The Three Gunas or Qualities of Nature – Sattva, Rajas & Tamas
According to the yogic philosophy, the whole universe can be divided into 2 main categories: Prakriti (Maya or Illusion) and Purusha (Reality). According to this philosophy everything which is changeable, which is not infinite, is part of Maya. Purusha on the other hand is the only reality, it is the universe’s only unchangeable element: the Self, the soul. Everything within Prakriti, the illusionary world, consists of three Gunas (qualities). These three qualities are present in all objects in various degrees, one quality is always more present or dominant than the others. The three Gunas are Sattva (purity), Rajas (activity), and Tamas (darkness, destruction). Gunas are present in everything; humans, food, animate and innate objects.
Only the soul is eternal whereas Maya or Prakriti is changeable and illusionary (unreal). The difficulty lies in being able to discriminate between the real and the unreal. That is the ultimate goal of Yoga: to see beyond the illusion and see the reality. Only a person who is able to see reality can reach the stage of Samadhi or Enlightenment.
Can we influence the three Gunas?
We as human beings have the possibility to consciously change the levels of the gunas in our body and mind. By altering the presence and influence of external objects, lifestyle, and thoughts we can increase or decrease the gunas. Whichever guna is predominating will affect how we perceive the world around us. It will affect behavior, attitude, actions, attachments, and so on. For example, a person who is predominantly tamasic will see everything as negative and destructive. A person who is more sattvic on the other hand will perceive the universe as positive and will find joy and happiness in everything. However, the mind is very unstable and can fluctuate very easily from one predominant guna to another.
Let’s try to understand more clearly the difference between each one of the gunas and how you can stimulate one more than the others.
Sattva – The Guna of Purity and Harmony
Sattva manifests itself as purity, knowledge, and harmony. It is the quality of goodness, joy, satisfaction, nobility, and contentment. It is free of fear, violence, wrath, and malice. Sattvic quality is pure and forgiving. It is the guna that people want to increase in order to reach the state of Samadhi or Liberation. Increasing sattva is possible by reducing rajas and tamas, both in your mind and in your body. You can do this by eating sattvic food such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. sattvic foods are fresh and pure and grow above the ground, receiving their positive energy from the sunlight. By practicing yoga and living a non-violent lifestyle, surrounding yourself with positive people, and performing activities that bring you and others joy you increase the sattvic elements in your mind and body.
Definition of the Guna Sattva by the example of a sattvic teacher and student
- A sattvic teacher has attained the highest spiritual level. He/she sees every living being as one and doesn’t believe or teach any hypocrisy. He/she practices what they preach! A sattvic teacher is entirely unaffected by praise and criticism.
- A sattvic student has mastered the first two sub-stages of the 7 Stages of Knowledge. He/ she has understood the difference between real and real (discrimination) and has developed dispassion for the unreal.
Rajas – The Guna of Passion and Manipulation
Rajas represents itself by passion, action, energy and motion. Rajas is characterized by a feeling of attachment, a longing for satisfaction and desire. If you want to decrease the level of rajas, avoid consuming rajasic foods like fried and spicy food and stimulants such as caffeine.
Definition of the Guna Rajas by the example of a rajasic teacher and student
- A rajasic teacher wants to have followers, who worship him/her. Rajasic teachers use the way they dress, theatrical techniques, and desire to impress and mesmerize their followers. A rajasic teacher doesn’t follow what he/she preaches.
- A rajasic student cannot see the real meanings of the spiritual teachings, as he/she hasn’t mastered the two stages of Knowledge yet. The devotion to the teacher is emotional, and can even become fanatical.
Tamas manifests itself as impurity, laziness, and darkness. It is the consequence of ignorance and it prevents all beings from seeing reality. In order to decrease the tamasic elements in your mind and body, avoid eating tamasic foods (eg. alcohol, meat, processed food), indulging (eg. overeating, oversleeping, etc).
Definition of Tamas by the example of a tamasic teacher and student
- A tamasic teacher is entirely perverted. He/she indulges in unethical practices to gain powers and sensual pleasures. A tamasic teacher adapts the teachings and principles to suit his/her agenda and desires.
- A tamasic student is filled with ego and not ready to learn. A tamasic student lacks the ability to discriminate and doesn’t abide by rules and discipline.
Story of the mango tree
In my courses, I tell this old story to explain the three Gunas. After reading this story the concept of the three Gunas will become crystal clear to you.
Once long ago there were three friends. They were very poor and lived and a very small village. The land in the village was infertile and there was no work to do. One day these friends decided to go to a big city and find some work there.
So, one early morning they packed their bags and left for the city. They had no money, so they decided to walk to the city. It was the month of May when the summer is at its peak in India. By noon all their water and food were finished so they decided to take a short break and rest under the shadow of a tree in the nearby forest. They were hungry and thirsty but there was no food or water left.
