The Three Gunas in History

Chapter Three of The Feminine Universe


In considering the three types of society mentioned toward the end of our last chapter, it will be instructive to bear in mind the Hindu doctrine of the three gunas or cosmic tendencies.

This important aspect of traditional science has been preserved in its most explicit form to the present day in the Indian branch of Tradition.

The three gunas exist at every level throughout cosmic existence, and may be seen at work in all beings and phenomena.

The three gunas comprise: Sattwa, the upward tendency, which is conformity to the pure essence of being — light, knowledge and purity; Rajas, the outward tendency, which constitutes the natural urge to expansion on any given plane of being; and Tamas, the downward tendency, which is darkness or ignorance. From the human point of view, Sattwa is that tendency which leads us to higher spiritual states, above our earthly, human condition; Rajas is that which urges us to expansion on the worldly and human plane, while Tamas is that tendency which leads toward states below the human.*

We may readily see that the Traditional mode of society is oriented to states above the human and earthly. Every aspect of the life of a Traditional Society is lived in the light of Heaven. Its art, as we have seen, strives to depict not the earthly shadows of things, but the celestial Archetypes that lie behind them. Its crafts are not mere means to the manufacture of physical commodities, but each craft is a spiritual path, each operation performed in accordance with a sacred symbolism. This is why the factory system and the ‘industrial revolution’ could not happen until the traditional form of society had disintegrated — not because earlier civilisations ‘lacked the intelligence’ to bring about such innovations, but precisely because they were too intelligent to attempt them. They realised that such changes, while they might bring benefits on the purely material level, would destroy the deeper purpose of the human crafts, both for the producer and the consumer. For the producer, as we have said, the craft was a spiritual path into which she was initiated — and this was true in Europe until the destruction of the guild system at the time of the Renaissance. Not for nothing were the techniques of a craft called its ‘mysteries’. For the consumer, on the other hand, whether the object be a decorated clay pot, a bridge, a chariot, a house or a garment, the symbolism of its construction and decoration was also a support for contemplation, constantly leading her heart upward beyond the confines of the purely material. Traditional manufacture had as its object “to serve body and soul together”.

Similar comments could be made regarding every aspect of the life of a Traditional Society, which thus is directed primarily by Sattwa, the upward tendency.

When we come to the Normal** or Rajasic, form of society which followed upon the break-up of the integral spirituality of Traditional civilisation, we see a social order directed almost exclusively to the aims and purposes of this world. It is true that ‘religion’ continues to be followed by most people, but the very concept of ‘religion’ in the modern sense is new. It refers to a particular and specialised department of life which is the only one now specifically oriented toward things beyond this world and beyond the human state. Everything that is not ‘religion’ is now wholly mundane.

In many respects the Normal Society allows for expansion in areas wherein it was not possible before. As we have said, the industrial revolution with its attendant development of ‘technology’ becomes possible only in a Normal Society, as does the unfolding of a purely material ‘science’. And, as we have discussed in an earlier chapter, many things become possible in the sphere of the arts now that it is no longer oriented toward things that transcend this world. The purely human and physical plane, now seen as the sole sphere of artistic endeavour, may be explored and developed in ways that were not possible to an upward-directed people, and the tremendous outward thrust of such a society is the most notable characteristic of the Renaissance period — one thinks of’ the Elizabethan era in England — and continues to be the guiding principle throughout the Victorian Era and in the Great American Century, which we would date from the Civil War to the early 1960s.

Since earthly things are a reflection of Heavenly things, the Normal Society. directed by earthly, Rajasic tendencies, is by no means devoid of a spiritual dimension. Its great art often has a spiritual quality. though always even when it is ‘religious’ art at second-hand rather than in the directly spiritual manner of the arts of Traditional civilisations. Thc pursuit of beauty, in whatever form, can never be other than the pursuit of the absolute Beauty of the Divine for there is ultimately no other source of beauty. The love and development of all the good things of human life: the family, the home, the bonds of love, all these are things that reflect the Heavenly order. In many respects, the Normal Society, though limited and unambitious from a spiritual point of view, continues to tread, at least in shadow-form, the Way of Heaven. It makes possible the realisation of many of the lower and more material possibilities of the Historical Cycle, and thus is doing what is necessary; and in many respects. doing it well. This is the nature of a society directed by the outward tendency of Rajas.

