A study of the three Gunas -Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas14 min read

It is generally held that the man of today is pre-eminently a questioner and a researcher, that he must have a reason for everything and that he will never be satisfied to take things on trial or on faith.

But from what we can gather from the classics of the East, modem man is beaten out and out by the thinkers of ancient India. There seems however to be a fundamental difference in their attitude towards research. Modem man hopes to arrive at Truth through deduction and reasoning and by refusing to advance further than his mind can see and accept. The ancient thinkers, on the other hand, did not place so much faith or value in reasonable theories, so they did not necessarily discard them when they fell short of logical certainty. They looked on research as moves in the game of unveiling the supreme Truth, moves made in order to keep that Truth, which they had already intuitively accepted, in partial focus while they trained their higher faculties to grasp it in its entirety.

Thus although the clarion call of the Advaita philosophy is “God alone is real and the world is unreal”, there are clearly defined descriptions of the creation and constitution of the world and phenomena which are considered to be helpful to the student in so far as they give his mind something to rest on while he is preparing himself for a direct vision of the truth of Reality.

To such a category of mental activity belongs the conception of maya or prakriti and the three gunas. Maya or prakriti is the substance, divine, immaterial, inexplicable, through which all creation, physical and mental, is produced, and the three gunas are the inherent characteristics of this substance.

All phenomena are said to be brought into being through a fusion of all-pervading Consciousness with prakriti and the three gunas which constitute its triple nature. Prakriti is the power through which the Infinite is made to appear finite and it is thus the power which conceals the nature of Reality. It is a mystery, never seen, but known to exist by virtue of its effects. Through its finitising quality and its characteristic of constant becoming it manifests its presence as time and space, as matter, as the body and mind and the emotions—in fact as all phenomena, mental and physical.

Maya or prakriti is thus the power which produces appearances. The world of appearance is its handiwork or effect. The world is therefore not a complete deception or hallucination, but it is the occasion for deception, for here the supreme Truth or Reality is veiled and distorted.

Now when we use the word “veiled” we bring the conception of the gunas into the picture. The veiling power of maya is supplied by the gunas. Reality—Consciousness Absolute— is self-luminous and self-revealing, but it is veiled by the gunas or states of density of maya. The gunas form, so to say, a shifting screen which hides Reality as clouds veil the light of the sun. They are three in number and cover three stages of veiling ranging from the most complete to the most translucent.

Their names and the effects of their individual veiling capacities are:

Tamas. This produces the most complete veiling. It is the obscuring factor, manifesting as the inertness in matter and as error, laziness and absence of discrimination in the mind.

Rajas. This produces a less complete veiling. It is the principle of activity, manifesting as life in all things and as activity, desire, selfishness and greed in the mind.

Sattva. This produces the most tenuous veiling. It is the principle of transparency and reflection, manifesting as the inner organ or personality in man and producing in it the qualities of balance, virtue and understanding.

It is difficult to think of a simile which will give any idea of the individual characteristics of the gunas. Perhaps the English weather would be the best. Sattva would correspond to “set fair”, with quiet atmosphere pervaded by sun—an unusual weather condition, and a most unusual guna to be in the ascendant. Rajas—“changeable”. Can produce whirlwinds or soft breezes—the most usual type of weather, and the most usual guna to find in the ascendant in man. Tamas—“deep depression”, with attendant secondaries. Or we might say that tamas corresponds to the static earth, rajas to the volatile moving air and sattva to the light which permeates the earth and the air. And here it should be pointed out that earth is not only to be thought of as a mass of immovable matter, but as the support and basis on which the world structure is built. So is tamas a sustaining guna in its higher manifestation.

The gunas act together, never separately, for together they form the moving shifting texture of maya; but one or other of them is said to be in the ascendant. They are all present in matter, mind and life, but in varying degrees of density. Thus although tamas predominates in matter, matter also contains (if you can use the word) the sattva guna, the principle which reflects or manifests Consciousness most clearly.

Therefore in even the lowest forms of matter, Consciousness is not only present but also faintly discernible. Matter is resistant, for it has the tamas guna predominating; but although it may appear stable to the eye, every particle is capable of change and motion—in other words, rajas is present.

