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Vaishnava Philosophy
The modes of material nature

In modern physics -- classical, quantum mechanistic, and holistic -- one of the most frequently used terms is "natural laws." Since Einstein, scientists seek a Grand Unified Theory that will condense all "natural laws" to a universal formula that explains both matter and consciousness. Interestingly enough, in Sanskrit we have a hard time finding a corresponding word for the term "natural law." Words like hetu (in Bhagavad-gita 9.10), which means "a causing principle," directly refer to the laws of nature, but these words are rare. But there is a word in the texts of Sanskrit metaphysics that occurs as frequently as the term "natural law" does in the texts of modern physics. This word is guna, usually translated as "mode of material nature."

The English word "mode" best conveys the sense of the Sanskrit word guna (material quality). "Mode" comes from the Latin modus, and it has a special application in European philosophy. Modus means "measure." It is used to distinguish between two aspects of material nature: that which is immeasurable (called natura naturans, the creative nature) and that which is measurable (called natura naturata, the created nature). Creative nature is a single divine substance that manifests, through modes, the created nature, the material world of physical and mental variety. Being immeasurable (without modes), creative nature cannot be humanly perceived. Created nature (with modes) is measurable, hence we do perceive it. Modus also means "a manner of activity." When creative nature acts, it assumes modes of behavior that are measurable and thus perceivable.

The fourteenth chapter of Bhagavad-gita (verses 3-5) presents a similar twofold description of material nature as mahat yoni, the source of birth, and as guna prakrti, that which acts wonderfully through modes. Material nature as the source of birth is also termed mahad brahman, the great or immeasurable Brahman. Mahad brahman is nature as the divine creative substance, which is the material cause of everything. "Material cause" is a term common to both European philosophy (as causa materialis) and Vedanta philosophy (as upadana karana). It means the source of ingredients that comprise creation. We get an example of a material cause from the Sanskrit word yoni, which literally means womb. The mother's womb provides the ingredients for the formation of the embryo. Similarly, the immeasurable creative nature provides the ingredients for the formation of the material world in which we live, the measurable created nature.

The clarity of this example forces a question: what about the father, who must impregnate the womb first before it can act as the material cause? This question is answered by Krishna, the speaker of the Bhagavad-gita, in verse 4: aham bija pradah pita, "I am the seed-giving father." In Vedanta philosophy, this factor of causation is termed nimitta-matram (the remote cause). It is important to note that by presenting creation as the result of the union of two causes (the material and the remote), the Bhagavad-gita rejects the philosophy of Deus sive natura, "the identity of God and nature." In short, though creative nature may be accepted as the direct cause of creation, it is not the self-sufficient cause of creation. The seed with which Krishna impregnates the womb of creative nature is comprised of sarva-bhutanam, all living entities (verse 3).

This reveals a remarkable subtlety in the Vedic understanding of the material nature, and the natural laws concept becomes limited and relative by comparison. The Vedic scriptures inform us that the material universe is a multidimensional creation, each dimension having its own laws. It is a wild speculation of the earthly scientists to assume that the laws observed "down here" apply to the entire universe -- yet most people accept this belief as an axiomatic principle. Natural laws, such as gravity, entropy, and electromagnetism, are limited to certain dimensions. We have to be prepared to accept things or beings that defy these laws. But nobody and nothing within the material world defies the gunas -- the modes of material nature: "There is no being existing, either here or among the demigods in the higher planetary systems, which is freed from these modes born of material nature." (Bhagavad-gita 18.40)

