In the past few decades, many people outside of India have become acquainted with basic terms of Vedic philosophy — yoga, bhakti, moksha, the guru, karma, and so on. However, one concept that is less commonly understood is that of the three gunas, or the three modes of material nature.
In this article, we provide a comprehensive overview of the three gunas and their role in the day-to-day life of a spiritual practitioner. By understanding how the three modes affect us and influence every aspect of our worldly existence, we gain much needed clarity and confidence about the kind of lifestyle that facilitates spiritual growth.
What are the three gunas?
The Sanskrit word guna refers to a quality or attribute of something. The Vedic literature explains that the total material energy is originally inert and undifferentiated, known as pradhana (the unmanifest). Then, at the beginning of every universal cycle, Lord Vishnu glances over it and infuses it with His impersonal manifestation known as kāla, or Time. This initiates a long chain of cause and effect which manifests the entire cosmos of the material world.
This material energy is comprised of three fundamental qualities, or gunas:
Sattva: Being-ness. This is the mode of equilibrium, stability, maintenance, knowledge, clarity, and satisfaction. A person who cultivates the mode of goodness is purified of material attachments and finds happiness and peace. At the end of life, they attain the higher realms of the devatas.
Rajas: Activity. This is the mode of action, creativity, enterprise, exertion, passion, reproduction, and attachment. A person who cultivates the mode of passion becomes more and more entangled in material activity, and their desires and worldly attachments increase exponentially. At the end of life, they again take birth on Earth in the human species.
Tamas: Inertia. This is the mode of decay, destruction, inactivity, ignorance, lethargy, sleep, and madness. A person who cultivates the mode of ignorance becomes increasingly self-centered, fearful, and unhappy. At the end of life, they take birth in lower species of life, such as plants and animals.
The three gunas of material energy can be compared to the three primary colors—yellow, red, and blue. These three colors combine to create the unlimited variety of color we experience in the world around us. Similarly, the three modes of nature combine together in infinite permutations to generate the many varieties of existence people go through in their lives.
The Powerful Effects of Association
The soul is compared to a crystal. Although colorless, the crystal appears to take on the color of whatever object is placed near it. Similarly, consciousness is pure by nature and does not mix with matter. However, the embodied soul appears to take on the qualities of matter according to the specific modes of nature it contacts. Our sense of “me” and “my personality” is based on our conditioning in the modes of nature—goodness, passion, and ignorance.
Thus, it is very important to pay attention to how we lead our lives, as this will determine what kind of mentality we develop over time. The following table shows how each of the three modes manifests in different areas of life.
|Faith (śraddha)||Worships God.||Worships famous and powerful people.||Worships ghosts.|
|Eating (āhāra)||Pure, healthy foods that give strength and satisfaction.||Food that are overly sour, salty, spicy, or burnt — not conducive for health.||Food that is old, tasteless, rotten, or consisting of the flesh of other creatures.|
|Sacrifice (yajña)||Done as a matter of duty, in accordance with the Vedic injunctions||Done for material benefit or out of pride.||Done whimsically, for selfish purposes or for the sake of harming others.|
|Austerity (tapas)||Performed with faith, concentration, and without attachment for the results.||Done for the sake of fame, prestige, or other material outcomes.||Done blindly, out of intense attachment for the results.|
|Charity (dāna)||Given out of duty, to a worthy person, without expectation for return.||Given out of some personal motive or in a grudging spirit.||Given without respect to an undeserving person.|
|Renunciation (tyāga)||Done for the sake of duty, giving up all material conceptions and associations.||Abandoning one's duties out of frustration or fear.||Giving up responsibilities out of delusion, ignorance, and apathy.|
|Knowledge (jñāna)||Seeing the undivided spiritual nature that unites all beings as servants of God.||Seeing all beings as separate, and striving to exploit others for one's own benefit.||Seeing life in terms of mere survival, with exclusive focus on day-to-day tasks.|
|Action (karma)||Regulated, detached, dutiful, and consistent.||Excessive effort, greatly attached, and with selfish motives.||Self-destructive, violent, without regard for consequences.|
|The Performer (kartā)||Free of false ego, determined, and indifferent to the results.||Motivated by false ego and greatly attached to the results.||Opposed to Vedic tradition and moral and spiritual values.|
|Intelligence (buddhi)||Knows the difference between right and wrong, holy and mundane, that which binds and that which liberates.||Confused about religion and irreligion, and unable to discern right action from wrong action.||Believes self-centered, destructive action is one's religious duty; always strives in the wrong direction|
|Determination (dhṛti)||Firm, unshakeable, in control of the mind and senses.||Dedicated to material pleasure at all costs.||Does not go beyond dreaming, fear, and illusion.|
|Happiness (sukha)||Feels like poison in the beginning, but eventually tastes like nectar.||Tastes sweet in the beginning, but reveals itself to be poisonous in the end.||The happiness of day-dreaming, sleep, lethargy, and ignorance.|
|Universal Position||The higher planetary systems.||Planet Earth.||The lower planetary systems.|
Bondage for the Soul
As shown in the above table, each of the three gunas binds the soul to matter in different ways. From a material point of view, sattva is superior to the other modes, because by sattva one can understand the temporary nature of the material world. However, from the spiritual point of view, each of the modes is equally troublesome, and all three must eventually be given up by one who wishes to attain perfection in spiritual emancipation.
A person controlled by the modes of material nature is like a string puppet in the hands of Maya. Lord Krishna explains that such person blindly follows the promptings of the false ego, unaware of his eternal spiritual existence:
guṇaiḥ karmāṇi sarvaśaḥ
kartāham iti manyate
“The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.” (Bhagavad-gita 3.27)
The only way to break free from the three gunas is to transcend them in devotional service, also known as bhakti, the direct activity of the soul on the platform of pure consciousness. In bhakti, one engages one’s senses in the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna. This quickly elevates our consciousness beyond the three modes of nature to a state of pure spiritual existence.
daivī hy eṣā guṇa-mayī
mama māyā duratyayā
mām eva ye prapadyante
māyām etāṁ taranti te
This divine energy of Mine, consisting of the three modes of material nature, is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it. (Bhagavad-gita 7.14)
māṁ ca yo ’vyabhicāreṇa
sa guṇān samatītyaitān
One who engages in full devotional service, unfailing in all circumstances, at once transcends the modes of material nature and thus comes to the level of Brahman. (Bhagavad-gita 14.26)
Beyond the Three Gunas
Beyond this material cosmic manifestation, there is an eternal realm known as Vaikuntha. This is the eternal region where countless souls live in eternal bliss and harmony, serving the Supreme Person, Sri Krishna, and His innumerable Godhead expansions. The realm of Vaikuntha is described in the Bhagavad-gita as follows:
Yet there is another unmanifest nature, which is eternal and is transcendental to this manifested and unmanifested matter. It is supreme and is never annihilated. When all in this world is annihilated, that part remains as it is.
That which the Vedāntists describe as unmanifest and infallible, that which is known as the supreme destination, that place from which, having attained it, one never returns – that is My supreme abode. (Bhagavad-gita 8.20-21)
All beings want to be happy, and the happiness they seek can be found only in the eternal spiritual reality, not in this temporary realm of birth and death. Therefore, we are encouraging everyone to take up the practice of bhakti yoga in their own life, to experience the results for themselves.
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|Samsara||The Three Gunas||Kala|