Gunas and History (Q. 318)

Q: 1. If the triple gunas are the matrix of the “reality”, aren’t they immutable and therefore truly real? (I have asked this question a while ago in our personal correspondence but I can’t access my old email and it still bothers me…).

2. What is the ontological status of the course of human history? Is it objective, or just a sort of shared mass illusion that somewhat gets transferred from generation to generation? I am aware of the imprecision of my language but hopefully you will understand my meaning.

A to Q1 (Peter)Guṇas are the subtlest form of manifest matter and, being matter, are thus subject to change. So they are not immutable.

 Guṇas in their unmanifest and undifferentiated form are the triple śakti of māyā: jñạna, krīyā and dravya shakti, the undifferentiated and unmanifest powers of knowledge, action and materialisation. When these move into manifestation they get the names sattva, rajas and tamas.

 Māyā is linked to Brahman as the power to illumine is linked to sun, or the power to burn is linked to fire or, to take a more useful illustration, as the stillness of water is linked to water in its undisturbed state. Undifferentiated and unmanifest in the stillness of water lie waves, ripples, foam, bubbles, etc that become manifest when the stillness gets disturbed. Water (Brahman) never changes to become changeable waves (cosmos); only that which lies unmanifest and undifferentiated in its stillness (māyā) when disturbed (cosmic prārabdha) becomes manifest.

 Thus there is no creation, there is only manifestation of what was before as mere names of forms taken by Brahman. The guṇas are names of forms of Brahman that come into manifestation at a particular moment of time; before manifestation they were there undifferentiated as māyā shakti.

 Māyā, as Brahman’s potential for manifestation, is timelessly and inextricably linked to Brahman. So in this sense, in their unmanifest and undifferentiated form as māyā shakti, the guṇas are always there (as is everything else gross and subtle – poised for manifestation). They get the name, form and function ‘guṇa’ only when differentiated and manifest. The three guṇas combines in various proportions to manifest as the five primary elements which, in turn, recombine in various ways to give us the whole subtle and gross universe.

 So guṇas have a beginning, their strength or dominance can be affected by prayer and meditation and they will resolve back into their undifferentiated and unmanifest form as māyā. That’s a potted history of the guṇas.

 A to Q2 (Peter):  You ask about history. History is the collected memories of passing time. When the cosmos comes into manifestation, one of the first elements (as science too tells us) is time. Time is part of the material universe and time is thus one of the very subtlest forms of matter, and possesses the fundamental characteristic of matter, namely to change. Changing time, passing time + changing universe, passing forms = history.

 History is there on waking, not fully there during dream and totally absent during sleep. The only Absolute reality – that which does not change at all – is the consciousness that is there as the truth of all three states of experience. Because of its absence in some conditions, history/time is mithyā, not absolutely real.

 One thought that came to mind, however, on reading the question n history is: what is the person going to do with the answer?

 One’s own self-ignorance – the matter we try to resolve through spiritual enquiry – is personal; so what does it matter if history is a shared mass illusion or not? The ‘mass’ is also mithyā. The memory is also mithyā. The passing generations are also mithyā. All these are there for experience but tend to disappear on forensic examination.

 If a chain is nothing but gold, we cannot say the chain doesn’t exist, but we’d be hard pressed to say which bit of the ornament it is. We can make matters simpler by removing the gold so as not to clutter our enquiry, but when gold is removed what we have left is just an idea, a name, an image of a form. There’s no tangibility to the chain; only gold is tangible. We can similarly examine gold to arrive at energy. Science takes us thus far. After this we need śāstram to take us to consciousness-Brahman as the only ultimate, absolute, independent reality – the only thing that isn’t mithyā.

 Brahman manifesting in the form of each individual also manifests as the history of that individual – individual and history, thus having a cause on which they depend, are mithyā. Brahman manifesting as the mithyā jagat also includes the mithyā history of the jagat. By knowing the truth of the individual, the truth of the jagat is also known as it were: all unanswered questions become resolved. It is impossible to get to the truth of the individual from understanding the truth of the jagat! Enquire as long as one might into the nature of the cosmos and its history/time and we only get as far as science has got. That still leaves us with our own false self-identity which still has unanswered questions and unresolved emotional problems.

