The term Trigunas is made up of 2 parts. The first part is 'Tri' which means 3 in number and the second part is 'Gunas' which means qualities or properties of a substance. Thus the term points towards 3 qualities or properties of a substance.
In Bharatiya shastras, Bhagvad Gita and Ayurveda, the term Triguna implies the set of 3 human characteristics namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. In Ayurveda these are the 3 types of characteristics of mind while in the frame of reference of other shastras these 3 are the modes of material energy. The human temperament, behavior, emotions and actions are influenced by the dominance of one of these trigunas at that point of the time. Also, on the basis of their levels from the time of birth in any human being, the humans are characterized as Sattvik, Rajas or Tamas in mind-type. The personality, behavior, interests, health and ultimately the quality of one's life largely depends on the presence, absence, levels or predominance of these trigunas in one's mind. Thus, Ayurveda has laid large emphasis on understanding of these 3 modes with special reference to the mind and characteristics of the individual.
महागुणाः त्रिगुणाः वा॥ Mahagunas or trigunas
The 3 modes of material energy or the 3 characteristics of mind are called as trigunas. These are also known as Mahagunas in Ayurveda literature.
सत्त्वं रजस्तमश्चेति त्रयः प्रोक्ता महागुणाः॥ (Asht. Samg. 1.29)
sattvaṁ rajastamaśceti trayaḥ proktā mahāguṇāḥ॥ (Asht. Samg. 1.29)
भगवद्गीतावर्णिताः त्रिगुणाः॥ Trigunas according to Bhagvad gita
Bhagavad Gita (भगवद्गीता) is a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna, narrated in the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata. In the 14th discourse of Bhagvad Gita, Lord Krishna narrates the role of Trigunas in one's life. At this place, the origin and association of Trigunas with one's life has been explained by lord Krishna as follows,
सत्त्वं रजस्तम इति गुणा: प्रकृतिसम्भवा: । निबध्नन्ति महाबाहो देहे देहिनमव्ययम् ॥ (Bhagvad Gita 14.5)
sattvaṁ rajastama iti guṇā: prakr̥tisambhavā: । nibadhnanti mahābāho dehe dehinamavyayam ॥ (Bhagvad Gita 14.5)
Meaning: Prakrti or the material energy consists of three guṇas (modes)—sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance). These modes bind the eternal soul to the perishable body.
Prakrti is believed to be that part of source of creation which is responsible for material existence of the universe. Since the trigunas are said to be the modes of this prakrti, all the matter or the material existence possess trigunas. Bhagwad Gita explains how the same individual’s temperament oscillates amongst the trigunas. These 3 gunas are Sattvam, Rajas and Tamas. These three guṇas are present in the material energy, and our mind is made from the same energy. These are also considered as the modes of energy. Hence, all the three guṇas are present in our mind as well.
All the 3 gunas can co-exist in a persons mind at given point of a time. However, each one possesses some energy opposite to that of other guna and thus they keep on competing with each other to establish self dominance. They can be compared to three wrestlers competing with each other. Each keeps throwing the others down, and so, sometimes the first is on top, sometimes the second, and sometimes the third. In the same manner, the three guṇas keep gaining dominance over the individual’s temperament, which oscillates amongst the three modes. Based upon one’s internal thoughts, the external circumstances, past sanskaras, and other factors, one or the other of these modes becomes dominant for that person. And the mode that predominates creates its corresponding shade upon that person’s personality. Hence, the soul is swayed by the influence of these dominating modes.
रजस्तमश्चाभिभूय सत्त्वं भवति भारत । रज: सत्त्वं तमश्चैव तम: सत्त्वं रजस्तथा ॥ (Bhagvad Gita 14.10)
rajastamaścābhibhūya sattvaṁ bhavati bhārata । raja: sattvaṁ tamaścaiva tama: sattvaṁ rajastathā ॥ (Bhagvad Gita 14.10)
Meaning: Sometimes sattva (goodness) prevails over rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance). Sometimes rajas (passion) dominates sattva (goodness) and tamas (ignorance), and at other times tamas (ignorance) overcomes sattva (goodness) and rajas (passion).
