A pervasive element of Hindu thought is the concept of the tri-guNa-s. Their use is common in colloquial discussion: food might be classified in terms of guNa-s or even people might be categorized based on their dominant guNa. The same tri-guNa terminology might also be used to describe other abstract entities such as organismal behavior, moral qualities of a person or properties of material. The concept of tri-guNa-s while intuitively grasped by a Hindu is a very fluid in terms precise definition. Despite its pervasiveness in modern Hindu discourse its origins lie in the late- and post- vedic developments leading to sAMkhya thought. Because of the imprecise and intuitive understanding of guNa-s in general usage there has been much confusion amongst many modern students of Hindu thought when the guNa-s are used in the context of technical ancient literature. In course of my study of the sAMkhya-yoga system, I became increasingly aware of this issue.
Amongst modern Hindus one of the first to correctly grasp the technical meanings of the guNa terminology was the scholar from va~Nga, Brajendranath Seal. He correctly saw that the early sAMkhya thinkers considered guNa-s to be not just “qualities” but real physical concepts. That this was the original understand becomes clear from the vyAsa-bhAShya. In explaining the sUtra 3.44 of pata~njali the VB clearly explains each term of the sUtra as an increasingly basic description of matter – evolute of the original prakR^iti. The VB telling uses atypical descriptors for the 3 guNa-s, namely khyAti, kriyA and stithishIlA. These terms along with the context clearly imply that guNa-s of sAMkhya were physical concepts. The sattva (=khyAti) in the most mysterious in modern terms by a distinctive feature of sAMkhya – it might be taken to mean “information” or that aspect of matter that responds to/interacts with the puruSha (of sAMkhya) or consciousness. rajas (=kriyA) is energy and tamas (=stithishIlA) is mass. That these were viewed as physical entities becomes assumes great significance in the context of a sAMkhyan conservation principle guNa-s. In its formulation this principle resembles the modern physical conservation principle of mass/energy. This is provided by the vyAsa bhAShya in the commentary on sUtra 2.19 of pata~njali:
visheSha-avisheSha li~Nga mAtra-ali~NgAni guNa-parvan ||
VB: guNAstu sarva dharmAnupAtino na pratyastam ayante na+upajAyante | vyaktibhir eva-atIta-anAgatavyaya-AgamavatIbhir guNa-anvayinIbhir upajananaapAyadharmakA iva pratyavabhAsante |
“Though guNa-s go through all kinds of transformations/evolution (*anupAt) they are neither destroyed nor created. They appear to as if they had properties that come into being and disappear on account of the various forms of matter formed by the guNas past and yet to come (i.e. the forms of matter) those come and go out of existence.”
As mentioned above the vyAsa- bhAShya in describing the guNa-s clearly conceives them as the basis of matter. When we take that with above explanation in the context of sutra 2.19 it becomes apparent that the vyAsa-bhAShya is implying the physical conservation of guNa-s. Some points of note are: 1) The word dharma here is used in conjunction with the word “anupatinaH”. In technical Sanskrit this word is used to imply arithmetic progression or a series. So what is meant by dharma are the states of matter that form via the sAMkhyan transformation or evolutionary process from the guNa-s of prakR^iti to the paramANu-s of the bhUta-s. 2) In this light the word vyakti in the next sentence implies the various manifestations or forms of matter/energy. Thus, the sAMkhyan statement of the principle of conservation parallels the modern physical principle: “Matter+energy is neither created nor destroyed; it is only transformed from one form to another”. Is this explanation provided the bhAShya and its physical interpretation as presented above compatible with the original content of the sUtra of pata~njalI? It strongly appears this is the case because the vyAsa bhAShya does consistently show a close understanding of the sUtra text. While the sUtra text is hard to render in a modern language, it does seem the bhAShya is very much in the right context. We can with some trepidation render 2.19 thus: “The evolutes of the guNa-s [which are the basis of matter] are particular and unparticular, which are differentiated and undifferentiated [matter].”
As far as I know the saMkhya statement is the most sophisticated statement of the conservation principle in the ancient world. Amongst the Greek equivalents of the Hindus Thales had a conservation principle but it was much less sophisticated as far as I can see.