 So the only viable, useful activity for one who wishes to know the truth of the all is to discover the truth of himself or herself. The only means for this is study of śāstram with a qualified teacher.

A to Q1 (Ramesam):  I can answer only from the perspective of Advaita siddhanta.

First we need to understand what types of realities exist and the possible modes of change from one reality to the other in order to know if a quality like immutability of a reality (the cause) will be passed on to the daughter reality, (the effect).

There are three types of ‘reality’ in our experience. These are:

 i)  The Transactional reality  —  which is the everyday wakeful world empirical reality where we perform all sorts of transactions;

ii)  The Dream world reality  —  which we experience while we are in a state of dreaming; and

iii)  The Absolute Reality      —  which is The True ‘Reality’ (written with capital ‘R’) that does not vary with time (past, present and future).

There are five ways by which an effect can take shape from its cause.

 The five modes are (Quoting from what the Sage Vasishta teaches in Yogavaasishta):

  1. Non-negated Prior Condition:  A ball of clay is molded into a pot.  The prior condition was the ball of clay.  The latter state is a pot.  Simply because it is in the form of a pot now, the clayeyness of the pot has not gone away.  That means the clayeyness is not negated.  This type of transformation of a cause into an effect is christened Non-negated prior condition (atirohita prag avastha).
  2. Inhibited Prior Condition: Water has become ice.  You do not see any liquid water in ice.  But we cannot also deny the quality of water in ice.  We can only say that the watery-quality has been inhibited.  Therefore, this transformation is called Inhibited Prior Condition (prati badha prag avastha).
  3. Veiled Prior Condition:  A rope appears as a snake.  The prior quality of ropiness is covered up when it appears as a snake.  Therefore, it is called Veiled Prior Condition (prachchanna prag avastha).
  4. Unveiled Prior Condition:  Water has changed to a wave form.  Though the form of a wave is seen, the original quality of water is also clearly seen.  Therefore, this transformation is known as Unveiled Prior Condition (aprachchanna prag avastha).
  5. Vanished Prior Condition:  Milk has curdled to yogurt.  The prior condition of being milk is totally lost on curdling.  Therefore, this transformation is named Vanished Prior Condition (vinashTa prag avastha).

 The first four are called false appearances or changeless changes (vivarta) because the original substance does not really undergo any change.

The original substance, however, is irrevocably changed in the fifth mode. This process is called evolution (pariNama).  It is also called manipulation.  Another name for it is modification. 

As per Advaita, the genesis of the world is a changeless change. The Immutable “Reality” did not evolve or get modified in giving raise to the world.

Further, only a substance that has different parts or components within it (i.e. a substance that is divisible) can get modified. The immutable Original Reality is never subject to any modification. It does not have any parts or constituents within It. Therefore, It could not have contained within Itself a matrix comprising the three gunas.

The ‘reality’ which is said to consist of the three gunas is that of the visible world. This statement has its validity only in the domain of the world reality (i.e. Transactional reality) which has come about by a changeless change (vivarta).

The matrix of gunas is only an artifact invented to explain the variety and multiplicity within the visible world (transactional reality). The matrix of gunas is not derived from Original Immutable Reality. Hence, the matrix of gunas never had any true Reality nor does it have in the world.

A to Q2 (Ramesam): History implies time. But time is an imagination. Time does not have Reality or Beingness. It is an illusion. Hence history is necessarily also an illusion being a derivative of ‘time.’

Our Consciousness (which is One Whole ‘Experiencing’, undivided and unlabeled into fragments) has no memory and hence no history. It is forever fresh from moment to moment. Any history comes from the stored ‘memory’ of the events — (memory being a function of the mind, not that of Consciousness). The event that arises in memory is NOT happening as an actual ‘experiencing’ of that event in the Present Now. A thought of that event may arise in the Now, but it is that thought which is sensed and not the actual experiencing of the event.

I often cite the example of a thermometer as a metaphor. A thermometer can sense the temperature always in the Now only. It cannot give the temperature of a minute ago or the future temperature of day after tomorrow. Consciousness too knows eternally only in the Now.

