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The Three Gunas

🌺 Peace, Love, Harmony

The three Gunas o Qualities of nature (Sattva-Rajas-Tamas)
by Atman Nityananda / blog

Ayurveda provides a special language for understanding the primal forces of Nature and shows us how to work with them on all levels. According to Yoga and Ayurveda, Nature consists of three primal qualities, which are the main powers of Cosmic Intelligence that determine our spiritual growth. These are called gunas in Sanskrit, meaning “what binds” because wrongly understood they keep us in bondage to the external world.

From Sattva comes the clarity or peace through which we can perceive the truth. From tamas comes the power of ignorance that veils our true nature. From rajas comes the power of Imagination that projects the world and puts us in bondage to the multiplicity of the external. 

1) Sattva – intelligence, knowledge, purity, imparts balance.

Sattva is the quality of intelligence, virtue and goodness and creates harmony, balance and stability.

It is said to be light in nature and luminous. It has inward and upward motion and brings about the awakening and development of the soul. Sattva gives happiness. Sattva provides happiness and contentment of a lasting nature. It is the principle of clarity, wideness and peace, the force of love that unites all things together.

2) Rajas – energy, action, passion, causes imbalance.

Rajas means the quality of attraction, turbulence or activity. It introduces a disequilibrium that upsets an existing balance. It is said to be mobile and motivated. It possesses outward motion and causes self-motivated or self-seeking action that leads to disintegration, Rajas creates pain and suffering. It is the principle of energy. 

While in the short term Rajas is stimulating and provides pleasure, owing to its unbalanced nature it quickly results in pain and suffering. It is the force of passion that causes distress and conflict.

3) Tamas – substance, inertia, ignorance, creates inertia.

Tamas is the quality of dullness, darkness, and inertia and is heavy, veiling or obstructing in its action. It has downward motion and causes decay, degeneration and death. 

It functions as the force of gravity that retards things and holds them in specific limited forms. Tamas brings about ignorance and delusion in the mind and promotes insensitivity, sleep and loss of awareness. It is the principle of materiality or unconsciousness that causes consciousness to become veiled.

Since both the external world and the internal world of the mind are made of matter, the qualities of the three gunas are seen in both.

For example, in the external world we see:

  • Sattva — equilibrium and serenity
  • Rajas — dynamism and movement
  • Tamas — inertia and stagnancy

In the internal world of the mind, these are experienced as:

  • Sattva — Purity, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, comprehension, recognition, generosity, patience, kindness.
  • Rajas — Desire, greed, jealousy, anger, attachment, possessiveness, hyperactivity, nervousness, anxiety,aggressiveness, competitiveness, power, prestige, name and fame.
  • Tamas — Impurity, dullness, envy, fear, delusion, confusion, depression, stupor, unconsciousness, coma.

One of the factors that influences the quality and strength of the material quality that predominates in your mind is your destiny. Otherwise, because the mind has an adoptive nature, it is also strongly affected by the quality of your environment and associations. It is also influenced by the quality of the food you eat.

The three gunas are the most subtle qualities of Nature that underlie matter, life and mind. They are the energies through which not only the surface mind, but our deeper consciousness functions. They are the powers of the soul which hold the karmas and desires that propel us from birth to birth. The gunas adhere in Nature herself as her core potentials for diversification.

All objects in the universe consist of various combinations of the three gunas. Cosmic evolution consists of their mutual interaction and transformation. The three gunas are one of the prime themes of Ayurvedic thought. They form a deeper level than the three biological humors (Vata- Pitta-Kapha) and help us understand our mental and spiritual nature and how it functions.

Sattva and the Mind

The mind, or consciousness in general, is naturally the domain of Sattva. Consciousness itself is called Sattva in Sanskrit. Unless the mind is calm and clear we cannot perceive anything properly. Sattva creates clarity, through which we perceive the truth of things, and gives light, concentration and devotion. Rajas and Tamas are factors of mental disharmony causing agitation and delusion. They result in wrong imagination and misperception.

