Vedanta sees clash of Values; not Civilisations - II
by N S Rajaram on 04 Feb 2017 0 Comment

The three gunas


The Vedantic view is that there are three fundamental tendencies (or gunas) that control nature (like daivic and asuric) and therefore the history of any era. These are: sattva (light or purity), rajas (power or aggression) and tamas (darkness or ignorance). Any combination of these determines the history of an epoch. Particularly dangerous is the combination of tamas and rajas - aggression driven by ignorance. This is what we call fanaticism.


Tamas sees sattva or light of knowledge as the enemy. Its goal is to destroy sattva and plunge the world into a Dark Age. This has happened many times in history. This is what forces of fanaticism are trying to do to the world today. The rule of Taliban in Afghanistan was an example of bringing darkness by a combination of rajas and tamas - force and ignorance. So was Nazism. Defeating Hitler was not enough; the tamasic root of Nazism had to be eradicated. It is the same with any fanaticism. It is a negative spirit that needs to be eradicated from the mind and soul of people.


This is the great enemy of civilisation. This is also what ancient sages like Krishna warned against. The lesson is that tamas cannot always be conquered by sattva alone. This means force or rajas must be employed, but employed judiciously. The ignorance of a child can be cured by education, but not the willful ignorance of a hardened fanatic. It can only be eradicated through force. It is a great error to believe that fanatics bent on plunging the world in darkness will respond to a gentle message. Deluded people sometimes project passive resistance as sattva or ‘spiritual force’. But any kind of passivity is only tamas.


Sri Aurobindo, one of modern India’s greatest yogis said:

“The sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfillment of justice as the holiness of the saint. To maintain justice and to prevent the strong from despoiling, and the weak from being oppressed is the function for which the Kshatriya was created. Therefore, says Krishna in the Mahabharata, God created battle and armor, the sword, the bow and the dagger.”


In symbolic terms it means that leaders who combine force of personality with wisdom are needed in times of crisis. Abraham Lincoln was one such leader, as was Sardar Patel. There was steel in them, but also wisdom and compassion.


In summary, ancient Indian sages like Krishna and Vyasa saw evil in the world as being due to the rise of Asuric tendencies driven by a combination of tamas and rajas. The way to rid the world of evil is to fight it with Daivic forces made up of a combination of sattva and rajas.


Indian records give several examples. Beginning with a pure sattva period known as Krita Yuga, we have come to the end of Kali Yuga, the age of evil of a special kind called theocracy, where tamas is presented as spirituality. It binds people rather than releasing them. Five thousand years ago, at the end of Dwapara Yuga, India faced a similar threat that exploded into the Kali Yuga. At that juncture, at the Dwapar-Kali yuga-sandhi, Krishna warned the world of its dangers and told his followers what needed to be done: evil must be fought and destroyed.


Conclusion: Vedanta and rational thought


By allowing materialism to run rampant we may now have reached the end of our journey, but a question remains: how relevant is Krishna’s 5000-year old message today as we enter another yuga-sandhi? My own view, derived from the Gita, Sri Aurobindo, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata is that the Vedantic approach, which was the worldview thousands of years ago, is still relevant. Whatever the merits of prophets and their prophecies, the Vedantic wisdom is eternal. Prophets and sages are human and hence, as Madhva says, subject to error and deceit.




We no longer live in the Vedantic milieu of Krishna and his contemporaries - an age in which Vedanta offered a rational way of looking at the world. To them Vedanta was a description of reality, part of their everyday thinking, much as science is to us today. Vedanta shaped their worldview just as science has shaped ours. This allowed them to combine human affairs and spiritual vision into a true synthesis. We have lost this vision. It is the source of much of our problems. We adopt purely material approaches to what are really problems of the spirit.


This is illustrated by looking at great ancient figures like Krishna. He was a great teacher and a great warrior in a just cause. We now have great warriors, full of rajas, but the world needs to recognize what it is really fighting - tamas. The message of the Gita is Vedanta and Krishna is the sage who embodies Vedic (and Vedantic) wisdom at all levels. Our goal should be not merely worshipping him as an icon but following his teachings to spiritual and intellectual freedom and apply it in action. Wrongly applied devotion results in tamasic blindness and inner slavery. This is what we call fanaticism, which has made much of the world vulnerable to outer slavery.


The Teacher is to be emulated, not blindly worshipped. Ultimately, the enemy is tamas. A teacher can only be a guide, but the effort has to come from within every one of us. This is what the great Brihadaranyaka Upanishad means when it says: tamaso ma jyotirgamaya - “Lead us from darkness to light.”


We no longer live in a Vedantic milieu. Most of us calling ourselves ‘rational’ do not see the world in Daivic and Asuric terms. With that we have lost the rational basis for spirituality that our ancestors possessed. We react to crises in a piecemeal, ad-hoc spirit. Vyasa and Krishna knew the causes and where they would lead: the combination of tamas and rajas would try to overwhelm the world and plunge it into a Dark Age. And they told us also how to fight it - with a combination of sattva and rajas, or righteous force.


This is what we are seeing today in our struggle against terror - a combination of rajas and tamas ranged against civilisation. It is no clash of civilisations but a clash of values or dharmas - the Daivic and the Asuric. For civilisation to survive, the Daivic forces - sattva and rajas - must combine to defeat the Asuric combination of tamas and rajas.


None of this is to suggest that Vedanta is infallible or beyond question and debate. It is a human creation and as Madhva cautions us, nothing human can be accepted as the ultimate knowledge. It is a guide that gives a different way of looking at the world from Huntington’s. Both should be seen as open to question and debate. What we need is understanding, not blind obedience.


This Vedantic idea of Yuga cycles dominated by different values is one of India’s most significant contributions. It was borrowed by the famous historian Arnold Toynbee, though he did not go into its spiritual-metaphysical analysis based on gunas.


Acknowledgement: I am grateful to General Ved Prakash Malik, former Chief of the Indian Army, for suggesting that Huntington’s approach was limited and an alternative vision based on values held promise and worth exploring.



User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top