Three Gunas

The three gunas of the Yogic tradition are the three energy states of the phenomenal world, tamas, rajas, and sattva. Tamas is a state of apathy and inaction, rajas of excitement and activity, and sattva meaning law or balance, is a state in which detachment, or selfless action is possible. Tamas describes people who respond to oppression with apathy, inertia, and a sense of powerlessness. Rajas describes people whose passions have been aroused and for which action is possible, but where there is not necessarily a clear coherent goal or way forward and the possibility of violence exists. (See also effervescence of the crowd.) Sattva describes people who respond with nonviolent action. This is not simply action that lacks violence but creative action towards greater integration, unity, and reconciliation.

The three gunas suggest the spiritual states of cowardice, violence, and nonviolence.  It is not possible to move directly from a state of tamas to a state of sattva, without passing through the rajasic state. This explains why often an oppressed group must overcome internalized oppression, the belief that they are powerless or that they somehow deserve their situation.  To end this tamasic state they must pass through a phase of passion or anger where they are capable of violence and then on to a sattvaic nonviolent response.  As Gandhi said, “I can make a satyagrahi out of a violent person, not out of a coward.”