Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part X

Prakriti and Gunas

Continued from Part IX

Apart from being the oldest surviving civilization and religion with a rich treasure of knowledge and wisdom in the world, Hinduism offers many unique features and attributes unknown to people of other faiths such as the concepts of Ashramas, Karma, Dharma and Yoga. While the concepts of Ashramas, Yoga and Dharma address and outline an institutional framework of the personal and social environment for the moral and ethical living, the concept of Guna relates to the ancient Indian philosophy on individual attributes. In human behavioural studies, gunas reflect personality, innate nature and psychological attributes of an individual. In fact, there is no single substitute English word for the term Guna; the very approximate meaning or translation could be the ‘quality’.

Ethical or non-ethical behaviour is an outcome of personal nature, attributes, environment, social environment and institutional rules and laws. The concept of Guna, propounded by the ancient Indian philosophical texts represents a hierarchy of values, where the relative order of hierarchy is suggested to vary within each individual along with the relative proportion of each Guna. Essentially, the complex interplay of three gunas influence an individual's values, and in Hindu way of life, these values affect individual's actions, and consequent outcome in terms of the happiness or unhappiness and serenity or anxiety experienced by the individual. Bhagavad Gita considers gunas as dynamic and changeable attributes with suave knowledge, introspection and understanding of Dharma.

The Guna concept is believed to have been first explained in Samkhya philosophy of Hinduism. According to this, the three gunas that have universal occurrence in all living things and beings in the world are 1) Sattva (goodness), 2) Rajas (passion), and 3) Tamas (darkness). In essence, all the three gunas remain present in every living being and thing, and it is their proportion in everyone that vary. The interplay of the three gunas is what that constitutes the character and nature of the being besides determining the progress of life.

Concept of Prakriti, Purusha and Gunas

Philosophically, the life is a complex voyage which has the potential to liberate as well as to bind the Atman (soul). In order to navigate this dual nature of life, Samkhya, the ancient school of Indian philosophy, divides physical reality into two aspects i.e. the Purusha and Prakriti. Here Purusha is defined as the Self or the subject, the one who is aware or the one who knows while Prakriti, on a much broader canvas, encompasses everything that is seen or known in the objective universe, including all that is material and psychological.

This unmanifest Prakriti, which is absolute, pure and formless, is a pool of limitless potential comprising of three fundamental balancing forces called the gunas namely Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. Prakriti manifests as the universe through the interplay of these forces and, accordingly, every tangible and intangible object known in the physical world is in reality a manifestation of the gunas in various concentrations, proportions and forms. Samkhya philosophy holds that the gunas are born from Prakriti and they reside in the Purusha or Self. They remain inactive and in a state of balance in the primordial nature (Mula Prakriti). When their balance is disturbed, creativity sets in motion leading to creation of diverse objects and beings. Every such object and being possesses the three gunas in different proportions. This interplay of guna forces and consequent admixture (panchikarana) and elements (mahabhutas) is explained at length in the Paingala Upanishad.

As per Hindu philosophy, the atman (soul) remains entrapped in successive temporary bodies made of Prakriti (matter). Anything made up of matter undergoes three stages of existence i.e. 1) it is created, (2) it sustains in material form for some time and 3) it is inevitably destroyed. These three phases broadly correspond to the three gunas i.e. passion (Rajas) creates, goodness (Sattva) sustains and ignorance (Tamas) destroys. These gunas are ranked hierarchically, with ignorance considered the lowest and goodness the highest.

Of the three gunas, Sattva is of the highest order that represents the pure and pious, without impurities, luminous and free from any deformities. Sattva is considered to bind the soul through attachment with happiness and knowledge; Rajas is in the middle order representing passion (ragatmakam), intense desire (thrishna) and attachment (sanga) that binds the soul through attachment with action; and Tamas is in the lowest order representing the darkness and crudeness in a person. Tamas is believed to born out of ignorance (ajnanajam) and is the cause of delusion (mohanam) that binds the soul through recklessness, indolence and sleep. Manifestation and operation of Sattva leads to satisfaction, happiness, joy and pride in a person; Rajas is a component that sets a person in motion moving from one stste to another; and Tamas induces passivity that tend to supress Sattva and Rajas.

