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The Sanskrit Guna is often translated as string, thread (it can also be read as “quality” or “division” in more abstract uses).

The interrelationship of the three Gunas comes from Samkhya (“Enumeration”) – one of the oldest schools of Indian philosophy. Samkhya posits that there are two types of thing:

The latter includes not only physical objects and processes, but also mental acts, sensations, desires & feelings.

The totality of Jada things is called Prakrti (also Prakriti).

Each sentient being is a Purusha. Bondage – Samsaara – occurrs when a sentient being confuses itself with its physical body. Liberation arises when a sentient being acquires the capacity to discriminate between Purusha and Prakrti. In living organisms, the Purusha is the transcendental element (jiva), whereas the mind-body complex (including ahamkara and buddhi) is rooted in Prakrti.

The ultimate constituents of Prakrti are the three Gunas. Every phenomenon which exists within Prakrti is an admixture of the three gunas, and its ‘character’ depends on the relationship between the three.

Sattva (quiescent goodness Vishnu White
Rajas (restlessness, “passionate energy”) Brahma Red
Tamas (lethargy, inertia) Siva Black

Sattva (“being”) can be understood as the propensity that matter has for order – for essence or balance; the individual’s capacity for attaining completion (as a moral/enlightened being).

Rajas (“air”) is the propensity for movement, for procreation, for engagement – that which both creates desires for things and also the fear of losing what one already has.

Tamas (“darkness”) is the propensity for degeneration, dispersal, exhaustion or inertia.

According to Lokanath, the first chapter of the Jnanarnava Tantra relates the waking states to the Gunas as follows: the waking state is Sattvik, and is the true form of Shakti; the state of deep sleep is Tamasik and is the Shiva-form, and the dream-state is Rajasik. The Fourth state, Turiya, pervades the three states and is the Supreme Kala, Tripua and true consciousness.

In Sakta Tantra, the goddess is the Self of the three Gunas. Again, Sri Lokanath’s translation of the Five Limbs of Jvalamukhi says that:
“By sattvas She creates the universe, by rajas She maintains, and by tamas She withdraws –therefore She is the self of the three gunas. She is the mother of the three worlds, the mother of the Devis. Listen attentively, Parameshvari, as I relate to you her mantra, yantra, meditation image, limbs and puja.”