Indology - Rajas in Service to Sattva
by Swami Veda Bharati
History is replete with evidence to prove that the Indian civilization has always retained its dynamic, progressive character
The principle of three gunas, namely sattva, rajas and tamas is fundamental to all the systems of Indian philosophy from the earliest period of history. Read the Bhagavad Gita 14.5-20, 17.1-22, 18.7-9, 19-39. The Sankhya philosophy is explicit in defining the nature and interaction of these three gunas. The word guna means strands of rope; matter or nature is a three-stranded rope through which our personality systems operate and which ties us to the universe. The word guna is also cognate to ‘good’ in the original sense of ‘qualities’.
All entities, beings, objects. levels of reality, sentiments, choices, emotions, thoughts, acts, family systems, cultural forms, are constituted of different proportions of these gunas. When the three are in total balance, entropy culminates and dissolution occurs. The three may be primarily defined as follows:
• sattva: illumination, lightness, purity, clarity, pure energy, inspiration
• rajas: activity, motion, process, involvement, kinetic energy, progress or regress, application of energy, dynamism
• tamas: heaviness, stasis, bulk, eclipsing or controlling the energy, inertia.
Contrary to common view, rajas and tamas are not undesirable qualities. They are both essential to the very existence of all entities and states. For example, let us take the food we eat. Sattva is the pleasure, good flavor, lightness, cleanliness, attractiveness and the energy derived from its consumption. Rajas is the digestive spices, the process of digestion, conversion of the bulk into energy. Tamas is the bulk and the body. All three are essential.
The desirability or undesirability of the traits of rajas and tamas depends on whether they serve sattva or whether they dominate it. If rajas serves sattva, it becomes progress, motion. But if it subdues sattva, it is mere commotion, restlessness, distraction.
So too with tamas. It is simply stasis, sthiti. If it serves sattva, it is stability. If the opposite, then it is stagnation. A sattvic cool, clear river is stabilized by tamas of the fixed pattern of the solid shore. But if the flow stops for a time without a fresh inflow or outflow, that is not stability, but stagnation.
This way of analysis applies, as we have said, to all entities, conditions, states. By the same token, we may look at the history and condition of a nation – such as India. Here, we use the word ‘India’ not in the sense of a particular nation-state with defined geographical borders but rather ‘India’ as the name of a civilization, values and cultural patterns.
I propose that the moving principle of Indian civilization is rajas in the service of sattva, dynamism leading to stillness and peace. There have been areas of social life that became stagnant, occluding and eclipsing the sattva-rajas, as in the case of caste system. But, by and large, the Indian civilization is a progressive one.
From the very early Vedic period the prayer in India has been for abhyudaya, worldly prosperity and growth, in the service of nih-shreyasa, transcendence. Those who call the Indian civilization passive, other-worldly, do so without knowing this civilization in detail and depth. The Vedas are replete with prayers for ayuh, pranam, prajam, kirtim, dravinam – long life (for which ayurveda was developed), strength and vitality, progeny, fame and reputation, wealth and luxury, and then brahma-varchasam, transcendent brilliance as the last in the list (Atharva-veda 19.71.1). The Prakrit, Pali and Tamil texts narrate hair-raising stories of maritime traders. From Lothal of the Harappa civilization to legendary Poompuhar of the Tamil civilization, the ports of India have been wharves for legendary ships trading far and wide. Only those who have not read the Tamil classics such as Manimekhalai or Chillapadikaram imagine that poverty is endemic to India and that its cause is in India’s belief systems.
Let us take two examples of India’s dynamism resulting in prosperity.
India does not boast a single silver mine but 25 per cent of all the world’s silver is in India. How did that happen? It was because of the dynamism of the Indian international traders through the millenniums who brought in vast amounts of “foreign exchange” in this form.
It is known that up to the end of the 17th century, 24.5 percent of the world’s production of goods was in India. In this, who can deny the dynamism of the Mughals or the Marathas?
If it was India’s belief systems that are the cause of India’s poverty, what were the causes of the worse poverty of and disease in Europe even all the way to the end of the 19th century when Karl Marx was writing about children of 12 working in coal mines something like 16 hours a day? (Today we hear all this preaching by the neo-prosperous nations about child labor in India!).
It was the loss of trade with India, because of the Usmania (Ottoman) empire, that partly led to the poverty in post-Byzantine Europe. It was to recover from that loss and re-establish the trade relations with India that the 15th century kings and entrepreneurs of Europe were so keen to find new trade routes to India.
We think that this is now the first time that the Mittals, Tatas and the Birlas are successfully competing against the world monopolists. Who can deny the dynamism of the Sindhis, the Chettiyars, and the Marwaris who have been occupying a sizable niche in the world trade for the past millenniums, not to speak of the humble duka-walas in the villages of Africa?
It is known that when the European explorers went out looking for the new trade routes to India, when sailing in the Atlantic along the west coast of Africa they would hug close to the visible lands. After they came around the Cape of Good Hope, they then picked up the Indian guides who guided them along through the Indian Ocean. Otherwise, why did the Europeans name it the Indian Ocean and not the African Ocean?
