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The Modes of Material Nature

By Atma-tattva dasa

In modern physics (classical, quantum mechanistic, and holistic), one frequently sees the term "natural laws." Since Einstein, efforts are being made to find a Grand Unified Theory that will condense all natural laws into one universal formula explaining matter and consciousness.

Interestingly enough, in Sanskrit we have a hard time finding a corresponding term for "natural law." Of course, there are words, like "hetu" (in Bhagavad-gita 9.10), which directly refer to the laws of nature. Literally, hetu means "a causing principle." But these words are rather rare.

However, there is a word which appears in the (meta)physical Sanskrit literature as frequently as the term "natural law" in the texts of modern physics. This word is "guna," generally translated as "mode of material nature."

This observation indicates a remarkable subtlety in the Vedic understanding of the material nature. The concept of natural laws is very limited and relative because, as the Vedic scriptures inform us, the material universe is a multidimensional creation, each dimension having its own laws. It is a wild speculation of the earthly scientists to assume that the laws observed "down here" apply in the entire universe--although this belief is being accepted as an axiomatic principle by most people.

Natural laws are limited to certain dimensions. For example, we know gravity, electromagnetism, entropy, etc. But we have to be prepared to accept things or beings which defy these laws. However, nobody and nothing within the material world defies the gunas, the modes of material nature: "There is no being existing, either here or among the demigods in the higher planetary systems, which is freed from these modes born of material nature." (Bhagavad-gita 18.40)

Natural laws refer only to the workings of matter; the gunas refer to the workings of both matter AND consciousness. However, the concept of gunas doesn't equate matter and consciousness by reducing consciousness to a function of matter, but it shows how consciousness and matter are interlined. Therefore, the word guna is used. Literally it means "rope," those forces of the material nature which bind the living entity to the material world. On the other hand, this expression also indicates that matter can move and "live" only due to the presence of the bound-up living entity.

Originally, the gunas correspond to the functions of the material existence: creation, maintenance, dissolution. Therefore, there are three gunas:

Sattva-guna, the "mode of goodness," characterized by maintenance as well as knowledge, purity, and real happiness.

Rajo-guna, the "mode of passion," characterized by creation and building up, as well as great endeavor for sense gratification and economic development.

Tamo-guna, the "mode of ignorance, or darkness," characterized by dissolution and destruction, madness, indolence and sleep.

These modes of material nature are constantly influencing the consciousness of the living entities. According to the predominance of a certain guna, a living entity sees the world differently. Even different kinds of animals have a different world-view, what to speak of the human beings or the higher beings. Every individual has his particular vision which determines what he sees and what he does NOT see. This is dependent on his individual materialistic consciousness, which is dependent on the three modes of material nature.

As a TV-set only responds to TV-waves and a radio-set to radio waves, the living entities, too, only respond to waves of their own "wave length." Thus, the resonance of our consciousness determines what we see, what we do, what we desire, what we say, what we eat--in other words, everything in our material existence. Correspondingly, it also determines what vibrations we receive. By choosing the modes we're in, we determine the quality of our own existence. In this connection, a slogan often quoted in modern esoteric and holistic sciences starts to make sense: "We are creating our own reality!"

Since the gunas determine the resonance of our consciousness, and the resonance of our consciousness determines our "reality," it is most important to know the science of the gunas. Many passages within the Vedic scriptures elaborate on these gunas. Even within the Bhagavad-gita, which is not very voluminous (only 700 verses altogether), three chapters deal with the analysis of the subtle nuances caused by the modes of material nature.

The influence of the gunas and their subtle nuances can be compared to the mixing of the three basic colors, yellow, red, and blue. They can be endlessly mixed, and each further addition changes the color. Actually, each species or even each individual body can be compared to one of these specific mixings of the three gunas. The gunas color our consciousness, and our consciousness "colors" our body. This is literally true in the case of our astral body, which changes colors according to our states of consciousness. The subtle energy-flows in our astral body influence the energy-flows in our gross body. Thus there is a direct connection between the gunas we're in, and the state of our astral and gross bodies. The Ayurveda goes so far as to analyze diseases according to the influence of the gunas.

The Vedic guna concept shows how the entire cosmos is interlined just like a living organism.

Our consciousness not only determines our present reality but also our future reality, as the state of our consciousness at the time of death will determine where our next birth will be. In other words, our body is nothing but an expression of our own consciousness built up in our past. Our consciousness is basically developed through our actions. As we act in a particular manner, taking shelter of a particular mode of material nature, we develop a particular kind of consciousness. Therefore, due to our actions now under the modes of nature, we are creating our next body suitable to house our specific consciousness.

The modes of material nature exist only within the material world. If we compare the material world to an ocean, then the gunas are the waves within this material ocean, which toss the living entity about until he learns the art of purifying his consciousness and getting free from the entanglement of material nature.

Rajo-guna and tamo-guna are the forces which drag us higher and lower within the ocean of material existence. Sattva-guna, however, is compared with the waters near the shore. In sattva-guna, you're still in the ocean, but you have a good chance to get out. If you miss it, then sooner or later the waves of raja and tamo-guna will pull you into the depths of the ocean once again.

In other words, being in sattva-guna (goodness) is good, but not good enough for getting out. If we want to transcend the gunas we have to LEAVE the ocean, leaving behind even sattva-guna (the warm waters near the shore). This can only be done through the process of liberation described in all the Vedic literature.

For more reading:
Bhagavad-gita: 13.6-7, 13.20, 7.4
Srimad-Bhagavatam: 3.26-27

         

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