Sattva, Rajas and Tamas – The Three Gunas or Qualities of Life
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 then 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 are 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 the 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 tamsic 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 by 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 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 example of a rajastic teacher and student
- A rajasic teacher wants to have followers, who worship him/her. Rajasic teachers use the way they dress, theatrical techniques and pretention 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 hassn’t mastered the two stages of Knowledge yet. The devotion for 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 the reality. In order to decrease the tamasic elements in your mind and body, avoid eating tamasic foods (eg. alcohol, meat, processed food), indulging (eg. over eating, over sleeping, etc).
Definition of the Guna Tamas by 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 by ego and not ready to learn. A tamasic student lacks the ability to discriminate and doesn’t abide by rules and discipline.
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 atams binds us to attachment with delusion. As long as we are influenced by any of the three gunas, we remain in 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)
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 the professional 4 weeks Yoga teacher training, Yin Yoga, Philosophy, Anatomy and Physiology, and Advanced Asanas in India & The Netherlands. Ram started teaching in 1998 and he has trained over 4000 yoga teachers worldwide.