Gunas: the Three Qualities of Matter

It is said in the Shvetashvatra Upanishad that the only way to truly understand human existence and the primal cause of all things is through philosophy and spiritual self-discipline – samkhya-yoga-adhigamya. This ancient text establishes, for the first time, the connection between Samkhya and Yoga.

As one of the foundational Upanishads, this commentary is meaningful because philosophy alone cannot impart the truth. Reason and reflection is only fully embodied through practice.

The Samkhya Karika, attributed to Ishvarakrishna, is the oldest text of the Samkhya philosophy. Samkhya means enumeration and the text essentially creates an accounting system of the universe. It posits that the nature of reality is dualistic – there is spiritual consciousness, Purusha, and there is material consciousness, Prakriti.

Purusha is the realm of the higher Self, our inner reality, pure cosmic consciousness. Purusha is unmanifest, not readily identifiable by our senses. It is infinite, constant and unchanging. Purusha is the source, unaffected by time and space. It is singular, independent, enduring, and free. This is who we are.

Prakriti is the exact reverse of Purusha. It is the physical world, our external reality. It is manifest, everything that we see and experience with all of our senses, that with name and form. It is finite, mutable, and manifold with multiple features and elements that are always changing. Prakriti is dependent, perishable, governed and subordinate. This is what we are not.

The cause of suffering is the mistaken notion that there is no distinction between Purusha and Prakriti. The opening verse of the Samkhya Karika says, “From the shock of [this] pain comes the desire to know the means of prevention.”

And the means of stopping the pain is the practice of Yoga. But first, we must understand why we believe that we are Prakriti.

Prakriti is the physical realm – the external realm of our senses. It is what we see, hear, touch, taste and feel. Everything, our nature and behavior – our very minds – are affected by the innate qualities of Prakriti. These principles are called the gunas and there are three of them: sattvarajas and tamas.

  • Sattva is considered to be good, buoyant, alleviating, luminous and enlightening.
  • Rajas is considered to be exciting, volatile, restless and urgent.
  • Tamas is considered to be dark, distressing, heavy and enveloping.

As the gunas churn together, the manifest world of Prakriti evolves out of the primordial matrix. From the subtlest aspects of the mind – the intellect, the ego, and the lower mind – to the grossest aspects of human existence – the senses and their objects and the great elements of earth, water, fire, air, and ether. This is the world according Samkhya – from God all the way down to a single blade of grass.

The gunas coexist, partnering together to produce our experience of reality. By union of contrasts, these attributes operate by blending and transforming, like water, modifying our perceptions according to the predominance of one or the other. Everyone and everything in manifest reality is made up of all three gunas in various combinations and permutations.

The gunas are constantly at work. The mind is thrown out of balance, affected by the prevalence of either rajas or tamas.  When rajas dominates, the mind is incredibly active. There is a lot of movement, a restlessness that can be energetic and creative but also leads to attachment to the outcomes of those endeavors.

When tamas dominates there is darkness. The mind is first and foremost sleepy and delusion, disinterest, lethargy, and inertia manifest. Most importantly, the mind remains spiritually ignorant of the truth of the nature of reality.

But when sattva dominates, there is an abundance of goodness and the mind is clear. Sattva, which translates as essence or beingness, is the principle of light and insight. Happiness and peace manifest.

And so, it is in this realm, the realm of the mind, that the spiritual discipline of Yogacame to be. It is a practice designed to alleviate and prevent the pain created by the turmoil and conflict of the changing form and presentation of the gunas.

How can the practitioner transcend the pull of the extremes – activity and inertia – and find balance?

The Sutras say that vairagya, detachment, is the means to gain control over the activities of the field of the mind. Vairagya is utter desirelessness, freedom from craving objects both seen in the physical world and even those promised in scripture. Practices like devotion to God, or meditating on friendliness, the breath, or the light within, bring the yogi’s mind toward balance.

But probably the most powerful meditation practice is to bring attention to the forms of Prakriti, progressing from the grossest experience of the material world to the subtle aspect of the mind. In doing so, the mind becomes refined, so that the disturbing influence of rajas or tamas is no longer. Sattva comes into balance and there is a sustained experience of one pointedness, clarity and control.

The yogi’s mind becomes indifferent to the gunas because the power of consciousness is situated in its own essential nature. The ongoing permutations of the gunas cease, their purpose fulfilled. Without an impetus to provide stimulation, the gunas dissolve back into the primordial matrix. The purity of the mind is now equal to the pure consciousness of Purusha. Our true nature shines forth and we stand alone, absolutely independent, in freedom.

Prakriti does not cease once realization is attained, the material world does not disappear. But the union of Prakriti and Purusha is broken. The yogi fully comprehends that the conjunction of the two is there merely for the perception of the Self and for the release of the Self.

The yogi now lives liberated, remembering the experience of Purusha, keeping it lively in material consciousness. So as the gunas do their work, pulling us from extreme to extreme, the yogi stands in their true nature and the gunas no longer hold sway. The yogi is a spiritual being living in the material world, peaceful and free.