Getting to know the gunas

Getting to know the gunas.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” These first words from Genesis are familiar to anyone who’s picked up a Bible. People with religious or spiritual leanings assume the concept of creation. We accept that the universe was created—not quite by accident. Although, who’s to say that an all-powerful being didn’t light the fuse that caused the big bang?

Stories and explanations of creation appear in the various schools of yoga philosophy. A common thread among them is the subtle materials involved—they are known as the gunas.

Gunas are a pervasive principle in yoga philosophy. References to them are found in all major yogic texts, including the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Yoga Sutras, and Srimad Bhagavatam. Yoga masters refer to them in their teachings.

Understanding the meanings and effects of the gunas can help us on the spiritual path. Indeed, without this understanding, your journey along the path of yoga might be more difficult.

The Meaning and Nature of the Gunas

The Sanskrit word guna has many meanings. The most common meaning is “quality.” Other synonyms include aspect, element, trait, factor, and property. The gunas are sometimes called the subtle substances of creation. If it helps your conception of the term, you may also think of the gunas as Mother Nature.

There are three main gunas, each with their own descriptive characteristics. These qualities function in certain ways. They have personalities as shown in the table below:

Truthfulness, virtue Intense activity Mental ignorance and dullness
Poise, calmness, compassion Mental restlessness Excessive sleep, laziness, procrastination, inertia
Self-control, dispassion, discrimination Intense desire, lust, longing Greed, expectation, infatuation, evil desires

Yogic texts and masters describe the functions of the gunas in more detail. An expanded version of this table provides more detail about these qualities of Nature.

Understanding How the Gunas Work in Your Life

The gunas, qualities of nature, are not difficult to understand. They work in the physical world as well as our mental world. The gunas can be seen in both subtle and gross form.

As an analogy, imagine the Creator is an artist, a Divine Painter. A painter begins with three primary colors—yellow, red, and blue. He then mixes them to create more colors and places them on the canvas. This canvas, then, is the Creator’s universe. It is always evolving, ever-changing.

The Creator paints the universe with the gunas. Every stroke of paint contains the qualities of goodness (yellow), energy (red), and sloth (blue). Rarely, is the paint made of one pure color, or quality. Usually it’s mixed. Often, one color dominates. In the same way, we experience a mixture of these qualities.

Examples of Gunas Working in the World

For more about the gunas (aff link).

To further help us get to know the gunas, we can observe extreme examples of their effects.

An example of sattva, the quality of goodness, can be seen in people like Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. These people worked tirelessly throughout their lives for the benefit of others. But we don’t need a Nobel Prize to recognize goodness. The mother who devotes her time to raising her children, the shopkeeper who prices his goods fairly, the employer who provides a pleasant and safe working environment—all these are common examples of people living simple lives of goodness.

We can look to companies in high-growth industries for examples of rajas. Intense action dominates such a corporation, as well as its individual employees. The corporate culture demands dedication and long hours. Its reward is financial success. The desire for more growth and success increases and drives more action.

Tamas, the guna of sloth, is not only recognized by laziness and inertia. The effects of tamas also include fear, anger, and actions done with the intent to harm others. It is easily known by remembering the events of 9/11. While thousands of innocent people were killed on that day, others celebrated. Those who celebrated imagined that their ideals had been realized by the slaughter. This is tamas at its worst.

How to Use Knowledge of the Gunas

Think of the gunas as a tool of self-assessment. Learning about them helps us see how we can improve our outlook and ourselves.

The qualities are like a stepladder. For example, if we want to experience peace and happiness we should increase the quality of goodness. But sometimes we’re lazy and neglect our practices or good works. When that happens we can use the next quality, energy, to get moving. The cure for spiritual laziness is action. Chanting, yoga postures, and service all help remove sloth. We evolve from the slothful lower quality, to the next one, rajas. Then, lest we get stuck in endless activity, we must meditate more to progress into goodness.

The cycle of movement through the gunas is constant. As spiritual aspirants, we benefit from becoming aware of their presence. Meditation increases awareness. Through the clarity of a pure mind we can see the effects of goodness, energy, or sloth in our lives. We can make wise decisions, move out of a lower guna, and increase our goodness.

Sincere spiritual seekers take delight in being established in sattva, goodness. It paves the way—to enlightenment.

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