gunas

The 3 Gunas of Nature (Sattva, Rajas and Tamas)

Published on
September 12, 2019

In the philosophy of Yoga, all matter in the universe arises from the fundamental substrate called Prakriti. From this ethereal Prakriti the three primary gunas (qualities of energy) emerge creating the essential aspects of all nature—energy, matter, and consciousness. These three gunas are tamas (darkness & chaos), rajas (activity & passion), and sattva (beingness & harmony). The awareness and conscious manipulation of the three gunas are a powerful way to reduce stress, increase inner peace and lead one towards enlightenment.

What is a guna?

Guna is a Sanskrit word which translates as “quality, peculiarity, attribute, or tendency.” In yoga and Ayurveda, a guna is a tattva or element of reality that can affect our psychological, emotional and energetic states. The three gunas were created as an essential component of Sankhya philosophy but the gunas are now a major concept in most schools of Indian philosophy. The three gunas are described as being constantly influx and interacting with one another, in a playful state referred to as maya or illusion. The patterns of the interplay of the gunas can define the essential qualities of someone or something, and these patterns can highly influence the path and progress of life. For yoga practitioners, awareness of the gunas provides a GPS to allow us to make choices to be more balanced, peaceful and harmonious both on and off our mat. Cultivating the ability to identify and understand the nature of the gunas brings us closer to seeing the universal truth of oneness.

The three gunas: Tamas, Rajas, and Sattva

All three gunas are always present in all beings and objects surrounding us but vary in their relative amounts. We humans have the unique ability to consciously alter the levels of the gunas in our bodies and minds. The gunas cannot be separated or removed in oneself but can be consciously acted upon to encourage their increase or decrease. A guna can be increased or decreased through the interaction and influence of external objects, lifestyle practices and thoughts.

Qualities of the three gunas

Tamas is a state of darkness, inertia, inactivity, and materiality. Tamas manifests from ignorance and deludes all beings from their spiritual truths. Other tamasic qualities are laziness, disgust, attachment, depression, helplessness, doubt, guilt, shame, boredom, addiction, hurt, sadness, apathy, confusion, grief, dependency, ignorance.

Rajas is a state of energy, action, change, and movement. The nature of rajas is of attraction, longing and attachment and rajas strongly bind us to the fruits of our work. Other rajasic qualities are anger, euphoria, anxiety, fear, irritation, worry, restlessness, stress, courage, rumination, determination, chaos.

Sattva is a state of harmony, balance, joy, and intelligence. Sattva is the guna that yogis achieve towards as it reduces rajas and tamas and thus makes liberation possible. Other sattvic qualities are delight, happiness, peace, wellness, freedom, love, compassion, equanimity, empathy, friendliness, focus, self-control, satisfaction, trust, fulfillment, calmness, bliss, cheerfulness, gratitude, fearlessness, selflessness.

Rajas

Sattva

Tamas

ActivityTruth / GoodnessInertia & inactivity
Passion, desire & attachmentLight, harmony & balanceDarkness, delusion & ignorance
EnergySpiritual EssenceMass / matter / heaviness
ExpansionUpward flowDownward flow
MovementIntelligence & consciousnessSloth & dullness
Binds by means of passion and craving.Binds by means of attachment to knowledge and joy.Binds by means of ignorance and obstruction.

Working With the Gunas

The mind’s psychological qualities are highly unstable and can quickly fluctuate between the different gunas. The predominant guna of the mind acts as a lens that affects our perceptions and perspective of the world around us. Thus, if the mind is in rajas it will experience world events as chaotic, confusing and demanding and it will then have a strong tendency to continue to react to events in a rajasic way. Therefore, for yogis to make progress along the path we must practice self-observation and discernment to witness and not react to the activities of the gunas.  We must also have the inner-strength and willpower to consciously shift our thoughts and actions away from tamas and rajas towards sattvic balance and purpose.

To reduce tamas avoid tamasic foods, oversleeping, overeating, inactivity, passivity and fearful situations. Tamasic foods include heavy meats and foods that are spoiled, chemically treated, processed or refined. For more info read A Yogi’s Practical Guide to Balancing Tamas Guna.

To reduce rajas avoid rajasic foods, over-exercising, overwork, loud music, excessive thinking and consuming excessive material goods. Rajasic foods include fried foods, spicy foods, and stimulants. For more info read Reducing Rajas Guna: A Yogi’s How-To Guide.

To increase sattva reduce both rajas and tamas, eat sattvic foods and enjoy activities and environments that produce joy and positive thoughts. Sattvic foods include whole grains and legumes and fresh fruits and vegetables that grow above the ground. All of the yogic practices were developed to create sattva in the mind and body. Thus, practicing yoga and leading a yogic lifestyle strongly cultivates sattva.

