by Satyanarayana Dasa
One peculiar phenomenon I have observed in Vrindavan is that many sadhus talk about changing the world. There are plenty of trusts, societies, and institutes here whose names contain words like, “world peace”, “international”, “universal love,’” etc. However, despite so many organizations and individuals, the level of peace or love in the world is not improving. There must be a reason for this.
I also meet many people from mainstream society and they too have a common phenomenon: always blaming someone else for their problems. Their boss or spouse or mother-in-law makes their life miserable. No matter which political party is in power, it is the worst party. God, according to them, is a sadist or at best indifferent; otherwise why is there so much suffering?
The two groups seem very different: one striving to change the world, the other constantly complaining about it; but I think they actually have a lot in common: Both groups wish the world was different, and neither seem to think much about changing themselves.
This is an effect of rajas and tamas.
Effects of Rajo Guṇa
Rajo guṇa inclines us to pride and superiority over others. It imparts over-confidence, inspiring us to strive for things we are not qualified to achieve. It also makes us crave recognition as the most capable and powerful person around. Rajas never grants peace, it always arouses ambition: giving hunger for new acquisition and causing us to under-appreciate what we already have.
Those in positions of power and prestige usually have a predominance of rajo guṇa, otherwise they would not have the muscle and drive to endure the clawing and manipulation required to “get to the top.”
In a spiritually oriented society, which highly values sattva-guṇa, the leaders do not like to admit that they are mostly situated in rajas. Their ego and intelligence work together to excuse their rajasic actions as a necessary evil or even an act of compassion. But if someone disagrees, they politicize, marginalize, and ostracize the dissenter—revealing just how fully under the grip of rajas they truly are.
Rajasic people are not evil. They are valuable and needed in any society. Otherwise, who else would “expand the borders,” do the management and run the governments? Rajasic people can do very good service as long as they work honestly under sattvic direction. But when they refuse this and pretend to be the sattvic advisors themselves, they wreak havoc.
Effects of Tamo Guṇa
Tamo guna inclines us to incessant complaint and constant pessimism. It dulls us so thoroughly that we don’t even notice how negative our behavior is, or how it affects others. Our focus becomes firmly stuck in the past, obsessing over wrongs done to us weeks, months, and years ago. Lazy, we live like a parasite, gossiping and criticizing while oblivious to the hypocrisy we embody.
Tamo guṇa drains the energy of others, like an “energy vampire.” It lacks the ambition and bravery of rajas but not the self-centeredness, so it winds up making us compete with others through jealous deception. This dark competition extends to practically everyone because, in tamo guṇa it is hard to find anyone who isn’t somehow more intelligent, beautiful, or successful than us.
Reduction of Rajas and Tamas
On the path of bhakti, sādhaka devotee are usually still more or less under the influence of the material gunas, and thus continue to experience some of the negative effects of rajas and tamas in their lives, and in their societies. But, as one progresses spiritually, one should feel these guṇas slacken. As that happens, one gradually becomes better able to accurately perceive one’s own flaws and appreciate the good qualities of others.
Practically, no one can do this without taking sincere refuge in the guidance of a guru. Smarter devotees can covertly mimic spiritual progress, by quoting scriptures and propounding arguments. Nonetheless the effects of rajas and tamas noted above continue to dominate their personal life and the social units they form.
Rajas and tamas always shift the focus towards others and towards externals. Thus, the spiritual aspirants under the influence of these guṇas focus on imitating the external symptoms of spiritual advancement, and remain obsessed with the flaws of others. We change our lives superficially, but not on the inside. We change without really changing. Our changes do not touch our self.
To make any real progress in life, one should first clean one’s own house. True change starts by being able to recognize how rajas and tamas are driving your own thoughts and actions.
This requires introspection, but I think people do not really understand what the word means. It does not mean asking the Guru to point out your flaws and saṁskāras, or criticizing the Guru for not making one feel good. Nor is introspection some New Age technique that the Guru is unaware of and needs to be educated about. Introspection means rolling up your sleeves and doing the hard work of cleaning your heart (citta).
Disturbances of the Modern Mind
In the past, when society was simple and not influenced by modern technology, the traditional sādhanā practices, such as japa, kirtan, līlā-smaraṇa, deity worship, hearing scripture, and seva were sufficient for a person to advance spiritually. This is because those people were born and raised in a nurturing varṇāśrama environment, in which they were educated about their identify and the purpose of life. They had a natural inclination to accept authority and surrender. They were already in a state of sattva.
However, in modern days, society has changed drastically. Therefore, the traditional practices, although potent as they were in the past, do not show their effect because the mind is unsteady, confused, and doubtful. The modern mind lacks deep faith and is very insecure. We are not trained to surrender, rather the opposite. The modern world overflows with the intense distractions of rajasic technology. Very few people are raised with any solid, rational understanding of basic philosophical concepts. We confuse authority with tyranny and the acceptance of guidance with personal weakness. Moreover, the tamas and rajas in our dysfunctional and chaotic modern families inflict deep childhood traumas which generate hypersensitivity to feeling criticized, rejected, and unloved by authority figures.
Thus, most people come to bhakti to heal the wounds of modern life, not for true spiritual evolution. We engage in the regularities of spiritual sādhana primarily to be accepted into social groups that we hope will fill the emptiness we carry in our hearts from our damaged childhoods. Our true motivation, often unknown to us, is to find a surrogate family—thus we hardly take any interest in true introspection to purify our hearts from the reflexive behaviors and perceptions (saṁskāras) that keep us stuck in rajas and tamas.
If we could truly surrender, we would need nothing but the basic sādhanas to bring us to our goal of kṛṣṇa-prema. But this doesn’t usually happen. Most of us may have no idea what such “surrender” really means.
Necessity of a Personal Guide
Spiritual practices are effective when they are done without significant defects. It is extremely rare for a person to consistently and accurately see their own defects. This is why the guide, the guru, is so essential. At least, I would suggest that spiritual practitioners regularly ask the people they know, even those they are jealous of, to point out their defects if they themselves cannot see them. Or, certainly at the very absolute least, all spiritual practitioners should have very open and non-defensive ears when an observation of their defects is willingly offered.
I always presumed that those who come to spiritual life come primarily to solve their own problems. This is what Kṛṣṇa says in Gītā (7.16), explaining that those who turn to Him are trying to solve financial, health or emotional problems, or in rare cases, to solve the ultimate problem of bondage. In the next verse (7.17), Kṛṣṇa explains that those who take to bhakti come mostly from that rare, fourth category. However, it seems that even they, once taking to the practices of bhakti at least on the surface, soon forget their original purpose and become fixed on the idea of helping humanity.
A person who is tied up is very ineffective at freeing others. As it is said, katham asiddhah param sadhayati (“how can an imperfect being create anything superior?”) A person who still has rajas and tamas in their hearts cannot help the world get rid of the effects of rajas and tamas. A person who has not solved their own problems cannot solve the world’s problems.
Therefore, even if our motive is to save the world, we can only do so be looking at our own faults, and curing them in ourselves.
The mind is the hardest thing to change because the ego doesn’t like change. You can really only change your own mind with a lot of hard work and discipline. A wise person focuses on what they can change within themselves.
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