The sage scientists of ancient India called the fundamental laws of Physics, Sattva Guna, Rajas Guna, and Tamas Guna.
Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas are the very first qualities of this Universe. Sattva is pure intelligence, Rajas is velocity, acceleration, action, and Tamas is rest, inertia, darkness.
As soon as the manifest Universe was formed, energy condensed to matter and took its million forms. Each form arrived with a native intelligence to guide it’s action, it’s life cycle, and it’s final dissolution.
Let’s clarify what the Maha Gunas mean in terms of Ayurvedic body types and Ayurvedic diet.
Like in many languages, Sanskrit words change meaning depending on the context it is used. You may read about the words Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas in different contexts meaning slightly different things, and may feel, huh, why is this so hard to grasp?
Before we delve into the meaning and the three main contexts around which these words are used, let us look at the words “Maha Guna”.
Maha means supreme, as in Mahatma Gandhi, supreme soul, or great soul.
Guna means quality, a positive aspect or property that just is, it is neither good nor bad. The ocean has the quality of being in motion, it’s guna of fluidity guides it.
The Physics of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas
Rajas is the law of motion, velocity, and acceleration.
Tamas is the law of inertia, the guiding principle of when an object must come to rest.
Sattva is the intelligence guiding the laws of motion and rest.
Western physics does not have an equivalent to Sattva, matter is considered inert with no intelligence of its own.
Ancient Hindus attributed intelligence and consciousness to all matter since everything visible to the eye comes from the mingling of Purusha, the primordial consciousness, and Prakriti, the visible Universe.
In Physics we study the fundamental laws of motion and inertia before we study any other physical law. In a way, the laws of motion and inertia are sacred to western science also.
Vedic Indians held all truths as sacred and worthy of worship.
Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas from Vedic Hinduism
Because these are Maha Gunas and run through the fabric of the Universe, ancient Hindus assigned deities to these qualities. The Gods who symbolize these gunas are Vishnu the sustaining force, Brahma the creative force, and Shiva, the destroyer.
Vishnu presides over the Sattva Guna, Brahma presides over the Rajo Guna, and Shiva lords over the Tamo Guna.
Sattva is pure intelligence with no polarity, it is symbolized by the color white.
Rajas is for fiery transmutation, passion, and attachment, for this it is considered Red.
Tamas for darkness, rest, sleep, inertia, and ignorance (literally being in the dark, not knowing) is the color, Black.
The three Gunas are ever in dynamic interaction with each other, one gaining dominance and then receding, collapsing into each other, always maintaining the overall balance.
The Divine Mother or Parashakti is beyond these gunas, she is ‘Para’, meaning ‘beyond’ the gunas. Some schools of thought hold the Param-atma, great soul, as the supreme being, who is beyond the gunas.
If we observe the Universe carefully we will see the gunas in action all around us, the creation, sustaining, and the dissolution of all things living and nonliving, relationships, dreams, activities, everything rises, plays its life out, and then dissolves.
Sattva, Rajas and Tamas in our mind
We see mahagunas in our mind in action as:
Chitta or pure expansive intelligence is Sattva
Rajas, the dynamic pursuit of our wants and needs through the sense organs indriyas and the karmendriyas of the hands and feet. These organs do hold Sattva also to guide them, they are not purely Rajas. As pure Rajas, we pursue selfish or harmful goals.
Tamas, the denseness of the ego-bound with Sattva to guide the intelligence of ego, in pursuit of higher activities, dharma, rest, and withdrawal. As pure Tamas, the mind is dull, disconnected from the rest, and lethargic.
Sattva intelligence is inseparable from Tamas and Rajas, even when manifesting an undesirable action, speech, or thought.
Think of it, we need intelligence to perform even bad actions.
Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas in Ayurveda Body Type
Based on the Samkhya philosophy, the gunas arose as the unmanifest turned to the manifest, and consciousness split into two, the ego and the intellect of all conscious beings.
Sattva and Rajas Guna combine to create sensory and motor organs called the Indriyas and karmendriyas of living beings.
Rajas and Tamas gunas collapsed together to create Tanmatras, the primordial dense elements which further split into Air, Space, Fire, Earth, and Water, the Pancha Mahabhutas, the five great elements.
The Mahabhutas, came together to create the three biological forces called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.
They are called the Tridoshas, the basis for all disease to take root wherever they are out of balance in the Universe, whether in a human body or in a plant or an object.
If you were visiting an Ayurveda physician, during the consultation the physician will determine the dosha or imbalance in your body and mind.
The imbalances of the body are called Vata dosha, Pitta dosha, and Kapha dosha depending on which biological force is dominant over the other two.
