The Origin of Compulsions

Chapter III, Verse 37


Sri Nerode’s Translation:


Krishna said:

It is desire; it is passion, born of dark energies that push him to sin, all-consuming and all-defiling, know that this is our foe on earth.


Helpful Translation:

Humankind is bound by the three qualities: positive, negative, neutral. Even a spiritual aspirant is compelled to sin by the neutral quality (rajas) because it creates the appearance of stagnation and of limitation. Limitations lead to frustration and give rise to passion and anger.



In the last verse, Arjuna asked what “compels” a man to sin, even against his will. Krishna replies that the answer lies within the nature of the neutral quality (rajas guna).

Humans love drama. The soul masquerades as the ego in order to experience opposites: love-hate, health-disease, joy-sorrow, success-failure. The opposites are all-consuming for the ego from the highest-highs to the lowest-lows. It’s when the ego encounters the neutral periods of nothing too good and nothing too bad that desire is born.

Based on my experiences there is a seemingly endless amount of commentary that could be made on this verse. I’ll highlight three ideas the appeal to me.

First, Krishna is reinforcing the concept that inaction is the source of sin. The “neutral” quality is one that produces frustration, desire, and anger. Neutral leads to bad outcomes. Inaction leads to no outcome. We incarnate to embrace the human experience, not to avoid it.

The greater the degree of one’s inaction, the greater the degree of one’s “sin”. It is said that “suppression leads to perversion” and this verse upholds that idea even though the neutral quality has no suppression action on its own.

Second, a quick review of the three qualities may not appear to support the idea that the neutral quality breeds sin. On the surface, there’s an easy intellectual argument to be made that one of the active qualities either positive or negative would be responsible for desire. Here’s a summary of the three qualities:

Positive (Sattwa Guna) – “To please” or “to color.” Activates, produces motion, causes change in anything it influences. Gives matter its force and impetus; causes initiative 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 (Tamas Guna) – “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 “Mid-Night”.

Neutral (Rajas Guna) – Existence, truth, bears witness to the truth; illumines, ascertains, soothes, and uplifts by causing an equilibrium. Makes real happiness devoid of excitement. Causes desire and anger in the intellectual mind. 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”.

With contemplation, it is revealed that both positive and negative qualities engage the ego while the neutral quality is unsatisfying. When the ego is not busy or satisfied it seeks fulfillment. It’s the in-between state that gives rise to all desires and pursuits for the ego. The qualities are absolutes and not relative to an individual. The qualities are not subjective experiences, but beyond the ego and the intellect.

Third, my personal takeaway from this verse is an affirmation that I should always live in the moment. When I long for the past or the future, when I long for something I don’t have and want, I am not appreciating nor embracing the moment.

A man is compelled to sin when he is inactive or neutral. When he embraces the moment he lives completely.

Easter Eggs:

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

BhagavanAdorable One. Bhagavan is the aspect of the Godhead that receives unselfish devotion (or bhakti).

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