The Three Gunas – Balancing Consciousness
The three gunas are the most subtle qualities of Nature that underlie matter, life and mind. They are the energies through which not only the surface mind, but our deeper consciousness functions. They are the powers of the soul which hold the karmas and desires that propel us from birth to birth. The gunas adhere in Nature herself as her core potentials for diversification.
All objects in the universe consist of various combinations of the three gunas. Cosmic evolution consists of their mutual interaction and transformation. The three gunas are one of the prime themes of Ayurvedic thought. They form a deeper level than the three biological humors and help us understand our mental and spiritual nature and how it functions.
Have you ever had a day when you have been hyperactive, on the go from morning till night, then finding it hard to stop? This is an excess of the energy called rajas, or activity.
Or a day when you can’t rouse yourself from sleep, feel unmotivated and drag yourself through the day? This is an excess of the energy called tamas, or inertia.
What about the day when tranquility prevails, when you feel calm and clear and do no more or less than is perfectly in the flow? This is the balance of the energy called sattva, or harmony.
The ancient scriptures of the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, Samkya Yoga, and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, among others, all present these three energies, the gunas, as the basis of the material universe. From the word guna, meaning strand or rope, the three gunas are described as three intertwined strands that bind embodied beings to physical nature or the material world.
The great teacher of classical yoga, Patanjali, says (Yoga Sutras II.18), “The world of objects is composed of the three gunas—the principles of illumination (sattva), activity (rajas) and inertia (tamas). From these the whole universe has evolved, together with the instruments of knowledge—such as the mind, senses, etc.—and the objects perceived—such as the physical elements. The universe exists in order that the experiencer may experience it, and thus become liberated.”
On a spiritual level, understanding the gunas provides opportunities for spiritual inquiry and personal development. On a practical level, the gunas reflect states of mind that manifest as moods and behaviors. Through awareness and discrimination we have the possibility to become a master of their fluctuations.
From the Bhagavad Gita (14.7): “Rajas is marked by passion born of craving and attachment; it binds the embodied Self to never-ending activity.”
As positive energy: Rajas presents such qualities as enthusiasm, excitement, ambition, alertness, accomplishment, passion and an ability to get things done. Vitality encourages work and creativity.
In excess: Too much rajas heightens emotion and develops hyperactivity, anger, anxiety, aggression, agitation, struggle or fear. Thought processes turn off and obsessions arise from desire and an overactive mind and body.
In the physical world: In nature, rajas represents activity. The higher energies of heat and movement are known to be rajasic. Too much movement such as wind or heavy exercise, or higher heat can increase rajas and result in agitation. For example, you may have noticed that you or other people dislike windy days or feel particularly irritable in the heat, whereas others aren’t bothered. It’s helpful to simply notice if the weather affects you on any given day and in what way. If you know you are affected you can then seek balance. In general, calm and temperate weather reduces or helps balance rajas. As you no doubt have experienced, getting outdoors on a beautiful day helps you feel better if you have been agitated.
From the Bhagavad Gita (14.8): “Tamas, ignorance-born, deludes all embodied beings; it binds them by means of dullness, indolence and sleep.”
As positive energy: Tamas presents qualities such as ease, loyalty, patience, stability and being grounded. Shutting down or coming to rest brings forgetfulness and possibility of renewal.
In excess: Too much tamas leads to laziness, apathy, insensitivity, depression, and feelings of darkness, grief, helplessness or loneliness. Sluggishness overcomes the mind and a sense of avoidance prevails.
In the physical world: In nature, tamas represents stillness as well as darkness. Any damp weather, including the full range of light to heavy rain (cold or warm) can increase tamas or the feeling of inertia. You may have noticed that you or others are more bothered by humidity and dislike being in the rain. In general, clear, temperate and sunny weather can reduce or balance tamas. It’s especially healing to get outside in good weather if you are feeling tamasic.
Sattva: Knowledge, Luminosity
From the Bhagavad Gita (14.6): “Of these three, sattva, untainted, luminous, free from sorrow, binds by means of attachment to knowledge and joy.”
As positive energy: Sattva presents qualities such as goodness, clarity, illumination, appropriateness, being in the present and pure consciousness. Virtue brings wisdom and peace.
