The Bhagavad Gita | Study Guide


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The Bhagavad Gita | Chapter 17 : Three Kinds of Faith | Summary



Arjuna asks which guna prevails in men who "worship with faith" but "reject the scriptures." There are three types of faith, Krishna responds. Each corresponds to a person's inner nature, depending upon which guna dominates.

People with sattvic natures worship gods, those with rajasic natures worship demigods and demons, and those with tamasic natures worship dark spirits and ghosts. Krishna also divides food into three categories according to the gunas. Sattvic foods are fresh and succulent and encourage vitality. Rajasic foods are bitter, salty, sour, or pungent and cause discomfort. Tamasic foods are bland, stale, overcooked, and contaminated. Worship done according to scripture only for the sake of worship is sattvic; worship done out of desire is rajasic; worship done without faith is tamasic. Sattvic control of the body, mind, and speech is practiced in faith with no desire for an outcome. Rajasic control comes from pride in order to gain respect or admiration. Tamasic control is used to harm or gain power over others. Finally, charity also can be divided into three types according to the gunas. Sattvic charity is given for its own sake; rajasic charity is halfhearted and given selfishly; tamasic charity is given disrespectfully at the wrong place or time.

Krishna explains the phrase Om Tat Sat. The sacred sound om is chanted at the beginning of an act of charity, control, or worship. Tat, translated from Sanskrit as "the Absolute," is chanted during the performance of right action. Sat is chanted to indicate a "praiseworthy action." If worship, control, or charity are done without faith, they are referred to in Sanskrit as asat, or "unreal."


Krishna's breakdown of the three gunas shows how they may categorize other aspects of human nature. Sattva is the only guna connected to the realization of God and Self. Krishna's words reveal that sattva is the quality closest to divinity and, therefore, the most positive trait a person can have. It is important to remember, however, that sattva is still a guna and, consequently, still part of nature. This means that even sattva has the potential to hold a person to the cycle of rebirth, a result of its being exercised with attachment.

Rajas and tamas, in Krishna's view, are never positive and pull a person away from God. Tamas is the worse of the two, a quality that encompasses not only inaction, ignorance, and dullness but also active negativity, such as violence and chaos. Although rajas seems built primarily around desire and the "I-sense," or ego, the text does not portray the quality as consciously negative or evil. Tamas, however, Krishna describes as the evil quality, manifesting as purposeful ignorance, the intent to harm others, and a refusal of faith.

Krishna's teachings insist that faith and yoga alone do not lead a person to freedom from suffering. An understanding of the scriptures is also critical. He councils Arjuna to take the path of action rather than knowledge, yet he warns Arjuna against doing things counter to the teachings of the scriptures. Studying scripture still holds a place of utmost importance. However, Krishna encourages the path of action, saying it ultimately leads to the path of knowledge. Something done against the scriptures would not be considered right action.

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