The Silver Thread: Thinking of the Gunas


Recently I was at the Kripalu Institute and spent a week studying the Bhagavad Gita, a classic text of Hindu Spirituality. The Gita is perhaps the most fundamental of Hindu texts, as it captures the essence of the Vedantic (yoga) philosophy, which is one of the prominent guides for Hindus’ life.

Hindu philosophy is singularly devoted to transcendence, and it studies and activates processes to achieve that end. These processes are generally called yoga.

To explore these processes, we first must examine the Hindu Universe. There are two major divisions. The first is the Purusha. Purusha is the originating egg. It is the primal source of all else. Brahma is the womb that nurtures and, in unison, gives birth to the three lower levels of existence. We might label this primal energy, but it is more commonly called spirit.

From the perspective of human experience, Purusha is the transcendent state of consciousness we seek in meditation and other spiritual practices, the Self.

Prakriti is the reality of consciousness. It is the most basic and purest form of day to day being, the world of senses and mind. It emanates from Purusha, which is like a fluid that evolves into forms. Prakriti is the world of manifest form, which divides into seven lower levels of energy. Prakriti are energy centers.

Prakriti, is in human consciousness, is most equated with the ego. That is our stories of development, relationship, and self-definition.
It is the human confusion between Prakriti, and Purusha that causes suffering. We mistake Prakriti for Purusha: we confuse sense and transcendence.

One such center of Prakriti are gunas. Gunas are sources of psychic energy, which are manifest in our relationship to life.

The first Guna is Rajas. Rajas are a passion, and they arise from thirst and attachment. Rajas produce fevered desires in us. Rajas cause attachment to action. In the Hindu pantheon, Rajas cause rebirth, due to repetitive desires. Rajas wipe out the will and reason, bending to the forces of desire.

“Rajas, from a more psychological view, are those mind-feelings associated with excessive energy… Anger, anxiety, obsession, and all passions directed toward an object-a person, thing, or idea. It is constant momentum, fusing thought, feeling, and action.

The other Guna is Tamas or inertia. Tamas is born of ignorance, which deludes. It is Knowledge obscured, causing attachment to unawareness, and is manifest in negligence, indolence, and sleepiness. Rather than an over-investment in action-attachment, it is withdrawal from the world, inaction, and inertia.

Clinical conditions, primarily depression, are examples of Tamas. Other conditions, such as introversion, schizoid, and denial, repression positions are too.

The Guna we strive for is Sattva. Sattva is balance and harmony.
“Of these, only sattva is free from impurity, illuminating and free from disease, binds by attachment to happiness and by attachment to knowledge” 14-6.

There are three sub-sets of Sattva:
Karya Karma: Good Deeds. This is the action component. It focuses on our behavior and the way we treat others. Traditionally regard for others entails compassion and love for others and gratitude for our own lives.
Swakarma. Swakarma refers to resolving our past. Such an endeavor is the crux of psychotherapy, initiated by Freud. The patterns established in childhood, according to Freud, influence our contemporary life. Through our socialization, we develop a narrative pattern with us as its star. Woven through that pattern is a story of us, our relationships, and our self-image. When that narrative is disturbed by external or internal events, we experience disturbance, and this is reacted too in either healthy or unhealthy ways.

Psychotherapies rework our interpretation of our past in ways that are more flexible and adaptive. We gain symptomatic relief from pain partly through a reinterpretation of our life narrative. For example, the destructive influence of the alcoholic parent may be seen as less crippling than one thinks, and in fact, many have helped to establish unknown character strengths.

Swadharma; Moving toward spirit. The Story of the Gita is the story of the warrior Arjuna and Lord Krishna. Much of it focuses on Krishna’s attempts to persuade Arjuna to perform his life duty as a warrior, and not be deterred by his personal feelings and concerns. Swadarma is the realizing of our spiritual purpose, the Purusha, which is the underlying transcendent motive of life. Ideally, our day to day actions are only meaningful as they contribute to this transcendent state. That is Prakriti must transform into Purusha to advance our spiritual purpose
Yoga is the name for a collection of practices that aid in the transformation from Prakriti to Purusha.


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