The Three Gunas
Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas
The Gunas—The Fundamental Qualities of Nature
Guna means attribute, quality, strand. This word has many connotations, but the most common usage belongs to the vocabulary of the yoga and Samkhya traditions, where it refers to the well-known triad of forces—sattva, rajas, and tamas—that are thought to be the fundamental qualities of prakriti (Nature). These qualities are considered the primary dynamic forces of Nature, as they represent the principles of activity and dynamism (rajas), inertia (tamas), and harmony (sattva). Their combined interaction creates the entire manifest world. They underlie all material as well as psycho-mental phenomena.
Sattva is regarded as buoyant and illuminating. Its corresponding color is white. Rajas is stimulating and mobile. Its corresponding color is red. Tamas is inert and concealing. Its corresponding color is black. As qualities of Nature, they all (even sattva guna) essentially represent a limiting aspect, as the Bhagavad Gita (14:6-8) affirms: “Sattva binds through attachment toward knowledge and happiness; rajas binds the incarnated spirit though attachment toward action, and tamas binds through negligence, indolence and sleep.”
The word sattva comes from the Sanskrit root sat, meaning “existence.” Sattva guna represents the principle of harmony and balance. The Bhagavad Gita (14:6) characterizes sattva guna as “immaculate, illuminating, without ill.” However, sattva, by virtue of being one of the gunas, also has a binding effect—it can cause attachment to joy and knowledge.
When tranquility, light, happiness, purity, calmness, harmony, kindness, forgiveness, patience, and compassion predominate in the mind, we call it sattvic. People with sattvic minds love tranquility, a simple life, higher thoughts, the study of spiritual books, philosophical discussions, concentration, meditation, and the company of spiritual beings. Spiritual aspiration, noble ideals, empathy, love, devotion, inspiration, and genius—all these pertain to the sattvic mind. A sattvic mind is always steady and finds delight internally. This purity of the mind always brings about purity of the Heart.
The Sanskrit word rajas is derived from the root raj or ranj, meaning “to be colored, affected, excited, charmed.” Rajas represents the principle of dynamism and activity. Its fruit is the joy of acting, but also the distress of fault. Rajas tendencies create both raga (attraction, attachment) and dvesha (aversion, hate) for external objects. The Bhagavad Gita (14:7) describes rajas as being of the nature of attraction, springing from “thirst” and attachment. It is also said to produce bondage through our clinging to action.
In Maitrayanaya Upanishad (3:5), we find the characteristics of rajas listed as follows: thirst, affection, passion, greed, violence, lust, false vision, contradictoriness, jealousy, desire, instability, fickleness, possessiveness, material acquisitiveness, nepotism, dependence on our environment, repulsion from undesirable sense objects, and fondness for what is desirable. However, rajas can be directed positively and lead to creativity and a constructive attitude.
When competition, dynamism, activity, restlessness, passion, sensorial desires, lust, and excitement predominate in the mind, we call it a “rajasic” mind. People with this kind of mind prefer big cities, material and professional gain, the pleasures of the senses, luxury, competition, challenges, adventures, hard work, and activism. This kind of mind (also referred to as kama manas) is the instinctive mind, full of desires and passions. The rajasic mind always wants new sensations and variety. It has a tendency to look for the defects of others. It also remembers bad deeds or wrongs done by others and easily forgets their good acts. These two tendencies intensify hatred and cause frequent disturbances in the mind. It is the rajasic mind that splits, separates, divides, and deceptively shows plurality.
The “quality of darkness,” refers to the principle of inertia and ignorance. The darkness of tamas is the shadow of knowledge and produces confusion and disappointment. Tamas is opposed to sattva, because the essence of sattva is prakasha (illumination), and the essence of tamas is the absence of light, aprakasha (ignorance).
In the Bhagavad Gita (14:8), it states that tamas guna springs from ajnana (spiritual ignorance) and deludes all beings, binding them by heedlessness, sloth, and sleep. In the Maitrayanaya Upanishad (3:5), we can find a long list of characteristics of tamas. These include fear, confusion, despondency, grief, hunger, and thirst. Tamas produces ignorance and destroys all sense of discrimination. It creates disappointment and difficulty in making decisions. In this way, inaction appears and the mind becomes dizzy, full of opposing ideas and thoughts of helplessness.
When ignorance, indifference, carelessness, drowsiness, inertness, dullness, apathy, indulgence in laziness, and stupidity predominate in the mind, it is called tamasic. People with tamasic minds prefer the company of inferior, degraded beings or simply indulge in an inert solitude. Generally, they do not read books, are afraid of work, are melancholic, have no refinement or elegance, and are disinterested in the important aspects of humanity. Often, they are unable to despise others but cannot love either. Through their attitude, they maintain thoughts of helplessness, suspicion, indifference, and stupidity.
Transcending the 3 Gunas
Only by transcending the qualities of Nature (a condition known as gunatita) can yogis reveal their true essence, atman. As qualities of Nature, all of the gunas have a binding effect. However, while the qualities of activity (rajas) and inertia (tamas) tend to maintain the ego-illusion, the predominance of the quality of harmony (sattva) helps create the conditions for moksha (liberation). That is why yogic texts and great yoga masters have always emphasized the importance of cultivating sattvic conditions and states.
For Hridaya Yoga practitioners—who know that Self-realization is instantaneous but deconditioning is a process—this is the most relevant aspect of the gunas. Therefore, we should cultivate sattva guna in our beings in order to create the proper conditions for Self-realization. Only by overcoming rajas and tamas through the enhancement of sattva is Self-realization possible.
In The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Ramakrishna describes the three gunas’ influence in connection with the feeling of devotion:
“There are three kinds of formal devotion: tamasic, rajasic, and sattvic. If a person, while showing devotion to God, is actuated by malevolence, arrogance, jealousy, or anger, then his devotion is tamasic, since it is influenced by tamas, the quality of inertia. If he worships God from a desire for fame or wealth, or from any otherworldly ambition, then his devotion is rajasic, since it is influenced by rajas, the quality of activity. But if a person loves God without any thought of material gain, if he performs his duties to please God alone and maintains towards all created beings the attitude of friendship, then his devotion is called sattvic, since it is influenced by sattva, the quality of harmony.
But the highest devotion transcends the three gunas, qualities, being a spontaneous, uninterrupted inclination of the mind towards God, the Inner Soul of all beings; and it wells up in the Heart of a true devotee as soon as he hears the name of God or mention of God’s attributes. A devotee possessed of this love would not accept the happiness of heaven if it were offered him. His one desire is to love God under all conditions—in pleasure and pain, life and death, honor and dishonor, prosperity and adversity.”