When they were resting under a tree one of them spotted a big mango tree loaded with mangoes. When he told his friends, they were relieved as mango satisfies hunger and thirst. They asked the oldest friend to go and check out the mangoes.
The oldest friend went to the tree and thanked God for showing them this beautiful tree loaded with fruit. He then looked for some ripen mangoes but as he was about to pick them off the branch, he saw that there were many ripen mangoes lying on the ground. He thought when there are already so many mangoes on the ground it is not good to pick other mangoes who have not completed their life cycle on the tree. So, he picked some mangoes from the ground and ate them with gratitude to the god. After eating them he realized that he got these mangoes for free and he could not pay them back as the tree was wild and did not belong to anyone. So he digs the ground nearby and sowed the seeds and prayed ‘Oh god, may one day one of these seeds become a tree and benefit the travelers like this tree benefited me today’. The first friend came back and told his friends that the mangoes are really sweet and juicy.
The second friend went to the tree and after seeing the big tree he realized that he could take some mangoes and some wood to sell in the market. It will give him good money and as the tree belongs to anyone, he will make a 100% profit. So after eating some mangoes, he broke a thick branch with many mangoes on it and placed it on his shoulders and said to himself, “I am very smart, what a great idea I came up with’. And he returned back to his friends.
Now the third friend went to the tree. After seeing this beautiful big tree, he got jealous. He said, this not fair, in my childhood, I had put a seed and gave the water a few times but no tree came into my garden. Here nobody is doing anything and such a bog tree is standing, I don’t like it, I will destroy this tree after I have eaten the mangoes. After thinking this he picked the mango nearest to him but as he took a bite, he had to spit it out, the mango was very sour as it did not ripen yet. He took another mango but it was also no riped. The problem was that this man did not know the difference between ripe and unripe mango. He did not know how to differentiate between them. But instead of trying to find out, he got very angry and thought that this tree gave sweet mangoes to my friends but it is giving sour mangoes to me. He decided to take revenge and he took out his matchbox from his pocket and lit the tree on fire.
Here you can see that the first friend had sattva, he had qualities like gratitude, wisdom, kindness, sense of responsibility, fairness, etc. The second friend had rajas, he was intelligent but manipulative. He thought only of his own benefit. The third friend was dominated by tamas, he could not see the difference between right and wrong. He was driven by ego and negativity.
Similar to these friends, we all have one of these gunas dominating us, our thinking, and our actions.
Gunas are everywhere
Gunas are present in every part of maya. They can be seen in the day, seasons, food, thoughts, and actions. For example, early morning has sattva, afternoons become rajasic and night brings tamas.
How do Gunas influence us?
The three Gunas effect s deeply. They affect our thought, actions, habits, and characters. For example, a person influenced by tamas will have negative thoughts, actions, and habits. Even he may do a good deed, his motives will be influenced by tamas.
The 3 Gunas are Always Present In Everything
There cannot be pure sattva without rajas and tamas. Neither can there be pure rajas without tamas and sattva, or pure tamas without sattva nor rajas.
Sattva binds us to attachment with happiness, rajas binds with attachment to activity and tamas binds us to attachment with delusion. As long as we are influenced by any of the three Gunas, we remain in the bondage of Maya. In order to reach Samadhi or Enlightenment, the first step is to increase sattva and decrease rajas and tamas. Next, the ultimate goal is to become unattached from the 3 gunas and see the reality beyond Maya. A person who has transcended the 3 gunas is indifferent to the duality of life like pain and pleasure. He/she is undisturbed by the gunas and knows that the gunas are part of Maya, and not of the universe’s sole reality which is the Self. As stated in the Bhagavad Gita:
“When one rises above the three gunas that originate in the body;
one is freed from birth, old age, disease, and death; and attains enlightenment” (Bhagavad Gita 14.20)
How to identify your predominant Guna
We all are dominated by one guna. When I ask my students what is your dominant guna, most of them give me the same answer – a bit of sattva and a bit of rajas. But to identify your guna you need a teacher like you need a clear mirror to see wrinkles on your skin. Yourselves you can not identify it.
How to improve your Guna
Once you have identified your guna, the goal is to get rid of the lower guna and improve it to the higher one till you become completely sattvic. The first step is to find a suitable teacher. Then to remove tamas and rajas from your thoughts, actions, and habits by bringing the Yamas & Niyamas into your life.
About the Author
Ram Jain (E-RYT 500) is the founder of Arhanta Yoga Ashrams and the main teacher of the different yoga teacher training’s that the Arhanta Yoga Ashram India and Europe both offer.
He teaches professional Yoga teacher training in Hatha Yoga, Yin Yoga, Yoga Philosophy, Anatomy and Physiology at our ashrams in India & The Netherlands. Ram started teaching in 1998 and he has trained over 4000 yoga teachers worldwide.