The Gunas: A Model For Mental States

Epistemic Status: purely speculative play

Sometimes we learn the most from books we want to throw across the room.  The Bhagavad Gita was like that for me.

It’s a tiny section of the Mahabharata, itself embedded in a truly enormous tradition of Indian spiritual and philosophical thought that I have come to accept I will never make any appreciable headway on.  I have difficulty engaging with that tradition, because a lot of the shared presuppositions in the Eastern religions are so alien to my present values — basic things like “worldly daily life is inferior to ascetic spiritual life” or “the physical world isn’t real.”  It’s intensely frustrating, but in a way that sometimes seems productive, to bump up against a radically different worldview and try to extract value from it.

On the other hand, this means this post requires a warning. When I extract an idea that seems valuable to me from a tradition I’m this unfamiliar with, I’m almost certainly not representing that tradition faithfully.  You’re getting the asshole Western syncretic version.  I am nowhere near equipped to provide the Sanskrit-scholar version.

(If you have not been exposed to quite how big the Hindu tradition is, consider this guy, who, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, has achieved incredible fame and preeminence in philosophical traditions I’d never heard of and in art forms I’d never heard of.)

The Gunas

The Gita speaks of three “gunas”, translated variously as “qualities”, “virtues”, “properties”, of which everything and everyone consists, in different proportions. These are sattva (wisdom, harmony, purity), rajas (passion, activity, ambition), and tamas (ignorance, chaos, destruction).

The Gita says (Chapter 18, verses 23-25):

Action that is virtuous, deliberate, free from attachment, and without craving for results, is considered Sattvic. Action that is driven purely by craving for pleasure, selfishness, and with much effort is Rajasic. Action that is undertaken because of delusion, disregarding consequences, without considering loss or injury to others or self, is called Tamasic.

Likewise there are Sattvic, Rajasic, and Tamasic personality types (which are supposed to correspond to castes).

According to the Gita, “there is no agent but the gunas.” A person has multiple parts, multiple sub-agents, which each have their own agendas, and these sub-agents cycle around ceaselessly, doing their thing, unless one learns to master them through meditative practice.  By default, you are a Markov chain bopping around from state to state.

This seems to ring very true.  My own lived experience has been that I seem to experience multiple different states or moods, which come and go, have their own distinctive qualities, and have conflicting goals with one another.

This also matches a lot of concepts in psychology or cognitive science: Haidt’s elephant and rider metaphor, Minsky’s society of mind, and George Ainslie‘s thoughts about hyperbolic discounting as an expression of conflict between multiple selves.

Parallels and Differences in Western thought

These three gunas are echoed in George Dumezil’s trifunctional hypothesis, a theory of three archetypes that he were believed were common across all Indo-European mythologies:

  • Sovereignty (judges and priests)
  • Military (warriors and nobles)
  • Productivity (herders, farmers, and artisans)

Sovereignty would be associated with the head, and the intellectual virtues (wisdom, justice, etc); military with the heart, and the warrior virtues (courage, honor, etc); and productivity with the belly or gonads, and qualities like fertility and luck.

Thus, Dumezil sees trios all over the place.  For instance, Odin (wise king of the gods ), Thor (brave warrior god), and Freyr (fertility and agricultural god).

The trifunctional hypothesis is a pretty close match for the parts of the soul in Plato’s Republic:

  • Reason (associated with the guardians in his ideal city)
  • Passions (associated with warriors)
  • Appetites (associated with commoners)

Plato’s view is hierarchical: polities and persons function best when reason rules, passions execute on reason’s judgments, and appetites are subdued.  A lot of effort has to be put into educating people and organizing states in order to keep this organization in place.

This is not exactly the same model as is described in the Gita.  Tamas is mostly associated with lethargic or passive qualities: sloth, ignorance, apathy, confusion.  The appetites, in both Dumezil and Plato, are more associated with food and sex and active impulsiveness.

And the Gita is not exactly hierarchical in the way the Republic is; there’s some notion of getting beyond all three gunas, passing beyond the cycle of death and rebirth, going outside the frame through meditative insight.

