Epistemic Status: purely speculative play
Sometimes we learn the most from books we want to throw across the room. The Bhagavad Gita was like that for me.
It’s a tiny section of the Mahabharata, itself embedded in a truly enormous tradition of Indian spiritual and philosophical thought that I have come to accept I will never make any appreciable headway on. I have difficulty engaging with that tradition, because a lot of the shared presuppositions in the Eastern religions are so alien to my present values — basic things like “worldly daily life is inferior to ascetic spiritual life” or “the physical world isn’t real.” It’s intensely frustrating, but in a way that sometimes seems productive, to bump up against a radically different worldview and try to extract value from it.
On the other hand, this means this post requires a warning. When I extract an idea that seems valuable to me from a tradition I’m this unfamiliar with, I’m almost certainly not representing that tradition faithfully. You’re getting the asshole Western syncretic version. I am nowhere near equipped to provide the Sanskrit-scholar version.
(If you have not been exposed to quite how big the Hindu tradition is, consider this guy, who, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, has achieved incredible fame and preeminence in philosophical traditions I’d never heard of and in art forms I’d never heard of.)
The Gita speaks of three “gunas”, translated variously as “qualities”, “virtues”, “properties”, of which everything and everyone consists, in different proportions. These are sattva (wisdom, harmony, purity), rajas (passion, activity, ambition), and tamas (ignorance, chaos, destruction).
The Gita says (Chapter 18, verses 23-25):
Action that is virtuous, deliberate, free from attachment, and without craving for results, is considered Sattvic. Action that is driven purely by craving for pleasure, selfishness, and with much effort is Rajasic. Action that is undertaken because of delusion, disregarding consequences, without considering loss or injury to others or self, is called Tamasic.
Likewise there are Sattvic, Rajasic, and Tamasic personality types (which are supposed to correspond to castes).
According to the Gita, “there is no agent but the gunas.” A person has multiple parts, multiple sub-agents, which each have their own agendas, and these sub-agents cycle around ceaselessly, doing their thing, unless one learns to master them through meditative practice. By default, you are a Markov chain bopping around from state to state.
This seems to ring very true. My own lived experience has been that I seem to experience multiple different states or moods, which come and go, have their own distinctive qualities, and have conflicting goals with one another.
This also matches a lot of concepts in psychology or cognitive science: Haidt’s elephant and rider metaphor, Minsky’s society of mind, and George Ainslie‘s thoughts about hyperbolic discounting as an expression of conflict between multiple selves.
Parallels and Differences in Western thought
These three gunas are echoed in George Dumezil’s trifunctional hypothesis, a theory of three archetypes that he were believed were common across all Indo-European mythologies:
- Sovereignty (judges and priests)
- Military (warriors and nobles)
- Productivity (herders, farmers, and artisans)
Sovereignty would be associated with the head, and the intellectual virtues (wisdom, justice, etc); military with the heart, and the warrior virtues (courage, honor, etc); and productivity with the belly or gonads, and qualities like fertility and luck.
Thus, Dumezil sees trios all over the place. For instance, Odin (wise king of the gods ), Thor (brave warrior god), and Freyr (fertility and agricultural god).
The trifunctional hypothesis is a pretty close match for the parts of the soul in Plato’s Republic:
- Reason (associated with the guardians in his ideal city)
- Passions (associated with warriors)
- Appetites (associated with commoners)
Plato’s view is hierarchical: polities and persons function best when reason rules, passions execute on reason’s judgments, and appetites are subdued. A lot of effort has to be put into educating people and organizing states in order to keep this organization in place.
This is not exactly the same model as is described in the Gita. Tamas is mostly associated with lethargic or passive qualities: sloth, ignorance, apathy, confusion. The appetites, in both Dumezil and Plato, are more associated with food and sex and active impulsiveness.
And the Gita is not exactly hierarchical in the way the Republic is; there’s some notion of getting beyond all three gunas, passing beyond the cycle of death and rebirth, going outside the frame through meditative insight.
There’s also a parallel with Freud’s id, ego, and superego, though that’s not quite exact either. The superego is a parental or societal inner voice, which is kind of a corrupted version of a voice of reason. The ego is the locus of self-narrative, which isn’t quite the same as the locus of the emotions, though “egotistical” behavior is probably rajasic. And the id is the seat of powerful, instinctual passions, which is a better fit with Plato’s appetites than with tamas.
If Plato envisions a monarchy of the soul, Freud envisions the possibility of revolution — if you suppress the id too brutally, there’s a chance it’ll rise up and cause chaos.