From Rajas comes the false idea of the external world as real in itself, which causes us to seek happiness outside ourselves and lose track of our inner peace. Rajas creates desire, distortion, turbulence and emotional upset. It predominates in the sensory aspect of the mind because the senses are ever-moving and seeking various objects. As long as we remain immersed in the pursuit of sensory enjoyment we fall under the instability of Rajas.

From Tamas comes the ignorance that veils our true nature and weakens our power of perception. Through it arises the idea of an ego or separate self by which we feel ourselves alone and isolated. Tamas prevails in consciousness identified with the physical body, which is dull and limited. As long our identity and sense of well-being is primarily physical we remain in the dark realm of Tamas.

Sattva is the balance of Rajas and Tamas, combining the energy of Rajas with the stability of Tamas. By increasing Sattva one gains peace and harmony, and returns to Primordial Nature and Pure Spirit in which is liberation. However attachment to Sattva, such as clinging to virtue, can bind the mind. For this reason we must strive to develop pure Sattva, which is its detached form, or Sattva not clinging to its own qualities. Pure Sattva does not condemn Rajas and Tamas but understands their place in the cosmic harmony, which is as outer factors of life and body whose proper place is apart from our true nature.

When pure Sattva prevails in our consciousness we transcend time and space and discover our eternal Self. The soul regains its basic purity and unites with God. When out of balance, the three gunas bring about the process of cosmic evolution through which the soul evolves through the kingdoms of Nature, experiencing birth and death, happiness and sorrow in various bodies. The movement of the three gunas is coterminous with creation.

Sattva as the state of balance is responsible for all true health and healing. Health is maintained by Sattvic living, which is living in harmony with Nature and our inner Self, cultivating purity, clarity and peace. Rajas and Tamas are the factors that cause disease. Rajas causes pain, agitation and the dissipation of energy. Tamas brings about stagnation, decay and death. Rajas and Tamas usually work together. Rajas brings about the over expression of energy, which eventually leads exhaustion, in which Tamas prevails. For example, too much spicy food, alcohol, and sexual indulgence, are initially Rajasic or stimulating. These eventually lead to such Tamasic conditions as fatigue and collapse of energy. On a psychological level too much Rajas, which is turbulent emotion, leads to Tamas or mental dullness and depression.

Mental Types According to the Gunas

To have Sattva predominant in our nature is the key to health, creativity and spirituality.

Sattvic people possess an harmonious and adaptable nature which gives the greatest freedom from disease both physical and mental. They strive toward balance and have peace of mind that cuts off the psychological root of disease. They are considerate of others and take care of themselves. They see all life as a learning experience and look for the good in all things, even in disease which they strive to understand, not merely to suppress.

Rajasic people have good energy but burn themselves out through excessive activity. Their minds are usually agitated and seldom at peace. They have strong opinions seek power over others often regardless of the means. They are impatient and inconsistent in dealing with their problems and do not wish to take the time or responsibility to get well. They blame others for their problems, including their therapists.

Rajasic people can accomplish their goals and are generally in control of their lives. However, they are not awake to their spiritual purpose, and are dominated by the ego in their pursuit of happiness. Life brings them shocks, which can cause them great suffering, particularly when they lose control. Even when they achieve their goals they find that they are still not happy.

Tamasic types have deep-seated psychological blockages. Their energy and emotion tends to be stagnant and repressed and they do not know what their problems really are. They do not seek proper treatment and usually have poor hygiene or poor self-care habits. They accept their condition as fate and do not take advantage of the methods that may alleviate their problems. They allow other people and negative influences to dominate them and do not like to be responsible for their lives. They prefer not to deal with their problems or will not let others know about them, which only allows the problems to get worse.

The admixture of gunas

However, we must not forget the admixtures of the gunas. There is a higher rajas and tamas in the field of sattva and a lower sattva in the fields of rajas and tamas. Similarly there are rajasic aspects of tamas and tamasic aspects of rajas. The following are some brief descriptions 

1. Rajasic Sattva: the acιive or transformative force of sattva, the power of, spiritual aspiration that struggles upward, ever seeking greater growth and unfoldment. It is also any energy of healing that brings about integration and wholeness. 

2. Tamasic Sattva: the destructive force of sattva that eliminates negativity: It is also the stability inherent in sattva, its capacity to endure through all obstacles. It is the capacity of a state of balance to sustain itself and to ward off disease or imbalance. 

