Eastern Philosophy for Your Western Life: The Three Gunas

By Tom Charles

For Rob – “Hold it lightly”

Walking down a busy London street, having just done one task, another to do, plus my whole life to sort out, my mind was on repeat: I’m gonna do this, gonna do that; I’ve gotta do this, gotta do that. It was not a welcome state of mind.

Another day, same grey stretch of road, a feeling of heaviness is on me, and the same fraught thoughts of what-to-do; dis-ease. Earlier that day I had been fine and dandy, so I wondered why this disquiet had attached itself to me again.

I couldn’t name the sensation and the confusion only made it worse. If I’d known what was going in, I wouldn’t have minded so much. Then I remembered something that was explained to me many moons ago: The three gunas. I understood my agitation immediately.

According to Hindu philosophy, the three gunas are the three aspects of energy that are everywhere; within us, surrounding us, defining everything here on Earth and beyond. They are qualities of being, said to underlie all natural phenomena. They are rarely spoken about here in the UK, but they are an effective way of describing the full spectrum of emotions and states that we encounter.

The three gunas are known as:

Sattva, the guna of light, in both senses of the word. It provides enlightenment to a person’s mind and it also increases light heartedness. In these ways Sattva is associated with happiness, creativity, bliss, inner stillness and alertness. You can never have too much Sattva.

Rajas is the guna of movement. In a human, it could refer to body or mind. We all need to move, anything we do requires rajas, but as we gain momentum, rajas can become too strong and we become agitated.

Tamas is the guna of heaviness, resistance, fatigue and inertia, counteracting rajas. A surfeit of tamas means sloth, boredom or atrophy.

I’d been told about the gunas some years before my satori, and had occasionally thought about them, identifying a scenario and then asking which guna best described it. After a big lunch – tamas; commuting – rajas; writing, drawing, connecting – sattva.

Uzoma, ‘a fusion of all 3 Gunas’ by OddKinCreate


According to Hindu philosophy, the gunas come from the divine, or the unmanifest, oneness, no-thing, the absolute, God or insert whichever name is appropriate. The gunas are in all beings and in all nature. The three are always present in combination, but one will predominate at any given moment.

I’m no guna expert, but I can’t think of a state of mind or being that I can’t apply a guna to. For the sake of this article, let’s take the concept of the three gunas as read and consider our existence and energy.

Accepting the gunas’ existence, it follows that we can act upon this knowledge right now, and it also follows that we will naturally want to increase our levels of the most attractive guna, sattva. More on sattva…

Sattva lets the light in, opening the heart so that love may flow and we can be at one with the world around us. It sounds frothy, but do you never feel like this, even fleetingly? To increase sattva, we need to focus, giving maximum attention to what we are doing. This increases sattva and sattva in turn increases our flair for being attentive. We can also be mindful of which activities and routines increase our sattva and which leave us feeling heavy or overwhelmed.

With sattva,  we experience consciousness of unchanging stillness. In transcendental meditation, and in any form of transcendence, the practitioner goes deep within and extracts energy for re-use. The result is more happiness, patience and peace.

The philosophy has it that sattva will predominate in a state of natural law, that light heartedness is our natural human state. This is why we become so upset when we feel dis-ease, and we struggle against it. We search for peace, or we could say we search for balance, and we find it with increased sattva.

We are drawn to stillness because it is our natural state, when mind, body and spirit are united. In this state, our hearts open naturally to others and to ourselves.

Sattva is welcome news. But it is never alone, the other two gunas are always present. While sattva energises us, too much rajas or tamas drains us. You may find today that rajas has been prominent for you. If so, you will have been active, perhaps over-thinking or over-worked. Rajas is always accompanied by tamas or sattva, and one of them will characterise your inner experience during movement.

'gahu' by Angel Lewis. 'Figures whirling in space, the colour vibrations symbolising their rate of movement'.
Gahu, ‘Figures whirling in space, the colour vibrations symbolising their rate of movement’ by Angel Lewis

Surfing the crest of a wave, the surfer needs rajas to move but may experience more sattva as they give absolute attention to the activity. On a long drive on a motorway, the driver needs rajas to concentrate and to operate the car, but tamas, through monotony, is likely to be predominant.

Tamas is also necessary, and the philosophy suggests that it functions as the glue that holds us together. It is always there, providing resistance. In excess, you’ll be miserable and bored, but without it you might be lost. When sattva is absent and the monkey mind takes over, it is tamas that shows us a way home.

In my example, rajas was all around me – people, traffic, noise and repetitive thoughts. Tamas gave it its heavy quality; that dull grey street, grey weather and my churning grey mood.

There are also places and times that we can associate with different gunas. Winter might carry a tamasic quality; dark and cold, a time to consolidate, while Spring or Summer might seem more sattvic; lighter and more energised. A busy London high street might mean rajas, while an unspoilt beach on an island paradise might promote sattva.

People also tend to manifest more of one guna than the others in their personalities and their being. This is more commonly referred to as their ‘energy’. Some people are light and fun, seemingly attentive and available, sattvic. Some people are a whirl of intense action, talk and stress, rajas. Some people have a heavier, slower quality, tamas. Me? I’m Thomas…

If the gunas are constantly at play, now is always the time to explore them, to consider our experience of existence and to increase our energy and effectiveness with sattva.

Three Gooners suffering as they are thrashed 3-0 by Wednesday
Three Gooners suffering as they are thrashed 3-0 by Wednesday. Sattva and Rajas in the background, Tamas in the foreground. Photo: Getty Images




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