The early Hindi metaphysicians considered that in the ultimate analysis, all which was a constituent part of the Maya of Nature could be thought of as a peculiar and unique combination of three fundamental principles, which were termed by them tamas, rajas, and sattva.
TamasThe tamasic nature was attributed to insentient and inertial matter, to gross nature which was withdrawn into itself. It was hence the symbol of
ignorance and unreason, of quiescent, dormant mass. Its interial quality lent to it stability and permanence, but it was considered asleep, immobile and "dead" - serving as an exact counterpart to the rajasic nature, which had neither stability nor permanance because it remained ever-ungrounded.
RajasPerhaps best indicative of the Life-impulse, of the nature of Will (or Thelema), rajas was the energetic principle itself, eternally in motion, infinitely mutable and essentially directionless, it extended in infinite rays from the neutral laya center at the heart of all matter, travelling endlessly throughout the Akasha, the universal substance of the Maya of The Universe. It represented passion, not as we would now conceive of the word, but perhaps best charactized by the Nietzschean idea of the Will to Power, the will-to-life common to all existent sentient beings.
SattvaServing as the middle ground as well as the origin of the gunas, sattva represented the balance which was effected through the reconciliation of the opposing principles of Tamas and Rajas. It was thus the basis of Being itself, as it fluctuated between the extremes represented by Tamas and Rajas. It was thought that in the gradual achievement of balance (equilibrium) between the qualities, the essential and transcendent quality of the original "uncorrupted" Sattva would become perceptible by degrees.
Limitations of the Gunas
However, the need for non-attachment even to this relatively "pure" quality of existence - goodness, truth, and beauty - after it had been recognized and attained, was necessary, as is stressed in the Bhagavad Gita1:
O Arjuna, Sattva attaches one to happiness, Rajas to action, and Tamas to ignorance by covering the knowledge. (14.09)
Knowledge arises from Sattva; desires arise from Rajas; and negligence, delusion, and ignorance arise from Tamas. (14.17)
When visionaries perceive no doer other than the Gunas (or the power of Brahman), and know That which is above and beyond the Gunas; then they attain nirvana. (14.19)
When one transcends (or rises above) the three Gunas that originate in the mind; one is freed from birth, old age, disease, and death; and attains nirvana. (14.20)
A clear delineation of the functioning of these gunas is given in the Yogasutras of Patanjali, wherein he explains the fundamental doctrine of his Yoga : "the gunas revolve." Interestingly, he cites the necessity of the weakening and eventual removal of the modifications of the mind-stuff (citta) caused by the gunas as a necessary step to the achievement of true Kaivalya. These original principles of being itself, he concludes, are the very basis of nature and existence, and are thus a barrier to the highest realization possible through his system of Yoga.
These three principles, the Fundamental Tattvas, bear at least some resemblance to ideas of other religious traditions common to antiquity, including those of the Western and Near-Eastern Jewish Kabbala and that of the Eastern Taoism, specifically. This fact was not lost on the attempts made during the Occult Revival of the late 1800's, thought such organizations as the Order of the Golden Dawn, which attempted to incorporate a good deal of the Hindu psycho-spiritual ideas within its own conceptions.
The "three mothers" mentioned in the Sepher Yetzirah, assigned to the Hebrew Letters, Aleph (א), Mem (ם), and Shin (ש), as well as the Taoist ideas of Tao, Yin, and Yang, do indeed correspond to a significant degree with these ideas of the Hindu gymnosophists. Although these systems are in many respects greatly similar, there are also substantial differences which are beyond the scope of this essay, not the least of which is the confusion in the Western systems which exists between the Four Elements of Alchemy and the philosophical triad which represent the gunas themselves.
1Bhagavad Gita, as found at http://www.cheraglibrary.org/hindu/gita/gita14.htm