The Three Gunas: Sattva Rajas Tamas

According to yoga philosophy, the whole universe can be divided into 2 main categories or elements: Prakriti (Maya or Illusion) and Purusha (Reality). In this philosophy, everything that is changeable, that isn't infinite, belongs to Maya. Purusha on the other hand is the only reality, it is the universe’s only unchangeable element: the Self, the soul. 

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 transcend beyond illusion and see the true reality. Only a person who is able to see reality can reach the stage of Samadhi or Enlightenment.

Everything within Prakriti, the illusionary world, consists of three gunas  - sattva, rajas & tamas. The three gunas are each associated with a specific characteristic - (purity), rajas (activity), and tamas (darkness, destruction). These three gunas are present in all persons and objects in various degrees; humans, food, animate and inanimate objects. However, one of the gunas or characteristics is always more present or dominant than the other two.

Has this sparked interest in yoga philosophy? Learn more about the practices which help  purify the physical body, energy body, and  gain mastery over our senses to become free from worldly illusions: " What Are the Eight Limbs of Yoga?"

What is Sattva?

Sattva manifests itself as purity, knowledge, and harmony. It is the characteristic of goodness, joy, satisfaction, nobility, and contentment. It is free of fear, violence, wrath, and malice. Sattva is pure and forgiving. In order to reach Samadhi or liberation, people want to increase their Sattva guna. 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 Example of a Sattvic Teacher and Student

  • A sattvic teacher has attained the highest spiritual level. The yogi sees all living beings as one and does not believe in or teach hypocrisy. He practices what they preach! A Sattvic teacher is largely unaffected by praise and criticism.
  • A Sattvic student has mastered the first two sub-stages of the 7 Stages of Knowledge. He has understood the difference between real and real (discrimination) and has developed dispassion for the unreal.

What is Rajas? 

Rajas expresses as 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 Rajasic Teacher and Student

  • A rajasic teacher wants to have followers who worship him or her. Rajasic teachers use the way they dress, theatrical techniques, and desire to impress and mesmerize their followers. A rajasic teacher follows what he or she preaches.
  • A rajasic student cannot see the real meanings of the spiritual teachings, as he or she hasn't mastered the two stages of Knowledge yet. The devotion to the teacher is emotional, and can even become fanatical.

What is Tamas?

Tamas manifests itself as impurity, laziness, and darkness. It is the consequence of ignorance and it prevents all beings from seeing reality. To decrease the tamasic elements in your mind and body, avoid eating tamasic foods (eg. alcohol, meat, processed food) or overindulging (eg. overeating, oversleeping).

Definition of Tamas by Example of a Tamasic Teacher and Student

  • A tamasic teacher is entirely perverted. He or she indulges in unethical practices to gain powers and sensual pleasures. A tamasic teacher adapts the teachings and principles to suit his or her agenda and desires.
  • A tamasic student is filled with ego and not ready to learn. A tamasic student cannot discriminate and doesn’t abide by rules and discipline.

The Story of the Mango Tree


In my courses, I tell this old story to explain the three gunas and their characteristics. After reading this story the concept of the three gunas will become crystal clear to you.

Once upon a time, there were three friends. They were very poor and lived in a tiny village. The land in the village was infertile and there was little to do. These friends decided to explore the big city.

So, the next morning they packed their bags and left for the city. They had no money and decided to walk to the city. It was the month of May when the summer was at its peak in India. By noon all their water and food had run out. They then decided to take a short break and rest under the shade of a tree in the nearby forest. They were hungry and thirsty.

When they were resting under a tree, one of them spotted a big mango tree abundant with mangoes. When he told his friends, they were glad because mangoes can satisfy both hunger and thirst. They asked their oldest friend to head over and check out the mangoes.

The oldest friend walked to the tree and thanked God for showing them this beautiful tree with all this fruit. He then looked for some ripened mangoes. However, as he was about to pluck them off the branch, he saw that there were many ripened mangoes lying on the ground. He thought to himself that there are already so many mangoes on the ground, that it is not wise to pick other mangoes which are still in the process of ripening. So, he picked some mangoes from the ground and ate them with gratitude to God.

 After eating them he realized that he had got these mangoes for free. He dug the ground nearby and sowed the seeds. He prayed ‘Oh god, may one of these seeds become a tree and benefit other travellers like me one day.' The first friend came back and told his friends that the mangoes were really sweet and juicy.

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The second friend walked to the tree, After seeing the big tree he realized that he could take some mangoes and some wood to sell in the market for a profit. It would give him plenty of money and the tree didn't belong to anyone. So after eating some mangoes, he broke a thick branch with many mangoes on it and placed it on his shoulders. He said to himself, “I am very smart, what a smart idea I came up with." And he walked back to see his friends.

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The third friend headed for the tree. After seeing this beautiful big tree, he got jealous. He said to himself, ‘As a child, I planted seeds and watered them several times, but not one tree grew in my garden. Further, he thought to himself that somehow by luck this tree had grown and he with all his effort was unsuccessful. He decided that he would destroy the tree once he eats all the mangoes. After thinking about 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 was unripe. He took another mango but it was also unripe. The problem was that this boy didn't know the difference between a ripe and unripe mango. He didn't know how to differentiate between them. But instead of trying to find out, he got angry and thought that this tree gave sweet mangoes to his friends but only sour mangoes to him. In his anger, he took out his matchbox and lit the tree on fire.

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Here you can see that the first friend had sattva, he had qualities like gratitude, wisdom, kindness, a sense of responsibility, fairness, etc. The second friend had rajas, he was intelligent but manipulative to make sure his interests being met were most important. In other words, he thought only of himself. 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, our emotions and our actions.

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 though may do a good deed, his motives will be influenced by tamas.

Can we Influence the Three Gunas Sattva, Rajas & Tamas?

We as human beings can consciously change the levels of the gunas in body and mind. By altering the presence and influence of external objects, lifestyles, 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 behaviour, attitude, actions, attachments, and so on. For example, a predominantly tamasic person 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.

The Gunas and Food

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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. how we feel and think. Did you know that what we eat can  influence the gunas. The aim is eat highly nutritious foods, moderate rajasic foods and decrease tamasic foods. 

Sattvic Foods

Fresh, whole and nutritious foods such as:

  • legumes
  • wholegrains
  •  vegetables, fruits grown in the sun is considered a sattvic food.

Rajasic Foods

Foods that are stimulating in nature include:

  • spicy foods
  • chillies and peppers
  •  vegetables like onions
  • stimulants such as caffeine
  • pulses and dals

Tamasic Foods

These are foods reflect lethargy are tamasic:

  • fast foods like hamburgers, fries
  • refined foods like white bread
  • frozen foods, leftovers
  • red meat such as lamb and beef
  • mouldy cheeses like blue cheese

Where can Gunas be Found?

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. 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 bind with attachment to activity and tamas bind us to attachment with delusion. As long as we are influenced by any of the three gunas, we remain in the bondage of Maya. 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 or 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 Main 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. To identify your guna you need a teacher like you need a clear mirror. This way you can see wrinkles on your skin. Yourselves you can not identify it.

How to Improve your Main 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 t remove tamas and rajas from your thoughts, actions, and habits by bringing the Yamas & Niyamas into your life.

The three gunas each have their characteristics. Sattva has pure elements,  rajas have elements of activity and a drive for self-benefit and tamas have elements of darkness and destruction. These three gunas are present in people and things.  It is beneficial to identify your root characteristic or element so that you can use yoga philosophy principles to refine yourself.  

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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