I tend to think of religious texts in the same way that I think of those stylized maps of the London Underground: it would be a mistake to take them literally, but they are nevertheless a very useful way to simplify something very complex. They’ll get you where you want to go.
With that in mind, in this excerpt from Eknath Easwaran’s translation of The Bhagavad Gita ©1985, he explains the role of gunas in our lives:
These are the gunas. Every state of matter and mind is a combination of these three: tamas, inertia, rajas, activity, and sattva, harmony or equilibrium. These are only rough translations, for the gunas have no equivalent in any other philosophy I know.
The gunas can be illustrated by comparison with the three states of matter in classical physics: solid, liquid, and gas. Tamas is frozen energy, the resistance of inertia. A block of ice has a good deal of energy in the chemical bonds that hold it together, but the energy is locked in, bound up, rigid. When the ice melts, some of that energy is released as the water flows; rajas, activity, is like a swollen river, full of uncontrolled power. And sattva, harmony, can be compared with steam when its power is harnessed. These are very imprecise parallels, but they convey an important point about gunas: all three are states of energy, and each can be converted into the others.
Guna means strand, and in the Gita the gunas are described as the very fabric of existence, the veil that hides unity in a covering of diversity. Tamas is maya’s power of concealment, the darkness or ignorance that hides unitive reality; rajas distracts and scatters awareness, turning it away from reality toward the diversity of the outside world. Thus the gunas are essentially born of the mind. When the mind’s activity is stilled, we see life as it is.
We can also think of the gunas as different levels of consciousness. Tamas, the lowest level, is the vast unconscious, a chaotic dumping ground for the residue of past mental states. “Unconscious” in this sense has something in common with Jung’s collective unconscious, in that it is the repository not only of past experiences but also of our evolutionary heritage, the basic drives of the human being’s animal past. This record is shared, of course, by all human beings, and at its deepest levels the unconscious is universal. There is no choice in tamas, no awareness; this is complete ignorance of the unity of life, ignorance of any other need than one’s own basic urges.
Rajas is what we ordinarily mean by mind, the incessant stream of though that races along, desiring, worrying, resenting, scheming, competing, frustrating and getting frustrated. Raja is power released, but uncontrolled and egocentric.
Sattva, finally, is the so-called higher mind– detached, unruffled, self-controlled. This is not a state of repressive regulation, but the natural harmony that comes with unity of purpose, character, and desire. Negative states of mind do still come up, prompted by tamas and rajas, but there is no need to act on them.