Sutra 1.16. The Gunas: Psychological Interpretation

So, as we have already mentioned earlier, the shloka 1.16 of the Yoga Sutras links the practice of vairagya to the category of gunas.
तत्परं पुरुषख्यातेर्गुणवैतृष्णयम् ॥१६॥
1.16 tatparaṃ puruṣakhyāterguṇavaitṛṣṇayam
First of all let us outline the translation of the shloka.
tat – that. In this case this word denotes the vairagya from the previous line
paraṃ – highest, at the utmost
puruṣa – Purusha, a man, Me
khyāteh – knowledge, comprehension
guṇa – guna
vai-tṛṣṇayam – this word contains the root trishna already known to us and the prefix vai that the Monier-Williams dictionary translates as “to be deprived of”.
Let us draw the initial variant of the translation:
1.16 the utmost (vairagya) comes when Purusha is comprehended by means of disengagement from gunas.
Such variant of translation comes in line with the text logic. Indeed, if we assume that Patanjali has determined vairagya as dis-trishning/disengagement (sorry for this self citation J) from emotions in relation to the observed objects, the utmost vairagya shall be the one that comes to disengagement from some primary experiences that are the gunas. In such translation version the gunas should be correlated with some psychological states. Let us do this and in such a way UNDERSTAND the meaning of this phrase and the hence ensuing psycho-practices.
First of all let us acknowledge with regret that in such understanding we can be based upon neither of the translation variants and commentaries available. Most of interpreters have “avoided” difficulties in understanding this line having substituted the complicated word “guna” with its synonyms (sometimes correctly, and sometimes not), and have thus deprived it of the status of philosophic category as well as shut this line out from hope for interpretation. For instance:
1.16. That extreme non-attachment, giving up even the qualities, shows (the real nature of) the PuruSa (Vivekananda).
1.16 When an individual has achieved complete understanding of his true self, he will no longer be disturbed by the distracting influences within and around him (TKV Desikachar).
1.16 This [passionlessness] is highest when discernment of the Self results in the thirstlessness for qualities [and not merely for objects]. (James Haughton Woods).
1.16. Indifference to the attributes, being conductive to the knowledge of the Spirit, is the highest (form of it) (Ganganatha Jha).
1.16. This highest one called the Purusha does not feel thirsty (has no desires) for the qualities of objects. (Rigin)
I think the reader shall agree that such translations only entangle our understanding and completely deprive this line of any sense, let alone any practical meaning, reducing its interpretation to moralizing speculations about the need for total detachment. Yet this is not to be agreed with since a person in the state of catalepsy can scarcely come as the perfect image of a yogi. Among those few interpreters who “were not afraid” of using the word gunas were Ostrovskaya and Rudoi who have translated the line [into Russian] in the following manner:
1.16 It shall be the utmost [when] due to comprehending the Purusha the attraction to gunas ceases (Ostrovskaya, Rudoi).
The word gunas is also preserved in the translations proposed by Alice Bailey and Sri Swami Satchidananda:
1.16. The consummation of this non-attachment results in an exact knowledge of the spiritual man when liberated from the qualities or gunas (Alice Bailey & Djwhal Kuhl).
1.16. When there is non-thirst for even the gunas (constituents of Nature) due to realization of the Purusha (true Self), that is supreme non-attachment (Sri Swami Satchidananda).
However in all these translation variants gunas become objects that can be desired, and so it runs in contradiction with their definition: gunas are the qualities of objects, the system attributes that cannot come as objects of “desire” or “repudiation” in isolation from their carriers. So we may also treat these two variants as those that in fact explain nothing.
On the other hand we come across the idea of “overcoming gunas” in the already mentioned chapter 14 of the Bhagavad Gita, in “The Shuka’s Questions” section of Moksha Dharma and some other sources. And in these cases they speak about gunas and not some “cosmic powers” or “qualities”. That’s why there might be a whole layer of interesting psycho-practices behind this shloka, so there in no occasion for ignoring it.
