The Role of the Three Gunas In the Response To Life’s Challenges

The Bhagavad Gita has long been considered to be, not only a spiritual scripture, but also a treatise on human psychology. This latter understanding is based on the extensive treatment that the Gita provides to explain and reveal the importance of the “modes of nature”, which are called gunas in Sanksrit. The three gunas, in their interaction, govern virtually all action in the world. While the Gita’s discussion of the gunas is reserved for some of the later chapters, Sri Aurobindo points out that it is essential to understand their role in the basis, background and focus of the overall teaching.

“There are…three essential qualities or modes of the world-energy and therefore also of human nature, sattva, the mode of poise, knowledge and satisfaction, rajas, the mode of passion, action and struggling emotion, tamas, the mode of ignorance and inertia.”

“All the attitudes adopted by the human mind towards the problem of life either derive from the domination of one or other of these qualities or else from an attempt at balance and harmony between them.”

Tamasic response is basically one of being overwhelmed by life and its challenges. Rajasic response takes up the challenge with jest and energy to meet and master the opportunities presented. Sattwic response attempts to find a balance and harmony and right method of addressing the needs of life. While each individual has some element of each of the three gunas operating, the predominant mix and balance, as well as which one is leading in a particular situation, will determine the tenor of the individual’s ability to address life’s challenges. As we view Arjuna’s response to the situation, and the various phases he goes through, it will be essential to keep in mind Krishna’s attempt to modulate the action of the three gunas to help Arjuna achieve both a new understanding and a new poise of action.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 6, Man and the Battle of Life, pp. 48-49,