29.1: FOUR CHARACTER-TYPES OF PEOPLE
SVADHARMA AND SVABHAVA : THE VARNA SYSTEM
The character-type of a person depends upon what quality dominates the person’s inner nature (Svabhava). There are three major qualities focussed in all our scriptures and the Gita elaborately discusses each one of them in the 14th, 16th and 17th chapters of the Gita. In Sanskrit terminology they are known as Satva, Rajas and Tamas. The English words that roughly correspond to these may be taken as Divine, Dynamic and Dull, respectively These are the tendencies, modes or attitudes that govern our nature and are collectively called Gunas.
Different qualities may sprout forth at different occasions even in the same person. Every minute we are involved in some action. Even thought is a mental action. There cannot be a moment when we are not involved in action.
Na hi kashcid kshanamapi jAtu tishhTatyakarmakRRit. (3 – 5).
If it is the divine, pure, ideal and tranquil Sattva mode that is uppermost in our mental attitude, at that moment we either involve ourselves in a noble action or we at least think of one such as an inspiration. But very often it is the dynamic or dull modes that are dominant in us. Sometimes we are excited about something; sometimes we are restless with anxiety. These happen on the eruption of the rajas mode. ‘Greed, passionate activity, initiative of actions, restlessness, desire – these show up in us when rajas predominates’
lobhaH pravRRittirArambhaH karmaNAm ashamaH spRRihA /
rajasyetAni jAyante vivRRidhe bharatarshabha // 14-12.
At other times we are lazy, indolent, dull or just not interested in anything. Either something is occupying our mind or we are lost in some confusion and inertia and just do not know what to do. This is tamas, the dark mode of a lump of stone. ‘Inner darkness, inertia, negligence and delusion, these are born when tamas predominates.’:
aprakASho apravRRittishca pramado moha eva ca /
tamasyetAni jAyante vivRRidhe kurunandana // 14-13
Though no person can be counted as having any one of these tendencies in an exclusive manner the three guNas constitute broad categories in which man’s nature can be divided in general. Our scriptures (including the Gita) specify four such broad categories for all humans. In his commentary on shloka 41 of the eighteenth chapter of the Gita, Shankara lists these four character-types of the human population as follows:
Those in whom sattva is the dominating quality
Those in whom rajas dominates with sattva as the next dominating influence
Those in whom rajas dominates with tamas as the next dominating influence
Those in whom tamas is the dominating quality.
The Gita names these types as Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras. We shall name them, for the purpose of this article, as B-type, K-type, V-type and S-type, respectively.
The ascent to a reasonable height in Spirituality is not easy. This has to be an effort over a long period of years in one life. That it takes quite several lives before one reaches this stage is a standard refrain of Hindu scriptural writing. Each individual brings with him at birth a particular shade of imprint, known as vAsanA, in his mind from his previous lives. The shademix of the aggregate of vAsanAs must be conducive to the growth of Spirituality. Krishna mentions, in the 18th chapter of the Gita, six distinct entities as important to be watched, analyzed and monitored by self-effort. Knowledge (jnAnam); Action (karma); Doer (kartA); Intellect (buddhi); Will (dhRti); Happiness (sukham). For each of these six entities, Krishna classifies human behavior into the three categories of sattva, rajas & tamas. The tendencies that one brings along from one’s own past, including all previous lives, in respect of these entitites, delineate one’s svabhava. Scriptural hypothesis is that we bring along these attitudes or tendencies from our previous lives.
Each of the six entitites chosen by Krishna for discussion is dissected by Him into what shade of behavioral response belongs to the satva mode, what belongs to the rajas mode, and what belongs to the tamas mode. Thus here
are six entities and three modes of responses to each, altogether making 18 different response-modes. Krishna devotes one verse to each of these eighteen in the 18th chapter of the Gita. These verses can be be a good exercise to do a self-analysis (of this life!) in search of one's own character-type by means of 18 leading questions (framed by using almost the same words of Krishna), to be asked by oneself of oneself. The honest answers to these questions will point out, in a broad way, one’s cumulative character-type. (Incidentally this is the answer to the legitimate question asked by every Gita-reader who does not believe in the Varna system : How do I know what my svadharma is?).
