VEDANTA IN TODAY’S WORLD 2: ON                                    HUMAN BEHAVIOR

Vedanta analyses good and evil on the basis of three gunas, it calls Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. This clearly explained chapters 14-17 of the Gita. Many of its insights might be useful in understanding the turmoil in the world today and how to deal with it.

Navaratna Rajaram

Background: Method of Vedanta

As noted in my previous article on the topic, Indian thought does not draw a clear line separating natural sciences and the human sciences.       Vedanta includes an immense body of literature. Of these the numerous Upanishads are the primary philosophic works. Among these there are several minor and major Upanishads. The famous Bhagavad Gita (or the Gita for short) is an accessible summary of the Upanishads in relatively simple language and accessible to most people. It is the pre-eminent philosophic poem in the world. There is none even remotely comparable. All this has made it highly popular and widely translated and studied. The Gita is essentially a profound but brief metaphysical study of the world and its phenomena.

Hence Vedanta which is a method of analyzing the world and its phenomena is applicable also to the study of human behavior. This is exemplified by Krishna in his analysis of Daiva (enlightened) and Asuric (materialist, power hungry) individuals driven by three gunas (or traits) that are classified as sattva (purity or enlightened), rajas (forceful) and tamas (dark, that is ignorance and inertia).

All three traits are present in humans. The dominance of one or other dictates the conduct of leaders and their followers. Any combination can influence a leader or even a nation. Especially dangerous is the combination of tamas and rajas (forceful ignorance). This is what lies behind fanaticism.

It is important to note that fanaticism cannot be defeated by sattva alone. Judicious use of force is needed to root out fanaticism. One can cure the ignorance of a child by education but not the fanaticism of a hardened fanatic. There are no soft solutions. This is the reason why Rama had to invade Lanka and end Ravana’s asuric rule and replace him with his more enlightened brother Vibhishana.

Devas and Asura in Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Devas and Asuras

Devas are enlightened persons, Asuras are guided by material gains, wealth and power by use of force. The Lankan King Ravana was a typical example of that. Some scholars following the late Swami Chnmayananda use divine for daiva and demonic for asuras. I  have avoided it since it may suggest something supernatural. In addition in the Rigveda at least, some deities like Varuna and Indra are called asura, meaning mighty. Krishna describes them as follows. They follow deities and practices in keeping with their natural tendencies.

Sattvikas are devoted to worshipping virtuous and gentle deities. Rajasic are devoted to practices that value wealth and power and worship such spirits.  Tamasic  persons are devoted to evil and fanatical traits.

The same traits are notable in their food habits. Sattvikas favour foods that are healthy and nutritious. Rajasic persons favour spicy, energetic but often unhealthy foods. The tamasic favour attractive but addictive and damaging foods.

The same is true of their rituals and yagnas. According to Krishna, Sacrifices done for the benefit of society without any ambition for personal gains is Sattvic. One that is done to gain power and wealth for oneself, see it as Rajasic. Tamasic is done with violent goals, without proper method or vision, meaningless and fierce in content.

Daivic and Asuric traits


Mahishasura (Chamundi Hills, Mysore)

Avoidance of violence, truthfulness, control of temper, peacefulness, mildness of manner and speech, kindness towards all; brilliance of thought, cleanliness, forgiveness, fortitude, lack of excessive pride, these are traits of the daivic.

Excessive pride, love of display, arrogance, fierce temper, use of force, ignorance of right and wrong, these are among the asuric traits.

Daivic leads to freedom while asuric leads to bondage. Grieve not O Arjuna, you are of daivic disposition. Now let me tell you about asuric traits.

They (asuras) know not to distinguish between acts that should be done and those one should refrain from. They have no sense of inner or outer purity. Nor do they have any sense of truthfulness.

They view the world entirely in material terms, hold there is nothing spiritual, and only need and greed are the basis of existence.

Guided by narrow vision, driven by insatiable desires, being slaves to endless desires, they are the cause of destruction without end.

Holding themselves superior to all, even their acts of ritual are driven by desire to display of their wealth and power.

“I have gained this much, I have this much more to gain. I defeated so many, I have so many more to overcome, and no one can stop me. I am the master of all I hold, and will soon hold everything not in my possession.”

One who gives up all notion of dharma, but acts solely for himself will find no happiness in this world or the next.

So Arjuna, do your duty guided by good books and their teachings. This is my teaching to duty bound warriors like you.

Birth not a factor

It is worth emphasizing, deva and asura traits are acquired and something one is born us. All of us have daivic and asuric traits, we become one or the other depending on the traits (sattva, rajas and tamas) all of us possess and choose to follow. So, birth has nothing to do with it. Prahlada and Vibhishana were born into an asura dynasty, but chose to become daivic. Duryodhana on the other hand was born into a noble family, but chose to follow an asuric path. The result was the holocaust of the Mahabharata War.

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