Balancing and transcending the three guṇas in sanātana dharma

We all have sometime or the other wondered in our lives as to why we did what we did, even though we really did not want to; or why did we not do something that was expected to be done, even though we wanted to, just like the ṛṣi in taittirīyopaniṣad who regrets – 

The answer lies in the truth that Sri Krishna reveals to a confused and curious Arjuna who asks,

अथ केन प्रयुक्तोऽयं पापं चरति पूरुष: ।

अनिच्छन्नपि वार्ष्णेय बलादिव नियोजित: ॥

atha kena prayukto’yaṁ pāpaṁ carati pūruṣaḥ ।

anicchannapi vārṣṇeya balādiva niyojitaḥ ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 3.36)

‘O descendent of Vrishni (Krishna), what impels man to commit sin, even against his will, constrained as if it were forced?’

Sri Krishna explains that driven by a guṇa or inherent quality called ‘rajas that creates insatiable desires – ‘kāma and sinful anger – ‘krodha, the person is inclined to commit wrong acts.

Sri Krishna mentions no one can stay in this world without performing actions even for a moment, and all actions are undertaken by these inherent qualities in oneself; but a person unaware of them thinks that he or she does all the activities on his or her own accord.

प्रकृते: क्रियमाणानि गुणै: कर्माणि सर्वश: ।

अहङ्कारविमूढात्मा कर्ताहमिति मन्यते ॥

prakṛteḥ kriyamāṇāni guṇaiḥ karmāṇi sarvaśaḥ ।

ahaṅkāravimūḍhātmā kartāhamiti manyate ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 3.27)

‘All activities are carried out by the three modes (guṇas) of material nature (prakṛti). But in ignorance, one with the understanding deluded by false identification with the body, thinks itself to be the doer.’

So today, we are here to learn about these guṇas that seemingly persuade people to do various things in various ways, leading to varied consequences of such actions. And what are the consequences of each of these guṇas which are the inborn and inherent qualities that constitute one’s nature and thereby influence one’s thoughts, beliefs, and behaviour.

Bhagawan Sri Krishna explains in detail about the three types of guṇas in the fourteenth chapter of guṇa traya vibhāga yoga when He says, “O mighty-armed Arjuna, the material energy consists of three guṇas (modes) – sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance). These modes bind the eternal soul to the perishable body.”

सत्त्वं रजस्तम इति गुणा: प्रकृतिसम्भवा: ।

निबध्नन्ति महाबाहो देहे देहिनमव्ययम् ॥

sattvaṁ rajastama iti guṇāḥ prakṛtisambhavāḥ ।

nibadhnanti mahābāho dehe dehinamavyayam ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 14.5)

‘O mighty-armed (Arjuna), sattva, rajas and tamas – these guṇas, born of prakṛti, bind fast the indestructible embodied one within the body.’

All the beings are bound by three kinds of qualities which guide all their behaviour, and these are sattva – which is a state of selfless serenity suffused with knowledge, rajas – denoted by a state of selfish activity driven by passion, and tamas – a state of inertia dominated by ignorance and instincts.

You may compare them with a golden chain, a silver chain, and an iron chain. While the quality of the chains may be different, all of them can bind the prisoner down. The pure and noble qualities of sattva though are better of the lot, they still bind the person with a sense of happiness and knowledge like a gold chain. The rājasic qualities are like the silver chain that bind the soul through attachment to fruitive actions. And tāmasic qualities are like the iron chain that tether the soul of all living beings through negligence, laziness, and sleep.

Sri Krishna says, sattva binds one to material happiness; rajas conditions the soul towards action; and tamas clouds wisdom and binds one to delusion.

सत्त्वं सुखे सञ्जयति रज: कर्मणि भारत ।

ज्ञानमावृत्य तु तम: प्रमादे सञ्जयत्युत ॥

sattvaṁ sukhe sañjayati rajaḥ karmaṇi bhārata ।

jñānamāvṛtya tu tamaḥ pramāde sañjayatyuta ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 14.9)

The interesting part is that all beings, the most meritorious to the most sinful, have all the three qualities within them. However, their nature and behaviour are defined by the qualities which is most predominant in them. A good person is largely good because most of the time he or she is guided by sāttvic qualities leading to pure and noble thoughts, words, and deeds. Whereas a bad person is largely dominated by the selfish rājasic qualities, and thus is not inclined towards the welfare of others. Sri Krishna says that it’s the dominance of one quality over the other, that makes people behave in different ways.

रजस्तमश्चाभिभूय सत्त्वं भवति भारत ।

रज: सत्त्वं तमश्चैव तम: सत्त्वं रजस्तथा ॥

rajastamaścābhibhūya sattvaṁ bhavati bhārata ।

rajaḥ sattvaṁ tamaścaiva tamaḥ sattvaṁ rajastathā ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 14.10)

‘O scion of Bharata, sometimes sattva (goodness) prevails over rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance). Sometimes rajas dominates sattva and tamas, and at other times tamas overcomes sattva and rajas.’

The animal kingdom is largely dominated by the tāmasic qualities of survival instincts, whereas human societies in general is largely seen to be rājasic in nature. However, the best of humans, who are almost Divine-like are driven by sāttvic qualities. Having been born a human, one may end up behaving like an animal due to tamas, or elevate oneself to divine heights through sattva, or simply oscillate between resultant gains and losses of one’s actions as a human. This is what the eighteenth śloka of the fourteenth chapter reveals,

ऊर्ध्वं गच्छन्ति सत्त्वस्था मध्ये तिष्ठन्ति राजसा: ।

जघन्यगुणवृत्तिस्था अधो गच्छन्ति तामसा: ॥

ūrdhvaṁ gacchanti sattvasthā madhye tiṣṭhanti rājasāḥ ।

jaghanyaguṇavṛittisthā adho gacchanti tāmasāḥ ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 14.18)

‘Those situated in the sattva (mode of goodness) rise upward; those in the rajas (mode of passion) stay in the middle; and those in the tamas (mode of ignorance), the lowest guṇa, go downward.’

