The Triple Gunas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas

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by Jayaram V

According to the Bhagavadgita, the gunas (the primary qualities of Nature ) are three in number: sattva, rajas and tamas. They exist in all beings, including human beings, in various degrees of concentration and combination. Depending upon their relative strengths and combinations, they determine nature of beings, its actions, behavior and attitude and its attachment to the objective world in which it lives. The primary purpose of the gunas is to create bondage, through desire for sense objects leading to attachment with them and keep the beings under the perpetual control of Prakriti (7.13).

The gunas are born from Prakriti. The Divine does not reside in them but they reside in the Divine (7.12). In the Divine Consciousness, they remain in a state of perfect balance. When this balance is disturbed, the process of creation begins and beings come into existence possessing these gunas in different proportions. Under their influence human beings lose their ability to know themselves correctly and recognize their divine nature. They fail to see their oneness with God and the rest of creation and the presence of God amidst them (7.14). God is the real Enjoyer. He brings forth the entire creation for His joy (ananda). As the Bhagavadgita says, Purusha alone seated in Prakriti enjoys the qualities produced by Prakriti. The gunas are responsible for the diversity of nature. Because of association with the gunas (qualities), the division of reality and unreality take birth.(13.21). When the gunas are manifested in creation, the individual souls come under their influence and begin their onward journey into the world of matter and death.

In the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna gives us a very detailed description and definition of the three gunas. Sattva is pure, without impurities, illuminating and free from sickness. It binds the soul through attachment with happiness and knowledge (14.6). Rajas is full of passion (ragatmakam) and is born out of "thrishna" (thirst or intense desire) and "sanga" (attachment). It binds the soul through attachment with action (14.7). Tamas is the darkness and the crudeness in man. It is "ajnanajam" (born of ignorance) and "mohanam"), cause of delusion. It binds the soul through recklessness, indolence and sleep(14.8).

The three gunas compete among themselves for supremacy while the exist in the beings. Sattva exists by suppressing Rajas and Tamas. Rajas exists by suppressing Sattva and Tamas. And Tamas by suppressing both Sattva and Rajas(14.10).

How to know which quality is predominating in a person at a particular time? When sattva is predominating, from all the gates of the human body radiate the illumination of knowledge, (14.11). When Rajas is predominating, greed and the striving for selfish activities would appear, (14.12). With the increase of tamas come darkness , inactivity, recklessness and delusion (14.13).

A sattvic person on death attains higher worlds and when reborn takes birth among pious people (14.14). A rajasic person, after death, remain in the middle worlds and when reborn takes birth in the family of those who are attached to actions. And the tamasic person, sinks to lowest regions on dying and when is reborn takes birth among the ignorant and the deluded (14.15).

In the eighteenth chapter we come across detailed description of how men with these three qualities act and behave differently and engage themselves in different religious and spiritual activities.

The purpose of such an elaborate description of these three qualities in the Gita is not to encourage us to become sattvic or eliminate other qualities. The gunas whether it is sattva or rajas or tamas, are part of Prakriti and are responsible for our illusion and all suffering on earth. The Gita therefore aims to make us free from these qualities completely by making us clearly understand the nature of these qualities and how they tend to keep us in bondage and illusion. Even cultivation of "sattva" is not an end in itself. It is the only the means to overcome passion and ignorance and thereby achieve self-realization through the purity of the mind and the heart. one should forget that it actually binds us to the mortal world through its tendency to attach itself to happiness and knowledge. It is but an instrument of Prakriti, intended to serve its purpose, by keeping us chained to the earthly life, under the sovereign control of its false master. Hence one should go beyond these three gunas and attain immortality and freedom from birth, death, old age and sorrow (14.20).

What are the qualities of the person who has transcended these three gunas? how does he behave and how does he does he actually achieve it? When a man overcomes the three gunas, he neither likes illumination, activity and delusion when present nor dislikes when they are absent (14.22). He remains unshaken, unconcerned, knowing that the gunas are carrying out their actions (14.23). Alike in pleasure and pain, remaining the same towards a piece of gold, or a lump of clay, towards the desirable and the undesirable, equal in defamation and self-adulation (14.24), alike in honor and dishonor, same to friends and foes, without any egoistic effort in performing actions, he raises above the gunas (14.25).

A correct understanding of the three qualities of Nature, is thus very essential to overcome the bondage to earthly life and attain the Supreme Self. By knowing the distinction among the three qualities and by developing the quality of sattva in abundance one can purify ones mind and establish tranquility of mind through right worship, study, knowledge, speech, devotion, faith, behavior and sacrifice. (18.4-22). One can develop the divine qualities enumerated in the sixteenth chapter and become a perfect yogi through practice and devotion. He can attain the Supreme Self, by performing his enjoined duty without any desire and attachment, offering the fruit of his actions God, surrendering himself completely to Him, fully devoted to him and absorbed in Him.

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