All gunas create attachment and thus bind one’s self to the ego. “When one rises above the three gunas that originate in the body; one is freed from birth, old age, disease, and death; and attains enlightenment” (Bhagavad Gita 14.20). While the yogi’s goal is to cultivate sattva, his or her ultimate goal is to transcend their misidentification of the self with the gunas and to be unattached to both the good and the bad, the positive and negative qualities of all life.

Not sure what your primary guna is?

Check out our yoga quiz, What Is Your Primary Guna, to find out in just a few minutes if your general personality tends towards tamas, rajas, or sattva guna.

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35 responses to “The 3 Gunas of Nature (Sattva, Rajas and Tamas)”

  1. wolfgangcaesar Avatar
    wolfgangcaesar

    Garlic and ginger root, spicy curry, and cinnamon are rajasic due to there spicyness? What about carrots, beets, turnips; vegetables that are not spicy and grow underground? Fermentation counts as spoiling, processing and refining placing alchohol and kambucha in the tamas category, or no? How about culturing like cheese and yogurt? Seeds and nuts?

  2. lilimaria Avatar
    lilimaria

    Have you ever looked into Ayureda? I won’t go into what Ayurveda is, however, if you do a little research and learn about what that is, you can learn about what constitution you are dominant in. (There are 3 which you can figure out by doing a simple survey)
    Anyway, depending on your constitution, or dosha, you can learn about what kinds of foods to avoid so you are not aggravated and energetic.

    I think basically though, just stay in tune with your body…EXPERIENCE what it feels like to eat these foods. How is your mind and energy affected? Don’t just eat heavy meats because you read so… eat heavy meats and perhaps feel why it’s not the best for you.
    Everything in moderation too. This is important.

    :)

    1. Neil Avatar
      Neil

      Everything in moderation…’? Surely that must include moderation itself which I interpret as periodic moderation,
      excess and denial, or am I missing something?

  3. lilimaria Avatar
    lilimaria

    I mean, don’t NOT just eat heavy meats because you read so.

  4. Lisa Lofthouse Avatar
    Lisa Lofthouse

    Great website! I am teaching a workshop this weekend on the Gunas and elevating Sattva so was looking for reliable, well thought out explanations and came upon this site. Cool thing is I took a workshop with Tim Burgin about 5 years ago taught by Yoganand when he was in S. Carolina. I think it was “Asanas as Spiritual Doorways”. Anyway I am happy to have found this site and look forward to discovering more…. thanks Tim!! I love Kripalu and Pranakriya yoga as I feel it is based on the truest aspects of Yoga as a spiritual path.

    1. Timothy Burgin Avatar
      Timothy Burgin

      Hi Lisa, I’m glad to hear from you and I’m happy you found this info helpful!

  5. Baldev singh Avatar
    Baldev singh

    good explanation of gunas.

  6. Admin Avatar
    Admin

    Tamas dont have to do with what you eat, many people arguing here that curd and cheese are equally fermented and spoiled as alcohol. Similarly, carrots or vegetables grow underground so they are bad. I don’t think its true, eating carrot, cheese, curd, or vegetables is not harmful, infact they are essestial. Some times in some dosha they can also be bad. But in my opinion tamsikta is a prakriti. And it is not formed by eating, rather it is relative. For something that lives in darkness, light can be tamasik, someone that lives in brightness dark can be tamasik. It is a nature and nature is relative.

  7. Niki Avatar
    Niki

    I’m just starting out on my yoga teacher training journey and I found this piece really easy to read, highly informative and just what I was looking for. So thank you. And Namaste x

  8. Stevie Avatar
    Stevie

    “The wise see clearly that all action is the work of the gunas. Knowing that which is above the gunas, they enter into union with Me.’ -B. Gita 14-19

    Wonderful and thoughtful explanation of the gunas, Timothy. And your response to ‘exploring’ foods to experience the gunas is profound. Thank you for your openness and compassion. The Divine Mother has guided me, became my Guru in visions/dreams and Her guidance has no words to describe its impact. Kriya yoga is the path to God. But we must surrender what we have accepted and ‘think’ we are. Thank you for your energy kind Sir.
    Om KaliMa!

  9. Mohammed Adil Qureshi Avatar
    Mohammed Adil Qureshi

    This is really helpful knowledge that you provied thank you

  10. Zak Avatar
    Zak

    I find your notion of the guna misleading as it states that yogis focuse purely on sattva to attain a pure state, when it is clear that a balance of the gunas is more appropriate to lead to a higher state…. a person focused purely on sattva will simply live in a fairy wonderland and be out of balance with the nature of life.

  11. Rishi R, Avatar
    Rishi R,

    Really good explanation of Tri-Gunas. I want to add it in my phd report (citation).