There is also rhythm in this movement, indicating the presence of sattva. As in matter, so in man. He also is an admixture of all three gunas, all being present in him. Therefore he has no cause for complete hopelessness, or for complacency. He will never be safe until he has reached his home, so to say; that is, until the influence of the gunas has been neutralised and transcended.

The gunas not only consort together, but they may be said to aid each other; for without the presence of tamas, rajas would destroy itself and sattva; without the influence of rajas, tamas would never move; and without tamas, sattva might perhaps dissipate into thin air.

At this point one asks oneself, “Is there any purpose in this perpetual interchange?”

According to Vachaspati Mishra, a great philosopher of the 10th century, there is a purpose. He says:

“Like a lamp, their action is for a single purpose. The wick and the oil in a lamp are each by themselves opposed to the action of fire, but they co-operate when in contact with fire for the single purpose of giving light. The various humours of the body, though possessed of contradictory properties, cooperate for the single purpose of sustaining the body. In the same manner do the three gunas, though possessed of mutually contradictory properties, co-operate towards a single end— the emancipation of the Spirit.”

How does this emancipation take place and why? The true nature of the spirit of man is complete freedom and sovereignty, and he will not be satisfied until he has unveiled his nature and lives in it. He will therefore be impelled at long last to free himself from any domination or restriction whatsoever, and the most complete domination is servitude to the action of the gunas. Spiritual training, discipline and instruction has therefore emancipation as its goal, and the progression is from the domination of tamas to the ascendancy of sattva and then beyond that.

According to the Gita Shastra the effect of the gunas permeates and interpenetrates all things, material and subtle; and in the fourteenth chapter food, speech, action, the intellect and the qualities are all analysed and divided into their appropriate admixture of gunas. The four castes of India also, or as we would call them, the four prevailing types of mankind, are also placed in categories by virtue of the guna prevailing in them. In the Brahmins, the men of enlightenment as we would call them, sattva is said to be in the ascendant; in the kshatriyas or warriors, with us the men of action, rajas rules, mixed with sattva; while in the shudra, the unevolved human being, tamas is mixed with rajas.

Now, to go from the general to the particular, how do the gunas affect us?

The gunas bind, and their bondage lasts even after death. The ascendancy of one guna may colour the life and the actions performed during that life. This means that the man in whom rajas predominates will find the lonely forest as full of temptations as a city, while the man of sattva will be able to live in the midst of the world as on a mountain top.

The veiling of tamas hides the light of the Self. Then man is unconscious of his true nature and is in a state of bemusement.

Rajas allows the light of the Self to appear in flashes. Then man is partially conscious of his nature, but he turns outward for support. Rajas is the guna of victorious enjoyment; it enters the fortress of the personality through the loophole of imagination and the eager savouring of the quality of things— what one translator of the Crest Jewel of Wisdom calls “the caressing of the imagination”.

Sattva produces a fuller consciousness of the Self, and man now turns inward on his own nature for support. It is the guna of pure enjoyment and reflection.

At this point a query arises. It has been said that the gunas are in constant movement. It is therefore rather bewildering to hear such phrases as “the ascendancy of one guna colours the life” or “a rajasic man” or “a tamasic action”, as if the rajasic or tamasic were always in the ascendant and there were no oscillation at all. The answer is that just as on an April day you may say, “On the whole it has been a fine day” although there has been rain and wind as well as sun, so within the rhythm of their movement one or other guna predominates over varying periods of time.

Action and the motives for action being the most important and practical question for the average man, what part do the gunas play in action and in the causes of action? The gunas provide the cause for action as they also affect the quality of the action when performed. In the third chapter of the Gita it is said,

“By non-performance of action none reaches action- lessness; by merely giving up action no-one attains perfection.”

An action is the effect of a cause, and the motive for action lies in the guna under which it is carried out. This verse makes it clear that so long as a man busies himself with controlling the effect and ignoring the cause he runs the risk of being called a hypocrite, as he is elsewhere in the Gita, and is fighting a losing battle. In an old classic there is this pronouncement on such conduct:

“Fools deceived by maya and the gunas hope to attain liberation by eating one meal a day, by fasting and other acts which enervate the body. What liberation can such ignorant ones get by torture of the body? Donkeys go about naked; are they therefore Yogis? Deer and other animals live on grass, leaves and water; are they therefore Yogis? All such practices deceive. The only direct cause of liberation is knowledge of the Truth, and the world is the seat of liberation”.

