The Three Gunas

The Three Gunas (Triguna) and the Four Human Goals (Purusharthas) by Srivatsa Ramaswami

According to Yoga and other sibling philosophies, the entire universe is made of the three gunas: satwa, rajas and tamas, and these permeate everything everywhere (including all of us), each dominating in varying degrees. Due to the preponderance of one of these gunas in each individual, different human beings follow different goals. Even as everyone’s desire is to get happiness and get rid of unhappiness, each one, depending upon his or her guna temperament, pursues different means and goals (arthas) for their satisfaction or happiness.                                                                                                                                        The three gunas are satwa, rajas and tamas. The four purusharthas, or human goals, are dharma (order), artha (material possession), kama (sensual desires) and moksha (spiritual freedom). A satvic person is inclined towards dharma, while the rajasic, tamasic and the one who is able to go beyond the influence of all the gunas (gunateeta) are attracted respectively towards artha, karma and moksha. These four are called purusharthas or chatur-vidha-purushartha (four different human endeavours/goals). Persons, whose personality is predominantly satvic, follow dharma as a goal of their lives for happiness. Dharma is the law of piety, compassion, and orderly life. They follow the benevolent dictates of the scriptures, the laws of the land, leading a life consistent with the gods of nature. It is anathema for them to cross the laws of dharma. Such dharmis are said to lead a very peaceful life here and hereafter, as they, who are said to be in a small minority, do and accumulate good karmas.

The rajasic people are like the proverbial “A” type personalities. Highly energetic and mostly restless, they pursue very down to earth policies and follow the goal of artha or material possessions. More wealth and more power give them happiness and the means are less important than the goals. Only a few who follow this lifelong pursuit of possessions and power ever attain sustained success, leading to collective unhappiness. The happiness of the majority of them rises with the tide of increasing possessions and ebbs with the loss of wealth and power.

We have then the third group of people who are dominated by tamas. It is said tamas, because it veils the intellect, makes such people short-sighted. Their happiness lies in sensual gratification. Tasty food, frequent tactile stimulus, attractive visual objects and captivating sounds dominate their lives. When the senses over a period of time lose their acuity, they have less room to be happy and fall into a state of depression as they get older.

Then there are the spiritual yogis who relentlessly follow the path of spiritual wisdom and intuitively understand the nature of the ever present, non-changing nature of their own Self and reach a state of kaivalya or moksha or spiritual freedom. In this state, according to Yogis, the three gunas reach a state of equilibrium.

This, the yogis call a state of ‘nirodha of the mind’, or a state the Lord in the Gita calls gunateeta or beyond the dominance of the gunas. This state leads to a permanent and irrevocable state of peace of mind and the yogis aver that it is superior to the other variable and unstable states of happiness; superior to that attained by sensual gratification of the tamasic personality or the happiness arising out of possessions of the rajasic, or even the dharmic life of a satvic person.

Though the satvic state of happiness is superior to the other two, even that is said to be impermanent. Hence the Lord urges everyone, through his disciple Arjuna in the Gita, to go from tamas to rajas and then to satya and ultimately transcend all the gunas. It is easier said than done.

But how is it done? Only Yoga comes with specific measures to change the individual personalities. One can transform a tamasic mind to a rajasic bent by practice of pranayama, in addition to the observance of yama and niyamas. The observance of a well-designed practice of asanas will reduce the addictive influence of rajas and hence a yogi who practices asana and pranayama will become more and more satvic, thanks to the reduction of tamas and rajas. And by spiritual meditation one will be able to transcend all the three Gunas.

So, as Lord Krishna says, “Tatha yogi bhava Arjuna”, (Therefore become a Yogi). One should practice Yoga. You will agree?


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