The Three Gunas: How These Attributes Fuel Action

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Bhagavad Gita" by Eknath Easwaran. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the three Gunas? How can you learn about the three Gunas in The Bhagavad Gita?

The three Gunas are sattva, rajas, and tamas. In The Bhagavad Gita, every action is fueled by knowledge of one of the three Gunas.

Read more about the three Gunas and what they mean.

The Three Gunas

Much of Krishna’s advice to Arjuna relates to the three Gunas. Guna can be roughly translated as “attribute” or “property.” The three Gunas are sattva, rajas, and tamas

Sattva is the guna of goodness and wisdom, the only one of the three that’s desirable. Rajas is the guna of passion and anger; it often drives actions, but it traps the one doing them deeper in karma. Tamas is the guna of darkness, destruction, and depression.

Every action that people take is fueled by one of the three Gunas. However, the Gunas are part of prakriti—physical matter—and they trick people into egotism and obsession with the results of those actions. 

Though every action comes from one of the three Gunas, someone who understands the Gunas’ true nature and isn’t distracted by them can perform these actions selflessly—concerned only for their dharma and the world around them, rather than seeking any material rewards for their work. Krishna advises Arjuna not to be ruled by his Gunas; they’re obstacles in the way of enlightenment. 

Bear this in mind as you read the following subsections. The Gunas are intrinsically involved in everything you do and think, but it’s possible not to be controlled by them. By rising above your personal interests, renouncing the desire to feel sattva or to avoid tamas, it’s possible to experience the Gunas without being truly affected by them. 

Knowledge in Terms of the Gunas

Aside from action, one can also describe knowledge according to the three Gunas. 

Sattvic knowledge is the understanding that there’s a single, divine entity living in all things, and therefore all things are connected and unified. Sattvic understanding knows right from wrong, what will bring security and peace, and what will ultimately lead to freedom and union with God.

Rajasic knowledge is selfish; it doesn’t see the unity in everything, but it considers different things and creatures as separate entities. Because it lacks this crucial understanding, rajasic intellect can’t tell right from wrong. It pursues wealth, pleasure, and good reputation, often at the expense of others. 

Tamasic knowledge is deluded—like a child, it sees one small part of the world and thinks that’s all there is, with no concept that there could be something beyond its own experiences. It’s even more confused than rajasic knowledge, and it mixes up right and wrong at every turn. It leads to fear, grief, sadness, and a refusal to learn from mistakes. 

Happiness in Terms of the Gunas

The Gunas can even be used to describe different types of happiness. Happiness that comes from selfless, sattvic knowledge and action is the hardest to achieve; it will feel bitter at first to work without any thought of personal gain. However, this is the only path to permanent—and therefore real—happiness.

Happiness that comes from rajas is immediate and pleasurable, but temporary. It’s the joy of getting something you’ve always wanted, or the thrill of eating a piece of spicy food. It fades quickly and reveals itself to be an illusion—remember, only that which is permanent and unchanging is real. 

Tamasic happiness is a lie from beginning to end. It comes from idleness, sleep, and intoxication. This false happiness is to be avoided.

The Three Gunas: How These Attributes Fuel Action

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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