A good example of this behaviour is in the three Lankan brothers from rāmāyaa. Though they were born in the same family yet behaved differently. The youngest brother Vibheeshana was sāttvic in nature and thus he disassociated himself from Ravana and sided with Sri Rama, the very embodiment of goodness. The eldest of them was Ravana, who driven by passion and desire had abducted the wife of Sri Rama, and thus his rājasic nature caused his ruin. The middle brother Kumbhakarna was dominated by tamas and thus slept for half the year and ate during the other half while awake, much like certain animals that hibernate. No wonder we see humans behave in all kinds of ways, sometimes worse than animals and at the other times almost like divine.

So, what is the way out? Does one need to give up all these qualities? Well, if one gives up tamas then one may not be able to even sleep like most of the hyperactive and distressed people who suffer from insomnia, or if one gives up rajas then all the activities in the society, be it agriculture, industry, trade, or business may come to a standstill. And now that we know that even sattva binds one’s soul to the world, giving up noble and good deeds for the welfare of others would lead to further worsening of societies.

What does the sanātana dharma say about how to lead one’s life in a way that one can be useful and active in the world, yet not be bound? The obvious answer is to transcend all the guṇas and establish oneself in the transcendental state of non-qualified divinity – ‘guṇātīta, where one is unaffected by the actions of the world and the dualities of consequences that arise therefrom. But like many good things, this too is easier said than done.

However, to begin with there is an easier middle path of ‘balance’ as proposed by Sri Krishna, wherein one needs to moderate one’s life into a sense of balance between rest, action, and spiritual pursuits; in other words, balance between the three qualities.

युक्ताहारविहारस्य युक्तचेष्टस्य कर्मसु ।

युक्तस्वप्नावबोधस्य योगो भवति दु:खहा ॥

yuktāhāravihārasya yuktaceṣṭasya karmasu ।

yuktasvapnāvabodhasya yogo bhavati duḥkhahā ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 6.17)

‘To the one who is moderate in eating and recreation, in the effort for action, and in sleeping and waking, yoga becomes the destroyer of misery.’

In fact, if we look at 24-hours in a day, the entire time is divided into three parts of eight hours each, dominated by one of these qualities. The morning four hours between 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. are sāttvic, and so also the evening four hours of 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., totalling to eight hours or one third of the day. This is the time that needs to be spent in spiritual pursuits of prayers and austerities. The eight hours between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. are rājasic in nature and this time should be engaged in activities of the world, be it pursuing one’s passion or profession or simply eking out a livelihood. The eight hours between 8.00 p.m. to 4.00 a.m. are tāmasic, and must be spent in resting and relaxing, which would regenerate the body and rejuvenate the mind for the next day.

Thus, to begin with a balance is a must, and then eventually one needs to transcend all the guṇas to attain a spiritual state of oneness with the Divine, where one ceases to identify oneself with the body and mind and attains the awareness of brahman as a mere witness of all actions without being affected by anything. This nature of a ‘guṇnātīta – the one who has attained this highest state of transcendence is defined by Sri Krishna as:

समदु:खसुख: स्वस्थ: समलोष्टाश्मकाञ्चन: ।

तुल्यप्रियाप्रियो धीरस्तुल्यनिन्दात्मसंस्तुति: ॥

मानापमानयोस्तुल्यस्तुल्यो मित्रारिपक्षयो: ।

सर्वारम्भपरित्यागी गुणातीत: स उच्यते ॥

samaduḥkhasukhaḥ svasthaḥ samaloṣṭāśmakāñcanaḥ ।

tulyapriyāpriyo dhīrastulyanindātmasanstutiḥ ॥

mānāpamānayostulyastulyo mitrāripakṣayoḥ ।

sarvārambhaparityāgī guṇātītaḥ sa ucyate ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 14.24-25)

‘Those who are alike in happiness and distress; who are established in the Self; who look upon a clod, a stone, and a piece of gold as of equal value; who remain the same amidst pleasant and unpleasant events; who are firm or intelligent; who accept both blame and praise with equanimity; who remain the same in honour and dishonour; who treat both friend and foe alike; and who have relinquished all undertakings – are said to have risen beyond the three guṇas.’

The entire time of a day is divided into three parts of eight hours each, dominated by one of the three types of guṇas

sāttvic hours – needs to be spent in spiritual pursuits of prayers and austerities

rājasic hours – spent engaging in activities of the world, be it pursuing one’s passion or profession or simply eking out a livelihood

tāmasic hours – spent in resting and relaxing, which would regenerate the body and rejuvenate the mind for the next day.

sāttvic hours

4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m

4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m

rājasic hours

8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m

tāmasic hours

8.00 p.m. to 4.00 a.m

Pursuit of Happiness in sanātana dharma

Happiness is a term known to all, understood by few, and truly experienced by fewer. Invariably and habitually, most confuse happiness as relief from trouble, or pleasure arising out of certain experiences, physical or mental. But sanātana dharma defines happiness as much more than just the temporary state of elevated emotions. In fact, sanātana dharma does not even categorise happiness as an emotion, but rather a state of equanimous existence, where irrespective of the situations, one is not perturbed positively or negatively and thereby remains in a state beyond dualities.

