The ancient teachings of yoga say that all matter in the universe arises from a fundamental substrate called Prakriti. From this etheric Prakriti, three primary gunas (qualities of energy) arise, creating the main aspects of all nature – energy, matter, and consciousness. Conscious control of the three gunas is a powerful way to reduce stress, open up your inner potential, and gain enlightenment.
In this article, I will share with you what gunas are, what energies and qualities they represent, and how to balance the three gunas for living in harmony.
What Is Guna?
The word guna literally means “strand” or “fiber” and implies that. Like strands of a rope, the three gunas are woven together to form the objective universe.
Nowadays, gunas are a key concept in most schools of Hindu philosophy. There are three gunas that have always been and continue to be present in all things and beings in the world. These three gunas are called tamas (darkness and chaos), rajas (activity and passion), and sattva (essence and harmony). According to the Hindu worldview, all of these three gunas are present in everyone and everything, it is the proportion that is different. The interplay of the three gunas defines the character and determines the progress in life.
Awareness of gunas and understanding their nature and qualities tells us whether we are genuinely moving forward in life (sattva), running in place (rajas), or losing our way (tamas).
The development of the ability to identify and understand the nature of the gunas brings us closer to an understanding of the universal truth of unity.
Three Gunas: Tamas, Rajas, Sattva
All three gunas are always present in the beings and objects around us, but they differ in their proportion. People have a unique ability to consciously change the levels of gunas in the body and mind. However, we have to remember that the gunas cannot be divided or destroyed, but they can be only consciously influenced. Gunas can be reduced or increased due to the interaction and influence of external objects, spiritual practices, and thought processes.
Now, let’s take a closer look at each of the three gunas.
Tamas conceals the presence of consciousness. It causes dullness and ignorance through its power to obscure. Its nature is heavy and dense.
Tamas guna represents a state of darkness, inertia, inactivity, and materiality. It manifests itself in the form of ignorance. Other tamasic qualities are:
- mental abnormalities;
- addiction to various perversions;
Tamas corresponds to midnight, destructive speech and sound, dirt, darkness, stench, stale food, alcohol, drugs. It leads a person to demoralization, obesity or exhaustion, memory lapses or complete amnesia, lack of interest in life, prolonged depression, suicidal thoughts, and aggression.
In its more balanced form, tamas can supply a steadying influence in life. For instance, bed rest can lead to healing. However, tamas’ nature is primarily immobilizing: tamasic foods are considered lifeless, stale, or impure; tamasic entertainment is considered mindless and intoxicating. Tamas leads to inaction when action is required. Each of us has experienced the binding power of tamas – the appeal of lethargy, procrastination, and sleep.
Rajas are the energy of change. It is distinguished by passion, desire, effort, and pain. The nature of rajas is characterized by a sense of attachment, a desire to satisfy desires. Other rajasic qualities are:
- neither good or bad and sometimes either;
- mood swings;
- thirst for pleasure;
Rajas guna corresponds to noon, heavy physical exertion, emotional excitement, spicy and hot food, loud music, a vivid demonstration of material wealth and position, constant involvement in the turbulent flow of social life.
This guna gives rise to such interests as:
- a preference for material values over spiritual ones;
- emotional burnout;
- injuries and various diseases;
- the use of alcohol and narcotic drugs in order to achieve relaxation and peace or vice versa to spur yourself to action.
But nevertheless, without a certain passion, the world would not have known amazing works of art, masterpieces of world architecture, breakthroughs in science, and the development of progress in all spheres of life.
Rajas bring happiness by prompting the coupling of the senses with their objects. Thus rajas also bind us to attachment, to the fruits of action, and sensory pleasures of every kind.
The essence of sattva is to act as a transparent pane of glass, allowing the light of conscious awareness to reveal itself in the operations of the mind and in nature. Sattva is not enlightenment itself but it unveils what is true and real.
Sattva is the energy of balance and harmony. It promotes life, energy, health, and contentment.
Sattva is the quality of purity in everything. There are very few people who live completely sattvically, mostly yogis and saints. Nevertheless, this guna has many manifestations in ordinary life.
These are the main manifestations of sattva:
- spiritual growth;
- a sense of inner freedom and happiness.
This guna corresponds to an early rise with the dawn, neatness in relation to one’s appearance and one’s living space, vegetarian food, love of nature, interest in knowledge, spiritual practice, melodious beautiful music, mantras, and prayers.
Sattva leads a person to manifest such qualities as kindness, insight, clarity of thinking, optimism, a high degree of concentration and analysis, a tendency to positive judgments.
Imbalance in Sattva guna may lead to pride, an arrogant attitude towards those who know less, and the condemnation of those who lead a less righteous lifestyle.
The three gunas are constantly interacting with one another. But while the gunas themselves are permanent in essence, their interactions are transitory and afford only a false impression of permanence.
Balancing the Three Gunas
In our minds, thoughts change one after another. Because of this impermanence of thought patterns, there is a fluctuation between the three gunas. If today you have a predominant raja guna, then your surrounding world will be filled with stress or irritation. The next day, on the contrary, you can feel happiness and well-being – it means that sattva guna has become predominant.
To move along the path of spiritual development, we should learn how to consciously observe our thoughts and to be able to recognize the gunas. In addition, it is essential to have inner strength and strong will to consciously switch thoughts and actions from tamas and rajas to sattvic balance and well-being.
Balancing Tamas Guna
To reduce the effect of tamas guna, avoid tamasic food, excessive sleep, overeating, inactivity, and passivity. Tamasic foods include meat and foods that have been chemically processed or refined, as well as alcohol.
Balancing Rajas Guna
To reduce the effect of rajas guna, avoid rajasic food, excessive physical activity, overwork, loud music, excessive thinking, and striving for material benefits. Rajasic food includes fried and spicy foods, as well as stimulants (for example, caffeine).
Balancing Sattva Guna
To increase sattva guna, eat sattvic food, spend more time close to nature, breathe fresh air, do things that bring you joy and positive thoughts. Sattvic food is fresh and clean, grows above the ground, and receives positive energy from sunlight. It includes whole grains and legumes, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, all yogic practices have been developed to increase sattva at the level of mind and body. Therefore, when you practice yoga, perform pranayamas, chant mantras, or meditate, you naturally increase sattva guna.
The Bottom Line
In order to reach enlightenment, we need to increase sattva and decrease rajas and tamas. Then we have to learn how to become unattached from the three gunas and see the reality beyond Maya. When we transcend the three gunas we become indifferent to the duality of life like pain and pleasure. We are undisturbed by the gunas and know that the gunas are part of Maya, and not of the universe’s sole reality.