In human beings, all the three gunas are present in different degrees according to their spiritual purity and progress in life. Beings in the higher world order guarantees the predominance of Sattva, the middle world order represents predominance of Rajas and beings in the lower world order have predominance of Tamas. Accordingly, the pure and pious people who stick to Dharma are found to predominantly possess Sattva, the worldly people driven by their passions and desires possess predominance of Rajas and the lazy and sinners beyond redemption possess the predominance of Tamas.

Gunas and Hindu Philosophies

Gunas as intuitive and innate qualities and tendencies find a reference in several ancient Hindu texts. Maitrayaniya Upanishad is believed to be among the earliest texts with explicit references to Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and their linkage to the three gunas as creator/activity, preserver/purity and destroyer/recycler, respectively. Bhagavad Gita is one holy text which has dealt with at length the innate nature, characteristics, power, influence and effects of gunas on human beings in several verses in different chapters. Various schools of Hinduism have also attempted to describe gunas as per their perception and interpretations.

The Samkhya philosophy is one among the most sound and popular philosophies so far as gunas are concerned. This philosophy defines the three gunas as Sattva, Rajas and Tamas which in various concentration and combination define various attributes and qualities of living beings. The Guna philosophy propounded by this school is widely recognised and accepted in Hinduism as also by various schools for categorizing behavior and natural phenomena.

According to this philosophy, Sattva is the quality of balance, harmony, goodness, purity, universalizing, holistic, constructive, creative, building, positive, peaceful and virtuous; Rajas is the quality of passion, activity, neither good nor bad and sometimes either, self-centeredness, egoistic, individualizing, driven, moving, dynamic; and Tamas is the quality of imbalance, disorder, chaos, anxiety, impure, destructive, delusion, negative, dull or inactive, apathy, inertia or lethargy, violent, vicious and ignorant. According to this school, none of the things and beings is purely sattvik or rajasik or tamasik and the nature and behaviour of everyone is a complex interplay of all these gunas in different proportions. The same school also relates three gunas with Trimurti (trinity), linking Sattva with God Vishnu, Rajas with God Brahma and Tamas with God Shiva while maintaining that the Gods themselves are transcendental and above the influence these gunas.

The Nyaya school of Hinduism, with extensive debate on gunas whether they are innate, subjective or describable, have expanded the condensed list of the three gunas to as many as twenty-four identified gunas that include qualities like colour, taste, smell, touch, number, contact, disjunction, farness, nearness, dimension, separateness, knowledge, pleasure, frustration, desire, hatred, effort, weight, fluidity, viscosity, dispositional tendency, merit, demerit, and sound. The Vaisheshika School of Hinduism considers that the human awareness, understanding and decisions are all relational based on and influenced by Gunas.

Bhagavad Gita and Gunas

According to Bhagavad Gita, Brahman (Supreme God) is absolute pure, pious and transcendent entity. Trimurti (three Gods) namely Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are manifestations of Brahman; of which Brahma represents the predominance of Rajas, Vishnu the predominance of Sattva and Shiva the predominance of Tamas. Notwithstanding this, all the three forms of Brahman are pure and pious; and they are not bound or driven by three gunas. It is for the purpose of creation, order and regularity of the universe that they manifest the gunas to perform their obligatory roles while the three Gods themselves essentially remaining transcendental.

The Bhagavad Gita talks about the three gunas at length. They co-exist in all living beings, including humans, in varying degrees. Gunas also exist in all natural objects and products, thus even the food that people eat reflects hierarchy of gunas and have bearing on the higher and lower conduct and behaviour of living beings. Depending upon the relative concentration and ratio, the gunas determine the nature of things, beings, their actions, attitudes and behavioural patterns in this world. The primary role of the gunas in the living beings is to create bonding, through desires and attachment, which keep them stable and likeable in the world under the perpetual control of Prakriti.

Chapters 3, 7, 13, 14, 17 and 18 of the Bhagavad Gita have references to gunas. Verse 17.2 refers to the three Gunas – Sattva, Rajas and Tamas – as innate and intuitive nature of an individual. Commensurate with the Samkhya philosophy, in Gita too Sattvic guna refers to what is pure, truth, compassionate, without craving, doing the right because it is right, positive and good; Rajasic guna is one that is ego-driven, passionate, active, ostentatious, seeking the approval of others; and Tamasic guna is one driven by what is impure, dark, lazy, destructive, aimed to hurt another, contemptuous, negative and vicious.