There’s also a parallel with Freud’s id, ego, and superego, though that’s not quite exact either. The superego is a parental or societal inner voice, which is kind of a corrupted version of a voice of reason.  The ego is the locus of self-narrative, which isn’t quite the same as the locus of the emotions, though “egotistical” behavior is probably rajasic.  And the id is the seat of powerful, instinctual passions, which is a better fit with Plato’s appetites than with tamas.

If Plato envisions a monarchy of the soul, Freud envisions the possibility of revolution — if you suppress the id too brutally, there’s a chance it’ll rise up and cause chaos.

Parallels with Biology

The gunas seem to roughly match to different neuroendocrine processes, according to Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory.

According to this theory, the dorsal vagal nerve and its branches, which are evolutionarily ancient (found in reptiles and amphibians) and unmyelinated, governs autonomic processes like digestion and breathing, and the “freeze response” to danger.  The sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis govern the “fight-or-flight” response.  And the ventral vagal complex, which is evolutionarily recent and myelinated, governs social and exploratory behavior — sucking, looking around, sniffing, listening, speaking, etc.

Porges describes

three distinct subsystems, which are phylogenetically ordered and behaviorally linked to communication (e.g. facial expression, vocalization, listening), mobilization (e.g. fight-flight behaviors), and immobilization (e.g. feigning death, behavioral ‘shutdown’, and syncope).

“Vagal tone”, or the ability to calm down physiological arousal and also make it more flexibly appropriate to the occasion, has experimentally derived associations with  emotional intelligence and secure attachment.

The systems in the polyvagal theory seem to correspond to three kinds of mental states: frozen passivity, anger/fear/excitement, and calmness/curiosity/affection/communication.  These seem to correspond well with the three gunas.

Perhaps there literally are, in some biological sense, different parts of the mind — that is, processes that are only active one at a time, and correspond to different global patterns of behavior and affect, so that it makes sense to ask “is this person in mode A, B, or C right now?”  An uncontroversial example would be “awake vs. asleep” — you can tell, both behaviorally and with an EEG, whether a person is awake or asleep, and while we don’t know fully what sleep is for, nobody questions that “sleep” is a well-formed concept.  Maybe there’s something analogous for the gunas that has to do with mood and parasympathetic activity.

Gita Plato Freud Plain English Element Body Part Polyvagal Theory
Sattva Reason Superego Thinking Air Head Ventral Vagal
Rajas Passion Ego Doing Fire Heart Sympathetic
Tamas Appetite Id Being Earth Belly, Gonads Dorsal Vagal

Sattva from the inside

Sattva wants to understand everything and optimize everything. Sattva wants to feel clear, calm, insightful.  When you’re in a sattvic state, you’re always asking “How could this be better?”  How could this idea be made more precise, how could my behavior be more correct, where do I find quality and excellence?  Sattva’s traditional color is white, and its mood is bright, rarefied, elevated.

Sattva virtues:

  • wisdom
  • awareness
  • reflectiveness
  • insight
  • justice

Sattva failure modes:

  • pedantry
  • paralysis through abstraction
  • control-oriented forms of malice (criminal masterminds, totalitarian governments, gaslighting and isolation as tools of abuse)

Sattvic activities:

  • introspection
  • writing
  • planning
  • learning
  • reorganizing or improving systems

Rajas from the inside

Rajas wants to do stuff and do it hard.  Rajas wants to feel active and exhilarated and victorious. Rajas wants to win, to beat the other guy, to be special and important, to push through obstacles.  When you’re in a rajasic state, you’re trying really hard to do the thing; there’s a quality of fierce intensity, of “gotta gotta gotta gotta do it!”  Rajas’s traditional color is red, for obvious reasons — it’s about blood, both in the sense of “violence” and the sense of “getting enough oxygen for intense activity.”

