Everyday Vinaya: How Light Colors and Cleanliness Relieve Suffering of the Mind
I have been a student of Acharya Shunya for the last ten years. As a new student, fresh to Vedic rituals and customs (also known as Vinaya in Sanskrit), I had many questions about the “what, when, why, where and how,” of participating in a spiritual community. With the gentle guidance of my teacher and senior community members, I received answers and settled more comfortably into my studentship. Now, as Dean of the Vedic Spiritual Studies Program, I am privileged to share this knowledge with the next generation of our sampradāya.
In our sweet kula (spiritual school community) we often wear white and light colors such as saffron or gold, and even clothe our building and altars in these colors. These colors are considered auspicious, beneficial, and even purifying. A student recently asked me whether wearing black clothes was bad or a mark of something inauspicious. The short answer is no, and the longer answer comes when we understand the “why”.
Advaita Vedānta, Ayurveda and Yoga, the three vidyas (Vedic sciences) we teach at Vedika Global, are neither superstitious nor dogmatically rigid. Rather, they are rooted in an 8000+ year old tradition of closely observing our mental, physical and spiritual relationship to the phenomenal world, and making intentional choices to improve our experience. There is a reason why we choose light and bright colors, and it's not because darker colors are evil.
Rajas, Tamas and Sattva are gunas, or qualities, of the mind. They are energetic states that determine the quality and tenor of our mind and thoughts. In very simple terms, when our minds are agitated we are experiencing Rajas, when resistant and depressive we are experiencing Tamas, when in a balanced calm mental state, we are experiencing more Sattva. These gunas influence (and are influenced by) our experiences of the physical world. They are mutable and changeable. Ultimately, each of these gunas acts like an overlay of our ātman (that inner Self which is eternal, divine and always witnessing our own thoughts and mind). Even Sattva, balanced pure shining Sattva, is still just a reflection of our essential nature, not ātman itself.
Because the gunas describe qualities and characteristics, they are ultimately part of the physical matrix that constructs māyā (our collective experience of reality - the perceptual world). Gunas are both a reflection of our environment (inner and outer) and affected by our environment (both inner and outer). When we describe associated qualities of each guna, we are not pointing to isolated characteristics, rather potential expressions of an underlying energetic state.
Tamas, is associated most with āvarana or covering. If we understood the buddhi (intellect+memory+ego) as a mirror of our deepest divine Self (ātman), then being in a dominant state of Tamas, is to be in a maximal state of darkness from the light of ātman. This does not mean evil. When we sleep for example, our mind requires some tamas to shut down the constant flow of thoughts and stimulus from our senses. Rather it means a maximal state of ignorance to our true Self. In Tamas, we are in a state of forgetting that we are more than the small self, more than our ego personalities, more than our feelings of separation and isolation. What we can understand is that when we are already in a mental state dominant in Tamas, we are likely to find ourselves resistant to change, lethargic, tending to inactivity and laziness. That may express itself in depression, and an inability to care for oneself including cleaning the body and home, etc.
"Likes increase like, opposites reduce.”
This maxim dictates Ayurvedic chikitsa (therapy). This is why taking mindful action to clean our house, wear clean clothes (whatever color), get rid of clutter, bring flowers and living beings into our space and hearts, all helps to relieve the oppressive overlay of Tamas. However, a clean house and a shower is not a guarantee against tamas in our mind. Similarly, while lighter colors do evoke more sense of lightness in the mind, it doesn't necessarily mean that dark colors are bringing about more tamas.
Rajas is associated most with the quality of restless agitation and maximally reinforces the ego. A rajas dominant mind may express itself with an excessive attachment to rules and discipline. If you find yourself in "Always/Never" or "Doing" mode, it is a good indicator that it's time to find your compassionate center. Stimulating colors and tastes, experiences and relationships, can all increase the power of rajas. Some rajas is a healthy support for the spiritual student. Taking action to start practices, to wake up and get moving, to set firm boundaries all help to move away from Tamas and towards Sattva.
That said, rajas is by its nature unstable - sometimes pointed towards that knowledge of Self, then spinning us away in distracted pursuit of achievement and ambition. This can come up in our spiritual pursuits too - the spiritual ego is a rajas dominant ego. "I'm more evolved than that guy! My teacher is better than yours! I do more Sevā and sadhana (service and spiritual practices)! I always wear white and that guy doesn't, so he's not as pure as me!" Rajas, rajas, rajas...
What we want for spiritual evolution, healthy social engagements, and good discernment, is a strong stable mind - dominant in sattva, with healthy rajas and tamas. This means developing a mind that is able to stay balanced in the face of external stimulus. In this way, whether we are wearing a black sweatshirt or a white Kurta, we retain our memory of our divine Self, our eternal ātman.
The analogy of the lotus is used frequently in Vedānta and in our Vedika home (see our beautiful logo!), to remind us of this very quest. The lotus grows and thrives, strives and blooms above stagnant foul dirty water. Unblemished by the dirty murky waters below, happily receiving the light of the sun, and evoking sattva, with its beautiful flowers and lush green leaves above.
Cleanliness is a tool to evoke more sattva. It's easier to feel harmonious and calm in a clean spacious environment with the soft scents of flowers and spices, the gentle sounds of birds and musical instruments, and light and bright colors all around us. But shaucham, or purity, also speaks to achieving an internal quality of stability in sattva- unswayed from an abiding knowledge of Self - even when we find ourselves in crowded dirty environments with stinky air, loud noises, and grime.
We start relieving the suffering of minds dominant in Rajas and Tamas by taking physical action. For the depressed person being an unwashed lump on the couch, wearing clean fresh light colored clothes, and getting up and cleaning body and home, will have a hugely beneficial effect on the mind. For the spiritual student who is dominant in rajas and occasional sattva, who is ready to find abiding stability in sattva, it's time for the subtler practices of Upāsana and Karma Yoga.
Ayurveda, Yoga and Advaita Vedānta offer us many practical tools to purify our mental state; reduce Rajas and Tamas; and relieve our own suffering. When we ourselves are more stable and reflect more of the inner light of our innate divine Self, we naturally relieve the suffering of others.
Love and Light,
This article comes from Hamsa magazine. We welcome you to enjoy reading each magazine to benefit from summaries of and heartfelt reflections on Vedika founder and Acharya Shunya's teachings, written by students of her Spiritual Studies Program.
The author Aparna Amy Lewis is a long-term student of Acharya Shunya, and serves as the Dean of Vedika’s Spiritual Studies program.
Learn more about how you can study Vedanta with Acharya Shunya in her Vedic Spiritual Studies Program.