Prakriti (Matter) and Guna

The eternal atman is entrapped within successive temporary bodies made of matter (prakriti). Everything made of matter undergoes three stages of existence – (1) it is created, (2) it remains for some time and, (3) it is inevitably destroyed. These three phases correspond to the three gunas – qualities or modes of material nature. Passion (rajas) creates, goodness (sattva) sustains and ignorance (tamas) destroys. These three are ranked hierarchically, with ignorance considered the lowest and goodness the highest. Each member of the Hindu trimurti representsone of the three gunas.

All material phenomena can be analysed in terms of the gunas. According to the soul’s preference for a particular mode, it takes on a corresponding body. A person influenced mainly by goodness will be elevated to the heavenly planets at death. Those largely in passion stay in human society, and those infected with ignorance enter into the lower species. Only pure souls, transcending even sattva guna, attain liberation (see moksha) and escape the entanglement of matter.

Key Points

  • Matter is inert, temporary, and unconscious.
  • It is composed of three qualities (gunas) corresponding to creation, sustenance, and destruction. They are:
    • sattva (goodness) – pure, elevating, enlightening
    • rajas (passion) – motivates us to create, acquire and enjoy
    • tamas (ignorance) – dirty, degrading, deluding, and destructive
  • Each guna is controlled by one of three main deities – Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva respectively.

A Useful Analogy

The three primary colours – yellow, red and blue. From these three pure colours – red, yellow, and blue – a whole palette can be created.

  • By mixing three primary colours we obtain the three secondary colours – orange, green, and purple. By further mixing we create an almost infinite range, such as we see in a colour chart for paints. Similarly, from the interaction of the three gunas there emerges the entire range of life forms.
  • On a colour chart, there is a section consisting of various reds, one largely of yellows, another mainly of blues. Similarly, human society is mainly influenced by passion (the red section). The residents of the “higher planets” live mainly under the influence of goodness (represented by yellow), and the animal species are principally under the jurisdiction of ignorance (the blue section).
  • Just as there is diversity within each section of colours, similarly within human society the three gunas create a range of individuals, each with distinct characteristics according to their specific mix of gunas. Some will be relatively more influenced by goodness (yellow), others by passion (red), and the remainder by the quality of ignorance (blue).

Related Stories

Three Men Enter the Forest (STO-107)
How we perceive things according to the gunas.

The Story of Brighu Muni (STO-108)
The qualities associated with gunas: the trimurti.


“There’s not one atom of yon earth
But once was living man;
Nor the minutest drop of rain,
That hangeth in its thinnest cloud,
But flowed in human veins.”

Percy Shelley

Related Practices

The social system of varnashrama-dharma is based on an understanding of how matter conditions the soul. Some claim that the original system enabled mobility between the social classes (varnas) and was based not on birth but on personal character and inclination for a particular type of work. The members of the four varnas, such as the kshatriyas, were ascertained by the predominant influence of one or more gunas, as shown below:

  • Brahmanas (priests, teachers and intellectuals) – goodness
  • Kshatriyas (police, soldiers and administrators) – passion & goodness
  • Vaishyas (farmers, traders and merchants) – passion & ignorance
  • Shudras (workers, labourers and artisans) – ignorance

Related Values and Issues

All behaviour can be analysed according to this threefold guna model and can be applied to many personal, social, moral and health issues. Especially relevant might be:

  • The environment
  • Health and diet
  • Lifestyle
  • Sustainability (sattva)
  • Sex impulse (rajas)
  • Drug abuse (tamas)

Personal Reflection

  • Can we identify our own behaviour in terms of these gunas? Do we notice different qualities in, say, the different times of day?

Related Content

In the system of sankhya, matter is divided into different elements, both subtle and gross. The five gross elements, corresponding to the five senses, are:

  1. Earth
  2. Water
  3. Fire
  4. Air
  5. Ether

Scriptural Passages

“From the mode of goodness, real knowledge develops; from the mode of passion, greed develops; and from the mode of ignorance develops foolishness, madness and illusion.”

Bhagavad-gita 14.17

See also: Bhagavad-gita 14.5–20.
Also many verses in the 17th and 18th chapters.

Meaning and Purpose

  • Why do people act and respond differently?