The modes are not monochrome, but are multi-level

The Bhagavad-gita (17.04) analyzes different kinds of worship according to the modes: people in sattva-guna (mode of goodness) worship the gods; people in rajo-guna (mode of passion), demoniac beings; and people in tamo-guna (mode of ignorance), ghostly beings.

How can this analysis be reconciled with the well-known Puranic classification given in the Matsya and other Puranas: sattvika Puranas delineate the worship of Vishnu; rajasika Puranas, the worship of Brahma; and tamasika Puranas, the worship of Shiva?

Following scripture and worshiping a scripturally-described higher being requires a basic level of goodness, which is what the Gita verse stresses. Simultaneously, Vedic scriptures strive to accommodate as many people as possible within the broad house of dharma. So, they delineate various objects of worship to attract people at varying levels of consciousness, which is what the Puranic hierarchy refers to.

Thus, all worshipers of the gods are in goodness; but Vishnu-worshipers are in goodness goodness; Brahma-worshipers, in passion goodness; and Shiva-worshipers in ignorance goodness. Overall, each mode is not monochrome, but has shades corresponding to different levels of consciousness within that mode. So, to deride all worshipers of the gods as belonging to the lower modes is simplistic and inaccurate.

By appreciating the modes’ multi-level nature, we can reconcile other seemingly contradictory scriptural assertions. For example, all animals are said to be in tamo-guna, yet they are also classified according to the modes: cows are said to be in goodness; tigers, in passion; and monkeys, in ignorance. Or consider the two kinds of scriptural references to cows. Many references cherish them as special among animals, but some references treat them as symbols of ignorance – for example, the Srimad Bhagavatam (10.84.13) compares ignorant people to cows and donkeys.

By appreciating the mode’s multi-level nature, we can both avoid passing blanket value judgments and reconcile apparent contradictions.

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