Hinduism, like most things, is actually built on just a few key concepts that lay hidden below the surface, and it has been our goal to dig down, unearth and explain these concepts. Grasp these concepts and you can know a lot about the tradition. The two concepts that we have looked at thus far include: truth is one, but the wise speak of it as many (see...), and the metaphor, the sun equals light, which equals knowledge, which equals consciousness, which equals liberation (see...). These two concepts pervade the tradition, and yet, you will never hear people talking about these things directly. They are implicit. Another essential concept is the idea of the three gunas which affects Hindu ideas of non-violence, diet, the caste system, charity, education, psychology and many more aspects of modern Hinduism.
The word guna in Sanskrit has many uses, but here, in the context of the three gunas, it refers to the “qualities,” “modes,” or even “phases” of matter. It is impossible to give an exact translation, but these three English words will give the reader general sense of the term. From here on, I will translate the word guna as “modes.”
According to the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, matter is composed of 8 basic elements, earth, water, fire, air, space, mind, intellect and identity. The first five elements comprise the gross aspects of matter, and the last three elements comprise the subtle aspects of matter. Think of the first 5 elements as solids, liquids, chemical reactions, gases, and distance between objects. As far as the 3 subtle elements are concerned, in the Gita, mind, intellect and even one’s sense of identity are nothing more than subtle forms of matter. This radically changes the way we look at the world and accounts for some of the basic differences between HIndu and Western philosophy. But this is a whole other subject.
These 8 elements become the building blocks of the “material universe,” which includes virtually everything that we see around us including even our bodies. One of the characteristics of these 8 material “elements” is that they develop according to three “modes,” the gunas. The Sanskrit words for these gunas are sattva, rajas and tamas, and in English we can translation them as goodness, passion and darkness, respectively. This means that everything in creation can be classified according to some combination of these three modes. This includes human beings, animals, aquatics, plants, foods, psychology, places of living, technology–literally, everything.
Here is a brief description of the these modes. The mode of goodness (sattva) is characterized by purity, illumination, order, stability, permanence, happiness, spirituality, cleanliness, and health. The mode of passion (rajas) is characterized by action, creation, desire, lust, attachment, movement, and striving. Darkness (tamas) is characterized by destruction, madness, disease, dissolution, ignorance, intoxication, heaviness, and sleep. I am providing suggestive words to give the sense of what these three modes are. Goodness elevates, darkness degrades. Rajas keeps one in the middle. If we use the example of foods, food in the mode of goodness include things that are uncooked, clean, pure and healthful, such as fresh salads, milk, fruits and nuts. Foods in the mode of passion are things that are cooked, spiced, and simulating, such as spicy meals, tea, coffee, and so on. Foods in the mode of darkness are foods that are derived from pain, fermentation processes, and things that are stale and rancid. They include such things as meat, alcohol, rancid cheeses, and so on. Animals in the mode of goodness are peaceful and productive such as the cow, horse and elephant. A monkey, a cat, a dog are are animals in the mode of passion. Snakes, lizards, scorpions and bats are examples of animals in the mode of darkness. People can also be characterized by these these modes. A learned, pure and peaceful person is someone characterized by goodness. An average city dweller for example, is a person conducted by passion. A madman, alcoholic or drug addict is someone in the mode of darkness. It is also important to note that no one thing or person is purely in one of these modes. Everything is mixed, full of some combination of these three modes. Even a person generally conducted by goodness will have passionate and dark days.
Here are some examples of how this model of matter can be applied. A spiritual person is a person primarily governed by the mode of goodness. Charity given to such a person is charity in the mode of goodness. An alcoholic is a person conducted by darkness, charity to such a person is charity given in darkness. Sacred texts such as the Bhagavad Gita always recommend charity in the mode of goodness. A neighborhood that is full of crime, prostitution, graffiti, and insecurity is a neighborhood in the mode of ignorance. A neighborhood that is clean, peaceful, safe and is well landscaped and pleasing is a neighborhood in the mode of goodness. Christmas shopping in a mall is an example of activity in the mode of passion. Commuting to work everyday in a typical city is life in the mode of passion. Going to clubs and bars is recreation in the modes of passion and darkness. Vacationing in a peaceful place like the sea or mountains is activity in passion and goodness. The cultivation of knowledge that leads to prosperity and peace is knowledge in the modes of goodness and passion. Knowledge that leads to weapons of mass destruction, for example, is knowledge in the mode of darkness. A house that is dark, full of fighting and filth is a home in the mode of darkness. One that is light, peaceful, orderly and clean is a home in the mode of goodness. A country that is at war is a country that has fallen into darkness. A country at peace is in the mode of goodness. Most people live their lives neither in full goodness nor in full darkness and so the mode of passion is the most prominent mode of all. In this way virtually any aspect of life can be analyzed according to these three modes of matter and it is part of the Hindu way of seeing the universe.