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At the Feet of The Mother

IX. 3. TALES OF PRISON LIFE. The Aryan Ideal and the Three Gunas

In the essay entitled “Prison and Freedom”1) I have, by describing the psychology of some innocent prisoners, tried to establish that, owing to the Aryan discipline, the priceless ancestral legacy of inner freedom which the Indians have, is not destroyed even in prison — indeed something of the godly disposition, garnered through thousands of years and inherent in the true Aryan character, remains even in the worst of imprisoned criminals. The main principle of the Aryan discipline is the sattwic temperament. He who is sattwic is pure; normally all human beings are impure. This impurity is nourished and increased by the predominance of rajas and the great density of tamas. The impurity of mind is of two kinds. First, inertia or impurity due to lack of inclination to work; this is produced by tamas. Secondly, excitement or impurity due to wrong impulses; this is caused by rajas. The signs of the mode of tamas are ignorance, delusion, crudeness of intelligence, unsystematic thinking, laziness, too much sleep, irritation owing to inertia in work, pessimism, despondency, fear — in short, whatever nourishes lack of effort. Inertia and disinclination are the results of ignorance; excitement and bad inclinations, of wrong knowledge. But if the impurity of tamas is to be removed it can be done only by the increase of rajas. Rajas is the cause of impulsion and effort and these are the first steps to detachment. He who is inert is not truly detached — the state of inertia is devoid of knowledge; and knowledge indeed is the path of spiritual detachment. He who engages himself in works without desire is detached; mere renunciation of work is not freedom. This is why Swami Vivekananda, noticing the deep tamas of India, used to say, “Rajas is needed, the country needs heroes of action, let the strong current of impulsion flow. Even if evil follows in its wake, it will be a thousand times better than this tamasic inertia.”

It is true indeed that sunk in deep tamas but using sattwa as an excuse we are pretending and boasting as being highly sattwic. I notice that many people hold the view that we have been conquered by rajasic nations because we are sattwic, that we are degraded and backward because we are spiritual. They try to prove the superiority of Hinduism to Christianity by using that argument. The Christian nations believe in practical results; they try to establish the superiority of a religion by showing the results it produces in this world. They say that the Christian nations are paramount in the world, therefore Christianity is the greatest religion. And many among us argue that this is wrong; it is not possible to decide upon the superiority of a religion by recounting what one gains from it in this world; rather its consequences in the next world should be considered; because the Hindus are more religious they are subject to a powerful and titanic nation. But this argument involves a serious mistake which is opposed to the Aryan wisdom. Sattwa can never be the cause of downfall; indeed a nation which is predominantly sattwic cannot remain bound in chains of slavery. The spiritual power of the true Brahmin is the chief result of sattwa, the prowess of the Kshatriya is the foundation of spiritual power. From calm spiritual power, when it receives a blow, sparks of the prowess of the Kshatriya fly in all directions, everything catches fire as it were. Spiritual power cannot survive where there is no Kshatra-prowess. If there is one true Brahmin in the land he can create a hundred Kshatriyas. The cause of the downfall of this country is not an excess of sattwa but want of rajas and a preponderance of tamas. Owing to the lack of rajas, the sattwa inherent in us becomes weak and concealed in tamas. Along with laziness, delusion, ignorance, disinclination, pessimism, despondency and lack of dynamic effort, the sad condition and degradation of the country become worse. This darkness was thin and rare at first; however, in course of time it gradually became so dense, and we, sunk in the obscurity of ignorance, became so utterly devoid of high aspiration and great endeavour, that in spite of the advent of great men sent by God, that darkness has not dissipated entirely. Then the Sun-god decided to save the country through the impulsion roused by rajas.

