Understanding the three guṇas

The concept of the guṇas of prakṛti is unique to Indian philosophy, and an important contribution of the Sāṅkhya school. The guṇas are explained in the Sāṅkhya-kārikā of Ishwara Kṛṣṇa. An entire chapter of the Bhagavad-Gītā is devoted to a discussion of the three guṇas. Here we discuss the three guṇas as described in the Sāṅkhya-kārikā, and as explained by the commentary of the famous Vācaspati Miśra.

The guṇas are inferred from their effects

There are broadly three types of states that objects or people elicit in the mind (kārikā XII, Sāṅkhya-kārikā):

  1. प्रीति — happiness
  2. अप्रीति — sorrow
  3. विषाद — delusion

In his commentary, Vācaspati Miśra gives an example to help understand these effects, which we modify for our purposes here. Imagine a married man with two wives. One wife is beautiful, well-mannered and noble. She is a source of happiness for the husband and gets most of his attention and time. The other wife, however, does not get her husband’s attention as much. Thus, the first wife is a source of sorrow for the second wife. Finally, imagine a second man, who is attached to the first wife, but is frustrated that she cannot be his spouse. She may occupy the man’s thoughts continually, causing him to be deluded or distracted from tangible and relevant tasks at hand.

In this example, one person (the well-mannered wife) is a source of happiness, sorrow and delusion in three different individuals – the husband, co-wife and another man respectively. Because happiness, sorrow and delusion are mutually exclusive emotions, they must have mutually exclusive causes. Thus Sāṅkhya infers that the wife’s form and qualities must have been composed of three distinct, imperceptible qualities or guṇas, which cause these three distinct feelings in the minds of observers. Sattva guṇa brings happiness, rajas brings sorrow and tamas brings delusion.

All objects in existence, whether gross objects like physical bodies or inert objects or subtle objects like the mind and intelligence, are composed of the three guṇas – sattva, rajas and tamas. In the view of Sāṅkhya, the guṇas are avyakta, unmanifest, which means that they are not perceptible to the senses. Rather, their presence is inferred from the effects of objects on observers.

Cooperation between the guṇas is required for functioning of all objects

An analogy to understand the functioning of the guṇas is that of a car. The steering of the car provides direction to the motion, the acceleration is required to move, while the brake is necessary to curb or slow the motion. In this way, sattva provides direction by its illuminating nature (प्रकाश), rajas engages in action (प्रवृत्ति) and tamas restrains or retards (नियम).

Rajas and tamas, analogous to acceleration and brake, are opposed to each other, but are necessary for function of objects. Acceleration without a brake is a problem, because the car will continually increase in speed and result in an accident. Tamas is crucial to put a brake on rajas, such that action does not continue indefinitely as this will result in unregulated change. This is why another property of tamas is heaviness (गुरुत्व, see kārikā XIII ).

A characteristic of sattva is knowledge of things as they are, which leads to a feeling of happiness and lightness (लगुत्वम्). Just as steering by itself is impotent without acceleration, sattva by itself cannot produce any action, being opposed by its very nature to action. Therefore rajas is necessary for the knowledge of sattva to translate into an effect, because rajas impels toward action (उपष्टम्भकम्) and is therefore mobile (चलम्). Similarly, rajas is required to get tamas, which is opposed to action, to end and action to occur.

Just like the steering, acceleration and brake work to move the car safely, sattva, rajas and tamas cooperate to achieve a common goal. This is despite the fact that sattva, rajas and tamas are opposed to each other.

The guṇas are dynamic

A common property of the guṇas is continual change, such that one of them can dominate the other two depending on the time of the day even. This can occur because the guṇas, although distinct, are mixed with each other and never present in their pure state. This is the reason why, even though all material objects are products of ahaṅkāra in tama guṇa, because tama is not pure but mixed with the other two, material objects also possess sattva and rajas in them.

Thus, a person in early morning is in sattva. As the day progresses, rajas increases, and finally in the night, tamas predominates. Each of these dynamic changes is necessary for a person’s health.

Returning to Vācaspati Miśra’s example of the beautiful and well-mannered wife above, it follows that her form and qualities cannot be a source of continual, steady happiness to her husband. They will also bring sorrow and delusion in turn to him. Such a change may occur over a few days, weeks, months or several years, but it must inevitably happen. Similarly, every object that is currently a source of happiness to us, can be expected to cause unhappiness or delusion in time.

Categories: concepts, Māyā

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