त्रिगुणपरिणामः॥ Actions and effects of Trigunas
Sattva, rajas and tamas play key role in the way a persons mind, emotions, behaviour and social interaction happens. All these aspects of one's personality are responsible for that persons actions and their results which ultimately decide the health, well-being and success of that individual in this world. Learning the exclusive characteristics of each of the trigunas thus one can foresee the possible quality of life of an individual based upon the predominance of the trigunas in his mind. In Bhagvad Gita, lord Krishna has explained the action and effect of trigunas on one's life as follows,
सत्त्वं सुखे सञ्जयति रज: कर्मणि भारत । ज्ञानमावृत्य तु तम: प्रमादे सञ्जयत्युत ॥ (Bhagvad Gita 14.9)
sattvaṁ sukhe sañjayati raja: karmaṇi bhārata । jñānamāvr̥tya tu tama: pramāde sañjayatyuta ॥ (Bhagvad Gita 14.9)
Meaning: Sattva binds one to happiness; rajas conditions the soul toward actions; and tamas clouds wisdom and binds one to delusion.
The effects of each of trigunas is a result of its property. Sattva is said to be the illuminating or enlightening quality that helps one to understand the truth or reality of the situation, gives clarity and thus helps one to understand real bliss or happiness. Rajas owing to its passionate nature, consistently forces one to initiate actions to achieve goals and thus that person gets engaged in the pursuit of various pleasures. On the other hand, Tamas by nature clouds the wisdom and incapacitates individual to know the truth or to understand the real nature of anything. Naturally, the person makes mistakes or prajnaparadhas leading to unrewarding, miserable life.
मनोबलम् ॥ Effect of Trigunas on the strength of mind
In Ayurveda, the term Balam is used to indicate strength of a physical body or mind. The strength of mind is believed to be the that factor which decides the level of imbalances occurring in a persons mind on an encounter with undesirable, painful accident of any kind. It also indicates ability of the mind to protect oneself against various stressors. These imbalances later also reflect upon physical body ultimately affecting one's health, well-being and overall quality of a life. In this way strength of mind can also be compared with the tolerance level of mind and emotions a person. More the strangth or tolerance capacity, lesss prone the person is to stressful and unpleasant circumstances. Thus one can say that, the term Manobalam literally refers to psychological immunity of a person. It is believed that these trigunas play key role in development of psychological strenth and immunity in a person in a following manner.
सत्त्वे उत्तमं मनोबलं, रजसि मध्यमं मनोबलं, तमसि मनोदौर्बल्यमेवेति ॥ (Sush Samh 35.38) 
sattve uttamaṁ manobalaṁ, rajasi madhyamaṁ manobalaṁ, tamasi manodaurbalyameveti ॥ (Sush Samh 35.38)
Meaning: The strength of mind is best due to Sattva, moderate due to Rajas whereas the mind is weak due to presence or predominance of tamas.
Acharya Sushruta has clarified that, the stregth of mind varies depending on the levels of trigunas in one's mind. The person the psychologically and emotionally strongest when there is predominance of sattva in mind and emotionally and psychologically vulnerable or weak when tamas is predominant in mind. Rajas level in manas makes one moderately strong while dealing stressful and unpleasant situations.
मनोदोषाः रजः तमः च ॥ Rajas and Tamas as doshas
Ayurveda identifies physical body and mind as 2 seats for development of diseases. Since mind or manas is said to be a seat of diseases it is obvious that certain factors or forces located in manas are responsible for disease development. It is known that trigunas have place in manas of a person and they control the strength, actions and functions of mind and emotions. Among 3 of them, Sattva is believed to be the strength or pure quality of a mind which brings happiness and knowledge and wisdom in an individual and thus it is regarded as defense of manas. Whereas the other 2, rajas and tamas influence the person in a negative manner making one prone to create mistakes or prajnaparadhas and susceptible to diseases. Thus, rajas and tamas among trigunas are identified as doshas (those which have capacity to vitiate body or mind and initiate the process of diseases development) of manas.
रजस्तमश्च मनसो द्वौ च दोषावुदाहृतौ॥ (Asht Hrud 1.21)
rajastamaśca manaso dvau ca doṣāvudāhr̥tau॥ (Asht Hrud 1.21)
Meaning: Rajas and Tamas are considered as 2 doshas of manas. Diseases originating from Rajas are called Rajasa diseases while those originating from Tamas are called as Tamasa diseases.
