“From the mode of goodness, real knowledge develops; from the mode of passion, grief develops; and from the mode of ignorance, foolishness, madness and illusion develop.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.17)
Question: “Lord Krishna states that works done in the mode of passion lead to distress. Can you explain that?”
Answer: There are three gunas, or qualities, that govern this material world: goodness, passion, and ignorance. Every living entity has a body composed of a combination of these three gunas. Also, every activity we perform, including religious functions, can be classified into one of these three categories. Acting in the mode of goodness leads to purity, the mode of passion to stress and misery, and the mode of ignorance to stupidity. If we do a quick analytical study of the actions in the mode of passion, we will see that it does indeed lead to pain and suffering.
“That happiness which is blind to self-realization, which is delusion from beginning to end and which arises from sleep, laziness and illusion is said to be of the nature of ignorance.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.39)
Characterized by sleep and intoxication, actions in tamo-guna, the mode of ignorance, lead to a loss of intelligence and demotion to a lower species in the next life. Murder, rape, and other vile acts also belong to the mode of ignorance. We see examples of the harmful effects of the mode of ignorance in our daily lives. In America, children attending school have several extended vacation periods throughout the year. The summer break is the longest, consisting of two months, but there are other week-long recesses during Christmas and in February. Most children don’t like to attend school, especially as they get older. Thus they usually spend vacation periods and weekends sitting around the house and remaining inactive. Saturday morning cartoons are popular for this very reason, for children love to sit in front of the television and do nothing all day.
Vacations are nice, but we see that long periods of inactivity can be very harmful. As we get older, if we are unemployed it becomes very difficult to get a good routine of activity going. The unemployed often sleep very late, waking up past noon in many cases. There is no guiding force in their lives to keep them on the straightened path. Sitting around and doing nothing for extended periods of time is not good for our mental health and self-esteem. We need to feel like we are doing something, and that our life actually matters. Vedic wisdom concurs with this conclusion, advising us to avoid the mode of ignorance at all costs.
“The mode of passion is born of unlimited desires and longings, O son of Kunti, and because of this one is bound to material fruitive activities.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.7)
The mode of passion is a step up from ignorance. All the best-selling self-help books pretty much preach the same message: “Find something that you love, a passion, and dedicate yourself to it. Set goals and then work hard to achieve them.” All the materially successful people in the world have followed this plan, thus they try to share their wisdom with others. The logic behind this makes sense. If we work hard for something and then achieve it, it makes us feel good. We feel as if our activities matter and that we have a purpose in life.
“By acting in the mode of goodness, one becomes purified. Works done in the mode of passion result in distress, and actions performed in the mode of ignorance result in foolishness.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.16)
If the mode of passion has such good results, why does Lord Krishna say that it leads to distress? The simple answer is that the rewards of our activities are temporary. Everything in this creation is temporary, including our bodies. The soul is eternal, for it never takes birth nor does it ever die. But this material world is a sort of phantasmagoria, a temporary playground for the living entities to act out their desires. We may work hard for something and feel good about ourselves, but this feeling represents a sort of delusion. We are not the doers, meaning we are not responsible for the way nature interacts with our senses. We certainly have a choice in how we act, but we have no control over the results of our actions.
“The bewildered spirit soul, under the influence of the three modes of material nature, thinks himself to be the doer of activities, which are in actuality carried out by nature.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.27)
The mode of passion leads to misery because it never provides satisfaction. Passionate activities aim to please the gross senses and not the soul. The senses can never be satisfied. Family life represents the essence of passion. Having a family is certain nice because it provides an immediate support system, a group of people who love us no matter what. After working hard all day, it is nice to come home to a loving wife and children. As great as family life can be, we see that there are many uncomfortable aspects to it as well. First off, we must work very hard to maintain a family. The world economy today is driven by technology and free enterprise. This means that people’s standard of living is constantly changing, and thus there aren’t many steady jobs. Companies are always looking for ways to innovate and increase productivity. This results in more and more jobs being replaced with advanced machinery and computers. This unsteadiness in the job market means constantly having to worry about how to support our family.
