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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Gunas (qualities)

Giving the politically charged stuff a rest for a bit (somehow getting a new issue of Hinduism Today, always leads me into the political stuff!)...

I wanted to do a quick post about gunas because that's a word I use frequently and it's something that I often can't find an English equivalent for.

To start of, I'm not honestly sure where this comes from. Wikipedia says the three guna system comes from Samkhya, one of the classic schools of Indian philosophy. For me, I was taught growing up that this was just how the world works.

The idea is that all things in creation are made up of different proportions of three subtle qualities. I say "subtle" because this is not on the physical level like atoms or molecules. There is a physical world and body and there is a subtle world and body.

The three gunas are:

Rajas: passion, energy, lust, excitement, agitation

Tamas: lethargy, sleepiness, dullness

Sattva: peace, calmness, serenity

Some believe that it is right for all three to exist in everything in their natural proportions. Others believe that we should always be raising the amount of sattva, especially in ourselves. I had a professor once who espoused the idea that sattva was not its own separate guna, but was made up of the proper balance of the other two (which is a rather strange and radical idea).

In some schools of philosophy one should not eat spicy food because it is rajasic and will inflame rajas in you.

I find these three descriptors very helpful in my day to day life to explain and understand things.

Some days I feel "blah." If I acknowledge to myself that I feel "tamasic," though, it is easier for me to see it as just a process going on in the world, and not part of who I am. Tamas exists and is interacting with me in some way, but the other two are there as well and will eventually make their own appearances.

So now if you hear me talk about the gunas, you'll know what I'm referring to.


  1. Well, going from this and other western Hindu blogs i think most western Hindus take themselves too seriously. Cool down Guys. I mean I am a Hindu by birth in India & from a very religious background and when I say you guys take things too seriously I really mean it. I mean i know that this blog is about Hinduism but really chill out. Hinduism was meant to be liberating, that is why the whole personal connection with god is emphasized.What i feel that westerners do is that they follow it like say Christianity etc. I am this adivita or that Rama something. In India we have so many variations that we stopped labeling millennia ago.
    Always Remember Hinduism is a Dharma without collective conscience.

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  3. The subject is very good. And your simple explanation has open a window for those who want to learn more about it.
    To answer Akshay, level and depth of devotion,dedication depend and vary from person to person.
    Everybody has right to pursuit or spend amount of time on the subjects he/she like.
    Sanatan Dharma have tradition of bringing up lofty ideas and have a healthy debate on it.That's why you can find Vaishanav,Shivait,Ram-snehi, Advait,Sankhya etc different school of thoughts.All of them do/did research on upliftment of human being in the field of spirituality.
    By the way I did not get essence of statement "Always Remember Hinduism is a Dharma without collective conscience".

  4. @Akshay

    "I am this adivita or that Rama something."

    If the Rama comment is about my reply on Aamba's last topic, it was meant as a tongue in cheek joke as is always seems Rama devotees are always in the middle of most rows concerning mullahs.

    Personally, I can, have and will always be able to laugh at myself. As I am not, nor have ever been a Christian it's kind of hard to "practice" dharma as a Christian :P Never the less, titles and labels are everywhere and can not be avoided. In the most simple sense I am a devotee of Bhagavan Shri Ram and I am proud to say this and that I surrender to him and I AM serious about that.

  5. I think I have been grossly misunderstood. I am not doubting anyone's devotion or anything. Nor am i laying claim on the Dharma.
    No i am sorry it was not meant like that, i really could remember the sects name.Honestly. here in india we dont talk like that. i mean when two hindus meet they dont say "hi, hindu?"
    "yes , adivita, you?" , "yes Ramaseni". We hardly even discuss the deities. Even if some difference of devotion comes up we just say "we do things like that in our family" or " i like Krishna" and the topic is closed.
    This is what i meant by seriousness not devotion.
    "Everybody has right to pursuit or spend amount of time on the subjects he/she like."
    That is what i meant by the personal connection comment.
    By collective conscience I meant we don't have strong boundaries like Christianity e.g. Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Catholic etc. Here when People think differently they just do differently.There are no labels here.

    The reason I connected this phenomena to the west is that I believe that these were created to bring some organization in the Dharma for western audience.
    Finally I want to say that this is just my opinion and I am not a learned Guru or scholar.

  6. I tend to agree with Akshay so far as how it is done in India. for eg. My Husband's ishta Deivam is Lord Muruga,while mine goes from Ganesha,to Shiva,to Krishna ,Rama ,Lakshmi ,Saraswathi,Tripurasundari,to Hanuman;I only know that when I am praying to one I keep my mind on that One. And My mother associates with Gaudiya Vaishnavas by going on yatras with them even though we are smarthas.We also have some Family members married to Srivaishnavas.,but things just go smoothly .I have been among Christians in School and college,but the lines were very clear as they used to have two separate classes[scripture/Catechism] for the Protestants and the R.Catholics
    The seriousness applied to practice of religion differs from person to person even if they were born in a religion. New entrants to a religion are usually more enthusiastic about following the Tenets,letter and spirit,than some one who is brought up in the religion.,just like a new bar of Soap has more angles and has more perfume than a used one,which has its angles smoothed out and even the perfume lost. We oldies need to refresh ourself from time to time,to understand ourselves,and everything better.

  7. BTW Do you guys know that atheism is a sect of Hinduism
    check it out

  8. I sometimes wonder if the true Hindu way of life can ever be understood by a non-Indian mind...I was reminded of an article I read in the NYT which talked of how American generals in Afghanistan are loath to using powerpoint slides to discuss strategy because powerpoint forces you to put things in order while strategy has no direction. It is in all places simultaneously. Hinduism is like a strategy. Calling oneself "this" but not "that" is pretty close to putting things down in powerpoint.