3. Sattvic Rajas: the type of religion, spirituality or idealism of rajasic people. It has rajasic traits of aggression, outer expansion and the seeking of power Religions based upon militance, exclusivism and intolerance reflect this quality. 

4. Tamasic Rajas: the inertia of rajasic types, their resistance to any higher force, and holding to their own personal power and impulses regardless of the consequences for themselves or others. 

5. Sattvic Tamas: the religion, spirituality or idealism of tamasic people. It has tamasic traits of destruction, darkness, and delusion. It is the level of dark cults and superstitions. 

6. Rajasic Tamas: the aggression and violence ·of dull and ignorant people lι is perhaps the most destructive gunic quality. Tamasic types literally trample over others and, devoid of sensitivity, delight in harm and destruction. Deep sexual perversions come at this level.

Gunas and human relations

Our minds are constantly being affected by the changing gunas, just like a movie is flashing on a screen. As we watch the light shown through the celluloid frames of a movie, our mood changes from scene to scene. We are emotionally absorbed in the reflected images. If something sad is depicted, we feel sad. If something humorous happens, we feel happy. Similarly, the gunas reflect every moment on the screen of our mind, and accordingly our style of thinking, field of desires and mood shift.

For this reason, sometimes you feel extremely active, at other times reflective. Sometimes you are overcome by laziness. Sometimes you feel at peace. Sometimes you are motivated to better yourself and sometimes you feel self-destructive. These internal moods are a reflection of the influence of one of the gunas of maya.

While we are under the influence of any of the gunas, we see the world though that “tinted lens”.

If we are under the influence of sattva, we may feel compassion and kindness for others. We will see only good in them and judge their intentions to be of the highest order.

When we are under the influence of rajas, we may feel ambitious and wonder how others can further our selfish motive. We may also feel that people are untrustworthy and they may try to take advantage of us.

When we are under the influence of tamas we try to devise some means of cheating or robbing someone or hurting them verbally or physically. We see others as being the enemy or as having little or no worth.

Cultivation of Sattva in mind 

Yoga and Ayurveda emphasize the development of sattva. In yoga, sattva is the higher quality that allows spiritual growth to occur. Ιn Ayurveda, sattva is the state of balance that makes healing happen. 

The mind appropriately is the domain of Sattva (clarity) and the mind itself is called Sattva. One’s quality of Sattva is reflected in the clarity of perception and peace of mind. 

When in balance in the mind the three gunas give perception of truth, when out of balance, they create ignorance (tamas) or false imagination (rajas) through which perception is blocked or distorted. 

Sattva is the balance of rajas and tamas. Hence by increasing sattva in the mind one returns to peace and harmony and can merge back into nature and spirit. Yet attachment to sattva, like clinging to virtue, can also bind the mind. Pure sattva is required, which is the detached form of it. Ayurveda uses the three gunas for determining mental nature. 

In fact the mind itself is composed of the gunas. The gunas we take in serve to build up the mind. The mind like the gunas is the causal or creative principle in existence. 

Yoga practice has two stages: 

1. The development of sattva 

Development of sattva means purification of body and mind. Development of sattva occurs through right diet, physical purification, control of the senses, control of the mind, mantra and devotion. 

In order to develop sattva we must follow a sattvic life style and do yoga practices. What is a satvvic lifestyle?  It is to live in all aspects of our everyday life in a sattvic way. We must be in contact and have relations with what is sattvic by nature. 

That means that:

We must eat sattvic food, drink sattvic drinks, perceive sattvic impressions, live in a sattvic house, city or neighborhood and have relations with sattvic people and avoid or reduce as much as possible what is rajasic and tamasic.

We must cultivate sattvic thoughts and way of thinking and sattvic feelings. At the same time we must eliminate negative thinking and emotions by spiritual practices and other psychological means and methods such as Bach remedies, affirmations, EFT etc..

We must do by speech and body sattvic actions and do them in a sattvic way.

2. The transcendence of sattva

Transcendence of sattva means going beyond the body and mind to our true Self beyond manifestation. Transcendence of sattva comes from higher meditation practices. 

