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The Gunas are the energies that give birth to the physical world.

The Gunas represent the three essential qualities of nature. They are Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. 

This article briefly outlines the Gunas, their properties, Samkhya Philosophy, and ways to create balance when working with Prakriti. 

Samkhya Philosophy is one of India’s oldest philosophies and is the basis for many Eastern methodologies.

About the Gunas

“The word “guna” is derived from the Indo-European base gere, to “twirl” or “wind.” The gunas describe spiraling vortices of vibrating energy fields.”

– Bruce Burger

The Gunas represent the three forces of Shakti, or Prakriti, that make up the physical world we can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear.

They are universal elements contained within all things.

Each guna represents a unique strand or thread that creates the cosmos. We need all three to exist and manifest the universe. 

Each Guna contains specific qualities that are contrasted and balanced against each other. 

The Three Gunas:

  • Sattva – Light, Space, Clairvoyance, Truth, Purity, Harmony, Neutrality, Grace, Soul
  • Rajas – Heat, Excitement, Passion, Action, Aggression, Directive, Positive, Vital, Creative.
  • Tamas – Lethargy, Dullness, Heaviness, Death, Negative, Inertia, Resistence, Unconscious. 

 

“The ancient Rishis (yogi-seer-sages) purified their bodies, concentrated their minds, and attained microclairvoyant vision. They directly perceived the fundamental forces of nature and the universe. They witnessed the vibratory basis of the universe, which they termed the gunas. They likened the spiraling centrifugal and centripetal undulation of energy fields that they observed on the atomic and molecular levels to the common rope woven of centrifugal and centripetal strands around a stable core. All vibration is the spiraling undulation of three forces. Centrifugal ascending, centripetal descending around a stable core. All vibration is the spiraling balance of these three forces.

– Bruce Burger, Esoteric Anatomy: The Body as Consciousness.

The Gunas are at play in every moment.

They are constantly changing and in flux based on our experience.

Our thoughts, behaviors, moods, actions, and dreams are all affected by the Gunas.

By observing the Gunas and our natural tendencies/habits, we have the opportunity to create more harmony and balance.

As the gunas come and exist, they create Prakriti – the world’s natural, essential, material element.

Prakriti is contrasted against Purusha, which represents total consciousness. 

Prakriti and Purusha

Nature (Prakriti) is a moment-to-moment emanation of Spirit (Purusha). All life is a moment-to-moment creation of this Ultimate Intelligence.

– Bruce Burger 

The Gunas are part of the Samkyha, a dualistic philosophy that holds that two elements create the universe.

The elements are opposing and necessary. They are Prakriti and Purusha. 

Prakriti is the primordial substance, the Shakti, where everything in the universe is created: the non-living and the living elements.

Prakriti contains the three gunas and, like the gunas, is constantly changing. 

Purusha, on the other hand, is constant and never changes.

Shiva represents Purusha and symbolizes total consciousness, the Atman (God), true self, and eternal.

Purusha is accessible from the laws of Karma, cause and effect, and has no beginning or end. 

“Purusha and Prakriti, corresponding to the masculine and feminine elements; spirit and nature, and consciousness and unconsciousness. The former is un- changeable, the latter is the principle of movement and of becoming. Sankhya meticulously excluded from the first element, purusha, anything that is not pure, impassive, or action-oriented. Creation derives from a peculiar connection of these two principles and from an action originated by purusha (called “catalysis” in chemistry) and determined just by its presence.”
– Julius Evola

History of the Gunas

The Gunas are part of the foundational and oldest Indian philosophies known as Samkhya.

Several ancient Indian scriptures mention the Gunas, including the Vedas, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and The Bhagavad Gita. 

The Bhagavad Gita, a beloved discussion between Arjuna and Krishna, is part of the epic text of the Mahabharata. It is speculated that the Mahabharata was composed between 200 and 400 CE. 

In Chapter 14 of the Gita, Krisha, the God of Compassion and Arjuna’s charioteer, explains the concepts of the gunas and how they compose the individual’s material nature. 

14.5

“O mighty-armed Arjun, the material energy consists of three guṇas (modes)—sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance). These modes bind the eternal soul to the perishable body.” 

14.6

“Amongst these, sattva guṇa, the mode of goodness, being purer than the others, is illuminating and full of well-being. O sinless one, it binds the soul by creating attachment for a sense of happiness and knowledge.”

14.7

“O Arjun, rajo guṇa is of the nature of passion. It arises from worldly desires and affections, and binds the soul through attachment to fruitive actions.”

14.8 

“O Arjun, tamo guṇa, which is born of ignorance, is the cause of illusion for the embodied souls. It deludes all living beings through negligence, laziness, and sleep.”

