Even though sattva is the most desirable guna, it still is not free of ego, desires, and attachments.
Variety is an inevitable corollary to creativity. A uniformly white sheet of paper acquires a variety of colours when exposed to the creativity of an artist. Variety in the creation of the Divine reaches its peak in human beings, who differ from each other not only in height, weight and colour but also in their basic pattern of behaviour. Although human behaviour has an enormous range, there are three basic types. These have been referred to in the Gita as the three modes in which Nature may act in a person.
The three modes are Tamas, Rajas and Sattva. Tamas is the principle underlying inertia and ignorance. Rajas expresses itself through activity, desires and intense emotions. Sattva is the principle of love of knowledge and harmony. Tamas, Rajas and Sattva are like the three primary colours. By mixing the three primary colours in different proportions, one can get an astronomical number of colours. In the same way, different combinations of Tamas, Rajas and Sattva are responsible for the wide range of human temperament and behaviour. A person may be predominantly tamasic, rajasic or sattvic, but each one of us has at least a bit of all three. Further, the dominant principle exhibited by a person may not be the same all the time. For example, even a person who is generally lazy may sometimes engage in hectic activity. Finally, what is most important is the fact that the dominant mode of Nature in a person can be changed by personal effort. Yoga is a process of change, and one way of looking at the change aimed at in yoga is to move towards a greater expression of Sattva.
A tamasic person is lazy, loves a mechanical routine, and resists change. When, however, he does engage in activity, his work is mechanical, inefficient, conventional, insincere, slow and delayed: ‘too little and too late’. He leaves the work unfinished if he finds it too difficult or time-consuming. The product of his work is disorganized and shabby. It is obvious that the work has been done perfunctorily. His thinking is confused and dull. He dwells a lot on his fears and pains, and uses them to justify his inactivity. He can be very obstinate, proud of his ignorance, cunning, and rude to people, specially to those distinctly better than himself. Sometimes tamas may be camouflaged by hyperactivity. The person works very hard in the hope that he will earn enough in a few years to be able to live without working for the rest of his life.
A rajasic person works hard, but has his eye primarily on what he will get out of it. To him, work is the means to fulfill desires and satisfy passions. His thinking is clear; he can distinguish between good and evil, but does not always use this ability to do what is good. Being greedy and in a hurry, he may be deliberately choose what he knows is evil. According to Sri Aurobindo, (rajas) is the cause of three-fourths of the falsehood and misconduct of the human reason and will. A rajasic person enjoys his success, and suffers a lot if he fails. He has the features of what is now called the ‘type A personality’. These people are the ambitious, hardworking, multi-tasking go-getters of today’s world. They are more likely to get high blood pressure and heart disease. Interestingly, studies have shown that only some of the features of the type A personality, such as hostility and cynicism are related to these diseases. Thus, hard work, or even ambition, does not kill – it is the negativities that frequently accompany these traits that lead to misery.
A sattvic person is enthusiastic, but works in moderation, and shows a good deal of thought behind his actions. He has a strong sense of duty, responsibility, and morality. His motives are pure and selfless, and he is neither overjoyed by success nor depressed by failure. He is typically contented and at peace.
The three gunas are very commonly mentioned in reference to food. The Gita says that tamasic persons have a liking for stale and impure food; rajasic persons go for sour, salty and hot (pungent) food; and sattwic persons love healthy, soft and juicy foods (17:8-10). The verses have been subsequently expanded to name specific foods in each category, and the corresponding foods are popularly called tamasic, rajasic and sattvic foods. It is important to note that in terms of the Gita, it is people who are tamasic, rajasic or sattvic, not the foods. Secondly, the generalities at which the Gita has left the subject has a significance. A tamasic person is both ignorant and lazy. Because of his ignorance, he does not know which foods are healthy, and therefore may choose unhealthy foods. Because of his laziness, he is unwilling to put in the effort required for procuring or preparing food. Therefore, he does not seem to mind taking stale food. A rajasic person enjoys strong sensations, and hence chooses foods which provide strong sensory stimulation. A sattwic person knows what is healthy, and loves peace or sweetness in everything. Therefore, he chooses healthy foods such as soft, sweet and juicy fruits. The psychological element implied in the choice of foods is at least as important as the chemical composition of the food. For example, the sattwic person chooses healthy foods not because of fear of disease or death, but because he likes them better than the alternatives. While he is eating fruits and vegetables, his mind is not dwelling on omelettes and cutlets. On the other hand, if a tamasic person is provided healthy food, he may eat so much of it out of greed that the net effect may still be unhealthy.
Since the proportion of the three gunas in an individual can be changed, a person should try to move from tamas to rajas, and from rajas to sattva. However, this conclusion needs some comment. What works best in the real world is not pure sattva, but a combination of sattva and rajas. This is specially important if a person is occupying an important position. Without an element of rajas, it becomes difficult for the person to do justice to the job. Therefore, having some rajas, or at least seeming to have some rajas, becomes a part of the duty of a person in a powerful position. Secondly, pure sattva is not the ultimate goal of life. The ultimate goal of life is to rise above all the three gunas. Sattva is good, but even sattva is not free of ego, desires and attachments. Therefore, the goal is to transcend even the limitations of sattva, and sattva is a good channel for achieving the goal.
There is a story of three stonecutters. When someone asked the first one what he was doing, he replied with a morose face that he was cutting stones to make a living – this is the typical reply of a tamasic man. When the same question was put to the second one, he replied that he was cutting stones and thereby contributing to the construction of a road that would connect points A and B in the country – this man had an element of rajas. The third stone cutter, in reply to the same question, said, “Points A and B were so far connected by an old and narrow kutcha road, and poor animals had to carry heavy loads to transport goods from one point to the other. Now the government has decided to replace it with a good road. I am helping construct the road which will spare the animals and also boost the economy of the region”. The third man’s reply is that of a sattwic man. If there had been a fourth stone cutter, who had gone beyond the three gunas, he might have said, “There is a road connecting points A and B under construction. The road will spare the animals who now have to carry heavy loads between these points, and will also boost the economy of the region. It is my privilege to be one of the instruments chosen by God to contribute to this project”. The fourth man will do the best job because he is doing it as God’s work: he would like the work to be fit to be an offering to God. Secondly, since he has renounced the doership, he will find it easier to remain detached from the outcome of the work. Suppose, when the road is on the verge of completion, an earthquake devastates A and B as well as the road connecting them. Now it is the fourth man who will be able to engage with equanimity in rescue and reconstruction work, taking that also as the privilege which God has conferred upon him.