The Gunas & Liberation

In yoga philosophy, there are said to be three primary qualities found in nature. These three qualities are called ‘gunas’. So basically all aspects of material reality can be made up of the gunas.

The three gunas are:

  1. Tamas – state of inertia and inactivity (night earth, sleep).
  2. Rajas – state of energy, action, change and movement (bush fires, cyclones, floods)
  3. Sattva – state of harmony and balance (space)

Sattva sure sounds like the best state to be in out of the three as it is described to be balanced, light, good, tranquil and pure.   And who doesn’t want to be all those things?

Tamas and Rajas are on two ends of the spectrum – one is inactivity, the other is activity. These two gunas often get a bad rap! However, all three gunas exist in all beings in various degrees and combinations.

Tamas is often seen as the ‘bad’ energy because it is about inertia, darkness, inactivity and heaviness. Rajas is also seen as undesirable as it is about over-activity, over-stimulation, movement, growth, action, change. Sattva is certainly the balanced of the three energies but it is not to say that the other two are bad. Sometimes we require more of one guna (energy) than the other. Consider the times you need to plan for an event, or be an active participant in a work meeting; Rajas is a great energy to have. It is vibrant, full of life, evolutionary, versatile. Or consider your evenings after a busy day. As the sun goes down, it is time to unwind, relax, put your feet up; Tamas all the way!

So really, a healthy tension between the three gunas achieves a state of equilibrium and balance. A state of homeostasis.

In the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu Scripture), gunas are talked about in detail. The gunas are described as being present in all beings in various degrees of concentration and combination. These variances determine the nature of beings – our actions, behaviour, attitude and our worldly attachments.

The gunas are responsible for the diversity of nature. You can see the work of the gunas around us – in the diversity of human beings (philosophers/thinkers, the entrepreneurs…) and also the diversity of nature (floods, cyclones, fires, calm waters, night/day…). In fact in the Bhagavad Gita, it is said that the gunas fight for supremacy while they exist within us; each of them trying to suppress the other (14.10). Sattva exists by suppressing Rajas and Tamas. Rajas exists by suppressing Sattva and Tamas. Tamas tries to suppress both Sattva and Rajas.

Can you consider your own life and your own energy constitution? Do you tend to be more Rajastic? Do you find yourself over stimulated and find it hard to unwind? Or do you tend to be more Tamasic? Lacking energy and unmotivated? We tend to have one that is more dominant in our constitution.

Through yoga, we are taught how to balance the three gunas in our life. To reduce tamas, we can avoid over sleeping, inactivity and fearful situations. We could also avoid tamasic food which would include heavy meats or foods that are processed or refined.

To reduce Rajas in our lives, we can avoid deep attachments and desires, over exercising, over working or over stimulation and excessive consumerism. Avoid foods that are fried, spicy and stimulants such as coffee.

Sattva is the state of harmony, balance, joy and intelligence. A nice balance between rajasic and tamasic energy. We are told that sattvic energy is what the yogi should aim to achieve as it makes liberation possible.

It is said that people who are highly tamasic are not interested in liberation or enlightenment. Highly rajasic people are interested in liberation and seek to find a way to study or follow and look beyond worldly pleasures. However, the sattvic person, is a grace-filled soul – nourished by the grace of God. They do not look for a way to obtain liberation because they already know in a deep way that it is all up to God’s grace. They trust and surrender.

To strive to achieve sattva, the yogi is encouraged to reduce tamas and rajas. A sattvid diet includes fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and plant-based foods. Practicing yoga cultivates a sattvic nature. Yoga is a powerful, gentle yet intense practice. It is a beautiful blend of the three gunas. Consider the active sun salutations – quite rajastic in nature or savasana (resting pose) – tamasic in nature. Or the state of meditation can become quite sattvic with consistent practice.

In the yoga sutras, Patanjali says “tat param purusa khyater guna vai trsnyam” (1.16) which is translated to mean “the highest form of dispassion is indifference to the primary constituents of nature resulting from a vision of the Self”

So basically – all gunas create attachment of some sort and binds oneself to the ego. So while our goal is to cultivate sattva, we are told that the ultimate goal is to transcend beyond this identification of the gunas and be completely unattached to the good and the bad or the positive and negative qualities of all life.

So there you have it – after studying the three gunas, we are told not to be attached to any of them and to rise above them in order to achieve true liberation!

In order to achieve liberation of the soul, the soul needs to be free and not bound by any attachments. Well all of the gunas bind the soul to attachments.

Sattva is pure and perfect health. It binds the soul to attachment with happiness and knowledge (14.6).

Rajas is full of passion. It is born out of “thrishna” (thirst or intense desire) and “sanga” (attachment). Rajas binds the soul to attachment with action or activity (14.7).

Tamas is darkness and the ignorance of human beings. It is born out of “ajnanajam” (ignorance) and “mohanman” (delusion). Tamas binds the soul through recklessness, sloth and sleep (14.8).

So how do you know which guna is predominant in a person at a particular time?

If sattva is predominant, knowledge would illuminate from the person. If rajas is predominant, greed and selfishness appears more obvious. If tamas is predominant, inactivity, laziness and delusion appears obvious (14.13).

The Bhagavad Gita aims to make us free from attachment to these qualities completely. As we understand the three gunas and how they keep us in bondage and illusion, we can learn to be free from them. So although through our yoga practice, we strive to be “sattvic” (balanced) in nature; this is not an end in itself. If we become predominately sattvic, we are not suddenly liberated. A state of sattva is a means to help us overcome ignorance (avidya) of the Self …of our true nature… of who we truly are…

So where do the gunas sit with you?

Have a look at your day – from beginning to end. Where does tamas or rajas play an important role? And are you making time to help cultivate a sattvic nature?


Practice yoga. Sattva will come.
Liberation will follow.

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