Nevertheless, sanātana dharma does recognise different kinds of happiness that one can experience, and yet it keeps true happiness out of all categories and classifications. Since the most important experience that everyone pursues, from an insect to the most intelligent humans, is happiness, let’s try to understand what sanātana dharma promulgates about happiness, its quality, and its categories.

In an interesting episode from bhṛguvallī of taittirīyopaniṣad, the disciple-son bhṛgu, desirous of brahmavidyā, approaches his father vāruṇi to understand the truth of brahman behind all existence. vāruṇi being a perfect teacher, does not deploy the usual method of discoursing his disciple, but rather encourages bhṛgu to find answers to the question himself through self-inquiry, and only adds more clues to his query by asking him to investigate through questions like – ‘where does all the creation come from?’, ‘what sustains it and where does it all go at the end?’ He tells the son, ‘Know that; that is brahman’. bhṛgu goes back to observe and contemplate on these questions and concludes that anna is brahman (annaṁ brahmeti vyajānāt) as everyone is born out of food or anna; all are sustained by food and at the end all merge into food, which is to say, one creature becomes food for another in the food cycle. But father vāruṇi isn’t satisfied and asks bhṛgu to further investigate. The dutiful disciple bhṛgu, does so obediently. After much contemplation, bhṛgu returns with a newer insight that prāṇa or life force is brahman (prāṇo brahmeti vyajānāt) as all beings are born out of a life force, they live due to the life force and ultimately when the life force is withdrawn, they disappear as well. But yet again, vāruṇi is not satisfied and urges bhṛgu to think deeper. So, this time after due thinking, bhṛgu returns with a deeper insight that manas or mind is brahman (mano brahmeti vyajānāt) as all is because of the mind or manas. It is the mind that directs the life force according to which, creation, sustenance and destruction of all beings eventuate. Therefore, the mind is the basis of all.

sanātana dharma does not even categorise happiness as an emotion, but rather a state of equanimous existence, where irrespective of the situations, one is not perturbed positively or negatively and thereby remains in a state beyond dualities.

Unsurprisingly, the teacher-father vāruṇi is not impressed yet. So, bhṛgu goes back to meditate further only to return with a newer knowledge that intelligence or vijñāna is brahman (vijñānaṁ brahmeti vyajānāt), as intelligence is the basis of everything and all creation emerges into existence due to a certain intelligence that governs birth, growth and death of all creatures. This instinctive intelligence is in-built in all which governs the mind, which further directs the prāna. vāruṇi is happy but not satisfied with his son’s answers, and sends him back to further meditate upon all that he had been observing thus far. This time, after meditating deep and long, bhṛgu realises that ānanda or bliss is the basis of all existence (ānando brahmeti vyajānāt). For the sake of seeking happiness all are born, live, and finally perish. bhṛgu loses himself in the experience of that ānanda and does not return to his father. So, this time vāruṇi scouts for his son and discovers that he has finally found the truth of brahman, that of the divine joy which is the basis of all creation.

You may wonder why this story now? Well, this story has a deeper meaning about different kinds of happiness that we all pursue in life; because as humans, we have a layered existence – with one layer of our life deeper and subtler than the other. The first one is that of the body, represented by food or annamayakośa – the very basic level of human existence, which makes the body happy and without which there is pain and agony of hunger. Most beings are happy with such ‘creature comforts’ or sense pleasures and don’t seek any further. However, this pleasure is the lowest kind and lasts only as long as the body is able to find avenues to experience it. But in the absence of the pleasure giving objects including food, this joy too disappears.

The second and higher quality of happiness rests in the security and safety of oneself represented by prāṇamayakośa, or life-force sheath – when one is able to lead a safe life without threats of injury or extinction and is able to feel secure that one can be happy; that’s precisely why people find happiness in power and wealth and resources through which they feel protected. But this too is temporary and lasts so long as one is powerful, wealthy and resourceful in the society.

The third and a higher grade of happiness is that of the mind, represented by manomayakośa or the sheath of mind. As we have learnt earlier, the mind is simply a bundle of thoughts and emotions, and its job is to think, decide and emote, akin to a software programme installed in the hardware of the body. So, when one is able to think clearly and able to decide well, also feel the warmth of positive emotions like that of friendship, family and society, one is happy. But this happiness is also temporary for obvious reasons.

The fourth kind and a higher kind of happiness is that of intelligence, represented by vijñānamayakośa, wherein one is satisfied only when one is able to be creative and contribute positively to the society using one’s intelligence. Most scientists and researchers, as well as creative individuals fall in this category; they aren’t so much bothered about their food, finances, friendships and families as they are interested in intellectual pursuits and creative achievements.

And the final and highest kind of happiness that one can pursue is that of pure bliss, represented by ānandamayakośa or the sheath of bliss. This is experienced only by those who have transcended the carnal cravings of the flesh – striving for one’s strength and supremacy over the others, desires of the mind for mutual company and incessant chasing of intellectual pleasures of scholarship. This is only for those sage-like-beings who have ascended to the state of pure existence where they are able to love all unconditionally after having renounced the selfish motivations of the lower kinds of happiness. This happiness is lasting and eternal, for it does not depend on anything or anyone. This springs forth from a fountain of joy deep within oneself, where there is no selfishness and self-interest. This is the highest quality of happiness wherein one hoards nothing but shares everything, one takes nothing but gives everything, one asks for nothing but offers everything.

