Hindu Philosophy: What is tamas?


Tamas refers to the mode of ignorance, one of the three modes under which material nature operates.

In Bhagavad Gita, people of different mental constitutions are described.

They come under three headings - sattva, rajas, and tamas - and everything within the material world is a combination of these three modes, or gunas as they are called.

Understanding how nature works according to the three modes, it becomes easy to psychologically evaluate oneself and any other person with minute accuracy.

The 3 modes of material nature - goodness, passion and ignorance - are like the three primary colors. From the three prime colors all other colors and shades of colors are made. Similarly, everything in the material world - the body, the mind, the intelligence, the work, the action, the mentality, the situation, is a unique mix of these 3 modes.

It's important to understand, that we are all a mixture of goodness, passion and ignorance, but one of these mode always predominates.

Lets look at how different persons view the world according to the three modes - how they perceive reality. This is very important because reality is all about perception and awareness.

A person in whom the mode of ignorance predominates will identify people and himself by their work, usually what they do to make money or what kind of degree and education they have. The work a person does is the main determining factor of a person's identity. When we identify a person as a soccer player, an actor or an artist, that’s knowledge in the mode of ignorance.

A person in the mode of passion will identify other living entities according to the body like gender, race and family they inhabit. You identify people according to their body. That’s knowledge in the mode of passion.

A person in the mode of goodness will identify people according to the soul. He will see the same soul in all living entities. He won't identify persons according to their work or their body, he will see that all souls are part of the same whole, are of the same energy. So in the mode of goodness you will have a holistic world view. That’s knowledge in the mode of goodness.

Krishna says:

According to the three different modes of material nature, there are three kinds of knowledge, action and performer of action. Now hear of them from Me. — Bg 18.19

That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all living entities, though they are divided into innumerable forms, you should understand to be in the mode of goodness. (Bg 18.20)

That knowledge by which one sees that in every different body there is a different type of living entity you should understand to be in the mode of passion. (Bg 18.21)

And that knowledge by which one is attached to one kind of work as the all in all, without knowledge of the truth, and which is very meager, is said to be in the mode of darkness. (Bg 18.22)

A person in the mode of ignorance will find his main enjoyment in intoxication, sleep and dreaming. A person in the mode of passion will find his main enjoyment in sex, power and prestige. A person in the mode of goodness will find his main enjoyment in knowledge and learning.

Again, it's important to note that you don't find people purely in one mode, it's always a mix.

The mode of ignorance destroys, the mode of passion creates and the mode of goodness preserves and maintains.

So we can have a person who goes to his job every day for 20 years. That's maintaining, so that's the mode of goodness. But in his free time he sits in the sofa watching TV and smoking a joint or having a drink, that's the mode of ignorance. Or he is a big business man making lots of money having power and prestige from a corporation. That's the mode of passion. Or the scientist or philosopher who study and gather knowledge. That's the mode of goodness.

Liberation, however, means to transcend these three modes. That's the Brahman plane.

And beyond the Brahman plane is the Krishna plane where we act out all our desires to give Krishna enjoyment.

That is the final stage and goal of human life.

Krishna says:

Material nature consists of three modes – goodness, passion and ignorance. When the eternal living entity comes in contact with nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, he becomes conditioned by these modes.

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 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.

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.

O son of Bharata, the mode of goodness conditions one to happiness; passion conditions one to fruitive action; and ignorance, covering one’s knowledge, binds one to madness.

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.

— Bhagavad-gita 14. 5-10

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