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjai mention the Gunas and how to work with them to achieve liberation.

Patanjali composed the Yoga Sutras, which provided the foundation for yoga asana and philosophy, around 200 to 400 CE. 

“Consciousness is imbued with the three qualities (gunas) of luminosity (sattva), vibrancy (rajas) and inertia (tamas). The gunas also colour our actions: white (sattva), grey (rajas) and black (tamas). Through the discipline of yoga, both actions and intelligence go beyond these qualities and the seer comes to experience his own soul with crystal clarity, free from the relative attributes of nature and actions. This state of purity is samadhi. Yoga is thus both the means and the goal. Yoga is samadhi and samadhi is yoga.”
– B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali 

Learn About the Yoga Sutras

► Watch the FREE lecture that explores the Yamas and Niyamas.

What You Will Learn:

  • The history of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – how the philosophy arose, where, and why. 

  • Why follow the Yoga Sutras – the experience of the practice and explanation of the theory. 

  • The 5 Yamas (ways we live with others, community, humanity)

  • The 5 Niyamas (observances of ourselves, self-study, behavior) 

  • Questions to consider in your practice and life. 

  • Relatable examples on a personal and universal scale to reflect upon. 

RESOURCES:
Yamas & Niyamas Collection of Yoga Classes
Yamas & Niyamas Themes.

The Gunas and Yoga – Action 

The Gunas express the three modes of energy present in all things.

Sattva – neutral | Rajas – positive | Tamas – negative 
Each guna expresses wildly diverse properties. The context, past experiences, and conditioning play a role in determining which guna is strongest and where we need to add/take away to create balance. 
All patterns of energy move through cycles.

What is working in one moment may not be relevant in the next. This is the energy exchange within the gunas; they consistently cycle and move. It is a constant dance. 

The Gunas and the Gods/Goddesses

The gunas may be likened to the Trinity of Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu Pantheon. 

  • Sattva – Lord Vishnu and his consort, Lakshmi 
  • Rajas – Lord Brahma and his consort, Saraswati 
  • Tamas – Lord Shiva and his consort, Durga Maa 

Vishnu and Lakshmi are the preservers. They sustain cycles and encourage abundance, prosperity, equilibrium, and harmony.

Brahma and Saraswati are the creators. They begin the cycle, initiating action, creativity, growth, and passion. 

Shiva and Durga are the destroyers. They complete the cycle so a new phase can begin and are responsible for transformation and bringing the shadow to the light. 

Embody the themes and energies of the Gunas through the Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu Pantheon.

Listen to a lecture, take a yoga class, or practice a mantra in the Archetypes Playlist.
  • Take a class that works with Lakshmi or Vishnu to embrace Sattvic qualities.
  • Take a class that works with Saraswati or Brahama to embrace Rajastic qualities. 
  • Take a class that works with Durga or Shiva to embrace Tamastic qualities.

Questions 

One of the ways to work with the energy of the gunas is to observe your current state and how it translates. 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How do I feel – physically – what is my body temperature? 
  • What is the quality of my actions? Do I need to slow down or pick up the pace, or is it a good tempo? 
  • What is the state of my body – digestive, nervous, and endocrine systems – how are they functioning? 
  • How is my mind – am I able to rest and reflect? 

 

Each guna is responsible for one of the systems in the body. 

Tamas governs the organs and glands, Sattva regulates the nervous system, and Rajas the digestive system.

If you feel out of balance or tense in one of the areas, it may result from your needing to strengthen or lessen one of the gunas. 

The Gunas and Ayurveda

Ayurveda is the sister science of yoga and one of the oldest practices in India.

Its first mention was in the Vedas over 5000 years ago. 

In Ayurveda, three doshas make up a person’s constitution. The doshas are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. 

The doshas may be likened to the gunas as they have similar properties and require proper balance. 

Vata: air and ether, governed by movement, creativity, flexibility, vision, space, and sound. In harmony, Vata is inspired and inclusive. Out of balance, Vata is anxious, fearful, and flighty.
Pitta: air and fire, governed by digestion, metabolism, direction, absorption, assimilation, and intelligence. In harmony, Pitta is a leader and advocate. Out of balance, Pitta is angry, resistant, and jealous.
Kapha: earth and water, governed by structure, stability, patience, compassion, nurturance, and immunity. In harmony, Kapha is loving and vulnerable. Out of balance, Kapha is lethargic, withdrawn, and greedy. 

Seraphina Dawn

Seraphina has a BA in Literature from Simone Fraser University and participated in the Creative Writing Program at UC Berkeley. She is a Kundalini teacher, writer, and poet. She admires Clarice Lispector’s prose, Octavia Butler’s fiction, and Simone Weil's philosophy. Seraphina currently lives in Istanbul.