mostly in goodness will be generally good, whereas those whose environment is mostly in passion and ignorance will be full of those qualities. For example, an environment in ignorance would be one in which children go to bed and awaken late, watch violent and sexual movies, are served meat and intoxicants (such as caffeine-laden sodas), and are surrounded by insults and fighting. Goodness supports spiritual development; the two lower modes obstruct it.
Children living in a spiritually enlivening atmosphere will rarely rebel. Sometimes children rebel because they see hypocrisy, such as non-spiritual behavior in a parent, teacher, or leader instructing them in Krishna consciousness. Such rebellion comes typically in early adolescence, when a child’s intelligence expands to understand the nature of adult society. All adults can’t be perfect, but we can strive for the ideal, while honestly admitting our mistakes.
Sometimes a child who’s rarely treated with affection will act out of line just to get noticed. I’ve seen children say nasty or disgusting things to make adults angry. The adult’s reaction may be negative, but for a love- starved child any emotion may be better than nothing. These children need unemotional instruction when they’re unruly, and plenty of love and affection the rest of the time.
When children are sick, tired, or hungry, they often don’t show their needs like adults and may become rude and uncooperative. Children chronically late to bed are often chronically disobedient as well. Children who eat and sleep irregularly can be difficult because they are always tired and hungry. Regulated eating and sleeping, which Krishna recommends in the Gita, is often a simple key to good behavior in a child.
It may seem unbelievable, but some parents and teachers actually train children to disobey, be rude, have tantrums, and so forth. Children learn to act in ways that earn them some kind of “reward.” For example, if when a child insults or threatens the parents they give in to the child’s demands, the child is being trained to be nasty, as much as an animal is trained to roll over and jump to get food.
Sometimes what seems to be misbehavior in a child isn’t so at all. Adults with little knowledge of the normal behavior of children at different ages may mislabel a child’s actions. In addition, every child has an inborn psychology. We commonly think that our particular way of perceiving and relating to the world is ideal, but our child may have a different, equally valid way of doing so. For example, a parent may be reserved, deliberate, and task- oriented, and the child may be lively, outgoing, and people- oriented. To the parent, the child may seem scattered, frivolous, irresponsible, and uncooperative. The parent must learn that every nature can be directed to the Lord’s service. A mother satisfied to sit and sew quietly for the Deity might find that her daughter is happier planning a festival.
One of the most serious mistakes an adult can make is to cut down a child’s other adult authorities. If a parent criticizes a child’s teacher, the child will think, “Why do I have to do my work or show respect? My parents will take my side.” And in families where one parent frequently comes between the child and the other parent, children never learn to cooperate.
We must also be careful not to project our own problems onto children when we are sick, tired, hungry, or uninspired.
When we address the underlying causes of difficulty for our children, we will find that our usual relationship with them is one of peaceful cooperation, helping us and them to advance more easily in Krishna consciousness.