There are certain irreplaceable words in the yoga tradition—terms that lie at the heart of both its theory and its practice. They are not the names of postures, or even the names of the eight limbs of yoga. They are terms that are usually reserved for more technical conversations: Sanskrit words such as purusha, prakriti, and the .
These are words to take in slowly and to digest with patience. They reveal a side of yoga that often exists only on the fringe of classroom work—if at all. But once assimilated, these terms will travel deeply into the byways of your thinking and add a fulfilling richness to your life and practice.
The starting point for exploring these words (and the concepts underlying them) is the simple distinction each of us makes between the subject and the object of our awareness. A subject is the agent (the person or being) who is the possessor of awareness—the one who sees, hears, or is otherwise aware. The object, on the other hand, is the thing that is the focus of attention. This fundamental division is so familiar to us that we scarcely give it any thought.
But if we were to pursue this train of thought, we might do exactly what the ancient philosophers and yogis did—divide the universe into two broad and interwoven categories: a vast realm of objects collectively called prakriti, and a class of subjects called purushas (including you and me). And having made that simple effort, we would become fledgling yoga philosophers—theory builders whose aim is to understand the principles that shape the universe, and with this knowledge, to search for meaning and purpose in everyday affairs.
Objects of awareness are the constant traffic of life. We are fully consumed by the natural world, by the actions of others, and by inner experiences like the rise and fall of emotion and the presence of various thoughts, sense impressions, and memories. Whatever can be brought to awareness falls under the category of prakriti.
The fact that something can become an object of awareness means that, in some general sense, it is manifested by prakriti, the primordial “matter” out of which every knowable thing emerges (as we have already observed, in this context even thoughts are objects of attention and are “material”). In its role as the source of creation, prakriti is personified as feminine, and thus it is known as the great Mother.
Purusha, the subject, is less easy to define. It is, were we able to get at it, the answer to the question “Who am I?” But the purusha can never be known by the ways in which the manifestations of prakriti are known, for purusha is never the object of awareness. It is always the subject. Purusha is pure, limitless consciousness and is thus often symbolized as light or as the sun (though in any individual case, the power of consciousness is narrowed and limited to the capacity of the individual being).
The nature of the relationship between subject and object, purusha and prakriti, is mysterious. How, for example, have the two come into being? Has consciousness blossomed out of matter? That seems to be the modern view. Evolutionary theory suggests that at some point in the earth’s history, self-awareness appeared spontaneously. But other theories suggest that it is the other way around—that the natural world is somehow the product of consciousness. This appears to be the conclusion of those who ascribe creation to God, the I am who I am (whose being, one must assume, falls on the side of the subject, not the object).
Has consciousness blossomed out of matter? That seems to be the modern view.
Other questions arise as well. How, for example, does a subject make contact with an object? The two have different natures: one is the knower, the other is the known. What brings them together? What are the means of knowing? Further, human beings are clearly conscious beings, yet they are also part of nature’s creation. How is it that unconscious prakriti can serve as a vessel for consciousness? Can a thing be both subject and object, both conscious and lacking in consciousness at the same time? And if consciousness and matter are entwined, is this commingling universal? Is everything permeated by some degree of consciousness? And perhaps the most important question—what purpose does the relationship between purusha and prakriti serve? Is there some meaning to the relationship, which in turn gives meaning to life?
These questions are the stuff out of which philosophies are formed and thoughtful lives are lived. If this article were considerably longer, we would want to answer each question. But here our interest is practical, and we must restrict our approach.
The yoga teachings tell us that prakriti is an intermingling of three entities, orgunas, that are constantly shifting in relation and proportion to one another. They have differing qualities, and their activities either conceal or reveal the presence of purusha, which is the observer of their movements.
Prakriti is an intermingling of three entities, or gunas, that are constantly shifting in relation and proportion to one another.
The concealing aspect of prakriti is the guna called tamas (pronounced as the first syllable in “tumble” coupled with the word “us”). Its activity dulls awareness and ultimately leads to sleep or unconsciousness. Tamas is manifested in qualities such as heaviness, obscurity, stupor, dissolution, and destruction. It is the predominant force in such varied manifestations as fog, carelessness, obesity, spoiled food, and windows covered with dust.
The revealing aspect of prakriti is called sattva (pronounced as the first syllable in “subtle” coupled with the first two letters in the word “wonder”). Sattva’s activity is pleasant and ultimately leads to seeing things as they are—without the distortions and biases of the mind. Sattva is manifested in qualities such as lightness, harmoniousness, selflessness, luminescence, and clarity. It is the predominant guna in a ripe, freshly picked fruit, a wise act of charity, a bright face, a ray of sunlight, and a clean window through which vision passes without distortion.