One of the differences between the Indian civilization and the others is that while the other civilizations spread through conquest (rajas not tempered by sattva), the Indian civilization spread through its traders (rajas) and teachers (sattva). For this I urge the reader to look into the stories of Indian civilization as heard in Suvarna-dveepa (Sumatra), Yava-dweepa (Java), Thailand, Laos, Cambodge (the Khmer civilization famous for Nagara-Wata=Angkor Wat), the land of the Champa and Dwaravati civilizations (Vietnam) and the archipelago of Mahalinga (which became known as Philippines after the Spanish conquest). It is there that one experiences the history of the dynamism and progressive ways of India. The way the history of India is viewed by a professor of Udayana University in Den Pasar (Bali) is very different from the way it is viewed by the pessimists of India proper.
Today, a large number of youths in India take up ‘Oriental’ martial arts and think that these come from China or Korea. They do not know that the founder of these was Bodhidharma from Kerala who went to China in the 6th century and established the Shao Lin monastery where he combined the ancestor of Kalari (the Kerala martial arts taught widely even today), yoga and the Chinese classical Taoist exercises and created the blend. Can a civilization of tamas, dullness, stagnation, have produced such dynamic pathfinders?
How could a ‘static’ India have given to the world rice, sugar in its two versions (sharkara that went west as sugar and gud (jaggery) – that became ‘gula’ in the east as in Bahasa Indonesia), and honey (the Malay word, madhu), numerals, zero, algebra and algorithm? And see this linguistic connection across the Pacific: mala in Sanskrit, malai in Tamil, olai in Samoa, lei in Hawaii – all in the same shape. Did the Hawaaiians come to trade with India or did the Indians hug their shores? Or was it both ways?
Nor has India been a system closed to the outside ideas. While we take pride in having taught many truths to other civilizations, we have constantly imported ideas and goods from elsewhere and absorbed them. The Mahabharata word for silk is cheenamshuka (China cloth). Pajama (pyjama=pay-jama, leg-clothing) is Persian. Kameez is Spanish-Portuguese. Paneer, well, go to any Turkish shop in London, and you will see ‘penir’ as the common name for all cheeses. Jalebi is West Asian (do visit the bazaar in Jerusalem or Damishk sometimes). Sabun (soap) is Spanish savon. And shock of all shocks – maize (makkai), potato, hot and red chillies and tomatoes are all from Peru in the Andes (South America), brought to India by the Spanish traders and conquerors in the 16th century. Today, how important and integrated a part of Indian diet these are. What an example of the flexibility of the civilization to challenge those who view the Indian civilization as static, all tamas! And what about the amalgam of cultures in Hindustani music and Kathak dance? Are these creations of static, tamasic, minds?
One often hears that all the Indian founders of philosophies have been holding back the development of Indian philosophy. Really? In fact, every professor of the history of Indian philosophy will state that each successive acharya has challenged the views of all preceding ones and the philosophy has progressed steadily. Otherwise, why did almost every German philosopher of the 19th century study Sankhya?
In the post-17th century era of the decline of Indian prosperity, the culture remained dynamic. The 18th and 19th centuries saw constant movement of wandering spiritual masters, minstrels, reformers, warriors. The entire 19th century was a period of constant motion – first leading to 1857 and then leading to the founding of Indian National Congress by Dadabhai Naoroji. And, we know of both, the revolutionaries as well as Gandhians, not to speak of the social reformers, who were active right from the grassroots to the highest rungs of society, throughout the first half of the 20th century.
And to counter the argument that religious teachers have been instilling passivity into the people for all these millenniums, one only has to point to the dynamic naga sadhus. How many are aware that it was they who fought off Temur Lang, under their mahamandaleshwaras, when he attacked the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar?
One simply has to read Bankim’s Sanyasi-vidroh to know how the fight for India’s Independence began with the sadhus throughout the country.
Many modern-day mandaleshwaras are carrying out the same dynamic tradition in a different form when they address a conference in the United Nations building on inter-religious harmony. In our times they are following the ancient tradition of going to all civilizations and giving each of them a subtle direction. The Western missionaries come laden with dollars to convert or serve. The Indian teachers, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jaina and Muslim, go to the distant lands penniless and create flourishing missions by the sheer dint of their spiritual magnetism, without condemning the followers of other religions to hell. It was their predecessors who changed the civilization of China as they are now changing the civilization of America and attempting to make it a little gentler. One of the numerous changes is that nearly 20 per cent of Americans now prefer to call themselves vegetarian.
Thus we see that the form and expression of Indian dynamism changes from time to time, but its internal message of the subservience of rajas to sattva still remains.
No doubt there are areas of darkness, for example in the position of women and in the caste system, especially if we look at the nation-state India rather than the vast Indian civilization. But the rajas of the reformers has been working constantly to change that.
When the Buddha sent his first batch of monks out he said to them: charatha bhikkavo chaarikam bahu-jana-hitaaya bahu-jana-sukhaaya (Wander, ye monks, for the benefit of the many, for the comfort of the many.)
The movement from tamas to rajas is not recent; the entire civilization throughout its history has been dedicated to overcoming tamas by applying rajas in the service of sattva. The civilization flows on like the sattvic Ganga.