By Gauranga Sundar Dās

The English word “mode” best conveys the sense of the Sanskrit word guna (material quality). “Mode”
comes from the Latin modus, and it has a special application in European philosophy. Modus means
“measure.” It is used to distinguish between two aspects of material nature: that which is immeasurable
(called natura naturans, the creative nature) and that which is measurable (called natura naturata, the
created nature). Creative nature is a single divine substance that manifests, through modes, the created
nature, the material world of physical and mental variety. Being immeasurable (without modes), creative
nature cannot be humanly perceived. Created nature (with modes) is measurable, hence we do perceive
it. Modus also means “a manner of activity.” When creative nature acts, it assumes modes of behavior
that are measurable and thus perceivable.
The fourteenth chapter of Bhagavad-gita (verses 3-5) presents a similar twofold description of material
nature as mahat yoni, the source of birth, and as guna prakrti, that which acts wonderfully through modes.
Material nature as the source of birth is also termed mahad brahman, the great or immeasurable
Brahman. Mahad brahman is nature as the divine creative substance, which is the material cause of
everything. “Material cause” is a term common to both European philosophy (as causa materialis) and
Vedanta philosophy (as upadana karana). It means the source of ingredients that comprise creation. We
get an example of a material cause from the Sanskrit word yoni, which literally means womb. The
mother’s womb provides the ingredients for the formation of the embryo. Similarly, the immeasurable
creative nature provides the ingredients for the formation of the material world in which we live, the
measurable created nature.
The clarity of this example forces a question: what about the father, who must impregnate the womb first
before it can act as the material cause? This question is answered by Krishna, the speaker of the
Bhagavad-gita, in verse 4: aham bija pradah pita, “I am the seed-giving father.” In Vedanta philosophy,
this factor of causation is termed nimitta-matram (the remote cause). It is important to note that by
presenting creation as the result of the union of two causes (the material and the remote), the Bhagavad-
gita rejects the philosophy of Deus sive natura, “the identity of God and nature.” In short, though creative
nature may be accepted as the direct cause of creation, it is not the self-sufficient cause of creation. The
seed with which Krishna impregnates the womb of creative nature is comprised of sarva-bhutanam, all
living entities (verse 3).
This reveals a remarkable subtlety in the Vedic understanding of the material nature, and the natural laws
concept becomes limited and relative by comparison. The Vedic scriptures inform us that 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 to the entire universe — yet most
people accept this belief as an axiomatic principle. Natural laws, such as gravity, entropy, and
electromagnetism, are limited to certain dimensions. We have to be prepared to accept things or beings
that defy these laws. But 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)

Bhagavad-gita 14.5 explains that when Krishna puts the souls into the womb of material nature, their
consciousness is conditioned by three modes, or tri-guna. The modes are three measures of interaction
between conscious spirit and unconscious matter. The modes may be compared to the three primary
colors, yellow, red and blue, and consciousness may be compared to clear light. The “conditioning”
(nibhadnanti) of consciousness upon its entry into the womb of material nature is comparable to the
coloration of light upon its passing through a prism. The color yellow symbolizes sattva-guna, the mode of
goodness. This mode is pure, illuminating, and sinless. Goodness conditions the soul with the sense of
happiness and knowledge. The color red symbolizes the rajo-guna, the mode of passion, full of longings
and desires. By the influence of passion the soul engages in works of material accomplishment. The color
blue symbolizes tamo-guna, the mode of ignorance, which binds the soul to madness, indolence and
sleep. As the three primary colors combine to produce a vast spectrum of hues, so the three modes
combine to produce the vast spectrum of states of conditioned consciousness that encompasses all living
entities within the universe. The term tri-loka is often found in Vedic scriptures. Tri-loka means “three
worlds.” The universe is divided by the three modes into three worlds, or realms of consciousness: bhur,
bhuvah and svar (the gross region, the subtle region and the celestial region). In svargaloka or the
celestial heaven, superhuman beings called devatas exist, enjoying a life that in human terms is almost
unimaginable. In the subtle region exist ghosts and elemental beings. And in the gross or earthly realm
exist human beings and other creatures with tissue-bodies, including the animals and plants. There is
also a subterranean region where powerful demons reside. And there is a region known as naraka, hell.
As explained in Bhagavad-gita 3.27, the souls within these regions of material consciousness wrongly
identify themselves as the doers of physical and mental activities that are actually carried out by three
modes of material nature. This wrong identification is called ahankara, or false ego. False ego is the basis
of our entanglement in material existence.
A detailed description of the threefold false ego is given by Krishna to Uddhava. This is recorded in the
eleventh canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. By false ego in goodness (technically called vaikaraka), the
living entity identifies with the mind. What is the mind? The mind is the living entity’s subtle medium of
reflection, comparable to a mirror. By its own nature of goodness, the mind is a suitable medium for
reflecting the eternal absolute truth. But it can also reflect the objects of the senses and thus become
absorbed in the temporary appearances of the material world. The Amrta-bindu Upanisad therefore
declares, “For man, mind is the cause of bondage and mind is the cause of liberation. Mind absorbed in
sense objects is the cause of bondage, and mind detached from the sense objects is the cause of
liberation.” By false ego in passion (aindriya or taijasa), the soul identifies with the physical senses and
the creative intellect by which the senses are skillfully employed in work. By false ego in ignorance
(tamasa), the soul identifies with the objects perceived by the physical senses, i.e. what is heard, what is
felt, what is seen, what is tasted and what is smelt. Krishna says that the false ego is cid-acin-mayah, that
which encompasses both spirit and matter, because it binds the cid (conscious soul) to the acid
(unconscious matter).
The cultivation of the innate goodness of the mind is the essence of the Vedic method of yoga,
summarized by Krishna as follows. “The mind can be controlled when it is fixed on the Supreme
Personality of Godhead. Having achieved a stable situation, the mind becomes free from polluted desires
to execute material activities; thus as the mode of goodness increases in strength, one can completely
give up the modes of passion and ignorance, and gradually one transcends even the material mode of
goodness. When the mind is freed from the fuel of the modes of nature, the fire of material existence is
extinguished. Then one achieves the transcendental platform of direct relationship with the object of his
meditation, the Supreme Lord.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.9.12)

The transcendental platform of the soul’s direct relationship with the Supreme Soul is the state of absolute
being. How the yogi perceives this state is described in Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.14.45. “He sees the
individual souls united with the Supreme Soul, just as one sees the sun’s rays completely united with the
sun.” The sun is jyotisi, the source of light. Similarly, Krishna, the Supreme Soul, is the source of the light
of consciousness of all living entities. Sunlight is composed of photons, which are tiny units of light.
Similarly, each individual soul (technically called the jiva-atma) is a tiny unit of consciousness. The
Sanskrit word yoga means “connection;” through bhakti-yoga (the yoga of pure devotion), the
consciousness of the individual soul connects with its source, Krishna. This is called Krishna consciousness. By Krishna consciousness, the soul rids itself of the coloration of the three modes and
returns back home, Back to Godhead.

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Gauranga Sundar Das is IskconInc Communication Director and SM IT Head.

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