Krishna inspires Arjuna to understand more deeply about the subjects of the previous chapter, noting that understanding them can bring the highest state of yoga perfection. This chapter elaborates on a principle introduced in the previous chapter, namely, the concept of “modality” (guṇa). To be attuned to the ways that nature functions through the three modalities constitutes an important yoga practice. It alerts the yogī to the necessity to make good, conscious choices for elevating oneself from lower to higher modalities, leading to freedom from the modalities altogether.
To begin this yoga discourse, Krishna has us consider what may be called a “singularity”—a primordial state prior to the world’s existence—which he identifies as his “womb” that he “impregnates” as the “seed-giving father.” What is “born” is “nature” (prakṛti), and what gives nature its dynamic quality is three “qualities” or “modalities,” called “illumination” (sattva), “passion” (rajas), and “darkness” (tamas), all of which arise from prakṛti and bind the unchanging selves to material bodies (14.1-5). Krishna begins to explain these modalities in a general way:
The modality of illumination is characterized by purity, luminosity, and freedom from ailment. Its method of binding living beings to bodies is by attaching them to a sense of happiness and a sense of being knowledgeable. The modality of passion, characterized by longing and arising from “thirst” or craving and attachment, binds embodied beings by the sense of attachment to action. And the modality of darkness, which is born of ignorance and which bewilders all embodied beings, binds one by madness, laziness, and sleep (14.6-8).
Krishna indicates how to recognize the predominance of one or another of these three modalities in the general disposition of a person, but he suggests that these modalities are always in flux: Sometimes illumination prevails, and at other times passion or darkness prevail (14.9-13). Hence they can be also recognized in particular behaviors and mentalities at particular times. The modalities are also crucially relevant to the trajectory of a person’s present and future lives (about which Krishna will elaborate with respect to the modalities in Chapters 17 and 18). In general, a person is elevated to more enlightened realms if situated in the modality of illumination; if one is situated in the modality of passion one remains “in the middle” (in one’s present condition); and if one is situated in the modality of darkness, one descends downward, to realms of greater misery and ignorance. At the time of death, one’s association with these modalities is especially crucial in determining one’s future life (14.14-18).
Since all three modalities of nature are binding, the yogī aims to rise beyond them. Krishna assures Arjuna that the yogī who successfully transcends all three modalities will be freed from the miseries of birth, death, and old age, and he or she will enjoy immortality (14.20). Understandably, Arjuna then wants to know what are the characteristics of a person who has transcended the modalities, and how one can go about transcending them (14.21).
Krishna lists several characteristics that are similar to virtues of yogīs he has described in earlier Gītā chapters. Particularly noteworthy is the perception of the yogī that “the modalities are acting”: The yogī is not disturbed by the ever-shifting interactions of nature, and thus he or she is able to sustain an attitude of neutrality toward the dualities of life. Pleasing and displeasing events, honor and dishonor, encountering friends and enemies—all are met with a spirit of detachment (14.23-25). And what is most effective for transcending the modalities, Krishna concludes, is to practice the yoga of devotion (bhakti-yoga) without deviation. This qualifies one for becoming fully situated in spirit—brahman—of which bhagavān is the foundation (14.26-27). The modalities of nature no longer act for the yogī who has transcended them. Rather, such a yogī has become truly free to act. And such freedom is complete, for there is no danger that his or her actions will result in further bondage.