Spiritual Compass: The Three Qualities of Life

Spiritual Compass: The Three Qualities of Life

by Satish Kumar


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857844163
Publisher: UIT Cambridge
Publication date: 08/01/2018
Edition description: None
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Satish Kumar is an internationally renowned speaker on ecological and spiritual issues. He is the editor of Resurgence magazine, director of programmes at Schumacher College, and founder of the UK Schumacher Society. He is the author of Earth Pilgrim, No Destination, and You Are Therefore I Am.

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Spiritual Compass

The Three Qualities of Life

By Satish Kumar, Truda Lane

Green Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Satish Kumar
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-907448-13-3



A Way Out of Anguish

WE LIVE IN an age of anguish.

Political anguish makes civilised nations behave like barbarians, and superpowers live in fear. Rulers know not the art of ruling. Politicians in high office have little skill in solving problems. Ongoing conflicts in Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Sri Lanka, to name but a few, show both the intractable nature of the problems and the incapacity of those in power to resolve them. Fighting and killing are the principal means used to resolve discord and disharmony. People seem unable to find solutions which are just, fair and satisfactory to all.

Social anguish manifests itself when society allows people to die of starvation in the midst of plenty. Even though the struggle against debt and deprivation has been going on for decades, with governments, UN agencies and aid organisations pouring money and materials into deprived areas, yet an end to hunger remains a distant dream. It is a cliché, but nevertheless true, that the rich keep getting richer and the poor get poorer.

Farmers and food growers cannot make ends meet. Too many of them end up committing suicide. Rural people are losing their livelihoods and rushing to the cities, where they work in slavish conditions or are compelled to beg on the streets and live in slums.

Ecological anguish is evident as we destroy the environment which sustains our lives. We have lost a sense of balance between the rights of humans and the rights of nature. Much of what is considered to be economic, scientific and technological progress is causing severe stress to the soil, air and water. Despite constant warnings from scientists, neither governmental nor industrial leaders seem to know how to inspire and persuade people to change their ways so as to halt the pattern of ecological destruction and lead the world towards a sustainable future.

Our spiritual anguish is equally poignant. Established religions often provide no satisfactory sustenance to our souls. Traditional communities and extended families no longer exist in modern urban societies to provide the psychological and emotional support which is essential to our wellbeing. Rituals and ceremonies, which used to create a space for spiritual enrichment, have all but disappeared. Religious and cultural festivals which brought joy and a sense of celebration have too often been commercialised and turned into occasions for shopping and consuming.

The arts are more and more commercialised. They may make us celebrities and boost our egos, if we are lucky. They may bring us money, if we are successful, but spiritually they remain ineffectual.

What can we do? Where can we go? How can we feed the imagination? Where can we find inspiration? When can we nourish the soul? The culture of our time seems to have no answers.

PERHAPS ANCIENT WISDOM could offer us some clues to understanding who we are, what our nature is, and how we can create a pattern of living which is harmonious, integrated and balanced.

In Indian thought, there is a way to perceive the world as being made up of three qualities called gunas. When we see ourselves and understand our condition using the three qualities as a compass, they can tell us who we are and where we are. They can orient us towards the direction in which we wish to go. They can help us to recover the art of living and lead us out of our anguish towards a peaceful, joyful and contented existence. The three qualities can be interpreted in the modern context. They can throw light on the predicament of our anguished humanity. They can convey some ancient wisdom to the modern world. Through them we can relate to our everyday life — our food, clothing, agriculture, architecture, power structures, communication methods and problem-solving.

The Meaning of the Three Qualities

Sattvic is buoyant and shining
Rajasic is stimulating and moving
Tamasic is heavy and dominating
They illuminate the human path like a lamp
Ishvarakrishna, Samkhyakarika verses 12 & 13, 3rd to 5th century

The concept of the three qualities was developed as part of the philosophy and practice of Ayurveda, the traditional Indian health system dating back nearly 5,000 years. Ayurveda is a way of cultivating and maintaining our personal and social health as well as the health of the planet, and it is still practised widely in India.

In Ayurveda, physical wellbeing is dependent on two interconnected aspects: on the one hand, a healthy mind is the prerequisite of a healthy body, and on the other, without a healthy society and a healthy environment, personal health will remain a distant dream.

All objects, all thoughts, all actions and all relationships have one or the other of these three qualities or tendencies (or a combination of two, or all three of them), but one particular quality is always predominant.

In Sanskrit, these three qualities are called sattvic, rajasic and tamasic.

Sattvic means true, natural, uncorrupted, original, simple, sincere, good, delightful, honest, undiluted, refreshing, lucid, luminous and spiritual.

Rajasic means regal, royal, shining, glorious, glamorous, glittering, sophisticated, seductive, splendid, strong, extravagant and exciting. The word for 'kingdom' in most Indian languages is 'raj'. So rajas is connected with political power and prestige.

