The Gunas and Prakriti
In the yoga tradition and
the Indian philosophical system of Samkhya we come across the use of the term `gunas`.
In essence these are seen as the three basic forces of nature - prakriti. Here
we are not thinking of nature as the wilderness or natural environment as something which can be filmed or recorded, but those
qualities which are to be found in all things.
The three gunas are named
as: sattwa, rajas and tamas.
Sattwa is often defined as
balance, lightness, goodness and purity;
Rajas is that quality of activity,
passion, and materialism in an acquisitive way;
Tamas equates with inertia,
sloth and heaviness
Taking those typical definitions
it would be easy to think of these three gunas in a linear way. The apparently
obvious progression for the aspiring yogi would be to move from leaden laziness (tamas), through passion and striving (rajas),
to that state of perfect tranquillity and other –worldliness (sattwa) which can give us the experience of Samadhi.
We should take a lesson from
nature and the mother Earth where we live. The earth is not simply an inert solid
`lump` floating in space. To create the earth, fire, activity and change have
been involved. The apparent calm and peace of `nature`; that beautiful sense
of peace which we enjoy in quiet places, belies the underlying creation, preservation and destruction taking place around
us all the time.
Rather than thinking of the
gunas in a linear way we should see both their positive and negative attributes, and also the balance they create between
them. Think of a triangle with a stable base and one point at the top. If we think of the upper point as sattwa it is tempting to think that is the way to go in our search for
enlightenment. However also think what would happen if we draw up the triangle
indefinitely. Height to base ratio would increase until even the triangle becomes
unstable and collapses. Conversely placing rajas and tamas at the base and allowing
them to dominate draws the triangle down like a collapsing cake in the oven. With
either one predominating the triangle becomes distorted.
Tamas in its negative aspect
gives lethargy and laziness. There is a lack of direction and effort. On the other hand the positive aspects of tamas provide stability and grounding. Rajas negatively can lead to aggression, anger and violence, but positively rajas gives energy, passion
to achieve what is good and vital. Sattwa if taken alone can lead to lack of
stability and direction; attributes we sometimes see in those who try to escape the realities of life and in the end are often
unable to cope with the stress of daily living. Positively sattwa draws tamas
and rajas towards each other, like reining in the opposing force of two horses trying to run in opposite directions. Sattwa can then use their power to rise and see beyond the mundane and material.
Coming back to the concept
of the triangle, what we need is not a shape which is distorted in any direction but an equilateral triangle where tamas and
rajas provide us with the stability and activity we need in our lives, and the rising point of sattwa to enlighten and inspire
our actions. The centre of the triangle then equates with the notion of placing
the atman at the heart of man.