The Three Gunas

September 6, 2008 at 11:24 pm | Posted in ANCIENT INDIA | Leave a comment
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The Three Gunas

In Hinduism,Buddhism, and Sikhism Tamas, or tamo-guna, is the lowest of the three gunas. It is a force which promotes one or more of the following: (1) darkness, (2) death, (3) destruction, (4) ignorance, (5) Sloth, (6) resistance. Tamas is viewed as being more negative than either rajas or sattva. Tamas has also been translated as “indifference”. This is the most negative guna because of its rejection of Karmaic Law and the central principle of dharmaic religions; that one’s Karma must be worked out and not ignored.[citation needed]

The three gunasSattva, Rajas, and Tamas are described and detailed in Samkhya – one of the Six Indian Schools of Philosophy. Each of the three gunas has its own distinctive characteristics and it is believed that everything is made up of these three. Tamas is lowest, heaviest, slowest, and most dull (for example, a stone or a lump of earth). It is devoid of the energy of the Rajas and the brightness of Sattva.


  • “You should know, O Arjuna, tamas as the cause of delusion enslaving all embodied beings born of nescience; by negligence, listlessness and somnolescence.” (BG 14:8)
  • “O Arjuna, nescience, inertness, neglectfulness and also illusion; when these arise tamas predominates.” (BG 14:13)
  • “Succumbing to death in rajas one takes birth among those beings attached to fruitive activities; similarly, dying in tamas, one takes birth from the womb of an animal” (BG 14:15)
  • “The Fourteenth Day: One who enters into the fourth state, overcomes time, and the three qualities of raajas, taamas, and satva”(SGGS [1])
  • “Those who embody the energies of sattva-white light, raajas-red passion, and taamas-black darkness, abide in the Fear of God, along with the many created forms.” (SGGS [2])
  • “Your Power is diffused through the three gunas: raajas, taamas and satva” (SGGS [3])
  • “Raajas, the quality of energy and activity; Taamas, the quality of darkness and inertia; and Satvas, the quality of purity and light, are all called the creations of Maya, Your illusion. That man who realizes the fourth state — he alone obtains the supreme state” (SGGS [4])
  • “Raajas, the quality of energetic activity shall pass away. Taamas, the quality of lethargic darkness shall pass away. Saatvas, the quality of peaceful light shall pass away as well. All that is seen shall pass away. Only the Word of the Holy Saint is beyond destruction” (SGGS [5])

tamasic foods

Tamas cannot be counteracted by tamas. It might be easier to counteract it by means of rajas (action), and it might be more difficult to jump directly from tamas to sattva. The result of a life led by tamas is demerit: demotion to a lower life-form. Persons who are “couch potatoes” may be characterized as tamasic. Overeating (i.e. gluttony) is tamasic.

The Sanskrit word gua has the basic meaning of “string” or “a single thread or strand of a cord or twine”. In more abstract uses, it may mean “a subdivision, species, kind”, and generally “quality”.

In Samkhya philosophy there are three guas (based upon the three “tendencies”), tamas gua, sattva gua, and rajas gua.


In classical literature

In classical literature (e.g. Mahabharata, Bhagavata Purana and Bhagavad Gita), a gua is an attribute of the five elements, five senses, and five associated body parts:

  • ether, associated with the gua śábda (”sound”) and with the ear.
  • air, associated with the gua sparśa (”feeling”) and with the skin.
  • fire, associated with the gua rūpa (”appearance”, and thus color and tangibility) and with the eye.
  • water, associated with the gua rasa (”taste”, and thus also flavor and tangibility, as well as shape) and with the tongue.
  • earth, associated with all the preceding guas as well as the gua gandha (”smell”) and with the nose.

In Samkhya philosophy

In Samkhya philosophy a gua is one of three “tendencies”: tamas, sattva, and rajas. These categories have become a common means of categorizing behavior and natural phenomena in Hindu philosophy, and also in Ayurvedic medicine, as a system to assess conditions and diets. Gua is the tendency of the mind and not the state of mind or action itself. For instance, sattva gua is that force which tends to bring the mind to purity but is not purity itself. Similarly rajas gua is that force which tends to bring the mind to perform some action but is not action itself.

  • Sattva (originally “being, existence, entity”) has been translated to mean balance, order, or purity. This typically implies that a person with more of Sattva has a positive or even orderly state of mind. Such a person is psychologically kind, calm, alert and thoughtful. Compare also the bodhisattvas in Buddhism. Indologist Georg Feuerstein translates sattva as “lucidity“.
  • Rajas (originally “atmosphere, air, firmament”) leads one to activity. This type of activity is explained by the term Yogakshem. Yogakshem is composed of two words: Yoga and Kshem. Yoga in the present context is acquiring something that one does not have. Kshem means losing something that one already has. Rajas is the force that creates desires for acquiring new things and fears for losing something that one has. These desires and fears lead one to activity. (Rajas is etymologically unrelated to the word raja.) Feuerstein translates rajas as “dynamism“.
  • Tamas (originally “darkness”, “obscurity”) has been translated to mean “too inactive”, negative, lethargic, dull, or slow. Usually it is associated with darkness, delusion, or ignorance. A tamas quality also can imply that a person has a self-destructive or entropic state of mind. That person is constantly pursuing destructive activities. Feuerstein translates tamas as “inertia“.

In Nyaya philosophy

In Nyaya philosophy, 24 guas are enumerated as properties or characteristics of all created things, including śábda, sparśa, rūpa, rasa, and gandha.

1.        rūpa: appearance (shape and color).

2.        rasa: taste.

3.        gandha: smell.

4.        sparśa: feeling (touch).

5.        khya: amount.

6.        parimāa: dimension.

7.        pthaktva: distinctness.

8.        sayoga: conjunction.

9.        vibhāga: disjunction.

10.     paratva: remoteness.

11.     aparatva: proximity.

12.     gurutva: weight.

13.     dravatva: fluidity.

14.     sneha: viscidity.

15.     śábda: sound.

16.     buddhi/jñāna: enlightenment/knowing.

17.     sukha: pleasure.

18.     dukha: pain.

19.     icchā: desire.

20.     dvea: aversion.

21.     prayatna: effort.

22.     dharma: merit or virtue.

23.     adharma: demerit.

24.     saskāra: the self-reproductive quality;

In grammar

In Sanskrit grammatical tradition (Vyakarana), gua is a technical term referring to the vowels a, e, o,( i.e. the full grade ablaut stages; see Ashtadhyayi).

See also

External links


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