The Three Gunas: Sattva, Rajas und Tamas

A Basic Vedic Concept

The doctrine of the three gunas is a very basic concept of the Veda. The gunas are mentioned in almost all the scriptures of Vedic literature - the Bhagavad Gita, the Puranas, the Sankhya philosophy, the Yoga Sutras, and so on. Many events in life can be surprisingly well understood once this concept is understood. Therefore, here is an explanation of what the gunas are.

The 3 Gunas - Basic Forces of Prakriti

The entire universe with all its activity is an expression of Prakriti, nature. Only the absolute reality of the self, the purusha, the atman, is beyond the realm of prakriti. Prakriti means 'that which gives rise (pra) to activity (kri)' and denotes the entire realm of transitory, relative existence.

Guna means property, quality or state. The gunas are the basic forces of nature. All forms and processes in the universe are described as the interplay of the three gunas.

The 3 Gunas: Construction - Preservation - Destruction

The three gunas are called sattva, rajas and tamas. In this order, they embody the forces of creation, maintenance and destruction.

The main characteristic of prakriti, which is also expressed in its name, is permanent change. All three gunas are at work together at every point of creation - always and everywhere - but not everywhere in the same proportion. Sattva involves a more developed state of higher order, which is realised by rajas in the form of living activity, while tamas wants to maintain the old state and so retards development - in this sense tamas is destructive to the process of evolution.

If sattva prevails in a certain place at a certain time, one observes there a high degree of order, of life, of joy, wholeness, alertness, intelligence, embedded in a deep wakeful silence. If rajas prevails, the very dynamic rearrangement processes are in the foreground, transforming a state of lower order into a state of higher order. Where tamas dominates, stagnation is observed, leading to destruction, decay, rotting - evolution comes to a standstill.

The Three Gunas in Human Consciousness

In human life, it is the deep, silent, clear levels of inner consciousness that are dominated by sattva. Sattva means clarity, light, purity, stillness, joy, gentleness, love, alertness, knowledge, order. Tamas dominates in matter and appears in human consciousness - where it does not belong to! - as dullness, inertia, sleep, delusion, impulsiveness, indifference, oblivion. Tamas covers up, hides the true reality. Rajas dominates in the realm of the interaction of mind and body, consciousness and matter. In the world of thought and feeling, rajas takes the form of passion and activity, desire and hatred, pleasure and pain, affection and aversion. Rajas stands in the middle between sattva and tamas.

The Three Gunas and Evolution

Life means development, evolution. Evolution always goes from a state of tamas to rajas to sattva, i.e. from the dullness of the undeveloped state of tamas to the fierce activity of rajas to the louder, joyful silence of sattva. One can also say: under the influence of Sattva, Tamas transforms into Rajas and finally purifies into Sattva. Sattva and tamas are opposites; they can never meet directly. There is always a layer of rajas between the two.

Sattva and tamas are states of stillness: tamas the dull, unconscious persistence in the raw initial state, sattva the purified stillness of the highest state of order. In between, rajas rages. Rajas means war, restlessness, pain and consuming passion.

That's why Veda Vyasa says in the Mokshadharma section of Mahabharata:

'The very wise [sattva] and the very ignorant [tamas] are free from sorrow. But the one in between [rajas] suffers.'

The wise man has left suffering behind him, the very ignorant man has yet to experience it!

In every process in the universe - from the tiniest particle to the activity of galaxies and, moreover, in all forms of mental and emotional activity - all three gunas are always present, albeit in different proportions to each other. All cosmic activity can be described as the play of the three gunas.

The easiest way to understand this is that in any process a small or large portion of consciousness (sattva) is directed towards an object (tamas) and as a result there is an interaction (rajas) between the two.

In an 'inanimate object', such as a stone, tamas dominates, i.e. the object part in the form of tamas is so overwhelmingly large here that the tiny part of consciousness (sattva) - which is nevertheless present! - can only very slightly shape the activity (rajas) of the stone, so that it is almost entirely determined by the tamas dominance in the form of inertia.

In the more highly organised 'activity patterns" of living beings, higher proportions of rajas and sattva are found in the processes and sub-processes. The more highly developed the living being, the more possibilities the consciousness (sattva) has to shape the processes (rajas) and to become master of the objective world (tamas) instead of being determined and restricted by it.

Table of Gunas

The following table assigns various aspects of life to the three gunas. It must be remembered that never and nowhere does one of the three gunas appear on its own. It is always a question of which guna is predominant.

This table could be continued at will, since all mental and physical activities in the universe are expressions of the interaction of the three gunas.

The Three Gunas and the Development of Consciousness

As far as a person's development of consciousness is concerned, the goal is to realise the predominance of sattva in consciousness. Only satto-guna or sattva is capable of reflecting the reality of the Self in the mind , which is beyond the three gunas - thus also beyond sattva.