The same concept can be easily compared with Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, starting with the basic physiological needs represented by annamayakośa, to safety needs indicated by prāṇamayakośa, to social needs similar to manomayakośa, to esteem needs comparable to vijñānamayakośa, to self-actualisation needs akin to ānandamayakośa. The idea of self-actualisation according to Maslow is the fullest expression of one’s capacities, and in sanātana dharma, the truest and fullest expression of human potential is to realise one’s divinity. That’s when one finds true happiness and fulfilment, which is eternal.

Another way to look at it is that different kinds of people were pursuing different kinds of happiness – śūdra or the service-class were happy with food and physical pleasures, whereas the kṣatriya who by their very nature were warriors, rulers and administrators, derived joy from authority, power, and protection above physical pleasures. The vaiśya or traders were happy only if they were wealthy and socially respected, whereas brāhmaṇa or the intellectual-class found happiness in erudite pursuits of all kinds of knowledge. However, above all were saints and sages, who having purified their bodies, minds and intellects, transcended them, and instead derived the highest joy from Self-Realisation.

The kind of happiness that one can pursue is up to oneself. However, if one must invest one’s time and energies to find lasting happiness, sanātana dharma guides one to seek the truth of one’s own self as Divine and thereby attain the supreme, unsullied, eternal state of purest happiness. The verse from kaṭhopaniṣad declares that it’s only to them the eternal happiness belongs, who perceive the Self within, which otherwise is manifold in the creation outside.

एको वशी सर्वभूतान्तरात्मा एकं रूपं बहुधा यः करोति ।
तमात्मस्थं येऽनुपश्यन्ति धीरास्तेषां सुखं शाश्वतं नेतरेषाम् ॥

eko vaśī sarvabhūtāntarātmā ekaṁ rūpaṁ bahudhā yaḥ karoti ।
tamātmasthaṁ ye’nupaśyanti dhīrāsteṣāṁ sukhaṁ śāśvataṁ netareṣām ॥

कठोपनिषत् kaṭhopaniṣad 2.2.12

(That) One (Supreme) controller, the soul of all beings, who makes His one single form manifold – those wise men who perceive Him as existing in their own hearts, to them belongs eternal happiness, and to none else.

To whom does eternal happiness belong to?

एको वशी सर्वभूतान्तरात्मा एकं रूपं बहुधा यः करोति ।
तमात्मस्थं येऽनुपश्यन्ति धीरास्तेषां सुखं शाश्वतं नेतरेषाम् ॥

eko vaśī sarvabhūtāntarātmā ekaṁ rūpaṁ bahudhā yaḥ karoti ।
tamātmasthaṁ ye’nupaśyanti dhīrāsteṣāṁ sukhaṁ śāśvataṁ netareṣām ॥

(That) One (Supreme) controller, the soul of all beings, who makes His one single form manifold – those wise men who perceive Him as existing in their own hearts, to them belongs eternal happiness, and to none else.

कठोपनिषत् kaṭhopaniṣad 2.2.12


the five sheaths

sheath of food

sheath of life-force

sheath of mind

sheath of intelligence

sheath of bliss

Three roads to Self-Realisation in sanātana dharma

Three roads to Self-Realisation in sanātana dharma

Article 13

By Sadguru Sri Madhusudan Sai

We know by now that the supreme goal of human life is to realise the divinity within. This divinity which is known as brahman is the ultimate destiny of every being born on earth. The realisation that brahman has no name or form but only pure existence as consciousness, is the consummation of all spiritual practices. Though the goal is one, sanātana dharma allows the seeker to pursue the path of one’s own choice.

The three most advocated paths to the same divinity are the path of action or karma yoga, the path of devotion or bhakti yoga, and the path of knowledge or jñāna yoga. Though different in their approaches, all the three lead to the same goal of divine realisation.

Our scriptures mention that there are three obstructions in the path of realisation of one’s divinity, which are, mala – impurities of selfishness and self-interest, vikṣepa – distorted understanding of the truth due to an attached and agitated mind, and āvaraṇa – the veil of false identification with the body that clouds the divinity within. To make it simpler, let me explain with the analogy of a mirror. Think of a mirror that is covered with a layer of dust and so is incapable of reflecting the object. This is akin to a mind filled with impurities or mala, that is unable to reveal divinity. Now think of the same mirror being unsteady, swinging or moving, and thus creating distorted reflections that are not recognisable. This is like vikṣepa or distortions in the mind due to the unsteadiness born out of the duality of emotions like happiness and sorrow or positive or negative outcomes of actions that one is attached to. Again, consider the same mirror as if covered by a piece of cloth and thus unable to reflect at all; this is like the body consciousness that every being has which makes the seeker believe that the body is his or her real identity and thus veiling the truth of brahman within.

yoga, simply translated, means ‘to yoke’, and it has more to do with an inner process of purifying and steadying the mind than simply bending one’s body externally in various āsanas. Thus, yoga essentially is a process to yoke or to unite oneself with divinity.

karma yoga therefore can be understood as undertaking karma or actions that unite oneself to the divine. Therefore, actions that do not lead to inner purity and the realisation of divinity, are to be shunned. The actions that are suffused with selflessness and purity alone can lead one to divinity. This is the way to get rid of ‘mala’ or impurities of the mind and body, born out of selfishness and self-interest, like wiping away the dust settled on the surface of the mirror. The most often quoted śloka from the bhagavadgītā karmaṇyevādhikāraste mā phaleṣu kadācana – is the essence of karma yoga. Doing alone is your right, but not the results that arise therefrom. As easy as it sounds, it’s often very difficult to practise. The śloka further exhorts the doer to not undertake actions for the sake of results, and at the same time cautions that the doer should not lose enthusiasm and become inactive. Therefore, as long as one does what one has got to do for the sake of performing one’s duty and not for one’s selfish sake, one is a karma yogin and entitled to Self-Realisation. One may be from any section of the society (varṇāśrama) – a teacher, doctor, leader, sweeper or even a homemaker – can be a karma yogin, without any further qualifications of knowing the scriptures or engaging in certain austerities and rituals. The motivation to work does not come from rewards or recognition here, but solely comes from the satisfaction of being able to discharge one’s duties to the best of one’s abilities.

