In Śrīmad Bhāgavata 11.25.24, Śri Kṛṣṇa describes four categories of knowledge, namely knowledge in each of the three guṇas of prakṛti, and nirguṇa knowledge.
kaivalyaṁ sāttvikaṁ jñānaṁ rajo vaikalpikaṁ ca yat
prākṛtaṁ tāmasaṁ jñānaṁ man-niṣṭhaṁ nirguṇaṁ smṛtam
“Kaivalya-jñāna, or knowledge of the pure self, distinct from the body [dehādi-vyatiriktātma-viṣayaka-jñāna], is sāttvika. Vaikalpika-jñāna, or knowledge related to the body [dehādi-viṣayaka-jñāna], is rājasika. Prākṛta-jñāna, or the knowledge of those who are unrefined, is tāmasika. Whereas, the knowledge that pertains to Me [parameśvara-viṣayaka-jñāna] is beyond the qualities of primordial nature (nirguṇa).”
The first three categories of knowledge (i.e., knowledge in sattva, rajas and tamas) are also described in Bhagavad Gītā 18.20-22:
sarva-bhūteṣu yenaikaṁ bhāvam avyayam īkṣate
avibhaktaṁ vibhakteṣu taj jñānaṁ viddhi sāttvikam
pṛthaktvena tu yaj jñānaṁ nānā-bhāvān pṛthag-vidhān
vetti sarveṣu bhūteṣu taj jñānaṁ viddhi rājasam
yat tu kṛtsna-vad ekasmin kārye saktam ahaitukam
atattvārtha-vad alpaṁ ca tat tāmasam udāhṛtam
“The knowledge by which one sees one imperishable and indivisible reality in all the diverse species of life — know that knowledge to be sāttvika. But the dualistic knowledge by which one recognizes a plurality of living beings of distinct variety in all living forms — know that knowledge to be rājasika. That knowledge, however, by which one clings to a single object or act, as if it were the all-in-all, which is irrational, devoid of essential truth, and trivial, is said to be tāmasika.”
A person in sattva-guṇa sees one reality in everything, pervading all the diverse species of life. With regard to seeing oneness, there are two principles to be considered—tvam-padārtha meaning the individual living being or jīva, and tat-padārtha meaning Brahman. Kaivalyam means to see the jīva and Brahman as one. With this knowledge, there is only one truth, namely the self, indistinct from Brahman. In GĪTĀ 18.20, this vision is called avyaya-bhāva, when the jīva and Brahman appear one without any distinction. This is called sāttvika knowledge. Knowledge of things as they are also coming from sattva. Without sattva, a person will have mithyā-jñāna (“false” knowledge), for example, mistaking a rope for a snake.
In rajas, a person has knowledge of duality—he is aware of all the differences within material nature. Knowledge in rajas is called vaikalpika, which means seeing everything as different, and not recognizing the one reality pervading everything. In other words, knowledge that is related to the body.
In tamas, knowledge is not very clear, and is attached to only one thing. Knowledge in tamas is called prākṛtam, which means it is not very clear. Jīva Gosvāmī compares it to the knowledge of children, or those devoid of speech, which means it cannot properly express anything.
To summarize, knowledge of the ātma’s oneness with Brahman is sāttvika. Knowledge of the variety of objects in the material world is rājasika. Knowledge about our basic instincts, how to survive like animals, is tāmasika. But separate from these three, knowledge about Bhagavān is nirguṇa.
NIRGUṆA BHAKTI DOES NOT DEPEND ON SATTVA
In Bhakti Sandarbha, Anuccheda 134, Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī explains that even to those in whom authentic being in the form of sattva is present, the realization of Bhagavān remains undisclosed. This is stated in SB 6.14.2:
devānāṁ śuddha-sattvānām ṛṣīṇāṁ cāmalātmanām
bhaktir mukunda-caraṇe na prāyeṇopajāyate
“Bhakti to the lotus feet of Bhagavān Mukunda generally does not manifest even in the devas, who are situated in pure sattva, nor even in the sages, whose hearts are free from contamination.”
In other words, Bhagavān cannot be realized simply by sattva-guṇa. As mentioned in this verse, even though the devas are situated in sattva, they generally don’t take to bhakti. Why? Because sattva does not give bhakti.
There is a common misunderstanding amongst devotees that if one wants to be a devotee, he must be situated in sattva-guṇa. In other words, if you are not in sattva-guṇa then you cannot be a devotee. But Śrīmad Bhāgavatam explains that bhakti does not depend on any of the qualities of material nature. Bhakti depends only on bhakti. Therefore, it can also manifest in people who are not sāttvika, as in the example of Vṛtrāsura. SB 6.14.1 states:
rajas-tamaḥ-svabhāvasya brahman vṛtrasya pāpmanaḥ
nārāyaṇe bhagavati katham āsīd dṛḍhā matiḥ
“O brāhmaṇa, how is it that the sinful Vṛtra, whose nature was predominated by rajas and tamas, had such resolute devotional regard for Bhagavān Nārāyaṇa?”
Vṛtrāsura was situated mostly in rajas and tamas, but still he had bhakti. This shows that realization of Bhagavān can happen even for those without sattva. The story of Vṛtrāsura is very important in the Bhāgavata for this reason – because it shows that bhakti is not dependent on sattva-guṇa. This is a unique characteristic of bhakti. Although Vṛtrāsura is an asura by name and by behavior, he still had bhakti. This analysis is not to belittle the importance of sattva-guṇa but to show that bhakti is not dependent on sattva-guṇa.
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