When studying the gunas of the mind, Acharya Sushruta, one of the great teachers of Ayurveda attributes a predominance of :
~Space mahabhuta with Sattva
~Air with Rajas
~Fire with Sattva–Rajas
~Water with Sattva–Tamas
~Earth with Tamas.
Ayurveda Psychology based on Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas
Ayurveda’s classical texts describe sixteen distinct classifications of the psyche based in the gunas of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas!
When the tri-guna combines with the tri-dosha, sixteen distinct personalities emerge. This helps a physician make a thorough diagnosis of the patient’s bio-psycho-somatic / mind-body-energy state.
Both Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas, classical texts of Ayurveda from 200 BC and 1000 BC, have a description of seven types of Sattva, six types of Rajas, and three types of Tamas qualities of the psyche, totaling sixteen types of personalities under which all people can be grouped. This is the basis of Ayurveda psychology.
Sattva Guna Personalities in Ayurveda
The seven types of Sattva personalities are:
~Brahma Sattva are highly learned people who honor knowledge, are respectful and loving, observe fasts and rituals, and are loving towards all.
~Mahendra Sattva command respect as leaders, are able administrators and are loved by their followers.
~Varuna Sattva personalities are gifted speakers who are deeply spiritual and maintain their composure at all times.
~Kubera Sattva people pursue wealth acquisition with a passion, are given to debate and enjoy their large families.
~Gandharva Sattva are men and women who are practiced in the arts of seduction, are of great beauty, dress sharply, and enjoy sensual pleasures.
~Yama Sattva personalities follow their goals single-mindedly with courage, determination, and fortitude. They are highly intelligent people who do not get swayed by others. They may be loners.
~Rishi Sattva personalities are those who are dedicated to the service of God, who are abstinent, and are focused on enlightenment.
Rajas Guna Personalities
The six types of Rajas Sattva personalities are:
~Asura Sattva personalities are tough, shrewd, and assertive. They come across as cruel taskmasters, are courageous in the pursuit of their goals.
~Rakshasa Sattva personalities are given to consuming vast amounts of food, drink, and wine and are obsessed with sex. They are violent and strike at least provocation.
~Paisaca Sattva personalities are loners who prey on others, they do not maintain personal hygiene and are emboldened when no one is around to check them.
~Sarpa Sattva personalities alternate between timidity and violence. They are easily spooked and strike with fierceness when feeling threatened.
~Praita Sattva personalities lack discipline, are gluttonous, and hate working with others. They gossip to harm and to take attention away from their faults.
~Sakuna Sattva, like Shakuni, the character from Mahabharata, a person of this personality is a clever opportunist, enjoys food, wine, and merrymaking is attached to his family or group but is a coward when alone.
Tamas Sattva Personalities
The three types of Tamas Sattva personalities are:
~Pasava Sattva (animal) personality may not follow human rules of propriety, may have deviant qualities.
~Matsya Sattva (fish) is a person who likes constant change, is prone to eat and sleep a lot, cannot be depended on.
~Vanaspatya Sattva (vegetation) is a harmless fool, who enjoys simple pleasures and stays with a group.
Note the ancient physicians do not separate these personalities strictly from Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas as medieval Ayurvedic Vaidyas do, this is to underscore the dual nature of the psyche.
For example a Vanaspatya (vegetative) Sattva Tamas personality maybe someone like a tree who offers himself for the good of others, yet may be extremely stubborn or immovable or incapable of self-preservation in times of crisis.
Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas in Modern Ayurveda
Over time the Gunas in Ayurveda were simplified to Rajas and Tamas doshas of the mind with Rajas pointing to a Vata and Pitta dosha like overactivity, passion, a propensity for overthinking, over-talking, deep attachments, fiery temperament, greed, jealousy, anger, violence, and lust.
Tamas as a dosha or imbalance of the mind meant the patient was prone to frequent bouts of grief, melancholy, lethargy, denseness, ignorance similar to what arises out of a Kapha dosha imbalance of the body.
Some modern Ayurvedic physicians, especially from the South of India, will even call such a psyche a Kapha imbalance of the mind without ever using the term Tamas.
The ancient Ayurveda sages knew the mind, soul, and body were interrelated and influenced the health of each other.
The duality of Gunas in Action
Rajas and Tamas exist in this dual universe as both a positive and a negative state.
The Rajas of action and the Tamas of rest is essential for the world to function.
Sattva exists only as itself, it is neither positive nor negative, like the Divine qualities of Truth, Love, and God.
There is no good or bad Sattva however Rajas and Tamas, as described so far have both positive and negative aspects and their misuse leads to suffering.
