The Three Gunas

A theme or concept which appears all throughout Hindu scriptures and philosophy, as well as the teachings of Theosophy, is that of the “Triguna” or Three Gunas. The Sanskrit word “guna” literally means quality, attribute, or characteristic. It is said that Nature – or in other words, the entirety of the manifested universe, both visible and invisible – is comprised of three particular factors or qualities. These are called Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas, and are symbolised by the colours white, red, and black.

In a very intriguing book titled “The Dream of Ravan,” the authorship of which is attributed by many Theosophists to the Master K.H., we may read the following:

“Anyone who has ever dabbled in Hindu philosophy must have been somewhat puzzled by the three radical, shall we say prismatic, qualities, into which the primordial and eternal unity divides itself, when reflected in time, through the prism of Maya, into the multitudinous universe; and of which every soul, while in this estranged state, partakes in greater or less degree. These qualities, Tamas, Rajas, and Satva, have been translated generally, the first, Darkness; the second, Passion or Foulness (Turbidness?); the third, Truth or Goodness.”

As indicated here, it is not only the macrocosm which partakes of the three Gunas but also we human beings, who are the microcosm of the great macrocosm. As William Quan Judge states in his commentary on the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, “All manifested objects are compounded of these three.” He was commenting on that aphorism which says, “Objects, whether subtle or not, are made up of the three qualities.”

In the entry for “Trigunas” in the “Theosophical Glossary,” H.P. Blavatsky explains that they are “The three divisions of the inherent qualities of differentiated matter – i.e., of pure quiescence (satva), of activity and desire (rajas), of stagnation and decay (tamas). They correspond with Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva.”

Perhaps the clearest and most extensive source of information and teaching about the Gunas is the Bhagavad Gita. In the article Some Questions and Answers about Hinduism, we said…

“The Bhagavad Gita, which literally means “Song of God” or “The Lord’s Song,” is without doubt the most popular and universally loved of all Hindu scriptures. It consists of a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna and is admired by multitudes around the world for its practical yet profound spiritual philosophy of life. It has been described as “the Manual of Life” and “the Gospel for the 21st Century.” Krishna is thought to represent the Higher Self and Arjuna the individual human soul, who must turn towards and seek refuge in that Self. Set on the scene of a battlefield, it in no way promotes or encourages war and violence as some enemies of Hinduism have ignorantly claimed, but rather symbolises the battlefield of life or “the war within,” which each of us must at some time face. Although not a particularly long book, it is truly an unforgettable classic of the world’s spiritual and religious literature.”

In the Eighteenth Discourse of William Judge’s translation of the Gita, we find Krishna very definitely informing Arjuna that “There is no creature on earth nor among the hosts in heaven who is free from these three qualities which arise from Nature.”

The Fourteenth Discourse is named “Guna traya vibhaga yoga” which can be translated as “Yoga through separation from the Three Gunas.” The word “Yoga” means “Union” and refers to attaining union or oneness in consciousness with the Divine, which is our Real Self. There Krishna says…

“The three great qualities called sattva, rajas, and tamas – light, or truth, passion or desire, and indifference or darkness – are born from Nature, and bind the imperishable soul to the body, O thou of mighty arms. Of these the sattva quality by reason of its lucidity and peacefulness entwineth the soul to rebirth through attachment to knowledge and that which is pleasant. Know that rajas is of the nature of desire, producing thirst and propensity; it, O son of Kunti, imprisoneth the Ego through the consequences produced from action. The quality of tamas, the offspring of the indifference in Nature, is the deluder of all creatures, O son of Bharata; it imprisoneth the Ego in a body through heedless folly, sleep, and idleness. The sattva quality attaches the soul through happiness and pleasure, the rajas through action, and tamas quality surrounding the power of judgment with indifference attaches the soul through heedlessness.”

We should add for the sake of those who may be unfamiliar with Theosophical terminology that the word “Ego” (which literally means “I”) is used by Theosophists in its true and literal sense of meaning the permanent individuality, the part of us which reincarnates, or in other words, the individual human soul.