In excess: One pitfall of sattva is the delusion of the ego, which generates smugness, complacency and self-satisfaction. Another pitfall is attachment. The ancient yogic texts warn against settling into worldly happiness and urge you to wrest yourself away from the material and experience the spiritual nature of the universe.
In the physical world: In nature, light, clear and constant weather is sattvic. But the harmony of sattva can prevail regardless of external conditions.
Basic Characteristics of the Gunas
|Desire, wanting||Acceptance||Not wanting, pushing away, blocked|
|Staying in the same place||Upward||Downward|
Sometimes rajas predominates, sometimes tamas prevails, and sometimes you may enjoy the state of sattva. As in all of life, these energies rise or descend in a wide variety of combinations. The three strands of the gunas intertwine and affect each other. As long as the energies of the gunas stay in relative equilibrium, everyday life remains in balance. If you realize you have become out of balance, you can shift yourself into a more sattvic state of being.
Those with a preponderance of sattva are characterised by clarity, knowledge, sensitivity and grace in the material world. Many people are sattvic; they are not limited to the wisdom teachers and yogis. Think about any of your family, friends, co-workers or acquaintances who are conscientious and serve with open-heartedness and love.
You are sattvic when you experience heightened awareness or savor wellbeing. Through discrimination you can teach yourself to notice your moments of contentment so you can move towards them when you feel imbalanced. For example, you may be at an outdoor café with a friend, at a family gathering or seated in the stadium, watching your favourite sport. Now’s the time to take notice of how you feel—all’s right with the world. You feel harmony, connection, expansion, even love. If you can, take a moment to increase your awareness at this time. Make a mental note that this is what it feels like to be totally content and at one with the universe. Then at another time when you feel agitated, place that remembered state in your awareness and consciously move towards it.
Heinrich Zimmer, in his book Philosophies of India, says, “The intellect or wisdom-mind is compounded of the three gunas, but by means of yoga, sattva guna is made to prevail. Yogic training purges the wisdom-mind of its original inheritance of tamas and rajas. With the removal of tamas, darkness is removed and the subtle matter of the wisdom-mind becomes translucent, like the waters of a mountain lake. With the removal of rajas, agitation is removed and the rippling of the restless surface then is stilled, so that the waters, already cleared, become a steady mirror.”
- Overcoming rajas: The next time you feel hyper-busy, take a moment to notice that you have become rajasic. Even if you have many things to do or are in a momentum of getting a lot done, recognize you may have become unbalanced towards rajas. See if you can identify anxiety, irritation or a chattering mind. You only need a moment to become aware of yourself, focus on the centre of your being and become connected to your higher nature, or sattva. You can still continue doing things, but with more awareness.
- Overcoming tamas: It can be harder to pull yourself up from a tamasic low than to slow down from a rajasic high. Paramahansa Yogananda, the great 20th-century yogi, says, “A restless rajasic man bakes himself slowly in the oven of worries about himself and others. But a tamasic man, as though ossified, is not even roused even by the sizzling process of worries. He exists like an inert, lifeless stone.” By identifying that you have become tamasic, you can try to move yourself out of it. Whenever you recognize an imbalance of tamas, force yourself to get up and do something—anything.
- Burn it out: One approach to balance too much rajas or tamas is to move towards the condition. For example, you can burn out hyperactive rajas through sport or play. You can burn out tamas through indulgence, such as spending a day in bed.
- Change your behavior: The other approach is to move away from the condition. You may need to discipline restlessness with imposed stillness or lethargy with activity.
- Become the observer: You can also take a step back to observe your state and say to yourself, “I am under the influence of rajas. Tamas has me under its grip.” By distancing yourself as the observer you already have more power over the condition.
The challenge is to always move yourself towards sattva. Here are some suggestions to balance your energy. Over time you may develop favourites of your own.
