Kierkegaard and the Three Modes

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is perhaps best known for his theory of the three stages of human existence: the aesthetic stage, the ethical stage, and the religious stage.

The aesthetic stage is not about being an aesthete, as one might suspect. Rather, a person in the aesthetic stage pursues pleasure and avoids commitment. This stage, says Kierkegaard, begins and ends with despair.

A person in the ethical stage is committed. He or she has a sense of duty, labors for family and society, and pursues universal goals. In this stage the feverishworker usually loses his individuality, becoming a cog in the work-a- daymachine of life.

The religious stage, according to Kierkegaard, generally comes after repeated frustration with working hard for society, the rewards seeming limited and meager. At this point, says our Danish philosopher, a person moves beyond the universal to the specific and starts to worship God.

Not all people go through all three stages. Kierkegaard says that in a person’s life, one stage will predominate and usually engulf a person until the day he dies.

Anyone who is familiar with theBhagavad-gita and the philosophy of Krishna consciousness will notice how Kierkegaard’s three stages correspond to the three modes of material nature. These three modes—sattva (goodness, virtue), rajas (energy, passion, turbulence), and tamas (inertia, ignorance)—are an integral part of the Hare Krishna world view.

Mode is a translation of the Sanskrit word guna, which literally means “thread” or “rope,” implying that goodness, passion, and ignorance are the ropes that bind one to the material world. According to the Gita, 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.

Sattva controls virtues and qualities such as joy, wisdom, and altruism; rajas controls greed, anger, ambition, and frustration; tamas controls sloth, delusion, and idleness. Sattva clarifies and pacifies; rajas confuses and impels; tamas obscures and impedes.

Lord Vishnu, the supreme Godhead who maintains the cosmic manifestation, is naturally the master of the mode of goodness; Brahma, the creator, controls passion; and Siva, the destroyer, presides over ignorance.

As in Kierkegaard’s system, the Gita explains that a particular mode will predominate in a person’s life, influencing the way he or she behaves. And while we might achieve relative happiness by understanding how the modes condition us and interact with our consciousness, we should aspire to become detached from all three modes, even goodness, which embodies finer material qualities. Such qualities are still material and can serve as “the last infirmity of a noble mind,” as Indologist A. L. Basham has articulated it, “causing the soul to cling to wisdom and joy as opposed to God consciousness proper.”

The Gita devotes one hundred of its seven hundred verses to a systematic analysis of the modes of nature. According to the Gita, God, as the creator of the modes, is naturally above them (Bg 7.13); but the modes bind the ordinary soul to the body through conditioning (Bg 14.5); 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 God (Bg 14.19).

The fourteenth chapter of the 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, Bhagavad-gita helps us understand distinct personality types.

The 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.

In applying the three modes to food, the Gita says that a person in the mode of goodness leans toward healthy and nutritious food, which increases strength and longevity. Persons in passion like overly spiced foods with powerful flavors, temporarily enjoying tasty cuisine that brings on sickness and disease. A person in ignorance has little taste left and tends to eat rotten food that quickly causes ill health.

The Gita summarizes: Goodness leads to lasting happiness that begins by tasting like poison but ends by tasting like nectar. Passion leads to short-term happiness that begins like nectar but ends like poison. And ignorance (at best) leads to happiness that is illusory in both the long and the short term, being the result of sleep, idleness, and negligence. In this way the Gita analyzes various aspects of life and shows how the modes influence all living beings and the world.

Other Traditions

Other traditions have elaborated on three-part processes that correspond to personality types. Plato, for example, discusses the rational soul, the spirited soul, and the appetitive soul. These refer respectively to the intellectual, contemplative person, the pugnacious, overly active person, and the selfcentered braggadocio. Plato acknowledges that all three personality types can be found in everyone but inevitably (as with the three modes of nature) one personality type will predominate.

Modern psychology acknowledges three somatotypes, or body types, namely ectomorphy (thin), mesomorphy (muscular), and endomorphy (fat). These are said correspond to certain mental dispositions: cerebrotonia (brain-oriented), somatotonia (muscle-oriented), and viscerotonia (stomach-heart-oriented). Scholars of Indian religion, such as A. L. Herman, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, have noted that while this classification does not directly correspond to the three modes of material nature, the similarity warrants further research. Nonetheless, as Herman acknowledges, the Gita provides one of the most consistent and far-reaching psychological analyses of people and their conditioned responses to the material world. Therefore the Gita, with its in-depth study of the three modes of material nature, offers us indispensable clues about the true nature of the world around us. Taking these clues to heart may enable us to become happy in this life and in the next one as well.

A Step Further

Kierkegaard would probably have appreciated the analysis of the modes set down in the Gita. In fact, after reading the Gita he could conceivably have added a fourth stage to his three stages of life: the transcendental stage. The Gita explains goodness, the highest mode, in about the same way that Kierkegaard explains his religious stage. But what exists beyond the religious stage? What does one do after going through the despair associated with the mode of ignorance (the aesthetic stage), the work ethic associated with the mode of passion (the ethical stage), and the abandonment of all prior conceptions to come to the mode of goodness (the religious stage), where one lives happily and begins to serve God?

When one meets a pure devotee, one moves beyond religious generality and becomes absorbed in true transcendence. Srila Prabhupada spoke about this often: ordinary religiosity versus transcendental religiosity. The science of how to transcend the three modes, and thus to transcend Kierkegaard’s three stages of life, is found within the sacred pages of Bhagavad-gita.