According to the ancient Indian thought system of Sankhya, people are composed of three “qualities,” (three gunas)—sattva (purity), rajas (energy), and tamas (inertia)—which, in their specific mixture, are the basis of a person’s personality (Dasgupta 1930; Jha 2008). According to Sankhya, people with a high level of sattva are balanced and mindful, frequently experience positive emotions, and are satisfied with their lives. They are enthusiastic and persevering. People with a high level of rajas frequently feel stressed and sorrowful; they are often restless and dissatisfied, pursue money and status, and tend to be selfish in social relationships. Finally, people with a high level of tamas lack enthusiasm and energy. They are pessimistic and postpone tasks and problem solving; they frequently experience negative emotions and are dissatisfied with their lives. However, the mixture of the three qualities is not seen as stable and the aim should be to increase the level of sattva: Only if sattva is dominant will a person be able to achieve well-being and higher spiritual aims.
Empirical evidence, mostly collected by Indian psychologists, indicates some connections between the concept of the three gunas on the one side and issues of illness, psychological well-being, and spirituality on the other. The results of this research are broadly supportive of the Hindu assumptions (for an overview, see Puta and Sedlmeier 2014). For example, sattva correlated positively with experiencing positive emotions and self-discipline (Hopkins 2003), short-term memory and concentration (Sitamma 2005), personal effectiveness and self- actualizing behavior (Kaur and Sinha 1992), and daily spiritual experiences (Stempel et al. 2006), and negatively with impulsiveness, neuroticism, and a vulnerability to stress (Hopkins 2003), attention and thought problems, aggressive behavior (Archana Das and Venu Gopal 2009), phobic anxiety, and feelings of personal inferiority and inadequacy (Stempel et al. 2006).
Studies have also demonstrated the negative effect of dominant rajas and/or tamas on health. Both rajas and tamas correlate positively with attention and thought problems (Archana Das and Venu Gopal 2009), a vulnerability to stress, neuroticism, angry hostility, and impulsiveness (Hopkins 2003), and anxiety (Stempel et al. 2006), and negatively with the frequent experience of positive emotions and self-discipline (Hopkins 2003) and daily spiritual experiences (Stempel et al. 2006). Furthermore, studies show that tamas correlates positively with occupational stress (Daftuar and Anjuli 1997), psychoticism, depression, and phobic anxiety (Stempel et al. 2006), aggressive behavior, and somatic problems (Archana Das and Venu Gopal 2009), and negatively with short-term memory and concentration (Sitamma 2005). In a recent study, Puta and Sedlmeier (2015) found further evidence of the relatedness of the gunas to well-being: Sattva correlated positively and rajas and tamas negatively with life- satisfaction, positive emotions, physical well-being, work engagement, and calmness, whereas sattva correlated negatively and rajas and tamas positively with depressiveness, stress, anger, and tumultuousness.
Several questionnaires have been developed to measure the concept of the gunas but their quality is poor. All the questionnaires (with one exception: Shilpa and Murthy 2012) have operationalized only part of the theoretical model. Furthermore, only two attempts have been made to examine the factor structure of the questionnaires, one pointing at the need for further research (Wolf 1998) and the other yielding an extremely short 13-item scale with three factors that can each be attributed to a respective guna (Bhal and Debnath
2006). Puta and Sedlmeier (2015) attempted to overcome these limitations by constructing a questionnaire based on a complete theoretical model and by verifying its factor structure. They found that it was impossible to measure the gunas across different levels of human experience (like cognition, volition, social behavior, etc.) in one single scale composed of three factors. The differences and similarities of items of different behavioral categories seemed stronger than the differences and similarities of the three guna categories, thus distorting the factor structure. So, they developed nine separate scales for items grouped according to different aspects of behavior and experience (cognition, style of working, emotions, motives, activity level, volition, spiritual orientation, social behavior, and health). The three guna factors could be found in all nine scales.
Guna questionnaires could prove especially useful in examining the effects of meditation and other yoga practices, because the gunas play a dominant role in the theoretical basis for the Yoga Sutras. These, in turn, are an important basis of all Hindu approaches to meditation and can be meaningfully connected to Buddhism (see Sedlmeier and Srinivas 2015; Whiteman 1993).