As you can see below, Prabhupāda, in his purport to BG 14.8, explains the "mode of ignorance" by citing a śloka from some scripture. Which scripture or 'literature' is he talking about?

BG 14.8

tamas tv ajñāna-jaṁ viddhi
mohanaṁ sarva-dehinām
tan nibadhnāti bhārata

Synonyms: tamaḥ — the mode of ignorance; tu — but; ajñāna-jam — produced of ignorance; viddhi — know; mohanam — the delusion; sarva-dehinām — of all embodied beings; pramāda — with madness; ālasya — indolence; nidrābhiḥ — and sleep; tat — that; nibadhnāti — binds; bhārata — O son of Bharata.

Translation: O son of Bharata, know that the mode of darkness, born of ignorance, is the delusion of all embodied living entities. The results of this mode are madness, indolence and sleep, which bind the conditioned soul.


In this verse the specific application of the word tu is very significant. This means that the mode of ignorance is a very peculiar qualification of the embodied soul. The mode of ignorance is just the opposite of the mode of goodness. In the mode of goodness, by development of knowledge, one can understand what is what, but the mode of ignorance is just the opposite. Everyone under the spell of the mode of ignorance becomes mad, and a madman cannot understand what is what. Instead of making advancement, one becomes degraded.

The definition of the mode of ignorance is stated in the Vedic literature.

Vastu-yāthātmya-jñānāvarakaṁ viparyaya-jñāna-janakaṁ tamaḥ: under the spell of ignorance, one cannot understand a thing as it is.

For example, everyone can see that his grandfather has died and therefore he will also die; man is mortal. The children that he conceives will also die. So death is sure. Still, people are madly accumulating money and working very hard all day and night, not caring for the eternal spirit. This is madness. In their madness, they are very reluctant to make advancement in spiritual understanding. Such people are very lazy. When they are invited to associate for spiritual understanding, they are not much interested. They are not even active like the man who is controlled by the mode of passion. Thus another symptom of one embedded in the mode of ignorance is that he sleeps more than is required. Six hours of sleep is sufficient, but a man in the mode of ignorance sleeps at least ten or twelve hours a day. Such a man appears to be always dejected and is addicted to intoxicants and sleeping. These are the symptoms of a person conditioned by the mode of ignorance.

  • 3
    Good question. I understand why Prabhupada gave a vague reference. Too not give a vague reference would require a very long discussion. I will work on a detailed answer. Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 7:02
  • @sv are u asking only about the scriptural source of the verse in bold or something else?
    – Rickross
    Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 7:32
  • @Rickross Yes, just the scriptural source. Looks like I got more than what I wanted :) Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 11:56

1 Answer 1


First, in his translation, Prabhupāda is trying to reach a broad foreign audience not familiar with Vedantic terms. Rather than translate ‘tamah’ as ‘mode of ignorance’ it is better to just use the word tamas or tamah – one of the three gunas - qualities. Oversimplification has its merits – and demerits. His translation is a little confusing as he translates ‘tamah’ as ‘ignorance’ and ‘ajñāna-jam’ as ‘produced of ignorance’. Two different Sanskrit words with different purports but ONLY apparently almost the same meaning in English. Tamah is the guna known as tamah or tamas. ‘ajñāna-jam’, however, means ‘produced/born of ignorance’ – but all the gunas (sattwa, rajas, and tamas) are ‘ajñāna-jam’ – not only tamas. Several translators have used similar translations of ‘ajñāna-jam’ - I do not mean to single out Prabhupāda - BUT it should not be equated to mean ONLY that out of which tamas is produced. Remember that a more literal translation of ‘jnana’ is ‘knowledge’ and ‘ajnana’ - ‘not’ knowledge. The juxtaposition of the English word ignorance in the same sentence inclines the mind to see the same meaning to the word. A more literal translation would be – ‘the guna known as tamas produced out of that which is not knowledge’. Which leads to what is meant by knowledge and not-knowledge?

The qualities/definitions of the three gunas are clearly stated in Chapter 14. Where the gunas are derived from is stated in Gita 13.19 (“…all forms and gunas are born of Prakriti”).

A clearer understanding of all of this can be had from Sadananda’s Vedantasara verse 34 (original Sanskrit/English text with commentary downloadable here - https://www.scribd.com/doc/79765830/Vedantasara-of-Sadananda-translated-with-commentary-of-Swami-Nikhilananda-of-Ramakrishna-Order-1931) It says:

But ignorance [meaning not Knowledge] is described as something positive though intangible, which cannot be described either as being or non-being, which is made of three qualities [Gunas] and is antagonistic to Knowledge. Its existence is established from such experiences as “I am ignorant”, and from such Sruti passages as, “The power belonging to God Himself, in hidden its own qualities” (Svet. Up. I. 3).

In his footnotes to the above, Swami Nikhilananda says:

But – The text offers a special theory on the subject.

Something – This word has a special significance. It is not used to denote its indescribable nature, nor its antagonism to Knowledge and Truth as these ideas have been well expressed by separate phrases. Its special significance is to posit ignorance as the source or cause of illusion.

