Three Bodies, Three Gunas

Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, encompassing both the creation and destruction of the world. His rhythm and fire burn away the dross that conceals true reality. Chola Dynasty Bronze, Tamil Nadu, India. 950-1000 CE.

Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, defined a precise methodology for psychological self-development that if followed astutely, would lead the seeker to a state of release, or moksha, freedom from the constraints of this world. This path, known as Raja Yoga, is an eight-fold approach, and involves the following elements: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, loosely translated as personal self-cultivation, various observance of lifestyle rules, achieving stability in bodily posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration and withdrawal of the mind, diffusion of personal Ego, and finally merger of self with Self, and complete release from the strictures of earthly entrapment.

Yoga ideology defines our earthly existence as being composed of three levels of experience.  While most people understand their consciousness and identity in terms of the physical body, in actuality, we have not one, but three bodies, or layers to our individual existence, once we take birth.  These three layers are what define our reality. These three bodies are considered as the physical, subtle and causal bodies, or the sthula sharira, the sukshma sharira and the karana sharira.  We are an interconnection of energetic functioning, and these three bodies operate in tandem, as well as separately from one another.  While we have a conscious understanding of our physical body, a conscious apprehension of our subtle and causal bodies is often more difficult to gain, until we begin to look at existence in a broader perspective.

Working in tandem with the three bodies of human existence are three basic levels of energetic frequency or vibration, which animate everything we see in existence.  It is understood that this phenomenal world is activated and informed by these three energy frequencies, which can be defined as sattwa, rajas, and tamas.  Sattwa is a peaceful, fine and even energy.  It is the creative force, and it unifies and connects.  It is the beauty of a flower, the evenness of our breathing, and the sense of calm, steady energy that is health and well-being.  Rajas is energetic, volatile, active and moving.  It is like fire and lightening, digestion and aggression, it is the energy that pushes things and impels us to create change and activity in our lives.  Tamas is receding, collapsing, stagnation, dormancy, and passing away. It is the period of decay and lassitude, it is like the mud in the pond that sits and stews, slow and dull. 

Everything that we see, experience, touch, feel or know is comprised of these three energies of sattwa, rajas and tamas, and it is very rare to find anything that expresses only one of these qualities exclusively.  Prakriti, or creation, expresses herself uniformly and always using the combination of these three qualities.  Sattwa can be found in times of harmony, rajas in times of sustaining an action, and tamas in the period of loss, confusion or inertia that follows the extinction of an active phase.  Sattwa and tamas will often appear to be very similar, as stillness and calmness is inherent in both qualities, but upon deeper investigation, we see that the quality of the calmness or stillness has a very different tone.  The stillness of sattwa has clarity and lightness, whereas the stillness of tamas is dull and inert, almost lifeless and heavy. 

The three qualities express themselves in time as creation, preservation and destruction.  These qualities also correspond to the primal energetic deities of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva – again, respectively, creation, preservation and destruction, expressed through Prakriti, life force.  The cycle of connectivity that combines and entwines these three energies can be called the cycle of change, or time, as Prakriti or creation implies change and time both.  Neither can be considered in existence without the other.