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The Play of The Gunas


Everything in our world has a certain quality to it. Whether hot, cold, fast or slow, deep or shallow, rough or smooth, fiery, stable or decaying, there are an infinite number of ingredients that make up each moment and the world around us. These qualities also change. Life today isn’t the same as it was last year or even last week, and the quality of how we feel in the morning may change when we reach the evening hours. We can observe the qualities of nature’s changing seasons as they pass; the greens, yellows, reds and bare branches hinting at the cyclical nature of life itself.

Originally a concept derived from Samkhya philosophers, these qualities are referred to in Hinduism and yogic culture as the gunas. Like many Sanskrit words, there doesn’t seem to be a singular translation for guna, but it can be thought of as ‘string, thread, quality, attribute or property’. These descriptive words indicate that the gunas are the qualities that thread through life, linking one action to another, and are innately connected. The texts most shared in the West today such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, and writing based upon Ayurvedic principles all include the gunas, and refer to them as the underlying qualities that effect everything in prakriti, the Sanskrit term for ‘nature’.

The gunas even effect our actions, as this exerpt from the Bhagavad Gita itself tells us;

‘Action that is virtuous, thought through, free from attachment, and without craving for results is considered Sattvic; Action that is driven purely by craving for pleasure, selfishness and much effort is Rajasic; Action that is undertaken because of delusion, disregarding consequences, without considering loss or injury to others or self, is called Tamasic’.

— Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 18, verses 23–25

Internationally renowned Ayurvedic practitioner and author David Frawley translates the gunas as ‘what binds’, indicating they are the very forces of nature that keep us bound to the external world, underlying matter, life and mind. The play of the gunas is evident throughout nature, both in the world and within ourselves.

Rajas, Sattva & Tamas

The three primary gunas present in all matter in this world are Rajas, Sattva and Tamas. Rajas is the passionate, active force. Fiery in nature and full of momentum, but somewhat confused and undirected, linked to emotional outbursts and all craving and desire. Sattva is purity, balanced in nature and harmonious. Sattva is a state of presence, neither craving nor grieving, joyful and content, and true goodness. Tamas is inertia, dark and slothful. It is ignorant, lazy, heavy and impure. All three of these gunas or qualities are present in varying amounts at all times. We can move from rajas to sattva to tamas quite easily, and from tamas to rajas and sattva too. The state most of us are trying to get to is sattva, balance and joy, and a feeling of overall contentment, and we probably do feel this fleetingly from day to day, even if just for a moment. Sattva isn’t to be confused with enlightenment or Samadhi, it is still part of the whirling mind and incessant rollercoaster of human emotions – it could just be thought of as the part at the top of the rollercoaster before you’re aware of the impending drop – clear and quiet, neither moving up nor down.

Recognising Rajas

You may be able to observe rajassic tendiencies in yourself or those around you, your food or even the energy of the day itself. If you teach yoga you might notice rajas in your students, and this can all help bring more awareness as to why things are the way they are, and allow us to act from a wiser, more informed place. A feeling of impatience or busy-ness can be rajassic, as can an erratic mind or an asana practice full of fast movements, competitive tendencies and a ‘no pain no gain’ attitude. Rajas isn’t all bad – we need it to feel stimulated, to create new ideas and have the energy to put them to work. Rajas makes us feel passionately about something, it kicks us into making spur-of-the-moment decisions (good or bad), and is the quality of motion and enthusiasm.

Rajassic foods tend to be hot and spicy, bitter, sour or pungent, and can cause the person eating them to reflect rajassic qualities. Chillies, spices, sour apples, millet and corn, cauliflower, broccoli, sour cream, fish and chicken, tobacco and coffee. Consider how you feel before and after eating foods like these. Do they cause more irritability, a sense of dissatisfaction and therefore craving? Do they make you feel hot, inflamed, or unsettled?

Turning To Tamas

Tamassic tendencies include low energy and dullness, lethargy and inertia. Ignorance and an unwillingness to listen or heed advice is tamassic, as is being physically unhygienic or living in messy surroundings. Someone experienging tamas may feel physically and psychologically heavy, selfish and may continually look to the past rather than the present or future. Tamas makes us give up on things, lack in self belief and act upon more primitive urges rather than considered, wise choices.

Tamassic foods are heavy and often stale, transferring the qualities of tamas to those who eat is. Red meat, alcohol and tobacco can be tamassic, as can overripe or leftover foods. Overly processed foods are tamassic, as are foods prepared by someone who is negative or angry. Consider how you feel before and after eating tamassic foods. Do you feel inspired or lethargic? Do you feel heavy or ‘down’? Tamassic foods are those that do not impart any positive energy or prana (life force) to us; they merely reduce it.

Settling With Sattva

Sattvic characteristcs are pure and harmonious. Neither craving for the future nor looking to the past, someone in a sattvic state is content in the moment, without the need for external sources like alcohol, drugs, sugary foods, more money, more entertainment or satisfaction. Actions performed from a sattvic state cause no harm, and are done from a place of non-attachment and wisdom. Sattvic tendencies include doing things for others without the need for reward, taking part in something you love and entering a state of ‘flow’ or meditation, and spending time in nature, being present to the moment.

Sattvic foods are pure, light in quality and often use no strong spices. They intend to improve a person’s quality of being, are easily digested and contribute to longevity. Sprouted whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, nut milks, seeds, cooked legumes, honey and herbal teas. Anything you find soothing and easily digestible, causing no agitation, heaviness or unharmonious effects can be thought of as sattvic. Perhaps more importantly, sattvic foods are prepared with love, in an environment which is clean and holds good energy, by someone in a present and positive state of mind. Notice how you feel before and after eating Sattvic foods. Do you feel nourished and positive? Do you feel cared for and satisfied?

Practice observing a day through the lens of the gunas. Notice life’s cyclical nature, our tendency to get caught up in the movements of the gunas, when you feel rajassic, tamassic, and when you’re able to settle into sattva, even if just for a moment.

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