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About guṇas

Guṇas are the qualities of Prakṛti (prakriti), the original nature of all things. Guṇa can be translated from Sanskrit as “quality, feature” and also as “rope”, and in the latter case, some authors put this meaning – the guṇas bind the soul with its incarnation.

There are three guṇas:

  • sattva (light, goodness, lightness, joy),

  • rajas (anxiety, action, energy, suffering),

  • tamas (inaction, ignorance, inertia, heaviness).

Gītārthasaṃgraha (Bhagavad Gītā with commentary by Abhinavagupta) says:

Sattva, rajas and tamas are the guṇas generated by Prakriti, they bind, O Strong-armed, embodied in the body permanently. /5/

The incarnated one [mistaking] this [body] for Ātman, is bound by the qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas, destined for gaining Liberation, due to [desire] to enjoy the objects of the senses.

Because of purity, light and innocence, sattva binds with attachment to happiness and attachment to knowledge, O Flawless One! /6/

Know rajas as the essence of attraction, craving and attachment come from it, it binds incarnates, Kauntei, with attachment to deeds. /7/

[Here] their nature is described in following order. Sattva – purity. Rajas is [that] from which craving and attachment originate.

Know tamas as a delusion born of ignorance. It binds all beings with carelessness, laziness and sleep, O Bharata. /8/

Sattva generates happiness, rajas – deeds, O Bharata! Hiding knowledge, tamas breeds carelessness. /9/

It is believed that the theory of the guṇas originally arose in Sāṅkhya philosophy, but then this idea was adopted by many other teachings in India. Now we can say that guṇas are an integral element of Indian philosophy and yoga in particular. Different teachings look at the guṇas in different ways. Nathas hold a tantric view in general.

So, according to Sāṅkhya, gunas are some forces or qualities of Prakṛti, from which, one might say, the creation of our material world began. At first, Prakṛti was in balance, that is, Her qualities – guṇas – were in equilibrium, balance. Or, as some say, in mutual tension. Puruṣa (I, pure consciousness) comes into contact with Prakṛti – and She goes out of balance, the balance between the guṇas disappears, one of them begins to prevail over the others, and the formation of the world begins.

The first manifestation of Prakṛti is called Mahat (Great) – this is the basis of intelligence, buddhi. At its core, buddhi is a manifestation of the prevailing sattva, because sattva is more than all other guṇas associated with consciousness. Sattva comes from सत् “sat”, which means “existence, being, true reality”, and it is with sattva that bliss or happiness is associated, which is characteristic of consciousness. However, even buddhi operates in the three guṇas, it is not only sattva. There are no pure guṇas anywhere in the manifested world, they always act, and exist together. Every object in our world has three guṇas, just in different proportions. This is the basis of diversity. If the guṇas were in balance in all objects, then they would not differ from each other in any way, being identical to the same primary matter – Prakṛti.

As its rajasic manifestation, buddhi is followed by ahaṃkāra – our ego or the feeling of "I-doer", a sense of individuality. Although raja-guṇa predominates in ahaṃkāra, other qualities also influence creation: in its sattvic aspect, ahaṃkāra gives rise to manas, in its rajasic aspect, the sense and actions organs, and in its tamasic aspect, 5 tanmātras (subtle essences of the elements), which in turn give rise to 5 Mahābhūtam (primary elements). However, different Sāṅkhya teachers and commentators have taken different positions on these aspects of ahaṃkāra. For us, this is not so important, it is important to understand that any product of Prakṛti contains three guṇas. Accordingly, they are present in our body, in our practice, and in every action we make.

Now let's look at the guṇas from a tantric point of view. As you know, in Sāṅkhya there are 25 tattvas: Puruṣa, Prakṛti, and 23 of its manifestations. Sāṅkhya does not explain where the guṇas come from, they are simply characteristics of Prakṛti. But in tantra, 36 tattvas are usually considered – in addition to 25, there are 11 more tattvas, these are more subtle manifestations of the reality of the Universal Consciousness. And according to Kashmir Shaivism (Īśvara-pratyabhijñā-kārikā 4.1.4), among these more subtle manifestations, there are three forces of the Higher Consciousness, which at the level of Prakṛti appear as three guṇas for a limited Puruṣa. Jñāna-śakti (power of knowledge) manifests as sattva-guṇa, Kriyā-śakti (power of action) – as raja-guṇa, and Māyā-śakti (power of illusion) – as tamas.