What then should we expect of a society directed by the downward tendency of Tamas? Surely it would invert all those aspects of the Rajasic or Normal Society that still point upwards and partake of Sattwa. Its art will no longer seek to embody beauty and harmony, but will deliberately conform itself to whatever is ugly, misshapen and grotesque. In dress, rather than seeking to be neat and attractive, people will prefer to be sloppy unkempt or ridiculous in appearance. Rather than the highest elements of society setting the tone and being emulated by every one else, the tone will he set by the lowest classes, other people increasingly coming to speak and act like them, Rather than attempting to support and maintain family life and personal loyalty,. the propaganda of a Tamasic or Inverted Society will deliberately seek to break down the family, promoting a cult of ‘personal independence’ which cuts each soul off from those about her in an atmosphere of mutual distrust: each one is isolated in the prison of induced selfishness.

These are the things we should expect of a Tamasic society, oriented to darkness and seeking neither to raise us above the human state (as does a Sattwic or Traditional Society) or to develop to the full a healthy human normality (as does the Rajasic or Normal Society); but seeking in every way to drag human life down toward the infra-human— toward the grotesque arid the monstrous, the miserable, the isolated and the vainly-grasping: toward the character of the demonic realms depicted in the lore of every traditional civilisation.

These are the things we should expect, and these are the things we find in the Inverted civilisation that has developed since the Eclipse or ‘social revolution’ of the 1960s.

Needless to say, we are not unaware that many of these manifestations were in evidence before the 1960s — the pursuit of the grotesque and ‘shocking’ in art, for example, was developed in certain circles early in the 20th century—but these earlier manifestations were of strictly limited influence. What is important in the 1960s is that they became increasingly general and rapidly displaced the normal and healthy instincts of society as a whole. Beatniks may have dressed like ludicrous monstrosities in the 1950s, but within a decade or two after the Eclipse, ordinary people, including grandmothers, were doing so.

It is also interesting to note that, in the Rajasic or Normal Society, looking at things purely in its own terms, we may see many signs of a continuous material ‘progress’. Education becomes increasingly widespread and effective. Adult literacy is virtually total, except among the ineducable, and we may chart its rise and spread from the late 19th century through to the 1950s.

Crime and violence drop off dramatically in normal conditions. In the late Victorian era murders took place daily in London. By the 1950s the national murder rate for a whole year was in low double figures.

In the 1950s the sight of a beggar in the streets of England was virtually unknown and would have seemed a strange throwback to the Victorian era.

It is true that many of these evidences of ‘progress’ were in fact merely the elimination of evils created by other Rajasic ‘progresses’ such as the Industrial Revolution with its attendant development of a large, depressed urban proletariat. Nonetheless, by the standards of a purely Rajasic, materially-oriented society, things were getting better and better, The benefits of Rajasic industrialism were being increased while its evils were being eliminated, and an observer in the 1950s might reasonably have expected, as most people did, that all these tendencies would continue in the same direction, and that society would become happier, more peaceful and better educated as time went on.

It is now very clear that such was not the case, and that most of the rising curves on the social progress-graphs of the 1950s turned suddenly and sharply in the opposite direction in the 1960s and continued downward for the ensuing decades.

By the 1990s, adult illiteracy was widespread, and even among the ‘educated’ section of society, University lecturers freely admit that the average undergraduate cannot spell, knows very little grammar and in general is rather less capable of expressing herself on paper than the average shop-girl in the 1950s. Most people of humble birth are back to the state of literacy that would have been theirs in the Victorian era. Violent crime, of course, has soared since the Eclipse. Murder, which was a rarity in the 1950s, has returned to late-Victorian levels and is rapidly escalating far beyond them. Beggary has returned to the streets.

In short, much of the progress of the later stages of the Rajasic or Normal Society has been destroyed by the Tamasic or Inverted Society. But, of course, it is not true to say that the Victorian era has returned, for while many of the evils of that era may be returning, none of its good qualities are; and whatever may be the outward social losses of the post-Eclipse period, they are as nothing compared to the impoverishment of soul; the loss of human loyalties and human dignity; the eradication of beauty and innocence from every department of human existence; the destruction, in sum, of all the things that make life meaningful and worthwhile.

It is important to note that the periods of time occupied by the three types of civilisation are very much incommensurate in length — much more so even than the four great Ages of the Historical Cycle, for the Traditional Society occupies almost all of the Historical Cycle, with the Normal Society only appearing briefly at the end, and the Inverted Society still more brief.

It is not, in fact, quite as simple as this. Normal Societies — that is outwardly-directed Rajasic societies which have lost sight of the true upward aim of life — have existed at other periods of history, Ancient Rome is one example, although the Classical world was by no means so purely this-worldly and lacking in metaphysical underpinning as the post-‘Enlightenment’ period of the modern West. There have also been earlier eras in which the worldly direction of a Rajasic period would tend toward the psychic rather than the material domain, giving an excessive importance to sorcery (much more effective in less ‘consolidated’ periods of history) much as the modern world gives an excessive importance to ‘technology’ — and perhaps such phases of civilisation made possible the realisation of certain ‘lesser fruits’ of the Historical Cycle proper to their own time, even as the Normal Society recently deceased in the West has done in ours.