Let us in our usual manner try to get to the bottom of it ourselves by means of reconstructing the psychological experience that could have underlaid this line. As I have said earlier, if gunas are something that one can disengage from it means they can be correlated with some psychological states that are primary in relation to some other states that are more simple. There has been much said about psychological meaning of the gunas in principle, however this case will also come as our disappointment. In fact there are two variants of gunas’ interpretation from the position of “psychology”[1]:
Gunas are correlated with different traits of character, for instance: “The gunas is the term that denotes the whole scope of qualities, first of all, of human souls. They single out three gunas. The first guna is tamas meaning darkness, dullness, ignorance. The second is rajas, i.e. the stage when a person starts the active process of its development, goes beyond the narrow-minded primitivism, advances first as a fighter and then as a leader, manager, the person who organizes other people. The third guna is sattva, i.e. purity, harmony, bliss, happiness” (taken from some Krishnaite web-site). This opinion is widely spread but of course it is too naive to be taken for a serious and sound foundation. I shall further make it clear for those who do not understand its naivety.
1. The “darkness” just like the “purity” are neither the traits of character nor the experiences. In general it is obvious that these categories are very relative, they are different for various peoples and they are conditioned by current cultural and religious views. That is why its correlation with fundamental psychic experiences in infeasible.
2. They put in one line (i.e., mix up) the personal qualities, the characteristics of its activity and its experiences.
3. It is hence not clear how one can use the category of gunas to classify some more complex qualities, personal abilities and peculiar features like, for instance, logical thinking or infatuation, or demonstration of one’s curiosity etc.
4. What is the general criterion of correlating notions with this or that guna. Such child-like classification does not make it clear at all.
5. What is it that gunas have in common? For if gunas are the qualities or system attributes, there should be one criterion that “runs through” them and unites them within a unified classification framework. For instance, no matter how many colours there exist, they are all unified by one feature: they all come as light with different wave-lengths. In this case the length of the wave shall be the common criterion. But if, for instance, we tried to compare the colour of something with its cheerfulness we would not be able to unify these features within an integrated framework. We believe that the ancient sages of samkhya used to reason correctly and would not have made such a mistake, just unlike the interpreters of our day who may do.
6. And we can proceed with this for ever and ever.
In general this variant of gunas’ explanation can be reduced to one simple phrase: everything that the author is fond of is the sattva and all the things he dislikes are the tamas.
The second variant is even worse. Tamas here is related to inertness, rajas is related to activeness, while sattva is something in between. In this way the concept of three gunas is reduced to some binary model of the yin yang kind that the Western person can understand, with some vague layer called sattva. In this form the gunas shall be inadequate from philosophic point of view, for sattva here is as if subordinating to its “sisters”, this undoubtedly contradicting the initial idea of equal onthological status of these elements.
Another thing is that this metaphoric “models” in no case entail the feasibility of the gunas’ inter-transformation: “the gunas are circulating within gunas”. That’s why in order to understand the line 1.16 we need a more perfect psychological model.
In order to have some foundation of this model let us use the energetic model of human psyche. First of all let us show that this model comes in perfect match with classical concepts of yoga. Indeed, in his describing the energetic paradigm Freud himself has shamefacedly evaded the issue of the nature and actuality of existence of the psychic energy that he has most probably used as a metaphor for representing the intra-psychical processes.[2] However some of his followers, in particular, W. Reich, started to consider the energy of libido as a substance of rather real nature. Upon analyzing the principles of this substance’ flow within one’s body W. Reich has set forth the theory of “muscle armours” that the “orgone” energy runs through, and this theory as well as the location of these “armours” very much resembles the human chakral system that is known in India. Of course Reich has not PROVED the fact of the energy’ substantiality, yet he has shown that we can provide for a rather successful therapy should we think about psychic energy in such very manner [3]. In addition to the Freud’s terms deprivation of energy, energy relaxation, transfer of energy etc. the works of Reich made it possible to locate the psychic energy in human body by saying that “The energy got stuck in this segment, in this muscle etc.” In fact this came as the beginning of the body psychotherapy and psychosomatics. Another classic of this school, A. Lowen, has shown that one may think about psychical energy as of a substance moving within one’s body. Lowen knew the principles of Tai Chi techniques and he in fact has “thrown the bridge” between the psychic energy of psychoanalysis and the Chi of Chinese tradition. This is another verification of my thesis that all systems of psycho-practices shall sooner or later come to similar conclusions or techniques since they have one common object of research study – the man. Of course if we look more closely into the works of Reich and Lowen we might see there is a number of aspects where they “fall short of” the yogic understanding of energy. First of all they did not differentiate between the etheric (air, prana kosha) and astral (kama kosha) elements of energy, let alone the energy of more “subtle” bodies. Though, the differentiation drawn in yoga is not flawless as well; however, the most important thing here is that the fact of locating different energies that correspond to various psycho-emotional states in some certain segments of the human body – the chakras’ petals [4]– has been established.
