Easwaran’s Talks & Writings

The Long Journey of Evolution

By Eknath Easwaran

Ever since human beings began telling tales around the evening fire, I imagine, life has been compared with a journey — a poignant image that no one has portrayed more vividly than the Persian poet and mathematician Omar Kháyyám, whose Rubáiyát has been a favorite of mine since I discovered the English versions of Edward FitzGerald in my teens. It was only much later that a Muslim friend revealed to me the Sufi symbolism so easily misunderstood in a worldly reading. The poet compares life on earth with a caravanserai, a travelers’ waystation on the long journey of the soul towards God:


Think, in this battered Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultán after Sultán with his Pomp
Abode his destin’d Hour, and went his way.
One Moment in Annihilation’s Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste —
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing — Oh, make haste!
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly — and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.


A Long, Long Ascent

The Gita extends this metaphor to the beginning and end of time. Life is a journey over billions of years: the great chain of being, a kind of spiritual evolution in which consciousness emerges from inanimate matter through eons of biological experimentation. At the human level comes the capacity for fully unconditioned awareness and Self-realization. In this way, from the lowest form of life upwards, each creature may be seen as trying to project itself into a higher level of life.

On this scale the human being is the “roof and crown” of creation, but not in the sense the Victorian poets meant. We have not inherited dominion over nature, the Gita would say, but have evolved to the responsibility of trusteeship for ourselves and the rest of life. We have the capacity, and therefore the evolutionary duty, to take our destiny as individuals into our own hands, and thereby help guide life to its fullest potential. Homo sapiens represents a stage in evolution halfway between our biological nature and what we can become. We bear both the imprint of the biological level from which we have risen and the latent capacity to realize the full potential of this remarkable brain and mind with which we have been born — life after life, as we have seen, in a long, long ascent of spiritual growth.

We Have a Choice

From this point of view, any individual who lives mostly for satisfying the senses has barely risen above the animal level, where behavior is dictated by the senses and instincts.


That is why the Gita says that whatever sensory urge we are driven by, if we cannot control it — not suppress it, but simply have a say in it — we are living at the lowest end of our human Here is the war within again: either master the senses or be mastered by them.

According to the Gita, it is the same with anger: the moment we become angry, we have gone back to the animal level. The point is that as human beings, we have a choice. When somebody gets angry with us and we remain calm instead of retaliating, we have broken this link with the animal for the moment and risen a bit higher on our own personal ladder of evolution. Every human being has this choice in every circumstance, the Gita would say: either to remain at the animal level or to move towards fully human behavior by controlling anger, hatred, and violence.

This is a tall order, of course, but isn’t this what great teachers like Jesus and the Compassionate Buddha have taught too? The difference — perhaps an appealing one today — is that the Gita does not present this as simply a moral choice and judge us when we fail in it. These choices are checkpoints on our evolutionary journey, opportunities to move away from what we have been conditioned to be and towards unconditioned freedom. 

Tamas, Rajas, and Sattva

The Gita has a far-reaching theory behind this view. In the Gita’s cosmology, remember, before the phenomenal world came into existence there was only undifferentiated consciousness — the indivisible, immutable reality that is our native state. As in modern cosmology, the process of creation began when the equilibrium of this state was disturbed, differentiating this primordial energy into three states called gunastamas, inertia; rajas, energy; and sattva, law. At the moment of creation these three modes began to interact, producing all kinds of combinations. Everything in the phenomenal world is an expression of these three gunas in different proportions, and evolution progresses from inertia through energy into law. Pure consciousness is still and undifferentiated, though full of limitless potential. Evolution is the process that can lead us back to that state.

In the Gita this is not merely philosophy. Applied to our daily lives, it becomes practical, compassionate psychology. Throughout nature all three gunas are constantly in play, with one or another predominant at any moment. Since body and mind are made of the same stuff, the gunas interact the same way within personality too. The Gita summarizes all this in a series of verses:


It is the three gunas born of prakriti — sattva, rajas,
and tamas — that bind the immortal Self to the body.
Sattva — pure, luminous, and free from sorrow — binds
us with attachment to happiness and wisdom. Rajas is
passion, arising from selfish desire and attachment. These
bind the Self with compulsive action. Tamas, born of
ignorance, deludes all creatures through heedlessness,
indolence, and sleep.


Sattva predominates when rajas and tamas are
transformed. Rajas prevails when sattva is weak and
tamas overcome. Tamas prevails when rajas and sattva are


When sattva predominates, the light of wisdom shines
through every gate of the body. When rajas predominates,
a person runs about pursuing selfish and greedy ends,
driven by restlessness and desire. When tamas is dominant,
a person lives in darkness — slothful, confused, and easily
infatuated. (14:5–8, 10–13)


Tamas: Inertia, Resistance

We can see the dynamics of this theory by looking at ourselves. When we want to be of some service to those around us, when we forgive, when we find it difficult to nourish resentments or to carry a grudge, sattva is coming into play. At the opposite pole is tamas: inertia, resistance. Everyone shows a streak of tamas when apathy starts its theme song: “Who cares? What does it matter? What does it matter if I finish this job? What does it matter if people get hurt? What does it matter if this isn’t legal? What does it matter if the world explodes?” This is the vocabulary of tamas on the human level, and “I don’t care” is its simplest form.

