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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2013  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 15-20

Triguna as personality concept: Guidelines for empirical research

1 Department of Psychology, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
2 Division of Yoga-Spirituality, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
3 Division of Yoga and Physical Sciences, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Date of Web Publication21-Dec-2013

Correspondence Address:
Judu V Ilavarasu
19, Eknath Bhavan, Gavipuram Circle, K.G. Nagar, Bengaluru - 560 019, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2347-5633.123287

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In the East triguna is considered an important personality concept. Compared to western models of personality, triguna is less popular globally. Even in the East, research on triguna is scarce. Interest in the area peaked in the 1970s when theoretical works led to the development of several questionnaires. However, practical use of these tools failed to take off. Triguna research remains sporadic, strongly suggesting a lack of channelized work. The new tools, which were developed are also not much used. Apart from psychology, in recent times, management research has taken to investigating triguna and other related constructs like karma yoga. Considering the current situation of triguna research, if guidelines were drawn up, researchers would have a direction to guide their studies, at least for coming few years and be able to contribute incrementally to the field. This paper is presented in light of these considerations. We discuss the concept of triguna, characteristics of a successful personality theory and challenges in triguna research, in light of which we propose a set of eight guidelines to assist future research in the field. In addition, we discuss some of the new tools emerging from mainstream psychology, which may also be used in triguna research. Hopefully, we may look forward to some major landmarks of evidences for the triguna construct, over the coming period of time.

Keywords: Empirical research, guidelines, Samkhya, Triguna, yoga

How to cite this article:
Ilavarasu JV, Mohan S, Hankey A. Triguna as personality concept: Guidelines for empirical research. Int J Yoga - Philosop Psychol Parapsychol 2013;1:15-20

How to cite this URL:
Ilavarasu JV, Mohan S, Hankey A. Triguna as personality concept: Guidelines for empirical research. Int J Yoga - Philosop Psychol Parapsychol [serial online] 2013 [cited 2024 Feb 21];1:15-20. Available from: https://www.ijoyppp.org/text.asp?2013/1/1/15/123287

  Introduction Top

Psychologists have been the most active group in personality research. Though personality is an important domain in psychology, development of personality theories within psychology was not smooth. Its acceptance in mainstream psychology has always been a challenge. In the west personality researchers had a reputation of being atheoretical and vague, not sticking to the disciplines of the mainstream psychology. [1] Hence, development of personality theories was a struggle. In India, some models of personality are prevalent, though not taken seriously in the west. Here, we present and discuss a classic Eastern model of personality-triguna.

The total number of papers published on triguna is relatively small. Interest in guna research has waxed and waned, growing stronger in the 1970s and then declining (Google NGram). [2] There are more books than scientific articles explaining gunas, the majority are from the field of philosophy. In earlier days, the development of tools (questionnaires) to assess triguna was the prime focus. [3],[4],[5],[6] One overriding issue is the scarcity of studies using these questionnaires to study human behavior in different contexts. [7],[8],[9],[10] Nor have they been used to explore other constructs, in the way the big five has been used to correlate with mindfulness, [11] etc., indicating that triguna has not yet gained the attention of researchers in the field, not even among researchers in yoga, for which the construct is particularly relevant.

The current state of triguna research presents the background for the present paper, a critical analysis and description of the concept of guna with emphasis on possible guidelines for the next stages of research in the field. The intention of this paper is to suggest further direction to triguna research incorporating emerging research techniques from other discipline. We have attempted to describe, certain aspects of triguna concept, which are essential for designing empirical studies. We have discussed the characteristics of a good personality theory and have identified challenges in triguna research. From all this, we have drawn few guidelines to conduct empirical research in triguna. This has been presented in three stages based on priority of importance. We have also commented on what has been done already in each stage and what can to be done in the future. All these factors, we believe would give researchers a good direction to conduct their studies.