The bhagavadgītā further explains that ‘perfection in action is yoga’ – yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam. Thus, a karma yogin strives for perfection in every action undertaken, for nothing less than perfect would suffice to be offered to the Divine. However, this perfection should not be judged based on certain universal standards but only according to one’s individual immaculate personage. Thus, no act is truly greater or lesser, as long as one undertakes actions with utmost effort and sincerity and with absolute selflessness. In fact, the only action that is truly perfect is a selfless action, and that precisely is karma yoga. Sri Adi Shankaracharya in the vivekacūḍāmaṇi defines actions as those that purify the mind – cittasya śuddhaye karma – as purification of the mind leads to the ultimate realisation, just as a clean mirror reflects the object clearly. For people with a work-a-day life, with little time for rituals and meditation, this is the easiest and the surest road to realisation.

bhakti yoga – or the path of devotion, has been glorified by many simple saints as well as learned scholars equally. When the knowledge of scriptures was not available to one and all, the idea of devotion helped the simple folks to transcend the dualities of life and attain the oneness of realisation. The idea of devotion to a Supreme Being is the basis of all religions and faiths; but sanātana dharma defines devotion not just as bhakti – which is love for God and can be born out of fulfilment of worldly wishes, but to a much elevated state of existence – called parā bhakti where one loves God only for God’s sake and not for any material gains.

In the bhagavadgītā, Sri Krishna mentions that four kinds of meritorious devotees come to God, namely ārtin – the grief stricken, arthārthin – the desirous ones, jijñāsu – the curious seekers and the jñānin – the wise ones. Out of the four, Sri Krishna affirms the fourth kind – devotees who are wise to know that God must be loved for love’s sake and not for fulfilling one’s material wishes. Thus, true devotion is that which unites the mind of the devotee to the divine in pure love, without any expectations and in complete surrender, so as to accept all dualities with equal fortitude. In Chapter 12 – bhakti yoga of the bhagavadgītā, Sri Krishna defines devotion as that which treats both happiness and sorrow as equal (sama-duḥkha-sukhaḥ kṣamī) and thus remains steady and unwavering. Not being affected by the dualities of life, due to surrender born out of devotion, is the way to keep the mind steady and thus get rid of the obstruction of vikṣepa or distortion caused by attachments to objects and ideas. Thus, desireless devotion steadies the mind and helps see the truth of one’s existences as divinity without any distortions.

The bhāgavata describes nine kinds of devotion that ultimately culminates in ātmanivedana or self-surrender; just as a river would merge into the ocean, devotion leads to merger of the mind of the devotee in the Divine, thus wiping away the difference of duality. While the nāradabhaktisūtras defines devotion as the highest kind of love for the Divine that ultimately leads one to a state of satisfaction and immortality beyond the desires of the mind, Sri Adi Shankaracharya in his vivekacūḍāmaṇi describes that of all the ways to attain realisation, devotion is the supreme one (bhaktireva garīyasī) as it leads to the search of the true Self within – ‘svasvarūpānusandhānam’. Thus, the path of supreme devotion leads one to divinity. This bhakti can be to a personal God – saguṇa sākāra bhakti or to an impersonal universal God – nirguṇa nirākāra bhakti; either way it leads one to the supreme realisation of the Self as Divine.

The jñāna mārga or the path of knowledge is often the most difficult and misunderstood one. Many think that it has to do with certain strict austerities and meditative practices in extreme living conditions, while others think it’s about reading scriptural truths and being initiated by a guru who would guide the path of certain spiritual practices. Yet others equate it with certain yogic and tantric practices that involve rituals, postures and techniques which require tremendous practice and perfection. However, jñāna mārga as per Sri Adi Shankaracharya is simply the path of discrimination and detachment – using viveka to analyse and segregate the real from the unreal and then being able to reject the unreal and accept only the real, is the way of wisdom. The same path is taught by Sri Krishna as buddhi yoga in the bhagavadgītā. Let me explain.

The advaita philosophy propounds that the various names and forms are superimpositions on the one reality of brahman, like the various pictures are projected on the screen. The projections cannot exist without a screen due to their dependent existence, and thus they are unreal. The same applies to the world around us which depends on the consciousness of brahman, to be perceived through the mind and senses. brahman exists independently, whereas all else depends on brahman; so, brahman alone is real and all else is unreal, is the essence of the path of knowledge – ‘brahma satyaṁ jaganmithyā’. This understanding comes from learning the truths as taught by the scriptures or from a guru who has realised the truth, and then continuously meditating upon this thought with a focused mind until one is able to comprehend the truth as an existential experience. It’s only for this reason that scriptural studies are advised, and contemplation on the truth, under the guidance of a guru in solitude away from societal activities is recommended. However, the truth can be meditated upon at all times by the one who is eager and focused, be it in a forest or at home. The path is that of ātmavicāra or discriminative contemplation. Sri Ramana Maharishi would encourage the seekers to ask the question – ‘Who am I?’ – and then gradually discriminate and discard the dependent senses, body and the mind only to realise that one’s independent and eternal existence as divinity alone is true. This is like removing the veil that covers the mirror – āvaraṇa – and being able to see the reflection clearly. This is the path taught by the upaniṣads, the highest philosophy of the vedas.