Parallels with Biology
The gunas seem to roughly match to different neuroendocrine processes, according to Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory.
According to this theory, the dorsal vagal nerve and its branches, which are evolutionarily ancient (found in reptiles and amphibians) and unmyelinated, governs autonomic processes like digestion and breathing, and the “freeze response” to danger. The sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis govern the “fight-or-flight” response. And the ventral vagal complex, which is evolutionarily recent and myelinated, governs social and exploratory behavior — sucking, looking around, sniffing, listening, speaking, etc.
three distinct subsystems, which are phylogenetically ordered and behaviorally linked to communication (e.g. facial expression, vocalization, listening), mobilization (e.g. fight-flight behaviors), and immobilization (e.g. feigning death, behavioral ‘shutdown’, and syncope).
“Vagal tone”, or the ability to calm down physiological arousal and also make it more flexibly appropriate to the occasion, has experimentally derived associations with emotional intelligence and secure attachment.
The systems in the polyvagal theory seem to correspond to three kinds of mental states: frozen passivity, anger/fear/excitement, and calmness/curiosity/affection/communication. These seem to correspond well with the three gunas.
Perhaps there literally are, in some biological sense, different parts of the mind — that is, processes that are only active one at a time, and correspond to different global patterns of behavior and affect, so that it makes sense to ask “is this person in mode A, B, or C right now?” An uncontroversial example would be “awake vs. asleep” — you can tell, both behaviorally and with an EEG, whether a person is awake or asleep, and while we don’t know fully what sleep is for, nobody questions that “sleep” is a well-formed concept. Maybe there’s something analogous for the gunas that has to do with mood and parasympathetic activity.
|Gita||Plato||Freud||Plain English||Element||Body Part||Polyvagal Theory|
|Tamas||Appetite||Id||Being||Earth||Belly, Gonads||Dorsal Vagal|
Sattva from the inside
Sattva wants to understand everything and optimize everything. Sattva wants to feel clear, calm, insightful. When you’re in a sattvic state, you’re always asking “How could this be better?” How could this idea be made more precise, how could my behavior be more correct, where do I find quality and excellence? Sattva’s traditional color is white, and its mood is bright, rarefied, elevated.
Sattva failure modes:
- paralysis through abstraction
- control-oriented forms of malice (criminal masterminds, totalitarian governments, gaslighting and isolation as tools of abuse)
- reorganizing or improving systems
Rajas from the inside
Rajas wants to do stuff and do it hard. Rajas wants to feel active and exhilarated and victorious. Rajas wants to win, to beat the other guy, to be special and important, to push through obstacles. When you’re in a rajasic state, you’re trying really hard to do the thing; there’s a quality of fierce intensity, of “gotta gotta gotta gotta do it!” Rajas’s traditional color is red, for obvious reasons — it’s about blood, both in the sense of “violence” and the sense of “getting enough oxygen for intense activity.”
Rajas failure modes:
- violent aggression
- drama-seeking, picking fights, ego-trips
- dogmatism, obsession
- dominance-oriented forms of malice (e.g. bullying someone until they cry)
- passionate romance
- hard work
- taking initiative
Tamas from the inside
Tamas is the hardest of the gunas to pin down. It seems to want a state of rest: no obligations, nothing to attend to, no active consciousness, just a comfortable, womblike cave. It’s a sense that the world is intrusive in its demands, and one wants to retreat from it, or find palliatives from it, or hide from it. When you’re in a tamasic state, you’re trying to get relief or hide from painful things or be at peace, or maybe just to sleep. Tamas‘s traditional color is black, which makes sense if you think of it as the nighttime state, the hide-under-the-covers state.
- survival in traumatic conditions
Tamas failure modes:
- apathy, lethargy, sullenness
- brain fog
- willful ignorance, evasion
- eating rich foods
- drinking alcohol
- being entertained
- vegging out
If you have this model of the gunas, you can simply ask yourself: which am I in at the moment? How do my gunas change over the course of a day or a week?
You can consciously change from one guna to another (I’ve managed to switch from tamas to sattva a few times).
You can also consciously try to offer nice things to the much-maligned lower gunas: take up martial arts to satisfy rajas, or have a fondue-and-wine night to satisfy tamas. I have the rough “pagan common sense” intuition that you should be nice to entities if you want them to be nice to you, and this includes parts of yourself.
I’m not yet aware from first-hand experience about the “going meta” thing that meditation supposedly offers, but I’d expect that there’s probably something to it.