The Bhagavad Gita – which is a great wisdom scripture, and can be considered the Bible of Hinduism – speaks of the three gunas. These are the three basic characteristics or attributes that exist in all things, including your body and mind.
Although this topic can get very philosophical, in this post I’ll focusing only on the psychological aspects of the gunas, and how they relate to our moods, emotions, and behaviour. This is an integral part of the psychology of Yoga.
Once you understand how the gunas work, you will be able to better understand and navigate your inner world, and to work with what life is giving you.
The three gunas
In terms of activity, the gunas can be thought of in the following way:
- tamas = inertia
- rajas = movement
- sattva = balance
In terms of colors, the gunas can be thought of in this way:
- tamas = black (the absence of all colors)
- rajas = the different colors (although traditionally it is represented as red)
- sattva = white (the synthesis of all colors)
Everything can be classified according to the gunas. For the purposes of this post, let’s analyze some moods/emotions and group them accordingly.
Tamasic states: laziness, disgust, attachment, depression, helplessness, doubt, guilt, shame, boredom, addiction, hurt, sadness, apathy, confusion, grief, dependency, ignorance.
Rajasic states: anger, euphoria, anxiety, fear, irritation, worry, restlessness, stress, courage, rumination, determination, chaos.
Sattvic states: delight, happiness, joy, peace, wellness, freedom, love, compassion, equanimity, empathy, friendliness, focus, self-control, satisfaction, trust, fulfilment, calmness, bliss, cheerfulness, gratitude, fearlessness, selflessness.
Get the picture?
But it’s more complex than that…
In reality, however, things are not so black and white. Every phenomenon (mood, person, action, thought, etc.) contains a predominant guna, as well as a smaller dose of the other two gunas. That is why, for instance, we can transform one emotion into another. Anger, for example, can be transformed into compassion because the rajas state of anger contains some sattva, the predominant guna of compassion.
The intention behind an emotion, and how it is expressed, determines whether an emotion is predominantly tamasic, rajasic, or sattvic.
Take the emotion of courage, for example. A suicide bomber in a terrorist attack may be said to have tamasic courage (based on ignorance and hatred). A man who risks his health and comfort to obtain wealth or fame has rajasic courage (based on desire). And a man who sacrifices his ego or personal interest for a larger cause has sattvic courage (based on compassion and the greater good).
Let’s take laziness as another example. Tamasic laziness is when you don’t have motivation to do anything, or when you are attached to comfort. Rajasic laziness is when you are so engrossed with your activity that you are unable to stop and evaluate what’s happening. Sattvic laziness is when you are so fulfilled with a sense of satisfaction and peace that you can’t be bothered to do anything else.
The difference lies in the intention. Change the motivation and the context of a given emotion or action, and you will change its quality!
Working with the gunas
You now have a basic understanding of what the gunas are, and how to look for their manifestation both inside and outside of yourself.
Now… while this is a fascinating subject, you may be asking yourself: “What to do with all this?”
As conscious beings, we have the ability to manipulate the presence of gunas in us and in others. We do this by two means:
- What we choose to pay attention to and to consume
- How we choose to act
In other words, our attention and our intention.
Our body is fed by food, water, and air. Our mind is fed by thoughts, feelings, and the input from the five senses.
So… Are you feeding your body and mind with tamas, rajas, or sattva?
Use the three gunas to understand the effects of the
- food you eat,
- movies you watch,
- music you listen to,
- people you spend time with,
- places you go to,
- websites you visit,
- interests you pursue,
The principle is quite simple: the more you are exposed to a guna, the more that guna will grow in your mind and heart. Expose yourself to more sattva, and sattva will grow in you. Likewise tamas and rajas will grow instead if that’s what you’re feeding on.
Some people say that you are what you eat. That’s true. But you are also what you think, what you do, what you read, etc. We are a combination of the qualities of our thoughts, actions, and inputs.
As you go about in life, pay close attention to how you feel during and after consuming a meal, movie, text, conversation, idea, etc. Do you feel more calm, inspired, confident, wise, energetic, or clear? Or do you feel more tired, confused, restless, emotional, sluggish, anxious, or depressed?