If we compare the mind to a lake and the reality of the Absolute, the Self, the Purusha, to the full moon in the sky, the clear, still surface of the lake corresponds to the mind dominated by sattva - the full moon is not in the lake, but it is clearly reflected in it: round, full of light, calm. When rajas predominates, the waters of the lake are agitated, full of ripples, and the one, perfectly round moon appears as a multiplicity of light reflections moving restlessly back and forth - the one, eternal, unchanging Self is wrongly perceived under the influence of rajas as the multiplicity of forms, beings and things of the world. Tamas corresponds to a lake covered by a layer of duckweed. Even when rajas is weak and the lake is thus calm, nothing can be seen of the moon - only after the duckweeds have been removed (which will necessarily cause the lake to become agitated) is there any thought at all of perceiving the light of the moon or the moon in its perfected form. Under the veiling influence of tamas, the mind knows nothing of a self.

The development of consciousness is like a process of sorting, of ordering: rajas belongs to the realm of action, tamas to the realm of matter - neither should predominate in consciousness, where sattva naturally resides. The calm alertness experienced in meditation allows sattva to grow in consciousness. Where the expanding sattva meets tamas, rearrangement processes arise in the form of rajas. The rajas itself calms down under the influence of sattva and finally becomes sattva. In the mind dominated by Sattva, the reality of the Atman, the Self, shines forth.

In his book "The Crest Jewel of Discrimination", Shri Shankara, one of the most important masters of the Vedic tradition, describes the function of the gunas; maya is another name for prakriti, the cosmic matrix:

'By realization of the pure, non-dual Brahman, Maya can be destroyed, just as the illusion of the snake is removed by the discriminative knowledge of the rope. Its qualities (gunas) are rajas, tamas, and sattva, distinguished by their respective functions

Rajas has projecting power. Activity is its very nature. From it the initial flow of activity has originated. From it, mental modifications such as attachment and grief are also continuously produced.

Desire, anger, greed, hypocrisy, arrogance, jealousy, egoism, envy, etc. — these are the dreadful attributes of rajas, from which the worldly tendencies of man are produced. Rajas is therefore the cause of bondage in life.

The veiling power (avritti), is the power of Tamas, which makes things appear to be other than what they actually are. It causes man‘s repeated transmigration and initiates the action of the projecting power(rajas).

Even the wise and the learned, and those who are expert in the understanding of the supremely subtle meaning of the scriptures, are overpowered by tamas and cannot comprehend Truth, even though It is clearly explained in various ways. They consider as real what is simply superimposed by delusion and attach themselves to its effects. Alas! How powerful is the great veiling power of dreadful tamas!

Absence of correct judgment, contrary judgment, lack of definite belief and doubt—certainly these never leave one who has any connection with this veiling power; also, the projecting power (rajas) gives endless trouble (as long as tamas prevails).

Ignorance, laziness, dullness, sleep, inadvertence, stupidity etc., are the attributes of tamas. One tied up with these cannot comprehend anything, but remains like one asleep, or like a stump of wood or a block of stone.

Pure sattva is like clear water, yet in combination with rajas and tamas, it provides for transmigration. But when the light of the Self gets reflected in sattva alone, then, like the sun reveals the entire world of objects, it reveals the path to realization.

The characteristics of mixed sattva (dominating sattva mixed with the two other gunas) are utter absence of pride etc., yama, niyama etc., and also faith, devotion, yearning for liberation, the divine tendencies, and a natural turning away from everything unreal.

The characteristics of pure sattva are cheerfulness, selfrealization, supreme peace, contentment, bliss, and a steady abidance in the supreme Self, by which the aspirant comes to enjoy everlasting bliss.

Maya (prakriti) is described as a combination of all three gunas ... The whole universe is due to the effect of Maya — from Mahat down to the gross body. Know that these and Maya itself are the non-self — therefore, they are unreal, like the mirage in a desert.'

The Importance of Knowing the Three Gunas

In the Bhagavad Gita, Shri Krishna says to Arjuna:

'Be without the three gunas Arjuna.' (BG 2.45).

This is synonymous with the call to realise the Self, because only the Self, the Purusha, is without the three gunas, i.e. beyond and unaffected by them. This means: transcend the realm of the three gunas, meditate, experience pure consciousness, the reality of the Atman beyond the gunas.

Krishna, however, not only emphasises that it is necessary to go beyond the realm of the three gunas in experience, but he also emphasises that it is very important for the attainment of enlightenment to understand the three gunas at the level of knowledge, to understand their workings and their relationship to the Self (purusha):

'All actions are done by the gunas of nature (prakrti). He, whose mind is fooled by the concept of ego, thinks 'I am the doer'. But he, O mighty-armed (Arjuna), who knows that these gunas and actions are distinct from himself, and that only the gunas are acting on the gunas, is not attached. (BG 3.27-28)

He who in this way knows the Purusha (Self, Atma) and Prakriti (nature) with its gunas, in whatever condition he may be, does not enter into rebirth.' (BG 13.23)

Realising the Self and attaining eternal liberation in the state of cosmic consciousness is tantamount to establishing the discriminating knowledge between what is the Self and what is the non-self. For the required clear cognition of the realm of the non-self, a deep understanding of the philosophy of the three gunas is necessary. Thus knowledge and experience complement each other on the path to enlightenment.

In the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 14 is dedicated to the unfolding of the knowledge about the three gunas - this knowledge is expanded in chapters 17 and 18 and explained with numerous examples by Lord Krishna.