  Triguna as Personality Concept Top

Our goal in this section is not to give a detailed account of the concept of triguna, which has been done already in the literature. [5],[6],[12] Various ways in which triguna was conceptualized by various researchers was also analyzed. [13] However, we present certain important concepts inspired from the scriptures, which might help us figure out the area where we need to focus to conduct empirical research. These are authors' understanding about the concept triguna and the discussion might appear non-scientific for the want of scientific evidences; nonetheless, we present it here to draw our empirical guidelines. From a personality perspective, triguna is considered as a set of three basic types of tendency. Sattva, rajas and tamas are the three components. Each of these gunas is characterized by its own properties. Triguna is basically a tendency of expression of behavior. Depending upon the observed behavioral characteristic we can assess the guna, which propelled that action. The element of freedom also decreases from sattva to rajas to tamas. The tamas is the state of maximum inertia, rajas drives the activity with attachment and associated excitement and misery. Sattva is a state of equilibrium and least agitation of mind. Even in sattva state the bondage is present though the freedom is also available to a greater extent.

According to Samkhya (one of the six schools of Vedic philosophy), the three gunas are balanced in the unmanifest form of prakriti. When it moves to the manifest form, it happens with the imbalance of the triguna.[14] It is this triguna, with a spectrum of qualities, which pervades throughout the creation. Hence, it is considered the basic fabric of creation. [15] Although taking birth, a person takes up a particular combination of gunas according to his previous births' experiences or samskaras (pregenetic disposition [16] ) and very specifically according to his prarabdha karma (a part of the total karma, called sanchita karma, which has already started working on a person in this birth), which has to be exhausted taking this birth. Importantly, he is responsible for the kind of guna that he possesses. However, once the combination of the gunas is determined, it strongly binds the person in this birth. They almost guide every behavior of his. How does a particular guna emerge at a given time? What factors determine that? Why gunas are required? These are some of the common questions. Basically, we are propelled to exhaust our karmas by involving in action. This fruition of the fruits of karma starts from our samskaras (all the impressions of our previous experiences, including earlier births). Our samskaras create a desire, which is an attempt of expression of samskaras. This expression of desire requires certain vehicle to convey and that can be attributed as gunas. Gunas are the means through which our samskaras are expressed in terms of thoughts of desires, which impel us into action. There are deeper implications to this. As the impetus of samskaras cannot be suppressed; similarly, inhibition of expression of behaviors through one of the gunas or through any of their combinations is not equally possible. Like the force of gravity on earth, the laws of gunas are always acting on us, hence we cannot neglect them, so the best approach would be to understand them and use them according to our needs.

When a particular samskara finds suitable environment outside, for its expression that samskara would emerge and manifest itself. This gives the reason, why a particular thought must arise in our mind at a given time or situation? Time and situation provide congruent environmental support for the expression of samskaras. We can control the manifestation of samskaras by controlling the inner nature or by carefully choosing the external environment. That is the reason, it is considered very important to have a congenial environment for one's growth, because a good external environment might inhibit the emergence of ill samskaras and promote manifestation of good samskaras. Once the samskaras manifest, they happen through one of the gunas. This conceptual framework can be further expanded to incorporate the element of free will as attempted in [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Model of Karma, Guna, Samskara and free will, in action

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The prarabdha Karma, which is available for fruition in this birth, activates samskaras according to the influence of the environment including imagination from memory. as a samskara gets activated, it creates a desire. Desire propels a person into action. the expression of the action happens through gunas. Before action is actually executed, there is an element of "free will," which is the inherent capacity to execute choices. Action can be executed with or without free will. Action with maximum utility of free will leads to no bondage and that is gunateeta state. Here, influence of vijnanamaya kosha is maximum. However, the less we use our degree of free will, owing to the dominance of manomaya kosha or influence of our emotions, more will be the bondage as at this level raga (likes) and dwesha (dislikes) operates fully. Actions with decreasing gradation of free will cause bondage and strengthen further samskaras. Such actions are expressed through one of the possible combinations of the gunas. Hence, the key to freedom from actions is action without attachment by consciously using the free will, with awareness. Use of free will decide whether an action will lead to further bondage or freedom

The presented line of argument would help to discover whether guna should be given a status of trait or state construct to dichotomise would be very difficult at this stage; however, it should be possible to predict the amount of trait feature and state feature by assessing the behavior. If the behavior can be predicted by previously known guna factors, then it is more likely to have trait quality, whereas, if previously known guna factors do not predict new behavior then that behavior is more likely to get influenced by state features which are more transient. From the developmental point of view, it is reasonable to assume that any drastic change in the environment would influence the expression of the gunas. This would give direction to study gunas across the human life span

For scientific investigation, the internal factor cannot be accommodated easily as it is more of a philosophical discussion and doing an experiment under laboratory conditions may not be that feasible. However, the second factor, external environment, can be manipulated in a controlled setup. However, it is a real challenge to estimate the percentage of variance contributed by each of these factors.