  12. Dr Tarun Jain Avatar
    Dr Tarun Jain

    I wanted to cite your blog in my research …needed the date of the article please

    1. Timothy Burgin Avatar
      Timothy Burgin

      Sep 14, 2004

  13. santosh george Avatar
    santosh george

    Mm….nice website to know about gunas.

    No other website teach as in your website…..!!!…

  14. Maria Williquette Avatar
    Maria Williquette

    I have been finding your articles, TB, so helpful deep, accessible, etc. Thank you so much for taking the time to publish your work!!

  15. Gunnhild Aakervik Avatar
    Gunnhild Aakervik

    Thanks for the useful discussion of the three gunas of Prakriti. I think the explanation of balancing the gunas is essential even if we stuggle for a sattvic quality. So useful information as I try to include the theory of yoga into what I have experiendced of yin/yang and how to understand the different sides of the mind, It is great to study more and I am now attending a yoga instrutor course that is so interesting and challeging.

  16. jenna Avatar
    jenna

    Is Pakriti made-up of the three Gunas?

    1. Timothy Burgin Avatar
      Timothy Burgin

      Yes!

  17. Phillip Boyd Avatar
    Phillip Boyd

    Hey, this is some awesome info on the gunas! Thanks soooo much!!

  18. v.pillay Avatar
    v.pillay

    This is very interesting…thanks!

  19. Sharada Murthy Avatar
    Sharada Murthy

    Hi Tim, can I use some of the wonderful and easy to understand explanations of gunas that you have given in this article?

    Thanks in advance,

    1. Timothy Burgin Avatar
      Timothy Burgin

      I’m glad you enjoyed the explanations. Use how exactly?

  20. Seth Kannan Avatar
    Seth Kannan

    This is an awesome topic. I have always wondered about the three gunas of nature. My understanding is that they are sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattvic is pure or good, rajastic is active or dynamic and tamic is inert or passive. Can anyone explain these concepts further? How does it relate to our human existence?

  21. Adam Bernstein Avatar
    Adam Bernstein

    What about ordinary inert objects that are not food, like a pebble, a cloud, a plate, a tire? Each has a beginning, middle and end, so all three gunas must be there, but which is prominent? Are there sattvik pebbles and tamasic pebbles? How to distinguish?

    1. V Razdan Avatar
      V Razdan

      All static things and animals have inherent tamas gunas (ref: Shiv Purana)
      All human beings have inherent rajas gunas (ref: Shiv Purana)
      All deities (devas) have inherent satvik gunas (ref: Shiv Purana)

  22. Alexander Green Avatar
    Alexander Green

    Interesting article! I had never heard of the concept of gunas before. One thing that stands out to me is the idea that each person has a unique combination of gunas. I wonder how one can determine their own guna makeup?

  23. Abigail B Avatar
    Abigail B

    this article has made me more aware of the subtle influences of the Gunas in my life and the world around me.

  24. Mia Clark Avatar
    Mia Clark

    I’m curious to find out what my primary guna is! I’ll definitely check out the yoga quiz mentioned in the article. It’s interesting to learn how the mind’s predominant guna can affect our perception of the world around us.

  25. Emma Rodriguez Avatar
    Emma Rodriguez

    I can see how being aware of the gunas can be like having a GPS for life. It helps us make choices that lead to Sattva, the ultimate goal for yogis – a state of harmony, joy, and intelligence. Who wouldn’t want more of that in their lives? Sign me up!

  26. Noah Anderson Avatar
    Noah Anderson

    I find it interesting that the mind’s predominant guna can act as a lens that affects our perception of the world. It makes sense that if our mind is in a rajasic state, we’ll see everything as chaotic and demanding. Self-observation and discernment are key!

  27. Kerrie Avatar
    Kerrie

    The ultimate goal of a yogi is to transcend their identification with the gunas and be unattached to the ups and downs of life. Easier said than done, but worth striving for! 🙏

  28. Ava Reynolds Avatar
    Ava Reynolds

    The Bhagavad Gita quote about rising above the gunas and attaining enlightenment is so powerful. I’m definitely going to check out the yoga quiz to find out what my primary guna is!

  29. Andrew Martinez Avatar
    Andrew Martinez

    The fact that gunas cannot be separated or removed but can be acted upon consciously is a powerful reminder that we have control over our own well-being. Remembering to practice self-observation and discernment rather than reacting impulsively to life events can help us maintain sattvic balance and purpose.

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Timothy Burgin Avatar
About the author
Timothy Burgin is a Kripalu & Pranakriya trained yoga instructor living and teaching in Asheville, NC. Timothy has studied and taught many styles of yoga and has completed a 500-hour Advanced Pranakriya Yoga training. Timothy has been serving as the Executive Director of YogaBasics.com since 2000. He has authored two yoga books and has written over 500 articles on the practice and philosophy of yoga. Timothy is also the creator of Japa Mala Beads and has been designing and importing mala beads since 2004.
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