The three gunas explain the quality of our nature. Traditional Samkhya philosophy believes that everything manifest is made up of three states of energy. In Sanskrit ‘Guna’ means ‘string’. Philosophically, it is said that the gunas are woven together to form the universe, and that they explain how the universe manifests as mind and matter. On a practical level, the three gunas can tell us where we are in our lives, or in a single moment. They indicate whether we are easily moving forward, running but standing still or losing our way.
The Three Gunas
Sattva is translated as true or real and holds the quality of light, love and life. It can be seen as the higher spiritual force that allows us to evolve in consciousness. When we make sattvic choices it is evident as balance and inspiration. We may begin to feel energetic, content and our actions become selfless and joyful.
"When we make sattvic choices it is evident as balance and inspiration"
Rajas means passion and is the active, stimulating and positive force which initiates change. It is required to disturb an equilibrium and can be seen as agitation or unsteadiness. Rajas can give rise to strong emotions of love, hate or fear, and brings about attachment to pleasures and seeking external reward. Although rajas is often fiery and unsteady it can bring about positive change if it’s motivation is towards sattva, or negative change if it’s movement is towards tamas.
Tamas translates as darkness and is the heavy, dull quality which hold us in ignorance and attachment. Tamas causes emotional clinging, dullness and stagnation. It is tamas which deludes us from spiritual truths and hinders us from ultimate freedom. However, it is said that tamas is needed in the universe to form solid, still substance.
"It is tamas which deludes us from spiritual truths and hinders us from ultimate freedom"
The Three Gunas Interwoven
The gunas are always changing with time, place and outside forces. It is also important to note that it is rare to see purely one guna in play at a time, i.e. Pure sattva, rajas or tamas. Usually there are two or more gunas evident with one usually dominating the other. Furthermore, once one guna dominates it usually stays active for a period of time before it is transformed by rajas.
We can see this in a twenty-four hour time period when looking at the cycle of night and day. Night belongs predominantly to tamas, daytime to sattva, and sunrise and sunset periods belongs to rajas. They are forever alternating in a cycle, however, once a particular guna is in dominance it remains that way for some time before change occurs.
Yoga emphasises the cultivation of sattva through correct lifestyle and following the Yamas and Niyamas. It is important to remember that sattva must also be cultivated in our thoughts and emotions to become true. For this reason, and because transformation almost always needs to occur for a sattvic state to be cultivated, the rajasic force is extremely important. If a person is highly sattvic it usually shows a saint or a sage. In today’s busy society most people will fall into the rajasic area with moments or periods of both sattva and tamas.
The Three Gunas in your Life
Rolf Sovik, head of the Himalayan Institute explains that working with the three gunas usually unfolds in a four-stage process:
- We have no idea that the gunas are in play and they operate outside our conscious awareness.
- We begin to notice the gunas in play around us. For example; the fiery person in the Yoga class next to us who aggressively moves into each asana to their physical extreme, or the sad, dull person slumped in their chair on the bus.
- We begin to notice the gunas tendencies in ourselves and when each force is dominating us. Eg. We feel motivated to win in a sporting event and become very competitive.
- Finally, we begin to change our behaviour and lifestyle in order to cultivate more sattva, soften rajas and use tamas for rest and stability.
The Three Gunas in Context
When we look at the gunas in a variety of different contexts in our lives we can start to understand our tendencies and make changes towards sattva.
Below is an example of where some lifestyle characteristics lie within the three gunas:
While often the initial goal of a yogi or yogini to cultivate sattva, the final ultimate goal is to transcend the gunas by knowing our true Self and become unattached to the label of good or bad. Often this is a long journey of self discovery, deep inner inquiry and dancing between the three gunas on many occasions.
Want to learn more about Samkhya philosophy? Grab this book Kapila's Samkhya Patanjali's Yoga: Revised Edition.