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Written by Sir John Woodroffe, Book: Introduction to Tantra Sastra 


IT cannot be said that current explanations give a clear understanding of this subject. Yet such is necessary, both as affording one of the chief keys to Indian philosophy and to the principles which govern Sādhana. The term guṇ a is generally translated “quality,” a word which is only accepted for default of a better. For it must not be overlooked that the three guṇ as (Sattva, rajas, and tamas) which are of Prakṛti constitute Her very substance. This being so, all Nature which issues from Her, the Mahākāraṇ asvarūpa, is called triguṇ ātmaka, and is composed of the same guṇ a in different states of relation to one another. The functions of sattva, rajas, and tamas are to reveal, to make active, and to suppress respectively. Rajas is the dynamic, as sattva and tamas
are static principles. That is to say, sattva and tamas can neither reveal nor suppress without being first rendered active by rajas. These guṇ as work by mutual suppression.

The unrevealed Prakṛ ti (avyakta-prakṛ ti) or Devī is the state of stable equilibrium of these three guṇ as. When this state is disturbed the manifested universe appears, in every object of which one or other of the three guṇ as is in the ascendant. Thus in Devas as in those who approach the divya state, sattva predominates, and rajas and tamas are very much reduced. That is, their independent manifestation is reduced. They are in one sense still there, for where rajas is not independently active it is operating on sattva to suppress tamas, which appears or disappears to the extent to tamas, which appears or disappears to the extent to which it is, or is not, subject to suppression by the revealing principle. In the ordinary human jīva considered as a class, tamas is less reduced than in the case of the Deva but very much reduced when comparison is made
with the animal jīva. Rajas has great independent activity, and sattva is also considerably active. In the animal creation sattva has considerably less activity. Rajas has less independent activity than in man, but is much more active than in the vegetable world. Tamas is greatly less preponderant than in the latter. In the vegetable kingdom tamas is more preponderant than in the case of animals and both rajas and sattva less so. In the inorganic creation rajas makes tamas active to
suppress both sattva and its own independent activity. It will thus be seen that the “upward” or revealing movement from the predominance of tamas to that of sattva represents the spiritual progress of the jīvātmā.

Again, as between each member of these classes one or other of three guṇ as may be more or less in the ascendant.

Thus, in one man as compared with another, the sattva guṇ a may predominate, in which case his temperament is sāttvik, or, as the Tantra calls it, divyabhāva. In another the rajoguṇ a may prevail, and in the third the tāmoguṇ a, in which case the individual is described as rājasik, or tāmasik, or, to use Tantrik phraseology, he is said to belong to virabhāva, or is a paśu respectively. Again the vegetable creation is obviously less tāmasik and more rājasik and sāttvik than the mineral, and even amongst these last there may be possibly some which are less tāmasik than others.

Etymologically, sattva is derived from “sat,” that which is eternally existent. The eternally existent is
also Cit, pure Intelligence or spirit, and Ānanda or Bliss. In a secondary sense, sat is also used to denote the “good.” And commonly (though such use obscures the original meaning), the word sattva guṇ a is rendered “good quality.” It is, however, “good” in the sense that it is productive of good and happiness. In such a case, however, stress is laid rather on a necessary quality or
effect (in the ethical sense) of ‘sat’ than upon its original meaning. In the primary sense sat is that which reveals. Nature is a revelation of spirit (sat). Where Nature is such a revelation of spirit there it manifests as sattva guṇ a. It is the shining forth from under the veil of the hidden spiritual substance (sat). And that quality in things which reveals this is sattva guna. So of a pregnant woman it is said that she is antahsattva, or instinct with sattva; she in whom sattva as jīva
(whose characteristic guṇ a is sattva) is living in a hidden state.

But Nature not only reveals, but is also a dense covering or veil of spirit, at times so dense that the
ignorant fail to discern the spirit which it veils. Where Nature is a veil of spirit there it appears in its quality of tamoguṇ a.

In this case the tamoguṇ a is currently spoken of as representative of inertia, because that is the effect of the nature which veils. This quality, again, when translated into the moral sphere, becomes ignorance, sloth, etc.