It is true that tamas tends to disappear when rajas is roused and powerfully active. On the other hand, there is the danger of demoniac qualities like licentiousness, evil impulses, complete lack of restraint, etc. If the force of rajas operates under its own momentum for the sole satisfaction of large assertive inclinations for the fulfilment of wrong ends, then there is enough reason for apprehension. Rajas cannot endure long if it goes along its own path without any control; ennui follows, tamas appears, as the sky, instead of becoming clear, is overcast and becomes devoid of the movement of air after a storm. This was the fate of France after the revolution. There was in that revolution a frightful manifestation of rajas and at the end of it, a resurgence of tamas to some extent, then another revolution, followed by tiredness, loss of force and more degradation — this is the history of France during the last century. Whenever there arose in the heart of France a sattwic inspiration born of the ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity, rajas tried to fulfil its own tendencies after gradually becoming predominant and turning itself into a demoniac mode opposed to sattwa.

Consequently, as a result of a reappearance of tamas, France, having lost its former force, is in a sad and desperate but uncertain state like Harishchandra who stood neither in heaven nor on earth. The only means of avoiding such a result is to engage powerful rajas in the service of sattwa. If the sattwic disposition is roused and becomes the guide of rajas, then there will be no danger of the re-emergence of tamas, and uncontrolled force, being disciplined and controlled, can do the country and the world a great deal of good according to high ideals. The means to rouse sattwa is the spiritual temperament — to renounce selfish interests and deploy all one’s energies for the good of others — to make the whole of life a great and pure sacrifice by surrendering oneself to the Divine. It is said in the Gita that sattwa and rajas when together suppress tamas; sattwa alone cannot conquer tamas. This is the reason why God has in modern times spread the force of rajas all over the land after rousing the religious spirit and the sattwa inherent in us. Great souls and religious leaders like Rammohan Roy have ushered in a new age by reawakening sattwa. In the nineteenth century there was not the same awakening in politics and society as in religion. The reason was that the field was not ready. That is why there was no crop though plenty of seeds were sown. In this also can be seen how kind and pleased with India God has been. An awakening caused only by rajas cannot be enduring or completely beneficial. It is necessary to rouse the spiritual force to some extent in the mind and heart of the nation. It is because of this that the current of rajas was arrested for so long. Owing to this, the tendency towards an uncontrolled enthusiasm does not cause much alarm, since this is the play of rajas and sattwa; whatever excitement there is in this will soon be controlled and regulated. Not by any external power but by the inner spiritual force and the sattwic disposition will this be conquered and disciplined. We can only nourish that sattwic temperament by spreading the religious spirit.

I have already said that one of the means of increasing sattwa is to devote all one’s powers to the good of others. And there is plenty of evidence of this spirit in our political awakening. But it is difficult to maintain this spirit. It is difficult for the individual, more so for the nation. Selfish interest, unnoticed, gets mixed up with the good of others and if our understanding is not very pure, we may fall into such delusion that we may seek only our own selfish ends in the name of service to others and thus submerge the good of our fellow-beings, our country and humanity and yet not detect our mistake. Service of God is another means of increasing sattwa. But even in that case good may turn into its opposite. There may gather in us sattwic apathy towards works after we have achieved the joy of nearness to God. We may turn our back to the service of our distressed land and humanity. This is the bondage of the sattwic temperament. Just as there is rajasic egoism, so also there is sattwic egoism. Just as sin binds men, so does virtue. There cannot be complete freedom unless we surrender ourselves to God, being fully free from desire and giving up egoism. In order to renounce these two harmful things, we must have pure understanding. To attain mental freedom after eschewing the idea that the body and the spirit are the same is the stage preceding the purification of understanding. When the mind becomes free, then it becomes subject to the soul. After that, conquering the mind and with the help of the understanding, man can to some extent be free from selfishness. Even then it does not cease altogether. The last selfishness is the desire for spiritual liberation, the wish to be rapt in one’s own delight forgetting the misery of others. Even that has to be given up. Its antidote is to realise and serve Narayana in all creatures; this is the perfection of sattwa. There is still a higher state than this, and that is to take refuge in God utterly by transcending sattwa and going beyond the modes of Nature. The Gita describes one who is beyond the modes thus:

nānyaṁ guṇebhyaḥ kartāraṁ yadā draṣṭānupaśyati
guṇebhyaśca paraṁ vetti madbhāvaṁ so’dhigacchati (14.19)

guṇānetānatītya trīndehī dehasamudbhavān
janmamṛtyujarāduḥkhairvimukto’mṛtamaśnute (14.20)

