Cultivating Wisdom Through Sattvic Qualities

January 5, 2002    BY Georg Feuerstein

Wisdom arises in us whenever the quality of sattva grows stronger in the mind. Sattva, which literally means “being-ness,” is one of three primary qualities (gunas) of creation. The other two qualities are rajas (the dynamic principle) and tamas (the principle of inertia). These primary qualities underlie absolutely everything that is other than the superconscious Spirit, which is pure Awareness. 

Wisdom arises in us whenever the quality of sattva grows stronger in the mind.

According to Yoga and Sankhya, they are the behavioral modes of prakriti, often misleadingly translated as “Nature” but standing for the universe in all its dimensions. Together, in various mixtures, they shape all forms at whatever level of existence, material and mental. Only at the transcendental level of prakriti—which is called prakriti-pradhana, or “creatrix foundation”—do the three qualities exist in perfect balance. As soon as this primordial balance is disturbed, the process of creation sets in, beginning with the most subtle (mental) manifestations and terminating with the material realm.

Sattva represents the principle of lucidity or transparency, as it manifests in and through wisdom. Just as the moon, which has no atmosphere, oceans, or vegetation, reflects the light of the sun, so sattva reflects the superconscious Spirit more faithfully than the other two qualities of creation. By comparison, rajas and tamas are obscuring factors, which distort our vision of the superconscious Spirit.

Like everything within creation, the human mind is not pure sattva but a composite of the three primary qualities. And, significantly, the composition varies from individual to individual. Thus there are as many shades of mental lucidity as there are human beings (or living creatures in general). Even in a single day, our individual mind cycles through a series of qualitative changes that correspond to the relative preponderance of one primary quality over another. For instance, the waking state contains overall more sattva than the dream state, which has a predominance of rajas, while deep sleep shows a preeminence of the principle of inertia. Or, to give another example, when we are peaceful and calm, our mind is governed primarily by sattva; when we are agitated, our mind is ruled by rajas; and when we feel bored and dull, tamas predominates.

The higher mind, in which sattva is preeminent, does not depend in the same way on the senses and the brain.

The Sanskrit language knows many words for “wisdom”: jñana, vidya, prajña, medha, buddhi, and so on. I will single out the term buddhi here, because it is significant in the Yoga and Sankhya traditions. It can stand for both wisdom and the organ of wisdom, that is, the higher mind. The lower mind (manas) is bound to the physical senses, which supply it with an incessant stream of information that it then processes to produce knowledge. Thus it is characterized by a preponderance of rajas, the principle of dynamism. The higher mind, in which sattva is preeminent, does not depend in the same way on the senses and the brain. Traditionally, it is compared to a polished mirror that reflects the light of Consciousness (chit) more faithfully than the lower mind. When the light of Consciousness or transcendental Awareness falls into the higher mind, wisdom is produced.

This is a particular kind of knowing, which relates not so much to the finite world of physical or psychological realities but to the Spirit. At the level of the intellect, wisdom can be said to augment Awareness in us. At the level of feelings, wisdom generates such elevated states as universal love, compassion, kindness, patience, tolerance, and other similar virtues. At the level of values, wisdom is responsible for our concern with the ideals of goodness, beauty, and harmony. Not least, the presence of wisdom creates in us the urge toward self-understanding, self-discipline, self-transcendence, and, ultimately, Self-realization. In other words, the impulse toward freedom and liberation, or enlightenment, becomes manifest in us when wisdom harmonizes the otherwise turbulent mind. More than that, wisdom is the means by which liberation or enlightenment is made possible.

Whatever yogic path we may follow, all paths unfold through wisdom. Even bhakti yoga, the spiritual discipline of self-surrender to the Divine Being, relies on the liberating power of wisdom. For before we can practice self-surrender, we must first determine—through applied wisdom—the proper object of our devotion. 

Whatever yogic path we may follow, all paths unfold through wisdom.

Otherwise we could end up worshipping “false gods” or confuse the self (ego) with the transcendental Identity or Self. Our emotions are notoriously unreliable if left to their own devices; they require the light of intelligence in the form of wisdom.

Or, how could we practice karma yoga, the yogic path of self-transcending day-to-day action, without having wisdom tell us what course of action is appropriate in any given case? The God-man Krishna addressed this vital point in the Bhagavad Gita to end Prince Arjuna’s mental confusion.

The cultivation of wisdom is clearly a priority on the spiritual path. Since wisdom is a function of the presence of sattva, we can invite wisdom to manifest in us through any and all activities that enhance sattva in our body and mind: eating pure and wholesome food, keeping the body healthy through appropriate exercise and other habits, entertaining pure and wholesome thoughts, engaging in virtuous actions, remaining attentive in all situations, speaking kind and helpful words and otherwise practicing silence (mauna), cultivating self-observation, self-understanding, and self-discipline, focusing on that which matters rather than scattering our energy and attention, developing concentration and meditation, cultivating a joyful mood, conquering doubt through faith (shraddha) in ourselves, as well as in the process of self-transformation, the ideal of liberation, and the great teachings and teachers.

The more we foster the sattva quality in ourselves, the more wisdom will guide us in making the right choices in all areas of life. Whereas the self-divided mind lacking in wisdom is typically problem-oriented, the wisdom mind always offers “natural,” plausible solutions. Wisdom puts us in the flow of things. By contrast, the unwise mind experiences itself as immersed in a hostile environment that must be fought and conquered. Wisdom shows us that there is nothing to conquer. The universe is not our enemy; only our false sense of being a limited ego personality encased by a limited body gives us this illusion, which is the source of all our pain and suffering (duhkha).

Wisdom shows us that there is nothing to conquer.

Wisdom is not about yet another piece of information that has to be judged and either accepted or rejected; rather it gives us a view of the whole situation and thus shows us a way out of all dilemma or conflict. Wisdom is marked by wholeness and happiness.

Therefore let us cultivate sattva in everything we do, say, and think so that wisdom may illuminate the path before us.

Photo credit: bryan... / schristia.

Georg Feuerstein
Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. (1947-2012), authored over forty-five books, including The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Yoga Tradition, and created distance-learning courses on Yoga philosophy and history through Traditional Yoga Studies.