The Gunas in Awakening

The Gunas in Awakening

Firstly, it’s useful to note what the gunas are. In Indian philosophy, all of the created world is said to arise from the interplay of 3 primary “forces” or qualities of Prakriti, nature. Elementally, these are creation, maintenance, and destruction. One of these three qualities tends to dominate everything we experience but nature as a whole seeks continual balance between them. Without that balancing force, known as dharma, the universe would cease – as it sometimes does.

The three forces of creation, maintenance, and destruction express as the three gunas of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. They exist only together. These can be perceived directly in a number of ways, such as by subtle colour or feel, for example. In practice, we see them as bringing various qualities to our experience. Sattva as light, balance, equilibrium, purity, clarity. Rajas as energy, desire, motion, fire. Tamas as inertia, stability, stupor, or dullness. Notice how for stability, we also need balance yet for continuance, we also need energy. It is a continual interplay.

Each of us tends to have a dominant internal guna due to habits of thinking, feeling and lifestyle. Not to mention the simple momentum of our long past. The guna feeds the habits which feed the guna, self-reinforcing. I’ve written several articles about how our experience of the world is influenced by our dominant guna.

For example, most people have Tamas dominant. The world from a Tamas perspective behaves like a covering over it’s source. The physical world seems real and the subjective or inner world unreal. The world is heavy, solid, dark, and inflexible – a hard taskmaster otherwise known as tamas.

When Rajas becomes dominant, it has the effect of “burning” or purifying tamas. In this stage, the world is seen as an illusion, like our life is in a movie. This is a common symptom of good spiritual progress.

When Sattva becomes dominant, the illusion is recognized as ‘created by’ and is now seen as Lila, the divine play. Subtle beings (deeper than astral) and the divine are apparent to us.

This leads us to the subject of the article. Our experience of Awakening itself is also influenced by the dominant guna. Because sattva brings clarity, it’s easier to awaken when sattva is more prominent. But awakening is not something done by the person or their form. It happens from a much deeper post-personal level. So when it does happen, it happens through whatever is here. Another good reason to prepare the vessel.

A person having more sattva will experience the process more directly, will recognize the process is being guided by grace, and will recognize some of the sages and devas (light beings) that are supporting them on their spiritual journey. This platform is much more likely to lead to a smoother process.

Such people will also have the bliss arise, a much fuller experience, and have a clear God Consciousness stage.

When Rajas is more dominant, there can tend to be more fire and excess colouring the process. Ideally, this occurs as heat to burn off the old Tamas and release more energy for transformation. More of this is necessary to embody the awakening more fully. It can also bring the courage to boldly step through this transformation.

But it may also amplify desires, create excess thinking rather than a settled mind, and cause heat imbalances. (Ayurveda can help there) Self-importance can be inflated plus a premature desire to guide others.

Just as world-as-illusion is a pretty common meme in modern awakening circles, so too is the above issue of premature teaching. Rajas also tends to lead to drier forms of awakening with less refinement. Further, until the way is more clear, there can be a delay in the bliss coming on.

However, when Tamasic quality dominates an awakening, the process is driven by inertia. This leads to orthodoxy and fundamentalism, perhaps even intolerance or extremism. The literature refers to this as a “demonic” type and there is a few examples in the epic stories. This can require some real support to shift the process and transform the awakening with the “fire of knowledge”.

Of course, typically we’ll be a combination of all of them – yet another thing that contributes to the uniqueness of each unfolding. We’ll all have some tamas to burn and rajas to settle.

What this points to is the true value of techniques. Not in awakening itself but in preparing the vessel so our experience of life is optimized and our awakening is as smooth and clear as possible. Note that this also means we don’t have to be perfect and pure to awaken. Not even slightly. But it can certainly help if we’re moving towards that. Meditation, good lifestyle, and the company of the wise can really help with a quality awakening into the fullness of who we are.

Last Updated on November 13, 2017 by Davidya

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  2. btw – if you have some inertia or lethargy after a shift, this does not mean you had a “demonic” shift. That would be more characterized by dogmatism. It may simply be the shift was taxing energetically or that you’ve become conscious of the inertia already present. The experience will shift, as it always does.

