We all have sometime or the other wondered in our lives as to why we did what we did, even though we really did not want to; or why did we not do something that was expected to be done, even though we wanted to, just like the ṛṣi in taittirīyopaniṣad who regrets – 

The answer lies in the truth that Sri Krishna reveals to a confused and curious Arjuna who asks,

अथ केन प्रयुक्तोऽयं पापं चरति पूरुष: ।

अनिच्छन्नपि वार्ष्णेय बलादिव नियोजित: ॥

atha kena prayukto’yaṁ pāpaṁ carati pūruṣaḥ ।

anicchannapi vārṣṇeya balādiva niyojitaḥ ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 3.36)

‘O descendent of Vrishni (Krishna), what impels man to commit sin, even against his will, constrained as if it were forced?’

Sri Krishna explains that driven by a guṇa or inherent quality called ‘rajas that creates insatiable desires – ‘kāma and sinful anger – ‘krodha, the person is inclined to commit wrong acts.

Sri Krishna mentions no one can stay in this world without performing actions even for a moment, and all actions are undertaken by these inherent qualities in oneself; but a person unaware of them thinks that he or she does all the activities on his or her own accord.

प्रकृते: क्रियमाणानि गुणै: कर्माणि सर्वश: ।

अहङ्कारविमूढात्मा कर्ताहमिति मन्यते ॥

prakṛteḥ kriyamāṇāni guṇaiḥ karmāṇi sarvaśaḥ ।

ahaṅkāravimūḍhātmā kartāhamiti manyate ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 3.27)

‘All activities are carried out by the three modes (guṇas) of material nature (prakṛti). But in ignorance, one with the understanding deluded by false identification with the body, thinks itself to be the doer.’

So today, we are here to learn about these guṇas that seemingly persuade people to do various things in various ways, leading to varied consequences of such actions. And what are the consequences of each of these guṇas which are the inborn and inherent qualities that constitute one’s nature and thereby influence one’s thoughts, beliefs, and behaviour.

Bhagawan Sri Krishna explains in detail about the three types of guṇas in the fourteenth chapter of guṇa traya vibhāga yoga when He says, “O mighty-armed Arjuna, the material energy consists of three guṇas (modes) – sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance). These modes bind the eternal soul to the perishable body.”

सत्त्वं रजस्तम इति गुणा: प्रकृतिसम्भवा: ।

निबध्नन्ति महाबाहो देहे देहिनमव्ययम् ॥

sattvaṁ rajastama iti guṇāḥ prakṛtisambhavāḥ ।

nibadhnanti mahābāho dehe dehinamavyayam ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 14.5)

‘O mighty-armed (Arjuna), sattva, rajas and tamas – these guṇas, born of prakṛti, bind fast the indestructible embodied one within the body.’

All the beings are bound by three kinds of qualities which guide all their behaviour, and these are sattva – which is a state of selfless serenity suffused with knowledge, rajas – denoted by a state of selfish activity driven by passion, and tamas – a state of inertia dominated by ignorance and instincts.

You may compare them with a golden chain, a silver chain, and an iron chain. While the quality of the chains may be different, all of them can bind the prisoner down. The pure and noble qualities of sattva though are better of the lot, they still bind the person with a sense of happiness and knowledge like a gold chain. The rājasic qualities are like the silver chain that bind the soul through attachment to fruitive actions. And tāmasic qualities are like the iron chain that tether the soul of all living beings through negligence, laziness, and sleep.

Sri Krishna says, sattva binds one to material happiness; rajas conditions the soul towards action; and tamas clouds wisdom and binds one to delusion.

सत्त्वं सुखे सञ्जयति रज: कर्मणि भारत ।

ज्ञानमावृत्य तु तम: प्रमादे सञ्जयत्युत ॥

sattvaṁ sukhe sañjayati rajaḥ karmaṇi bhārata ।

jñānamāvṛtya tu tamaḥ pramāde sañjayatyuta ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 14.9)

The interesting part is that all beings, the most meritorious to the most sinful, have all the three qualities within them. However, their nature and behaviour are defined by the qualities which is most predominant in them. A good person is largely good because most of the time he or she is guided by sāttvic qualities leading to pure and noble thoughts, words, and deeds. Whereas a bad person is largely dominated by the selfish rājasic qualities, and thus is not inclined towards the welfare of others. Sri Krishna says that it’s the dominance of one quality over the other, that makes people behave in different ways.

रजस्तमश्चाभिभूय सत्त्वं भवति भारत ।

रज: सत्त्वं तमश्चैव तम: सत्त्वं रजस्तथा ॥

rajastamaścābhibhūya sattvaṁ bhavati bhārata ।

rajaḥ sattvaṁ tamaścaiva tamaḥ sattvaṁ rajastathā ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 14.10)

‘O scion of Bharata, sometimes sattva (goodness) prevails over rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance). Sometimes rajas dominates sattva and tamas, and at other times tamas overcomes sattva and rajas.’

