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Mastering the Gunas: The Bhagvad Gita’s guide to self-transformation

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The Bhagavad Gita – which is a great wisdom scripture, and can be considered the Bible of Hinduism – speaks of the three gunas. These are the three basic characteristics or attributes that exist in all things, including your body and mind.

Although this topic can get very philosophical, in this post I’ll focusing only on the psychological aspects of the gunas, and how they relate to our moods, emotions, and behaviour. This is an integral part of the psychology of Yoga.

Once you understand how the gunas work, you will be able to better understand and navigate your inner world, and to work with what life is giving you.

The three gunas


In terms of activity, the gunas can be thought of in the following way:

  • tamas = inertia
  • rajas = movement
  • sattva = balance

In terms of colors, the gunas can be thought of in this way:

  • tamas = black (the absence of all colors)
  • rajas = the different colors (although traditionally it is represented as red)
  • sattva = white (the synthesis of all colors)

Everything can be classified according to the gunas. For the purposes of this post, let’s analyze some moods/emotions and group them accordingly.

Tamasic states: laziness, disgust, attachment, depression, helplessness, doubt, guilt, shame, boredom, addiction, hurt, sadness, apathy, confusion, grief, dependency, ignorance.

Rajasic states: anger, euphoria, anxiety, fear, irritation, worry, restlessness, stress, courage, rumination, determination, chaos.

Sattvic states: delight, happiness, joy, peace, wellness, freedom, love, compassion, equanimity, empathy, friendliness, focus, self-control, satisfaction, trust, fulfilment, calmness, bliss, cheerfulness, gratitude, fearlessness, selflessness.

The gunas and self-transformation

Understanding the gunas helps you see things more clearly. It helps you understand the quality of your thoughts, actions, and the things with which you engage.

Then it’s all about making conscious choices on what you consume, what thoughts you pay attention to, and how you act. In fact the secret of spiritual growth could be summed up thus: Learn to love and delight in sattva, and understand the pain of tamas. 

The conditioning of your lizard brain – which seeks pleasure and shuns pain – will take care of the rest for you!

 Step by step

It is very hard to go from tamas directly to sattva – so use rajas as a step in between.

For example, if your dominant moods at this point in life tend to be tamasic (like exhaustion, depression, etc.), your aim should be to first get rid of tamas and get your rajas flowing. You can do this by raising your energy levels through activities such as physical exercise, cold showers, better food choices (or even fasting), less TV, socializing with active and positive people, or traveling to a new place.

From rajas it is then easier to arrive at sattva, by balancing out the excitement and learning to appreciate the more subtle pleasures of peace, harmony, contentment, and moderation. At this point, activities such as meditation, self-reflection, journaling, etc., can help you move into sattva, whereas trying them from a tamasic state can result in becoming sleepy or bored.

This reminds me of a vital insight that some spiritual teachers seems to miss: that it’s easier to move into egolessness (the “enlightened state”) from a healthy ego than from a broken one. That is why working on yourself (be it through therapy, relationships, or self-reflection) is much needed. Like Nisargadatta Maharaj says, “You cannot leave a mess behind and go beyond – it will pull you back”. But that’s a subject for another post

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