The Three Gunas

The Three Gunas April 14, 2014

(Note: I am on my honeymoon this week, so if your comment doesn’t show up right away, give me a day or two!)

I promised you a post about the gunas!

So the word “guna” (Goooona) is usually translated as “quality” as in the types of qualities that things are made of.

It is said that everything in creation has some combination of the three qualities in differing amounts.


This one is energy, passion, anger, movement


This one is inertia, dullness, laziness


This one is peace, serenity, calm

One of the goals in human life is to try to increase our sattva and decrease the other two.

Some people believe that the food we eat has an effect and that we should eat sattvic food and avoid rajasic and tamasic foods (this is the reason why some groups of Hindus avoid spicy food, onions, and garlic). This is also why leftovers are not a part of a traditional diet. That’s tricky because on the one hand, leftover food is tamasic but on the other hand using leftovers is efficient and saves money.

I had a professor in college (in a class on The Mahabharata, can you believe how lucky I was?!) who had an unusual perspective on it. He believes that there are really only two guna: rajas and tamas and that sattva is created by having the right balance of the other two.

I’ve said more than once that I feel like I have a higher amount of tamas than most people. I tend to see more rajas in the average person. More passion and dedication than I tend to be able to muster. (Now, part of that could be dealing with intermitent depression.) My parents don’t like when I say this, but I don’t mean it as an excuse. I mean it as I know what I need to work on! Being aware of my tendency towards tamas, I can correct for it.

One great way of understanding the world through the gunas is in the example of love. When I learned about this, it really stuck with me. We tend to think of love as a single emotion, but it can manifest in very different ways, actually. Love as an emotion can also have a guna quality.

Pure, selfless, true love is sattvic love. Giving to that person only increases your own joy and peace. Even if they are with someone else, you want above all for them to be truely happy and you don’t feel like you have to posess them.

Rajasic love is possessive and jealous. You must have the other person and you feel easily threatened. This is the crazy mindset of “If I can’t have you, no one can, so I’ll kill you.”

Tamasic love is emotionally needy. It is requiring the other person to fix you.

There are even guna qualities to different times of day. This is why it is encouraged to get up by dawn and meditate or pray at the first light of day. That is a very sattvic time.

This website points out that gurus have guna qualities too:

Unfortunately guru as everything in material world can be in all three gunas. True, sattvic guru represents a chain of teacher-diciple relations and follows ancient scriptures not only in words but also in his every day life. He doesn’t criticize other religions nor he promises an  easy and rapid way. Rajasic teachers are prone to criticism and separatism, often invent their own ways or “improve” already existing old practices. Tamasic leaders are violent and extreme.

But, as Krishna says in The Gita, in enlightenment, a person is not under the sway of any of the gunas:

“They are unmoved by the harmony of sattva, the activity of rajas, or the delusion of tamas. They feel no aversion when these forces are active, nor do they crave for them when these forces subside.”

Check out this gorgeous guna diagram from

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  • Derek_anny

    I’ve always understood the gunas differently, but still through the lens of those three Gods. Vishnu as the active initiator, Brahma as the stable preserver, and Shiva as the restful ender.

    Like a spinning top, the motion starts with Rajas, the spinning goes on through Sattva, and it stops turning and rests with Tamas.

    I wish I could remember where to cite where that idea came from. I’ll try to remember to look through my books when I get the unpacked.

    • Ambaa

      That’s a really interesting description!

      • Derek_anny

        I got Them mixed up from my source. My visual still kinda works, but it doesn’t agree with the citation. (Myths and Gods of India, Alain Danielou). He has Brahma still linked to starting and sattva, and Vishnu to continuance and rajas.

        Sattva he calls a “centripetal force”, the binding-together, kind of like gravity. Tamas he calls a “centrifugal force”, the dissolution, kind of like entropy. Rajas he calls a “revolving tendency”, the maintainer, kind of like inertia “an object in motion tends to stay in motion.

  • Peter Nowak

    Eating leftovers of food not only save money it is also a meritorious act because there are many hungry people in the world and it would be a sin (as I think it would create bad karma) to throw away food while other people suffer from hunger.

    Also your teacher is obviously wrong! Sattva cannot be the result of the ballance of the two other gunas because the three gunas come from Mahat (the cosmic intellect) which means: from above not from below.

  • Seva Sidorenko

    Wrong picture Vishnu rules over Sattva and Brahma over rajas