Spiritual seekers who practise yoga have most probably heard of the gunas. They play a prominent role in the Vedic phenomenology which both, Yoga and Vedanta are based on. But both interprete the Vedas differently. This is how yoga came to consider reality to be dual whereas Advaita Vedanta considers it to be non-dual.
I am using the word „phenomenology“ as pointing to that which explains all phenomena that we come across in this world: living beings, lifeless objects, energy, actions, thoughts and feelings etc. However, phenomenological explanations remain on the level of phenomena and do not go beyond. In this sense the chemical explanation of the phenomenon “water” is phenomenological: water being H2O – a sole determination of its chemical elements. In contrast to that the statement that water actually is nothing but pure consciousness is an explanation that goes beyond phenomena.
Gunas belong to the world of phenomena, they explain phenomena on the level of the phenomenal world – not on the level of the ultimate truth. In the following I am first of all going to explain the gunas and afterwards expand on their relative importance for the seeker of truth.
What are Gunas?
Gunas come into being from the densification of the five elements ether, air, fire, water and earth. Gunas form the three basic principles of life: gross and subtle, as well as causal matter are composed of these three basic principles in respectively varied combination. Each phenomenon that appears within the universe is composed of the gunas. They never appear in pure form and their relative weight is constantly changing. It is but in an unmanifest (causal) state that they are at complete equilibrium.
Tamas is the principle of inertia. Everything relatively inert, heavy and dense, is dominated by tamas. Rajas is the principle of activity. Everything in motion, dynamic and full of energy, is dominated by rajas. Sattva is the principle of transparency, balance, light and tranquility.
The Interaction of the Gunas
Tamas and rajas are opponents.
Tamas – a hot and humid summer day, dark low clouds, no bird chirping, not the slightest breeze, the sailing boats are glued to the water and people breathing heavily. Those who can, lie down and wait.
Wait what for? Wait for rajas. And Rajas is about to come: suddenly freshening wind ruffling the trees, whirling under every obstacle and hurling whatever it can get hold of. Whitecaps, swelled sails racing across the lake, white clouds sweep across the pitch-black sky. And then bolts of lightning, claps of thunder, driving rain, and gales whipping up the waters.
What when the outburst of rajas is over? For a moment sattva will appear: a sunray, a rainbow, birdsongs, blue sky, silence - serene, alive, friendly. This is the moment when fairy-tales end: Everything is fine.
This scenario can easily be transferred to the mind. As a matter of fact most people are far too familiar with this interplay of tamas and rajas including its much too short intermezzos of sattva. And there is the reverse version too: work oneself into the ground (rajas) and then wake up absolutely knackered (tamas). Antidote, surely, is rajas – a cup of strong coffee or, for the health-conscious ones a brisk sprint through the forest. As a result there will be untroubled relaxation (sattva) for a while (or maybe just for a moment) – in most cases mere starting point of a new game of ‘rajas-tamas’.
The two Sides of the Gunas
Guna is a Sanskrit word meaning string, thread, rope. On the one hand, gunas are what the universe is woven from. In this sense every guna serves a vital purpose. On the other hand, every guna can become a tie once you identify with it.
Tamas gifts us with a down to earth, pragmatic attitude. It enables us to calm down and regenerate. But in a tamasic fixation we veg out on the sofa, zap listlessly through the channels, feel sluggish and dull, possibly even apathetic, sick or depressive. Obviously, such a state acts like ties. Tamaoguna manifests as identification with matter.
For all those who are not really sick the only efficient means against the tamasic tie is a good dose of rajas: get into motion, breathe fresh air, revive the spirits. But even rajas can easily take on a life of its own: in the beginning it may well express as commitment, drive and enthusiasm. But it can soon turn into restlessness, hustle and agitation. One activity chases the next, one thrill needs to be topped by a stronger one. The outcome is impatience, irritability and aggressiveness. Rajoguna manifests as identification with energy.
So the fetters of rajas aren’t better than the fetters of tamas and the resultant interplay between rajas and tamas depicts further ties. It is sattva that makes for the release because sattva is a state that is relatively free from identification. It is due to sattva that we can leave the identifications with tamas and rajas behind.
Sattva generates peace, consent and harmony. The mind is clear, relaxed and open-minded.
But even sattva is a bond that can turn into a tie. For all those who find themselves broken on the rajas-tamas-wheel, sattva is redemption. But those who do not realize sattva’s value and therefore do not support it, will backslide into their old pattern again and again. Within the personality sattva should be the dominant guna.
How high do the Gunas rate for the Seeker of Truth?
Knowing about the gunas creates clarity about one‘s own status quo. It also helps to determine activities and situations that will help to develop one's personality in such a way that it serves the search for truth at best.
