The Guna Concept and its Relationship to Ayurveda

The Sanskrit word guna is difficult to define and has many meanings, although it may be best described as the modes of matter. There are three main categories of gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. Everything in prakrti (nature) is constituted of each of these categories, although not in a way that allows for separation. The gunas and prakrti are dependent on each other and thus, one cannot exist without the presence of all other components (Ramakrishna Rao 62).

Sattva is the category of guna that is responsible for creation, goodness and the beneficial characteristics that make up prakrti. Sattva activities allow the mind to be still and move towards a state of balance or equilibrium. Such actions lead to the realization of purusa (the true self) and thus, sattva qualities are said to be responsive to the light of purusa (Vatsyayan 116). In order to gain and maintain sattva, avoidance of rajas and tamas is necessary. Consuming sattvic food is also thought to be a way of enhancing the sattva quality, helping to illuminate the mind (Guha 146). Such foods are those that come in pure or natural forms such as fruits or vegetables.

Rajas is the guna category that refers to passion, preservation and is the cause of all activity. Rajas expresses itself in motion and, because it is present in all matter, it causes all things to be in a continuous state of change (Vatsyayan 116). Rajasic actions are often selfish and driven by a desire to gain power, wealth or fame. Rajas is associated with heat and because of this, spicy, hot or fried foods fall under this category.

Tamas is the third guna which refers to ignorance or delusion and the negative attributions that arise because of it. It is in opposition to sattva and thus resists activity and the light of purusa (Vatsyayan 116) by inhibiting the expansion of the mind. Tamasic actions are often classified as immoral, deceitful, hostile or violent. Foods such as meats, junk food or heavily processed items are included in this category.

The combination of these three gunas is thought to make up the characteristics of all beings. They make up prakrti similar to the way the three primary colors are able to make up the colors of the entire spectrum. Prakrti is in its purest state when all three of these qualities are in equilibrium. This state is labeled by the Sanskrit term samyavastha (Ramakrishna Rao 65). The imbalance of these three qualities is believed to cause disruptions in the normal functioning of the body. This approach to medicine is referred to as Ayurveda and is based around a holistic approach to healing.

Ayurveda, much like the inseparable relationship between the gunas and prakrti, supports the concept that the body is an entity inseparable from its social, cultural and spiritual environments (Verma 7). Believers support the notion that the cosmic laws that govern the universe also apply to our bodies, and that sickness is caused by the imbalance of the gunas which create disharmony to the cosmic order. This belief stems from the idea that there are five basic elements that make up all matter in both the cosmos and our bodies: ether, air, fire, water and earth. These five elements make up the three bodily humours: vata, pitta and kapha (Verma 10). Vata comes from both ether and air and is responsible for movements of the body as well as mind activities such as blood circulation and enthusiasm (Verma 10). Pitta comes from fire and is responsible for things such as heat regulation, hunger and digestion (Verma 10). Kapha comes from water and earth and makes up the structure of the body while also being responsible for things such as strength and heaviness (Verma 10).

The concept of Ayurveda is focused around the idea of equilibrium and balance. When the elements, humoural qualities and gunas that make up prakrti are in balance they are thought to create harmony, longevity and good health, but while they are imbalanced, they are believed to cause negative effects. Ayurvedic healing is suggested when these negative effects develop and cause a decline in health. This form of healing is focused on the promotion of sattva qualities that will help to clear the mind and encourage the restoration of balance to the three gunas.

Because the humoural qualities of prakrti are affected by each element, and the quality of each element is based upon the proportion of each of the three gunas, the elements may be seen as a link through which the gunas determine prakrti’s humoural qualities. This interconnectedness is why, when following the holistic approach of Ayurveda, almost anything can be used as a form medicine assuming it is used in the appropriate way, with correct quantities, and at the correct times. However, this also means that the incorrect use of these materials can lead to an imbalance and negative attributes.

According to Ayurveda, good health is also dependent on daiva and puruskara. Daiva is the karmic seeds we acquire from our previous lives whereas puruskara is the personal effort and actions we perform within our lifetime (Verma 11). These two concepts explain why, according to the Ayurveda concept, illness never occurs by chance. Ayurveda advocates believe that karmic seeds acquired from daiva and puruskara can cause imbalances in the three gunas, which may in turn cause imbalances in the three humours, creating poor health. It is for this reason that Ayurveda uses multiple forms of therapy as a method of treatment for physical symptoms.

There are three forms of therapy used in Ayurveda: rational, psychological and spiritual (Verma 11). Rational therapy administers appropriate quantities of sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic foods, sometimes in combination with medication, in order to reinstate proper balance to the body. There are also forms of non-material rational therapy, such as massage or physical restraint that some view as an alternative option (Engler 423). Contrary to rational therapy, psychological therapy uses only the power of the mind to heal the body (Verma 11). This psychological therapy is understood to be effective because of the interconnectedness between body and mind that exists in the Ayurveda tradition. For example, if the mind is causing the imbalance and therefore the pain, the mind also has the ability to cultivate sattva in order to restore balance and rid the body of pain. Spiritual therapy involves such things as reciting mantras, practicing auspicious acts (Verma 12), gems, fasting, and performing religious rites and sacrifices (Engler 422). These three forms of therapy are prescribed simultaneously to promote a more efficient healing process between the amalgamated body and mind.

Although modern medicine, or allopathy, is the most common form of treatment available, a large focus remains on home remedies in some areas, such as the villages located outside large cities in India (Verma 16). For example, buttermilk can be used to treat head colds and stomach pains, fat from the green pigeon can be used to treat dry eczema, and sea salt may be used to treat intestinal worms, fever, or head lice (Morris 327, 330 & 332). Contrary to the prominent allopathic focus, funding to support holistic forms of medicine has been increasing over recent years (Islam 145) as this Ayurveda approach continues to gain popularity worldwide. [Islam (2009) states that roughly 5% of the money allocated to medical treatment from West Bengal state goes towards holistic medicine.]


Bibliography and Related Readings

Abraham, Leena (2009) “Medicine as Culture: Indigenous Medicine in Cosmopolitan Mumbai.” Economic and Political Weekly 44 #16(April): 68-75.

Engler, Steven (2003) “‘Science’ vs. ‘Religion’ in Classical Ayurveda.” Numen, Vol. 50, No. 4: 416-463.

Guha, Dina Simoes (1985) “Food in the Vedic Tradition.” India International Centre Quarterly 12 #2(June): 141-152.

Islam, Md. Nazrul (2009) “Reviving Ayurveda in Modern India: Prospect and Challenges.” International Review of Modern Sociology, Vol. 35, No. 1: 137-147.

Morris, Miranda (2003) “The Soqotra Archipelago: concepts of good health and everyday remedies for illness.” Proceedings of the Seiminar for Arabian Studies 33 (July): 319-341.

Vatsyayan, Kapila (1995) Prakriti, the Integral Vision. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts: D.K. Printworld.

Verma, Vinod (1991) “Holistic Medicine in India and the West.” India International Center Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2/3: 7-20.

Ramakrishna Rao, K. B. (1963) “The Gunas of Prakrti According to the Samkhya Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 13, No.1: 61-71.



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Article written by: Caitlin Green (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.