Aspects of Vaisnava Theory & Practice
The Three Modes of Material Nature
Chapter 02
What Are The Three Modes
Segment 06
Ignorance Is No Excuse

In the course of discussing the three modes of nature it could be said that many are mystified by the question,

“What are the modes of nature?” 

People ask,

“Are they a substance or the qualities?  Are they an energy of Krishna?  What exactly are they?” 

They think the matter more complicated than Krishna’s explanation in Bhagavad-gita—that material nature consists of three modes, goodness, passion, and ignorance and these three are ever vying for dominance over the conditioned souls.

The workings of the modes are intricate and complicated, no doubt, nevertheless, the basic idea of what they are is not complicated or difficult to grasp.  By classifying material nature into three categories, each with specific symptoms, the Lord gives conditioned souls a means of interacting with material nature in according to the specific result they are seeking.  One just has to act in terms of a particular mode to get that result.  It means one no longer lives an accidental life.  Specific actions in specific modes of nature yield specific results.  These results come whether the action is done knowingly or unknowingly, but there is an obvious advantage to one who knows—he can choose those actions that are in his self-interest.

Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita 14.5,

“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.”

From this verse, it is clear that the three modes of nature are nothing but a way of classifying material nature itself.  Just as Krishna’s internal potency is broken down into three divisions or qualities,

  1. Hladini sakti—Krishna’s pleasure potency.
  2. Sandhini-sakti—the existence potency of the Lord.
  3. Samvit-sakti—the knowledge portion of the Lord’s spiritual potency.

Hence, the external energy is broken down into,

  1. Sattva -guna—the mode of goodness.
  2. Rajo-guna—the mode of passion.
  3. Tamo-guna—the mode of ignorance.

And just like the interactions of the three spiritual energies are responsible for conducting all the affairs of the spiritual world, so the interactions of the three material modes conduct all the affairs of the material energy.

This breakdown allows us to make specific choices in terms of what is in our best interest.  Being ignorant of the modes of nature, most people do not realize that their activities cause them to develop specific qualities and results.  They live for sense gratification and that is that.  However, one who knows about the symptoms of the various modes is in a position to choose to associate or disassociate with a particular mode either to uplift himself or become degraded.

For instance, if you determine that the qualities in the mode of goodness are in line with your overall goal in life, pure Krishna consciousness, then you can choose to practice those symptoms or qualities that are in the mode of goodness, systematically improve your lot and say good-bye to guesswork and whimsy.  

This is a most useful tool for one determined to improve his character and eager to progress in spiritual life.  One who wants to put this knowledge to optimal use will conduct all his affairs on this basis.

For instance, the Lord says in Bhagavad-gita 14.16,

“The result of pious action is pure and is said to be in the mode of goodness. But action done in the mode of passion results in misery, and action performed in the mode of ignorance results in foolishness.”

So, depending on which outcome you want, you can choose my course of action. You can choose my association on that basis as well.

On the other hand, one who is ignorant of how the modes work, or is too lazy to apply this knowledge, is under their unshakable grasp.  False egoism makes one believe that they are the master of their destiny; however, they have no choice.  One cannot live life deliberately, confident that his choices are in his best interest.  The modes of nature influence one’s actions from one moment to the next.  Krishna describes this person as a “first-class fool”, because they think they are “the doer of activities that are in fact carried out by material nature.”  Such a fool is obliged to live out their life as a victim, tossed here and there by the modes.

like a man in a dinghy on the open sea with no oars.  Since he cannot make choices on the basis of his self-interest; he makes his choices on the basis of sense gratification, which makes him no better than an animal.  He is manipulated by the modes of nature.

But one who takes full responsibility to act on this knowledge for their betterment can live in this world with confidence.  Their confidence stems not from false ego, but from knowledge and faith in Krishna’s instructions.  Additionally, one sees practically that what they do is ultimately beneficial for them.  This illustrates the value of having a clear understanding of the modes of nature.  One who accepts Krishna’s authority knows immediately that acting in the mode of goodness is the only intelligent choice.  When done in conjunction with the practice of Krishna consciousness, it naturally leads to liberation, for Krishna says action in the mode of goodness is purifying.  Thus, by constant practice, gradually one attains steadiness in the mode of goodness.  This in turn becomes the jumping-off point to pure goodness, liberation in Krishna consciousness, which is the ultimate purpose of Krishna’s teachings.

On this point about having choice, it means we are responsible for our choices whether the choices are made deliberately or accidentally.  Not choosing is also a choice.  You are responsible anyway.

“Okay, but what if I did not know I had a choice?  It is unfair if these modes are forced on me and I know nothing about them.” 

Srila Prabhupada says that we are still responsible.  Ignorance is no excuse.  A child is ignorant that fire is hot; nevertheless, fire equally burns the child or the adult in knowledge.  In the same way, the laws of nature act impartially.  It is not a question of fair or unfair.  It is a question of whether one will accept responsibility and do the right thing or bury one’s head in the modes and hope for the best.  That is a choice you are responsible for.

Another version of neglecting responsibility is to throw all cares to the wind and simply hope for Krishna’s mercy.  This is sentimentalism, not a science.

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