The Three Gunas

August 2, 2019

Last updated : May 9, 2024

According to yoga philosophy, the whole universe can be divided into two main categories or elements: Prakriti (Maya or Illusion) and Purusha (Reality). Everything that is changeable belongs to Maya, while Purusha is reality and the universe’s only unchangeable element: the Self, the soul.

The ultimate goal of yoga is to see beyond illusions and grasp the true reality, paving the way to Samadhi, or Enlightenment. One way to inch closer to true Self is to understand Prakriti’s three gunas — Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas — which make up the basic building blocks of the universe and all things, including us.

Continue reading to understand what the three gunas are, how they impact us, plus essential foods to balance and purify these fundamental forces of nature.

What Are the Three Gunas in Yoga?

Gunas literally means "qualities". In yoga philosophy and Ayurveda, the 3 gunas are essential qualities of nature that exist in all beings and things. Each of the gunas are associated with a specific characteristic:

  • Sattva = purity and knowledge
  • Rajas = activity and desire
  • Tamas = darkness and destruction

These forces are present within us at all times and manifest in our reactions to certain situations and experiences. However, one of the gunas is always more dominant than the other two.

Read: What Are the Eight Limbs of Yoga?

Where Are the Gunas Found?

Gunas are present in every part of Maya (the illusion of the world and all its distractions). They can be seen in the day, seasons, food, thoughts, and actions. For example, early morning has Sattva, afternoons become Rajasic and night time brings Tamas.

Therefore, there cannot be pure Sattva without Rajas and Tamas, nor can there be pure Rajas without Tamas and Sattva. Sattva binds us to attachment with happiness, Rajas connect us with activity, and Tamas is delusion. As long as we are influenced by any of the 3 gunas, we remain in the bondage of Maya.

How Do the Gunas Influence Us?

The three gunas affect us deeply. They influence everything about us, from our thoughts and actions, to the habits and activities that make us who we are. This means that whichever guna is more present within you will affect how you perceive the world. For instance, a predominantly tamasic person will see everything as negative and destructive. A person who is more Sattvic, on the other hand, will have a positive outlook and find joy and happiness in everything.

Sattva, Rajas & Tamas Explained


Sattva manifests itself as purity, knowledge, and harmony. It is the characteristic of goodness, joy, satisfaction, nobility, and contentment. The Sattva guna is free of fear, violence, wrath, and malice. We can think of it as the purest and most forgiving force within us. In order to reach Samadhi, we need to increase our Sattva guna.

Increasing Sattva is possible by reducing Rajas and Tamas in your mind and in your body. Eating sattvic food, practicing meditation, devotion (Bhakti Yoga), and adopting a non-violent lifestyle are a few ways you can do this. Surrounding yourself with positive people and performing activities that bring you and others joy are also effective ways to boost the Sattva guna.


Rajas is expressed as passion, action, energy, and motion. It’s characterized by a feeling of attachment and a longing for satisfaction and desire. In the context of yoga, a rajasic teacher wants to have followers who worship them and uses material and theatrical techniques to impress others. Students with too much Rajas cannot understand the depths of spiritual teachings, as they haven’t mastered the Seven Stages of Knowledge yet.

If you want to decrease Rajas, you should avoid consuming rajasic foods like fried and spicy food, as well as stimulants like caffeine.


Tamas manifests itself as impurity, laziness, and darkness. It is the consequence of ignorance and it prevents all beings from seeing reality. A tamasic teacher indulges in unethical practices and adapts teachings and principles to suit their own agenda and desires, while students lack discipline and are entrapped by their ego.

To decrease the Tamas guna in your mind and body, avoid eating tamasic foods or overindulging, whether it be in food or sleep.

Can We Influence Sattva, Rajas & Tamas?

Yes, by altering the presence and influence of external objects, lifestyles, and thoughts, we can influence which of the 3 gunas is more dominant. One of the easiest and most effective ways to affect these elements of nature is through your diet. Keep reading to see which foods reduce Rajas and Tamas and boost Sattva.