All the paths ultimately lead to the knowledge of the Self in which one becomes the very Self. muṇḍakopaniṣad says – brahma veda brahmaiva bhavati – the knower of brahman becomes brahman. At that point in Self-Realisation, the knowledge, the process of knowing and the knower of the Self all become one, as told by aṣṭāvakragītā (jñānaṁ jñeyaṁ tathā jñātā). The ultimate knowledge is the destination of all paths and it is one and the same, irrespective of the paths. This in-built flexibility within sanātana dharma is what makes it the most practical and pursuable way of life.

We shall discuss this in the next article.

The highest teaching of vedānta

ब्रह्म सत्यं जगन्मिथ्या जीवो ब्रह्मैव नापरः ।
अनेन वेद्यं सच्छास्त्रमिति वेदान्तडिण्डिमः ॥

brahma satyaṁ jaganmithyā jīvo brahmaiva nāparaḥ ।
anena vedyaṁ sacchāstramiti vedāntaḍiṇḍimaḥ ॥

brahman is the Truth, the world is an illusion and the individual soul is not different from brahman. This should be understood to be the true scriptural instruction, thus proclaims vedānta.

(ब्रह्मज्ञानावलीमाला brahmajñānāvalīmālā, 20)

brahma veda brahmaiva bhavati

the knower of brahman becomes brahman

jñānaṁ jñeyaṁ tathā jñātā

the knowledge, the process of knowing and the knower of the Self all become one

Two Kinds of Education in sanātana dharma

In the last two articles we learnt about the very logical system of four stages of human life, called āśrama dharma, namely brahmacarya (celibate student), gṛhastha (householder), vānaprastha (hermit) and sannyāsa (renunciate), that would help one to attain the four goals of human life or caturvidha puruṣārthas of dharma (righteous living), artha (righteous earnings), kāma (righteous desires) and mokṣa (redemption). We also learnt that these could be achieved only when one lived and worked in the society according to one’s inherent tendencies called guṇadharma, based on which one would be classified according to four categories or varṇāśrama-dharmas, namely brāhmaṇa (intellectual), kṣatriya (administrator), vaiśya (trader) and śūdra (service provider), all of which would function harmoniously in the society like the various limbs of the same body.

By now, it’s evidently clear that the system of individual, social and spiritual progress as laid out by sanātana dharma was the most logical and useful system amidst various other ancient civilisations of the world. The fundamental reason for the successful practice and sustenance of these systems over several centuries was the robust education system of sanātana dharma called the gurukula system of education. ‘gurukula’ – the community of the teacher, was essentially a residential system of education that revolved around a ‘guru’ or a master who was adept both in the knowledge of the material-social sciences that enabled one to eke out a livelihood and fulfil the first three goals of dharma, artha and kāma, as well as the spiritual sciences that acquainted one with the subtler truths of all existence as brahman and thus enabled one to realise one’s own divine nature leading to the achievement of the fourth and the final goal of mokṣa.
Therefore, two kinds of education were imparted in these gurukulas as mentioned in the muṇḍakopaniṣad. The story goes that once the great householder śaunaka, who was well educated and also adept in all the sacred duties that were to be performed by a householder, discontent and unfulfilled, approached the great sage and teacher aṅgiras to learn from him the ultimate knowledge. He asked him, “Master, what is that by knowing which everything else is known?” To this the master replied, “There are two types of knowledge to be acquired; so say those who know the brahman – namely, parā and aparā, i.e., the higher and the lower knowledge. Of these, the aparā is the ṛgveda, yajurveda, sāmaveda, and the atharvaveda, the śikṣā, kalpa, vyākaraṇa, nirukta, chandas and jyotiṣa. parā is that by which the immortal is known.” (muṇḍakopaniṣad 1.1.4 and 1.1.5)

gurukula’ – the community of the teacher, was essentially a residential system of education that revolved around a ‘guru’ or a master who was adept both in the knowledge of the material-social sciences as well as the spiritual sciences that acquainted one with the subtler truths of all existence.

Thus, it was told to śaunaka that two kinds of knowledge must be known, aparā or lower knowledge which is the scientific knowledge of the immediate that is around you, and parā or higher knowledge, which is the spiritual knowledge of the divinity beyond.

In those days, the material knowledge was mostly contained in the vedas and the śāstras. Out of the four sections of the vedas, the first three namely, saṁhitā (collection of mantras), brāhmaṇa (instructions for rituals – not be confused with the brāhmaṇa of varṇāśrama) and āraṇyaka (meditation on the mantras) constituted the aparā knowledge, along with the six vedāṅga or parts of vedas viz. śikṣā (phonetics or pronunciation), kalpa (rituals), vyākaraṇa (grammar), nirukta (etymology), chandas (meter), and jyotiṣa (astronomy). All of these were necessary for a brāhmaṇa like śaunaka to discharge his duties associated with his varṇa of intellectuals. It was expected of him to learn the mantras in the vedas, understand and chant them correctly, perform rituals associated with them in the right way and at the right time. Thus, for a brāhmaṇa these were the material knowledge or aparā vidyā. However, though śaunaka was adept in these, he had not found peace and fulfilment, as he was yet to realise the existence of divinity within and without. Therefore, he was advised by aṅgiras to also learn parā knowledge, knowing which all things could be discerned as divine. This knowledge, which was largely contained in the fourth philosophical section of vedas called upaniṣad, could alone lead him to immortality.

