By Nic Higham (nondual therapist in Leicester, UK)
“Like water is shaped by the container, so is everything determined by conditions (gunas).”
“Meditation is a sattvic activity and aims at complete elimination of tamas (inertia) and rajas (motivity). Pure sattva (harmony) is perfect freedom from sloth and restlessness.”
“It is all a play of gunas (qualities of cosmic matter). When I identify myself with them, I am their slave. When I stand apart, I am their master.”
– Nisargadatta Maharaj
Hindu philosophy teaches that there are three primal forces of manifestation, known as the gunas (Sanskrit for “characteristic”). The gunas are tamas (inertia), rajas (action) and sattva (being). These three attributes are intimately connected – continually interacting with, and effecting, each other; dominating or giving in to submission. Their dance shapes our perception of reality and combines to form our body and psychology. As with moods and mental states, the whole of nature and the elements all have different characteristics dictated by the three gunas.
Sattva is the state of harmony and is responsible for health and healing. As sattvic living increases, so too does our health and wellbeing. Sattva is what brings purity, clarity and peace. Rajas and tamas, on the other hand, are the characteristics that trigger disease. Rajas brings anxiety, agitation and excessive energy. Tamas brings about inactivity, decay and depression. Tamas can be seen as the past, rajas as the future, and sattva, as the present.
As we see in modern society, rajas and tamas usually work hand-in-hand. They cannot balance each other without sattva, which is the harmonising guna. Rajas is the force that interacts between sattva and tamas. Rajas can be translated as “pollen of the flowers”.
Think of a seed, full of locked-in potential and latent energy. A seed is in a state of tamas. It needs the right conditions to begin to germinate. The natural movement toward the plant’s fullness is rajas, and sattva is itself the joy of blossoming. Since the play of manifestation is cyclical, every form eventually merges back into the earth to create new forms. We can take this metaphor a step further and say the plant’s roots are in the ground of nirguna which means “without attributes”.
When sattva (from the root as, “to be”) is strong in us, the qualities of lucidity, tranquillity, wisdom, discrimination, detachment, happiness, and peacefulness arise. According to yoga, the purified mind is the faithful servant of the true Self. Spiritual practice, including yoga, meditation and self-inquiry, cultivates sattva, balancing rajas and tamas. Spending time in nature, as well as eating a sattvic diet amongst other activities, does the same. Like a ray of sunlight, sattva is the radiance of our true nature. Follow the sunray through meditation and self-inquiry, and you’ll eventually discern your true Self. However, when rajas has the upper hand, desire, attachment, energetic striving, passion, power, restlessness, and creative activity arise. When tamas dominates, stillness, ignorance, delusion, disinterest, lethargy, sleep, and laziness arise.
The mind is consciousness in motion and consciousness is the conditioned (saguna) expression of the Self. Our thoughts, emotions, behaviours and actions result from the combinations and ebb and flow of the three gunas. Guna also means “what binds,” since if we are not mindful of their activity, they can keep us in bondage to a conceptual version of reality, forever pulled and pushed about by desire and fear. Nonduality (Advaita) master Nisargadatta Maharaj who taught Nisarga Yoga, said interest in our stream of consciousness – which is flavoured predominantly by these attributes – takes us to nondual awareness. Our true Self, which is nondual, is neither characterised nor governed by the three gunas, it is nirguna, the unmanifest.
“Rajoguna takes one into all the activities, and tamoguna claims authorship or doership for those activities. But understand fully that whatever is happening takes place because of these three qualities, sattvaguna, rajoguna, and tamoguna. They are not your doings, you are completely apart from that…
Having understood, realised and transcended all these three gunas, I know full well their play; that is why I talk like this. I have understood, I have realised, I have transcended them.”
– Nisargadatta Maharaj