अतस्त्रिविधा व्याधयः प्रादुर्भवन्ति- आग्नेयाः, सौम्याः, वायव्याश्च; द्विविधाश्चापरे- राजसाः, तामसाश्च ॥ (Char Samh 1.4)
atastrividhā vyādhayaḥ prādurbhavanti- āgneyāḥ, saumyāḥ, vāyavyāśca; dvividhāścāpare- rājasāḥ, tāmasāśca ॥ (Char Samh 1.4)
Meaning: 3 types of diseases (of physical body) originate from Agni, Jalam or Vayu. The other 2 types of diseases (are of manas and) originate either from imbalance or excess of rajas or tamas.
निद्रा त्रिगुण संबंधः॥ Nidra and Triguna
Nidra is said to occur due to Tamas guna abundance in body while Sattva guna abundance helps one to wake-up from sleep. Therefore, abundance of these gunas in surroundings during day & night cycle naturally makes one feel sleepy or awakened.
निद्राहेतुस्तमः, सत्त्वं बोधने हेतुरुच्यते । स्वभाव एव वा हेतुर्गरीयान् परिकीर्त्यते ॥ (Sush Samh 4.35)
nidrāhetustamaḥ, sattvaṁ bodhane heturucyate । svabhāva eva vā heturgarīyān parikīrtyate ॥ (Sush Samh 4.35)
Rajas guna is responsible for movements of manas. Manas is the main component of sleep pathway and it should be detached from all the other activities to initiate the sleep process. Excess of rajas constantly involve manas in some sensory or motor activity and thus unregulated movement of manas disturbs the normal pattern of sleep.
मोक्ष-त्रिगुणसंबंधः॥ Role of Trigunas in Moksha
Moksha is considered to be liberation of soul from mortal body and its union with the supreme consciousness. It is believed that purusha or soul is trapped in the mortal body and suffers from karmas. This bond of atma and sharira is because of trigunas as per Bhagvad Gita.
सत्त्वं रजस्तम इति गुणा: प्रकृतिसम्भवा: | निबध्नन्ति महाबाहो देहे देहिनमव्ययम् ॥ (Bhagvad Gita 14.5)
sattvaṁ rajastama iti guṇā: prakr̥tisambhavā: | nibadhnanti mahābāho dehe dehinamavyayam ॥ (Bhagvad Gita 14.5)
Thus, when Ayurveda discusses about Atma, Karma and Moksha; acharyas have described the process of Moksha at the level of mind and soul.
मोक्षो रजस्तमोऽभावात् बलवत्कर्मसङ्क्षयात् | वियोगः सर्वसंयोगैरपुनर्भव उच्यते ॥ (Char. Samh. 1.142)
mokṣo rajastamo'bhāvāt balavatkarmasaṅkṣayāt | viyogaḥ sarvasaṁyogairapunarbhava ucyate ॥ (Char. Samh. 1.142)
Meaning: It is stated that Moksha is achieved only after annihilation of effects of potent past actions/deeds and when there is absence of rajas and tamas in the mind. At this stage there is detachment of sharira, manas, indriyas and atma. This is a state after which there is no more physical or mental contacts. Further there is no process of rebirth. Thus presence or absence of Tamas plays important role in the process of Moksha. The role of Sattva in the process of moksha has also been explicitly described by the acharya Charaka as below,
रजस्तमोभ्यां युक्तस्य संयोगोऽयमनन्तवान् | ताभ्यां निराकृताभ्यां तु सत्त्ववृद्ध्या निवर्तते ॥ (Char Samh 1.36)
rajastamobhyāṁ yuktasya saṁyogo'yamanantavān | tābhyāṁ nirākr̥tābhyāṁ tu sattvavr̥ddhyā nivartate ॥ (Char Samh 1.36)
It is stated that along with annihilation of rajas and tamas, upsurge in Sattva is the key for liberation or salvation. Until and unless the rajas and tamas are present, they keep on generating attachment of soul to the material existence and inhibit the process of moksha.
- Ashtang Samgraha (Sutrasthanam Adhyayam 1 Sutram 29)
- Sushruta Samhita (Sutrasthanam Adhyayam 35 Sutram 38)
- Ashtang Hrudayam (Sutrasthanam Adhyaya 1 Sutram 121)
- Charaka Samhita (Nidanasthanam Adhyayam 1 Sutram 4)
- Sushruta Samhita (Sharirasthanam Adhyayam 4 Sutram 35)
- Charaka Samhita (Sharirsthanam Adhyaya 1 Sutram 142)
- Charaka Samhita (Sharirsthanam Adhyayam 1 sutram 36)