In Chapters 17 and 18, the Bhagavad Gita illustrates actions and items such as charity, food, relationships, knowledge in relation to three gunas. For example, actions in relation to gunas are described in the Chapter 18 as follows:

Niyatam sangarahitamaraagadveshataha kritam |
Aphalaprepsunaa karma yattatsaattvikamuchyate || 23 ||

(That action prescribed by scripture which is performed without attachment, without like or dislike, by one without hankering for reward that is said to be sattvic.)

Yattu kaamepsunaa karma saahankaarena vaa punaha |
Kriyate bahulaayaasam tadraajasamudaahritam || 24 ||

(But, that action performed by a person desiring pleasure, or with egoism, with exertion, that is called rajasic.)

Anubandham kshayam himsaamanapekshya cha paurusham |
Mohaadaarabhyate karma yattattaamasamucchyate || 25 ||

(That which is begun in delusion, without considering its consequence, loss, harm and capability, that action is called tamasic.)
{Bhagavad Gita Chapter 18, Verses 23-25}

Gunas influencing Behaviour

The gunas are responsible for the conduct, behaviour, propensity and disposition of all living beings including humans. Under the influence of Sattva, the Guna of the highest order, a person remains truthful and true to the pure and pious qualities while Tamas compels human beings to lose their ability to discern truth, their essential nature or their true selves. People with high Sattva concentration find themselves very close to God and godly feelings while high contents of Tamas leads to their failure to perceive oneness with God and the rest of creation or the presence of God amidst them.

In the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna gives us a very detailed description and definition of the three gunas, which is summarized below.

Tatra sattvam nirmalatvaatprakaashamanaamayam |
Sukhasangena badhnaati jnyaanasangena chaanagha || 6 ||

(Of these, sattva is pure, bright and healthy. It binds through attachment to joy and attachment to knowledge, O sinless one.)

Rajo raagaatmakam viddhi trishnaasangasamudhbhavam |
Tannibandhaati kaunteya karmasangena dehinam || 7 ||

(Know rajas to be of the nature of passion, the source of thirst and attachment. It binds the body dweller by attachment to action, O Kaunteya.)

Tamastvajnyaanajam viddhi mohanam sarvadehinaam |
Pramaadaalasyanidraabhistannibadhnaati bhaarata || 8 ||

(And, know tamas to be born of ignorance, deluding all the body dwellers. It binds them through heedlessness, laziness and sloth, O Bhaarata.)
{Bhagavad Gita Chapter 14, Verses 6-8}

Inter Play of Gunas

In the beings, the three gunas compete among themselves for supremacy and try to outsmart and suppress each other. Sattva predominates by suppressing Rajas and Tamas. Rajas predominates by suppressing Sattva and Tamas, and Tamas by suppressing both Sattva and Rajas.

Rajastamaschaabhibhooya sattvam bhavati bhaarata |
Rajaha sattvam tamaschaiva tamaha sattvam rajastathaa || 10 ||

(Sattva rises, O Bhaarata, when it overpowers rajas and tamas, so does rajas overpower sattva and tamas, and also tamas overpowers sattva and rajas.)
{Bhagavad Gita Chapter 14, Verse 10}

Bhagavad Gita has also clarified how one could know to which Guna is predominant in a person at a given point of time. When Sattva is predominant, all the gates of the human body radiate the illumination of knowledge; when Rajas is predominant, greed, worldliness, striving for worldly ends and a penchant for selfish activities increase; and with Tamas on increase, the darkness, inactivity, recklessness and delusion within the being flourishes.

Sarvasvaareshu dehesminprakaasha upajaayate |
Jnyaanam yadaa tadaa vidyaadvivriddham sattvamityuta || 11 ||

(When luminous knowledge radiates through all gates of this body, then one should know that sattva has increased greatly.)

Lobhaha pravrittiraarambhaha karmanaamashamaha spruhaa |
Rajasyetaani jaayante vivriddhe bharatarshabha || 12 ||

(Greed, activity, commencement of actions, unrest, desire. These arise when rajas is predominant, o foremost among the Bharataas.)

