The Gunas And The Yogas

The Structure of Concern Project compares many theoretical models from many disciplines to the Adizes PAEI model, arguing that they must all be reflecting the same underlying phenomenon. One concern structure model is described below.

The Indian wisdom tradition is a unitary one, in that philosophy, psychology, religion, politics, health and hygiene were not separate discourses for much of the Indian history of ideas. All of them were topics within an overall framework for living well in the world. Within Hinduism, two manifestations of the structure of concern stand out conspicuously. The doctrine of the three gunas (temperaments, qualities, tendencies) is the first, emerging in the Upanişads and elaborated in the Bhagavad Gita. The second consists of the three so-called “psychological” yogas: Karma, Jñāna and Bhakti yoga. (Beena, 1990 p. 202)

Like the Galenic humours, these ideas have been important to many millions of people, and with the spread of yoga worldwide they continue to inform and shape many lives today. Their story is far from over.

The Three Gunas


Hinduism has an administrative aspect, in that many of its ideas apply equally to the care of the self and the organization of the community. Plato made use of the same parallel in the Republic, but it Hinduism it was a more enduring motif, due to the quest for a unitary wisdom for living.
Hinduism is also relentlessly hierarchical, both in politically neutral and politically charged ways. Both types of hierarchy may trace their roots back to the Aryan invasion and conquest, the establishment of a two-tier society and the blending of those two tiers at the interface, with some of the colonized successfully mastering the values and furthering the goals of the political reality, and some of the colonizers abandoning the same system for a more native way of life. Beena (1990) indicates that the Rg Veda classifies men into the enlightened and the fallen or forlorn. Quoting Telreja (1982), Beena illustrates the interplay between universalism and hierarchy in the Vedas:

…the Vedas give precepts to scholars to organize the whole world. To organize in their terms was to ennoble. The aim and object of the Vedic religion was to make all of the persons of the globe noble or Āryan. Here Āryan was not considered as the name of a particular country, speaking a particular language. Ārya means refined, cultured and civilized. “He who is pure within and without and acts in accordance with divine doctrine enunciated in the Vedas is called Āryan. Irrespective of caste, colour, country or community, peace and prosperity will once again prevail on the earth when most of the people in the world are Āryanized.”

The doctrine of the gunas is part of this project of organizing the world. They reflect a hierarchical value system progressing from the base to the noble. The gunas apply to all things, but I discuss them in the context of human beings only. In their earliest formulation in the Atharva Veda, Sattva was the guna or temperament of a person living close to God, serene, selfless, benevolent and benign. Rajo was the guna of an aggressive, impulsive, destructive person, and Tamo described selfish, ostentatious people entirely given over to sensual pleasures (Radhakrishnan & Moore, 1957).
This is a nested representation. The overall project is administrative, an effort to categorize people and behaviours using universal standards, to determine their status within the system and to prescribe remedies or corrective actions when needed. The primary corrective tool is exhortation – the articulation of the rule or the proper way to behave, with emphasis on its importance with respect to the overall policies of the universe. Within this administrative project, there is a healthy E represented who always remains oriented to the higher-level, long-term truths of the system, as well as the negative aspect of P and a degenerate I.

A summary of the three gunas as described in the Upanişads and Bhagavad Gita follows, in PAEI order.

P – Rajo Guna: Appetitive striving, craving, impatience, strong desires, forcefulness, aggression, instrumental focus on rewards and payoffs, confidence, concrete, pragmatic and competitive.

A – (Not visible as a guna, but in the whole project of establishing them to direct action according to principles. The rule system is universalized as given, with the task being to align oneself within it. The intelligence creating the rules is not visible in the system as another guna of any kind, but is ascribed to God/the cosmos. As a result, it dominates E and the kind of insight E can achieve and articulate.)

E – Sattva Guna: Perfection, clarity, goodness, love of wisdom, patience, tranquility, purity, transcendence, committed to concepts above outcomes, mental restraint, not stressed in a crisis, embodiment/performance of higher values, long-term orientation and self-care horizon, able to sustain hardship that is rewarded only in the long term.

I – Tamo Guna: Stupidity, laziness, carelessness, stagnation, heedlessness, delusion, degeneration, hypocrisy, unguided action, disregard for procedure, comfort-seeking, stubbornness, malice, despondency, untrustworthiness, succumbing to urges of sleep, sloth, fright, grief, despair or hilarity.