Tamas can show itself in other ways too. “This is too big a problem for me. This is too great a challenge. This world is too troubled for me to help; what can one person do?” Or simply, “I can’t do this” — which often means no more than “I don’t want to.” Tamas predominates in a person who is apathetic, who is insensitive to the suffering around him and just cannot make much effort. It is the insidious voice that whispers, “Drop out. Quit your job. Turn your back. Run away.” Tamas flourishes by paralyzing the will, the faculty we need most in personal growth. 

Leap Out of Bed

In spiritual evolution, tamas is the aspect of mind that holds us back, and it will dog our progress at every level of consciousness. When we learn to deal with it on the physical level, it will retrench somewhere less obvious, such as procrastination, failure of the will, or paralysis when we have to do something we dislike. If we are doing our best in meditation, we will always be on the front lines of the struggle with tamas.  Drowsiness in deeper meditation, for example, may be a sign that we have reached a frontier in consciousness and lack the will to push into unknown territory.

A mental block consists of tamas, and the human being has an unending series of such impediments at every level of consciousness. One familiar sign that we are nearing a mental block — something we have to work through because tamas is rising — is that we can’t seem to get up in the morning. This is a warning that tamas is gaining ascendence. The way to press through that resistance is not to weigh pros and cons, which only makes tamas stronger, but to throw off the covers and give one leap out of bed. It seems a small step, but life consists of small moments, and each time we resist an impulse to do nothing, we are transforming that block of inertia into energy: that is, transforming tamas into rajas.


A Precious Aecret

Rajas is dominant whenever we feel active, energetic, full of drive and enterprise or driven by passion. Rajas enables us to get things done, but it is also the glue of attachment that gets us caught in the pursuit of personal pleasure, profit, prestige, or power. Uncontrolled, rajas runs amok — and when it won’t let us rest, rajas is crying out that it is ready to be transformed into sattva. In that highest state, we are energetic without being driven by time or self-centered attachments. Wherever we find someone calm, clear, and kind under pressure, compassionate in the face of provocation, we can be sure that sattva is predominant.

The Gita is giving us a precious secret here: how to transform the lower levels of consciousness into the highest, where forgiveness, forbearance, compassion, and love come into play. In nature, the gunas interact mindlessly, but as human beings we can draw on the will, the higher mind, to change them as we choose. We can draw upon rajas to transform tamas, and then channel and harness rajas to transform it into sattva. When sattva predominates, all the energies of life are in balance. This is not the unitive state that yoga aims at, but sattva is the platform we must reach in order to move beyond the gunas altogether into unitary consciousness. 

The Direct Result of Rajas

We make this kind of progress only by degrees, but changes can be decisive. I remember a profile in the New Yorker of a man named Theodore Taylor who, upon graduating from college in physics, proved to be a brilliant designer of nuclear weapons. He was a gentle, peace-loving chap; he merely happened to have a genius for making bombs.

As a young physicist in the heady years following the Manhattan Project, Ted Taylor found himself tantalized by the challenge of ballistics problems no one else could solve. He simply couldn’t allow a second-rate bomb design to lie around without improving on it, even when an “elegant solution” meant a smaller, simpler device that could kill more people. “The worst invention in physical history,” he admitted, “was also the most interesting.” And he added an illuminating observation: “The theorist’s world is a world of the best people and the worst of possible results.” That is what moha [delusion, confusion] does, and it is the direct result of rajas.

Rajas to Sattva

But this was a sensitive man who quickly began to think about the consequences of his work. Soon after his first daughter was born — no coincidence, he said — he turned exclusively to peacetime uses of atomic energy, and after a while he began warning anyone who would listen about the implications of miniaturized atomic weapons — not a new danger, but in this case people knew the warning came from a man who knew precisely how easily such a weapon could be made. In his latter years, I learned, he devoted himself to alternative energy technologies and had begun studying the Gita and learning to meditate — a perfect illustration of how rajas can be transformed into sattva in this life.

Powerhouses of Creative Activity

In this sense, evolution is the transformation of energy from one state into another, the way the power in a rushing river is converted into electrical energy by a water mill. If we think of tamas as ice, rajas is the energy in that block of ice released into flowing water when it melts, and sattva is the same energy conserved and harnessed when water is turned to steam to drive a turbine. The differences are only of “name and form.”

This is a reassuring way to classify humanity, because it implies that no one need be stuck in any of these states. Just as ice can always be made into water and water can always be turned into steam and harnessed, even the most tamasic individual can take up the spiritual life. It’s an apt illustration, because an incredible amount of energy is released when tamas is transformed. I have seen young people crippled by inertia become powerhouses of creative activity through the practice of meditation.