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  7. Gina

    One day I was helping a friend with a translation of the Yoga Sutras when I came to the fourth chapter and the 32nd verse, “With that, the gunas have fulfilled their purpost and the succession of their changes comes to an end.” as I read ‘. . . and the succession of their changes comes to an end’ I experienced them disappear, evaporate, pop! pop! pop! First tamas, then rajas, then sattva. And I was left sitting there in the Emptiness asking, “Who am I?”

    1. Thanks for sharing, Gina
      Fascinating. But were they disappearing or was it the attachments to them that were releasing, allowing them to settle into quiet?

      The translation I most use is “… the sequence of transformation is complete.”

      v34, the final verse:
      “In the absence of activity (the gunas), the purpose of purusha is fulfilled, and what remains is kaivalya (singularity) – the infinite power (shakti) of consciousness established in its own nature.”

      This loops back to the opening verses:
      “Yoga is the complete settling of the activity of the mind.
      Then the observer is established in the Self [in its own nature]”

      And yet curiously, a life continues, sprouted karma continues to unfold, and remaining contractions continue to come to the surface. Only now we’re not entangled in it and are winding it down rather than continuing in it.

  8. In this article I refer to the gunas as qualities and as forces. The first is valid. The second, from a deeper perspective is misleading.

    From the field of action, the gunas may be seen as forces but really, they don’t drive anything. The drivers come from the deeper flows of Shakti.

    What the gunas do is “colour” those deeper flows with qualities, making them heavier and slower or clearer and smoother, for example.

    The key with the gunas is balance.

    1. Hi Clarice
      Vedic philosophy describes vast cycles of time. Yugas within Chaturyugis within Manvantaras, within Kalpas and so forth. Within the cycle of Kalpa’s, the universe is said to “sleep” or cease expressing for a time and then cycle back into expression.
      There is some debate about the calculations but we’re talking billions of years. Essentially, every so often, the
      the universe completes it’s process or day and goes into rest.
      But in this context, there are structures larger than our universe that sustain things until our universe is born again.
      They also describe 5 even larger cycles that go up into Septillions of years.
      The part of this that’s of interest is the Yuga scale as its on the scale of thousands of years – something we can relate to.
      The dissolution of the universe isn’t something you need to be concerned about – there is much more to awaken yet. However, it is something people experience sometimes when your perceptive gets large enough. When you recognize you’re infinite and eternal, that includes many cycles of our universe. 🙂

  9. rao

    I came across this page when searching for the impact of gunas on kundalini awakening. Very nicely written with great clarity – thank you.
    Once question I have is do the gunas influence the chakras ? Along those lines, does kundalini flow differently when one or more guna dominates a chakra.

    Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.


    1. Hi Rao
      Yes, this article is in essence on the qualities that influence our perception of the process.

      With the chakras, the context is different. The gunas are a more general tone, rather than overly specific to a single chakra. However, some areas will vary a bit. For example, our lower chakras are more associated with more manifest levels and thus will be inclined to have more tamas. But it’s the overall tone that has the biggest effect.

      When tamas/ inertia is dominant, the chakras will be more sluggish and the sludge in the nadis more fixed. The shift to rajas will help roast the sludge and get things moving, but can be more extreme and can burn if in excess.
      And finally, when sattva becomes dominant, it’s easier to move through the blocks and open things up.

      It would be typical of the main kundalini process to take place during the rajas phase.
      It would be much harder to sustain sattva dominant while ego-identified and in the world.
      Anything is possible, but…

      It’s worth noting that kundalini (coiled) is a reference to the opening up process. Once kundalini is active, it shifts into Shakti, who manages the process., both for the full rise and the later descent with Shiva.

      To the perspective here, the key is samadhi and support for the release of blockages. The kundalini process will generally take care of itself to support this. Trying to open up energetically, directly, tends to cause a rougher process as we’re pushing it. Let Shakti do her job. 🙂

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