Bhagavad-gita 14.5 explains that when Krishna puts the souls into the womb of material nature, their consciousness is conditioned by three modes, or tri-guna. The modes are three measures of interaction between conscious spirit and unconscious matter. The modes may be compared to the three primary colors, yellow, red and blue, and consciousness may be compared to clear light. The "conditioning" (nibhadnanti) of consciousness upon its entry into the womb of material nature is comparable to the coloration of light upon its passing through a prism. The color yellow symbolizes sattva-guna, the mode of goodness. This mode is pure, illuminating, and sinless. Goodness conditions the soul with the sense of happiness and knowledge. The color red symbolizes the rajo-guna, the mode of passion, full of longings and desires. By the influence of passion the soul engages in works of material accomplishment. The color blue symbolizes tamo-guna, the mode of ignorance, which binds the soul to madness, indolence and sleep. As the three primary colors combine to produce a vast spectrum of hues, so the three modes combine to produce the vast spectrum of states of conditioned consciousness that encompasses all living entities within the universe. The term tri-loka is often found in Vedic scriptures. Tri-loka means "three worlds." The universe is divided by the three modes into three worlds, or realms of consciousness: bhur, bhuvah and svar (the gross region, the subtle region and the celestial region). In svargaloka or the celestial heaven, superhuman beings called devatas exist, enjoying a life that in human terms is almost unimaginable. In the subtle region exist ghosts and elemental beings. And in the gross or earthly realm exist human beings and other creatures with tissue-bodies, including the animals and plants. There is also a subterranean region where powerful demons reside. And there is a region known as naraka, hell. As explained in Bhagavad-gita 3.27, the souls within these regions of material consciousness wrongly identify themselves as the doers of physical and mental activities that are actually carried out by three modes of material nature. This wrong identification is called ahankara, or false ego. False ego is the basis of our entanglement in material existence.

A detailed description of the threefold false ego is given by Krishna to Uddhava. This is recorded in the eleventh canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. By false ego in goodness (technically called vaikaraka), the living entity identifies with the mind. What is the mind? The mind is the living entity's subtle medium of reflection, comparable to a mirror. By its own nature of goodness, the mind is a suitable medium for reflecting the eternal absolute truth. But it can also reflect the objects of the senses and thus become absorbed in the temporary appearances of the material world. The Amrta-bindu Upanisad therefore declares, "For man, mind is the cause of bondage and mind is the cause of liberation. Mind absorbed in sense objects is the cause of bondage, and mind detached from the sense objects is the cause of liberation." By false ego in passion (aindriya or taijasa), the soul identifies with the physical senses and the creative intellect by which the senses are skillfully employed in work. By false ego in ignorance (tamasa), the soul identifies with the objects perceived by the physical senses, i.e. what is heard, what is felt, what is seen, what is tasted and what is smelt. Krishna says that the false ego is cid-acin-mayah, that which encompasses both spirit and matter, because it binds the cid (conscious soul) to the acid (unconscious matter).

The cultivation of the innate goodness of the mind is the essence of the Vedic method of yoga, summarized by Krishna as follows. "The mind can be controlled when it is fixed on the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Having achieved a stable situation, the mind becomes free from polluted desires to execute material activities; thus as the mode of goodness increases in strength, one can completely give up the modes of passion and ignorance, and gradually one transcends even the material mode of goodness. When the mind is freed from the fuel of the modes of nature, the fire of material existence is extinguished. Then one achieves the transcendental platform of direct relationship with the object of his meditation, the Supreme Lord." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.9.12)

The transcendental platform of the soul's direct relationship with the Supreme Soul is the state of absolute being. How the yogi perceives this state is described in Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.14.45. "He sees the individual souls united with the Supreme Soul, just as one sees the sun's rays completely united with the sun." The sun is jyotisi, the source of light. Similarly, Krishna, the Supreme Soul, is the source of the light of consciousness of all living entities. Sunlight is composed of photons, which are tiny units of light. Similarly, each individual soul (technically called the jiva-atma) is a tiny unit of consciousness. The Sanskrit word yoga means "connection;" through bhakti-yoga (the yoga of pure devotion), the consciousness of the individual soul connects with its source, Krishna. This is called Krishna consciousness. By Krishna consciousness, the soul rids itself of the coloration of the three modes and returns back home, Back to Godhead.

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