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Three Gunas

30 Mar 2022 HYN Himalayan Yoga Academy

Three Gunas

Guna is a Sanskrit word which can be said as “quality, peculiarity, attribute, or tendency.” Also In yoga and Ayurveda, a guna is a tattva or element of reality that can affect our psychological, emotional and energetic states. There are three gunas. They are One guna can be responsible for only one kind of manifestations , just as one flower seed can give birth to only one type of flower. Two gunas will always be opposing and negating each other, like day and night, sun and shade. With three gunas the possibility of myriads of existences results, and therefore, a fourth is not necessary.

The balanced form of the three gunas is known as Prakriti. The gunas constitute prakriti and are not mere attributes. The combination of the three gunas; sattwa, rajas and tamas, leads to the concept of Prakriti as a force, as dynamism. Prakriti cannot be conceived of without the three gunas. According to Samkhya, Prakriti is a substance or dravya, comprised of the three gunas, which allow realization and cognition. In every manifest object these three gunas exist in the form of existence and give rise to understanding or knowledge, and form that we infer the existence of Prakriti.

Classification of the Gunas

The three gunas are subtle and imperceptible. Knowledge of the gunas can be obtained only through anumana, inference. The existence of sattwa, rajas, and tamas is recognized or inferred from the presence of prakasha, light kriya, motion, sthiti, stability, respectively. Sattwa gives birth to the feeling of sukha or pleasure, rajas to the feeling of dukha or pain, and tamas to the  feeling of udasina, passivity or indifference. This classification is given in the Samkhya Karika as follows:

Sattvam Laghu prakaashakamishtamupashthambhakam chalam cha rajah;

Guru varanakameva tamah pradeepavachchaarthato vrttih.

Sattwa is light or buoyant( laghu) and illuminating ( prakasha). Rajas promotes desire and is stimulating( upashthambhaka) and mobile ( chala). Tamas is heavy or sluggish ( guru) and obscuring or enveloping ( varanaka). They function for a single purpose like the components of a lamp, whose purpose is illumination.

Every object in existence has the quality or capability to give a feeling of pleasure, sorrow or indifference. If you look at a flower, you feel pleasure, sukha. If you look at human waste, you feel disgust, aversion or rejection, which are aspects of dukha. The gunas can be observed from different angels, physical and non-physical or psychological. The non-physical attributes are preeti, attraction, or affection, apreeti, rejection, non-acceptance, and vishada or indifference. The following chart shows the  different qualities of the gunas.

SATTWA                                     Rajas                                       Tamas

Prakasha(illumination)           Kriya ( motion)                       Nishkriyata(passivity)

Sukha(happiness)                    Dukha ( pain)                          Udasinata( indifference)

Preeti(attraction)                    Apreeti(rejection)                   Vishada ( indifference)

This classification of the gunas can be illustrated by somebody receiving the results of an exam. The pass result gives the feeling of happiness, and according to this classification, happiness or sukha would come in the sattwa state. The exam was failed, there is dukha, and according to this classification, the pain or sorrow comes in the category of rajas; there is apreeti, rejection, aversion. Somebody who is unconcerned about passing or failing the exam would be indifferent, and this classification falls under tamas; there would be vishada or udasinata, indifference.

Tama Guna :

In the description of tamas, a difference arises between the Samkhya view in the  Bhagwad Gita is called Vishada Yoga, the yoga of depression. Here vishada is related to despair, but generally in Samkhya, vishada simply means indifference, where there is neither attraction not rejection, where things do not create an impression. Udasina implies the absence of impression but it is different to the quality of witnessing. Indifference is where the mind perceives something momentarily and then leaves it, whereas witnessing is a state of total awareness, where the mind observes the object, and sees the cause and effect of it.

Minute awareness is witnessing , while indifferent perception and cognition that something exists is udasina. Simply looking at a lawn, for example, is  cognition or perception; you see the grass. But if you look more closely with the attitude of witness, then you will notice the weeds in the grass. In the state of sthitaprajna, sakshi or drashta, you become the witness of  the totality, but there is only a superficial awareness in the state of indifference. You see  something , but there is no analysis. In Samkhya, that is the meaning of vishada or udasina, cognition without the relationship of intellect.

Satwa Guna :

Therefore, the quality of indifference is classified as tamasic, while the quality of  sakshi bhava or witnessing is sattwic. Sattwa is the symbol of knowledge. The sattwic state in itself is luminous and has the capacity to illuminate or reveal objects; therefore the swabhava or nature of sattwa is light. Because sattwa in itself is knowledge or wisdom, the cognition of objects, forms and experiences in the physical dimension happens due to the existence of sattwa. Furthermore, the nature of sattwa is to give pleasure happiness and joy at the mental level. So, one can say that contentment, satisfaction, euphoria, happiness, and bliss are the different effects of sattwa.  Along with sattwa and preeti, we have illumination , prakasha.

Raja Guna

Rajas inspires action, dynamism and movement. Rajas itself is motion and therefore it also stimulates motion in different forms, experiences and objects. The positive nature of rajas is stimulation, activation and motivation, while the negative effect is sorrow, worry, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, grief and aversion. There are some of the effects of rajas.

Tamas represents inaction and ignorance or nescience. It contradicts knowledge and action; it is in opposition to sattwa and rajas. Sattwa is an aid to attaining knowledge, whereas tamas is a barrier to attaining knowledge, whereas tamas is a barrier to attaining knowledge. Knowledge here does not mean mere intellectual knowledge, but knowledge derived form interaction, communication, cognition, under- standing and realization. Tamas is also symbolic of nishkriyata, inactivity , passivity , and impotency. So, tamas is in opposition to the effects of rajas, and sattwa, and because of this, we experience lethargy, inactivity and lack of motivation.

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