prakāśaṁ ca pravṛttiṁ ca mohameva ca pāṇḍava
na dveṣṭi saṁpravṛttāni na nivṛttāni kāñkṣati (14.22)

udāsīnavadāsīno guṇairyo na vicālyate
guṇā vartanta ityeva yo’vatiṣṭhati neṅgate (14.23)

samaduḥkhasukhaḥ svasthaḥ samaloṣṭāśmakāñcanaḥ
tulyapriyāpriyo dhīrastulyanindātmasaṁstutiḥ (14.24)

mānāpamānayostulyastulyo mitrāripakṣayoḥ
sarvārambhaparityāgī guṇātītaḥ sa ucyate (14.25)

māṁ ca yo’vyabhicāreṇa bhaktiyogena sevate
sa guṇānsamatītyaitānbrahmabhūyāya kalpate (14.26)((( The Gita, Chap. XIV, Verses 19, 20 22, 23, 24, 25, 26.)))

“When the soul becoming a witness sees the three modes, that is God’s Power of the three modes as the sole doer of all works and also knows the Lord who is even beyond the modes and is the mover of Shakti, then he attains the status and nature of the Divine. The embodied soul then transcends the three modes born of the two types of body, namely, the gross and the subtle, and becoming free from birth and death and decay and suffering enjoys immortality. He does not abhor knowledge produced by sattwa or impulsion caused by rajas or the clouding of the mind and body created by tamas, resulting in sloth, torpor and delusion; he remains steadfast like one seated high above maintaining equilibrium in face of the appearance and disappearance of the three modes which cannot disturb him and firm because all these are the modifications born of the intrinsic character of the modes. He to whom happiness and unhappiness, the pleasant and the unpleasant, praise and blame are the same, gold and mud are both like a piece of stone, who is calm and quiet and unshaken within himself, to whom honour and insult are alike and friend and enemies are equally dear, who does not do anything by his own initiative, but does all works surrendering them to the Divine and only under His inspiration, is described as one above the modes. He who worships Me by the yoga of faultless love and devotion becomes fit to attain the Brahman by going beyond the three modes.”

Though this state beyond the gunas is not attainable by all, it is not impossible for the pre-eminently sattwic man to achieve the state preceding it. The first step to that is to give up sattwic egoism and to see in all action the play of the Divine’s Power of the three gunas. Knowing this, the sattwic doer, renouncing the idea that he is the doer, does all his works surrendering himself to God.

What we have said about the gunas and the transcendence of them is the fundamental teaching of the Gita. But this teaching has not been widely accepted. Till now what we have known as the Aryan education has been mostly the cultivation of the sattwic temperament. The appreciation of the rajasic mode has come to an end in this country with the disintegration of the Kshatriya order. And yet there is a great need for the rajas-force in national life. That is why the attention of the nation has again been drawn to the Gita. The teaching of the Gita, though based on the ancient Aryan wisdom, goes beyond it. Its practical teaching is not afraid of the rajas quality, there is in it the way to press rajas into the service of sattwa and also the means of spiritual liberation even through the path of works. How the mind of the nation is being prepared for the practice of this teaching I could first understand while in jail. The current is still not clean but contaminated and impure; but when its excessive force slows down a little, then there will be the action of the pure Energy in it.

Many of those who were accused with the same offence as myself and were in jail with me have been acquitted as not guilty. Others have been convicted as being involved in a conspiracy. There is in human society no graver crime than killing. The personal character of the man who commits murder in the interests of the nation may not be blackened. But that does not lessen the gravity of the crime from the social point of view. It must also be admitted that there is as it were a blood-stain on the mind, an invasion by cruelty, if there is an impression of killing on the inner being. Cruelty is a quality of the savage; it is the chief among those characteristics from which mankind is becoming free in the evolution of its upward march. A dangerous thorn will be uprooted from the path of the ascent of humanity if we can renounce it completely. If we assume the guilt of those who have been accused, it must be understood that it is only an excessive but temporary and uncontrolled manifestation of rajas-force. There is in them such hidden sattwic force that this temporary lack of discipline is not a cause for alarm.