Aprakaashopravrittishcha pramaado moha eva cha |
Tamasyetaani jaayante viviriddhe kurunandan || 13 ||

(Darkness, inaction, heedlessness and also error. These arise when tamas is predominant, O descendant of the Kurus.)
{Bhagavad Gita Chapter 15, Verses 11-13}

According to Gita, a sattvic person attains higher worlds upon death and when he (or she) enters the cycle of rebirth, he takes birth among pure and pious people or family. A rajasic person after death remains in the middle worlds and on rebirth he joins the family of those who are attached to passion and actions. As against this, a tamasic person sinks to lowest orders of world on dying and is born among the ignorant and deluded.

Yada sattve pravriddhe tu pralayam yaati dehabhrita |
Tadottamavidaan lokaanamalaanpratipadyate || 14 ||

(When sattva is predominant, and the body dweller reaches his end, then he attains the immaculate worlds of the knowers of the highest.)

Rajasi pralayam gatvaa karmasangishu jaayate |
Tathaa praleenastamasi moodhayonishu jaayate || 15 ||

(One who has reached his end in rajas is born among those attached to action, and one who is dying in tamas is born in the wombs of the ignorant.)

Karmanaha sukritasyaahuhu saattvikam nirmalam phalam |
Rajasastu phalam duhkhamajnyaanam tamasaha phalam || 16 ||

(The result of good action is sattvik and pure, it is said, while the result of rajas is sorrow, and the result of tamas is ignorance.)
{Bhagavad Gita Chapter 15, Verses 14-16}

The division of human beings into the four categories i.e. workers, thinkers, scientists and creators, is also due to the influence of gunas only. Besides, gunas are also known to influence faith, resolve, professional choices and nature of relationships. In essence, they govern almost every aspect and facet of the life and the world in general. In the eighteenth chapter of Bhagavad Gita, it has been also elaborated how people under the influence of the three gunas act and behave showing diverse pattern and engage themselves in different religious and spiritual activities.

This inter play of gunas could be easily understood by the analogy of the three primary colours namely red, yellow and blue. By mixing these primary colours, we get secondary colours of orange, green and purple (For instance, red and yellow will produce orange). By further mixing the primary and secondary colours, an infinite range of palette can be created. In the same manner, the interaction and inter play of the three gunas creates a wide range of living beings with distinct characteristics according to their specific mix of gunas.

The Resolution and Practical Application of Gunas

While addressing the different aspects of gunas in various chapters, the Bhagavad Gita does not teach humans to become only sattvic and/or eliminate other qualities (gunas). The reason being the gunas are part of Prakriti and responsible for goodness, passion, ignorance, delusion, bondage and suffering in the world, hence their entire elimination is not possible. Instead of trying to manifesting or cultivating gunas, one should try to transcend them. This could be simply understood by the illustration of Sattva which is pure and beneficial yet it cannot be an end for the people seeking liberation (moksha). It’s so because Sattva also tends to bind people with the duality of pleasure and pain as the sattvic person would wish to enjoy pleasure and avoid pain thereby engaging in desire-ridden action that ultimately leads to bondage. One may hold on to Sattva to overcome influence of Rajas and Tamas but his (or her) ultimate endeavour should be to transcend all gunas with a goal to attain liberation (moksha).

Gunaanetaanateetya treendehee dehasamudbhavaan|
Janmamrityujaraaduhkhaurvimuktomritamashnute || 20 ||

(Having gone beyond these three gunas, the creators of the body, the body dweller is freed from sorrow of birth, death and old age, and attains immortality.)
{Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 14, Verse 20}

Bhagavad Gita also explains how a person will conduct when he has transcended the three gunas. He would neither like nor dislike purity, light, passion and delusion which essentially radiate from the three gunas.

Prakaasham cha pravrittim cha mohameva cha paandava |
Na dveshti sampravrittaani na nivrittaani kaankshati || 22 ||

(When light, activity and delusion are present, O Paandava, he does not hate them, nor does he yearn for them when they are absent.)
{Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 14, Verse 22}

By transcending gunas, one would actually understand the real nature of Purusha, Prakriti and gunas. In such case, no worldly action, pleasure or pain will affect or influence him and he will attain liberation.

Ya evam vetti purusham prakritim cha gunaih saha |
Sarvathaa vartamaanopi na sa bhooyobhijaayate || 23 ||

(He who thus knows Purusha and Prakriti, along with the gunas, no matter what his conduct, is never born again.)

