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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):

Sattwa

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):

Rajas

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):

Tamas

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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Know Your Personality Through Triguna

Triguna, meaning “three qualities” is one of the ancient psychological concepts available in Hindu scripture. According to this concept (available from Samkhyaschool of Indian philosophy) human mind is made of Sattwa (purity, holiness),Rajas (activeness) and Tamas (laziness, inertia). These three qualities exist in various proportions in men and their combined effect determines one’s personality.

For a more detailed understanding of Trigunas, you may please readundestanding Triguna” first, before starting to answer the quiz here to know your personality though Trigunas.

This quiz has 3 sections each with 10 statements. Each of these 3 sections pertains to Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas respectively.

Based on your personal assessment about yourself, please answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following 3×10 statements. Each ‘Yes’ carries 1 point and each ‘No’ carries 0 point. If you are not sure of yes or no, think again: the emphasis to all questions is about your “strong” beliefs and feelings. If you do not feel “strongly” to answer ‘yes’, it amounts to answering ‘no’ only.

Group: A (Sattwa – Purity, holiness)

A-1)”I believe man’s duty is to lead an unselfish life by helping others in all ways possible. Many times I am deeply pained seeing hunger, poverty, suffering, terrorism and anarchy; I think deeply on what I can personally contribute to reduce suffering in this world.”

A-2)”I strongly believe that God exists and everything happening in this world is at His command.”

A-3)”I strongly believe any form of killing of creatures – for food, for religious sacrifice or for scientific/ medical experiments – is outright wrong.”

A-4)”I feel human life has plenty of contradictions and unanswered questions; I wonder many times whether the life of running behind money, power, sensual enjoyments and so on has any lasting purpose or worth. Sometimes the whole life appears just like a long dream to me.”

A-5)”I don’t get angry or upset easily. When in joy, I don’t become too jubilant.”

A-6)”I am very humble and don’t like to boast about my achievements. People don’t consider me a very egoistic person. People generally show respect to me for my conduct and character.”

A-7) “I strongly believe sensual enjoyments do not give lasting happiness; I believe the more we keep away from them or moderate them, the more peace and tranquility we get. I believe celibacy is a great virtue (though it is difficult to practice for most).”

A-8) “I have lots of reverence for holy saints and seers who have relinquished the world in quest of God. I believe realizing one’s true nature or realizing God can be the loftiest goal of human life.”

A-9) “I have few enemies. I don’t get too upset when criticized. I may dislike a person’s words or actions but that does not make me end up in hating that person. I can easily forgive and forget.”

A-10) “I am more interested in reading Bible, Bhagavat Gita and such holy scriptures with a thirst to grasp their true wisdom, than reading them superficially or out of compulsion. I also feel holy scriptures are not really meant for intellectual analysis and interpretation or for giving eloquent discourses, but to use them as a guide to tread the higher paths they show.”

Add up your sattwa score:

Now total up the number of ‘yes’ you have answered. The analysis is as below:

7-10 points : You are highly sattwic. You have potential divine qualities in you.

4-6 points: You are moderately sattwic. You have good seeds of spirituality sprouting inside you.

0-3 points: You have low sattwic qualities. You don’t have much of spiritual inclination.

Depending on your scores that you have to take in the next two parts of the quiz on Rajas (action and drive) scale and Tamas (laziness and inertia) scale, your overall personality can be assessed at the end.

Group:B (Rajas- Activity, drive)

B-1) “I don’t think the idea behind “eat, drink and be merry” is wrong. I believe life must be enjoyed to its full. There is nothing wrong in earning a lot so as to spend it on enjoyment.”

B-2) “I believe idleness is a crime. Working hard to earn well must be the way of life. Hard work has its own joy. I cannot tolerate a lazy person, be it a saint or a beggar.”

B-3) “I believe in goal setting and achieving it in life. It gives meaning to our life. “Never give up hope; do not get troubled by failures; do not believe in fate; march along; reaching the goal is more important than the path you tread” – such words always impress and inspire me.”

B-4) “I don’t think selfishness is evil. I you look around, practically everyone is working for his/her selfish ends. I believe, at times, in your quest for success, you can’t help but tread over a couple of others and there is nothing too wrong about it. I believe survival of the fittest is the law in this competitive world too.”

B-5) “Money, possessions, power, status, leadership, position, fame (or notoriety), manipulative capacity, a high degree of visibility of my face in the society or in the media – all these are like heady brews for me. I believe that enjoying some or all of them give meaning to my existence in this world.”

B-6) “I really enjoy viewing competitive sports, action movies and thrillers. I love to do regular exercise, spend time in gym, take part in active sports; Many times unfortunately I can’t always allocate time for these activities because of my tight engagements.”

B-7) “I admire very popular sports stars, very famous models, pop singers, Movie Heroes/ heroines and very successful politicians and consider some of them as my role models.”

B-8) “I believe in religion as long as it serves for the welfare of society. I would any day respect a person who toils for the welfare of the downtrodden than one who sits inside the church to pray and read bible. I believe saints who seclude themselves from society and search for Godliness in loneliness are not worthy of reverence.”

B-9) “I am extremely attached to my family, profession/ business, wealth and comforts. I feel I am duty bound to provide my children the best of everything within my capacity – comforts, education, status and security for the future.”

B-10) “I enjoy traveling, seeing different people, different cultures, societies and lifestyles. I don’t believe in retirement. People should lead an active life till the end of life. I believe one should never think or feel about one’s age impose restrictions on oneself, citing aging as a reason.”