The happening of the mass illusion can be understood from the following example. Suppose a group of soldiers fighting a war dream of winning the war when they are asleep because they heard pep up talk from their company commander before going to bed. Does the fact that all of them had the same dream make it any more real? History too is thus a mass illusion and not Reality (capital ‘R’). 

The mass illusion gets transferred through the replicator of ‘thought’ from one mind to the other. The technical name given to such ‘replicators’ of cultural / historical information is ‘meme’ (R. Dawkins) rhyming with gene — the replicator for genetic information. ‘Teme’ is the word coined for the replicator of technological information (Sue Blackmore). These replicators help carry the stored information from one time period to the other.

A to Q1 (Dennis): You have asked a similar question before. Here is the complete Q&A from before:

Q: In Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s discourses the five elements and the three gunas appear to be permanent and immutable but these are the characteristics of the Absolute, the only Reality. At the same time the elements and gunas are part of the manifested reality, i.e., the world which is not “real”. So how can they be both real and unreal?

 A: Can you quote the reference that states that the elements and/or guNa are real in any sense? This must be a misunderstanding. The really real is unmanifest and undifferentiated. The world, elements, guNa or whatever are mithyA only, name and form dependent upon the reality. Please rephrase or ask additional questions if this is not clear.

 Q: This is actually my question. Are they? My reasoning (quite possibly faulty) goes as follows: 1. The Real is permanent and unchanging. 2. The gunas and elements are – apparently – permanent and unchanging, since it is they that always rule in the same fashion the manifest reality. 3. The gunas and elements are real.

 I do have a nagging feeling that this conclusion is based on an error but I can’t put my finger on it. We could also say that this question is unimportant, or “who wants to know”, etc., etc. However, I wonder if receiving an answer on the same epistemological level is possible. Alternatively, I would like to know where do I take the false step in my argument. Perhaps the criteria of immutability and permanency are not sufficient to make “something” real?

 A: Right, now I see where you are coming from! Good reasoning, faulty premise.

 The point about all traditional Advaita teaching is that it is aimed at taking us from where we think we are now (separate, limited etc.) to the recognition of our identity with brahman. And where x might be now in all likelihood differs from where y might be. Accordingly, Advaita has carefully gauged prakriyA-s which the teacher will use as appropriate for a particular student.

 Ultimately, *all* prakriyA-s are false. Once the related ignorance has been dispelled, the knowledge that brought it about is discarded, too. All knowledge is equally mithyA. So, the story about five elements and three guNa is a useful fiction, devised to help the sAdhaka along the way towards understanding. The only reality is brahman and this cannot be divided onto elements or anything else. If it could be divided, it would not be non-dual, as you have already appreciated.

 Incidentally, you use the term ‘manifest reality’. This is not strictly accurate and could be misleading. The world is not other than brahman so, in that sense, is real. But it is only a particular form of brahman, in the same way that the ring is a form of gold. The correct appellation is that the world is mithyA – dependent for its reality on brahman. Only brahman is ultimately real – satyam. The ring is always gold but the gold may or may not be ring.

 To address your new question, the guNa-s only have reality in sAMkhya philosophy, where they are the substantial parts of prakRRiti or pradhAna. In advaita, they are the attributes of prakRRiti, which itself is only mithyA.

 A to Q2 (Dennis): Regarding history (an interesting question that I have not encountered before), this too is mithyA. Everything is mithyA. Only brahman is satyam. If you think of one of your dreams, it clearly had a history for its duration, i.e. a beginning and an end and a succession of events in between, even if these did not seem to have logical succession (when viewed from the vantage point of the waking state). What we call the ‘real world’, which we perceive in our waking state, does seem to have logical succession and also a content that is agreed amongst different observers. But it can be regarded as Ishvara’s dream if you like and it lasts a very long time from our standpoint (4,320,000,000 years, I believe, according to Hinduism). At the end of the creation, the universe returns to unmanifest form, along with all the jIva-s and Ishvara. But, in between creation and dissolution (pralaya), history is maintained and appears to be to be objective from the standpoint of the jIva.