In a third sense nature is a bridge between spirit which reveals and matter which veils. Where Nature is a bridge of descent from spirit to matter, or of ascent from matter to spirit there it manifests itself as rajoguṇ a. This is generally referred to as the quality of activity, and when transferred to the sphere of feeling it shows itself as passion. Each thing in nature then
contains that in which spirit is manifested or reflected as in a mirror or sattvaguṇ a; that by which spirit is covered, as it were, by a veil of darkness or tamoguṇ a, and that which is the vehicle for the descent into matter or the return to spirit or rajoguṇ a. Thus sattva is the light of Nature, as tamas is its shade. Rajas is, as it were, a blended tint oscillating between each of the
extremes constituted by the other guṇ as.

The object of Tantrik sādhana is to bring out and make preponderant the sattva guṇ a by the aid of rajas, which operates to make the former guṇ a active. The subtle body (lingaśarīra) of the jīvatma comprises in it buddhi, ahaṃ kāra, manas, and the ten senses. This subtle body creates for itself gross bodies suited to the spiritual state of the jīvatma. Under the influence of prārabdha karma, buddhi becomes tāmasik, rājasik, or sāttvik. In the first case the jīvatma assumes inanimate
bodies; in the second, active passionate bodies; and in the third, sattvik bodies of varying degress of spiritual excellence, ranging from man to the Deva. The gross body is also triguṇ ātmaka. This body conveys impressions to the jīvātma through the subtle body and the buddhi in particular. When sattva is made active impressions of happiness result, and when rajas or
tamas are active the impressions are those of sorrow and delusion. These impressions are the result of the predominance of these respective guṇ as. The acting of rajas on sattva produces happiness, as its own independent activity or operation on tamas produces sorrow and
delusion respectively. Where sattva or happiness is predominant, there sorrow and delusion are suppressed.


Where rajas or sorrow is predominant, there happiness and delusion are suppressed. And where tamas or delusion predominates there, as in the case of the inorganic world, both happiness and sorrow are suppressed. All objects share these three states in different proportions.
There is, however, always in the jīvātma an admixture of sorrow with happiness, due to the operation of rajas. For happiness, which is the fruit of righteous acts done to attain happiness, is after all only a vikāra. The natural state of the jīvātma—that is, the state of its own true nature—is that bliss (ānanda) which arises from the pure knowledge of the Self, in which both happiness and sorrow are equally objects of indifference. The worldly enjoyment of a person involves pain to self
or others. This is the result of the pursuit of happiness, whether by righteous or unrighteous acts. As spiritual progress is made, the gross body becomes more and more refined. In inanimate bodies, karma operates to the production of pure delusion. On the exhaustion of
such karma, the jīvātma assumes animate bodies for the operation of such forms of karma as lead to sorrow and happiness mixed with delusion. In the vegetable world, sattva is but little active, with a corresponding lack of discrimination, for discrimination is the effect of sattva in buddhi, and from discrimination arises the recognition of pleasure and pain, conceptions of right and
wrong, of the transitory and intransitory, and so forth, which are the fruit of a high degree of discrimination, or of activity of sattva. In the lower animal, sattva in buddhi is not suficiently active to lead to any degree of development of these conceptions. In man, however, the sattva in buddhi is considerably active, and in consequence these conceptions are natural in him. For this
reason the human birth is, for spiritual purposes, so important. All men, however, are not capable of forming such conceptions in an equal degree. The degree of activity in an individual’s buddhi depends on his prārabdha karma. However bad such karma may be in any particular case, the individual is yet gifted with that amount 1 of discrimination which, if properly aroused and aided, will enable him to better his spiritual condition by inducing the rajoguṇ a in him to give more and more activity to the sattva guṇ a in his buddhi.

On this account proper guidance and spiritual direction are necessary. A good guru, by reason of his own nature and spiritual attainment and disinterested wisdom, will both mark out for the śiṣ ya the path which is proper for him, and aid him to follow it by the infusion of the tejas which is in the Guru himself. Whilst sādhana is, as stated, a process for the stimulation of the sattva guṇ a, it is evident that one form of it is not suitable to all. It must be adapted to the spiritual condition of the śiṣ ya, otherwise it will cause injury instead of good. Therefore it is that the adoption of
certain forms of sādhana by persons who are not competent (adhikāri), may not only be fruitless of any good result, but may even lead to evils which sādhana as a general principle is designed to prevent. Therefore also is it said that is it better to follow one’s own dharma than that, however exalted it be, of another.


1 Corresponding to the theological doctrine of “sufficiency of grace.”














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