Chapter fourteen of Bhagavad Gita has described the essential characteristics of the material nature and its modes. It has been explained as to how the modes, which are the primary constituents of the material nature, impact all beings and how can one free himself from their influence.
It has been stated that the total material existence (mahad brahma) is the material nature of Ishvara, the Supreme Lord. All life comes into being when He casts the seed of His consciousness nature into this material substance. In other words, all beings are born from the union of prakriti (the material nature) and purusha (the consciousness nature) – the two natures of Ishvara. Whereas the material nature is the origin of the entire material world which includes both mind and the matter ; the consciousness nature is the source of the embodied soul. These two foundational factors of life have also been called field and the knower of the field. As both prakriti and purusha belong to Ishvara, He is the mother and father of the universe.
The material nature comprises of three gunas namely sattva, rajas and tamas. The Sanskrit word guna, which literally means a rope, has loosely been translated as a mode. Similarly sattva, rajas and tamas are often translated as goodness, passion and ignorance respectively. By implication, the mode of goodness, the mode of passion and the mode of ignorance are the ropes which bind the undifferentiated consciousness to the material world.
When the immortal soul comes into contact with matter, it gets conditioned by the modes. Forgetting its own free nature, it identifies itself with these modes. As a result, a vast spectrum of the fragments of the conditioned consciousness, the embodied souls, is produced. Attracted by the material world, the embodied soul indulges in egoistic satisfaction through the use of senses, mind and the intelligence. In other words, the modes bind the embodied soul, the self. It is the power of these modes which gets the imperishable soul caught up in the cycle of birth, death and re-birth.
These modes, subtle tendencies of the material nature, influence every aspect of human behaviour. Of these, the mode of goodness being pure is flawless and illuminating. It binds the soul by attachment to happiness and to knowledge. This mode creates an atmosphere of peace, serenity and harmony. The mode of passion is of the nature of attraction, springing from cravings. It binds the soul through attachment to action. This mode gives rise to insatiable desire for material things resulting in a feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration. And the mode of ignorance, which deludes everyone, is born of dullness. It binds the soul through negligence, indolence and sleep. This mode results in a state of distress.
From goodness arises wisdom, from passion greed ; and from ignorance arises negligence. Those in the mode goodness, having obtained some spiritual wisdom, are not so much affected by the worldly miseries. Those in the mode of passion are ambitious people who always hanker after material enjoyments and societal recognition. Though they work for and may even achieve many worldly successes, they still remain disillusioned. They can never get long lasting satisfaction. Those in the mode of ignorance, develop an attitude of indifference to everything. They suffer misery because they do not consider the consequences of their actions.
Since the material nature consists of these three modes, they are the basis of all substances. They are present, in varying degrees, in all human beings. In any person, one or the other mode dominates. Depending upon which of the mode is more prominent in him, one is said to be a sattvik, rajasik or tamasik person. The unique combination of these modes in anyone’s personality determines his overall behaviour in day to day life.
No one in the material world can defy the modes. Not only the present life, the modes influence even the quality of birth in the next life.
No one, the individual soul, can attain freedom until he rises above these modes. Even the sattva guna, which is illumined by buddhi, the intelligence, does not rid him of the ego-sense. The mode of goodness also creates desire, though for noble causes only. Therefore, even a sattvik person is not free as he is attached to happiness and a desire for doing good to others. The highest ideal, therefore, is to transcend all the three modes. The embodied soul is liberated from birth, death, old age and pain only when it overcomes all the three modes. When the embodied soul transcends these modes, it rids itself of the contamination of the modes and regains its pristine purity. Only then can one acquire a nature similar to that of the Supreme. He attains to the life eternal.
To conclude, when one understands the essential characteristics of the modes, their interaction with each other and also their relationship with consciousness, he can better understand the distinct personality traits arising from the modes. One can then learn to control these powerful forces of material nature and also get over his own infirmities. Freedom of the spirit lies in rising above all the three gunas.