Verse 23 elaborates on Discerning Intelligence (Buddhi/Mahat) and feels like it is finding grounding in the pragmatic reality of being a human being (and I constantly remind myself that the metaphysics described in Samkhya applies to all life). The verse describes 8 qualities of intelligence.
The verse points to a notion of morality or ethics: virtue and vice. Discerning intelligence, can, according to this verse, go either way. Good & bad, right & wrong, these do not manifest through Spirit (which is indifferent) or Primordial Nature (which will be shown to be random). They are attributed to Mahat – Discerning Intelligence.
The discernment between virtue and vice seems to tease out a sense of agency (that was negated in verse 19). However, the verse ties this morality to the qualities of nature: to the mixing and combining of the Gunas. When Mahat is dominated by Tamas it leans towards vice. When Mahat is dominated by Sattva it leans towards virtue. So where is the agency?
For the past decade, I’ve been living with a Mulberry tree. Some years it fills with fruits, and in some years it is empty. This is often decided in early spring. If a late frost comes and takes away the early buds then there will be no fruit. If there is no late frost it will likely be a fruitful year. The tree may be evolving over the years, possibly adapting to the changing climate conditions. But, unlike me, the buds and the tree are unable to make or seek shelter from the cold and the wind.
This is the direction of my thoughts when I think about the agency of a human being. I was taught (and a part of me still likes to think) that I can exert control over my thinking and behavior. That it is I that chooses between vice and virtue. I am becoming increasingly convinced that is a delusion (with far-reaching implications into western psychology and everything self-help). What if ethics are, as the verse seems to suggest, more about the conditions and context in which I exist? It seems sensible to me that if I am in a Sattvic context (steady, light, illuminated) virtue is more likely to arise. If I am in a Tamasic context (heavy, obstructed, delusional), vice is more likely to arise.
If this is true then “trying to behave ethically” may be a misdirected effort. A more correct effort may be affecting the qualities of my life to create conditions that increase the likelihood of ethical behavior. Practically this means to affect the dance of the Gunas. Everything I engage with is a guna-mixture that is reacting with and affecting the Guna-mixture that I am experiencing. Ethics, according to Samkhya, seems to be a consequence of reduced Tamas and increased Sattva. How do I do that? The quality of the air that I breathe, the quality of the food I eat, the work that I engage with every day, the relationships I partake in, the conversations I engage in, the music I listen to, the books I read, the words I write … everything I encounter in life is an opportunity to affect the dance of the Gunas – in myself, in the world that surrounds me and in others!
Since I have completed a reading of the text I can now recognize and appreciate a key that is hidden in plain sight in this verse (hint: one of the eight qualities of Discerning Intelligence has a quality that is different from all the others). I look forward to acknowledging it when I publish the verses in which I came to recognize it.