The general rule is that if one has not developed sattva, one cannot go beyond it. One should not forget this important rule. If we don’t have the appropriate sattva or purity in our body and mind, including in our emotions, it may be premature for us to seek any higher enlightenment. 

Sattva and Health 

Sattva is also the key to ayurveclic healing. Ayurverda states that the sattvic body and mind are less likely to suffer from disease and more able to continue in a state of balance. Disease, particularly of a chronic nature, is a tamasic state. Tamas brings about the accumulation of toxins and waste materials on a physical level and of negative thoughts and emotions on a psychological level. 

Health is a sattvic state of balance and adaptation which prevents any excess from occurring. Rajas is the movement either from health to disease or disease to health depending upon its direction of development. Acute diseases fall under rajas, which is pain.

References: Dr. David frawley

The three Gunas – summary  

  Nature has three qualities or gunas. These are called sattva, rajas and tamas

All material nature is made up the interplay of three energies or “gunas”. The gunas are a great map for navigating your way through life. When you can recognize which of these energies is at play in your life, it makes it so much easier to bring about a state of balance. Part of the work of yoga is to go beyond the limitation of seeing life as forms and concepts, and to see the underlying qualities of things.

These three inseparable qualities exist simultaneously in all of matter, all the time.

Just as it’s not possible to have water (H2O) without the (O) oxygen atoms, so it’s not possible to find a situation where one or more of its qualities have been eliminated. All three remain together, although at any given time, one of these qualities predominates over the other two.

Each quality has its own characteristics. Since both the external world and the internal world of the mind are made of matter, the qualities of the three gunas are seen in both. 

For example, in the external world we see:

  • Sattva — equilibrium and serenity
  • Rajas — dynamism and movement
  • Tamas — inertia and stagnancy

In the internal world of the mind, these are experienced as:

  • Sattva — Purity, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, comprehension, recognition, generosity, patience, kindness
  • Rajas — Desire, anger, attachment, greed, possessiveness, envy, jealousy , hyperactivity, agitation, fear, nervousness, anxiety, aggressiveness, competitiveness, power, prestige, name and fame
  • Tamas — Impurity, dullness, , delusion, confusion, depression, stupor, unconsciousness, coma

Rajas: Generally: is a passionate, frenetic, creative, tumultuous energy


People that are rajasic are full of desire, thirsting for worldly enjoyment, and even at more extreme ends of the scale, fueled by competition and ambitiousness. The Sanskrit root means ‘impure’ and relates to ‘passion‘. If you think of living in a bright red room or a woman wearing a red dress, you can feel the energy of Rajas.
Food that is Rajasic is quite stimulating (often times over stimulating). Egg, spicy, sour, acid foods like coffee, hot peppers, onions and so on. If you find yourself eating really quickly too, this too can be rajasic. If you have ever been to a big smorgasbord and eaten way too many combinations of food, you would have belly will be feeling the effect of Rajas Guna

Tamas is dull, insensible, gloomy and dark energy. The Sanskrit word literally means “darkness, dark-blue, black”.
People that are tamasic are gloomy, sluggish, dull and blinded by greed. Sometimes people who are tamasic can be characterized as lazy and slothful. If you spend the night drinking tequila in Margarita ville, the next morning you will find yourself deep in the heart of Tamasic ville On the darker end of the tamasic scale, they can be unconscious of the needs others, dark and destructive.
Food that is Tamasic is stale, under or over ripe. Heavy meats. Canned, reheated or fermented foods. Eating too much is Tamasic.

Sattva is a calm, peaceful and clear energy. The Sanskrit word is based on the principle “Sat” or “being, as it should be, perfect”
People that are Sattvic are calm, centered, compassionate and unselfish.
Food that is Sattvic is nourishing & easy to digest. Cereals, Fresh Fruit, Pure Water, Veggies, Milk, Yogurt.

One of the factors that influences the strength of the guna that predominates in your mind is your karma from past lives. But because the mind has an adoptive nature, it is strongly affected by the quality of your environment, associations, sense perceptions and by the quality of the food you eat.

Read more about The three Gunas

 Dr. David frawley speaks about the three gunas