Toward a Psychology of the Gunas

James Colbert – USA

Theosophy Three Gunas JC 2

The Mahabharata, considered to be over 5,000 years old, is an epic poem. Its expansive panorama, reportedly composed of over 100,000 verses, symbolizes the journey of the soul, as indeed do other great epics such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Gnostic Pistis Sophia, and the great Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh, considered by some to be the world’s oldest epic.

Within the Mahabharata is the Bhagavadgitâ. The Gitâ is a book not only cherished by adherents of all of the major philosophical schools of India, but is widely popular and can be found in many of the hotel rooms in India, just as the Holy Bible is found in the hotels of the West. There are now at least 300 translations of the Gitâ from the ancient Sanskrit into English, starting with the first such translation by Sir Charles Wilkins in 1785. The Bhagavadgitâ is a dialogue between Krishna, the teacher, and Arjuna, the pupil. It symbolizes the dialogue within each of us. The word “Arjuna” means “one who makes sincere efforts”, and the word “Krishna” means “the center of consciousness”. (1)

The conflict starts with Arjuna laying down his weapons, as he does not want to kill those close to him. Arjuna’s emotional reaction to the dilemma opens the dialogue to psychological interpretation, with Arjuna being the client and Krishna the therapist. Within the Gitâ are descriptions of the gunas, which according to ancient Indian philosophy, are the qualities of the material of the universe. In other words, all matter and all existence is composed of three forms of energy at all levels – universal and psychological. They are named in Sanskrit: sattva (harmony); rajas (desire); tamas (stagnation).

The gunas represent vibratory rates in descending order, with sattva being closest to pure consciousness and tamas, furthest away. (2) Note: Could they represent as well the three components of matter from science: dark matter, dark energy and matter? Georg Feuerstein (3) suggests they may correspond to the subatomic particles of protons, neutrons, and electrons. H. P. Blavatsky points to a correspondence to the Hindu pantheon of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (Trimurti). (4)

Within the Indian philosophies (particularly Sâmkhya) are found the original source of the gunas. In the Sâmkhya philosophy there are two divisions of eternity – purusha and prakriti. Purusha is subjective spirituality (consciousness) and prakriti is objective matter. In periodic cycles, subjectivity makes contact with objectivity (big bang theory?) leading to a path towards self-consciousness. In this process the components of materiality (the gunas) lose their equilibrium. (5)

A fascinating implication is that humanity’s task of seeking greater and greater levels of consciousness, is a way to restore equilibrium.

From the perspective of our personalities we have three parts: active, passive, and balancing. Freud’s id, superego, and ego would seem to reflect this same trilogy. From Wikipedia:

“According to this Freudian model of the psyche, the id (rajas) is the set of uncoordinated instinctual trends; the superego(tamas)plays the critical and moralizing role; and the ego(sattva)is the organized, realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the superego.”

Similarly, Dr Eric Berne’s transactional analysis of the personality, consisting of Child (rajas), Parent (tamas), and Adult (sattva), could serve as Western psychology’s three-part division.

Finally, Albert Ellis’ ABC model of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has a threefold classification. From Dr K. K. Agarwal, group editor-in-chief, IJCP (Indian Journal of Clinical Practice), “All the principles of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) today are basically principles originated from the Bhagavadgitâ”. Later in this writing, a major focus on CBT will be made.

There is a difference between Eastern and Western psychology. Swami Rama (ibid.) lists one:

In the Indian system of psychology, the student is led beyond mental life. Mind in its totality should be understood, but it is more important to be aware of the source of knowledge, the center of consciousness, âtman.

There is also a major difference in the method of treatment. In the West it would be therapist and client. In the East it is guru and student. Feuerstein (ibid.) puts it clearly:

But whereas the guru’s wisdom, at least in theory, sets the disciple free existentially, the therapist’s wisdom only increases the analysis and understanding. In comparison with the Eastern teachings, it is not truly liberative.

Feuerstein adds that the guru helps deconstruct the false sense of self.

The magical number of three is found in many systems of philosophy, including Plato and Pythagoras: the triangular sides of the pyramids; the three Hindu divinities of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; and the three parts of Christianity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Rolf Sovik gives a good description of the gunas, and is repeated here: (6)

The essence of sattva is to act like a transparent pane of glass, allowing light – the light of conscious awareness – to reveal itself in the operations of the mind and in Nature. . . . Rajasis the energy of change. It is distinguished by passion, desire, effort, and pain. Its activity may cause movement either toward sattva (increased spiritual understanding) or tamas (increased ignorance). . . .Tamas conceals the presence of consciousness. It causes dullness and ignorance through its power to obscure. Its nature is heavy and dense.

The objective of the Eastern approach is to overcome suffering. Simply put, we all have different perspectives on material reality as we perceive through our own individual lens. This infers that all is illusion, as reality changes from person to person and over time, within ourselves. What we define as Reality in one part of our lives can be different in another part. Perceived Reality is always changing. Suffering is due to our individual perceptions and our attachment to different forms of identification (matter). The source of our true identities is in subjective spirituality (purusha). It is who we really are – spiritual beings reaching toward greater consciousness.

