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NITAAI-Veda.nyf > All Scriptures By Acharyas > Suhotra Dasa Tapovanachari > Three Modes of Material Nature

The three modes of material nature


by Suhotra Dasa Tapovanachari


The English word "mode" best conveys the sense of the Sanskrit word

*guna* (material quality).  "Mode" comes from the Latin *modus*,

and it has a special application in European philosophy.  *Modus* means

"measure."  It is used to distinguish between two aspects of material

nature: that which is immeasurable (called *natura naturans*, the creative

nature) and that which is measurable (called *natura naturata*, the created

nature).  Creative nature is a single divine substance that manifests,

through modes, the created nature, the material world of physical and

mental variety.  Being immeasurable (without modes), creative nature

cannot be humanly perceived. Created nature (with modes) is measurable,

hence we do perceive it.  *Modus* also means "a manner of activity." When

creative nature acts, it assumes modes of behavior that are measurable

and thus perceivable.


The fourteenth chapter of *Bhagavad-gita* (verses 3-5) presents

a similar twofold description of material nature as *mahat yoni*, the

source of birth, and as *guna prakrti*, that which acts wonderfully

through modes.  Material nature as the source of birth is also termed

*mahad brahman*, the great or immeasurable Brahman.  *Mahad brahman* is

nature as the divine creative substance, which is the material cause of

everything.  "Material cause" is a term common to both European philosophy

(as *causa materialis*) and Vedanta philosophy (as *upadana karana*).  It

means the source of ingredients that comprise creation.  We get an

example of a material cause from the Sanskrit word *yoni*, which literally

means womb.  The mother's womb provides the ingredients for the formation

of the embryo.  Similarly, the immeasurable creative nature provides the

ingredients for the formation of the material world in which we live, the

measurable created nature.


The clarity of this example forces a question: what about the father, who

must impregnate the womb first before it can act as the material cause?

This question is answered by Krsna, the speaker of the *Bhagavad-gita*,

in verse 4: *aham bija pradah pita*, "I am the seed-giving father."  In

Vedanta philosophy, this factor of causation is termed *nimitta-matram*

(the remote cause).  It is important to note that by presenting

creation as the result of the union of two causes (the material and the

remote), the *Bhagavad-gita* rejects the philosophy of *Deus sive natura*,

"the identity of God and nature." In short, though creative nature may be

accepted as the direct cause of creation, it is not the self-sufficient

cause of creation.  The seed with which Krsna impregnates the womb of

creative nature is comprised of *sarva-bhutanam*, all living entities

(verse 3).


*Bhagavad-gita* 14.5 explains that when Krsna puts the souls into the

womb of material nature, their consciousness is conditioned by three

modes, or *tri-guna*.  The modes are three measures of interaction

between conscious spirit and unconscious matter.  The modes may be

compared to the three primary colors, yellow, red and blue, and

consciousness may be compared to clear light.  The "conditioning"

(*nibhadnanti*) of consciousness upon its entry into the womb of

material nature is comparable to the coloration of light upon its

passing through a prism.  The color yellow symbolizes *sattva-guna*,

the mode of goodness.  This mode is pure, illuminating, and sinless.

Goodness conditions the soul with the sense of happiness and knowledge.

The color red symbolizes the *rajo-guna*, the mode of passion, full of

longings and desires.  By the influence of passion the soul engages in

works of material accomplishment.  The color blue symbolizes *tamo-

guna*, the mode of ignorance, which binds the soul to madness,

indolence and sleep.  As the three primary colors combine to produce a

vast spectrum of hues, so the three modes combine to produce the vast

spectrum of states of conditioned consciousness that encompasses all

living entities within the universe.  The term *tri-loka* is often

found in Vedic scriptures.  *Tri-loka* means "three worlds."  The

universe is divided by the three modes into three worlds, or realms of

consciousness: *bhur*, *bhuvah* and *svar* (the gross region, the

subtle region and the celestial region).  In *svargaloka or the

celestial heaven, superhuman beings called *devatas* exist, enjoying a

life that in human terms is almost unimaginable.  In the subtle region

exist ghosts and elemental beings.  And in the gross or earthly realm

exist human beings and other creatures with tissue-bodies, including

the animals and plants.  There is also a subterranean region where

powerful demons reside.  And there is a region known as *naraka*, hell.

As explained in *Bhagavad-gita* 3.27, the souls within these regions of

material consciousness wrongly identify themselves as the doers of physical

and mental activities that are actually carried out by three modes of

material nature.  This wrong identification is called *ahankara*, or

false ego.  False ego is the basis of our entanglement in material



A detailed description of the threefold false ego is given by Krsna to

Uddhava.  This is recorded in the eleventh canto of the *Srimad-

Bhagavatam*.  By false ego in goodness (technically called

*vaikaraka*), the living entity identifies with the mind.  What is the

mind?  The mind is the living entity's subtle medium of reflection,

comparable to a mirror.  By its own nature of goodness, the mind is a

suitable medium for reflecting the eternal absolute truth.  But it can

also reflect the objects of the senses and thus become absorbed in the

temporary appearances of the material world.  The *Amrta-bindu

Upanisad* therefore declares, "For man, mind is the cause of bondage

and mind is the cause of liberation.  Mind absorbed in sense objects is

the cause of bondage, and mind detached from the sense objects is the

cause of liberation." By false ego in passion (*aindriya* or

*taijasa*), the soul identifies with the physical senses and the

creative intellect by which the senses are skillfully employed in work.

By false ego in ignorance (*tamasa*), the soul identifies with the

objects perceived by the physical senses, i.e.  what is heard, what is

felt, what is seen, what is tasted and what is smelt.  Krsna says that

the false ego is *cid-acin-mayah*, that which encompasses both spirit

and matter, because it binds the *cid* (conscious soul) to the *acid*

(unconscious matter).


The cultivation of the innate goodness of the mind is the essence of

the Vedic method of *yoga*, summarized by Krsna as follows.  "The mind

can be controlled when it is fixed on the Supreme Personality of

Godhead.  Having achieved a stable situation, the mind becomes free

from polluted desires to execute material activities; thus as the mode

of goodness increases in strength, one can completely give up the modes

of passion and ignorance, and gradually one transcends even the

material mode of goodness.  When the mind is freed from the fuel of the

modes of nature, the fire of material existence is extinguished.  Then

one achieves the transcendental platform of direct relationship with

the object of his meditation, the Supreme Lord." (*Bhag*. 11.9.12)


The transcendental platform of the soul's direct relationship with the

Supreme Soul is the state of absolute being.  How the *yogi* perceives

this state is described in *Bhag*. 11.14.45.  "He sees the individual

souls united with the Supreme Soul, just as one sees the sun's rays

completely united with the sun."  The sun is *jyotisi*, the source of

light.  Similarly, Krsna, the Supreme Soul, is the source of the light

of consciousness of all living entities.  Sunlight is composed of

photons, which are tiny units of light.  Similarly, each individual

soul (technically called the *jiva-atma*) is a tiny unit of

consciousness.  The Sanskrit word *yoga* means "connection;" through

*bhakti-yoga* (the *yoga* of pure devotion), the consciousness of the

individual soul connects with its source, Krsna.  This is called Krsna

consciousness.  By Krsna consciousness, the soul rids itself of the

coloration of the three modes and returns back home, Back to Godhead.