  Characteristics of Personality Theory Top

According to Hall et al., the essence of a personality theory should consist of a set of assumptions concerning human behavior together with empirical definitions. It should be relatively comprehensive and should be able to predict behavior in a wide range of situations. Many of the existing western theories of personality do not satisfy all these conditions and have their own inherent limitations. Temporal and trans-situational consistencies are the most desirable criteria for considering a personality theory successful. [1]

Traditionally, personality has been explored as a trait concept, something, which is the characteristic feature of a person and quite durable. When durable characteristics, trait, is sought, the idea of the dynamic structure of personality is seriously neglected. We tend to assume that the characteristic features of a person should not change over a short span of time. This altogether neglects the possibility of phenomenal transformations, which people can undergo due to various factors. We emphasize that use of free will should be a determinant in the exploration of the gunas. We may not have developed a valid and reliable tool to assess free will, but it currently deserves all focus and attention. Associated research in the areas of self-concept and locus of control might give valuable insights.

A related feature of triguna, which is less mentioned, is the idea of gunateeta, the possibility of transcending gunas. This may happen, the scriptures suggest, when inner freedom has been consciously utilized to realize the highest human potential. The experience of an "inner space" in which a person can modify reactions or make decisions is not uncommon. By the term inner freedom or free will, we mean the state of being aware of our thoughts and actions, witnessing them uninvolved emotionally or cognitively and experiencing the "inner space." This brings out the important feature of the conditional existence of triguna. Gunas do not always determine the behavior, since it may be possible to transcend them. In such states, actions are not impulsively exhibited, but are consciously guided by the "will." We suggest that unconscious determinants may have less influence on behavior under such conditions.

  Challenges in Guna Research Top

Guna theory of personality currently does not possess all the characteristics required of an ideal personality theory. Its ability to predict behavior under a wide variety of situations is yet to be verified. Hence, further research is required in this direction. Some practical questions which guna researchers need to address are now discussed.

  Can Abnormal Behavior be Explained using Gunas? Top

This represents a practical challenge for guna researchers. Many western theories are successfully applied to understand abnormal behavior and treatment modalities are developed using those models. The Freudian model, social learning model, etc., are some examples. From the triguna perspective, a subject which is explored extensively in Ayurveda and which we shall treat in a subsequent article, extreme gunas may be considered as predictors of unusual or abnormal behavior. According to the Ayurvedic text, Charaka Samhita (Sutrasthana, chapter 1, sutras, 57), rajas and tamas are considered as mental doshas (defects). Sattva is considered as a state of equilibrium. Furthermore, the sutra 58 says mental disorders can be overcome by right knowledge, boldness, memory and yogic practices like samadhi. In chapter 11, sutra 47 stresses moderation in life-style as therapy for mental disorders. [17] Hence, directions can be sought from such classical Ayurvedic texts for addressing the issue of abnormal behaviors. Further research needs to be done to clearly identify how particular gunas produce abnormal influences on behavior.

  Are Gunas Trait or State Characteristics? Top

This is another challenging question. From the perspective of personality psychology, gunas are considered more durable and lasting in a person, if the element of inner freedom is not used to consciously override behavior. This means that the majority of the people, who are propelled into action without using their inner freedom, are more likely to express trait aspects of guna. The behavior of those who consciously try to use their inner freedom may be less predictable as they may consciously override inner tendencies to behave constructively. Given an element of inner freedom, therefore, gunas may be both trait and state, with predominance requiring judgment according to context. In general, the gunas are considered as a trait concept. In Ayurvedic text also it can be found that personality is described as 16 types, seven sattva, six rajas and three tamas, which are majorly trait characteristics. [17] If experimental studies are conducted keeping the state aspect into the framework, influence of situational factors on behavior can be studied. With our current understanding, we propose that state gunas are influenced by the immediate effects of a given situational action, however if they are continually reinforced, they would become more durable trait quality. We suggest future researches consider this aspect of dynamic flux of state and trait gunas, which were not addressed earlier.

