The Three Gunas

Kishore Subramanian
8 min readFeb 16, 2023


Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

The concept of gunas is core to almost all ancient Indian schools of philosophy including Yoga, Samkhya, and Vedanta. Not surprisingly, gunas are core to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras as well.

Guna is a Sanskrit word, which may be loosely translated as “quality“, characteristic”, “attribute”, “property”, “tendency”, and “nature”.

The claim is that all matter in the universe — from inanimate matter to sentient beings — is composed of 3 gunas in varying proportions. Just as the 3 primary colors — red, green, and blue — can be combined in varying proportions to create the seemingly unlimited number of colors in the universe, the three gunas are present in varying proportions in every object in the universe. The claim is that even the smallest possible entity in the universe is composed of these gunas. The most complex creation — the human being — is also made up of these gunas in varying proportions. This explains why each one of us is unique in some way or the other.

At the macro level, the Bhagavad Gita explains in great detail the origin of the universe as being caused by the imbalance between the three gunas in the unit of matter leading to the creation of the entire universe and its expansion. Remarkable similarities to the Big Bang Theory that was postulated 3000+ years later. I encourage you to read more if you are interested in the science of the Bhagavad Gita.

In this post, we are primarily concerned with how these gunas are applicable to us — physical, emotional, and intellectual beings. The claim is that everything from our physical appearance, our emotions, our feelings, our occupation, decisions, actions, and pursuits in life can be explained by our gunas. In short, who we are, how we think, what we do, and how we do it. Yes, it is core to our understanding of our own selves, for self-awareness.

Curious to learn more? Let’s dive right in.

The 3 gunas are: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.


Balance, harmony, goodness, calm, peacefulness, clarity, light, compassion, creativity, positivity, tranquility

Represented by the color: white


Activity, passion, ambition, egoism, self-centeredness, dynamism, movement, restlessness, individualization

Represented by the color: red


Imbalance, disorder, inactivity, delusion, ignorance, anxiety, chaos, destruction, heavy, dark, negativity, lethargy, carelessness, clouded, indecisive, inert, laziness, dullness, violence, apathy

Represented by the color: black

The claim is that everything in the universe (including sentient beings and inanimate matter) is made up of matter and consciousness. Yoga refers to them as Prakriti (nature) and Purusha (Spirit, Atma, the inner Being, Consciousness). The “matter” part of creation is comprised of these 3 gunas in varying proportions. Purusha/Spirit is beyond the realm of the gunas.

Yoga classifies the human being as being comprised of the physical body (gross matter), mind (subtle matter), and causal matter (out of scope for this discussion). To keep it simple, we will refer to the mind as comprising of emotional mind + rational intellect + ego. Being matter, the body and the mind are made up of these 3 gunas. The different composition of the gunas accounts for the diversity of body forms and types of emotional mind and intellect among human beings.

It is important to note the following:

  1. All 3 gunas exist in matter. A guna can be reduced but never eliminated.
  2. One guna typically dominates the other two.
  3. When one guna increases, the other gunas or both have to decrease proportionally.
  4. There is a constant interplay of the gunas. The proportions are changing all the time.
  5. Gunas are neither good nor bad. All gunas play a part.

How do we experience gunas?

With a little awareness of our body and mind, we can experience the 3 gunas in ourselves and the world around us. Have you experienced any of the following states at any time in your life?

  1. State of feeling on top of the world, a state of completeness and fulfillment. Feeling compassionate, generous, forgiving (from being fulfilled), peaceful, and calm.
  2. State of flow in action, where you are so immersed in your action that you have lost track of time and place.
  3. Busy at work, running from one meeting to another, feeling stressed, impatient, restlessness, anxious, fearful.
  4. Feeling lazy, lethargic, dull, careless. You don’t feel like doing anything, unable to focus.

These are some examples of gunas in action.

1) and 2) are a result of Sattvic pre-dominance

3) Rajasic pre-dominance

4) of Tamasic pre-dominance

As stated above, the proportion of gunas is constantly changing. Even within a day (or within a few hours), we move from sattva pre-dominance (early morning) to rajasic pre-dominance during the daytime to tamasic pre-dominance in the late evening.

Gunas are neither good nor bad. Sattva makes us creative while Rajas prods us into action to get things done and tamas puts us to sleep and gives our body and mind a well-deserved rest.

Even nature (being matter) experiences different states of the gunas. If you venture out very early in the morning — at about 4–430AM in the morning — the energy you feel in the air is very Sattvic. It is uplifting and it changes how we feel. Is it not? It is stated that nature is at its peak sattva about 1.5 hours before sunrise. Similarly, as the sun rises, Rajas dominates the other gunas and after sunset, Tamas dominates.

