Introduction to the Three Gunas or Modes of Nature

The idea of liberation from the bondage of Nature and its action has been a central tenet of spiritual traditions the world over. Sri Aurobindo sets forth the additional goal of achieving mastery over the actions of Nature to be able to express the Will of the Supreme in the world of manifestation. This requires, therefore, not simply a dissolution of the bond between soul and external nature, but a way to gain leverage on the actions of Nature. For this purpose, a detailed understanding of the action of Nature in the manifested universe is essential, and this comes down to the important concept of the three Gunas of Nature, the modes or qualities that combine together to determine our actions and responses. “But this inferior Nature can only be mastered if she is surmounted and used from above. And this can only be done by a transcendence of her forces, qualities and modes of action; otherwise we are subject to her conditions and helplessly dominated by her, not free in the spirit.”

Western thinkers and scientists have tried to understand nature by disassembling the constituent parts and analyzing down to basic building blocks, which they call atoms, molecules or even smaller electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, neutrinos, etc. (or in the biological field, chromosomes, genes, amino acids, etc.) They have then tried to control nature by manipulating these elements but have not thereby been able to rise above them but have been further bound by them. The deeper they go, the more they search, the more attached they become to the material processes and functions and the cause and effect relationships they are able to understand, without seeing a bigger picture.

In ancient India, a different path was taken. They looked for ways to shift the awareness outside the frame of reference of the material manifestation, and from there to be able to observe and understand the functioning of the universe from a wider and higher perspective. This led them to develop the concept of the three Gunas, modes or qualities. “These modes are termed in the Indian books qualities, gunas, and are given the names sattva, rajas, tamas. Sattwa is the force of equilibrium and translates in quality as good and harmony and happiness and light; Rajas is the force of kinesis and translates in quality as struggle and effort, passion and action; Tamas is the force of inconscience and inertia and translates in quality as obscurity and incapacity and inaction. Ordinarily used for psychological self-analysis, these distinctions are valid also in physical Nature. Each thing and every existence in the lower Prakriti contains them and its process and dynamic form are the result of the interaction of these qualitative powers.”

The importance of this framework for the spiritual practice of Yoga is underlined by the extraordinary focus that is placed upon them in the Bhagavad Gita, with several chapters devoted to a deeper understanding of the action of the three Gunas.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 10, The Three Modes of Nature, pp.220-221