Maintaining a spouse and children aren’t easy things either. A spouse is a life-partner, thus they will demand time and affection from their significant other. In the Hindu tradition, materialistic wives are often compared to witches and tigresses. During the day-time, they attack the husband’s purse strings, always wanting to buy this and buy that. During the night-time, they suck the blood from the husband through sex life. Materialistic husbands aren’t any better. A chaste wife can spend all day taking care of the family and children, only to have the husband come home and engage in intoxication or gambling. Due to the free intermingling of men and women in today’s society, it is much easier for men to have illicit sex with women other than their own wives.
Children are the biggest source of worry. Any parent who has lost a child will tell you that the pain never goes away. The love between a parent and a child is so strong that it can’t be put into words. A parent would rather die than have anything happen to their kids. This love certainly brings about feelings of joy, but the anxieties are endless. A good parent never stops worrying about their child, no matter how old they get or how self-sufficient they are.
Family life isn’t the only area where the mode of passion causes misery. The world of sports is another great example. The Olympics occur every four years. One of the greatest Olympic athletes in recent times is the swimmer Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Summer games. This extraordinary performance launched him to worldwide fame, with many calling him the greatest athlete of all time. Yet we see that Phelps isn’t satisfied. The mode of passion is especially strong in competitive athletes, leaving them always wanting more and more. Phelps loves to compete, so after achieving his previously set goals, he simply sets new ones and works hard to achieve them. Michael Jordan was similar in this regard. He retired from basketball on two separate occasions, only to come back to play again.
The Vedas tell us that this type of activity is, in the end, miserable. Why? Well if we work very hard for something, sometimes putting in years and years of work, and then after we achieve our goal our happiness only lasts for a short time, how can we describe this activity as anything but miserable? Instead of trying to satisfy unending desires, the Vedas tell us to associate with the mode of goodness instead. Goodness is any activity that is performed with knowledge, and not just any ordinary knowledge, but that found in the revealed scriptures.
“As for actions, that action in accordance with duty, which is performed without attachment, without love or hate, by one who has renounced fruitive results, is called action in the mode of goodness.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.23)
The first instruction given to aspiring transcendentalists is that we are not our bodies. The spirit soul is what matters, thus our life’s activities should be geared towards pleasing the soul. Thus the mode of goodness involves activities such as reading the Vedas, teaching Vedic wisdom to others, performing sacrifices, teaching others how to perform sacrifices, accepting charity, and giving in charity. These are the activities of the brahmanas, or those who are considered to be in the mode of goodness. Following the injunctions of the scriptures makes us smarter. An intelligent person realizes the pitfalls of ignorance and the inherently flawed nature of passion. Those in the mode of goodness understand that all living entities are equal and that it is foolish to identify with the body.
Hence we see how the mode of goodness can lead to purity. Does this mean that we should give up our fruitive activities, or karma, which are part of the mode of passion? Though the mode of goodness is better than passion, it is still nevertheless considered material. Lord Krishna tells us that those in the mode of goodness worship the demigods, and thus ascend to a heavenly planet after death. The demigods are Krishna’s chief deputies in charge of the material creation. Worshiping them is certainly a good thing, but the powers of the demigods are limited. They can only provide material benedictions, and as we see with the mode of passion, no amount of material wealth, fame, or success can provide happiness to the soul.
There is a purified form of goodness, known as suddha-sattva. This mode is characterized by activities in devotional service, or bhakti-yoga. If we act in the mode of goodness, the best we can hope for is ascension to a heavenly planet after death. We can remain there for quite some time and enjoy immensely, but our residence there is not permanent. There is every chance of falling back into the material world. Devotional service is aimed at pleasing Krishna, which means that devotees ascend directly to Krishna’s spiritual world after death. Having gone there once, a person never returns.
So how do we practice devotional service? The easiest way is to regularly chant the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Any person can chant at any time, so we can keep our current occupation and still engage in devotional service. The idea is not to hastily renounce our current activities, but rather to purify them. We can still work hard to acquire money and maintain our family, but we should sacrifice the results of such hard work for the benefit of the Supreme Lord. The home can be purified by regularly chanting Hare Krishna, worshiping the deity, and offering and distributing prasadam. Such activity is considered to be in pure goodness, and represents perfection in life. It will most certainly keep us away from misery.