Vishwa Yoga | What are the three Gunas?

Vishwa Yoga

Authentic Tantric Perspective - Ancient teachings for the modern life

What are the three Gunas?

You may come across different kind of people, happy, compulsive and lazy. Ever wonder what makes their behavior like that. The same changing behavior we can see in our self, it may be changing from one to another on a given day. Let’s understand this tendency or nature. In Yoga, these tendencies are called Gunas, and born out of Prakriti. Guna means strand, and it is very fabric of existence, the veil that hides unity in a covering of diversity. In other words, changing tendencies of Prakriti or our Outer  Reality is called Gunas. It is important to stress this fact that Guna is the tendency not an action in itself. As a guna takes a predominates the corresponding characteristic is observed.

 There are three gunas born out of Prakriti, that bind the immortal self to the body and mind.

  1. Sattva – pure, luminous, and free from sorrow – binds us with attachment to happiness and wisdom
  2. Rajas – passion, arising from selfish desire and attachment. – binds the self with compulsive action
  3. Tamas – born of ignorance, deludes all creatures through heedlessness, indolence, and sleep – binds us to delusion

The Gunas can be illustrated by comparison with the three states of matter in classical physics – Solid, Liquid, and Gas. Tamas is frozen energy, the resistance of inertia. A block of ice has a good deal of energy in the chemical bonds that hold it together, but the energy is locked in, bound up, rigid. When the ice melts, some energy is released as the water flows; rajas, activity is like a swollen river, full of uncontrolled  power. And Sattva, harmony, can be compared with stream when its power is harnessed. These are very precise parallels, and they convey an important point about gunas: all three states of energy, and each can be converted into the others.

In terms of evolution Sattva is on the highest level. The quality of Sattva combines goodness, purity, light, harmony, balance. Rajas is energy- or, on human level, passion – which can be both good and bad. In personality Rajas may express itself in anger, hatred, or greed; but it also provides motivation, the will to act. Rajas is ambitious, which is not altogether a bad thing for evolution of the soul. It is definitely superior to third guna, tamas, which combies inertia, sloth, darkness, ignorance, insensitivity.  This is lowest state in terms of evolution; for tamas means a dead stability, where nothing much happens for good or ill. Worse, tamas can mean not just stability but sliding backwards in the struggle of evolution, where to stand still may mean to be left behind.

Each of the three Gunas is ever present simultaneously in every particle of creation,  but the variations in equilibrium manifest in all the variety of creation including matter, mind, body and observed by spirit. In the given personality or phenomenon all the three gunas are likely to be  present. It is mix of the three that colors our experience.  Sattva predominates when Rajas and Tamas are transformed. Rajas prevails when Sattva is weak and Tamas overcome. Tamas prevails when Rajas and Sattva are dormant.  When Sattva predominates, the light of wisdom shines through every gate of the body. When Rajas predominates, a person runs about pursuing selfish and greedy ends, driven by restlessness and desire. When Tamas is dominant a person lives in darkness – slothful, confused, and easily infatuated.


In any case, no mix of the three gunas is stable,for it is the very nature of prakriti to be in constant flux. The Gunas are constantly shifting, always changing in intensity. It is essential that the gunas, even the purity and goodness of sattva, be transcended if the soul is to attain its final release. For the three gunas are forces are forces that operate within the world of prakriti: in fact, their three strands make up the whole fabric of the phenomenal world. When Arjuna asks Krishna to describe the person who has gone beyond prakriti’s net, Krishna replies that such a person is detached from constant shifting and interaction of the gunas. Identified with the Self, he or she realizes that the gunas and their play are external – even emotions and thoughts that seems so personal, so interior, are really only the play of prakriti. Thoughts and emotions, and ahamkara itself, stop at the gate of the inner Self. The self abides in the inner chamber of the heart, always at peace, whever forces of prakriti may storm outside. The illumined man or woman maintains a joyful evenness of mind in happiness and sorrow.


