Three Qualities of Activity

Chapter III, Verse 5

Sri Nerode’s Translation:


Nay, nor can anyone, even for an instant remain actionless. By the very laws of life and nature he is compelled, even unwillingly, into action.


Helpful Translation:

All humans are compelled to “activity” by Nature. Until one is able to achieve the state of breathless meditation (neutrality above the three gunas/qualities), physical motion is a mandatory compulsion.



Whenever a group addresses an issue that has arisen, it’s likely there will be one person who asks, “What happens if we do nothing?”

What happens if we don’t respond to insult or injury, rather than fighting or fleeing we simply remain present?

What happens if we allow the stalled vehicle to coast down the hill without trying to stop it?

What happens if we don’t counteract our competitor’s successful advertising campaign?

What happens if we don’t address the needs of our constituents and allow the next class of elected representatives take care of it?

Similarly, the personal mind and intellect are always ready to offer non-action as a viable option. In this verse, Krishna makes a basic argument to Arjuna. Krishna counsels that since activity is a requirement of life, Arjuna should embrace right activity. In earlier verses like Chapter 2, Verse 47, Krishna states that Arjuna’s only duty is to action alone, not to the outcome of those actions and certainly not to avoid activity.

So what about sleep?

One breathes and other bodily functions continue during the state of sleep. Krishna is not advising an unbalanced life of all activity and no rest. Instead, he is advising to embrace activity for the benefits it offers. The subtle benefit right activity offers is the neutralization of the three qualities that drive the engine of duality. First the positive and negative poles are neutralized, then the neutral quality is transmuted into transcendental understanding.

Non-action is never the same thing as the neutral quality (Raja guna). All three qualities are descriptions of activity. Consider the tidal movements of the ocean. The high tide may be considered like the negative quality (Tama guna). The low tide may be described by the positive quality (Sattwa guna). In this example, high tide hides the shoreline while low tide reveals the shoreline. The moments when the high tide turns to become the low tide, when the tide is neither high nor low and when the low tide turns toward rising again, these moments are like the neutral quality (Raja guna). Despite being in different stages of tidal movement, the ocean and everything it embodies remains active.

If you do not understand the comparison of the qualities to the tides, perhaps a comparison to oil will be more clear. Consider the raw sludge version of oil that only burns with difficulty, this is like the negative quality. The highly refined version of the same oil sludge could be explosive, this would be like the positive quality. Finally, the version of oil that is refined in the correct proportions to be used as oil or gas for vehicles, this is like the neutral quality. All three types of oil are active in different ways even as the three qualities are active. There is a more complete definition of the qualities in the “Easter Eggs” below.

In summary, one should engage in principle based activity willingly and enthusiastically.

Easter Eggs:

Easter Eggs (hidden references to deeper meanings) in the original version of this this verse include:

For future reference in the context of using the Gita as a Sanskrit primer, it’s important to note that the “Gunas” are mentioned in this verse.

The three qualities (gunas) are: positive (Sattwa), negative (Tama) and neutralizing (Raja). Additional notes about each quality follows:

Neutral (Raja) –

Existence, truth, bears witness to the truth; illumines, ascertains, soothes, and uplifts by causing an equilibrium. Makes real happiness devoid of excitement. Has no motion of its own. Gives the power to will and to know. Induces the quality in a flame which makes it burn upwards. “Intelligence” on an abstract plane of consciousness. No pure physical example. Related to white blood cells. Closest mental example is the period of transition from dreaming to waking states. Milk, rice and wheat contain aspects of this quality.  It is symbolized by pure white and “Dawn”.

Positive (Sattwa) –

“To please” or “to color.” Activates, produces motion, causes change in anything it influences. Gives matter its force and impetus; causes desire and endeavor in the mind. Imparts motion to air and fire. Pure abstract example is ego and on the physical plane, energy. Found in the red corpuscles of the blood. Related foods are red peppers, onions, liquor. Symbolized by the color red. In the daily cycle it is “Noon”.

Negative (Tama) –

“To cover” or “to darken.” This quality covers or hides “neutral” qualities and obstructs “positive” qualities. Surface, skin, outer cover. Makes it possible to feel invisible air. Produces tendency for water to descend. Responsible for gravity. Causes resistance, halts motion. Pure abstract example is lethargy. Physical example is solid earth. It is the carbon in venous blood. Influence is strongly felt in sleep and laziness. Related foods are stale meat, poisons and certain suffocating gases. In the daily cycle it is “Night”.

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