Let us further specify what gives us the right to treat emotional states as energies, i.e. let us substantiate them. Aimed at keeping straight to the point, I shall draw the excerpt from my book “Esoteric Conflict Management”:
“When we speak about any chakra we mean a fairly good deal of various behavioral aspects. For instance, by calling a person “the one of manipuric type” we may mean he is aggressive, rich, self-reliant, physically strong, active and so on – all of the listed aspects are related to Manipura. In his turn the person of Svadhisthana type can be joyful, playful, attractive etc. We can correlate even more features and abilities in dealing with upper chakras. Thus it would be reasonable to assume that the energies located at each chakra of a person are also different from each other. Each chakra has many different energies on it.
Here comes an important methodological question – what is it exactly that we may treat as chakral energy? Seems like everything is simple – the description of chakral energy is based upon its sensation, i.e. upon personal mystic experience. But how can one tell the energy from the attribute of charka or its state that one is also able to sense? One can differentiate between this or that type of chakral energy in accordance with several markers.
1. The energy can be passed on from one person to another one by means of some forms of interaction. In this case the “volume” of it shall increase at one’s participant, while the second one shall respectively “lose” some of it. For instance, one can pass on joy and high spirits (cheer somebody up), but he cannot pass on the intellect. That’s why we may speak about the energy of joy but we may not speak about the energy of intellect. The intellect is a complex quality that includes a set of energies and one’s ability of working with them.
3. The energy can be “eaten”, i.e. it can be drawn by using the taking form of behaviour directed at it. In this case the one who was “eaten” will appear to have less energy of that particular type, i.e. his emotional state will change, and in the most severe case he may show the symptoms of the chakra’ breach. The one who has “eaten” will respectively get more energy of this type.
4. One can do something “at the account of energy”. The energy spurs on to some activity. This is an important criterion for differentiating between the emotional states associated with the presence of energy and their opposites caused by the lack of it. For instance, using the energy of love one can take care of another person, do something for him or simply fly “on the wings of love”. Yet the state of despondency and depression caused by the lack of such energy does not spur on such activity. Here are some other samples of such pairs: joy (the energy) and sadness (the lack of it), playfulness (the energy) and boredom (the lack of it) etc.”
Here the reader may ask a question: “But what do the gunas have to do with this?” The point is that the energies that come as emotions may become that very unifying element that can serve as the center of our reasonable model that explains the psychologic nature of the gunas and the shloka of Yoga Sutras under consideration. In very deed, one and the same energy can be “mastered” at several “levels”. The first level of interworking with energy is its total “non-cultivation” so that the energy simply destroys a person; the second level comes as the energy that “drives” one to explosive realization of the needs that it is associated with, while the third level is the ability to keep it under control and use it in a graduated manner, realizing it for the purpose of achieving one’s goals in the most optimal mode. One may easily see that the corresponding levels and the emotional states linked to them resemble much the three gunas: tamas, rajas and sattva.
For instance, the energy of fear on its tamasic stage comes as the paralysis caused by terror, or the anxious incapability of acting; it shall be the stampede on rajastic stage, while in sattvic phase it shall turn into caution. In scope of tamasic phase the energy of aggression shall manifest itself in form of an impotent self-destructive rage, on rajastic stage this shall be the active wrath, and in terms of sattvic phase it shall be the sober bellicosity and the preparedness the protect one’s interests – as the case may need and in the optimal mode. If we speak about sexual energy, such triad shall be: the lust, the passion and the alertness, and so on.