We see from these words of Krishna that each of the Gunas has the effect of binding the soul to a continually ongoing process of re-embodiment. He then goes on to explain that one of the Gunas is always uppermost and predominating at any given moment. For example, at this very moment, it is either Sattvaguna or Rajoguna or Tamoguna which is most prevalent within us. One of them always has the predominance and which one it is is entirely up to us. Since we have the power of choice, we have the ability and freedom to decide whether to live a sattvic, rajasic, or tamasic life. Although even Sattva “attaches the soul” to Samsara (the cycle or wheel of birth, death, and rebirth) it is still nevertheless the best, highest, and most spiritual of the three. In the Second Discourse we are encouraged to “be constant in the quality of sattva” or, as others have translated it, “remain established in Sattva Guna.”

It is possible, although not necessarily easy, to stay sattvic – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

He continues, “When wisdom, the bright light, shall become evident at every gate of the body, then one may know that the sattva quality is prevalent within. The love of gain, activity in action, and the initiating of works, restlessness and inordinate desire are produced when the quality of rajas is prevalent, whilst the tokens of the predominance of the tamas quality are absence of illumination, the presence of idleness, heedlessness, and delusion.”

“From sattva wisdom is produced, from rajas desire, from tamas ignorance, delusion and folly. Those in whom the sattva quality is established mount on high, those who are full of rajas remain in the middle sphere, the world of men, while those who are overborne by the gloomy quality, tamas, sink below. But when the wise man perceiveth that the only agents of action are these qualities, and comprehends that which is superior to the qualities, he attains to my state. And when the embodied self surpasseth these three qualities of goodness, action, and indifference – which are coexistent with the body – it is released from rebirth and death, old age and pain, and drinketh of the water of immortality.”

The Three Gunas

Let us turn for some further elucidation to the Bhagavad Gita commentary of the late Swami Sivananda, who remains one of the most beloved and highly respected Yogis and Vedanta teachers of modern India.

“The qualities are of the Mulaprakriti,” he says, “and the latter is the former in a state of poise or equilibrium. This manifested world of the three qualities is compared to a twisted rope of three colours, viz., white, red and black. Each colour represents a Guna. Sattvic is white, Rajas is red and Tamas is black. The three are not in a state of equilibrium in the manifested world.”

So, before the universe becomes manifest (and this happens on a cyclic basis, as Theosophy constantly reminds us), the Gunas exist in a state of absolute equilibrium and inaction, hence completely latent, dormant, and unmanifested, in the primordial Root-Matter known as Mulaprakriti. Then, when the universe comes into being, differentiation and manifestation occurs and the Three Gunas “awaken” and manifest in, as, and throughout, Prakriti, which is the manifested matter or Nature that comes forth from the ever-unmanifested Root-Matter.

Sivananda also says, “Sattva is the best. Rajas comes next. Tamas is the lowest and the worst. The three qualities indicate the triple mentality. They produce attachment in the individual souls, delude them and bind them down, as it were, to Samsara. … Gunas are really the primary constituents of Nature and are the basis of all substances. Therefore it is not proper to call them ‘qualities inhering in substances’. If you want to attain freedom or perfection, if you wish to become immortal, you must rise above the modes of Nature. You must transcend the Gunas. … A knowledge of the Gunas and their operation is very necessary. Only if you have this knowledge can you free yourself from their clutches. … These three Gunas are present in all human beings. No one is free from the operation of any one of the three qualities of Nature. They are not constant. Sometimes Sattva predominates; at other times Rajas or Tamas predominates. … Analyse all phenomena in terms of these three. Know their characteristics. Stand as a witness of these qualities. Do not identify yourself with them. Separate yourself from them. Become a Gunatita. You will attain Supreme Peace, immortality and eternal bliss.”

It is obvious that the modern world is an extremely rajasic world. The frantic pace of life; constant activity, action, and busyness; the drive of ambition and greed; the inordinate emphasis on sensuality and materiality; the dangerous and seemingly ever increasing force of lust and desire…all these are the very essence of what Rajas is. And this extreme predominance of Rajoguna has the inevitable effect of leading to a rise of Tamoguna in people’s lives, as evidenced by the rise in depression, mental laziness, lethargy, wilful ignorance, hopelessness and despondency, lack of compassion, concern, and consideration for others, and suicide.

In the Third Discourse of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna what it is that makes people do certain things seemingly against their own will and better judgment, “as if constrained by some secret force”. The Avatar replies, “It is lust which instigates him. It is passion, sprung from the quality of rajas; insatiable, and full of sin. Know this to be the enemy of man on earth.”