The Sattva, Rajas & Tamas of Ayurvedic Diet
Ayurveda diet is divided into Sattvic, Rajasic, and Tamasic and has similar properties derived from the Yogic Mahagunas.
Sattvic Ayurvedic diet
Sattvic food is lightly cooked food without the heavy-handed use of spices, onions, garlic, and other vegetables that grow underground in the Earth and have Kapha or dense earthy properties.
Sattvic is the essence of food which as we know is Vata or Space and Air element predominant. This means the food creates lightness and a subtle intelligence required for a yogis way of life, fulfills a monk’s daily nutritional requirements and is ideal for a poet, a Sufi, a philosopher.
In short, anyone who uses their Vishuddha, Agya, and Sahasrara as their vocation through chanting, meditating, conducting prayers, yoga, and light physical work, will benefit from Sattvic food.
Examples of Sattvic meals are milk and yogurt-based lightly spiced soups and curries, steamed sautéed vegetables, a predominance of fruit, smaller portions of grains as porridge, gruel, and simple mung bean khichdi, water-based plants like lotus stems and chestnuts, and small fishes like sardines, mackerel, and pomfrets.
Now, this is Sattvic for a South Indian, a person from a different region in India may have a completely different idea of Sattvic food.
A Sattvic Jain from Western India, may not eat any kind of root vegetables, meat is strictly forbidden. A Sattvic Brahman from Bengal in the East may eat an occasional Rohu fish. A Kashmiri Sattvic from the North may eat a bit of meat with their rice and veggies to stay warm during freezing winters.
The elders of my family would pare down their diet to Sattvic as they aged opting to eat simple red rice gruels with a little basic fermented kimchi like pickle, toasted papadums, and well-cooked veggies on the side with an occasional steamed fish. They would still drink their morning coffees and teas. One of my grandmas drank her coffee black with a few drops of goat butter for her arthritic knees.
rajasic ayurvedic diet
Rajasic food is the hearty food required for athletes, warriors, administrators, and leaders of the world who are to be in action, who are required to take decisive action, who work hard with their bodies and minds and live as enjoyers of sensual attachments.
The majority of Indian Ayurvedic food falls under this category.
Our meals are a delight of the play of salt and spices, textures and colors, and heat levels. Such food is heavy with sharp and pungent vegetables, meats, all manners of meaty seafood, and a robust selection of vegetables and lentils.
This food is Pitta raising food and helps increase the bodies’ temperature and detox the liver to counter the effect of excess in drinking and eating.
As a warrior family, most of our recipes are Rajasic. When the family gathers we celebrate with immense amounts of well-spiced fishes, rice, vegetable, meats, and desserts.
tamasic ayurvedic diet
Tamasic food is eaten by those who labor in the fields and construction sites, those who till our land and fish for a living. Such food is usually copious portions of grain with fermented broths and beverages, jerky of meats and fish, excess of spices, and rich stews of organ meats. Most peasant fare would come under this category.
Tamasic food is Kapha producing and bulk producing since hard labor requires the body to regain lost vitality through nutritious, energy-dense food.
Sometimes my grandma would make fermented yogurt rice with onions, curry leaves, and green chilies, a highly Kapha-producing food. This cold yogurt gruel is served with toasted dry fish and papadums for the workers. I would get to taste some. I still remember how filling and delicious it was. This is a fisherman’s breakfast in South India.
Rajasic food and Tamasic food can also have a negative effect if eaten in excess, creating disturbances associated with doshas of the mind, like anxiety, aggression, and lethargy.
Sattvic, Rajasic, or Tamasic foods are not superior or inferior to each other and have developed over millennia to fulfill the vocation and temperamental needs of the individual.
A monk on a Sattvic diet is not superior to a fisherman who loves a pint with his shepherd’s pie, each individual has the opportunity to practice their calling as deeply attuned to God as they wish to.
‘Tamasic’ is also attributed to food that is old and has had a long shelf life, as it is devoid of prana and harder to digest. Food influences our subtle channels and the subtle intelligence that guides our thoughts and actions.
A construction worker who eats a stale sandwich may have no more than a stomach upset and chances are he may not miss having access to this subtle intelligence. However, a Yogi may not progress on the path of enlightenment.
Now that you know Ayurveda’s philosophy of food, next time you are at an Ayurveda retreat it will be wise to not ask for Vata, Pitta, and Kapha dosha pacifying food, ask for Sattvic food.
Sattvic food that enhances Vata, the quality of lightness, and space.
Ayurveda gives us this perspective to make empowering choices that work with our unique diet and lifestyle.
How would you change your diet based on what I have shared here? Leave me your comments, love to be in touch, say hello on Instagram!