What Are The Gunas?

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Gunas Definition

In Hindu and yogic philosophy, the gunas refer to the 3 qualities of matter inherent in everyone and everything.

They are sattva, rajas, and tamas, and every being has all three to some degree.

The literal translation of the word is “rope,” or “thread,” as in the threads woven together to make up the universe of phenomena.

an image of three gunas in a venn diagram

Gunas Deep Dive

Why is it so important to understand the gunas?

In the Bhagavad Gita Ch. 3:27, Krishna says, “All actions are performed by the gunas of prakriti.

That’s right. Everything and everyone are controlled by the three gunas, the constituent threads of existence.  They make you who you are, body, mind, and intellect.

The three gunas and their basic properties are:

Sattvagoodness, purity, balance, harmony
Rajaspassion and energy (positive and negative)
Tamaslethargy, ignorance, insensitivity

Or, as the Samkhyakarika explains in Ch. 13:

The Sattva attribute is buoyant and illuminating; the Rajas attribute is exciting and mobile; the Tamas attribute is sluggish and obscuring. Their functioning is for a single purpose, like that of a lamp.

Samkhyakarika Ch. 13

The Samkhyakarika also attributes them to pleasure, pain, and delusion respectively. These qualities are born of prakriti, the original state of matter in the universe. Prakriti, when combined with purusha, pure consciousness or spiritual essence, spawns phenomenal existence as we know it – brings light to life.

The three gunas bind the immortal Self to the body. And they not only color the quality of your actions – they literally perform all actions. It is said that the gunas’ effect is such that you may even feel moved against your own will (Ch. 3:36 Bhagavad Gita). Their balance and interplay define your personality.

“Deluded by identification with the ego,” Krishna explains, “a person thinks ‘I am the doer’.”

It is, in fact, the gunas. Most often, one of the three will predominate.

the three gunas represented on an orange image

When Sattva dominates:

The person is free from sorrow, attached and bound to happiness and wisdom.

Sattvic work is free from egoism and selfishness, and they are content in the outcome of actions, whether bad or good. The fruit of their deeds are pure and give understanding.

Their spiritual trajectory is upward, and when they are reborn they attain the worlds of the wise.

When Rajas dominates:

The person is restless and full of desire, bound to compulsive action.

Rajasic work is built on the desire for worldly rewards, and they get caught up in good or bad fortune. The fruit of their actions produces suffering and selfishness.

Their spiritual trajectory is stable, and they are reborn ill at ease, among those driven to work.

When Tamas dominates:

The person is apathetic, deluded, and bound to idleness and sleep.

Their work is undisciplined, dishonest, and procrastinatory, and the fruit of their actions produces ignorance and confusion.

Their spiritual trajectory is downward, and they are reborn among the unknowledgeable.

a Triquetra carved on a wooden plank

The Gunas In Your Life

It’s often hard to know what to do once you realize the gunas are running the show, so to speak. Everyone wants to be more Sattvic, especially when they’re in a Tamasic funk. The good news is: the combination of Sattvic, Rajasic, and Tamasic you now possess is changeable. But it takes effort.

Start by knowing where you’re at. When Sattva prevails, there is birth and creation. When things are status quo, Rajas is dominating. When there is destruction and backsliding, Tamas reigns. It is said that everything from the food you eat to the clothes you wear can more or less Sattvik.

So, recognize and eliminate your Tamasic traits. Then harness that agitated Rajasic energy to propel you to your real goal – something higher. And establish yourself in Sattva, acting to fulfill your duties without any thought of personal gain, unattached to the outcome.

“Those who are deluded by the operation of the gunas become attached to the results of their actions.”

– Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 3:29

It begins with setting an intention, the same way you do in a yoga class. It can be argued that this intention setting in class is precisely to get you into the habit of taking aim and then hitting the mark. With practice, you will experience the net woven by the gunas – and see a way out.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Hailing from the Yukon, Canada, David (B.A, M.A.) is a yoga teacher (200-hour therapeutic YTT) and long-time student and practitioner of various spiritual disciplines including vedanta and Islam.

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