Add Up Your Rajas Score:

Now total up the number of ‘yes’ you have answered. The analysis is as below:

7-10 points: You are highly rajasic. You have a very high degree of worldly desires and drive in you.

4-6 points: You are moderately rajasic. You are a reasonably active and energetic person.

0-3 points: You have low rajasic qualities. You are not a person with ambitions, drive and motivation for worldly success.

Depending on the scores that you got in the previous quiz on Sattwa and in the next part of the quiz on Tamas scale, your overall personality can be assessed.

Group:C (Tamas – laziness, inertia)

C-1) “I believe those who have very wealthy parents are really lucky. They can always enjoy good life without stressing and straining themselves.”

C-2) “Whenever I eat, I would eat to my stomach-full. I particularly enjoy anything non-vegetarian. If I am hungry, I get restless. I tend to gobble up anything unmindful of taste and quality.”

C-3) “I believe being a couch-potato has its own bliss which many so called active people do not know of. I hate physical exercises. Though I may envy physically fit and shapely figures, I can’t think of physically straining myself to get an attractive figure.”

C-4) “For me, accumulating a huge bank balance is a lot more pleasurable than spending money on essentials and non-essentials. Let people call me a miser. I just don’t care.”

C-5) “I always tend to over-sleep and, to be frank, I enjoy it. Sleeping in day time has its own pleasure that many busy people are never aware of.”

C-6) “I hate traveling. I feel traveling and running around unnecessarily strain me physically and disturb my eating and sleeping patterns.”

C-7) “I am addicted to alcoholic drinks / smoking / drugs. Even if I cannot be classified as an addict, my love for these indulgences is quite deep-rooted and I feel life is not worth living if these are taken away from me.”

C-8) “I am strictly against any religious or moral censures against polygamy, premarital sex, orgy, extra marital relationship, homo-sexuality or lesbianism.”

C-9) “Frankly, I have no respect for so-called saints, religious masters and Gurus. Most of them are fake; they talk eloquently about God and morality but I believe most of them enjoy sex and wealth secretively.”

C-10) “I may not be rich today but I am confident lady luck will smile at me one day. According to my astrologer, my life will take a huge leap forward in the next few years. Frankly I envy those who are filthy rich and enjoy life. The only difference between them and myself is just one thing – damn luck. “

Add up your tamas scores:

Now total up the number of ‘yes’ you have answered. The analysis is as below:

7-10 points: You are highly tamasic. You have a very high degree of laziness; Animal tendencies are strongly lurking inside you.

4-6 points: You are moderately tamasic. You seem to enjoy inactivity and day dreaming.

0-3 points: You have low tamsic qualities. You are not a person who enjoys idling or fooling around.

Depending on the scores that you got in the previous quiz on Sattwa and Rajas scales, your overall personality can now be finally assessed.

Since thousand permutations and combinations are possible with these scorings, so much of variations in personalities are possible based on this simple 30 point sample questionnaire. Even if we take ‘High’,’medium’ and ‘low’ sub-groups in the 3 gunas, we will still get 36 general varieties in personalities.

Now now your overall personality based on all the three qualities

However, we shall now discuss a few typical personality traits based on some sample major group combinations from Trigunas, with sample scores obtained in the 3 quizzes.

Sample Case 1: Sattwa: very high (10), Rajas: Medium (5), Tamas: Very low (0):

This is a saintly person actively serving the society. His spirituality is very well evolved; he is not a saint who loves seclusion and he may not be of the philosopher type. He is more of a Karma Yogi (man of action). Through unselfish and tireless service, he would dedicate his life for the welfare of the people.

Sample Case 2: Sattwa: High (9), Rajas: very low (0), Tamas: low (2)

This is a man of high spiritual yearnings, who has no attraction for the materialistic world. He is more of a Gnyana Yogi (man of wisdom) or a Bhakti Yogi (a devotee of God)than of a Karma Yogi (man of action). He is more inclined to talk of maya and the impermanence of the world than to physically strain himself with lofty ideals to serve humanity.

Sample Case 3: Sattwa:Medium (4), Rajas: High (9), Tamas: low (3)

This is a man, deeply rooted in enjoying the world, but at the same time, having constant questions nagging at his mind about his way of life and an inclination to look into spirituality to get answers. His mind constantly fluctuates between enjoying life by compromising his morality at one end and desiring self-restraint at another end, because it appears to be good for the long term peace. When tempted, he would rather choose worldliness over Godliness.

Sample Case 4: Sattwa: Low (2), Rajas: High (9), Tamas: low (2)

This is the type of man who has very strong leadership tendencies, a highly motivated achiever, one who is deeply entangled in worldly activities with very little concern for the society or about religion, spirituality or morality.

Sample Case 5: Sattwa: Medium (6), Rajas: Medium(4), Tamas: low (3)

For this man, worldly life has its own strong attractions but concern about the society and inclination towards spirituality are there too. Life is not too hectic for him.

Sample Case 6: Sattwa: Low (3), Rajas: low (3), Tamas: high (7).

Here is a person, stooped in laziness and sloth and leading a life of day dreaming and disillusionment. He is likely to be an alcoholic or drug addict. He will blame every one except himself for all the ills of his life.

We have so far discussed some of the most peculiar combinations of the Trigunas. There will be subtle variations in the characters of people based on the finer variations in the points scored in each group.

Trigunas and Spirituality:

Unlike other systems of psychology, the concept of Trigunas has its strong moorings in Hindu spiritual philosophy. 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. It is the one who has transcended Trigunas is the liberated/ realized soul, a true Gnyani, freed from births and deaths.

Related reading:

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.