In the yogic cosmology, the universe came into being through an explosive expansion similar to the modern theory of the Big Bang. Primordial nature, or prakriti, was resting in perfect harmony. Through the “bang,” prakriti differentiated itself into three basic qualities of energy known as sattva, rajas, and tamas.
Rajas is the active, stimulating, or positive force that initiates change. Tamas is the dull, obstructive, or negative force that sustains previous activity. Sattva is the balancing force, harmonizing rajas and tamas. When prakriti fractured, sattva generated the mind, rajas the life-force, and tamas gave rise to the elements that make up the physical body. These qualities are present in everything that we see, even the so-called inanimate objects. All three forces are needed in normal activity, but they have spiritual repercussions as well.
The gunas have a veiling power over the mind, covering the reality of Absolute Consciousness. Tamas keeps us in darkness, concealing the unity of life. Rajas keeps the mind scattered, drawn to the stimulation of the external world.
The gunas also relate to the different levels of consciousness within us. Tamas represents the unconscious mind. In this state there is no awareness of the unity of life. Rajas is the mind that is motivated by egocentricity, oscillating between worries, frustrations, and false perceptions. A sattvic mind is one that is undisturbed, clear, and harmonious. This is often referred to as the higher mind. Although negative thoughts arise, the higher mind is unperturbed, removing the need to react to the negative tendencies.
There are two important laws that apply to the gunas: the law of alternation and the law of continuity. Because of alternation, the gunas are in constant interplay with one another. Rarely do we see pure sattva, pure rajas, or pure tamas. Whatever guna may be dominant at the time is usually intertwined with the other two, each affecting the others in a variety of ways.
Although it is initially difficult for tamas to become rajas, or rajas to become sattva, once they make that transition the predominant quality will continue for a period of time. This is the law of continuity. These two laws are always in play. For instance, the night belongs to tamas, the day to sattva, and the transitional times of sunrise and sunset to rajas. The phases of time alternate but they hold their position for a period of time.
Sattva embodies the qualities of love, light, and clarity. Sattva is responsible for spiritual endeavors to evolve our consciousness. It bestows the dharmic virtues of honesty, self-control, and humility. Yoga encourages the development of sattva, eventually transcending this quality all together. However, it must first be cultivated before it can be transcended. Yoga practices such as asana, pranayama, and meditation develop sattva. Other ways to cultivate sattva include ethical living, self-control, maintaining a vegetarian diet, living a pure lifestyle, seeking the company of like-minded people, selflessness, and devotion.
Rajas embodies the qualities of agitation, passion, and activity. It gives rise to the emotional fluctuations of love and hate, attraction and repulsion, fear and desire. The higher force of rajas is the impetus for spiritual pursuits and holistic healing, creating peace and harmony. The lower form of rajas leads to self-centered thoughts and actions, breeding exhaustion or suffering. The higher form of rajas is necessary for it is the transformative power necessary to embark on the path of spirituality.
Tamas embodies the qualities of darkness, dullness, and inertia. It is the pull of the lower force or mind which keeps us stuck in ignorance and attachment. Tamas creates heaviness, emotional clinging, and stagnation. The higher form of tamas is the power that helps us resist impulses that draw us off the path.