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The Three Gunas (Part 1)

Ever wonder why we seem to have mood shifts from moment to moment? You may be sitting in a very peaceful state of mind, maybe reading a nice book, and suddenly the thought of some event from the past can throw you into an agitated state of mind. There is constant change going on in our minds. All such random fluctuations of the mind are attributed to the play of the three gunas. The gunas represent a central theme in the various philosophies contained in the ancient Hindu scriptures, like Samkhya, Patanjanli’s Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads.

What are the Gunas?

The Sanskrit word ‘guna’, in common usage, means quality or property. It also means a string or a rope. In the latter sense, it may mean something that binds and ties. In the ancient Hindu scriptures the three gunas are mentioned as qualities of nature that determine the inherent characteristic of all created entities.

The three gunas are:

  • sattva (purity, light, harmony, intelligence)
  • rajas (activity, passion)
  • tamas (dullness, inertia, ignorance)

Anything we see, hear, smell or feel etc. in the physical universe is the result of these three gunas being present in different proportions. Gunas are considered to be psycho-physical energy threads that constitute material existence. These are the threads of reality that bind us to the world of change.

Sattva is pure, illuminating and free from sickness. It binds the soul through attachment with happiness and knowledge.

Rajas is full of passion and is born out of intense desire and attachment. It binds the soul through attachment with action.

Tamas is the darkness and the crudeness in man. It is born of ignorance and cause of delusion. It binds the soul through recklessness, laziness and sleep.

Gunas and Samkhya

According to the Samkhya philosophy there are two principles, both real and eternal, both independent of each other and yet somehow connected. These two principles are Purusha (pure consciousness) and Prakriti (nature/matter). As per this philosophy, at the beginning of creation the Prakriti was in the unmanifest state with the three gunas in perfect equilibrium. At some point in time, due to the proximity between Prakriti and Purusha, the guna equilibrium was disturbed and the material creation evolved. Everything in this material universe is a composite of these three gunas. The gunas are not to be viewed as individual entities. They are always present in various proportions and their combination results in a unique, continuous process. For example, our state of mind changes constantly depending upon the proportion of gunas at a given moment. It is the very nature of the gunas that they are in a state of constant flux. The gunas are mutually dominant over, dependent upon, generative of, and cooperative with one another. They work together as the wick, oil (wax) and flame operate together to produce light. Mind, ego, intellect as well as objects like trees, stones etc. are all manifestation of gunas. A feeling or a thought, for example, is a "moment" in the continuum of the guna ‘process’.

At any given time, one of the three gunas is the dominant one and the other two remain in the subordinate state. There is no state in which one guna can stay without the presence of the other two. For example, knowledge gained through the five senses is considered sattvika. So when we hear a sound, that knowledge is sattvika. At the same time, we know that sound is always accompanied with some vibration which is considered rajasika.

It is the disturbing play of the gunas that keeps the mind in a state of agitation. We do have moments in our life which are dominated by sattva and we feel very peaceful, pure, loving and compassionate. However, these moments are short lived and we are usually overcome by the effects of either rajas or tamas.

Our ancient scriptures state that it should be our endeavor to maintain the state of sattva for longer periods of time so that raja and tamas continue to play a subservient role. With the practice of yoga, we can slowly develop a more dominant sattvika state.

As per the yoga philosophy, the ultimate goal of life is to eventually transcend even the sattva guna and go beyond the influence of the gunas. In our texts this state is called "gunatita" (beyond gunas) and is the state when we have reached the final state of liberation and the three gunas have merged back into their original state of perfect equilibrium.

Some of the characteristics identified with each of the three gunas are given here:

  • Sattva: purity, serenity, poise, calmness, discrimination, transparence, compassion, clarity, goodness, altruism, dispassion, contentment, etc.
  • Rajas: love of fame, passion, desire, ambition, greed, lust, strife, impatience, jealousy, pride, display of power, etc
  • Tamas: anger, lust, greed, ignorance, stolidity, resistance, inertia, forgetfulness, confusion, darkness, brutality, etc.

In part 2 of this post, I will provide some more details about gunas as mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita and other texts.

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