The Three Gunas (Triguna) and the Four Human Goals (Purusharthas)

This is an article that appeared in Ramaswami’s newsletter and is reproduced here with his kind permission:

According to Yoga and other sibling philosophies, the entire universe is made
of the three Gunas, Satwa, Rajas and Tamas and these permeate everything 
(including all of us) everywhere in dominating everything in varying degrees.
Due to the preponderance of one of these Gunas, in every individual, different
human beings follow different goals. Even as everyone’s desire is to get
happiness and get rid of unhappiness, each one, depending upon his or her guna
temperament, pursues different means and goals (arthas) for one’s satisfaction
or happiness.

The three gunas are satwa, rajas and tamas. The four purushartas
or human goals are dharma (order), artha (material possession), kama (sensual
desires) and moksha (spiritual freedom). A satwic person is inclined towards
dharma, while the rajasic, tamasic and the one who is able to go beyond the
influence of all the gunas (gunaateeta) are attracted respectively towards
artha, kama and moksha. These four are called purusharthas or chatur- vidha-
purushartha (four different human endeavors/goals).

Persons whose personality is predominantly satwic, follow ‘dharma’ as a goal
of their lives for happiness. Dharma is the Law of Piety, Compassion, and
orderly life. They follow the benevolent dictates of the scriptures, the laws
of the land, leading a life consistent with the gods of nature. It is anathema
for them to cross the Laws of Dharma. Such Dharmis are said to lead a very
peaceful life here and hereafter, as they, who are said to be in a small
minority, do and accumulate good karmas.

The Rajasic people are like the proverbial “A” type personalities. Highly
energetic and mostly restless, they pursue very down to earth policies and
follow the goal of artha or material possessions. More wealth and more power
give them happiness and the means are less important than the goals. Only a
few who follow this life long pursuit of possessions and power ever succeed
and sustain, leading to collective unhappiness of this lot. The happiness of
the majority of them rises with the tide of increasing possessions and ebbs
with the loss of wealth and power.

We have then the third group of people who are dominated by tamas. It is said
Tamas, because it veils the intellect, makes such people short sighted. Their
happiness lies in sensual gratification. Tasty food, frequent tactile stimulus,
attractive visual objects and captivating sounds dominate their life. When
the senses over a period of time lose their acuity, they have less room to be
happy and fall into a state of depression as they get older.

Then there are the spiritual Yogis who relentlessly follow the path of
spiritual wisdom and intuitively understand the nature of the ever present,
non changing nature of their own Self and reach a state of Kaivalya or Moksha
or spiritual Freedom. In that state, according to Yogis, the three Gunas reach
a state of equilibrium. This, the yogis call a state of Nirodha of the mind,
or a state the Lord in the Gita calls Gunateeta or beyond the dominance of the
Gunas. This state leads to a permanent and irrevocable state of peace of mind
and the yogis aver that it is superior to the other variable and unstable
states of happiness; superior to that attained by sensual gratification of the
tamasic personality or the happiness arising out of possessions of the Rajasic,
or even the dharmic life of a Satwic person.

Though the satwic state of  happiness is superior to the other two, even that is said to be impermanent. Hence the Lord urges everyone, through His disciple Arjuna in the Gita, to go
from Tamas to Rajas and then to Satwa and ultimately transcend all the Gunas.
It is easier said then done.

But how is it done? Only Yoga comes with specific measures to change the
individual personalities. One can transform a Tamasic mind to a Rajasic bent
by practice of Pranayama, in addition to the observance Yamaniyamas. The
observance of a well designed practice of asanas will reduce the addictive
influence of Rajas and hence a yogi who practices asana and pranayama will
become more and more Satwic, thanks to the reduction of Tamas and Rajas. And by
spiritual meditation one will be able to transcend all the three Gunas.

So as Lord Krishna says, “Tatha yogi bhava Arjuna”, (Therefore become a Yogi).
One should practice Yoga. You will agree?

Srivatsa Ramaswami

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