It is possible even that these ancient Rajasic eras tailed off into brief periods of Tamasic degeneration akin in some respects to the post-Eclipse period of our own time. One thinks, for example of the madness and degeneracy of late Rome with its carnivals of slaughter and cruelty in the arena; and one cannot but be struck by a horrifying parallel in the increasingly explicit, near-pornographic depiction of violence, not only in fictional films but in television newsreels in the post-Eclipse world. It seems that at a certain stage in a Tamasic period, the thirst for death, carnage and suffering as a public spectacle inevitably makes itself felt and demands satisfaction.

Nonetheless, Rajasic periods are to some extent aberrations within the normal course of the Historical Cycle, occupying, even when all are aggregated, a very small portion of the whole. Tamasic periods, being times of utter degeneration, and having no legitimate principle of existence whatever, necessarily represent a very much tinier proportion of the whole. By their very chaotic and unstable nature, they cannot be more than the very briefest of interludes historically speaking.

Traditional, Sattwic societies are the historical norm, and the end of such Rajasic or Rajasic-Tamasic interludes as we have been discussing is generally a new revelation of Truth, or a new adaptation of an existing tradition to the consolidated conditions of a new era. One thinks of the Christian revelation coming at the end of the Classical period.

It is also to be noted that all three gunas are necessarily present in all worldly things. Even the Sattwic perfection of the Golden Age must have had some admixture of Rajas and Tamas, and as time goes on and the World becomes ever more ‘consolidated’, Rajasic and Tamasic elements become increasingly prominent. The patriarchal revolution of the early Iron Age [meaning the Kali Yuga: not the archaeological usage of this term — Editress] is one result of this tendency, which obviously had become very marked by such a late stage of the Cycle.

Now similarly, we may divide the history of femininity into three stages, corresponding to the three gunas. These stages do not directly coincide with the three discussed above, except that the last, Tamasic, stage also begins with the Eclipse. The first, and by far the longest, is the Sattwic stage of femininity, or what is called the ‘matriarchal’ period. This lasts for the whole of the first three Ages and for a small part of the Iron Age — in other words, for more than nine-tenths of the historical cycle. This is the period in which femininity is recognised as the highest principle both on earth and in the higher realms: as that principle which leads beyond this world to the higher levels of being. All evidence points toward the universality of the feminine principle in human art, society and worship. Whether women were the material rulers of civilisation we cannot say for certain. The ingrained prejudice of a masculine-dominated society reacts strongly against such an idea; but there is no reason why it should not have been so, and since in all known traditional societies there was a strong analogy between the earthly monarch and the Heavenly power, it seems overwhelmingly likely that such was the case.

Whether it was or not is, however, of relatively small importance. What is vital is the fact that femininity and the feminine image was clearly the supreme and governing principle of this vast period of human history — throughout the Golden Age, longest of the Ages, when human spirituality and intellectuality were at their highest; throughout the long decline of the Ages of Silver and Bronze — still periods immeasurably superior to our own, and even into the early years of the Iron Age itself. Femininity is the natural ideal of human civilisation. Only by a very late revolution in the last, shortest and most inferior Age did the cult of superiority of the masculine become established.

A typical comment of the modern mind upon ‘matriarchy’ is to say that it must only have been patriarchy the other way round, But such is very far from being the case. As we shall see in a later chapter, femininity has very definite characteristics that are a part of the metaphysical nature of things. To say, for example, that if men are considered the active, forceful, even violent sex under patriarchy, women must have been considered the same way under matriarchy, is founded on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of femininity, both in its metaphysical essence and in its biological reflection on earth.

In a ‘matriarchal’ or we had rather say, a feminine society, women as the leading and most revered sex, are revered precisely for their feminine qualities, which do not change whether in feminine or masculine societies. They are always the ‘passive’ sex in the sense of being the one less oriented to outward activity, and in this, in feminine societies, they are assimilated to the Principle itself, which causes motion without itself moving. This is not to say that women did nothing, either in feminine or patriarchal societies, but that symbolically the qualities of serenity, peace and contemplation are considered superior to dynamic outward activity, Or rather, the latter is said to depend upon and be always subordinate to the former.

