The Three Gunas: The Metaphysical Grounding of Physical Reality

Dr. Frank Gaetano Morales, Ph.D.

“Deluded by the three gunas, the whole world does not know Me who am above the gunas and inexhaustible. This divine energy of Mine, consisting of the three gunas of material nature, is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it.” (Bhagavad Gita 7.13-14)

The empirical reality that we perceive around us is composed of matter. Whether we are referring to the buildings we reside in, the many possessions we strive for, or the very bodies with which we identify so intimately, all objects are composed of the prakriti, or the prime material energy, of God. Of the many qualities that are discernible in prakriti, the essential feature encountered is that of transience. Matter is in a constant state of flux, a continual cycle of becoming, being and dissolution. Thus everything that we perceive around us, though seemingly stable, ultimately is destined to cease existing. Prakriti, herself, is not a purely undifferentiated field of substance. Prakriti consists of a substratum of three different modes, each one dependent upon the other two for their mutual existence and proper functioning. These three modes of prakriti, or material energy, are also known as the three gunas, which in Sanskrit (the ancient sacred language of Hinduism) means “qualities” or “modes.”

In the two verses from the Gita that are quoted above, Shri Krishna (the incarnation of God) gives Arjuna a glimpse into the nature and power of the three gunas of which prakriti, or prime matter, is composed. This triad of material modes consists of 1) sattva (positivity, goodness, wholesomeness), 2) rajas (passion, energy, movement) and 3) tamas (negativity, lethargy, darkness, ignorance). These three aspects of material energy exist as the very core of all empirical material phenomena. They can be seen as being three different modes in the spectrum of the one primary material substance. They represent the unitary material substance in three different, yet completely interdependent, frequencies or states. Every aspect of material phenomena that we percieve around us – including our own body – is composed of a combination of these three gunas, with one or the other of these three gunas predominating. Thus everything in the material world, including us, is effected by the interplay of the gunas. We will now briefly examine the primary characteristics of each of the three gunas.

We will begin this exploration of the gunas by examining the guna which the Bhagavad Gita considers to be the highest quality: sattva. Sattva can be translated as “goodness.” This guna denotes such qualities as purity, brightness and essence. It is also light – both in the luster of its radiance and in terms of its actual weight in terms of physics. Thus, individuals who are of a spiritual, clean (both physically and mentally) and peaceful nature are said to be living a sattvic existence; they are residing in goodness. Sattva is the quality most sought by all spiritual practitioners.

The next guna is rajas. Rajas denotes activity and movement. It is the mediator between the other two gunas, as well as their empowerer. For without the kinetic assistance of rajas, neither sattva nor tamas can act. It is rajas which motivates the individual to labor and inspires work. Those persons in whom rajas predominates tend to be of a fiery and passionate disposition. While a certain degree of rajas is always necessary in order to facilitate any sort of activity, too much of this quality makes one restless, thus hampering meditation and other forms of disciplined spiritual pursuits.

When the material energy (prakriti), through the medium of rajas, becomes turned to its lowest frequency, it is then known as tamas. Tamas has the characteristics of dullness, ignorance and inertia. It is a dark mode, both intrinsically and in the consequences it brings about. Due to its heavy, weighted nature, it provides stability and forms the very foundation of matter. Tamas is the source of obstacles, resistance and obstructions. Tamas brings about cessation. Those who are of a tamasic nature tend toward lethargy, procrastination and self-destructive behavior. It is the end point of the descent and devolution of prakriti. It is, thus, the very antithesis of sattva. Those wishing to make any sort of spiritual progress must thoroughly avoid tamasic tendencies.

These three interdependent strands of the material substance are different aspects of the same energy, which in turn is under the full control of the Supreme. Sattva is the finest frequency that prakriti adopts. Rajas is the intermediate catalytic energy source. Tamas is the resting place, the dullest mode of material energy. The qualitative hierarchy of the three gunas can be visualally represented in this way:

The Three Gunas

Sattva = spiritual
Rajas = energy to act
Tamas = matter

The practitioner of Yoga seeks to ultimately transcend these three gunas by a process of gradual progressive ascent. This ascent occurs in several stages. The first stage is to determine which of the three gunas presently predominates one’s life, thought and actions. If it is determined that either rajas or tamas is the strongest influence in one’s life, then the next step is to rid oneself of these negative influences. This is done by leading as sattvic a life as possible. There are several lifestyle choices that are recommended in order to make one’s life more sattvic. This sattvic program includes the following:

The Sattvic Program

1) Practicing the philosophy and disciplines of Yoga on a daily basis. This includes following the ethical virtues taught in Yoga (such as non-violence, not stealing, not lying, etc.), as well as the asanas, or psycho-physical exercises of Yoga.

2) Having a purely vegetarian, healthy and organic diet. A purely sattvic diet is lacto-vegetarian, that is, avoidance of all meat, fish and eggs (dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese are acceptable). Such a diet will increase one’s health, stamina, intelligence and bring about peace of mind.

3) Ridding one’s mind of all negative, violent and disturbing thoughts and images. This is done, for example, by avoiding violent entertainment, ridding oneself of feelings of vengence and hatred, and filling one’s mind with thoughts of God instead. The music we hear also effects our consciousness. We want to avoid music that is charged with explicitly sexual (tamasic) or violent (rajasic) lyrics.

4) Meditating daily. In order to have a sattvic existence, we need to purify and still the mind. This is best achieved by having a daily practice of meditation and prayer.

5) Associating with others who are also leading a sattvic lifestyle. We are all consciously and unconsciously influenced by the nature of the company we keep. If we associate with tamasic or rajasic people, we in turn become tamasic or rajasic. But if we associate with those who are sattvic by nature, then we cannot help but be positively influenced by them.

By strictly and enthusiastically following this Sattvic Program, we can gradually transform our conciousness from one of self-destructiveness into one of positive spiritual attainment.

Sri Krishna, One of the Incarnations of God

As Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita, or “Song of God,” the position in which we presently find ourselves as human beings is a state of self-imposed separation from the loving will of God. Rather than recognizing our true ontological nature as beings who exist in an eternal, loving relationship with the Absolute, we have instead become subject to the illusion of separation from God. As long as we are under this false assumption of separation from God, we will be under the binding influence of these respective gunas. Upon consiously and freely surrendering to Shri Krishna, however, we then reclaim the ability to transcend the gunas altogether, and to achieve a state of radical freedom from all material influences, sufferings and illusions. This state of spiritual liberation is known as moksha, Freedom, a state in which we have full knowledge of our true selves, complete personal fulfilment and bliss beyond compare.

Copyright 2003, Frank Morales. You may print, duplicate or copy this article only if you credit the author and not alter or add to the author’s work in any way.