So much for the five senses level.
On a subtler level, you need to also be mindful of the quality of your thoughts and emotions. Become aware of the effect your thoughts and emotions have on you. Are they making you paralysed (tamas), agitated (rajas), or calm and empowered (sattva)?
You may not have a choice about what thoughts and emotions show up, but you do have a choice about which ones you pay attention to. They are the ones that will linger, grow, and multiply.
Sattvic words, thoughts and actions increase sattva in the world – and also in yourself. The same happens in the case of the other gunas.
Action that is virtuous, thought through, free from attachment, and without craving for results is considered Sattvic; Action that is driven purely by craving for pleasure, selfishness and agitation is Rajasic; Action that is undertaken because of delusion, disregarding consequences, without considering loss or injury to others or self, is called Tamasic. — Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 18, verses 23–25
If you want to know the predominant guna behind your action, ask yourself these two questions:
- Why am I doing this?
- How am I doing this?
Ideally you want both the intention behind the action, as well as the execution of the action, to be sattvic.
Intention alone is not enough. A person who engages in dodgy businesses in order to support his family has a sattvic intention but a tamasic execution. As the saying goes, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.
Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy. – Aristotle
The gunas and self-transformation
Understanding the gunas helps you see things more clearly. It helps you understand the quality of your thoughts, actions, and the things with which you engage.
Then it’s all about making conscious choices on what you consume, what thoughts you pay attention to, and how you act. In fact the secret of spiritual growth could be summed up thus: Learn to love and delight in sattva, and understand the pain of tamas.
The conditioning of your lizard brain – which seeks pleasure and shuns pain – will take care of the rest for you!
Step by step
It is very hard to go from tamas directly to sattva – so use rajas as a step in between.
For example, if your dominant moods at this point in life tend to be tamasic (like exhaustion, depression, etc.), your aim should be to first get rid of tamas and get your rajas flowing. You can do this by raising your energy levels through activities such as physical exercise, cold showers, better food choices (or even fasting), less TV, socializing with active and positive people, or traveling to a new place.
From rajas it is then easier to arrive at sattva, by balancing out the excitement and learning to appreciate the more subtle pleasures of peace, harmony, contentment, and moderation. At this point, activities such as meditation, self-reflection, journaling, etc., can help you move into sattva, whereas trying them from a tamasic state can result in becoming sleepy or bored.
This reminds me of a vital insight that some spiritual teachers seems to miss: that it’s easier to move into egolessness (the “enlightened state”) from a healthy ego than from a broken one. That is why working on yourself (be it through therapy, relationships, or self-reflection) is much needed. Like Nisargadatta Maharaj says, “You cannot leave a mess behind and go beyond – it will pull you back”. But that’s a subject for another post 😉
The whole spiritual discipline of Yoga can be said to be about transforming tamas, balancing rajas, and developing sattva. The same with other wisdom traditions, although they may not speak of this process in terms of the gunas.
So what should your goal be?
If you are looking for a good life, aim for a predominance of sattva and a positive presence of rajas . If, in the other hand, you are serious about enlightenment, aim for 100% sattva.
This is the way I see it:
- Priority 1: Transform tamas – get rid of as much “junk” as you can.
- Priority 2: Balance rajas – cultivate energy and movement in a balanced way.
- Priority 3: Develop sattva – develop peace, contentment, and self-awareness.
And all of these is a moment-by-moment practice.
Develop the habit of asking yourself “What is the quality of this action I want to take?”. Do the same with the thoughts that popup in your head, the emotions that arise, and the things you consume through your five senses.
Finally, don’t beat yourself up about tamas and rajas! Be patient, but vigilant. You will still fall into them many times, either consciously or unconsciously. Personal growth and spiritual transcendence are lifetime journeys – a marathon, not a sprint. Besides, if you beat yourself up for the “mistakes” you make, you will only dive deeper into tamas.
The insights that I share in this post have served me as a map in my own journey for nearly two decades. May it be helpful for you too!
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Images attribution: soundofom.com/gunas/ (gunas triangle); solelyhinduism.blogspot.com (man with three faces); pinterest.com (sattva).