It is obvious that the criterion of “mastering” these energies is nothing else but the level of chakras’ development, it being the bonus of this model.
This model also makes it possible to introduce clear, unambiguous [5]and not related to morality criteria of “positive” and “negative” features of a person. All energies are acceptable if they are in the sattvic state, i.e. kept under control. In other words, when a person rules his energies and is not ruled by them. Of course such state should not be mixed up with suppression or repression of this or that energy. The person who rejects his aggressiveness or sexuality or any other natural manifestation follows the way of self-destruction, that is, his states turn into those of tamasic type. The formation of sattva, on the contrary, always comes as the process of culturing and cultivation, i.e. the achievement of some further refinement in managing this or that energy, more profound and subtle experiences. If we look more closely, we will see that this is the very way of development of human culture as a whole – from simple forms through numerous trials to further sophistication, complexity and intensity of feelings and experiences.
The reason of why I have emphasized this reasoning in such an acute way is that rather often the theory of gunas is used for moralizing or, make it worse, for religious purposes. These systems refer sattvic energies to some asocial and asexual person abiding in his phantasies, but not a sophisticated politician or lover. However the division of the world into good and bad elements, into something permitted and something banned is a blind alley on the way of one’s development, and thus it is incompatible with the spirit of esotericism. As the ancient poem has it:
“Just when you’ve tasted all the World’s temptations 
You‘ll have the power to deny them with disdain,
And only if you train your mind with studies,
You’ll have the wits to know things ever then”
But let us come back to shloka 1.16, which meaning already becomes clear. As it follows from the shlokas 1.2 and 1.3, the person abiding in his habitual state is identified with his vrittis, i.e. emotions, experiences and views. On the other hand, in scope of energetic paradigm all described vrittis are the energies that can dwell in tamasic, rajastic or sattvic state. One’s identification with tamasic state is the identification with one’s problem; the identification with rajastic state is the identification with one’s passion or desire, while in terms of the sattvic state this will be the identification with the sense of one’s ability and strength [6]. But all of them, even sattva, are not the genuine Nature (svarupa) of a person. The inner observer (Purusha) stays beyond all these affections and experiences. And this is the state called chitta-vritti-nirodha.
“The utmost vairagya (disengagement) is one’s disengagement from the states of the gunas. Then the person will get to know the Purusha (himself) “as he is”.
I wanted to finish with it but I have understood this to be a bit complicated resume and thus I’ve decided to draw an explanatory example. Let us compare energy with money, especially since money is a kind of energy. The one who lacks money constantly thinks about his financial problems and hardships, unfulfilled desires and so on. This is tamas. It will be difficult for such a person to know himself, for his debts will be the hindrance. The person who works much, earns and spends money abides in rajas. He is totally busy and he does not have enough time, thus he couldn’t care less about himself. The person who has managed to amass enough fortune, to preserve it and to make it work for his own benefit abides in sattva. But he cannot think of himself without this fortune for he believes that he is all his “plants and planes”. He also experiences difficulties in taking a step further: he is chained by his property and his environment.
But the fact is that a person is just what he himself and alone is. And the awareness of this fact can make one a free person.
[1] I’ve put it in inverted commas because it is far from scientific psychology.
[2] A little later the same trick was employed by C. G. Jung who has avoided the issue of the nature of the Collective Unconscious which existence he postulated in a number of his works. Jung himself wrote (unfortunately the title of the work has slipped out of my memory, so I will not give the reference) that should he take another step in explaining the Collective Unconscious he would have gone beyond the scope of scientific society. These were probably the same considerations that were holding back Freud as well.
[3] Let us so far leave to one’s personal philosophizing the question of at which point the reality ends and the metaphor starts, for the line is really fine. It is possible for us to say “the current is flowing” or “the wave is coming” though we understand that in reality this is just the occurrence of the potential difference due to the electric field or the closed-path motion of fluid particles. But the substance itself is only a set of atoms.
[4] To speak more precisely, these energies are the petals.
[5] In terms of Advaita J
[6] This resembles the Power as the third enemy of a man of knowledge in works of Carlos Castaneda.