Bhagavad Gita on Trigunas – Sattwa Rajas and Tamas


Bhagavad Gita, one of the greatest scriptures of Hinduism gives elaborate explanation on the role of Trigunas in human psyche. To understand what Trigunas are, please read this article first.

Every individual is bound to this world and indulges in thoughts, speech and action as per the machinations of the Trigunas inside the psyche.

Sri Krishna, in Bhagavad Gita says “The three Gunas – Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas bind the essentially immortal Atman (self) to the (mortal) body”. (14.5). It means, as long as the soul is bound to trigunas, the cycle of Karma will continue birth after birth.

Hinduism strongly advocates that the very purpose or goal of human life is Yoga – attaining oneness with God or realizing one’s true nature of Atman (self). And this yoga (union) can be attained only by transcending Trigunas.

One who has transcended Trigunas is the liberated/ realized soul, a true Gnyani; He is freed from the cycles of births and deaths.

In his Bhagavad Gita (spiritual discourse to Arjuna), lord Krishna elaborates Triguna.

Trigunas and Bondage

Bhagavad Gita explains how each of these three Gunas binds one.

Tamas, the meanest of the three, “is born of ignorance, causes delusion and it strongly binds one with mis-comprehension, laziness and sleep.”(14.8)

Rajas, the mid one, “is in the form of passion, gives rise to thirst and attachment. It binds one by creating attachment to action”(14.7).

Even though the qualities of Sattwa are the loftiest and are considered Godly, a person, even if soaked fully in Sattwa, is not considered a liberated person, since attachment to Godly qualities too is a bondage. Bhagavad Gita says “Sattwa is stainless, luminous and free from evils and it binds one through attachment to happiness and attachment to Gyana (knowledge)” (14.6).

Even though Sattwa is a quality above Rajas and Rajas is a quality above Tamas, the reality is that each one is powerful enough to subdue and dominate over the other qualities at varying times and conditions. Thus Bhagavad Gita says, “Sattwa arises predominating over Rajas and Tamas; Likewise Rajas dominates over Sattwa and Tamas, and Tamas dominates over Sattwa and Rajas.”(14.10).

Observing Predominant Guna in a Person

It is not difficult to observe a person and determine which quality is predominant in him at any given point of time. “When the light of knowledge shines through every sense organ in a person, then it should be known that Sattwa is predominant in him” (14.11) says Gita.

Likewise, if a person is under the dominance of Rajas, “greed, physical activity, avid engagement in actions, restlessness and attachment are visible (14.12).   

If Tamas is predominant, dullness, lack of effort, miscomprehension and delusion are seen” (14.13).

Trigunas at Death

Whichever quality out of trigunas is predominant at the time of death of a person, that quality greatly determines the type of next birth he is going to take.

“If one meets death when Sattwa is predominant, he attains to the spotless higher worlds of the the great Gnyanis. If one dies when Rajas is predominant, he takes birth amidst people who are attached to action. The one dying when Tamas is predominant, takes birth off the wombs of the irrational.” (14.14-15).

The Characteristics of a Gunateeta

Bhagavad Gita also describes the characteristics of a saintly person who is has transcended the trigunas as follows:

“The embodied person, who knows that the body is caused by the trigunas, transcends the gunas and gets freed from birth, death, aging and suffering and attains immortality” (14.20)

“Whether it is the inner light coming out of Sattwa, or the activity originating in Rajas or the delusion caused by Tamas, the one who does not hate it nor longs for it when absent;

one who remains unaffected in pleasure and pain, one who is established in Self, one who treats a clod of earth, a stone or a piece of gold alike, one who treats likes and dislikes alike, one who is steadfast, one who faces honor and disgrace alike,

one who treats respect and disrespect equally, one who is relates equally to a friend and foe, one who has relinquished all actions arising out of desire – such a person is called Gunatheeta – one who has transcended the Gunas.” (14.22-25).

Bhagavad Gita proceeds further to explain the play of trigunas in one’s shradda(earnestness), worship and food habits. We shall look into them in the subsequent articles.

What is the composition of Triguna in you? Take this quiz.


Ramakrishna Paramahamsa on Trigunas – Sattwa Rajas and Tamas

Sri Ramakrishna, a divine avatar in the 19th century, whose conversations on Hinduism have been extensively recorded in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, has spoken very widely about “trigunas.”

Triguna means thee qualities, comprising of satva (purity and holiness), rajas(action and drive) and tamas(laziness and inertia). (To understand more about Trigunas, please read: Trigunas – Sattwa, Tamas and Rajas – The ancient Hindu Psychology) first.

