The Three Gunas and the Food We Eat

The Gita lays considerable emphasis on the three Gunas or qualities of Nature and their action. Understanding of the Gunas is certainly helpful both to reduce the sense of the ego, which believes it has totally free will and controls how it responds to life circumstances, and to aid the individual in effectively acting in the world. Having previously provided a general description of the nature of each of the three Gunas, the Gita then begins to enlarge upon this by providing detailed analysis of the action of the Gunas in a variety of forms and circumstances. Since the Gunas are involved in the entire manifested creation, we find their influence in all material forms, life energies and mental characteristics.

Sri Aurobindo describes the Gunas as follows as they impact the food we eat: “Our food, for example, the Gita tells us, is either sattwic, rajasic or tamasic according to its character and effect on the body. The sattwic temperament in the mental and physical body turns naturally to the things that increase the life, increase the inner and outer strength, nourish at once the mental, vital and physical force and increase the pleasure and satisfaction and happy condition of mind and life and body, all that is succulent and soft and firm and satisfying. The rajasic temperament prefers naturally food that is violently sour, pungent, hot, acrid, rough and strong and burning, the aliments that increase ill-health and the distempers of the mind and body. The tamasic temperament takes a perverse pleasure in cold, impure, stale, rotten or tasteless food or even accepts like the animals the remnants half-eaten by others.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 18, The Gunas, Faith and Works, pp. 468-469

Faith, Action and the Gunas

It is the usual tendency of our mentality to separate things into different categories and erect walls around them. Thus, when we consider the practice of yoga, or the elements of action prescribed by the Gita—faith, giving and askesis—we generally separate these from our daily lives; however, as Sri Aurobindo points out, all action in the world incorporates these elements, conditioned by the Guna that predominates for any specific individual in any of these acts.

“When we live, when we are and do according to our desires, that is a persistent act of sraddha belonging mostly to our vital and physical, our tamasic and rajasic nature. And when we try to be, to live and to do according to the Shastra, we proceed by a persistent act of sraddha which belongs, supposing it to be not a routine faith, to a sattwic tendency that is constantly labouring to impose itself on our rajasic and tamasic parts. When we leave both these things and try to be, to live and to do according to some ideal or novel conception of truth of our own finding or our own individual acceptance, that too is a persistent act of sraddha which may be dominated by any one of these three qualities that constantly govern our every thought, will, feeling and act. And again when we try to be, to live and to do according to the divine nature, then too we must proceed by a persistent act of sraddha, which must be according to the Gita the faith of the sattwic nature when it culminates and is preparing to exceed its own clear cut limits.

The three types of action enjoined by the Gita, rather than being special acts separated from life, are actually elements of all action. “All dynamic action may be reduced in its essential parts to these three elements (n.b. faith, giving and askesis). For all dynamic action, all kinesis of the nature involves a voluntary or an involuntary Tapasya or askesis, an energism and concentration of our forces or capacities or of some capacity which helps us to achieve, to acquire or to become something, tapas. All action involves a giving of what we are or have, an expenditure which is the price of that achievement, acquisition or becoming, dana. All action involves too a sacrifice to element or to universal powers or to the supreme Master of our works.”

Each of these elements is subjected to the Gunas and can thus take on either a sattwic, rajasic or tamasic quality and corresponding result. The action of the Yoga becomes a conscious implementation of what otherwise we are doing unconsciously or ignorantly, with the direction, focus and form of activity brought to a new level of awareness.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 18, The Gunas, Faith and Works, pp. 467-468