Identifying with material objects (tamas) or the seeming thrill of constant change and activity (rajas), limits self-definition. Finding harmony, balance, and joy (sattva) can lead to a more rewarding life. Sattva is closest to the source of who we are. Douglas Osto (7) strongly gives this emphasis:

“For Sâmkhya this is why we suffer; we do not know who we really are, and because of this we identify with the world of experience and suffer the vicissitudes of finite existence. With true knowledge of reality we are able to transcend completely the limitations of finite existence.”

What to do about all of this? Mikel Burley (8)suggests:

“Sâmkhya can be seen as a psychological tool to overcome suffering. Through rigorous philosophical and psychological analysis, a person can learn to detach or disassociate from the psychophysical entity, and realize witness consciousness.”

His method is for the individual to determine and verbalize the situations one finds oneself in – and then we need to proclaim: “This is not me”. In other words, in the complications of relationships, work settings, and events – to disassociate the self in each instance. The self is a witness to the events but identification with the events is released. Osto gives a similar suggestion:

“But herein lies the ultimate beauty of Modern Sâmkhya – you decide your level of involvement. Perhaps a death in the family, a breakup of a relationship, or a terminal illness is more than you can bear. Then dissociate from it. You are not your body or your mind. You are pure consciousness that transcends the material dimension. . . . “I” or “mine”, is able to redirect its attention away from phenomena and realize that its very existence is dependent on pure consciousness as the true source of awareness.”

Another method is given by Sat Shree in his excellent video, “Mechanism of the Gunas”. (9) He describes the Gunas as gradations or vibrations from sat to asat. Sat being according to HPB’s Glossary (ibid): “The one ever-present Reality in the infinite world; the divine essence which is, but cannot be said to exist, as it is Absoluteness, Be-ness itself.” Asat simply means without sat, or the non-existent. Sat Shree designates it as a tone that is the source behind all creation. Sattva, being most pure, is closest to that which is created. The vibration more dense is rajas and even more, is tamas. There is a stepping down from spirituality to materiality. He offers that all of us cycle throughout the day through the three gunas. It is our task to recognize what vibrational rate (guna) we are in and gradually raise through the other two to sattva. Sattva represents harmony, joy, or acceptance. We need to construct our environments, relationships, and dietary intake toward harmony. All efforts lead toward the source of our being and bring us free from suffering.

We are suggesting here a third method. It would borrow from the other two and include CBT. This approach rests on the Buddhist assumption that all that we are comes from and is based on our thoughts. The way we perceive situations, according to us – is the way things are. Alter our perceptions and we can change the way we feel, and thus our behavior. The famous quote from Abraham Lincoln is relevant: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them friends?” This is changing our way of thinking, the way we perceive the world.

Another assumption of this third method is that we are on a pilgrimage toward greater consciousness. Simply, the suffering we experience can lead to greater understanding. HPB, in her Third Fundamental Proposition of The Secret Doctrine (10) states that this is our “obligatory pilgrimage”. This teaching suggests there is something pulling or pushing us toward meaning and purpose. The more we can experience the calling, the more our lives may have greater harmony (sattva).

In summary, the method might be described as a disidentification of the self from the rajas and tamas vibratory rates; a recognition of our own attachments to these with active efforts to gradually change; and the inclusion of cognitive behavior therapy, all based on the assumption of the great pilgrimage toward greater meaning.

Prior to ending this focus on the gunas we should recognize that few seem to have interest in a path toward greater understanding. As penned by Osto: (ibid.)

“…few . . . would choose to give up all their worldly possessions, emotional attachments, erotic relationships, and family ties to pursue a transcendent state beyond space, time, decay, and death. However, what many people today want as much as the ancient Indian renouncers, is to live a life free from suffering, and attain some type of lasting happiness.”

So true, but the Bhagavadgitâ teaches us that in the course of our lives the purpose is to get beyond these attachments and follow the pilgrimage.

Notes and References

  1. Swami Rama, The Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavadgitâ, Himalayan Institute Press, Honesdale, Penn., USA.
  2. Sat Shree, “Mechanism of the Gunas”,
  3. Georg Feuerstein, Psychology of Yoga: Integrating Eastern and WesternApproaches for Understanding the Mind, Shambhala Publications, Boston, Mass., USA.
  4. H. P. Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary, Theosophy Company, Los Angeles, California.
  5. “Evolution of Universe According to Samkhya Philosophy”, <>.
  6. Rolf Sovik, “The Gunas: Nature’s Three Fundamental Forces”, < s-natures-three-fundamental-forces>.
  7. Douglas Osto, Modern Samkhya: Ancient Spirituality for the Contemporary Atheist, Palmerston North, New Zealand.
  8. Mikel Burley, Classical Sâmkhya and Yoga: An Indian Metaphysics of Experience, Routledge Hindu Studies Series.
  9. Sat Shree, “Mechanisms of the Gunas”,
  10. H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, The Theosophy Company, Los Angeles, California.

[This article also appeared in the November 2018 issue of The Theosophist]

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