For each of the six entities the three questions have been framed in such a way that the answer is either Yes or No. But the assumption however is that these three constitute, as it were, a multiple choice question and only one of these three can be answered affirmatively. In other words the three are mutually exclusive alternatives. For each entity one therefore ends up with one of these alternatives, namely, either, satva, rajas or tamas mode of respones these being the affirmative answers to the first, second or third alternative in each set. If, for instance, there is
a satva response for KNOWLEDGE,
a rajas response for ACTION,
a rajas response for DOER,
a rajas response for INTELLECT,
a tamas response for WILL, and
a tamas response for HAPPINESS.
the cumulative type of the person concerned is this string of six responses. It may be specified as one satva, three rajas, and two tamas. Note that we blur the issue of which one is satva, which three are rajas and which two are tamas.. Note also that each set of three questions is actually a set of three alternatives, the best fit of which is to be chosen. In each case the corres-ponding verse Nos. from Ch.18 of the gItA are given in parenthesis.
Three Questions pertaining to KNOWLEDGE
(Verse nos.20, 21, 22 of the Gita, Ch.18)
Did the individual have a true knowledge of the One-ness of all things?
Did he have only an imperfect knowledge which did not go beyond the plurality on the surface?
Did he have a totally false knowledge that spared him no eye for the real nature of things?
All the scriptures keep on saying that the right vision is that which sees the One-ness amidst the plurality of experience. Perception of difference arises because of the recognition of name and form. The enlightened one sees the tile, the stone, and the golden brick, all in the same way. ‘sama-loShTAshma-kAnchanaH’ (14-24). Also 5-18:
vidyA-vinaya-sampanne brAhmaNe gavi hastini /
shuni caiva shvapAke ca panDitAH samadarshinaH //
This equanimity of vision is the ultimate goal of all spirituality. When a wooden elephant is presented to a child the child is carried away by imaginations about the elephant. But we shall be only children spiritually if we cannot see the wood for the elephant. The normal human being is distracted by the multiplicity of appearances and is still, as it were, in a dream state, where he refuses to believe there is a more real world outside of his dream. Because, no dreamer realizes, while dreaming, that he is dreaming. He cannot rise beyond the glamour of the plurality that confronts him and does not perceive there is an essential unity in all that he sees. This kind of knowledge sees the multiplicity of things only in their separateness and variety of operation.
pRRitaktvena tu yajjnAnaM nAnAbhAvAn pRRithagvidhAn /
vetti sarveShu bhUteShu tajjnANaM viddhi rAjasaM // 18-21
It looks at the jumble of pieces of knowledge as if they are forcefully put together -- just as a high-school kid learning mathematics would think of algebra, geometry and trigonometry as so many different pieces of skills of manipulation, or a college junior thinking of each discipline like Mathematics or Physics as a splintered collection of sub-disciplines.
Still another kind of knowledge is a small and narrow way of looking at things which has no eye for the real nature of the world. It is fanatic in its faith and in its values. It clings to one moment, routine or movement as if it were the whole, (kRRitsnavadekasmin –18-22) without a comprehensive foresight or intelligence and revels in this 'knowledge'. It is circumscribed by the importance it gives to itself. It is like the wave saying: ‘Where is the Ocean? I am the Ocean!’ This is the kind of knowledge which cannot see God in the idol of worship or the soul in the live body. It sees only the effect, not the cause.
The scriptures prescribe, on the other hand, that perception wherein
Whatever you see, you see only the Lord's presence in it;
Whatever you hear, it is the melody of His music, Krishna-flute-like;
Whatever you taste, it is the sweetness of the nectar flowing from His Grace;
Whatever you smell, it is the fragrance of the dust of His feet; and
Whatever you touch, it is the touch of the divine hand of Fearlessness
Persons with this perception seek unity in their lives, unity of the physical and the mental, of the emotional and the intellectual. They respond to values that are beautiful, moral and good.