The sattva guna must be in the ascendant before renunciation can bear fruit.

There is much instruction in the Gita on how to transcend the gunas and so control action and conserve energy, and we will return to this in a moment; but there is also a verse on the performance of action which is interesting.

It says: “The gunas of prakriti perform all action. With understanding deluded, the ignorant man thinks “I am the doer”!

This verse is sometimes tortured into “I am not responsible for my actions for it is the gunas that are acting”; but nothing in this world is ever so easy as that! We are responsible in so far that we offer the suitable soil in which a specific guna can flourish and action can germinate and then bear fruit. Yet in this verse the true position is implied. It is the attraction of the gunas for each other that causes reaction and therefore action. They cause the reaction in the subtle senses and the responses thereto in the gross body. The true Self is detached from the senses, the mind, and in the end from the gunas as well; but only when this fact is a direct experience and has therefore become an ever-present certaintyacted upon automatically has the man earned the right to dissociate himself from his reactions and actions. By that time the false self will have dissipated in the light of the true Self, and the man will have become as incapable of doing harm as a snake with its poison fangs removed.

Now about the imprisoning and action-producing power of the gunas. There is a verse in the Gita which says,

“Rajas tamas and sattva; these gunas, born of prakriti, bind fast in the body the Indestructible, the embodied One. Now sattva prevaileth, having overpowered rajas and tamas; now rajas, having overpowered sattva and tamas; now tamas, having overpowered sattva and rajas. Sattva binds all to happiness, knowledge and virtue; rajas binds by attachment to action, causing desire and greed; and tamas by attachment to sloth, resistance and heedlessness”.

Perhaps, after all, one should not use the word “bind”. Perhaps, dear Brutus, the fault lies not in our gunas, but in ourselves that we are underlings. For the guna that plays havoc with your and my peace of mind can never disturb or entrap an enlightened man. Why? Because there is no desire or false identification in him for it to adhere to, so to say. The liberated man can look on the perpetual oscillation of the gunas as a detached spectator. He can watch them destroy each other’s effects and be themselves destroyed like waves of the sea, and like waves of the sea rise into activity once more. The purpose of the practices and disciplines of the spiritual schools is to teach the disciple how he may, Christ-like, walk on those waves and still their tumult.

It is now time to consider how a man may free himself from the domination of the gunas and attain an altitude from where he can enjoy them, yet remain untouched by them.

There is an Eastern saying, “While the pearl is still in the oyster it cannot decorate the royal crown.”

So long as we are netted down and in thrall to anything, our true nature is hidden from us and we are in bondage. Balance, so long as it is consciously maintained, contains within it the seed of the fear of falling. It needs courage to maintain a balance, but fearlessness comes when both feet are on the ground, from an inability to perceive duality anywhere.

The various aspects of the training—meditation, which is the emptying of the heart of temporal concepts in order to fill it with the infinite and abstract; control of the mind, which involves controlling the cause of its activity and not the activity itself; and concentration, which is the sustaining of the sattva guna—are all practices which involve an attempt to rise above the cause of ignorance—the gunas. Actions, mental and physical, are only the effects of the gunas. Therefore discipline and training first aims at a partial control of the gunas and then at transcending their influence. They are to be rendered sterile of effect, that is to say, robbed of their quality of cause and recognised as subtle appearances only; then they will have no power to harm.

The transcendance of the gunas over man can only be broken when the transcendance of something greater than they has been recognised and acknowledged.

The Lord in the Gita says, “Verily this divine illusion of Mine, made up of the gunas, is hard to surmount. Only those who devote themselves to Me alone cross over it.”

The last guna to be surmounted is the sattva guna, and the ancient Rishis called this process the “leap in the dark”. You often hear students say that the sattva guna has to be transcended, which always sounds slightly patronising to me considering how little of that guna is to be found in the average personality; but the old writer Jnaneshvara gives a reason for this which is understandable.

He says: “He who knows his perfection cannot have any lustre added to him by sattva, any more than the ocean can increase in volume by receiving the drops of rain.”

And when the pupil Prince Arjuna asks his Teacher in the Gita what are the marks of a man who has passed beyond the gunas, he is told, in effect, that such a man watches their activity as a spectator, having now nothing to gain from them. The gunas stage a very fine show, but it is meant to be played before an audience of liberated beings.