Positive – This is a difficult word and requires some explanation. This part of the definition is given in order to refute the contention that ignorance is mere negation, as it is antagonistic to Knowledge. The Nyaya school says that the absence of Knowledge is ignorance and so it is a negation. But the Vedantist says it is not a negation. He asks, what is Knowledge whose negation is contended to be ignorance? We can understand Knowledge from three aspects. Firstly, Knowledge is used as synonymous with ‘the Witness, the Perceiver,” (Svet. Up. 6. 11). Its absence cannot be called ignorance as it is eternal and therefore can never be associated with a state of negation. Secondly, a particular function of mind is termed knowledge, as in the passage, “Through understanding one understands the Rig-Veda” (Chh. Up. 7. 7. 1). But here ‘knowledge’ is used in only in an indirect sense. No mental function can illumine an object unless it has the Self at its back. The eyes, ears, etc., seem to perform their functions consciously because they draw their consciousness from the Self. Comp. – “All this is guided by Consciousness and is based on Consciousness; this universe has Consciousness for its guide, Consciousness for its base; Consciousness is Brahman.” (Ait. Up. 5. 3). Hence, under no circumstances can this Knowledge exist in a negative state. Thirdly, ignorance cannot be said to consist of the negation of knowledge, particular or general. Because when a man makes a statement as, “I am ignorant, I do not know anything,” even then he does not lose all sense of perception. Though he may not perceive a particular object, he perceives another. Again, there cannot be any negation of general knowledge as without it knowledge of a particular object becomes impossible. Therefore it stands to reason that Knowledge which is eternal, ever-existent and positive can never be connected or associated with negation. But when ignorance is said to be (positive), it does not denote an absolute substance which only Brahman is. Were it so, there would not be any liberation. Therefore this term is used to differentiate it from negation. Ignorance is different from reality and unreality, as neuter is different from male and female. Really this ignorance can never be properly explained. It has found a place in Vedanta philosophy in order to explain the otherwise inexplicable production of the phenomenal world. It is absurd to seek for its proof. It cannot be roved by our reasoning because human reasoning can never be free from (ignorance). To prove it by reasoning is like seeing darkness with the help of darkness. Nor can it be proved by Knowledge, as at the awakening of Knowledge there cannot remain any trace of ignorance. To prove ignorance by Knowledge is like seeing darkness by a blazing light. Comp. – “The characteristic of ignorance is its very unintelligibleness. It cannot bear any proof, or it will be a real thing” (Brihadaranyakavartika verse 181). – “This illusion is without support and contradictory to all reasoning. It cannot bear any reasoning just as darkness cannot stand the sun.” Therefore like the fanciful imagination of the sun by one who is blind by day, the sages called ignorance indescribable, as it is neither real nor unreal, nor real-unreal, neither with parts nor without parts, and neither separable from Knowledge nor inseparable from It.

Which etc. – It is not existent because it disappears at the awakening of Knowledge. It is not non-existent like a child of a barren woman otherwise there would not be any dealing with the world.

Three qualities – These are Sattva (serenity), Rajas (activity) and Tamas (inertia). These qualities have been mentioned in the following scriptural passages, though the Sankhya philosophy may justly claim to have fully developed the theory of the three Gunas.

“There is one unborn (feminine) being, red, white, and black, producing manifold offspring of the same nature as itself” (Svet. Up. 4. 5). This refers to (Nature) which is composed of the three qualities mentioned above. These three qualities are found to exist in all the products of Prakriti. Comp. – “The red colour that we notice in fire is its own colour, the white colour the colour of water, and the black colour is the colour of earth” (Chh. Up. 6. 4. 1). Like its effects, the cause, which is ignorance, is also made of the three qualities, though in the latter case they remain in an unmanifested state. Though the three qualities are attributes of (ignorance), yet they are its essential parts, as substance is inseparable from its attributes.

Antagonistic etc. – This definition is given in order to refute the contention that there would never be any cessation of phenomena, as the eternal ignorance manifested in the form of sky etc., appears to be real. Ignorance with all its modifications vanishes away at the dawn of Knowledge.

I am etc. – This experience illustrates the positiveness of ignorance. Such Sruti etc. – Comp. – “Knowledge is enveloped by ignorance, hence the creatures are deluded” (Gita 5. 15). – “Veiled by this illusion owing to the association of Gunas, I am not manifest to all” (Gita 7. 25).

You can also see by the above quote, the answer to your question – What vedic scripture is Prabhupāda referring to? As stated above, although the gunas were fully developed in the Samkhya philosophy, there are references to the three gunas in the Chandogya and Svetasvatara Upanishads. But, in the Upanishads they are not referred to as the ‘gunas’, but as colors. The term gunas came after the Upanishads. You can also see from the above quote a discussion of the term ignorance meaning ‘not-knowledge’ which lends itself to a better understanding of ajñāna-jam in the Gita text 14.8.

  • I am not clear about which Scripture contains the verse in the question..Can someone clarify?
    – Rickross
    Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 6:58
  • @Rickross his question was which scripture contains the definitions of 'modes of ignorance' - better known as the Gunas. My answer states that it is in the Chhandogya and Svetasvatara Upanishads, but are called colours there. The full concept of the Gunas was developed later by the Samkhya philosophy and was not referred to as the Gunas until the development of the Samkhya philosophy. The Gita came after the the development of the Samkhya philosophy. Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 8:06
  • Ok..I thought he is simply asking which scripture contains the verse highlighted in the question..
    – Rickross
    Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 8:41
  • Swamiji, so you are saying Prabhupāda is referring to Svet. Up. 4. 5 and Chh. Up. 6. 4. 1? Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 17:47
  • 1
    But do you know where the line quoted by Prabhupada "Vastu-yāthātmya-jñānāvarakaṁ viparyaya-jñāna-janakaṁ tamaḥ", comes from? Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 15:32

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .