Home - Dharma for Awakening - Bhagavad Gita–The Book of Life - The Three Gunas

The Three Gunas

Part 72 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening cover
Also available a free PDF download from our E-Library and as an ebook and paperback from Amazon International.

In chapter three the subject of the gunas was introduced. They were briefly mentioned in chapter four, and now this fourteenth chapter is devoted to them. The first two verses are reminiscent of others we have encountered already:

Highest wisdom

The Holy Lord said: Again I shall explain to you the highest of knowledges, the best of all knowledge, having known which all the sages attained to the highest perfection. Resorting to this knowledge they attain identity with me. At creation they are not born, nor do they tremble at its dissolving (14:1-2).

Simplistic, linear, two-dimensional thinking characterizes Western thought, including religion. In some instances the entire range of ordinary religious beliefs can be summed up in a moderate-sized paragraph. Neatly tied up theological and philosophical packages are the delight of the Western mind. As I. K. Tamini points out in The Science of Yoga, there is little interest in the reality of the theories as long as they hang together, are logical, and sound right. The competing Western ideologies are mostly empty packaging, hollow boxes whose appeal lies only in their external impression. As the prophet said: “A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so” (Jeremiah 5:30-31).

In contrast we have the rich, multilevel, and wide-embracing philosophies of the East, philosophies that are demonstrable, whose esoteric principles are proven by the observable changes in those that fulfill them. Much of the time they appear inconsistent, even contradictory, but that is a characteristic of reality itself. They often say the same thing about differing subjects. For example, in Hinduism all the sahasranamavalis (collections of one thousand titles) addressed to various deities declare each of them to be the only true deity, and a great deal of the same titles are attributed to them all. It is, furthermore, usual for a Hindu to recite several of these over a period of time without any unease whatsoever. I have known yogis who would say: “The one thing you need is…,” and then name differing things at different times. Of course. Sanatana Dharma does not “make sense,” it is sense, and it makes the adherent sensible.

More than once already, Krishna has stated his intention to give us the highest wisdom. And has spoken differently each time. Now he does it again, but giving us an understanding of what true wisdom really does for the wise.

Beyond this wisdom there is simply nothing more to be known, because Wisdom and Brahman are the same. That is, Truth is not a set of intellectual ideas, but Reality itself. When someone asked Shankara: “What is Truth [Satya]?” he answered: “There is no such thing as Truth, there is only The True [Sat].” This is because Shankara was a yogi, not a mere philosopher, and he knew that “knowledge combined with realization, which having known you shall be free from evil” (9:1), was the only thing that really mattered.

Knowledge (jnana) must be sought for. True, it is already inside us, but what value is that to us who are blind to it? We must open our eyes or remove the debris that separates us from it. In the newborn infant are all the faculties and powers of the adult. Yet that means nothing to the infant. In time the inner seeds will manifest and adulthood be gained. It is the same with us. There is a necessary search for Truth, but that search must be an inner search, the practice of yoga.

The Supreme Perfection attained by the sages is Brahman, Infinity itself. It is not mere freedom from fault or a plenitude of good attributes. It is a transcending of the condition in which good or bad, vice or virtue, can exist–a transcendence in which there is not even the possibility of their existence.

United with Brahman, the Brahman-nature was living through the sages, for it was them. “This is the divine state; having attained this, he is not deluded. Fixed in it even at the time of death, he attains Brahmanirvana” (2:72).

“At creation they are not born, nor do they tremble at its dissolving.” Having no longer any need for the cosmic school, they have graduated from the plane of relativity. They are not compelled to take birth in a future creation cycle, nor are they dispossessed of a body-dwelling when the universe dissolves. They have moved beyond all such cycles into Original Being. They experience the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer: “O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5).

Prakriti: the originating womb

For me great Brahma is the womb, and in that do I place the seed. The origination of all beings comes from that. Whatever be the forms produced within all wombs, the great Brahma is their womb, and I the seed-casting Father (14:3-4).

Brahma is the creator of the three lower levels of the seven-level creation. Since creation is really only a dream, the egg or seed of that dream is placed within his consciousness, and all develops from there. Creation is often spoken of as an egg (garbha) in Sanskrit texts. And that egg is prakriti, so that subject is being continued here. Just as an egg is warmed in order for it to hatch, so Brahma focuses his consciousness on the prakriti-egg, and its potentials are realized. So both Brahma and prakriti are the wombs of all things.

Prakriti is the great field of creative energy, but the seeds planted therein are the individual spirits who are evolving through the vast span of creation cycles. Thus, Prakriti is our mother and Brahma is our father–the only real parents we will ever have, all others being but temporary reflections of these divine archetypes. We need to realize that we are divine in origin, and that our purpose in being here is to manifest our innate divinity. We must also keep in mind that since there is only One, Prakriti is really Purusha, that what we mistake for matter is really Spirit. Although there appear to be many separate beings, in essence they are one in Brahman.

All forms within Prakriti are really only modifications and combinations of the three gunas. So Krishna continues:

Sattwa, rajas, and tamas–these gunas born of Prakriti bind fast in the body the imperishable embodied one (the Atman) (14:5).

The gunas are not three things, but qualities of the energy that is Prakriti. They are modes or functions of energy. The primal energy moves in three different ways. So the gunas are not things of themselves, only appearances. But very significant appearances.

The three gunas are called sattwa, rajas, and tamas. When we experience them as real, they bind and limit us to body consciousness, making us undergo change and death, even though we are unchanging and immortal. So the three gunas are the basic forces of illusion. It is interesting that there are three primary colors whose combinations make all other colors. Without these three we would never see any colors.

The next thirteen verses deal with the gunas, moving back and forth between them. To make it much easier to understand their differences, I will first give the thirteen verses relating to them, and then separate the verses into three sections so we can look at one guna at a time in depth.

The three gunas

Of these, sattwa is stainless, luminous, and health-giving; it binds by attachment to happiness and by attachment to knowledge. Know rajas’ nature is passion arising from thirst and attachment; it binds fast the embodied one by attachment to action. Know indeed that tamas is born of ignorance, deluding all embodied ones. It binds by distraction, laziness and sleep.

Sattwa causes attachment to happiness, rajas causes attachment to action; and tamas, veiling knowledge, causes attachment to delusion.

Sattwa prevails over rajas and tamas; and rajas prevails over sattwa and tamas; and tamas prevails over sattwa and rajas.

When the light of knowledge shines in all the gates of the body, then it should be known that sattwa is dominant. Greed, activity, undertaking of actions, restlessness, and desire–these arise when rajas is dominant. Darkness, inertia, heedlessness and delusion–these arise when tamas is dominant.

When the embodied one dies when sattwa is dominant, then he enters the stainless realms of the knowers of the Highest. Dying in rajas, he is born amid those attached to action. Dying in tamas, he is born from the wombs of the deluded.

They say the fruit of action performed well, is sattwic and without fault; but the fruit of rajas is pain, and the fruit of tamas is ignorance.

From sattwa arises knowledge; and from rajas arises greed; from tamas arises heedlessness, delusion and ignorance.

Those established in sattwa go upward; the rajasic remain in the middle; the tamasic, abiding in the lowest guna, go downward. (14:6-18).


Of these, sattwa is stainless, luminous, and health-giving [salubrious]; it binds by attachment to happiness and by attachment to knowledge. From this we know that sattwa is free from impurity–from any element that obstructs higher consciousness from functioning on any level. Further, sattwa illuminates the mind and whatever the mind is fixed upon. Understanding and practical knowledge arise naturally in the sattwic mind. Sattwa is free from any defect, either mental or physical. Nevertheless, sattwa is as much an element of bondage as rajas or tamas. It binds us through attachment to happiness and ease of heart and to the pursuit of spiritual wisdom. When these are sought as attributes of the Self, such seeking frees us. But if they are sought under the influence of sattwa, they are sought for their short-term benefits, only for our personal well-being and understanding. The motive is tainted, albeit only as the faintest shadow, by egoic motive.

Sattwa, too, must be shed by the ascending spirit, for: Sattwa causes attachment to happiness.

Sattwa prevails over rajas and tamas. Sattwa is a force of positive introversion, of keen awareness of inward states, a condition essential for proficiency in meditation. It is psychic sensitivity, an awareness of subtler realms of being. This is because sattwa is fundamentally an orientation toward spiritual ascension which results from the dissolving of all lower things. The ultimate sattwa (shuddhasattwa) is a melting away of all that is not spirit.

When the light of knowledge shines in all the gates of the body, then it should be known that sattwa is dominant. Those in whom sattwa predominates are not bewildered by life and its experiences. Rather, the sattwic person is ever gaining in understanding, being taught by life itself. The sattwic person “sees” in the fullest sense.

When the embodied one dies when sattwa is dominant, then he enters the stainless realms of the knowers of the Highest. Being himself a knower, at the time of death he ascends to the pure worlds of those established in the highest consciousness, his state of mind being in harmony with theirs.

They say the fruit of action performed well (well done), is sattwic and without fault (taint). Action that increases the quality of sattwa in us is the only truly good action. This is a necessary lesson for us who seek the Highest, for: From sattwa arises knowledge.

And as has been said: Those established in sattwa go upward. But he must abide in sattwa, be established in sattwa, not just having occasional bouts or flashes of sattwa. Sattwa must be a steady condition.


Know rajas’ nature is passion arising from thirst and attachment; it binds fast the embodied one by attachment to action. Rajas produces fevered desire in us, whatever the object might be. Fundamentally it makes us crave enjoyment and possession of the objects of enjoyment. It literally addicts us to action–the shackles of rebirth and karma.

Rajas causes attachment to action. Pity the person who says: “I am a doer, not a thinker,” who considers himself “a man of action,” and thinks it is an enviable virtue.

Rajas is a consuming monster, for: Rajas prevails over sattwa and tamas. The individual’s will is wiped out, at least for the moment. In the third chapter Arjuna asks: “By what is a man impelled to commit evil, against his own will, as if urged by [some] force?” (3:36). And Krishna answers: “This [force] is desire, it is anger, that is born of the rajo-guna: great consumer and of great evil; know this to be the enemy” (3:37).

Greed, activity, undertaking of actions, restlessness, and desire–these arise when rajas is dominant. And we are the slaves!

The following are self-explanatory: Dying in rajas, he is born amid those attached to action. The fruit of rajas is pain. From rajas [arises] greed. [After death,] the rajasic remain in the middle.


Know indeed that tamas is born of ignorance, deluding all embodied ones; it binds by distraction, laziness and sleep[iness]. Tamas, veiling knowledge, causes attachment to delusion (negligence). When this is seen in anyone or anything, tamas is prevailing and enslaving, for Krishna says: Tamas prevails over sattwa and rajas.

Darkness, inertia, heedlessness and delusion–these arise when tamas is dominant. Dying in tamas, he is born from the wombs of the deluded. Commentators say this means that the tamasic person is born either to parents of utter stupidity and torpor, or that they may even sink to rebirth in a subhuman form.

The fruit of tamas is ignorance. Negligence and delusion arise from tamas, and ignorance too; from tamas arises distraction (heedlessness; delusion; confusion) and ignorance. That is clear to any but the tamasic.

[After death] the tamasic, abiding in the lowest guna, go downward. Again, this means either birth among the stupid or the subhuman (whatever the form, human or animal); and it can also mean sinking into the regions of darkness known as hells.

The three doers

When the beholder sees no doer other than the gunas, and knows that which is higher than the gunas, he attains to my being (14:19).

Of course, it is really Prakriti alone that does all things, the gunas simply being modes of the Primal Energy. Yogananda usually elucidated these concepts by the example of a motion picture. The picture itself is Prakriti, with its colors and forms being the gunas, and the white undifferentiated light is the Purusha, the Infinite. (Sometimes he likened Prakriti to the screen.) So everything that happens or that we perceive are merely joinings and disjoinings of the gunas. The gunas alone do anything. Realizing this we should be stimulated to look beyond the gunas to the transcendent Spirit which is absolute Unity. Through yoga we can enter into that Oneness and be free from the illusions of the gunas.

The conqueror

When an embodied being rises above these three gunas, which are the source of the body, freed from birth, death, old age and pain, he attains immortality (14:20).

This makes it clear that we do not need some kind of mastery or control over the gunas, but rather we require a metaphysical transcendence, an awakening that will take us beyond their reach. What to the ignorant are unbreakable bonds then become nothing more than cobwebs–not even that: mere illusions.

The gunas are not only the source, the material of the body, they are also the forces that impel us into imprisonment in the body. When the poet wrote: “Change and decay all around I see,” he was speaking of the gunas. But when he continued: “O thou that changest not,” he was addressing the Self.

Freed from the gunas, and therefore from the body, “released from birth, death, old age, and pain, he attains immortality.” That is, he knows who he really is and dreams no more dreams of the gunas.

Arjuna said: By what marks is he known who has gone beyond the gunas? What is his conduct, and how does he go beyond these three gunas? (14:21).

How do we know when the gunas are transcended?

He neither detests the presence nor desires the absence of illumination [prakasha] or activity [pravritti] or delusion [moha](14:22).

This is an important point. We want to transcend the gunas, yet we are to be indifferent to their presence or their absence (actually, in this verse, the effects of their presence or absence.) Non-interaction with them is the secret. But the even greater secret is the will and the desire to reach God Who is beyond the gunas. Finding God is the real secret. The idea that it is wisdom to just remain in the world and wander “skillfully” through the maze is absurd. (Like the silly idea that being able to make holograms of match-boxes in your mind is a preparation for meditation.) God must be the central focus of our consciousness and our life.

We will do well to never forget Krishna’s description of the true yogi: “He who is steadfast in yoga [yoga-yukta] at all times sees the Self present in all beings and all beings present in the Self. He who sees me everywhere, and sees all things in me–I am not lost to him, and he is not lost to me” (6:29, 30).

The next three verses are so perfect they need no comment beyond our embodying of them.

He who sits apart, indifferent to and unmoved by the gunas, realizing: “the gunas are operating,” stands firm and is unwavering. The same in pain or in pleasure, self-contained, to whom a clod of earth, a stone, and gold are alike; to whom the liked and the unliked are the same, steadfast, to whom blame and praise of himself are equal, indifferent in honor and dishonor, impartial toward the side of friend or enemy, renouncing all undertakings–he is said to be beyond the gunas (14:23-25).

How it is done

I have given my ideas about getting beyond the gunas, but these words of Krishna far exceed them: THE FORGOING SHOULD NOT BE BOLD LETTERS

And he who serves me with the yoga of unswerving devotion, going beyond the three gunas, is fit for absorption in Brahman. For I am the abode of Brahman, the immortal, immutable, abode of everlasting dharma and of absolute bliss (14:26-27).

Om Tat Sat Om.

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Cosmic Tree

(Visited 4,404 time, 2 visit today)

Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

Visit our e-library page for Free Downloads of this and other ebooks in various formats.

Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Swami Nirmalananda Giri (Abbot George Burke).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

(Visited 4,404 time, 2 visit today)