Guidance Towards Wisdom
Spiritual Compass: The Three Qualities of Life Satish Kumar Green Books, UK, 2007, £9.95
WE LIVE NOWADAYS in what philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has aptly called “liquid times”: at many levels the solid certainties of old are melting, and there is a rising tide of uncertainty about the future, about our personal lives and about the purpose and meaning of our social institutions. As Satish Kumar declares right at the start of Spiritual Compass, “we live in an age of anguish.” We are, so to speak, at sea, without solid reference points, often on choppy waters under stormy skies. More than ever, to get through the fog we need a good compass, both reliable and easy to use. That’s what Satish’s new book offers: a spiritual compass able to guide the heart.
It’s a compass made in India, cast in the furnace of the Vedic tradition and tempered with the (then crystalline) waters of the Ganges. Thousands of years later, it still works. Its needle is made of the subtlest and most enduring of substances: inner peace. It marks only three cardinal directions, which are not separated by numerical degrees, but are qualitatively distinct. These directions are called in Sanskrit the three gunas or ‘basic qualities’: the sattvic (calmness, purity, lucidity, or, in less traditional terms, what is “elegant and simple”), the rajasic (energy, passion, dynamism, what is “extravagant and excessive”), and the tamasic (dullness, ignorance, inertia, what is “dark and depressing”). These three qualities have been used throughout the centuries in Ayurvedic medicine, and the Bhagavad-Gita describes sattvic, rajasic and tamasic kinds of food, of practice, of understanding, of action, of happiness.
Satish not only presents these traditional lists of qualities but he updates and expands them, showing how they can guide us to heal our soils, our souls and our society. As he writes, “to live a good life, it helps to be aware of the sattvic, rajasic and tamasic qualities in everything.”
Beautifully designed and complemented by poems, stories and words of wisdom from several traditions, Spiritual Compass highlights three key sattvic virtues – trust, participation and gratitude – and discusses modern sattvic views of human development, such as those of Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, Ariyaratne and Liberation Theology. Gandhi’s statement, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way,” is an example of these sattvic views.
Imbued with the practical wisdom that informs the pages of Resurgence, there is no lack of specific advice in Spiritual Compass (it includes, indeed, an “eleven-point programme for sattvic action”, and “seven sattvic rules of life”), but what is most practical is the compass itself: the ability the reader gains to distinguish the three qualities. There is no gadget that would be more useful than this compass. Today all kinds of fast machine, physical and virtual, take us around the world at accelerating speed, and yet we don’t know where we are or where we want to go. Much better to walk, enjoying every step, knowing thyself, with a clear purpose and a meaningful horizon.
Consumerism is particularly tamasic – and so is pessimism. To confront our greed-based consumer society, Satish reminds us of sattvic Jain wisdom: “Even the angels bow to those who practise restraint.” Today rajasic and tamasic tendencies rule economics and politics, pushing us towards the reign of quantity. “Over the past 300 years industrial society has, knowingly or unknowingly, built tamasic and rajasic infrastructures. Now we are facing dissatisfaction, anguish and confusion. This is the time of transformation… We are at the point of returning from the gross to the subtle, from the glamorous to the gracious, from hedonism to healing.”
Sattvic wisdom has been sent into exile. It’s high time to call her back. Satish himself, sattvic Satish, is a living example of that wisdom. Following his spiritual compass, Satish the Earth pilgrim walked for two years through Asia, Europe and part of America, planting seeds of peace with every footstep. Following this compass, he envisioned projects like the Small School and Schumacher College and has been steering the course of Resurgence through the turbulences of our time into a horizon of light and hope. It’s clear that this compass has guided him well, and through him it has guided many others. May all of us have this good guidance.
Spiritual Compass is available from the Resurgence Shop.