To Decrease Rajas (Hyperactivity) or Tamas (Inertia)
|Antidotes to Rajas
||Antidotes to Tamas|
|Physically||Slow down, rest||Get up and do something|
|Mentally||Change your focus from the sensory experiences of the outer world or the chatter of your mind to the inner world of your heart||Look outward into the physical universe and participate in it|
|Emotionally||Stop dwelling on your highly charged emotional state; if you are talkative, be silent||Change your focus from negative emotions to activity|
|Food||Avoid spicy foods||Avoid heavy carbohydrates|
|Yoga postures||Hold yoga postures for a long time; do postures that get you out of your mind and into your body: lionpose, cobra, upward dog/downward dog||Increase energy by yoga sequences such as sun salutations: warrior pose, bow, triangle, also balancing poses, such as the tree|
|Breath||Practice alternate nostril breathing to burn out the excess of energy or take slow, deep breaths until you calm down||Energise yourself with bhastrika, deep quick breathing from the diaphragm; or slow, deep breaths to help you come into your body|
|Environment||Seek serenity, a place with calming music; or get outside into nature||Go anywhere else than your bed, couch or other favourite hideaway; seek the company of others|
|Meditation||Repeat the mantra or listen to recordings of the mantra; if you have an established practice, meditation is a brilliant method to slow down and become centred||Use recordings of guided meditations; if you can concentrate, read yoga philosophy or scriptures; use the mantra to energise your meditation|
In his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Yogananada says, “Though a brilliant fetter, sattva is still a fetter. A gold wire can tie a man to a post just as securely as can a wire of silver or steel. Like tamas (ignorance) and rajas (selfish activity), sattva also binds the soul to the body and to the earth plane.”
He adds, “Just as a man understands that he sees a motion picture through the instrumentality of an electric beam of light and a variegated film, so a perfected yogi comprehends that the phenomenal worlds and their activities are merely a dance of shadows and lights—the relativities or expressions of the three gunas, animated by the Supreme light.”
When you take time to consider the gunas you will notice their binding nature. Human beings are entranced by sensory experiences. Creating, building, accomplishing and flourishing are attractive possibilities. At the end of busy-ness everyone longs for release, rest, sleep and sometimes even a bit of laziness. Sometimes we ride the passion of an excess of rajas; sometimes we’re seduced by the self-pity of tamas; and sometimes we’re attracted to the good feeling of sattva.
Sri Ramakrishna, a 19th-century sage, used the gunas in teaching his disciples about their binding nature. He would tell a story of a man travelling through a forest when three robbers fell upon him and took his possessions. One robber wanted to kill him but another recommended tying him up. The robbers bound his hands and feet and went away. After awhile the third robber returned and apologized. He released him from his bonds and took him to the road that would take him home.
Ramakrishna said, “This world itself is the forest. The three robbers prowling here are sattva, rajas and tamas. It is they that rob a man of the knowledge of truth. Tamas wants to destroy him. Rajas binds him to the world. But sattva rescues him from the clutches of rajas and tamas. Under the protection of sattva, man is rescued from anger, passion and the other effects of tamas. Further, sattva loosens the bonds of the world. But sattva also it a robber. It cannot give him the ultimate knowledge of truth, though it shows him the road leading to the supreme abode of knowledge. Setting him on the path, sattva tells him, look yonder. There is your home.”
Sattva, personified by the third robber, sets you free from the attachment of the other two gunas, excess and lack, but you have to apply additional effort to shake off the attachment of even good living to seek the spiritual nature of the universe.
Transcending the gunas
The great teaching text, the Yoga Vashishta (The Supreme Yoga) says, “They who are of a pure (sattvic) nature and they whose activities (rajas) are based on purity and light (sattva) do not live their life mechanically, but inquire into the origin and the nature of this world-appearance. When such inquiry is conducted with the help of the right study of scriptures and the company of holy ones, there arises a clear understanding within oneself in which the truth is seen, as in the light of a lamp.”
“What is my place in the universe? Who am I? Why am I here?” These are some of the questions of spiritual inquiry that lead to freedom from the binding energies of the gunas.
As an individual becomes more set in a sattvic life, a broader perspective arises. Sattva as an energy naturally leads upward to a higher state of being or towards knowledge and experience of the divine. Sattvic people tend to question their existence, their relation to the physical world and the spiritual foundation of the universe. The path of the yogi is to experience spirituality as well as serving the material world.
With a nature of stillness, the sattvic person is seated in the third eye, the chakra or energy centre within the body that represents being able to see inwards as well as outwards. By looking inwards, the spiritual context of the universe unfolds. In time even the fetters of goodness dissolve and the yogi experiences ultimate unity.
The philosophy of yoga says the universe exists to be experienced and the goal of human life is to become liberated from bondage. This bondage is the attachment of the gunas; once you can let go of too much, too little and even “just right”, you are well on your pathway home.
(c) copyright 2009 Swami Dayananda