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Sattva, Rajas & Tamas – The 3 Gunas

25 August 2015

Within Hindu (including Tantric/Yogic) philosophy, the manner in which the universe manifests itself is described with numerous intersecting and overlapping concepts, explaining how Brahman (as the non-dual consciousness) becomes duality; bringing the material (observable) universe into being.

Brahman’s very impulse to know itself as ‘other than self’ is considered to be the reason the universe exists, as Brahman is the ultimate essence of material phenomena. The sages of the Upanishads teach that Brahman is characterized as having the ultimate freedom to do or become anything, being (or containing) the source of all things

This impulse prompts Brahman to split into Prakriti (un-manifest matter) and Purusha (pure consciousness), the original cause all creative processes.

The Sanskrit term Prakriti comes from the root words ‘Pra’ (before) and ‘Kri’ (to make); and so can be interpreted as “prior to anything being made.”

Prakriti is entirely composed of the three Gunas; Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.

The Gunas are the measured qualities of the manifest world and combine their various forms as the mind, the senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) and the elements (earth, water, fire, wind, space) and virtually all that can be known, including the knower.

When viewed in this way, Prakriti is the actual source of the world and everything in it.

The Gunas are associated with various qualities and when these qualities are combined they can be used to describe any “thing”. Some of the qualities inherent in each Guna are:

  • – Sattva– Positive energy, harmony, balance, unity, happiness, light, spirituality, “beingness”; Sattva is the higher or spiritual potential.
  • – Rajas– Energy, action, change, movement, creativity; the intermediate or life potential.
  • – Tamas– Laziness, heaviness, impurity, darkness, sleepy, dullness, inertia, inactivity, materiality; the lower or material potential.

These three Gunas co-exist, merging to form all objects, people and “things” in varying degrees.

One Guna is usually predominant over the others, and so certain tendencies (heavy, light, dark, warm, hot, dry etc.) become associated with objects, and this forms a part of how we understand and relate to the world as it is perceived. The predominant Guna is dynamic (not static) and may change over time.

The significance of the Gunas in regard to human beings is how they manifest in our health, the food we eat, our thoughts, our actions, our moods, the seasons of the year and weather and so on.

In Yoga practice, it’s preferable to work towards a more Sattvic lifestyle. Some Rajas may be necessary, but minimizing Tamas should be the primary goal for attaining optimal health and wellbeing.

When Sattva is increased it naturally and automatically reduces Rajas and Tamas. The Yogi or student achieves this by maintaining Sattvic thoughts, diet, lifestyle and home/work environments etc. The more Sattvic your body, mind and life becomes, the more peace and joy you and those around you are likely to experience.

When minimizing Rajas, keep in mind a balance must be maintained. If Rajas is eliminated in your life, you won’t have the necessary desire to keep living, working and doing things. On the other hand, too much Rajas will manifest as aggressiveness, cruelty, carelessness. Rajas can be reduced by regulating your diet (not eating too much Rajasic food), and avoiding excessive or extreme behaviors (working, partying, even exercising too much).

Tamas is not entirely ‘bad’ as such, but the amount of Tamas in your life does need to be carefully managed because too much can result in depression, fear, obesity and negativity. Tamas is reduced by avoiding over-sleeping, over-eating or being slothful or inactive and also with diet (by avoiding Tamasic foods).

The Gunas and their relationship to foods…

For optimal health, it’s imperative to pay attention to the foods we eat as our diet greatly impacts both our physical and mental wellbeing.

The Gunas of food aren’t limited to just the food itself, but also its current condition; whether it’s fresh, stale, rotting etc. The way food is treated is also a major factor; different methods of storing, cooking or preserving can also change the state of the food, and consequently the Gunas.

Some common foods and the Gunas they’re represented by…

  • – Sattvic food: Cereals, whole-grain bread, fresh fruit & vegetables, pure fruit juices, legumes, nuts, seeds, herb teas. Eating “mindfully” contributes to a food’s Sattvic quality.
  • – Rajasic food: All hot substances & stimulants; fried food, coffee & tea, spices, fish, eggs, salt & pepper, chocolate/sugary foods. Eating hastily is considered Rajasic and bad for the digestion and assimilation of food.
  • – Tamasic food: Meat, alcohol, tobacco, onions, garlic, fermented foods, stale foods overripe foods, processed foods and leftovers. Overeating is also regarded as Tamasic.

Sattvic food has been shown to be the most ideal for those practicing yoga. By eating a Sattvic diet you’re supporting a peaceful state of body and mind and meditation comes more naturally and is less easily disturbed.

An imbalance in favor of too much Rajas will destroy one’s equilibrium. It will also over-stimulate the body and make the mind restless, overactive and unduly energetic resulting in a tense and willful (or aggressive) disposition.

An overly Tamasic diet weakens and/or destroys the body’s immune system and tends to fill the mind with negative thoughts and emotions like anger, fear and greed.

Purification of the Gunas is essential for spiritual evolution and for that evolution to take place Sattva must predominate moment to moment in one’s body and mind.

The three gunas can also be associated with the Trimurti (‘three Gods’ or ‘three forms’) which describes the three faces of god as being:

  • Brahma (the Creator/Sattva)
  • Vishnu (the Preserver/Rajas)
  • Shiva (the Destroyer/Tamas)

The symbolism of the Trimurti conveys that all three gods (and by extension, everything in this universe) are really all part of the one supreme consciousness (Brahman).

The creation of living forms cannot occur in a vacuum (it must exist in time and space); so along with creation (Sattva), there must also be change (Rajas) and dissolution/death (Tamas).

Rae Indigo is ERYT 500

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