Tamasic means dark, dulling, depressing, sinister, ugly, fearful, dictatorial, diseased, heavy and harmful.

Sattvic focuses on the purity of means.

Rajasic is concerned with achieving the ends.

For tamasic, the end justifies the means.

Kindness is sattvic, anger is rajasic, and revenge is tamasic.

Sattvic seeks fulfilment, rajasic, success, and tamasic, control. These three qualities provide a map of three personality types. A sattvic mind appreciates and celebrates the intrinsic goodness of the natural world. Up or down, light or dark, flower or thorn, nature embodies complementary opposites. Maintaining a balance and harmony of opposites is the way of the sattvic: a recognition and understanding of things as they are, without judgement or desire to alter, flowing with the flow, going with the grain and remaining equanimous, is the sphere of the sattvic.

The rajasic mind leans towards the improvement of things. It believes that the raw and rugged realities of the natural world can be reformed and changed or even engineered to make them better suited to human purpose. In the rajasic mind, cultivated flowers are better than wild flowers; the splendour of exotic flowers in a magnificent vase is better than flowers in a field.

In the tamasic mind, the original or the natural is no good at all. The tamasic mind sees nature as red in tooth and claw. So tamasic tries to move away from nature as far as it can. Natural flowers are impermanent — they have to be renewed, they even die and have to be cleared away, so tamasic is attracted to plastic flowers. Tamasic divorces the idea of beauty from its source, and is attracted to an alien and artificial version of reality.

Life is like a river. The normal, steady and slow flow is sattvic. Only through its flow does the river keep its freshness. Then occasionally the river flows over a cliff in a dramatic way and forms a great waterfall — that is a rajasic event. In some places, the water is blocked and becomes stagnant, impure and polluted. That state is tamasic.

The sattvic way of life is available to everyone. It is authentic, ordinary; it is everyday life, and does not require a great deal of money and resources. It is simple, sincere, unassuming and sublime. The sattvic life derives its sustenance from the sun, moon and stars, from oceans, mountain peaks and forests. This sattvic quality is related to culture, community and creativity. It is spiritual and subtle; it is easy and self-organising. It does not make heavy demands on natural resources. It has only a small footprint on the Earth. It is sustaining and sustainable. It is fulfilling and healing.

People with a sattvic bent of mind get on with the business of life in small steps, trusting the process of the universe and believing that things will work out. People living a sattvic life may not consider themselves sattvic or claim to be sattvic. Cooking fresh food at home, taking care of children and guests, growing vegetables and fruit in their gardens, maintaining small farms, workshops and crafts, mending and repairing — all fall within the sattvic way of life.

To quote from an ancient Indian text, Shilpa Shastra, "A sattvic person is a good human being, generous in spirit, not given to anger, holy, learned, self-controlled, devout, charitable and taking delight in the care of the self and the care of the Earth."

This idea of sattva is comparable to the Wabi-Sabi of Japan, the Zen of Buddhism, the Tao of China, the Sufi way of Islam and the ways of the Shakers and the Amish. Sattva seeks synthesis, integrity and diversity. It is about being rather than having, it values stillness and silence, it celebrates less rather than more, it is appreciative and affirmative.

The sattvic person embodies firmness, courage, self-command, good sense, magnanimity and wisdom. The sattvic mind leads to inner and outer freedom, freedom for oneself as well as for others.

There is a Sanskrit verse which Mahatma Gandhi recited every day during morning and evening prayers, which encapsulates the sattvic spirit: "I do not desire kingdom, heaven, paradise or even nirvana. I only desire the end of suffering of all beings upon this Earth." In this prayer, Gandhi did not seek nirvana for himself; he only desired the end of suffering for others; he was in a space of total generosity. As a consequence, he was in a state of nirvana even though he did not desire it. This is the quality of a sattvic person.

A rajasic person wanders from temple to temple, from book to book, from one spiritual technique to another, resorts to drugs, psychotherapy or some other method, searching, seeking and longing for nirvana or enlightenment for him- or herself. Yet such self-seeking is no help in attaining nirvana. Sattva is a state of effortless being; rajas is a state of active seeking. Sattva finds miracles in the ordinary, magic in every moment; every day is a fine day, every breath is a breath of the universe, every river a sacred river and every mountain a holy mountain. Tamas shows up a destructive mind. It seeks pleasure by inflicting suffering on others. It attacks to defend itself. It destroys the interests of others to serve self-interest.

The rajasic way of life is the way of the elite. It is slick and analytical. It impresses and makes an impact; it celebrates speed, the grand and the extravagant. It likes big projects, big dams, big buildings, big power stations, big bridges, big stadiums and big shows. It concentrates on achievement, on outcome and on success. It admires celebrities, the prestigious and the powerful. It likes display, decoration and extravaganzas. Rajas does not mind waste. It often pays lip service to fairness and justice but then moves on to serve its own interest. It loves technological solutions and elaborate plans to conquer space. Rajasic rulers claim to favour freedom but in practice they impose their rule through domination and control. They believe that the rajasic path is superior and that it will be possible for everyone to be on it. The rajasic way of life is dependent on excessive use of natural resources, and values nature only in terms of her usefulness to humans. It believes in scientific progress, technological development and economic growth. Rajas relishes power, money and the military. It hungers for comfort and convenience.