Samaduhkhasukhaha svastaha samaloshtashmakanchanaha |
Tulyapriyaapriyo dheerastulyanindaatmasamstuti || 24 ||

(He to whom sorrow and joy are same, he who is established in his self, who regards mud, stone and gold as same, he who treats the dear and the detested as alike, he who is wise, he who treats insult and praise as alike.)

Maanaapamaanayostulyastulyo mitraaripakshayoho |
Sarvaarambhaparityaagee gunaateetaha sa ucchyate || 25 ||

(Alike in honour and in dishonour, alike towards friend or foe, abandoning all activities, such a person is called one who has transcended the gunas.)
{Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 14, Verses 23-25}

Apart from the spiritual upliftment, the knowledge and application of gunas is also helpful to ordinary beings in their day to day life. A good understanding of the gunas would help the person to make right decisions in the life.

  •  A person could choose profession that suits one’s nature and goal in life.
  •  It helps in deciding appropriate friends or life partner whether one wants a contrast or complement according to own nature
  •  One could seek education and academic pursuit best suited to own nature to avoid subsequent stress and conflicts, and consequent sufferance
  •  Transcending gunas is a much higher and ultimate goal and not easy for all to achieve. In such case, parents could assist their children to cultivate the predominance of Sattva, so that they grow up at least with a pleasant and positive personality.

For a spiritual life, the knowledge and understanding of the three gunas is essential to overcome the bondage to the earthly life, an step towards attaining liberation. By understanding the difference among the three gunas and developing and adopting the Sattva in abundance, a person could purify his mind and body to achieve peace and tranquillity. The Sattva content is increased through curtailing desires, selfless service, spiritual knowledge, truthful speech and conduct, worship and devotion, right discernment, faith, right behaviour and conduct as also by performing obligatory duties without greed or attachment.


Each Guna has its own characteristics but it is only a mean and not an end in itself. The Sattva acts like a transparent pane of glass, allowing the light of conscious awareness in the operations of the mind and nature. Sattva takes a person to the path of enlightenment by revealing what is true and real and is not enlightenment itself. It reveals the positive aspects of life such beauty, truth, balance, inspiration, energy, health and contentment. Cultivating sattva takes a person to the right path in life and helps to make right choices that elevate awareness and unselfish joy, a prelude to ultimate goal of liberation.

Rajas represents action and energy of change. It is characterised by the passion, desire, efforts, and consequent pleasure and pain. Rajasic activities might push a person towards Sattva or Tamas as well depending upon his inclination the spiritual understanding or the ignorance. Being action oriented, too much Rajasic content often leaves a person as unstable, agitated and unhappy. As Rajas has a tendency to bring happiness by prompting the coupling of the senses with their objects, it increases the tendency of bondage too through attachment, fruits of action and sensory pleasures.

Tamas falls is the lowest in hierarchy of gunas as it is characterised by the ignorance, lazyness and dullness and consequent tendency to obscure the consciousness. As Tamas is born out of ignorance, it causes delusion that binds the soul through recklessness, indolence and sleep. By nature, Tamas is heavy and dense. A tamasic person would eat stale and impure; his entertainment would be cheap, mindless and intoxicating. When a person is predominantly under the influence of Tamas, both physically and spiritually he falls to lower levels through inaction, lethargy, procrastination and sleep.

To illustrate the above, let's take the example of a college student. He daily attends his classes but does not attempt and assimilate what is dfelivered through lectures. He would be said to be full of Tamas guna because he is idle and indifferent with hardly any knowledge what is going on there. However, the student has a reasonable component of Rajas guna too since he is regularly going to the college and attending the lectures. There is action but as Tamas is prevailing and causing obstruction, he is not able to grasp sattvic virtues by grasping knowledge delivered and his Rajas component is directionless lacking any coordination in Rajas and Sattva.

Like it has been explained in the previous paragraphs citing Bhagavad Gita, the three gunas have inter se rivalry and constant inter play to dominate each other. Having emerged from Prakriti (the primordial nature), they are permanent in essence yet it needs to be remembered that they are only means and not end in themselves. Hence every human being, while endeavouring to manifest and cultivate the sattvic qualities in transient, should remember the ultimate goal of transcending all gunas with a view to attaining liberation.

Continued to Part XI 


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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