The subject of the three modes of material nature is of great importance to souls who have taken birth in the material world because of envying God. In the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead (the perfect spiritual master) instructs Arjuna (the perfect disciple) on the characteristics of the three modes of material nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance. Lord Krishna’s instructions include directions on how to transcend the three material modes and enter the spiritual realm.
In his commentary on the beginning verses of this chapter, Srila Prabhupada explains that the living entity, the spirit soul, is entangled in the material world because of association with the three modes of material nature. While the modes contaminate material knowledge, uncontaminated transcendental knowledge is available. By understanding transcendental knowledge, great sages have attained perfection and the spiritual world. Mere academic knowledge does not free one from the modes. One must acquire transcendental knowledge.
In text 14.6 Lord Krishna says,
tatra sattvam nirmalatvat
“O sinless one, the mode of goodness, being purer than the others, is illuminating, and it frees one from all sinful reactions. Those situated in that mode become conditioned by a sense of happiness and knowledge.” The mode of goodness makes us wiser than others and enriches us with material knowledge. This knowledge makes us feel superior and conditions us to believe the illusion that life is pleasant. Srila Prabhupada says that as long as we are attracted to working in this mode, we have to take some type of body under the modes of nature and remain bound to the material world and repeated birth and death.
In text 14.11 Sri Krishna says,
sarva-dvaresu dehe ’smin
jñanam yada tada vidyad
vivrddham sattvam ity uta
“The manifestations of the mode of goodness can be experienced when all the gates of the body are illuminated by knowledge.” The nine gates of the body two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, the mouth, the genital, and the anus are said to be illuminated when a person’s behavior is in the mode of goodness. In the practice of Krishna consciousness, the devotee engages all the gates the whole body to reach the state of pure goodness. For example, the devotee uses the eyes and ears to read and hear the scriptures, the nostrils to smell flowers offered to the Lord, and the mouth to taste food offered to the Lord and to chant the mahamantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Chanting and following the four regulative principles no meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, or gambling gradually take a devotee to the mode of goodness and then to transcendence.
Regarding the mode of passion, Sri Krishna says in text 14.7,
rajo ragatmakam viddhi
tan nibadhnati kaunteya
“The mode of passion is born of unlimited desires and longings, O son of Kunti, and because of this the embodied living entity is bound to material fruitive actions.” The mode of passion gives rise to various kinds of sense gratification, such as sexual attraction, excessive attachment to family, society, and country, and constant engagement in fruitive action. All sense gratification results in karmic reactions and consequently repeated birth and death. Hankering for enjoyment and working hard for it are the traits of a person in this mode.
Sense gratification includes competing and working hard for fame and honor. Passionate struggles in any field of life impede progress toward liberation. Thus the mode of passion binds one to the material world.
Regarding the mode of ignorance, Sri Krishna says in text 14.8,
tamas tv ajñana-jam viddhi
tan nibadhnati bharata
“O son of Bharata, know that the mode of darkness, born of ignorance, is the delusion of all embodied living entities. The results of this mode are madness, indolence, and sleep, which bind the conditioned soul.” A person in this mode is lazy and mad, has no chance of liberation, and is uninterested in spiritual life. This mode degrades people and leads to atheism, intoxication, and birth in the lowest forms of life.
In text 14.10 Lord Krishna says,
sattvam bhavati bharata
rajan sattvam tamas caiva
taman sattvam rajas tatha
“Sometimes the mode of goodness becomes prominent, defeating the modes of passion and ignorance, O son of Bharata. Sometimes the mode of passion defeats goodness and ignorance, and at other times ignorance defeats goodness and passion. In this way there is always competition for supremacy.” The three modes of material nature are present in mixed proportions in a human being, and one may predominate.
Freedom from the Modes
A devotee keen on advancing in Krishna consciousness has to transcend the three modes. Lord Krishna says that a person who dies in the mode of goodness goes to the higher planets of the great sages, a person who dies in the mode of passion is born among those engaged in fruitive activities, and a person who dies in the mode of ignorance is born in the animal kingdom. A devotee has no desire to go to these destinations but wants to go back home, back to Godhead. A sadhaka, or practicing devotee, desires to transcend the three modes by the constant practice of devotional service under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master in the guru-disciple system (parampara).
After hearing all about the three modes, in text 14.21 Arjuna asks three questions important for devotees who want to transcend the modes: “Arjuna inquired: O my dear Lord, by which symptoms is one known who is transcendental to these three modes? What is his behavior? And how does he transcend the modes of nature?
Lord Krishna’s answers to these three questions, in texts 22–25, form the complete philosophy of how one can transcend the modes of material nature and return to the spiritual world. Srila Prabhupada expertly summarizes this philosophy in his commentary. Transcendentally situated persons have no envy and do not hanker for anything. They perform their duty in Krishna consciousness, indifferent to honor and dishonor. They have nothing to do with material existence. Social and political issues do not affect them. They do nothing for their own sake and everything for Krishna.
Lord Krishna answers Arjuna’s third question (how one transcends the modes of nature) in text 14.26: “One who engages in full devotional service, unfailing in all circumstances, at once transcends the modes of material nature and thus comes to the level of Brahman.” To rise above the three modes of material nature, we have to transfer our consciousness from the influence of the material modes to Krishna consciousness by practicing bhakti-yoga. A devotee in Krishna consciousness is not in association with the modes, is without false ego, and serves with great determination and enthusiasm, unwavering in success or failure. The influence of the modes vanishes when a devotee completely surrenders to Lord Krishna.
Commenting on text 14.26, Srila Prabhupada recommends, “One should not be disturbed by the activities of the modes of nature; instead of putting his consciousness into such activities, he may transfer his consciousness to Krishna activities. Krishna activities are known as bhakti-yoga always acting for Krishna.” Commenting on text 14.27, the final text of the chapter, Srila Prabhupada summarizes Krishna conscious activities:
One should always engage in the service of the Lord, should eat the remnants of foodstuffs offered to the deity, smell the flowers offered to the lotus feet of the Lord, see the places where the Lord had His transcendental pastimes, read of the different activities of the Lord, His reciprocation of love with His devotees, chant always the transcendental vibration Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, and observe the fasting days commemorating the appearances and disappearances of the Lord and His devotees. By following such a process one becomes completely detached from all material activities.
Narasimha Swami Dasa (Dr. S.G.N. Swamy), a disciple of His Holiness Jayapataka Swami, holds a Ph.D. in engineering management. He served at ISKCON Jakarta for about sixteen years. For the past ten years he has been serving at the ISKCON Sri Jagannath Mandir in Bangalore, where he lives with his wife, Vatsala Radha Devi Dasi.