A tamasic individual will stay behind in his/her spiritual search, since again and again the essential motivation gets lost. Who, thus, frequently dozes in tamasic lethargy must first and foremost get off the ground again. Only then sufficient energy is available to support sattva. The natural order is tamas - rajas - sattva.
Those who have a surplus of rajas must be attentive in order not to repeatedly be tamas-mousetrapped, as they only then stop to be active when they have gone for broke. They must, as long as they are not completely weary or exasperated, i.e. as long as there still energy is available invest it into what matches the own spiritual desire - a question of priorities (see essay 6-2014).
But what happens to those who have a surplus of sattva? A surplus of sattva does not exist. Sattva is what reveals itself when the two other gunas recede. Yet the identification with sattva is likewise in the way of the seeker of truth, as much as every other identification.
The ties of sattva-guna is, moreover, mostly misunderstood, because someone who is very sattvic is, of course, happy and content. Those who have insufficient sattva-guna can anyway not imagine the negative sides. Likewise the 'sattvicians' are rarely able to realize the difficulty of their identification.
They neither understand why it is so difficult for other people, nor why they are not yet enlightened as they are permanently doing well. Sattvaguna shows itself as identification with the mind and states of happiness.
Some, though still prone to the first two gunas have found techniques of meditative kind in order to jump on the 'sattva-train' that conveys them rapidly and reliably into a state of contentment and felicity. Since this is a state it certainly does not last, by which repeatedly collapses into the ordinary vale of tears occur.
But even those, who in fact are of strong sattvic nature, can utilize sattva like a drug. Quite clearly this is revealed in respect of the yogic ideal, the so-called nirvikalpa samadhi. The tradition of yoga teaches how to steady the mind in such a way that it (as in deep sleep) rises above the duality of subject and object. We all know how extremely beneficial deep sleep is - and the blissfulness that we experience in deep sleep, in fact, is based thereupon that the separation of subject and object is abolished.
However, deep sleep is, as well as nirvikalpa samadhi, a finite state. Yoga rates nirvikalpa samadhi as the target; it is put on a level with enlightenment or moksha. On the other hand, enlightenment in Vedanta means what is beyond all states and thus without end. Mere immersion into blissfulness no matter if in perfect nirvikalpa samadhi or in less gorgeous – however blissful –experiences is nothing but an expression of sattvaguna. A decisive step is still pending before the seeker can, in fact, find the truth that he/she actually searches: likewise, this last identification must be released. Because as long as you identify yourself with something that you not really are, the truth of your being remains hidden.
Everything in this world is guna-characterized, i.e., you can exercise the knowledge of guna-structure in certain things, situations, humans and activities. Moreover, if someone is able to assess the own guna-situation correctly, you can in each case make use of the guna-activities, -humans, -situations or -things that help you out of the fixation and support the guna that you need.
Tamas need not be benefited. Indeed, some humans have difficulty in allowing themselves sufficient rest periods due to their identification with rajas. However, it is better to direct the rajasic energy towards a sattvic direction. Thereafter it is in any case no problem any longer to provide the body with sufficient relaxation and sleep, since sattva is pure intelligence and knows what is necessary.
Intensifying rajas will automatically relieve tamas. In addition, tamasic food ought to be omitted: indigestive, fat dishes, food denatured by toxins and processing, eggs, mushrooms, Fast Food, sweets (long-term), depressant drugs. Also other tamasically fixated humans intensify the own tamasic pattern, as well as unaesthetic, negligent, tasteless or shallow situations and activities.
Rajas is primarily stimulated by physical exercise. Most helpful is the colour red. By rajasic nutrition this Guna will likewise be fortified. That includes all inspiring and stimulating substances: hot spices, onions/garlic (especially raw), meat, coffee/tea, sweets (short-term), etc. Those who feel too tamasic can consume a pinch of these food products. Though, those who consume too much of them launch the "tamas-rajas"-game.
If you want to reduce rajas, you will need to intensify sattva (see below). But the food products mentioned above should then be reduced and, if possible, stimulating situations should be avoided: competitions, stirring, suspense-packed and dramatic movies, books and/or situations in life. And the get-together with rajasically fixated humans intensifies the own rajasic pattern.
Sattva will be inspired by everything that gives us peace: caring togetherness, beauty, stay in unspoilt nature, uplifting music and, most of all, mental inspiration, in particular of spiritual kind. A predominantly sattvic constitution gives serenity, clarity and faculty of discrimination, makes us friendly, bright and balanced.
Sattvic nutrition consists of fruit and vegetable, cereals, milk products, nuts, legumes, herbs and clear water. Groceries should be fresh and preferably freshly prepared.
Those who, furthermore, socialise with sattvic people will rapidly lose interest in excessively rajasic and tamasic activities.
Some links to You Tube music videos that boost sattva-guna
(if you like them)