A third guna, rajas (as in the first two letters of “run” coupled with the first three letters in “just”), acts as the force of change. It is characterized as activity itself. It is responsible for the constant shifting of relationships among the three gunas as well as for the experience of instability and impermanence (and the discomfort that accompanies them). Since change may lead to either greater obscurity or greater clarity, rajas is conceptualized as assisting the other two gunas in their work. It is manifested as a windy fall day, a jittery squirrel, hotly spiced food, musical dissonance, and a windowpane that distorts whatever is viewed through it. Like the pleasure of gambling (in which one’s wealth goes up and down) rajas is both binding and tranquilizing.
Neither purely intellectual constructs, nor “things” that can be entirely objectified, the gunas are nonetheless present in every object. Look around and you will feel them at work—in your garden, in the changing weather, in the evolution of your thoughts, and in the people you meet.
The mind is the instrument through which purusha (consciousness) grasps the objective world.
The mind is the instrument through which purusha (consciousness) grasps the objective world. It is the inner instrument, the antah karana, the means for uniting subject and object. This union takes place in two ways: First, the mind is uniquely capable of taking on a semblance of consciousness. Though it is itself an evolute of prakriti and therefore not inherently conscious, it is subtle enough to acquire the property of awareness. And second, the inner proximity of pure awareness to the mind infuses it with a sense of self, the sense that experience ismine—and I am the subject experiencing it.
The mind also offers the means for interacting with the objective world. It acts as an instrument for gathering experience by employing the senses to perceive the world. It draws upon its storehouse of past experiences to give context to the present. And it directs activity outward through “active senses” such as the hands, the feet, and the organ of speech.
But the mind is itself subject to the inconstancy of the gunas. A drunken mind is a tamasic mind. So is one that is overwhelmed by lethargy, by the desire to hurt another being, or by vulgarity, arrogance, and deceit. A mind hankering after rewards, disturbed by anger, troubled by fear, and clinging to passion is a rajasic mind. A clear mind, a mind filled with pleasant thoughts, a steady mind, and one dedicated to selflessness is sattvic.
A Story of the Three Gunas
Once a man was going through a forest when three robbers fell upon him and robbed him of all his possessions. One of the robbers said, “What’s the use of keeping this man alive?” So saying, he was about to kill him with his sword when the second robber interrupted him, saying, “Oh, no! What is the use of killing him? Tie him hand and foot and leave him here.” The robbers bound his hands and feet and went away. After a while the third robber returned and said to the man, “Ah, I am sorry. Are you hurt? I will release you from your bonds.” After setting the man free, the thief said, “Come with me. I will take you to the public highway.” After a long time they reached the road. Then the robber said, “Follow this road. Over there is your house.” At this the man said, “Sir, you have been very good to me. Come with me to my house.” “Oh, no!” the robber replied. “I can’t go there. The police will know it.” [Author’s note: Although the third robber is sattva, this is nonetheless an aspect of prakriti. Sattva is a means of reaching the goal of self-awareness, but is not the goal itself.]
—Sri Ramakrishna From The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna Ramakrishna–Vivekananda Center, NY
The purpose of yoga practice is to achieve an increasingly sattvic mind.
The purpose of yoga practice is to achieve an increasingly sattvic mind. In the words of the Bhagavad Gita,
Relinquishing ego, forcefulness, pride,Anger, and possessiveness;Unselfish and peaceful within,One is adapted for oneness with the Self. (18:53)
As it grows in clarity, the mind, instead of concealing, reveals the pure subject, its luminous nature.
The Gita spends nearly three chapters exploring this, cataloging the various effects of the gunas (chapters 14, 17, and 18). There it talks about the three forms of duty, of knowledge, of work, of passion, and of wisdom. There it discusses the three forms of food, of pleasure, and of death. And there it covers the three aspects of steadiness, of faith, and of sacrifice.
It is important to recognize that, depending upon the demands of the world, each guna can be at the mind’s disposal. But the mind is healthier when it is clear. Clarity brings lightness and improves concentration. It aids in discrimination and makes the mind pleasant. It resolves conflict and renews hope.
It is for all these reasons that we are advised, in our practice and in our life, to keep an eye on the mind—to learn to recognize the changing faces of the gunas, and to select wisely from the palate they present. In the end, that is the practical lesson to be learned. With attention and discrimination, the inevitable discomfort arising from passion and the unpleasant dullness of tamasic states both give way to sattva. Meditation turns tranquil, duty becomes life’s enjoyment, and the growing joy of pure awareness reinforces and then supplants the joy found in objects.