The tamasic tendency relates to the forces of darkness. It is dictatorial, cunning, fearful and secretive. It produces depression, dullness, apathy and inertia. It is associated with casinos, the underworld, the black market, brothels, crime, drugs, prisons and torture. The tamasic way leads to factory farming, to huge slaughterhouses, to genetic engineering and to large-scale mining. Sometimes what starts off as sattva grows into rajas and then degenerates into tamas. For example, fishing on a small scale as a source of sattvic livelihood to feed a community can grow into a rajasic business where it still maintains a certain social responsibility and some environmental concern, but when the business grows into a fleet of factory ships, spreading miles of nets, depleting fish stocks, exporting fish around the world and destroying the small-boat fishing culture along with its dependent communities, then rajasic has turned into tamasic.

When an economy provides a livelihood for individuals and families, it is a sattvic economy. When the economy grows large, motivated by profit, but still operates within the parameters of social responsibility, then it is a rajasic economy. But when humans and the Earth are used to serve the economy; then it turns into a tamasic economy. Most multinational corporations operate in a tamasic way, in what Joel Bakan calls "the pathological pursuit of profit and power".

Political power is always rajasic, but it can turn easily from rajasic to tamasic. The rulers managing, maintaining and organising the affairs of their own country are rajasic, but when they colonise, build empires, wage wars of conquest and destroy other cultures, then rajasic politics becomes tamasic; the queen in her kingdom and the president of a republic ruling with the consent of their peoples, are rajasic; but when the kingdom becomes an empire or a democracy turns into a dictatorship, then it is tamasic.

Likewise, when soldiers defend the weak of their own country against invasions while acting with appropriate force, then they are within the rajasic realm. But when armies bomb other countries, indiscriminately killing civilians calling it 'collateral damage', using disproportionate force backed by nuclear weapons, then that army has become a tamasic force. Abuse, violation of human rights and torture are intrinsically part of tamasic action.

Thus the sattvic tendency is always towards minimum impact. The sattvic approach to economics and politics is a quest for simple, longlasting benefits and non-violent means.

The sattvic way seeks wholeness and harmony.

The Three Qualities in Communication: Dialogue, Diplomacy and Monologue

THE SATTVIC WAY is the way of dialogue. In dialogue, we are engaged in mutual exploration and understanding. There is no fixed position, no dogma, no desire to convert; rather, there is a desire to reach a stage which is respectful to all sides and honours the intrinsic qualities of every position, making dialogue a conversation among equals. We can be in dialogue with people, with nature and with ourselves. Dialogue happens with open minds and open hearts. It reaches compromise in the ambit of the true meaning of the word: 'promising together'.

In dialogue, change comes about from within and emerges out of shared understanding, instead of change being imposed from without. In dialogue, unexpected insights emerge, things unfold, relation-ships deepen, ideas multiply, imagination is enhanced and everyone is engaged in a process of discovery. Everyone participates, all sides are active.

The rajasic way is the way of diplomacy. Diplomacy can conceal a fixed position and self-interest, but outwardly show patience, politeness and peaceable intent. It tries to find a way to convince, to win over through argument, bargaining and even bribery. It tries to avoid confrontation or a breakdown in communication. It is the way of making deals, business contracts and political treaties. In diplomacy, razzmatazz is added — receptions are held, champagne flows, the ego is massaged, everyone is made to feel important and the red carpet is rolled out. This is the realm of rajas.

The tamasic way is the way of monologue. Monologue has blind faith in its own rightness. It starts from the position of 'I am right, you are wrong. You change, or else.' Monologue threatens, cajoles, calls names, denigrates, imposes and resorts to brute force. It leads to monopoly and monoculture. Tamas is trapped in monologue. It wants its own way, regardless. It embraces violence and is driven by anger, pride, greed, illusion and lust. Its methods are heavy-handed. It justifies errors and never recognises them, even when everyone can see that things have gone wrong; a tamasic person finds it hard to say sorry.


Excerpted from Spiritual Compass by Satish Kumar, Truda Lane. Copyright © 2010 Satish Kumar. Excerpted by permission of Green Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


A Spiritual Compass,
Preface by Deepak Chopra,
Foreword by Peter Russell,
An Invitation,
The Three Qualities of Life according to the Bhagavad Gita,
Chapter One The Three Qualities of Life,
Chapter Two Sattvic Spirit: Spirit and Matter,
Chapter Three The Sattvic Way of Life,
Chapter Four Sattvic Ecology,
Chapter Five Three Kinds of Development,
Chapter Six Sattvic Principles in Jain Tradition,

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