The animal kingdom is largely dominated by the tāmasic qualities of survival instincts, whereas human societies in general is largely seen to be rājasic in nature. However, the best of humans, who are almost Divine-like are driven by sāttvic qualities. Having been born a human, one may end up behaving like an animal due to tamas, or elevate oneself to divine heights through sattva, or simply oscillate between resultant gains and losses of one’s actions as a human. This is what the eighteenth śloka of the fourteenth chapter reveals,

ऊर्ध्वं गच्छन्ति सत्त्वस्था मध्ये तिष्ठन्ति राजसा: ।

जघन्यगुणवृत्तिस्था अधो गच्छन्ति तामसा: ॥

ūrdhvaṁ gacchanti sattvasthā madhye tiṣṭhanti rājasāḥ ।

jaghanyaguṇavṛittisthā adho gacchanti tāmasāḥ ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 14.18)

‘Those situated in the sattva (mode of goodness) rise upward; those in the rajas (mode of passion) stay in the middle; and those in the tamas (mode of ignorance), the lowest guṇa, go downward.’

A good example of this behaviour is in the three Lankan brothers from rāmāyaa. Though they were born in the same family yet behaved differently. The youngest brother Vibheeshana was sāttvic in nature and thus he disassociated himself from Ravana and sided with Sri Rama, the very embodiment of goodness. The eldest of them was Ravana, who driven by passion and desire had abducted the wife of Sri Rama, and thus his rājasic nature caused his ruin. The middle brother Kumbhakarna was dominated by tamas and thus slept for half the year and ate during the other half while awake, much like certain animals that hibernate. No wonder we see humans behave in all kinds of ways, sometimes worse than animals and at the other times almost like divine.

So, what is the way out? Does one need to give up all these qualities? Well, if one gives up tamas then one may not be able to even sleep like most of the hyperactive and distressed people who suffer from insomnia, or if one gives up rajas then all the activities in the society, be it agriculture, industry, trade, or business may come to a standstill. And now that we know that even sattva binds one’s soul to the world, giving up noble and good deeds for the welfare of others would lead to further worsening of societies.

What does the sanātana dharma say about how to lead one’s life in a way that one can be useful and active in the world, yet not be bound? The obvious answer is to transcend all the guṇas and establish oneself in the transcendental state of non-qualified divinity – ‘guṇātīta, where one is unaffected by the actions of the world and the dualities of consequences that arise therefrom. But like many good things, this too is easier said than done.

However, to begin with there is an easier middle path of ‘balance’ as proposed by Sri Krishna, wherein one needs to moderate one’s life into a sense of balance between rest, action, and spiritual pursuits; in other words, balance between the three qualities.

युक्ताहारविहारस्य युक्तचेष्टस्य कर्मसु ।

युक्तस्वप्नावबोधस्य योगो भवति दु:खहा ॥

yuktāhāravihārasya yuktaceṣṭasya karmasu ।

yuktasvapnāvabodhasya yogo bhavati duḥkhahā ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 6.17)

‘To the one who is moderate in eating and recreation, in the effort for action, and in sleeping and waking, yoga becomes the destroyer of misery.’

In fact, if we look at 24-hours in a day, the entire time is divided into three parts of eight hours each, dominated by one of these qualities. The morning four hours between 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. are sāttvic, and so also the evening four hours of 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., totalling to eight hours or one third of the day. This is the time that needs to be spent in spiritual pursuits of prayers and austerities. The eight hours between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. are rājasic in nature and this time should be engaged in activities of the world, be it pursuing one’s passion or profession or simply eking out a livelihood. The eight hours between 8.00 p.m. to 4.00 a.m. are tāmasic, and must be spent in resting and relaxing, which would regenerate the body and rejuvenate the mind for the next day.

Thus, to begin with a balance is a must, and then eventually one needs to transcend all the guṇas to attain a spiritual state of oneness with the Divine, where one ceases to identify oneself with the body and mind and attains the awareness of brahman as a mere witness of all actions without being affected by anything. This nature of a ‘guṇnātīta – the one who has attained this highest state of transcendence is defined by Sri Krishna as:

समदु:खसुख: स्वस्थ: समलोष्टाश्मकाञ्चन: ।

तुल्यप्रियाप्रियो धीरस्तुल्यनिन्दात्मसंस्तुति: ॥

मानापमानयोस्तुल्यस्तुल्यो मित्रारिपक्षयो: ।

सर्वारम्भपरित्यागी गुणातीत: स उच्यते ॥

samaduḥkhasukhaḥ svasthaḥ samaloṣṭāśmakāñcanaḥ ।

tulyapriyāpriyo dhīrastulyanindātmasanstutiḥ ॥

mānāpamānayostulyastulyo mitrāripakṣayoḥ ।

sarvārambhaparityāgī guṇātītaḥ sa ucyate ॥

(भगवद्गीता bhagavadgītā 14.24-25)

‘Those who are alike in happiness and distress; who are established in the Self; who look upon a clod, a stone, and a piece of gold as of equal value; who remain the same amidst pleasant and unpleasant events; who are firm or intelligent; who accept both blame and praise with equanimity; who remain the same in honour and dishonour; who treat both friend and foe alike; and who have relinquished all undertakings – are said to have risen beyond the three guṇas.’

The entire time of a day is divided into three parts of eight hours each, dominated by one of the three types of guṇas

sāttvic hours – needs to be spent in spiritual pursuits of prayers and austerities

rājasic hours – spent engaging in activities of the world, be it pursuing one’s passion or profession or simply eking out a livelihood

tāmasic hours – spent in resting and relaxing, which would regenerate the body and rejuvenate the mind for the next day.

sāttvic hours

4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m

4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m

rājasic hours

8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m

tāmasic hours

8.00 p.m. to 4.00 a.m