Describing Ternary In Terms of Binary

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Sāñkhya philosophy described prakṛti or nature in terms of three qualities called sattva, rajas, and tamas, which constitute three logical opposites. Since everyone finds it hard to visualize ternary opposites, therefore, the same three qualities are also described in terms of binary opposites. Below is one way to describe them in terms of 9 pairs of binary opposites, employed in Ayurveda, and used in reading a person’s guna.

Sattva Light Cold Dry Dull Static Clear Rough Thin Fluid
Rajas Light Hot Wet Sharp Mobile Dirty Smooth Thin Fluid
Tamas Heavy Cold Wet Dull Static Dirty Smooth Thick Solid
  • Sattva and Rajas are alike in three ways and unlike in six ways
  • Rajas and Tamas are alike in three ways and unlike in six ways
  • Sattva and Tamas are alike in three ways and unlike in six ways

As long as we use powers of three pairs (i.e., 3, 9, 27, 81, etc.) we can describe the three guna as binary opposites. However, the guna are not these opposites. These are just convenient ways to describe them. The same guna can be described in terms of a greater or lesser number of opposites. Since ever-increasing number of opposites can be used to describe the guna, therefore, infinite variety can be created from the same three gunas. The Vedic texts describe how infinite universes are produced from the same three guna. In each such universe, the guna could be experienced as a greater or lesser number of opposites. A larger universe has more opposites and a smaller universe has less opposites. The guna themselves are not reducible to these opposites but we can describe them more accurately using more opposites.

Under binary logic, if one opposite is true, then the other opposite is false. The true opposite must exist and the false opposite must not. However, in the ternary logical system, both opposites exist although not in the same thing. We cannot call the guna binary opposites because they are alike in some ways and unlike in other ways. Even the binary opposites are qualities rather than quantities such as 1 and 0. In the above description of guna, for instance, we have used 9 types of 1s and 0s. Since we can expand this to powers of three pairs of opposites, therefore, there are literally infinite types of 1s and 0s. Binary logic is thus infinitely inadequate to deal with this problem, although, in a given case, we can selectively use binary contrasts to distinguish between qualities. That distinction cannot be called universal truth.

Each type of binary opposite can be loosely called a “dimension”—the opposite sides of the dimension representing the opposite ends of a duality. Since the guna can be represented in terms of greater or lesser dualities, hence, the same thing can be described in terms of greater or lesser dimensions. Three is the minimum number of dimensions, but as we delve into greater variety, we need an increasing number of dimensions to fully understand the complexity. The extra dimensions are not necessarily hidden or invisible. But we need more developed sensory, mental, and intellectual abilities to perceive them.

Higher dimensions have been used in physics too, as fourth, fifth, or sixth dimensions. Each dimension is a different quality. But that is not true for guna. There are only three qualities. But they can be known to greater or lesser precision. Greater precision requires more opposites. Lesser precision requires fewer opposites. A “subtle” reality needs greater opposites. A “gross” reality needs lesser opposites.

When we say that the mind is a subtle reality, and the body is a gross reality, we are talking about the fact that the body is a simpler understanding of the mind and the mind is a more complex understanding of the body. Thereby, it takes a long time to infer the nature of the mind from the body. But it takes a short time to infer the nature of the body from the mind. The simple thing (i.e., the body) is produced from the complex thing (i.e., the mind). The infinitely complicated prakṛti is primordial. The less complicated mind and body produced from prakṛti are subsequent. We don’t create complexity from simplicity. We create simplicity from complexity by progressively hiding the complexity to simplify it.

Kṛṣṇa, the origin of everything, is the most complex subject and everything else expanded from Him is relatively speaking less complex. The less complex is produced from the more complex. The less complex is a part of the more complex. The more complex produces the less complex by hiding the complexity to create simplicity. The more and less complex things are persons. The less complex person tries to simplify the more complex person and fails to understand him or her. Since everyone is less complex relative to Kṛṣṇa, therefore, nobody can fully understand Kṛṣṇa. But everyone can become a more complex person to understand the most complex person better.

This is called simple living and high thinking. Simple living means taking our minds out of the world. High thinking means focusing the mind on Kṛṣṇa. The latter cannot be done without the former.

The simplicity of the Vedic system is deceptive. Since everything produced from prakṛti can be described in terms of three qualities, hence, everything is simple—we need three qualities to describe everything. But since the three guna can be enunciated in terms of infinite binary opposites, therefore, everything is infinitely complex. The simple description of Kṛṣṇa says that He is the complete form of sat-chit-ānanda. Every other person is a partial form of sat-chit-ānanda. That is precisely like saying that every material thing is a partial form of sattva-rajas-tamas while prakṛti is the complete form of sattva-rajas-tamas.

Therefore, we can say that God is sat-chit-ānanda. But if you ask what each of these words means, then we have to use many triads. I have earlier used many such triads in my writing, such as (a) relation, cognition, and emotion, (b) right, truth, and good, (c) ethos, logos, and pathos, (d) justice, truth, and beauty, (e) practice, theory, and result, etc. This is not an exhaustive list. It cannot be exhaustive. But as we use more triads, we understand sat-chit-ānanda better, just like we understand sattva-rajas-tamas better by using more binary opposites. To deal with more complex issues, we have to use a greater number or a different set of triads. To deal with simple issues, we have to use fewer triads. Answers to all questions are not simple. However, the foundation of everything is seemingly very simple.

The Vedic system is the inversion of the Axiomatic System used in Western reasoning in which axioms are simple things and the derivations from those axioms are complex things. In the Vedic system, the axiom—i.e., Kṛṣṇa—is the most complex thing and everything derived from Him is less complex.

We can describe this process with an example of the concept of a vehicle and infinite types of vehicles. Each vehicle partially enunciates the concept. Each vehicle is a part of the complete concept of a vehicle. The concept of a vehicle produces varied vehicles. Varied vehicles don’t produce the concept of a vehicle. The concept of a vehicle must precede individual vehicles for any kind of vehicle to exist. However, by studying varied individual vehicles, we can understand the concept of a vehicle more completely. We don’t know the meaning of the concept of a vehicle if we have seen only one or two vehicles. Seeing more types of vehicles will not tell us something other than the concept of a vehicle. It will simply tell us more and more about the concept of a vehicle. Our idea will get richer and more nuanced with the passing of time.

Reading one Upaniśad can give us the truth. Reading a hundred Upaniśad will give us a more complete version of the same truth. A bachelor’s degree can give us the truth. A master’s degree can give us a more complete version of the same truth. We don’t study many objects through many subjects. We just study one object through every subject. But progressively we get a more complete picture of the same object through many subjects.

We can study the nature of sat-chit-ānanda through every subject. With more subjects, we get a better understanding of sat-chit-ānanda. We won’t get contradictions between subjects. Each subject helps us better understand every other subject. Therefore, every subject is useful to understand sat-chit-ānanda. But other subjects will help us improve our understanding of sat-chit-ānanda and the previously studied subject. This is how every subject serves to advance all other subjects.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Describing Ternary In Terms of Binary," in Shabda Journal, September 17, 2023,