Srivatsa Ramaswami: The Three Gunas

I received the following in an email from my teacher, Srivatsa Ramaswami.

I began studying with Ramaswami in 2004 at the Chicago Yoga Center (where he comes very year to teach) and I was hooked the first night. He is considered a chant master in India and the first night’s workshop was the “Yoga of Sound”, all about mantras. I drove home crying because his chanting and the mantras touched my heart. Ramaswami is the teacher who inspired me to go to the heart of yoga, India.

Ramaswami is the longest standing student of T. Krishnamacharya outside of Krishnamacharya’s immediate family. When I started studying with him, Ramaswami was not as well-known as Krishnamacharya’s other students, BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son. When I told people that I studied with Ramaswami they asked “who?”, but Ramaswami studied with Krishnamacharya longer than any of the Big Three. He was an original trustee of the Krishnmacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India where I have studied three times. It is certainly not the habit of American yoga students as it is in India to touch their teacher’s feet to show respect, but I would not hesitate, that is how much respect I have for Ramaswami-ji.

When I bought Ramaswami’s book The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga and got toward the end of the Acknowledgement, I began to cry because I saw my name. He mentioned me (and others) as “one of the teachers who has incorporated essentials of vinyasa krama into their teaching and practice even from Day 1.” I was stunned because I did not think he even knew my name. Now every year when he sees me he smiles and asks, “when are you going back to Madras?”, Madras being the old name for Chennai.

I give you the writing of a true yoga master and a true yogi.


The Three Gunas (Triguna) and the Four Human Goals (Purusharthas)

According to Yoga and other sibling philosophies, the entire universe is made of the three Gunas, Satwa, Rajas and Tamas, and these permeate everything (including all of us) everywhere in dominating everything in varying degrees. Due to the preponderance of one of these Gunas, in every individual, different human beings follow different goals. Even as everyone’s desire is to get happiness and get rid of unhappiness, each one, depending upon his or her guna temperament, pursues different means and goals (arthas) for one’s satisfaction or happiness. The three gunas are satwa, rajas and tamas. The four purushartas or human goals are dharma (order), artha (material possession), kama (sensual desires), and moksha (spiritual freedom.) A satwic person is inclined towards dharma, while the rajasic, tamasic and the one who is able to go beyond the influence of all the gunas (gunaateeta) are attracted respectively towards artha, kama and moksha. These four are called purusharthas or chatur-vidha-purushartha (four different human endeavors/goals.)

Persons whose personality is predominantly satwic follow ‘dharma’ as a goal of their lives for happiness. Dharma is the Law of Piety, Compassion, and orderly life. They follow the benevolent dictates of the scriptures, the laws of the land, leading a life consistent with the gods of nature. It is anathema for them to cross the Laws of Dharma. Such Dharmis are said to lead a very peaceful life here and hereafter, as they, who are said to be in a small minority, do and accumulate good karmas.

The Rajasic people are like the proverbial “A” type personalities. Highly energetic and mostly restless, they pursue very down to earth policies and follow the goal of artha or material possessions. More wealth and more power give them happiness and the means are less important than the goals. Only a few who follow this life-long pursuit of possessions and power ever succeed and sustain, leading to collective unhappiness of this lot. The happiness of the majority of them rises with the tide of increasing possessions and ebbs with the loss of wealth and power.

We have then the third group of people who are dominated by tamas. It is said Tamas, because it veils the intellect, makes such people short sighted. Their happiness lies in sensual gratification. Tasty food, frequent tactile stimulus, attractive visual objects and captivating sounds dominate their life. When the senses over a period of time lose their acuity, they have less room to be happy and fall into a state of depression as they get older.

Then there are the spiritual Yogis who relentlessly follow the path of spiritual wisdom and intuitively understand the nature of the ever present, nonchanging nature of their own Self and reach a state of Kaivalya or Moksha or spiritual Freedom. In that state, according to Yogis, the three Gunas reach a state of equilibrium. This, the yogis call a state of Nirodha of the mind, or a state the Lord in the Gita calls Gunateeta or beyond the dominance of the Gunas. This state leads to a permanent and irrevocable state of peace of mind and the yogis aver that it is superior to the other variable and unstable states of happiness; superior to that attained by sensual gratification of the tamasic personality or the happiness arising out of possessions of the Rajasic, or even the dharmic life of a Satwic person. Though the satwic state of happiness is superior to the other two, even that is said to be impermanent. Hence the Lord urges everyone, through His disciple Arjuna in the Gita, to go from Tamas to Rajas and then to Satwa and ultimately transcend all the Gunas. It is easier said then done.

But how is it done? Only Yoga comes with specific measures to change the individual personalities. One can transform a Tamasic mind to a Rajasic bent by practice of Pranayama, in addition to the observance of Yamaniyamas. The observance of a well designed practice of asanas will reduce the addictive influence of Rajas and hence a yogi who practices asana and pranayama will become more and more Satwic, thanks the reduction of Tamas and Rajas. And by spiritual meditation one will be able to transcend all the three Gunas.

So as Lord Krishna says, “Tatha yogi bhava Arjuna”, (Therefore become a Yogi). One should practice Yoga. You will agree?

Best New Year wishes,

Srivatsa Ramaswami

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8 thoughts on “Srivatsa Ramaswami: The Three Gunas

  1. Nice read. 4 purusharthas were mentioned in the “story of India” on PBS channel which I watched yesterday night. its a 6 part documentory you might enjoy watching. Check the PBS website for broadcast schedule. My understanding was that a person practices the 4 purusharthas in the 4 stages of life…but, what you wrote also makes sense in a way.


  2. Hi Linda!As you know i´m a big fan of your incredible blog. And i couldn´t resist… i gave you a little present at my blog. Someone created this award,- YOUR BLOG IS FABULOUS!- and i had to choose five favorites… you are one of them. Hope you like it.Namaste!


  3. Mantra means a lot to me as well. I love chanting, singing kirtan and I can do that all night.

    I feel that way about my Guru too (the touching of the feet).

    I like using the gunas to talk about the world at large, because they can be adapted on many different levels.

    Its important though, I think, to point out that while a person may have a 'home base' in one of the gunas, their life choices and tendencies can change over time… for example, people like Milarapa who went from being a murderer (heavily tamasic activity) to being a yogi (sattvic).

    There's also a suggestion here of a somewhat linear view of the gunas (tamas > rajas > sattva) and I can't quite accept that… nothing is really ever linear, is it?

    Nice discourse, though!


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