How to understand Trigunas – Sattwa, Tamas and Rajas – The ancient Hindu Psychology

Hinduism contains a very ancient and a remarkable analysis of human psyche and its constituents. This concept, known as Trigunas (three characteristics) is part ofSamkhya Philosophy which is a part of six orthodox systems (astika) of Hinduism, having allegiance to Vedic knowledge.

Samkhya school is considered one of the oldest Hindu systems of philosophy and its origin is attributed to Saint Kapila.

According to this school philosophy, from the causeless, infinite, unfathomable and intransient “Purusha”, everything that is manifest in creation – the worlds, the life forms, the matter and energy behind them all came on account of “Prakriti”; every being under prakriti is made up of the trigunas – known as SattwaRajas andTamas in its core psyche.

Trigunas: Sattwa-Rajas-Tamas

Sattwa is purity and holiness; Rajas is to do with action and drive and Tamas is laziness and inertia. In other words, every human being’s mind-stuff is made of a mixture of these three basic qualities in different proportions. All words, actions, temperaments, aspirations, conduct and character of every individual person are reflected by the proportion in which these three qualities exist in the mind.

No individual’s conduct, character, aspirations, values and drives are same as another person’s. Why is it so? It is purely because the ratio in which these three qualities are built in the psyche of each person is different.

To understand these qualities better, let us see what each of these qualities represents more elaborately.

Sattwa: Purity, holiness, devotion, serenity (Sage Sri ‘Kanchi PeriavaL’))

Sattwa (Purity and holiness):


Love, compassion, devotion to God (Bhakti), ahimsa (non-injury), truthfulness, non-stealing, discrimination (viveka), dispassion (vairagya), daya (compassion), thyag (sacrifice), kindness, soft-speak, control over senses, non-jealousy, honesty, non-covetousness, patience, forbearance, mercy, humility, guilelessness


Rajas (Action and Drive):


Activeness, boisterousness, hurry, action, impatience, passion, drive, ambition, motivation, power-mongering, manipulation, desire for leadership, domination, self-promotion, rule-breaking, pushy, love for coterie, love for subjugating others, love for grandeur, competitive instinct, workaholism, exhibitionism, strenuous effort, fighting spirit, strong belief in self-will, love for spending and extravaganza, materialism, loudmouth, assertiveness, avarice, authoritativeness, pride.



Tamas (Laziness and Inertia):


Laziness, dullness, sloth, greed sans effort, lack of motivation, fatalism, negativism, excess sleep, jealousy, envy, miserliness, pessimism, perverted desires, hatred, lust, obsession, deceit, vengeance, day dreaming, bashfulness, covetousness, gluttony, stealth, treachery, possessiveness, aversion, rumor mongering, back biting, dishonesty, laxity.

The Human Mind is a Mixture of Trigunas

In any human being, though all these three qualities will be present in varying proportions, generally one of these qualities will be more predominant than the other two. For example, Saints and sages are predominantly sattwic. A politician or a sports star is predominantly rajasic. People who easily get hooked to drinking or drugs are predominantly tamasic.

How do these qualities fundamentally find their place in a human psyche?      

One of the foundation stones of Hinduism is the concept of Karma and rebirth. Every human being takes birth in this world and engages in action – karma. Actions are driven by aspirations and desires; Aspirations and desires are propelled by vasanas, literally meaning smells, that you acquire based on the imprint of your past experiences (also known as samskaras).

Trigunas and Rebirth

Some of one’s desires may get satisfied through one’s actions in this birth whereas some may not; some actions create very strong samskaras inside one’s psyche and may even work like fuel added to fire to increase the cravings. But unfortunately, the human life span is limited. Hinduism says that when one dies, one’s unfulfilled desires, cravings, dreams, love, hatred, and spiritual aspirations are carried as vasanas along with the soul.

When the soul takes a rebirth, its psyche comes built essentially with the appropriate mix of Trigunas, based on the vasanas of its previous births.

Trigunas and the Process of Aging

In childhood, the trigunas remain buried deep inside and starts manifesting gradually as one ages.

Little children (up to the age of two to three) are not fettered by trigunas. They are not attached to Sattwa, Rajas or Tamas as grownups do. Great saints and divine souls too though essentially sattwic, live beyond the fetters of trigunas. That’s one of the reasons why little children are so divine, lovable and attractive.

As one grows into adulthood, one’s character evolves more clearly based on his inherent trigunas. It can be said that basic personality traits in a person remain more or less confined within certain boundaries, but they definitely evolve and get reshaped as one ages more and more.

Life is fickle. A person engaged in excessive action may one day long for a life of idleness and sloth; a person full of desires at heart but too lazy to act upon them may dream of an action-packed life; a person used to running madly for satiating selfish sensual pleasures may one day understand the futility and the pain behind such pursuits and he may want to rededicate his life to do selfless service to society. Aging and consequent physical limitations too influence one’s composition of trigunas.

Is it possible to make a self-assessment of the extent and proportion of sattwa, rajas and tamas inside us? Yes. By answering the quiz given in the following article, one can get a reasonably good picture on one’s constitution of Trigunas.

Bhagavad Gita, one of the greatest scriptures of Hinduism gives elaborate explanation on the role of Tigunas in human psyche. Click here to read on what Bhagavad Gita says on this subject.



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