We can extrapolate this idea of lower and higher knowledge to modern day education. For instance, in the case of medical sciences, all that is related to learning medicine as a profession like knowledge of human physiology, anatomy, diseases, surgical methods, pharmaceuticals etc., would be considered as the lower knowledge or aparā vidyā, whereas parā vidyā would still be the same as in ancient times, which would be to learn the great spiritual truth of all existence as divinity alone and nothing else. The same applies to all fields of knowledge, be it science, humanities, fine arts, law or accounting.

Thus, the gurukula system believed that the higher knowledge or parā vidyā alone could complete one’s education, above and beyond learning the tricks of one’s trade.

The most important part of the gurukula system was that even though aparā vidyā differed from pupil to pupil, and naturally so as different students came from different varṇāśrama and had to be taught the subjects that best suited their tendencies and dispositions, parā vidyā was same for all. A brāhmaṇa had the obligation to learn how to perform certain ceremonies and rituals, whereas a kṣatriya had a duty to learn the art of warfare and administration. Likewise, it was imperative for a vaiśya or tradesmen to learn commerce and economics, and the śūdra or artisans were to be taught certain skills like agriculture, weaving, pottery or smelting according to their likes. But the common knowledge that was to be taught to all was parā vidyā – the spiritual knowledge – that would enable them to successfully wade through the world and the various āśrama dharmas to finally renounce and achieve mokṣa.

The entire education was completely free and a ‘gurudakṣiṇā’ would be given to the guru as a mark of gratitude at the time of graduation. This too was done based on one’s own capacity. For instance, a farmer’s son may give a few bags of their farm produce, a businessman’s son may offer some materials, a king’s son may offer gold, land and cattle, so also a śūdra’s son may offer some of their crafts and implements for the use of the āśrama. Thus, each expressed their gratitude to the guru and the gurukula in their own way, and there was no such thing like capitation fee, tuition fee, science lab fee, sports fee, examination fee and of course transportation fee; for all lived in the gurukula itself unlike today. This ensured that there were no financial barriers to education and the sustenance of the gurukula fell upon the shoulders of the entire society and not just the parents of the pupils.

Another very important aspect was that the guru would assess and understand the child’s inherent qualities and irrespective of the varṇāśrama in which the child was born. He would encourage and mould the child according to his tendencies and innate talents. Thus, people who would excel at a certain field of knowledge, could be classified differently from their class at birth. Today, the only reason why a farmer’s child would want to be a doctor or a doctor’s child would want to be a politician, is largely due to material considerations and not their inherent abilities. But this wasn’t the case back then.

However, the most important difference in education between then and now is that, today only the lower material knowledge is being imparted to the students with the sole aim of making them capable of earning a decent living. But, the need for teaching them greater truths of life which will mould them into better humans and eventually divine is completely ignored. The commoditisation of education has created a dangerous divide of haves and have-nots, and student loans have become debt traps.

Many educators, philosophers and thinkers, from Swami Vivekananda to Mahatma Gandhi, have time and again insisted upon a holistic system of education, and fortunately even today certain institutions are providing such education. Sri Sathya Sai Loka Seva Gurukulams based on the philosophy of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who said that, ‘Education is for life and not for living’, thus amalgamating aparā and parā vidyā into free gurukula based education system, is bringing back the glorious ideals of the ancient education system as propounded by sanātana dharma.


We shall discuss this in the next article.

Two core aspects of the gurukula system of education

  • Even though aparā vidyā differed from pupil to pupil (each taught the subjects that best suited their tendencies and dispositions), parā vidyā was the same for all.

  • The guru would assess and understand the child’s inherent qualities and irrespective of the varṇāśrama in which the child was born. He would encourage and mould the child according to his tendencies and innate talents.


A residential system of education that revolved around a ‘guru’ or a master who was adept both in material and (higher) spiritual knowledge.


A mark of gratitude given by the disciple to the guru at the time of graduation (based on the disciple’s capacity).

Four Duty-Based Divisions in sanātana dharma

Four Duty-Based Divisions in sanātana dharma

Article 10

By Sadguru Sri Madhusudan Sai

In the previous article we learnt about the four stages or āśrama dharma, of a 100-year human life span, as proposed by sanātana dharma. The first stage being brahmacarya which was roughly a 25-year phase that was spent in educating oneself at a gurukula; the next stage, gṛhastha āśrama, was that of a householder when one would raise a family; the third was vānaprastha wherein one would give up the duties of the householder and live in a hermitage serving the society and the guru, and finally the last stage was sannyāsa which was the ultimate preparation to exit the world, by renunciation and dispassion, while strictly practicing spiritual austerities. Thus, sanātana dharma gave a four-step approach to live one’s life in such a way that after discharging the individual, family, societal and spiritual duties, one would attain Self-Realisation and thus be freed from the cycle of birth and death. At the same time it allows the flexibility for one to directly take sannyāsa if one is inclined to do so. Isn’t this the most practical and logical approach to life and living that can ever be?

In today’s article, let’s learn about another very logical and practical approach to living in the society as proposed by sanātana dharma. This topic may sound a bit sensitive in today’s times where the understanding of sanātana dharma and its most sacred principles are at best nescient in most people. And perhaps that is why it is even more necessary to understand this idea in the greater spiritual light of sanātana dharma. Just like the four stages of life that would enable one to lead life righteously while at the same time progress spiritually, sanātana dharma also proposed four ways of living a life; largely depending on one’s inclinations and dispositions. These four ways of life are called as varṇāśrama dharmas – meaning duties assigned to the different categories, which basically meant that people could follow four different paths in life based on their interests, qualities, and natural tendencies. The whole society was thus classified into fours varṇas or categories – brāhmaṇakṣatriyavaiśya and śūdra.

brāhmaṇas were the intellectual class or the scholars upon whom befell the responsibility to learn and teach the vedas and other knowledge systems, thus preserving and propagating various kinds of knowledge, from spiritual to material. kṣatriyas were responsible for protecting and preserving the people through military might as well as political acumen. The third category was that of vaiśyas, who were the traders and businessmen with the responsibility to distribute resources evenly and fairly amongst all members of the society, and the fourth group was that of śūdras, the artisans and workers, who shouldered the responsibility to provide services to all the other members of the society.

