The Three Gunas

Written by Kyra Clarke with inputs from Master Paalu

The Three Gunas have been defined as ‘the three fundamental qualities’ (A Sanskrit-English Dictionary 1866). That is, they are the fundamental ways of characterising people, foods, etc. These characteristics are present in all of us in different quantities and degree, combining to make a whole: we all have parts of the three gunas within our personalities. These characteristics cannot be judged as good or bad, positive or negative. Instead, what is most important is that we learn to recognise the three gunas and become aware of their effect on our lives. An experience of any of the gunas is only pure once we recognise them and create something or enhance or step away from our experience of them. The experience of them should be the instigator nor the stimulus to perform any future actions.


Traditionally, tamas means darkness – in Master Paalu’s words, leeching from others. An example might be using others to achieve your own goals while never giving back. In our lives it is important to reduce the influence of this guna. Refusal to come to light of things and using others’ efforts as a platform with little or no contribution from the individual to grow, taking full credit for the growth, if any. In relation to food, Tamasic food refers to, food that is not generated from the fundamental 5 compounds of nature primarily, namely fire, earth, water, space and air. On the other hand food is consumed through third party processing namely an animal or by processing it via machines. For example, when a chicken is consumed, the chicken is third hand protein, carbo or nutrients. The chicken would have consumed the worms or other food to grow its flesh. By consuming the chicken we also accumulate all those food consumed and processed by the chicken’s bodily systems.


My understanding of rajas comes from experiences of anger, although in translations from Sanskrit, rajas has been defined as ‘passion’ among other things. Rajas includes those things that stimulate us and get us fired up, although we must not become dependent on such stimulation in our daily lives.


For example, it would be ineffective for me to rely on becoming angry in order to get any work done. And yet, anger is one emotion that can be useful in gaining awareness of feelings and the gunas’ impact on our lives.


If I recognise how I feel when I am angry and why I become angry, I can recognise these feelings in future and thus manage my anger and direct it more usefully and creatively.


The definition of sattva as ‘essence’ (A Sanskrit-English Dictionary 1866) I believe is useful in understanding it – an essence can be the truth of something, but it can also mean getting to its core. Sattvic foods are those foods that are natural and fresh, containing the core nutrients that we need to survive.


In our lives, sattva can mean with time, work and discipline that we get beyond the comparisons and judgements we make constantly with each other and instead work on sharing and learning with others – coming to understand one another.


None of the three gunas may be regarded as good or bad as it is only in acknowledging these aspects that we can move forward. In this way, coming to purity within the three gunas may be viewed in a similar way to Jnana yoga (wisdom).


This requires combining the knowledge that we gather in our lives, experience and understanding of this knowledge, but also our own input, our creativity, to make something new and original. It is only through the combination of these elements that wisdom is found, but also purity in the three gunas.


Comparisons may also be made between the three gunas and the first three chakras. Muladhara, our root foundation (earth) located at the base of the spine may be considered as our animal instincts, our constant need for safety/security, food, water and lust. When these needs are the focus of our lives, the chakra spins anti-clockwise.


Like tamas, the influence of this chakra in our lives must be dissolved as much as possible, so that we can move on and above to the higher chakras.


Swadhisthana, self abode (water) in many ways may be seen to contain similar elements to those found in an understanding of sattva. When this chakra is spinning in an anticlockwise direction, our experiences may focus on jealousy, requirements for attention, success or indulgence. However when it turns in a clockwise direction it may be viewed as a sharing chakra, we want others to do well, indeed to do better than ourselves, to want success but not be obsessed with it, to perform better every day instead of comparing ourselves to an unseen goal, to enjoy our indulgences but reduce the quantity. That is this chakra may be viewed as self love, and loving the self completely, totally. Without loving yourself completely, it become close to impossible to love someone or something as it is.


The third chakra, manipura, jewel city (fire) is the position from which we transform, but in order to do so we need to fire up to rise above encumbrances. So just as in rajas we transform anger into creativity, here we can use these negative aspects of our lives to take a step forward into the higher chakras of Anahata, Vishuddha and Ajna.


More importantly, once we step beyond this chakra we can act creatively without the need for stimulation – that is, we can understand more clearly how to break the negative patterns in our lives in order to move forward and with this knowledge can do so more easily.


In this way, just as our knowledge, experience and creativity brings wisdom and our understanding and experience of the three gunas will bring us to purity, our internal knowledge, understanding, experience and acknowledgement of these three chakras can bring us to higher chakras and thus higher planes of experience.


(1866) A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Longmans, Green and Co: London. Found at

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