The inner freedom I have mentioned before was a natural quality of my companions. During the days we were lodged together in a big verandah, I observed with great attention their conduct and psychological dispositions. Apart from two of them, I never saw even a trace of fear in the face or speech of anyone. Almost all were young men, many mere boys. Even strong-minded people were likely to be quite upset at the thought of the dire punishment to be given to the accused if found guilty. But these young men did not really hope to be acquitted at the trial. Especially, on observing the frightful paraphernalia of witnesses and written evidence at the court, people not versed in law would have easily formed the idea that even the innocent could not find a way of escape from that net. Yet instead of fear or despondency on their faces there were only cheerfulness, the smile of simplicity and discussion about their country and religion, with forgetfulness of their own danger. A small library grew up as everyone in our ward had a few books with him. Most books in the library were religious — the Gita, the Upanishads, the works of Vivekananda, the life and conversations of Ramakrishna, the Puranas, hymns, spiritual songs, etc. Among other volumes were the works of Bankim, patriotic songs, books on European philosophy, history and literature. A few of the men practised spiritual disciplines in the mornings, some used to read books, still others used to chat quietly. Occasionally there were roars of laughter in the peaceful atmosphere of the morning. If the court was not in session, some slept, a few played games — it might be anything, nobody was attached to a particular one. On some days, a quiet game with people sitting in a circle, on others, running and leaping; there was football for a few days, though the ball was made of a unique material; blind man’s buff was played on some days, on others a number of groups were formed for lessons in ju-jitsu, high and long jumping or for playing draughts. Except a few reserved and elderly people everybody joined in these games at the request of the boys. I observed that even those who were not young had a childlike character. In the evenings there were musical soirées. Only patriotic and religious songs were sung; we used to sit around and hear Ullas, Sachindra, Hemdas, who were experts at singing, sing. For the sake of amusement, Ullaskar sang comic songs or did acting, ventriloquism, miming or told stories about hemp addicts on some evenings. Nobody paid any attention to the trial but all passed the days in religious pursuits or in just being gay. This unperturbed disposition is impossible to one used to evil actions; there was not the slightest trace in them of harshness, cruelty, habitual evildoing or crookedness. Laughter, conversation or play, all was joyful, sinless, full of love.

The result of this freedom of the mind began to show itself soon. The perfect fruit can be obtained only if the spiritual seed is sown in this kind of field. Pointing at some boys Jesus said to his disciples, “Those who are like these boys will attain the Kingdom of God.” Knowledge and delight are the signs of sattwa. They alone have the capacity for yoga who do not consider misery as misery but are full of joy and cheer in all situations. The rajasic attitude does not get any encouragement in jail and there is nothing there to nourish the tendency to worldly pleasures. Under these circumstances, since there is a dearth of things to which it is used and in which its rajas can be indulged, the demoniac mind destroys itself like a tiger. There follows what the Western poets call “eating one’s own heart.” The Indian mind when in seclusion, though there be external suffering, turns through an eternal attraction to God. This is what happened with us too. A current, I do not know from where, just swept us all. Even people who had never taken God’s name learnt to practise some spiritual discipline and realising the grace of the most Gracious became steeped in Joy. Those boys achieved in a few months what yogis take a long time to attain. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa once said, “What you are seeing now is really nothing — such a flood of spirituality is coming into this land that even boys will attain realisation after three days’ sadhana.” To see these boys was not to have any doubt about the truth of this prophecy. They were as it were the manifest precursors of that spiritual flood. The sattwic waves overflowing the prisoners’ docks swept over all, except four or five persons, with great joy. Anyone who has tasted that once cannot forget it nor can he acknowledge any other joy as comparable. This sattwic temperament is indeed the hope of the country. The ease with which brotherliness, self-knowledge and love of God possess the Indian mind and express themselves in action is not possible in the case of any other nation. What is necessary is the renunciation of tamas, the control of rajas, and the manifestation of sattwa. This is what is being prepared for India in accordance with God’s secret purpose.

(Suprabhat, 1909-1910)

  1. ( Included in Sri Aurobindo’s Bengali book, Kara Kahini. []

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