The Tamo Guna focalizes I in several ways, most of them negative. First of all, it is addressed to I, listing the socially undesirable traits that I would want to avoid, defining a category of shame and social rejection. Secondly, it is a list of spontaneous and contextually-dependent pleasures, which is domain quite natural to I. In making them shameful, I like E is lashed to the heroic project of stabilizing the A-systemic principles of social order, rather than being left to promulgate a different, more spontaneous form of order. I appeals are very heavily tied to the epic task of maintaining order in these texts, and other looser and more local aspects of I are rejected. The content of Tamo may be derelict, but the social pressures being brought to bear are I tactics.

In Bahktinian terms, the line between Tamo and the other gunas is the line between the heroic and the carnivalesque. Tamasic characters abound in fiction and are objects of great affection. The Porter from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the Good Soldier Švejk from the novel by Czech humorist Jaroslav Hašek, furnish strong examples. Carnivalesque characters comically resist the epic call to heroic deeds through their constitutional blindness to the higher sublimated values of self-sacrifice that define the epic mode. This blindness stems from the total restriction of their attentional focus to visceral pleasures and processes, which constantly distorts what few heroic values they are forced to attend to. Carnival offers a comic corrective for the rites of heroism, and in this context, although painted in shame, the somatic and visceral intelligence of I makes its appearance in the system of the gunas.

To rehabilitate the category, the Tamasic manager in a company would be the one who would know when it is time to take all the employees out for dinner and a party to release tensions and restore morale. The Rajasic manager would resent the losses of time, money and productivity, feeling that if people are demoralized, they should just be disciplined and told to stop whining and toughen up. The Sattvic manager wouldn’t even have noticed the morale problem too much. His morale would be great, and he would be happy dealing with whatever discomfort might occur in the present if it is in line with the right long term direction. His idea of morale boosting would be to articulate this vision to the employees. God would not likely make a personal appearance, but His rules clearly would not sanction the Tamasic plan, which are out of line with His general policies recommending austerity and self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, despite all this opposition, the Tamasic manager might be right, and the party might prove to be the best way on all counts to move the other three areas of concern further.

The Three Psychological Yogas


There are many systems or margas (paths) yoga. Each describes a different discipline for achieving a state of non-attachment with this world. The goal is to progressively move away from sensory experience, through the practical and reflective minds, and up towards a pure disembodied Self that lives in alignment with the entire universe. This ascent up a cognitive hierarchy towards a timeless place of calm and insight is an extreme cultivation of E-style mental processes. Whatever the style of the marga, the overall yogic project is E-dominated.

Among the many margas, three take the psychology and ethics of conduct as their primary focus: Karma yoga, Jñāna yoga and Bhakti yoga. They correspond to P, A and I, respectively, although all of them are structured by E as paths of ascension towards a featureless truth. They are all thus E-leaning. The yogas are described below.

P – Karma yoga: The path of volition and good works, demands renunciation of personal goals and dedication of one’s efforts to community improvement projects and religious rites and services. There should be no expectations of good or bad outcomes to motivate the work. The work is a pattern of activity undertaken by the body as the mind detaches itself and lives in longer and longer timeframes, ultimately attaining an eternal present. At the end of the Karma marga, Karma yoga is transcended. Duty and dedication vanish, and the body simply performs good work because that is what it is – the divine law in performance.

A - Jñāna yoga: Knowledge is the key to enlightenment in Hinduism. It is knowledge that puts an end to suffering and the cycle of rebirth. Core Jñ¬āna texts feature policies for accepting and rejecting knowledge claims, counterparts to Greek logic. There is a strong eliminative emphasis in Jñ¬āna yoga and in Indian thought in general. The truth is thought to be present but obscured by illusion. By rejecting everything that is inconsistent with the highest principles of wisdom, the truth will emerge. This is the A-style fantasy of a final simplification and total order.

I – Bhakti yoga: Bhakti is the path of devotion, directing intense love and seeking union with the Divine. The devotee relates to the object through feelings of awe, fear, fascination, love and dependence. Many things can be legitimate objects for Bhakti, but each individual Bhakta (devotee) must choose only one to be the focus of their devotion. Bhakti yoga is sometimes seen as the easiest marga because it is feeling-based rather than effort-based. However, the successfulness of this marga is more doubtful, because it depends not on action or thoughts one controls, but on quality of feelings which may falter.

1. Beena, C. C. (1990). Personality typologies: a comparison of Western and ancient Indian approaches. New Delhi: Commonwealth Publishers.
2. Telreja, P. K. M. (1982). Philosophy of the Vedas. Bombay: Telreja Publications.
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