Sri Ramakrishna, a divine avatar in the 19th century, whose conversations on Hinduism have been extensively recorded in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, has spoken very widely about “trigunas.”
Triguna means thee qualities, comprising of satva (purity and holiness), rajas(action and drive) and tamas(laziness and inertia). (To understand more about Trigunas, please read: Trigunas – Sattwa, Tamas and Rajas – The ancient Hindu Psychology) first.
Sri Ramakrishna says “God can be reached through satva guna. Rajas and Tamas separate us from God. Some compare sattwa to white color; rajas to red color and tamas to black,”
Characteristics of People With Trigunas
Ramakrishna explains: “Pride, sleep and excessive eating are some of the identities of people of tamas. People with rajas engage themselves in many activities. Their dress will be pompous and shiny; their houses will display grandeur and be cleanly maintained; they will hang the portrait of the ‘queen’ (queen Victoria of British empire – it was the period when India was under British Rule)”
On the other hand, Ramakrishna says that, “People of sattwa guna will be soft and calm. They will earn just to have enough meals to live; they will not go out to sing praise on the rich to get money; their houses will not be properly maintained and may look unkempt. They will not bother about dressing impressively. They will not run around in hunt of name and fame.”
Play of Trigunas in Devotion to God
People’s gunas will be exposed in their attitude towards worship of God and in the practice of religious austerities too. Ramakrishna’s described his observation about devotees as follows:
“The rajasic devotees would wear silk clothes at the time of worship. They will wear a rosary made of ‘rudraksha’ around the neck and the rosary will have golden beads interspersed between rudraksha seeds. If someone visits their Puja Room, they will proudly take the visitor to show them around. Come this side; here are more to see; the floor is made of white marble; the ‘mantap’ (wooden enclosure where the God’s image is placed) has excellent carvings,” they will explain. They will donate to charities in a way visible to all.
As regards people of Sattwa guna, their contemplation about God, their acts of charity and their meditation will all be done secretively without the knowledge of others. They will sit inside the mosquito net and meditate. Others may think, “this man must have had poor sleep last night; that’s why he is sleeping so late.”
Ramakrishna says, “Sattwa is the last step in the stairs. By the next step, one can reach the roof. Once sattwa is in full measure, there won’t be much of delay to getGod’s vision. A little more progress will make one attain God.”
Trigunas – The Three Thieves
“The trigunas keep man under their spell; If sattwa is present, it drags rajas with it; If rajas is present, it drags tamas with it; All the three gunas are like thieves.
“Tamas destroys; rajas binds and sattwa releases one from bondage; but still, sattwa by itself cannot take you to Godliness, it can only show the way to God,” says Ramakrishna
He explains this concept of trigunas through the following story:
Once a rich man was traveling though a forest. Midway, he was suddenly surrounded by three thieves and they relieved him of all his possessions. Then one of the thieves said, “What’s the point in leaving him as such? Let’s kill him;” so saying, he advanced towards the rich man with his weapon. At that moment, the second thief intervened and said, “No. There is no use killing him; let us bind him thoroughly so that he cannot go and complain to the police.” So saying, he bound the man with a rope and all the thieves left the place.
After a while, the third thief returned to the place alone. He came near the rich man and said, “I am really sorry about the shabby treatment we have done to you. I will release you right now.”
So saying, he unbound the rich man, took him along showing the way through the winding paths of the jungle; finally they reached the outskirts of the forest and the highway was now visible. The thief said to the rich man “See, this is the road you can take now to reach your home.”
The rich man was moved. He said, “I am so grateful to you; won’t you please accompany me to my house? Our family will be very much pleased.” The thief replied: “I can’t come there. I will get caught by the police.” Saying so, he bidgoodbye to the man.
Ramakrishna explains that in the above parable, the thief who wanted to kill the rich man represents tamo guna. Tamas destroys. The second thief is rajas. It binds. It binds people to activities and make them forget God. The third thief is sattwa. It shows the way to reach God. Qualities like devotion, compassion, charity etc come from Satta. The rich man’s “own house” is the “Parabrahman.” One cannot attain the knowledge of the Brahman without transcending the three gunas.”
Active Engagement in Charity Work – Rajas or Satva?
During his meeting with Easwara Chandra Vidyasagar ( a great and well renowned scholar and philanthropist who lived during Ramakrishna’s period), Ramakrishna explained it this way: “Sir, what you are doing are acts of Sattwic karma; your rajas has its origins in sattwa. Out of sattwa comes compassion; even if your activities are based on compassion, activity by its very nature is rajasic. So, I would say, your activities are “rajasic sattwa;” so, they are harmless.”
Triguna and little children
When one studies the life of Ramakrishna, it is possible to understand how he himself lead a life of divinity, by transcending the trigunas. Ramakrishna used to frequently state that little children are divine because they too are beyond the fetters of Triguna. Only when a child grows, the three qualities start establishing their dominance on the character permanently. Sri Ramakrishna had a very keen eye to observe the behavior of children and he used to give very vivid and practical explanation of children’s behavior and how they are not bound by Trigunas.
We shall study further what Sri Ramakrishna says about Triguna and the behavior of children in the subsequent article.