The Bhagavad Gita | Study Guide


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The Bhagavad Gita | Chapter 14 : The Three Gunas | Summary



Krishna instructs Arjuna about the ultimate knowledge yoga masters have achieved. He explains he is "the seed-giving father" and that nature is "the womb." All beings come forth from the combination of the two. The three gunas—sattva, rajas, and tamas—are based upon a person's disposition. The gunas keep the eternal Self bound to the physical body. Sattva binds by attachment to knowledge and joy, rajas by passion and activity, and tamas by laziness and sleep. Of the three, sattva has the power to uplift a person and lead to enlightenment because it is connected to wisdom. The other two create stasis, or drag a person down. The guna that rules people when they die is significant because it will dictate the type of rebirth they enter. Arjuna asks Krishna how to recognize someone who has transcended the gunas. Krishna tells Arjuna that the person who has gone beyond the three gunas is unattached and responds equally to sorrow or joy. Such a devotee treats all equally, is "indifferent / to honor and to disgrace," and is "serene in success or failure."


Krishna's part of the dialogue reaffirms the qualities of a person who has found enlightenment and comes to understand the true nature of the Self. Krishna gives more detail about the nature of the three gunas. Attachment to any one of the gunas will hold a person back, keeping them in the cycle of death and rebirth. However, the gunas of rajas and tamas are particularly detrimental to a person's process of enlightenment. Although sattva seems desirable, when it is held as an attachment it can keep one bound. For example, overattachment to the pursuit of knowledge or joy can keep a person embodied. Conversely, sattva without attachment can help a person leave the cycle of death and rebirth. Krishna names sattva as the "ruling trait" of a person who is on the path of understanding and knowledge. The "light of knowledge shines forth / through all the gates of the body" in these people. This is one way such a person can be recognized and set apart from those still ruled primarily by rajas or tamas.

Many things can affect the rebirth of a person. The ruling guna at the time of death will determine the situation a person will experience when reborn into the next life. Those who die while ruled by rajas are born to people who are attached to action, whereas those who die while ruled by tamas are born to people who are deluded. This distinction could imply that a person who has led a good life could be reborn into a poor incarnation if they die in a state of anger. Although a person is ruled primarily by one guna or another, it is possible for that person to move back and forth between secondary gunas over the course of a lifetime.

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