A Perspective on the Gunas

From Yogic Management of Cancer, Dr. Swami Nirmalananda

Prakriti is made of three qualities, the three gunas – sattwa, rajas and tamas, which exist in a state of equilibrium when she is in the dormant state. When the gunas lose their state of equilibrium, prakriti becomes active and creation takes place, evolution starts and the cycle of birth and death begins. When they regain their perfect equilibrium, involution begins, creation dissolves and the cycle of birth and death comes to an end. Thus the gunas are both the cause of creation and also the inherent qualities of all that is created. For example, a stone has inherent qualities of solidity, heaviness and immobility; a river has inherent qualities of fluidity, coolness and transparency, and a deer has agility and tenderness as its inherent qualities.

Each and every thing that exists in this universe, therefore, is under the influence of these gunas. The way we think and act is constantly influenced by the gunas. Our thoughts, attitudes and actions decide our future desires. As long as we have unfulfilled desires and the fruits of actions that have not been lived through, we continue in the birth-death cycle. The quality of these desires and the fruits of actions that are not yet lived through decide the nature of the next birth. Thus they bind the self, atman, to the cycle of life and death by drawing it into the wheel of karma. The Bhagavad Gita (14:5) says: “Purity, passion and inertia – these gunas, qualities born of Prakriti, bind fast the indestructible atman, the Self, to the body.”

Types of gunas

The gunas can be identified by their unique characteristics. The Bhagavad Gita (14:6–8) describes sattwa as stainless, luminous and healthy and as that which binds the atman by attachment to happiness and knowledge. Rajas it describes as having the nature of passion, being the source of thirst and attachment, which binds the atman by attachment to action. Tamas it describes as deluding, born of ignorance and as that which binds the atman fast by heedlessness, indolence and sleep.

Sattwa Rajas Tamas
Luminosity Passion Inactivity
Peace Activity Dullness
Purity Dominance Darkness
Contentment Growth Impurity
Balance Involvement Decay
Knowledge Complexity Ignorance
Righteousness Desire Delusion
Equanimity Suffering  
Simplicity Wrong knowledge  

The gunas always exist in combination. Nothing can be made up of pure sattwa or only rajas or tamas. One of the gunas may dominate while others provide a support on which the predominant one can stand, or they may exist in different permutations and combinations. In general the lower forms of life and non-living things represent tamas guna. As the life form evolves rajas guna appears in increasing amounts. Sattwa guna is found interspersed everywhere in nature and in various life forms.

The dynamics of the gunas are ever-changing. At no two moments can the status of the gunas be the same in a given individual or situation. Our thoughts and behaviour patterns are constantly under the spell of the play of the gunas. When sattwa predominates we think and act in a given way, but when rajas is dominant we think and behave differently, and when tamas dominates we think and act in yet another way. Our personality type is decided by which guna predominates overall.

However, we need not be a passive puppet dancing to the tune of the gunas. The gunas are changing spontaneously and can also be changed at will. With our conscious will we can change the dominance of a particular guna and bring in the guna of our choice. For example, when a job has a deadline and at midnight we want to ward off sleep, we drink a cup of strong coffee or take a cold shower to change tamas into rajas. When we want to change a guna to suit the demands of the situation, then an appropriate guna can be brought in by thoughts and actions conducive to that guna.

Overall in one’s personality tamas should be minimized first by bringing in rajas, and then rajas overcome by enhancing sattwa. The ultimate aim is to go beyond sattwa, that is not to be interested or attached to the sattwic state, but to remain non-attached and balanced in all the states.

The influence of the gunas on health

According to Ayurveda and yoga, disturbance in the gunas, usually excessive rajas or tamas, leads to ill health. Too much rajas causes diseases such as anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, angina and other heart conditions, diabetes and hormonal imbalance, to name just a few. Excess tamas may cause depression, obesity, infections, tumours, degenerative disorders such as arthritis, dementia and other conditions of this nature. Cancer is a manifestation of accumulated tamas guna. Sometimes both rajas and tamas are deranged together in different proportions, leading to diseases. Sattwa is a state of balance and good health.