Photo by Federico Respini on Unsplash

Fun fact: Yoga encourages us to meditate 1.5 hours before sunrise as the sattva is at its peak at that time. This is called the “Brahma-muhurtam” in Sanskrit.

Let’s take a look at some more situations to classify the dominant guna.

*** According to the Yoga Sutras, Asanas reduce the rajo guna. Pranayama (controlled breathing) helps reduce the tamo guna. So the effect of performing yoga asanas followed by pranayama is to reduce both rajo and tamo resulting in increased levels of sattva. Regular practitioners call this a “yoga high” — the higher quality of energy experienced as a result of higher sattva.

** Some activities like cooking and running, when performed with single-pointed attention and focus, can be considered sattvic.

Can you think of other activities that you do regularly? Classify them similarly and see how much you engage in activities that promote sattva, rajas, and tamo gunas.

An interesting observation, especially from the last point in the above table, is that the same activity may increase or decrease our sattva depending on our attitude.

Have you noticed that when we are completely immersed in an activity and reach a state of flow, we don’t feel tired? We can go on and on. We feel energized by the activity. How do you explain this? Have you experienced this yourself?

The simple explanation is that when you perform an activity with single-pointed attention and with an attitude of working for the sake of work and its intrinsic value, the activity increases sattva in us.

The resulting energy from sattva is of high quality. No amount of Red Bull or 5-hour energy or Adderall can give us this feeling. Once you experience the high quality of sattva, you will naturally give up everything else.

Cause and Effect

As seen above, our actions increase or decrease certain gunas in us. When we binge-watch an entire season of a series on Netflix, we increase the tamo guna in us. Consequently, the sattva and rajo guna go down proportionally. Let’s look at this more closely from the lens of cause and effect.

The Tamo cause-and-effect cycle

Worse, this tamo-dominant mind makes us delusional. We lose our clarity of thought. If we make any important decision from a tamo-dominant mind, it is more likely to be a wrong decision, which in turn sets off a series of cause-and-effect events.

Granted, the above example exaggerates the effect to deliver the point. Watching a couple of hours of a Netflix series once in a while is not going to push us into tamo abyss immediately. But if behavior becomes a habit, it surely will. You can observe this yourself.

The Sattvic cause-and-effect cycle

On the other hand, if our choices increase sattva guna, we feel a different type of energy. We can perceive things more clearly. We are more creative and focused. We make better decisions that benefit more people than just us. We experience joy and calm.

We make good choices, make decisions that benefit the most, engage in uplifting activities, and creative pursuits, and do things that have a higher purpose.

Happy. Joyful. Peaceful. Calm in the face of uncertainty. In sync with nature.

This does not mean that tamo guna is bad. It only means that we don’t want our default state to be tamo-dominant. It is ok for tamo guna to dominate in the late evening so we can get a good night’s sleep and rest.

I leave it to the reader to map out a rajasic cause and effect cycle.

Our choice — Vicious or Virtuous cycle?

So who is responsible for our gunas? We are, isn’t it? The gunas are based on the choices we make. Do we want to go down a vicious cycle or go up a virtuous cycle? As of now, we may have inherited certain guna proportions based on past actions but what we do today and henceforth will determine how these gunas change in the future. So it is in our control. Is it easy? No. But is it possible to change our default state and increase the proportion of sattva in us? Absolutely!

The spiritual path is to decrease Rajas and Tamas in us, thereby letting Sattva shine forth.

Yoga urges all of us to work hard and practice regularly to reduce the proportion of rajas and tamas in us, which in turn lets sattva shine forth. The scriptures say that the mind is at the core sattvic but it gets covered by rajas and tamas as we go through different experiences in life. A toddler’s mind is sattvic and experiences joy in small things in life. But as we grow older, we experience life and these experiences leave their mental imprints in the form of likes and dislikes. These imprints are rajas and tamas and they cover the mind’s sattva quality.

What if we find ourselves predominantly Tamasic?

Yoga and the Bhagavad Gita urge us to get into action even if it means acting for purely selfish reasons (Rajas, followed by Tamas, then Sattva). Once we act and see the benefits of the (selfish) action, we should move up into selfless action (Rajas-Sattva-Tamas) and eventually to a point where we work for work’s sake (Sattva-Rajas-Tamas).

The Practice

We will go deeper into the practices in a future post but it should be clear to the readers that our choice of actions has a huge influence on how our gunas change. My hope and wish for all of us are that we strive hard to reduce the rajas and tamas in us by choosing the right actions and performing these actions with the right attitude.



Kishore Subramanian

Spiritual seeker, student, and practitioner of Yoga and Vedanta. Vice-President, Engineering at Propel. Ex-Googler.