Rajas virtues:

  • courage
  • passion
  • energy
  • ambition
  • determination

Rajas failure modes:

  • violent aggression
  • drama-seeking, picking fights, ego-trips
  • annoyingness
  • dogmatism, obsession
  • dominance-oriented forms of malice (e.g. bullying someone until they cry)

Rajasic activities:

  • fighting
  • dancing
  • competing
  • passionate romance
  • hard work
  • taking initiative

Tamas from the inside

Tamas is the hardest of the gunas to pin down. It seems to want a state of rest: no obligations, nothing to attend to, no active consciousness, just a comfortable, womblike cave.  It’s a sense that the world is intrusive in its demands, and one wants to retreat from it, or find palliatives from it, or hide from it.  When you’re in a tamasic state, you’re trying to get relief or hide from painful things or be at peaceor maybe just to sleep.  Tamas‘s traditional color is black, which makes sense if you think of it as the nighttime state, the hide-under-the-covers state.

Tamas virtues:

  • endurance
  • patience
  • survival in traumatic conditions

Tamas failure modes:

  • depression
  • procrastination
  • addiction
  • neediness
  • self-sabotage
  • apathy, lethargy, sullenness
  • brain fog
  • willful ignorance, evasion
  • patheticness

Tamasic activities

  • sleeping
  • eating rich foods
  • drinking alcohol
  • being entertained
  • cuddling
  • vegging out


If you have this model of the gunas, you can simply ask yourself: which am I in at the moment? How do my gunas change over the course of a day or a week?

You can consciously change from one guna to another (I’ve managed to switch from tamas to sattva a few times).

You can also consciously try to offer nice things to the much-maligned lower gunas: take up martial arts to satisfy rajas, or have a fondue-and-wine night to satisfy tamas.  I have the rough “pagan common sense” intuition that you should be nice to entities if you want them to be nice to you, and this includes parts of yourself.

I’m not yet aware from first-hand experience about the “going meta” thing that meditation supposedly offers, but I’d expect that there’s probably something to it.

8 thoughts on “The Gunas: A Model For Mental States

  1. I fail to see the benefit from doing this.
    I could categorize emotions into what character from moby dick or Shakespeare’s plays they most resemble. I could break them up based on which apostle or saint behaved most similarly. This can feel insightful and illuminating but we have ample evidence that such feelings are often misleading. Things like the bible code or seeing faces on mars are all things that *feel* like one has noticed some important pattern or similarity but yet don’t offer anything.

    This seems to be a particular danger when mixed in with the social desirability bias of acknowledging some wisdom or important insight in religion. Despite the fact that the old testament is basically a manual on doing awful shit to one’s enemies and giving it religious approval and the new testament is a sustained call for abandoning worldly concerns in the face of imminent messianic arrival there are surprising number of atheists who go out of their way to praise it as some kind of important morally insightful work.

    Moreover, the insightfulness of the tradition when it was created doesn’t tell us anything about it’s usefulness now. Indeed, if I had to guess I would say that the Hindu tradition managed to capture a fair number of psychological truths in some fashion….but that doesn’t mean they are truths we are unaware of now or that there is anything extra to learn about psychology from reading the tradition.

    Obviously, I’m not saying one shouldn’t read such a tradition or look and see if there are important insights to extract from it. However, your post seems to be an implicit statement that thinking of things in this way offers some extra value or benefit and given the compelling evidence that we are biased towards falsely crediting religious traditions with these kind of benefits it seems we have good reason to be skeptical of this point.

    Obviously, I’m assuming that you are a nonbeliever given you are coming at it from the outside. Obviously, the analysis changes if you were committed to a belief in some special spiritual access/evidence in the tradition.

    • Partly, pattern recognition is a form of play that I enjoy. Partly, I appreciate an especially good pattern, and I think this is one. So far, that’s about all I’m claiming in the way of “benefit.” It’s pretty, it’s emotionally resonant, it’s got enough concreteness to be good archetype-fu, and there are some tantalizing hints of an actual biological theory or an actual method of self-improvement.

      Using literature as a source of psychological archetypes sounds *obviously good* and not a reductio ad absurdum at all. The gunas are a lot simpler and more conserved across contexts, though.

