On three types of Enjoyment – Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic Pleasures

In the previous post, while discussing the question of when to quit martial arts, it was observed that decisions made before and after practice are likely to be different. Martial arts practice is one of those activities that are initially difficult but become easy and pleasurable as you warm up. This is easy to appreciate in the case of physical activities where blood flow and breathing gradually adjust to levels that are conducive to intense exertion. What is interesting is that the same pattern is observable in entirely different types of activities.  This can be better appreciated by understanding the three types of enjoyment, classified on the basis of gunas.

In Indian philosophical thought, everything is seen as a result of the interplay of three gunas – roughly translated as qualities or nature. These are sattvarajas, and tamas. Sattva is that which leads to happiness, rajas to sorrow, and tamas to ignorance. Based on the predominance of these gunas, our thoughts, actions, food, can all be considered to be predominantly sattvicrajasic or tamasic. The same goes for activities, enjoyments, and pleasures. This classification of sources of pleasure and the nature of each is given by Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita.

Starting with sattvic, the Lord says (BG XVIII:37) :

यत्तदग्रे विषमिव परिणामेऽमृतोपमम् ।
तत्सुखं सात्त्विकं प्रोक्तमात्मबुद्धिप्रसादजम् ॥

That pleasure which is like poison at the beginning, but like the very nectar of life towards the end, is sattvic, and leads to happiness.

This is exactly the type of joy that practice of martial arts, or physical exercise in general, brings. This effect can also be observed on a larger scale than a single session of practice. If we look at the journey of a martial artist, the enjoyment he derives from it generally increases over time – with some peaks and valleys in between. Other examples of this type of enjoyment are meditation, the study of language and science, poetry and other forms of art. In spite of the nearly universal appeal of music, enjoyment of certain types of music (usually classical forms) is cultivated and improves over time. Contrast that with some other forms of music that are catchy in the beginning but will appear to be boring very soon.

This type of enjoyment that is highly appealing in the beginning but turns out to be almost intolerable later is referred to as rajasic. On this, Bhagavan says (BG XVIII:38):

परिणामे विषमिव तत्सुखं राजसं स्मृतम्।।

That enjoyment which, arising from the union of senses with their objects, is at first like nectar but like poison in the end, is known as rajasic.

Overeating or eating of rajasic food is perhaps the most common example in this category. When we begin eating, or even think of such food before you begin, we consider it as the pinnacle of joy, as the very purpose of life. But after eating much, we feel uncomfortable and even the thought of more food becomes repulsive! There is a story of three brothers who, after a heavy meal, decide that they don’t want to eat ever again and give away all their wealth in charity, only to regret it a few hours later. Rajasic enjoyments result in aversion, and with more and frequent cycles of pleasure and aversion, the pleasure becomes weaker and the aversion stronger. This goes on until that enjoyment is forsaken and a newer one sought! This journey from one rajasic pleasure to another in search of lasting happiness also leads only to greater aversion, frustration, and sorrow.

Unlike these two types of pleasures, tamasic enjoyments are those which do not really make you feel good at any point. They don’t even result in sadness or temporary dispassion but instead deludes the self with ignorance throughout. According to Bhagavad Gita (BG XVIII:39):

यदग्रे चानुबन्धे च सुखं मोहनमात्मनः।
निद्रालस्यप्रमादोत्थं तत्तामसमुदाहृतम्।।

That pleasure which arises from sleeping, sloth, and inadvertence, which at the beginning and also later is delusive to the self, is deemed tamasic (leading to ignorance, darkness)

Vile pleasures such as that derived from alcohol fall into this category. They lead from ignorance and delusion to greater ignorance and delusion.

Understanding the nature of these three types of enjoyments enables us to determine which category a particular pleasure can be mapped to. It also helps the wise to systematically cultivate a taste in sattvic enjoyments that lead to lasting happiness, bring moderation in and gradually wean off rajasic enjoyments, and to keep away from tamasic pleasures at all costs.

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