There are many theories debating the origin of this classification of the society. Here, we would rather learn about the divine origins of this system which goes all the way back to the very genesis of the entire creation as described in the puruṣasūkta of the ṛgveda (book 10, hymn 90). These set of verses imagine the whole creation as having originated from the earliest divine being called the ‘puruṣa’. Many wrongly interpret this as ‘the supreme man’, thus inadvertently assign a male gender. Let me clarify that

the word puruṣa is a combination of two words ‘pura and ‘śī’. pura in Sanskrit means a place or a mansion and śī means resting. Therefore, the true meaning of ‘puruṣa is the residence of the supreme God, whom we now know as brahman. The first symbolic being was thus called ‘puruṣa’ as described in the puruṣasūkta.

So, what does puruṣasūkta say about the organisation of the society in four groups? The hymn describes the brāhmaṇas as those who originated from the face or head of the supreme one, symbolising intellectual capabilities. The kṣatriyas were born from the shoulders, thus indicating strength and valour typical of the warriors and administrators. The vaiśyas, or the business class emanated from the middle region comprising of the stomach and thighs, symbolising the production and equitable distribution of societal resources, just as the stomach digests and distributes the nutritional essence of food to every part of the body; and finally the śūdras sprung from the feet, symbolising the efforts they infused to keep the society moving just as feet help the whole body to move. Let’s delve a bit deeper into this symbolic idea of the body of the supreme ‘puruṣa and that of the four categories of people in the society. Like the head which thinks, learns and assimilates information and knowledge, intellectuals function in the same way. Like the strong arms that protect the entire body and fetch things, warriors and the rulers follow suit. Like the stomach which receives all the food eaten through the mouth using the hands, yet only digests and distributes it to the entire body thus nourishing every limb, so do businessmen who keep material and money moving across the society. And finally, just as the feet work the hardest to carry the whole body and enable all other actions to effectuate, in the same way, the hardworking class provide essential services to the entire society. Each limb has its own role to play for the well-being of the entire body and a human body does not distinguish one part from the other as superior or inferior; so also sanātana dharma, which believes in the divinity of all existence and does not indoctrinate discrimination between different classes of people.

In the very beginning, this system was rather very flexible and not rigid. Based on people’s inherent qualities, one could move between the categories and thus could pursue one’s interests in life and hone one’s skills and abilities, which would serve the dual purpose of contributing positively to the societal well-being, and at the same time help one find spiritual fulfilment. At the cost of repetition, this classification was based on one’s inherent qualities and abilities to do certain kinds of works and not based on birth. Lord Sri Krishna in the song divine, bhagavadgītā declares, ‘चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः cāturvarṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ guṇakarmavibhāgaśaḥ – The fourfold caste was created by Me (as the Supreme Divine), by the differentiation of guṇa (tendencies and disposition) and karma (actions) of individuals.’ Thus, a person whose natural inclination was intellectual and had a sincere yearning to learn would be permitted to acquire and propagate knowledge, even if the person was born in a different class than the intellectuals. Similarly, the one born in the intellectual social order may choose to pursue business interests, which depended on the inclination and so on. चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः । तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम् ॥ cāturvarṇyaṃ mayā sṛṣṭaṃ guṇakarmavibhāgaśaḥ . tasya kartāramapi māṃ viddhyakartāramavyayam (भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā, 4.13)

This classification was based on one’s inherent qualities and abilities to do certain kinds of works and not based on birth. Thus, a person whose natural inclination was intellectual and had a sincere yearning to learn would be permitted to acquire and propagate knowledge, even if the person was born in a different class than the intellectuals.

History is full of such examples wherein one transitioned from one category to another based on one’s qualities and interests. In fact, bhagavān veda vyāsa, who classified all the vedas and wrote the purāṇas and mahābhārata, was born to a brāhmaṇa father and a śūdra mother. mahaṛṣi vālmīki who scripted the rāmāyaṇa was born in a family of highway robbers. King kauśika, who was born as a kṣatriya renounced his kingdom and dedicated himself to the study of scriptures and spiritual austerities, was later known as Sage viśvāmitra, similar to King Bhartrihari who scripted several spiritual texts. There were brāhmaṇas like rāvaṇa who became kings, and kings like hariścandra who worked as a servant at a crematorium.

Unfortunately, over a period of time this pristine idea of classification of people, based on their inherent qualities for a harmonious and organised societal order, has been misunderstood and even exploited by certain people for their personal gains distorting it beyond recognition into a tool for creating divisions and disharmony in the society. The one who truly follows sanātana dharma would see through these external differences into the innate divine oneness of all creation, like the person who would see all his limbs as part of his very own self.

We shall discuss this in the next article.

Lord Sri Krishna created the four classes based on one's inherent qualities and abilities, and not based on birth.

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः ।
तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम् ॥

‘chātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛiṣhṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśhaḥ’

I (as the supreme divine) have created the four classes based on their inherent quality of work’

भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā, 4.13

varṇāśrama dharmas

duties assigned to the different categories, which basically meant that people could follow four different paths in life based on their interests, qualities, and natural tendencies.


the residence of the supreme God, whom we now know as Brahman