Updated: Nov 30, 2021
Anyone doing some basic reading of Yoga theory will often come across the terms Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Together they are called the Triguna or the 3 Prime Qualities.
To know where the Triguna originate, we must look into the origin of the Universe and the human, according to Yoga, in brief: out of the combination of Prakrti ( Prime Nature) and Purusha ( Prime Consciousness) come the 3 Prime Qualities, the Triguna, and from these 3 come the Pancha Tattva ( 5 Universal Elements), the Jnanendriyas (5 Senses/ Organs of Knowledge), the Pancha Prana (5 Pranas), the Karmendriyas (5 Action Principles/ Organs of Action), the 4 types of Mind, and the 5 Sheaths of the Body-Mind complex called Koshas.
Without going into further detail concerning the Universal structure, it is sufficient for us to note here that the 3 Prime Qualities, the Triguna play a controlling aspect over the rest of creation as we know it, acting as a type of energy blueprint that is conscious and out which our minds, bodies and the Universe itself is formed. And in this first part of a 3 part Series on the Triguna, we will explore the External experience of the 3 Prime Qualities, and try to identify them within our everyday lives. We will see, in brief, how the Triguna dominate our senses and actions even at an instinctive, body level.
In the second article in this tri-part series on the Triguna, we will explore the Mind and the aspects of cognition and affectivity that are ruled by the Triguna. We will then be able to see the total mental effect of the Trigunas, and how their interplay forms our ideas of who we are.
The third article will explore the Secret meaning of the Trigunas, as it pertains to the inner Yogic path of evolution, a type of evolution called self-willed evolution, or evolution under our own control.
In Yoga we always have 3 meanings to every term, there is the External meaning, the Internal meaning and the Secret meaning. Understanding the External meaning familiarizes us with the experience of the thing in question, and this experience sensitizes us towards the Inner meaning. Cognition of the Inner meaning lastly, gives us access to the realization of the Secret meaning. In this article, we shall be looking at the External Experience of the Triguna (3 Prime Qualities).
The External Experience of the Triguna
I am my body and I will die when my body dies. The world I see and experience is real for me. This is the practical External experience and this external experience has three aspects of the Triguna-Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. None of us need to go into abstract philosophy to experience this practical external reality, and it is something on which we can all agree.
Going by the External Experience, we have 5 Organs of Knowledge (eyes/ sight, ears/ hearing, nose/ smell, tongue/ taste, and skin/ touch) and 5 Organs of Action (arms/ tactile, legs/locomotive, voice box/ speech, excretory organ and urinary/ reproductive organs). All of our external experiences are connected to these 5 Organs of Knowledge called Jnanendriyas in Samskrit, and the 5 Organs of Action, called Karmendriyas. Any external experience of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas can never be outside these 5 Jnanendriyas and 5 Karmendriyas. Within each of the 5 Jnanendriyas and the 5 Karmendriyas there is a Sattvic, a Rajasic and a Tamasic aspect. We will explore these aspects below:
Sattva – Harmony
It’s an ever-new, joyous World out there.
The word Sattva comes from the root Sat, meaning Truth or Is-ness. The manifestation of Sat is Sattva.
The aspects of Sattvic quality exist in our very DNA, that is, these qualities are inborn, just like our Rajasic and Tamasic qualities. But for these qualities, that exist in potential within our DNA, to manifest into our actual character and existing personality, there needs to be an enabling environment. Therefore, if we see somebody with more Sattvic qualities, it is a sign of the Sattvic environment and type of family that raised that person, and vice versa. That is, if we see a Sattvic family or environment, we can assume that it will produce a higher level of Sattvic progeny than others.
The 5 Jnanendriyas/ Organs of Knowledge and their Prime Sattvic Aspects
Eyes - Likes calming and beautiful sights
Ears - Likes harmonious sounds, with even tempo
Nose - Likes fragrant smells
Skin - Likes soft, natural textures, no specific temperature preference
Tongue - Likes sweet, well-lubricated foods, likes food hot
The 5 Karmendriyas/ Organs of Action: Sattvic aspect
Hands - Actions are creative, exploratory and beneficial to others
Legs - Is not prone to restless movement; movements are well-considered
Excretory Organ - Healthy and regular bowel movements-consistently healthy BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate)
Reproductive Organ - Has high sublimation of sexual energy to the Mind centres
VoiceBox - Speaks compromisingly and skillfully, has excellent control over passions and is never hurtful in speech given the high level of empathy
Rajas – Domination
Dominate or submit- the way of the World.
The word Rajas, comes from the root Raj, to rule or dominate. The dominating quality is the prime affective or emotive aspect of Rajas.
Rajasic qualities are sometimes overpowering. Excitement and passion are the key signs of the Rajasic character, and this is reflected in the 5 Jnanendriyas and Karmendriyas.
The 5 Jnanendriyas/ Organs of Knowledge: Rajasic aspect
Eyes - Likes exciting and new sights Ears - Likes faster tempo music on a grand scale Nose - Likes extravagant perfumes and exaggerated smells Skin - Likes silky and steely textures, prefers colder temperatures Tongue - Likes spicy and salty foods, likes food lukewarm
The 5 Karmendriyas/ Organs of Action: Rajasic aspect
Hands - Creative and Destructive
Legs - Restless and always wanting to travel to new destinations Excretory Organ - Semi-regular bowel motion with occasional or regular constipation Reproductive Organ - Highly active sexual life VoiceBox - Capable of influencing others for better or worse-Occasionally hurtful speech-High level of reasoning
Tamas – Intertia
Survive or die-and you are gonna die anyway.
Tamas comes from the root Tama meaning darkness or ignorance.
`The prime Tamasic emotions are fear and torpidity or lack of vitality towards life. The Tamasic character lives mostly in darkness and prejudice, and this is reflected in the 5 Jnanendriyas and Karmendriyas.
The 5 Jnanendriyas/ Organs of Knowledge: Tamasic aspect
Eyes - Desiring to see the seamy side of life -incapable of appreciating aesthetic forms
Ears - Likes to hear loud, discordant sounds
Nose - Finds strong and unpleasant smells calmingLikes rough, coarse and unnatural textures
Skin - Likes fermented drinks, partly rotting food, dry and difficult to masticate foods
Tongue - Likes bitter and astringent tastes
The 5 Karmendriyas/ Organs of Action: Tamasic aspect
Hands - Mostly repetitive and/ or destructive activities Legs - Inactive, lethargic and slothful Excretory Organ - Irregular bowels with attacks of dysentery whenever diet is changed Reproductive Organ - Weak and prone to premature ejaculation/ and or erectile dysfunction VoiceBox - Cruel and hurtful speech-very little reasoning and high level of cunningness It is of primary importance to know that none of these 3 Qualities-Sattva, Rajas and Tamasa exists in exclusion to the other. That is, none of us are purely Sattvic, Rajasic or Tamasic-we are all unique combinations of these three.
Knowing our combination allows us to evolve. And this evolution is not the normal nature/ Prakrti led evolution, rather it is the consciousness/ Purusha led evolution which can be rightly termed self-willed evolution. This evolutionary ability is our birthright as humans, and only those who take up their human birthrights can be called Yogis or Yoginis.
The above was a basic introduction to the Triguna of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas in our every day, externalized reality, the world of Senses and Actions. The next section will deal with the internalized world, the world inside our head, our thoughts, dreams, fantasies and fears, our very idea of self-identity, as per the manifestation of the Triguna.