  2. This seems to line up somewhat with the taxonomy that fell out when I was playing around with which deliberate practices seemed most upstream from broadly useful skill areas. Briefly, the three areas wound up being epistemic rigor/structured inquiry (broader in scope than pure science), regulation of the stress response, emotional and physiological well being of self and those cared for, and lastly making decisions rapidly under uncertainty ie aesthetic judgment, business and interpersonal decision making, inner simulator calibration etc. Lining them up with the head, heart, and gut was pleasing. This is dissimilar in the characterization of the gut though.

  3. To me, it doesn’t seem like these distinctions carve reality at the joints. First, there are some drives that don’t obviously fit in any of these. Inquisitiveness, wanting to understand the world, pure science, etc, is prior to optimization and the search for excellence, so while it’s more similar to sattva than to the other two (you list “learning” under sattva), it seems sufficiently different to be separate. The drive to connect with and become close to others, such as in friendships and romantic relationships, draws some from sattva and occasionally from rajas and tamas, but the ultimate motivation is like none of them. Second, rajas doesn’t seem like a natural category – what do ambition, passionate romance, drama-seeking, and practicing martial arts have in common with each other, apart from non-lethargy?

    My rough and excessively general model has two divisions: reason and will. Reason includes empiricism, introspection, theorizing, and so on – it’s about understanding the world and associations of ideas, and will is the drive to impose something of your own upon the external world (which can take a wide variety of forms). Will without reason is barbarism, the vice of aggressive people, as well as those who are upset at non-conformity in general (“How can you do that?”), and other forms of impulsivity. Reason without will is “slavery”, and the vice exhibited in some neutralist ethical theories, particularly utilitarianism and Kantianism. Filling in the square, having neither reason nor will is lethargy, and having both is virtue. Of course, this model leaves out a lot, but I think a principal component analysis of different specific drives would show more than three clusters.

  4. Music might be a good way to build levers for invoking these.

    Off the top of my head if I look for musical genres that map to extreme versions of these three, I’m tempted to add another row to your table that looks like this:
    Tamas ~ Ambient
    Rajas ~ Metal
    Sattva ~ Baroque

  5. A relevant anecdote from a friend:

    He’s been playing this new game called Generals. There’s basically one dominant strategy against all humans, so when he’s playing against a human, he sticks with the strategy, and focuses on execution – implementing the strategy faster and more reliably. This is Rajas – point at the target, and then go after it fast.

    But the leaderboard is dominated by AIs and eventually he got to that level. So the important time started being *between* games; you can’t beat the AI on reaction time. So he thought about how Lee Sedol had beat AlphaGo in one game. Answer: by pushing it into a part of Go-space it hadn’t explored. It turned out that if he tried to play the strategy that’s second or third best against humans, it was totally out of the AI’s experience, so he could wipe the floor with it. This is Sattva – think your way around the problem. Take perspective.

    People who are new to online strategy games tend to spend their initial games trying to stay alive instead of trying to accomplish their game goals (destroy the other player). This is Tamas. Just keep your head above water. Enough food in your body. Hide from threats. Live to fight another day. Not very adaptive in online games where death isn’t very costly, but adaptive when facing real life threats.

  6. I wonder if Porges’ model can be squared with another schema I’ve seen in which brain functions have evolved to divide into “approach” or “avoidance” systems (with ‘avoidance’ also sometimes called ‘withdrawal’–I think it can cover not just strongly aversive situations like fear and disgust but also just desire to retreat form overstimulation, like an introvert wanting to be alone to think in private), discussed here. Anger is said to be an approach emotion as discussed here, but fear an avoidance emotion as mentioned here, so that would seem to split “fight or flight” in two. Some of the papers mention that the division seems to relate to brain lateralization (see the discussion starting on p. 185 of the paper on anger for example), so maybe the ideas aren’t necessarily incompatible as each of Porges’ three subsystems could have a left brain/approach valence and a right brain/avoidance valence. And in the vein of relating these kinds of ideas to ancient philosophies, approach/avoidance could have been intuited to some degree by the Taoist notion of yin and yang, which basically represent passive and active sides of the mind, see here for a blogger’s attempt to summarize and explain the psychological intuition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s