Guna is a Sanskrit word originally referring to a single thread or a strand of a rope, but later taking on the philosophical meaning, especially in SANKHYA and the BHAGAVAD-GITA, of an attribute, quality, or characteristic of matter (prakrti). In Nyaya philosophy it means a property inherent in a substance (i.e., a class of adjectives capable of modifying a noun or substantive). In music it refers to the string of an instrument; in literature to excellence of composition; in military affairs to types of strategy; in algebra to a coefficient; etc. In fact, it is used in a wide variety of ways, only the first of which is of interest to theosophists. In Sankhya, matter is said to have three gunas: sattva, rajas, and tamas. These terms are translated in a variety of ways by different scholars, usually something like “harmony,” “mobility,” and “inertia.” Sattva is a nominal form of sat (being) with a suffix which is equivalent to English “-ness” or “-hood,” hence sattva implies a thing’s essential being. Rajas, from the root rañj (colored, especially reddened), is associated with vapor or mist, desire, menstrual discharge, etc. and in the context of Sankhya philosophy implies exciting emotions motivated by desire. Tamas, from the root tam (choke, be exhausted, become immobile), has the general meaning of darkness, obscuration, heaviness, or ignorance, hence implies a condition of dullness, habituality, or stupidity. In the Gita these three attributes of matter are associated with classes of people (or castes; warriors, for example are primarily rajasic), types of behavior, religious practices, and even kinds of food (rice, for example, being sattvic, chili peppers rajasic, and meat tamasic). The spiritual discipline recommended there is to develop a sattvic nature, eliminating tamas and rajas.
There is a temptation to identify these three gunas with properties of physical matter. For instance, it is claimed by physicists that all laws of matter involve at the very least three undefined variables, usually identified as resonant frequency, energy, and inertia. That sounds very much like sattva, rajas, and tamas. But one cannot eliminate any of the three physical variables in the way that the Gita urges you to eliminate, or at least minimize the influence of, rajas and tamas. So that cannot be what they mean. A more plausible interpretation would be to equate the three gunas with the theosophical idea of the elementals of the three lower planes of matter: tamas with the physical elemental which seeks repetition of past actions, rajas with the emotional (or “astral”) elemental which seeks excitement and is mainly driven by desire, and sattva with the mental elemental which seeks harmony among ideas, thus is sometimes equated with knowledge, happiness, and illumination.
According to Wilkinson-Osborn (Simple Explanations of Theosophical Terms, 1924), the three gunas are all aspects of one’s physical makeup, although his explanation of their action seems, in fact, to presuppose they function at different levels of one’s personality, as suggested by their association with the ELEMENTALS. For instance, as he explains it, laziness prevails in the person in whom tamas predominates while the energetic person has rajas dominant. This raises the question of the influence of the SEVEN RAYS as opposed to the three gunas. To differentiate between the two influences, it is needful to keep in mind the nature and origin of each. The three gunas are qualities inherent in matter (mulaprakti) and are associated with the formative aspect of Nature, whereas, as Alice A. Bailey puts it in A Treatise on the Seven Rays, “A Ray is but a name for a particular force or type of energy, with the emphasis upon the quality which that force exhibits and not upon the form aspect which it creates” (p. 316).
According to Sankhya, the three gunas are like a rope which binds individuals to the cycle of rebirth by causing pleasure, which people seek to maximize, and pain, which people seek to avoid. In the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, the tendency to be attracted to pleasure and avoid pain is identified as an affliction (klea), which is the source of bondage. Note in both cases the allusion to the rope metaphor, reminding readers of the original meaning of guna. But the fact that pleasure is fleeting also serves to motivate one eventually to seek liberation, hence the guŠas indirectly serve a spiritual purpose.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, which utilizes both Sankhya and Yoga categories (although not necessarily in their technical philosophical sense), a distinction is made in chapter 13 (esp. verses 1-3, 19-27, and 34-35) between the Field (prakrti) and the Knower of the Field (purusa). The analysis of the nature of the Field follows the Sankhya categories (esp. 13.6) except that Purusa is depicted (13.27) as unitary and associated with the Supreme Lord (Paramevara) and also identified with Brahman (13.13), which are not consistent with Sankhya philosophy. The Gita, which is obviously a syncretic work, presents a picture in which the three gunas are the foundation of everything that is understood or perceived by consciousness. One must, therefore, be free of their influence.
The Advaita Vedšnta philosophy adopts many of the Sankhya categories, but since the material world (in all its gradations from physical to buddhi) is, in the final analysis maya, the three gunas do not have a fundamental status, as they do in Sankhya. Dvaita, the dualistic Vedanta philosophy which has little interest to theosophists, also accepts this aspect of Sankhya philosophy, although develops it even further. According to the Nyaya philosophy, a guna is that which has a substance (dravya) for its substratum, is not further analyzable, has an independent existence, and has no qualities or attributes (gunas) of its own. According to Nyaya, the self (atman), mind (manas), space (dik), and time (kala) are substances, in addition to matter. There are twenty-four qualities, some being material and others being spatial or psychological: sound (abda), color (rupa), taste (rasa), odor (gandha), touch (spara), number (sankhya), measure (parimiti), mutual difference or exclusion (pthaktva), conjunction (saˆyoga), separation or disjunction (vibhaga), perception of distance or duration (paratva), perception of proximity or instantaneousness (aparatva), heaviness (gurutva), substantiality (dravyatva), fluidity (sneha), knowledge (buddhi), happiness or pleasure (sukha), sorrow or pain (duhkha), will (iccha), hatred or aversion (dvea), effort (yatna), recollection (samskara) — which is of three types: agitated (vega), recalling the past (sthitisthapaka), and supposition or imagination (bhavana) — merit or virtue (dharma), and demerit or vice (adharma).
Helena P. Blavatsky grapples with the task of explaining the nature of the gunas when she writes, “What are the ‘producers’ evoluted from this universal root-principle, Mula-prakriti or undifferentiated primeval cosmic matter, which evolves out of itself consciousness, and mind, and is generally called ‘Prakriti’ and amulam mulam, ‘the rootless root,’ and avyakta, the ‘unevolved evolver,’ etc.? This primordial tattwa or ‘eternally existing “that,”’ the unknown essence, is said to produce as a first producer (1) Buddhi — ‘intellect’ — whether we apply the latter to the sixth macrocosmic or microcosmic principle. This first produced produces in its turn (or is the source of) (2) Ahankara, ‘self-consciousness’ and Manas, ‘mind’” (CW IV:580-81). In other words, she follows the general outline found in Sakhya. I. K. Taimni, in his book, Man, God and the Universe, explains the gunas thus: “Here then we have really another example of integration and differentiation not at the level of matter or vibration but at the level of the mind, for perception of properties is a function of the mind though the stimulation comes from matter and vibrations. The conception of Prakti as an integrated state of the gunas, which contains all gunas in a potential state and from which any guna or property can emerge if the proper conditions (the particular combination of the three gunas based on harmonious motion, irregular motion and no motion) are present will thus be seen to be in perfect accord with our scientific ideas regarding the nature of integration and differentiation. In the conception of Prakti as the integrated state of the gunas (dharmas — depend upon different combinations of the three gunas) we have gone up from the level of matter or vibration to the level of the mind which is the product of the interaction of Spirit and matter” (pp. 204-5).
See also MULAPRAKRTI; INDIAN PHILOSOPHY.