This, indeed, is understood even in patriarchal societies, where, for example, in the Hindu Tantrik tradition the male principle (the god or deva) is considered to be the superior and therefore the serene, unmoving principle, while his female counterpart (or shakti) is his outward activity or energy. This is rather curious according to most later patriarchal thinking about the nature of femininity, just as it was to matriarchal thinking. But the reversal was necessary in order to preserve metaphysical truth and patriarchal doctrine at the same time. In Tibet, which remains closer to the original matriarchal tradition (polyandry was until recently practised there), the position is reversed — that is to say, normal — and the serene Deity is female while her shakti or outward energy is male. Similarly, in Tibet, in the case of the complementary principles of Wisdom and Method — representing the Essential or Spiritual principle and the substantial or material respectively —Wisdom is female and Method male.

The Hindu Tantrik tradition notwithstanding, in general patriarchy has not attempted to alter the relative qualities of masculinity and femininity. Rather it has re-valued them in metaphysical terms, associating feminine serenity with the passivity of matter and male activity with tine relatively ‘active’ power of the in-forming Spirit or Essence. And, insofar as patriarchy is a legitimate tradition, albeit one belonging purely to the inferior state of the Iron Age, this can be accepted as one of the permissible permutations of the expression of Truth.

Nonetheless, throughout the patriarchal period, the feminine continually shines through in its true glory, despite all ideological opposition. From the great Goddesses of various traditions, who so often overwhelm their appointed Gods in the hearts and souls of the people, to the Blessed Virgin Mary who rapidly adopts the titles of supreme Deity — Seat of Wisdom, Rose of the World, Queen of Heaven.

The worship of femininity breaks through again and again — in the chivalry of the Middle Ages, so ignorantly dismissed by modern people as a “subterfuge for the suppression of women” (as if such subterfuges were in any way necessary!) but which was in fact nothing short of a spiritual cult of the feminine image.

This, then, was the second, or Rajasic age of femininity; much shorter than the first or Sattwic age. Instead of being exalted, as in the Sattwic age, femininity is pulled this way and that; sometimes vilified, sometimes revered, but always recognised for what it is, always kept alive by the very nature of woman herself and by the inherent beauty and divinity of the feminine principle.

Once again we must ask, since we understand the Sattwic and the Rajasic ages of femininity, what should we expect to occur in its Tamasic age? Surely we should expect the eclipse of femininity itself — the banishment of the feminine principle from the earth as far as such a thing is possible. In the Sattwic age femininity was exalted; in the Rajasic age it is buffeted this way and that, but remains always essentially itself. In the Tamasic age it must be darkened, obscured, and even destroyed.

And what do we see after the Eclipse of the 1960s? Precisely that. Femininity is not only trivialised and despised, but its very existence is denied. According to the ‘official’ dogma of the post-Eclipse world, femininity is nothing but the product of ‘social conditioning’. It is something to be thrown off by modern women as a vestige of a superstitious past. Women are trained to think like men, talk like men, act like men and dress like men; to have the same ambitions and exteriorist preoccupations. They are trained to regard femininity as weakness, and conformity to the masculine model as ‘liberation’. They are trained to regard masculine values as right and normal and feminine values as something to be avoided; something — most ironic of all absurdities! — invented by men for their oppression.

The post-Eclipse world has seen, in a few short decades, the ultimate triumph of patriarchy; something not dreamed of by the ultra-patriarchal ancient Athenians or by any of the most extreme masculinists of history. The post-Eclipse world has seen the complete destruction of femininity and its extirpation from the one place that would have seemed its safest haven and ultimate sanctuary — from the soul of woman herself.

And for the first time in history, we inhabit a world where femininity is dead; a harsh, barren totally-masculine world.

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* This can best be understood in the light of the ancient cosmic symbolism of the Cross, found in all cultures. ‘The upright beam of the cross is the World-Axis or Divine Thread which links all worlds. The horizontal beam represents a particular world-system or plane of being. Maid is the Axial creature of our world-system. Thus, while animals, fairies and other beings exist purely on the horizontal level, maid, being on the Axis, has the power of choice and may also move either upward or downward, transcending her earthly state or falling below it. Thus, while the three gunas operate in all creatures as part of the mechanism of manifestation, in the activities of maid they may also have a special and more fateful significance. It is this that we are considering throughout the course of this chapter. The reader should also note that wherever the terms vertical and horizonta1 are used throughout this book, they are used with reference to this symbolism: for the World Axis is also the Beam of the Light of Essence which strikes and in-forms the horizontal plane of material manifestation.

** By Normal, it is clear that the authoress does not mean “In accordance with the Celestial Norm” or even the true Human Norm, either of which would imply Primordiality, but the establishment of a this-worldly human “norm” as opposed to the abnormality of a Tamasic society. Here “normal” refers to a set of values that would ordinarily be virtually tautologies — such as that beauty is preferable to ugliness, goodness preferable to badness, order preferable to chaos, the high superior to the low and so forth. Such statements are simply normal as opposed to abnormal, and it is in this sense that the Rajasic society is termed “Normal” — Editress