In addition, sattva is considered as a limited reflection of the light of Higher Consciousness (satta) and its inherent bliss (ānanda), tamas – as their absence, and rajas – as both of these states at the same time:

sattānandaḥ kriyā patyustadabhāvo ‘pi sā paśoḥ |

dvayātmā tadrajo duḥkhaṁ śleṣisattvatamomayam ||

Existence (sattā), bliss (ānanda) and activity (kriyā) are the [powers] of the Lord. The limited subject has this (i.e. sattā and ānanda), the absence of this, and the two together. [The latter] is rajas, which is suffering, embracing the composition of sattva and tamas.

Īśvara-pratyabhijñā-kārikā 4.1.6

This allows us to better understand the nature of guṇas. Sattva is a state in which we feel the purity and light of the Higher Nature, calmness and clarity, we experience joy, the source of which is the Highest Bliss. Tamas hides, veils all this from us, giving a state of ignorance, non-acquaintance of the light. Rajas, as an intermediate state, is characterized by partial knowledge and confusion, an oscillation between two opposite states. Suffering arises from the fact that, unlike tamas, where there is no awareness of one's ignorance, it is present in rajas, as well as the understanding that there is (still inaccessible) peace and light. This gives rise to disturbances and movement (“from darkness to light”).

It is worth mentioning such a fundamental tantric symbol as the Kāmakalā triangle. It reflects the principle of creation of both the Universe and our body. The sides of this triangle correspond with Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Rudra/Śiva, that is, with the processes of creation, maintenance and destruction – they are associated with rajas, sattva, and tamas, respectively.

Manifestations of the guṇas in our psychophysics

In general, to put it very roughly, our consciousness mainly reflects the principle of sattva, the body reflects tamas (as something stable and dense), and energy, and activity is rajas.

Our consciousness can have the quality of sattva, rajas or tamas, that is, it can be:

  • pure, blissful, aimed at the knowledge of the Eternal;

  • colored by attachments, passion, desires, greed;

  • inert, lazy, ignorant.

Most often, this is a mixture of these qualities, which varies depending on the circumstances (one or another guṇa prevails).

In the same way, our body can be sattvic – that is, clean, healthy and balanced, rajasic – sickly, nervous and restless, and tamasic – heavy and immobile, with stagnation.

And accordingly, actions can be colored by guṇas. The texts even describe different groups of actions and their fruits according to the guṇas. For example, you can read about it in Bhagavad Gītā.

The food we eat also has these qualities. Yoga sadhana can also be done in one of the three guṇas until we transcend their influence. According to yogic ideas, the Ātman is not subject to the influence of the guṇas, therefore, sadhaka, constantly residing in the Atman, is free from influence of the guṇas.

Bhagavad Gītā (chapter 14) says:

[Who] does not hate illumination, activity, delusion when they appear, O Pandava, and doesn't long for them when they are absent; /22/

Whoever abides in dispassion does not waver with the guṇas, [considering]: "the guṇas act." Abiding in such knowledge, he does not worry. /23/

Equal [relating] to happiness and suffering as to dream, equal to gold, to clod earth, stone, equal to pleasant and unpleasant, persistent, equal to praise and censure; /24/

Equal in honor and dishonor, equal to friend and foe, having rejected all efforts – he is called who has surpassed the guṇas. /25/

Who dwells [like] the ignorant [being free] from mental fabrications (vikalpa), but thanks to Knowledge [established in the Atman], he does not deviate, does not lose [awareness] of his Essence. The method [of achieving this state] is a steady mind [believing]: “This activity is the nature of the body, the senses, and so on. I do not aspire to any of its results."

Tamas is dispelled by rajas (active actions), then from rajas one should try to gradually come to balance, sattva. Sattva is cultivated through serving Guru, karma yoga, following Yama-Niyama, study of sacred texts. Of course, a calm meditative practice of yoga helps very well, but if there is a strong rajas/tamas, then meditation is unlikely to succeed, and asanas can only strengthen rajas. Therefore, it is important to approach the practice in a comprehensive manner, first of all paying attention to the way of life and the instructions of the Teacher.

With practice, on the basis of sattva, the state of santoṣa is revealed – deep inner contentment and peace. In this state, it is possible to take the play of the guṇas for granted, to observe the change of the guṇas without attachment or rejection. The yogi disidentifies his essence (Ātman) with the body and mind, which are exposed to the influence of guṇas, and through this he gains liberation.


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