The Bhagavad Gita (BG), one of the most influential written works on eastern philosophy, mentions the three Gunas. The scripture passes the dialogue between deity Krishna and prince Arjuna. It is an allegory of the knowledge an enlightened being shares with a regular human. Lord Krishna says that Praktiti, the nature of matter, consists of the three Gunas. Those who rise above the Gunas attain Nirvana, the liberation of the soul.
What is a Guna?
The Gunas are the primordial states or qualities of mind, matter, and nature.
Prakriti is the original source of the material world. It consists of the three Gunas hence everything in the material world is also subject to the three Gunas. Each thing has a dominant quality (Guna).
"Everyone is driven to action, helplessly indeed, by the Gunas of nature."
― BG 3.05
Which are the three gunas?
The three Gunas are called Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.
"Sattva or goodness, Rajas or activity, and Tamas or inertia; these three Gunas (or states) of mind (or Prakriti) bind the imperishable soul to the body, O Arjuna."
― BG 14.05
"The fruit of good action is said to be Saattvika and pure, the fruit of Raajasika action is pain, and the fruit of Taamasika action is ignorance."
― BG 14.16
Sattva is harmony.
It is calm, illuminating and ethical. It is serenity and mental clarity, the equilibrium between the extremes of Rajas and Tamas. A Sattvic person is balanced, they always uplift everyone and feel no jealousy. Their thoughts, words and actions are pure, free from worries about the past, present or future. To live in Sattva means to live in harmony.
Sattva allows people to seek and achieve spiritual evolution. It strengthens their moral compass and leads them to high aspirations.
Rajas is always active, both physically and mentally.
A person who lives in Rajas is always focused on the future, the next goal to achieve. They always want to do more, have more, be more. They are restless, with a tendency to overanalyze and overthink, leaving little room for spontaneity. Rajasic people love to control the situation and often impose themselves on others. Those who go to extremes might become superficial, unempathetic or aggressive
"O Arjuna, know that Rajas is characterized by intense (selfish) activity and is born of desire and attachment. Greed, activity, restlessness, passion, and undertaking of (selfish) works arise when Rajas is predominant, O Arjuna."
― BG 14.12
Tamas is inertia.
A Tamasic person is sluggish, lethargic, dwelling in the past. They can be very emotional and prone to procrastination. They can be dreamers who rarely bring their ideas to an end. In their personal relationships, they are likely to get attached, hurting their own feelings. A Tamasic person is easily dominated.
Those who go to extremes might fall into depression and experience suicidal thoughts.
"... Tamas … is born of inertia. It binds by ignorance, laziness, and (excessive) sleep. Ignorance, inactivity, carelessness, and delusion arise when Tamas is predominant, O Arjuna."
― BG 14.13
"It’s Tamasic to consider ourselves superior to others, it’s Rajasic to want to dominate others, but it’s Sattvic to realize that you have a place and role just like I do in the grand scheme of things."
― Swami Niranjana Saraswati
So are Rajas and Tamas bad?
Rajas or Tamas are not inherently negative.
A Rajasic person can be great at planning, achieving goals, challenging the status quo and driving change. A Tamasic individual, on the other hand, can have a calming influence, creating strong bonds with their partner, friends and family.
How do the three Gunas work?
Everything in the material world has a dominant Guna. For example, a person’s character might be more Rajasic. At the same time, this person is subject to the play of the Gunas that might intensify or balance his character.
"Each of the Gunas dominates by suppressing the other two.
Sattva dominates by suppressing Rajas and Tamas; Rajas dominates by suppressing Sattva and Tamas; and Tamas dominates by suppressing Sattva and Rajas, O Arjuna."
― BG 14.10
"One is continuously judging, “this is like this and this is like that.” “If you are trapped in the game of the three Gunas, you will always have judgement. The Tamas is always judging the Sattva and the Sattva is always judging the Rajas, and so on like that."
― Paramahamsa Sri Swami Vishwananda
What happens beyond the three Gunas?
The Gunas exist for the experience and liberation of Purusha (self or soul).
Only in the human body can one achieve this liberation of the dualities of life. This is the end goal of life, beyond and goals for pleasure or material possessions.
You can call it Moksha, Nirvana, Samadhi, liberation, self-realisation, enlightenment, pure bliss, etc. It is all the same.
A person who is unaffected by the three Gunas can act according to each situation while internally remaining a witness, rather than a victim. They are Sthitaprajna, a person of steady wisdom. They are free from attachments, expectations, the ego.
"When one transcends (or rises above) the three Gunas that originate in the mind; one is freed from birth, old age, disease, and death; and attains Nirvana."
― BG 14.20
"The one who remains like a witness; who is not moved by the Gunas, thinking that the Gunas only are operating; who stands firm and does not waver..."
― BG 14.23
How can one transcend the three Gunas?
You cannot go straight from Rajas or Tamas to Sattva. A Rajasic person needs to engage in Tamasic activities such as gentle yoga practices, silent meditation, alone time, to balance their character. A Tamasic person achieves harmony through physical exercise, dynamic meditation, time management.
To free yourself from the constant play of the Gunas, you have to first become aware of it. This is the role of asana, pranayama and meditation – to raise your awareness. Once you do, you naturally realize that situations in life are no more than a constant swinging between Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.
You learn to respond according to each situation rather than reacting as if you have no control over your thoughts, words, and actions. Through awareness you begin to approach life in a Sattvic manner, led by your deep intuition on what is wrong and what is right.