    I was also reading about Yoga in the US and there are multiple Yoga sects, infighting, etc. There is apparently Iyengar Yoga, non-Iyengar Yoga, Atman Yoga, etc. Indian yoga practitioners dont even know about any of this. Maybe this is the fabled American consumerism at work - Yoga for dummies, or Learn Hinduism in 30 days.

    I do not intend to belittle anyone's beliefs but (in my humble opinion) true Hinduism is all-encompassing. In probably Zen style: Hinduism is neither here nor there, it is neither this nor that. Go figure!

    See an interesting decision made by the Supreme Court of India:

    "Hinduism appears to be a very complex religion. It is like a centre of gravity doll which always regains its upright position however much it may be upset. Hinduism does not have a single founder, a single book, a single church or even a single way of life."

  9. Thanks for the post.
    My father would mutter "Tamasic guna" whenever he saw me lazying around on the couch. That used to get on my nerves, as parents do to teenagers, so this brought back a few memories.

  10. @kalbhairav

    sorry chief i beg to differ, if one doesnt believe in Gita one summarily exclused oneself from the hindu faith. Gita states the core doctrines of hinduism as follows- dharma, karma, yoga rebirth and moksha. Those of you who call it mumbo jumbo have clearly never made an attempt to understand the very essence of the vedas. Dont flatter yourselves preaching all that tolerance to the hindus. Tolerance was favorably dealt with there in the very first scripture of hindus, namely RigVeda circa 3,500 BC. COurts are liberal left wing extremist ridden places.Give them a chance they call jesus and mohammad as hindus without a blink.


    your screen name befits your mimamsa mindset. Seriously, charvakas were celebrated Nastiks (atheists) tens of hundreds of years ago. They failed to impress the mainstream hindus, thankfully they were dealt with in an academic manner by producing vedas and upanishads to shut them off.The contemporary charvakas are called rationalists back in that neighborhood. Indeed you are very cheeky to put hindus and nastiks in the same sentence.Its just like saying 'do you know some vegetarians are nonvegetarians?' Surya, chicago

  11. @Anon...Not quite clear to me where you are coming from or where you are headed...But Gita is definitely NOT the entirety of Hinduism. In any case, who is to say who is a Hindu and who is not? I quoted the Supreme Court just to provide one perspective. As long as folks agree on the validity of different simultaneous pathways towards God without claims of exclusivity, I guess I am fine and would have such folks over for dinner at my home.

  12. @Sita (what a screen name!!)
    I agree with the ishta devata practice in principle. Lets explore and monkey around with the genealogy a bit here. The ishta devatas, according to my book (which is never going to be written ever) ought to be traced back to either shiva, or to Vishnu (and bramha).
    Rama, krishna and Venkateswara go the Vishnu way. Whereas Ayyappa, Kumara swamy, Ganesha belong to the shiva clan. The females will again fall in the family tree of their spouses. Deities thus are simplified and classified very easily this way!! My point is there are only two documented avatars with a BLUE hue like rama and Krishna mythologically and all others (non blues) are from family of the trinity as mentioned above. Argue against that concept please.Hmmm. Now I started writing my own Ramayan and mahabharat here..Clearly, Iam from the valmiki and vyasa clan folks…now I am very sure of that…just wait until I learn sanskrit people….Surya.

  13. @Surya
    This is just what i said in my last comment. People learn the different sects and just start labeling. The actual form practiced here(India) is an amalgamation of the many sects and you cant say one is here or there. Its too complex.
    As far as my beliefs go i would say i do agree with some charvaka aspects like materialism and the fact that vedas are man made(like all religions), the seeking out of sensual pleasure & I DONT WANT MOKSHA. I WANT TO BE BORN AGAIN TO EXPERIENCE EVERY THING IN THIS WORLD. But i do believe in Karma & treat it more as a cause effect relationship.

    I just read your comment now from the previous post. I couldn't agree with you more. BTW I adore historians. I would have become one had i not loved Engineering so much. I do believe that one should have a proper read of history to understand ones identity. If you read history you can clearly see behind all the religious veils. I guess this is something only those that do the reading understand.

  14. Religion isn't a PC topic for casual conversation in english-speaking urban middle/upper class India. In addition there's a pervasive hypersensitivity so most people put things in secular monotheistic phraseology such as "God loves us all" or "Ask the Almighty for his blessings" rather than "Lord Ram...". This lexicon certainly doesn't contain Ramanadi, Advaita Vedantist, Atman Yoga etc. As a result many Indian Hindus find these terms to be either archaic or exotic, so this reluctance to label may just be plain 'ol ignorance or diffidence.

    Even amongst the knowledgeable some try to actively discourage these distinctions, like the deities one prays to, in order to strengthen a pan-Hindu consciousness which can then be mobilized politically. In fact the prime mover of the Hindu right in India, Veer Savarkar, was an atheist.

  15. Surya's correct:
    "Indeed you are very cheeky to put hindus and nastiks in the same sentence."

  16. Interesting discussion going on!

    I'll just add that I do have a post about how converts tend to be overly enthusiastic and why.

    We just get so excited to find something that makes sense to us!

    I do need to get a post up on the Supreme Court ruling about what makes someone a Hindu, I haven't written about that yet.

    I would argue also that I did not have a typical western upbringing and there's a lot in my approach to life and the way I think that is Indian. There's lots that's not as well, but the idea that I can't understand Hinduism because I don't have an Indian brain, I don't think is accurate.

    About the atheism, I have heard Advaitains accused of being atheists. I guess because to us God doesn't have to be a God at all, God might just be the universe itself. That might be a topic for another post.

    Actually, there is so much here that I might have to address all of this in a post!