Three kinds of Food and/or Drink

1. Nurturing Food - Such foods are Savory, Smooth, Firm and Pleasant to the stomach. e.g. Nuts, Seeds, oils, mild spices and Sattvic herbs, Fruits, Dairy, Vegetables, Whole Grains etc. They are called Sattvic food. It balances every Chakra.

2. Stimulant Food – Such Foods are Excessively Pungent, Sour, Salty, Hot, Harsh, Astringent and Burnt.  e.g. Coffee, Tea, Cold/Energy Drinks, Chocolate, Strong Spicy and Salty food etc. They are called Rajasic food. They energize & develop 3rd Chakra only.

3. Sedative Food – Such Foods are - Stale, Tasteless, Smelly, Left-over, Rotten and Foul.  e.g. Any kind of Non Vegetarian food such as - Meat, Fish, Fertilized egg, Alcohol, Onion, Garlic, opium etc. They are called Tamasic  food. Stimulates 2 Lower Chakras only, which is the seat of pleasure.

Note: Every person is different, so observe your tendency after eating or drinking, above are general information for understanding.


Three kinds of time, place or environment

1. Refreshing/Soothing/Peaceful - e.g. Morning, Country side or place of spiritual Wisdom etc. This is called Sattvic time, place or environment.

2. Energetic/Empowering/Challenging - e.g. Afternoon, Cities Office, sporting places or Gym etc. This is called Rajasic time, place or environment.

3. Dull/Lethargy/Negativity - Evening, Pubs, Bars, Jails or Cemeteries etc. This is called Tamasic time, place or environment.


Three Types of Work & Worker

1. Work performed to fulfill one’s obligations, without thought of personal reward or of weather the job is pleasant or unpleasant, is Sattvic Work. Hence, Sattivic Workers are free from egotism and selfish attachments, full of enthusiasm and fortitude in success and failure alike.

2. Work prompted by selfish desire or self-will, full of stress is Rajasic Work. Thus, Rajasic Workers have strong personal desires and crave rewards for their actions. Covetous, impure, and destructive, they easily swept away by fortune, good or bad.

3. Work that is undertaken blindly, without any consideration of consequences, waste, injury to others, or one’s own capacities, is Tamasic Work. Hence,Tamasic Workers are undisciplined, vulgar, stubborn, deceitful, dishonest, and lazy. They are easily depressed and prone to procrastination.


Three Types of Knowledge

Knowledge, the thing to be known, and the knower: these three promotes action. The means, the act itself, and the doer: these three are totality of action. Knowledge, action and the doer can be described according to the gunas. There are three types of Knowledge.

1. Sattvic Knowledge: Sees the one indestructible Being in all being, the unity underlying the multiplicity of creation.

2. Rajasic Knowledge: Sees all things and creatures as separate and distinct

3. Tamasic Knowledge : Lacks any sense of perspective, sees one small part and mistakes it for the whole.

Three Types of Intellect & Will

1. To know when to act and when to refrain from action, what is right action and what is wrong, what brings security and what insecurity, what brings freedom and what bondage. This is called Sattvic Intellect. Sattiv Will is developed through meditation, keeps prana, mind, and senses in vital harmony.

2. Confuses right and wrong actions, and cannot distinguish what is to be done from what should not be done. This is called Rajsic Intellect. Rajsic Will is conditioned by selfish desire, pursues wealth, pleasure, and respectability.

3. It is shrouded in darkness, utterly reversing the right and wrong wherever it turns. This isTamasic Intellect. And, Tamasic Will shows itself in obstinate ignorance, sloth, fear, grief, depression and conceit.


Three Kinds of Happiness

1. That which seems like poison at first, but tastes like nectar in the end – this is the joy of Sattva, born of a mind at peace with itself. By sustained effort, one comes to the end of sorrow.

2. Pleasure from the senses seems like nectar at first, but it is bitter as poison in the end. This is kind of happiness that comes to the Rajasic.

3. Both in the beginning and in the end, this happiness is a delusion. It is Tamasic, and those who are tamasic draw their pleasures from sleep, indolence, and intoxication. 


Source: Based on Chapter 14,  17 and 18

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