Foods to Balance the Three Gunas

Sattvic, Rajasic & Tamasic Foods

You may have heard the proverb, “You are what you eat.” It means that the quality of what we eat, digest, and absorb has a direct impact on how we look, feel, and think. This applies to the gunas as well. Ayurvedic diets encourage us to eat highly nutritious sattvic foods, moderate rajasic foods and no tamasic foods. By doing this, we can live a healthier and more balanced life — physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Here is a list of foods that influence the three gunas:

Sattvic Foods

To increase Sattva, eat fresh, whole and nutritious foods like:

  • Legumes
  • Wholegrains
  • Vegetables and fruits that are grown in the sun

Rajasic Foods

To reduce Rajas, limit your intake of foods that are stimulating in nature. This includes:

  • Spicy foods
  • Chilies and peppers
  • Vegetables like onions
  • Stimulants such as caffeine
  • Pulses and dals

Tamasic Foods

Foods that reflect lethargy are tamasic. To decrease Tamas, avoid the following:

  • Fast foods
  • Refined foods like white bread
  • Frozen foods or leftovers
  • Red meat such as lamb and beef
  • Moldy cheeses

The 3 Gunas & the Story of the Mango Tree

In my courses, I often tell the old story of the mango tree to explain the characteristics of the 3 gunas and how they manifest in our lives. After reading this story, you should have a clearer and more intuitive understanding of these concepts and their significant role in human happiness and contentment.

In a small, poor village, three friends dreamed of a better life. So, they set off to explore the city, walking under the intense Indian summer sun. By noon, they were hungry and thirsty, and stopped for a break in a nearby forest.

Under the shade of a tree, they noticed a mango tree, laden with fruit. Seeing this as a blessing to quench their hunger and thirst, the oldest friend approached the tree. He saw ripe mangoes on the ground, picked them up, and savored them, thanking God for this gift. He then planted the seeds in the hope that they might grow into a tree to benefit future travelers.

Sattva Guna

Next, the second friend walked to the tree. He noticed that he could sell the mangoes and the wood in the market, benefiting himself. So, after enjoying some mangoes, he broke a branch full of fruit and carried it away, proud of his clever idea.

Rajas Guna

Finally, the third friend went to the tree. Envious of the tree's success despite his failed attempts to grow one himself, he decided to destroy it out of spite. But, the mangoes he picked were unripe and sour. He didn't know how to tell the difference, and instead of learning, he let his anger dictate his actions, setting the tree ablaze.

Tamas Guna

In this tale, the three friends represent three different qualities — gratitude and wisdom (Sattva), self-interest (Rajas), and negative ego (Tamas). Each of us is guided by one of these qualities, affecting how we think, feel, and act.

How to Increase Your Sattva Guna?

The first step to increase your Sattva Guna is to identify your dominant guna, the one that influences you most. The three gunas each have their characteristics. Sattva has pure elements,  Rajas has elements of activity and a drive for self-benefit, while Tamas has elements of darkness and destruction. Once you have identified your root characteristic or element, you can use yoga philosophy principles to remove it from your thoughts, actions, and habits until you become completely sattvic. Practicing the Yamas and Niyamas daily is one way to do this. That said, if this is your first time, it’s advised to seek the guidance of an experienced teacher to help you through this process.

Final Thought

Attaining enlightenment or Samadhi involves liberating ourselves from the three gunas and perceiving the truth beyond Maya's illusion. A person who has risen above the gunas remains unaffected by life's dualities, such as pain and pleasure. In the wise words of 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)

About the author

Ram Jain

Born into a Jain family where yoga has been the way of life for five generations, my formal yoga journey began at age of eight at a Vedic school in India. There I received a solid foundation in ancient scriptures, including Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Sutras (to name a few).

In 2009, I founded Arhanta Yoga Ashrams. I see yoga as a way to master the five senses, so I named our ashrams 'Arhanta Yoga,' the yoga to master the five senses!

In 2017, I also founded Arhanta Yoga Online Academy so that people who can not visit our ashrams can follow our courses remotely.

At Arhanta, we don't just teach yoga. We teach you how to reach your potential, deepen your knowledge, build your confidence, and take charge of your life.

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