Desire is a rajasic manifestation – the product of Rajoguna – and is indeed “the enemy of man on earth.” He goes on to say that Rajas is “the constant enemy of the wise man” and “the destroyer of knowledge and spiritual discernment.” It must be conquered, he says, and we must strengthen the lower self by the Higher Self.

Our Higher Self – being literally one and the same in essence and identity as the Supreme Self, the ONE Ultimate Reality, the Absolute Infinite Divine Principle called Brahman or Parabrahm in the Vedanta philosophy – transcends all the three qualities of Nature and is distinct from them. Krishna, speaking as our Higher Self, says, “The whole world, being deluded by these dispositions which are born of the three qualities, knoweth not me distinct from them, supreme, imperishable.”

In Krishna’s final discourse on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he says, “Know that the wisdom which perceives in all nature one single Principle, indivisible and incorruptible, not separate in the separate objects seen, is of the sattva quality. The knowledge which perceives different and manifold principles as present in the world of created beings pertains to rajas, the quality of passion. But that knowledge, wholly without value, which is mean, attached to one object alone as if it were the whole, which does not see the true cause of existence, is of the nature of tamas, indifferent and dark. The action which is right to be done, performed without attachment to results, free from pride and selfishness, is of the sattva quality. That one is of the rajas quality which is done with a view to its consequences, or with great exertion, or with egotism. And that which in consequence of delusion is undertaken without regard to its consequences, or the power to carry it out, or the harm it may cause, is of the quality of darkness – tamas.”

Now, we know that we are enjoined to be ever established in Sattvaguna and that this is the quality of light, goodness, truth, purity, desirelessness, wisdom, peace, and calm; the spiritual quality, which causes us to perceive Unity in diversity, the One in the many, the Divine Allness manifesting in, through, and as all manifested being.

Swami Sivananda advises aspirants to spiritual knowledge and liberation: “Introspect. Look within. Watch the Gunas carefully. Be vigilant. Stand as a doorkeeper. Allow only Sattvic thoughts to pass through the door of the mental factory. Check Rajas. Curb Tamas. When Sattva predominates there is unruffled peace of mind, inner harmony, perfect serenity and tranquillity. There is clarity or clear vision also. The understanding is not clouded. There is penetrative insight. The door or threshold of intuition is wide open. The senses will not run towards external objects.”

Yet at the same time we know we are implored to transcend even this Guna. How

This photo is of a picture of Krishna, drawn by William Quan Judge, and today housed in the New York lodge of the United Lodge of Theosophists.

can it be possible to do it, seeing as “There is no creature on earth nor among the hosts in heaven who is free from these three qualities which arise from Nature”? The clue is in the statement that our Real Self, pure eternal Spirit, is eternally transcendent and distinct from the Gunas, being “supreme, imperishable, and immutable” and thus above and beyond the three qualities or factors of Nature. When we truly and fully realise that in our essential nature, in the highermost part of our being, we are THAT – Brahman Itself – then we transcend and liberate ourselves from the Three Gunas in consciousness, even though one of them will always be predominant within us on the lower planes of manifestation and action.

The author of “The Dream of Ravan” gives some mystical insight into the state of such a person while still on Earth, when he remarks that “Still beyond the isolated Satva quality is a sphere called the pure Satva, which must be considered to denote essentia pura, pure being, pure truth, pure goodness – viewed as one simple essence. This seems attained only when all isolation is renounced; when the Satva, re-entering predominant into the Rajas and Tamas, and penetrating them with its influence, all three isolated prismatic rays coalesce into pure universal light, and a consciousness of divine re-union. Or, as Hippolytus says – if Hippolytus be the author of the Oxford MSS. – “when man becomes God;” or, as Alfonso Liguori, therein translating the Spanish of St. Theresa, expresses it in his theology [Oratio Meditationis], “Anima fit unum quid cum Deo,” – when the plastic, and the emotional, and the ideal, become absolutely one, and there is, properly speaking, neither matter, nor soul, nor spirit, but something which is all and yet none of these – call it Bramh; call it the constant or eternal Life [nitya]; call it, if you will, that true Hindu trinity in unity – SACH – CHID – ANANDA-GHANA – “SOLIDARITY OF BEING, THOUGHT, and JOY,” in which the eternal going-forth and re-introcession of the One, is expressed in the most perfect harmony with the deepest speculation of Platonism, and still more so with the profoundest development of Johannic Christianity.”