Back to Eden

In its native state, consciousness is a continuous flow of awareness. Creation is the fall from this state into fragmented, divided, sometimes stagnant awareness, which hides reality under the confused activity of the gunas. I like to think this is the significance of the Fall in the biblical account of creation. Eden is not a place but a state of consciousness, and the Fall is not an event that took place thousands of years ago but a process that is still continuing — about to hit bottom, perhaps, but still continuing. What we are trying to do in meditation is stop the fall and go back to Eden — reversing this decline by resolving fragmentation back into unity, not in the physical world but in our mode of seeing.

A Thrilling Discovery

Roughly speaking, most of us have rajasic minds, which means we are thinking all the time, working all the time, without conscious control of what the mind is doing. That is rajas. The Gita would draw a distinction between conscious, voluntary, intentional thinking and mental activity that is involuntary, conditioned, and compulsive. In sattva, the workings of the mind come under conscious control, which means that most forms of unnecessary thinking — worrying, for example — simply disappear.

One of the most thrilling discoveries in sadhana is that we don’t have to act on our states of mind. We don’t even have to be affected by our states of mind. If we have negative thoughts — resentments, doubts, jealousies, fears — we don’t have to act on any of them, and simply by not acting on negative thoughts, we start transforming the energy in them into sattva.

Rajas, then, is the ordinary mind, desiring, worrying, and resenting, scheming and competing, and getting more frustrated all the time. To the extent we are able to establish control over this, the mind becomes sattva. And the vast unconscious mind is tamas. It’s just chaos. Most of us know how much clutter one person can accumulate in even a few years; our closets and garages bear witness. Imagine the amount of clutter your mind must have picked up in the course of a lifetime and multiply that over eons of lifetimes; that is the unconscious, the dumping-ground of evolution.

Sattvic Giving

The picture that tamas presents at this level is so overwhelming that I will draw a veil over it, except to say that this is the repository of immense power — power that hides a limitless treasury of resources that flow into our hands when we discover that power and harness it. Until then, however, it is just darkness, the literal meaning of tamas.

The pull of tamas from these depths keeps us swinging like a pendulum from guna to guna, unable to make lasting commitments or to be loyal. To give just one illustration, most people involved in selfless work have had someone come up and say with honest enthusiasm, “I want to help, and I have a lot of resources. Just tell me what you need.” Then, after a week or two, the same person begins to find reservations and conditions. One month later, when you meet by chance, he will say sincerely, “You’re doing such good work! I wish you every success.”

The first of these instances is what the Gita calls sattvic giving, without any strings or expectations. The second is born of rajas: “Will you put my name on a plaque on the cornerstone, in beautiful calligraphy?” And the third, of course, is our old friend tamas. The Gita gives several such illustrations of how the gunas operate, and it is remarkably specific:


Giving simply because it is right to give, without thought
of return, at the proper time, in proper circumstances, and
to a worthy person, is sattvic giving. Giving with regrets
or in the expectation of receiving some favor or of getting
something in return is rajasic. Giving at an inappropriate
time, in inappropriate circumstances, and to an unworthy
person, without affection or respect, is tamasic. (17:20–22)


Unifying our Desires

The way to steady the mind and transform these lower states into sattva is to stand firm in our highest resolutions and not let ourselves be pushed into acting on rajas or tamas. In this way, again, we are changing consciousness to be changeless — making the mind unshakable no matter what the forces and circumstances outside.

What is happening as we do this is fascinating: we are unifying consciousness by unifying our desires, which are expressions of rajas in a million different channels. Desire is energy, like electricity; it can be harnessed or be drained away. In the earlier stages of personal evolution, desire is often sluggish; tamas rules, locking up the energy required to reach for a better life. As rajas rises, desires arise and multiply. A great many people live in this middle stage, with so many desires that there is little power in any of them. Seeking countless trivial things, often concerning personal appearance or prestige, they lead superficial lives, rarely achieving success in any field.

As experience deals out its lessons, however — perhaps over lifetimes — such people begin to focus their desires. They learn that having many small desires cannot bring fulfillment: at best, small desires bring only small satisfactions, stirring the desire for something that abides.


An Overriding Need to Know

Those who are born with relatively few desires, by contrast, stand out for leading outwardly successful lives. They have focused the power of desire enough to accomplish what matters most. And a fortunate few are born with just two or three desires. They are the geniuses, the great scientists, athletes, humanitarians, musicians, artists, writers, statesmen, who make their mark in whatever field they choose. In that field they have harnessed rajas, though often not in the rest of their lives. But among them are a few who have made their lives shine. They have learned to transform the whole of personality into sattva, making their lives a work of art.

Last — rarest and most precious — come a handful who are possessed by only one desire: the overriding need to know who they are and what life is for. Out of this group come the great mystics. They have tasted what life has to offer, sampled what they can achieve through personal ambition, and found it all too small to satisfy them. The longing for Self-realization has become so gargantuan that it has consumed every lesser desire — for pleasure, for profit, for prestige, for power — as a raging river assimilates the creeks that drain into it.

In practical terms, this means that consciousness is very nearly unified: we are not pulled in different directions by competing forces; all our capacity to desire is focused on one end. Tamas and rajas are almost completely transformed, setting the stage for the unitive state.

This article is from the book Essence of the Bhagavad Gita and was featured in the Winter 2024  Blue Mountain Journal