The three Maha Gunas in Ayurveda and their impact on your mental state
What doshas (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha) are to our physical well-being, Maha Gunas (Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas) is to our mental health. However, unlike our three doshas, our three maha gunas aren’t fixed. We have a lot more freedom over how to manage them.
Doshas and Mahagunas
We all have the capacity to express all three mahagunas. In Ayurveda, some consider that each Dosha is be made up of a particular balance of the three Gunas. Some describe the Doshas as physiological constitutions and the Gunas as psychological or mental energies. And while all three Gunas have their place and value in the world, what we are aiming for is a sattvic state of being.
The Mahabhutas came together to create the three biological forces called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. They are called the Tridoshas, the basis for all disease to take root wherever they are out of balance in the Universe, whether in a human body or in a plant or an object. The imbalances of the body are called Vata dosha, Pitta dosha, and Kapha dosha depending on which biological force is dominant over the other two.
The Gunas and the mind
The mahagunas/mental qualities, are how we relate to circumstances, both every day ones and unexpected ones. The intention behind an emotion, and how it is expressed, determines whether an emotion is predominantly tamasic, rajasic, or sattvic.
The three Gunas—Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas—are ever in dynamic interaction with each other, one gaining dominance and then receding, collapsing into each other, always maintaining the overall balance. The Gunas are used mainly to describe the mental state. “Rajas and tamas are causative factors in illness,” says Dr. Marc Halpern.
- First Guna – Sattva Guna (Mode of Purity) is good, nourishing, harmonious, this is the ultimate goal of our mind. When moving out of sattva mode you can exhibit fear, anxiety and restlessness and worry- similar to vata imbalance.
- Second Guna – Rajas (Mode of Passion or activity) is active, creative, initiates change. In the negative it is angry, aggressive, jealous, hatred.
- Third Guna – Tamas (Mode of lethargy) is slow going, lethargic, passive. In the negative it can be destruction, selfish, attachment.
Sattva and Rajas Guna combine to create sensory and motor organs called the Indriyas and karmendriyas of living beings. Rajas and Tamas gunas collapse together to create Tanmatras, the primordial dense elements which further split into Akash (Ether), Vayu (Air), Agni (Fire), Jal/Apas (Water), and Prithvi (Earth), the Pancha Mahabhutas, the five great elements.
What happens when doshas and maha gunas come together?
When the tri-guna combines with the tri-dosha, sixteen distinct personalities emerge. This helps a physician do an analysis of the client’s bio-psycho-somatic /mind-body-energy state. In a sense, pitta dosha can be equated to Rajas and Kapha can be like tamas, especially when out of balance. Pitta imbalance may lead to emotions like anger, jealousy, being competitive and aggressive while kapha in an imbalanced state may get sentimental, greedy, and attached so that is turns to destruction of whatever it is attached to. Since vata governs all, it can display any of the above qualities of the gunas.
Maha gunas and the five elements
When studying the gunas of the mind, Acharya Sushruta, attributes a predominance of:
~Akash mahabhuta with Sattva
~Vayu with Rajas
~Agni with Sattva–Rajas
~Jal with Sattva–Tamas
~Prithvi with Tamas
The gunas in day-to-day life
The principle is quite simple: the more you are exposed to a guna, the more that guna will grow in your mind and heart. Expose yourself to more sattva, and sattva will grow in you. Likewise, tamas and rajas will grow instead if that’s what you’re feeding on.
Example of Sattva: The calm, centered, kind voice and attitude to life. Meditates regularly and is empathetic, focused, satisfied, grateful cheerful, and blissful. Patiently handles all the chaos in life.
Example of Rajas: Craving stimulation and speaking out the truth with a sense of passion. Desiring sweets, caffeine, alcohol, passion, and looking for distractions.
Example of Tamas: Do you like to chill out on the couch? Eat a bag of potato chips while watching Netflix and chilling? Lethargy, dullness, sluggishness gets the best of you?
“Action that is virtuous, thought through, free from attachment, and without craving for results is considered Sattvic; Action that is driven purely by craving for pleasure, selfishness, and agitation is Rajasic; Action that is undertaken because of delusion, disregarding consequences, without considering loss or injury to others or self, is called Tamasic. — Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 18, verses 23–25
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