Or as William Judge puts it in “Notes on the Bhagavad Gita” p. 63-64, “It is evident at once that a higher sort of Satwa is referred to in the words “eternal truth.” Satwa is the Sanskrit for truth, and is not qualified when its place among the three qualities is given, so that, when the disciple frees himself from this ordinary Satwa, he is to take refuge in its eternal counterpart. … “Satwa” – truth – had to be taken to express the highest quality of any being who possesses them, and yet, when we begin to speak of the highest conceivable state in which attributes are absent, we still use the same word, only adding to it eternal.”

Arjuna asks Krishna, “What are the characteristic marks by which the man may be known, O Master, who hath surpassed the three qualities? What is his course of life, and what are the means by which he overcometh the qualities?” And the answer?

“He, O son of Pandu, who doth not hate these qualities – illumination, action, and delusion – when they appear, nor longeth for them when they disappear; who, like one who is of no party, sitteth as one unconcerned about the three qualities and undisturbed by them, who being persuaded that the qualities exist, is moved not by them; who is of equal mind in pain and pleasure, Self-centred, to whom a lump of earth, a stone, or gold are as one; who is of equal mind with those who love or dislike, constant, the same whether blamed or praised; equally minded in honour and disgrace, and the same toward friendly or unfriendly side, engaging only in necessary actions, such an one hath surmounted the qualities. And he, my servant, who worships me [i.e. the Seventh Principle, the Atman or Higher Self, who Krishna represents] with exclusive devotion, having completely overcome the qualities, is fitted to be absorbed in Brahman the Supreme. I am the embodiment of the Supreme Ruler, and of the incorruptible, of the unmodifying, and of the eternal law, and of endless bliss.”

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2 thoughts on “The Three Gunas

  1. Thanks for this article. There is a parable in the Ramakrishna’s Gospel about the gunas that I like:

    “Mahendra: Is compassion also a bondage?

    Râmakrishna: This question is not for ordinary mortals. Compassion is the result of the Sattwa quality. The Sattwa quality is protective, the Rajas quality is creative, and Tamas is destructive: but Brahman the Absolute is beyond these three qualities, Sattwa, Rajas, and Tamas. It is also beyond Prakriti or nature. Where there is absolute Reality, no quality of nature can reach. As a thief cannot go to the exact spot where the treasure is, because he is afraid of being caught, so Sattwa, Rajas, and Tamas, like thieves, cannot go to the realm where is the treasure of the Absolute.

    Parable of the three robbers.A man was going through the woods. On his way he was caught by a band of three robbers. They took away everything he had. Then the first robber asked: “What is the use of keeping this man alive?” And drawing his sword, he was about to kill him, when the second robber stopped him, saying: “What good will be done by killing him? Tie his hands and feet and throw him to one side.” So they bound his hands and feet and went away leaving him by the roadside. After they had been gone for a while, the third robber returned and said to him: “Ah! are you hurt? Come, let me untie the cords and release you.” Then when he had removed the cords, he said: “Now come with me. I will show you the road.” After walking for a long distance, they found the road, and then the robber said: “Look, there is your home. Follow the road and you will soon reach it.” The man, thanking him, replied: “Sir, you have done me a great service. I am greatly obliged to you. Will you not come with me to my house?” The robber answered: “No, I cannot go there; the guard would find me out.”

    Three Gunas of nature.This world is the wilderness. The three robbers are the three Gunas of nature,—Sattwa, Rajas, and Tamas. Jiva or the individual soul is the traveler; self-knowledge is his treasure. The Tamas quality tries to destroy the Jiva, the Rajas quality binds him with the fetters of the world, but the Sattwa quality protects him from the actions of Rajas and Tamas. By taking refuge with the Sattwa quality, Jiva becomes free from lust and anger, which are effects of Tamas; the Sattwa quality also emancipates the Jiva or the individual soul from the bondage of the world. But Sattwa quality itself is also a robber. It cannot give Divine wisdom or the knowledge of the Absolute. It leads one, however, up to the path of the Supreme Abode and then it says: “Behold, there is thy home!” Then it disappears. Even the Sattwa quality cannot go near the abode of the Absolute.”

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