Sri Ramakrishna says “God can be reached through satva guna. Rajas and Tamas separate us from God. Some compare sattwa to white color; rajas to red color and tamas to black,”

Sri Ramakrishna – He has elaborated a lot about Trigunas


Characteristics of People With Trigunas

Ramakrishna explains: “Pride, sleep and excessive eating are some of the identities of people of tamas. People with rajas engage themselves in many activities. Their dress will be pompous and shiny; their houses will display grandeur and be cleanly maintained; they will hang the portrait of the ‘queen’ (queen Victoria of British empire – it was the period when India was under British Rule)”

On the other hand, Ramakrishna says that, “People of sattwa guna will be soft and calm. They will earn just to have enough meals to live; they will not go out to sing praise on the rich to get money; their houses will not be properly maintained and may look unkempt. They will not bother about dressing impressively. They will not run around in hunt of name and fame.”

Play of Trigunas in Devotion to God

People’s gunas will be exposed in their attitude towards worship of God and in the practice of religious austerities too. Ramakrishna’s described his observation about devotees as follows:

Rajasic worship of God?

“The rajasic devotees  would wear silk clothes at the time of worship. They will wear a rosary made of ‘rudraksha’ around the neck and the rosary will have golden beads interspersed between rudraksha seeds. If someone visits their Puja Room, they will proudly take the visitor to show them around. Come this side; here are more to see; the floor is made of white marble; the ‘mantap’ (wooden enclosure where the God’s image is placed) has excellent carvings,” they will explain. They will donate to charities in a way visible to all.



As regards people of Sattwa guna, their contemplation about God, their acts of charity and their meditation will all be done secretively without the knowledge of others. They will sit inside the mosquito net and meditate. Others may think, “this man must have had poor sleep last night; that’s why he is sleeping so late.”

Ramakrishna says, “Sattwa is the last step in the stairs. By the next step, one can reach the roof. Once sattwa is in full measure, there won’t be much of delay to getGod’s vision. A little more progress will make one attain God.”

Trigunas – The Three Thieves

“The trigunas keep man under their spell; If sattwa is present, it drags rajas with it; If rajas is present, it drags tamas with it; All the three gunas are like thieves.

“Tamas destroys; rajas binds and sattwa releases one from bondage; but still, sattwa by itself cannot take you to Godliness, it can only show the way to God,” says Ramakrishna

He explains this concept of trigunas through the following story:

Once a rich man was traveling though a forest. Midway, he was suddenly surrounded by three thieves and they relieved him of all his possessions. Then one of the thieves said, “What’s the point in leaving him as such? Let’s kill him;” so saying, he advanced towards the rich man with his weapon. At that moment, the second thief intervened and said, “No. There is no use killing him; let us bind him thoroughly so that he cannot go and complain to the police.” So saying, he bound the man with a rope and all the thieves left the place.

After a while, the third thief returned to the place alone. He came near the rich man and said, “I am really sorry about the shabby treatment we have done to you. I will release you right now.”

So saying, he unbound the rich man, took him along showing the way through the winding paths of the jungle; finally they reached the outskirts of the forest and the highway was now visible. The thief said to the rich man “See, this is the road you can take now to reach your home.”

The rich man was moved. He said, “I am so grateful to you; won’t you please accompany me to my house? Our family will be very much pleased.” The thief replied: “I can’t come there. I will get caught by the police.” Saying so, he bidgoodbye to the man.

Ramakrishna explains that in the above parable, the thief who wanted to kill the rich man represents tamo guna. Tamas destroys. The second thief is rajas. It binds. It binds people to activities and make them forget God. The third thief is sattwa. It shows the way to reach God. Qualities like devotion, compassion, charity etc come from Satta. The rich man’s “own house” is the “Parabrahman.” One cannot attain the knowledge of the Brahman without transcending the three gunas.”

Active Engagement in Charity Work – Rajas or Satva?

During his meeting with Easwara Chandra Vidyasagar ( a great and well renowned scholar and philanthropist who lived during Ramakrishna’s period), Ramakrishna explained it this way: “Sir, what you are doing are acts of Sattwic karma; your rajas has its origins in sattwa. Out of sattwa comes compassion; even if your activities are based on compassion, activity by its very nature is rajasic. So, I would say, your activities are “rajasic sattwa;” so, they are harmless.”

Triguna and little children

When one studies the life of Ramakrishna, it is possible to understand how he himself lead a life of divinity, by transcending the trigunas. Ramakrishna used to frequently state that little children are divine because they too are beyond the fetters of Triguna. Only when a child grows, the three qualities start establishing their dominance on the character permanently. Sri Ramakrishna had a very keen eye to observe the behavior of children and he used to give very vivid and practical explanation of children’s behavior and how they are not bound by Trigunas.

We shall study further what Sri Ramakrishna says about Triguna and the behavior of children in the subsequent article.