  Can Global or Contextual Prediction be Made? Top

Prediction is the ultimate gold standard for a successful personality theory. Can guna theory be used to predict general behavior of humans? Can it be used to predict specific contextual behavior such as in a crisis, in an interview, in a classroom, etc., Various situations may evoke different responses. Triguna theory is not put into these tests. Hence, finding predictive validity may be given attention in future studies.

  Influence of Free will in Expression of Gunas Top

As intimated earlier, free will, should be considered when assessing gunas as a potential moderator variable between gunas and behavior. Influence of free will may cause completely different expression of the gunas. This would be the most challenging part of guna research. Other related constructs, which can be studied are self-concept (opinion about one's own self) and locus of control (how much a person is internally or externally guided in making decisions). To study triguna incorporating free will, these constructs may offer useful strategies. An attempt should be made to integrate free will concept into the framework of triguna.

  Group Variation versus Individual Difference Top

These are the two ways of looking at people in personality research. In personality research, more focus is given to individual difference. Hence, guna theory should be able to distinguish individual differences. Group variations also need to be studied as a part of organizational setup, or classroom setup, etc., and should give guidance to categorize people. Group behavior may be quite different from individual behavior as there are many more external factors, which determine group behavior. Triguna theory must bring these aspects of social psychology to experimental field.

  Cross-Cultural Variations Top

Though triguna is considered as universal, in manifestation and expression, it would be interesting to study any cross-cultural difference in expression of guans. Whether certain aspects of gunas are more dominant in particular societies or groups would require global cross-cultural studies. Such findings can help to address psychological and social issues better, considering the nature of society or group. Planning of health interventions or public activities can also be guided by this knowledge.

  Operational Definition Top

Finally, operational definition should be concisely formulated to target particular aspects of gunas proposed for measurement. Operational definition gives direction to the formulation of precise hypotheses. The challenge involved here is that each guna is a combination of various individual constructs. For example, rajas is expressed as passion, anxiety, jealousy, etc., which are psychological constructs in themselves. Combining them and presenting them as a single construct would be inappropriate. Hence, the operational definition would help the researcher define what aspect of the triguna is being assessed. Once a clear hypothesis is formulated, further investigation becomes easier.

  Guidelines for Empirical Research Top

Based on the above points, we would like to discuss guidelines for future guna research in three stages, arranged in order of priority. Note that no work has been done in these areas, but critical examination of what has been done, helps in gaining insights into what may be best done in the future.

  Stage One: Drawing Clear Theoretical Framework of Triguna Top

In any research, the foremost step is to make basic concepts clear, in this case, triguna. What does triguna mean in terms of personality? Apte's Sanskrit dictionary gives 31 different meanings of the word guna, [18] here when we talk about triguna, a personality concept, we essentially mean sattva, rajas and tamas. They are the three different modes with which a person expresses his inner tendencies as behavior. The concept of triguna is mainly discussed in the Bhagavad Gita [15],[19] and in the Samkhya Karika. [14] There are three gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is characterized by knowledge, illumination, serenity, compassion, etc., Rajas is characterized by passion, arrogance, jealousy, etc., Tamas is characterised by drowsy, sleepy, lazy, etc., These characteristics are like constructs in psychology. In order to assess them using a suitable tool, we must define them. Hence, the operational definition of the gunas is very essential. To operationally define gunas, the abstract constructs must be translated to measurable framework. Finally, ontological validation gives the study of gunas a scientific status and acceptance. Ontological validations focuses on systematizing the construct triguna hierarchically and express its interrelationships with other similar constructs.

Works related to this stage have been done in a scattered way and more research needs to be done focusing on each element of the theoretical framework.

  Stage Two: Nature of Research Questions for Validation of Gunas Top

In the next stage various theoretical proposals are put to the test. Theoretical works should be promoted in order to have good ontological validation of the construct. For this literary, study must be promoted. In this regard one point to be noted is that though the work is being carried out in various other disciplines, researchers are working independently of experimentalists. For example, they are quite often Sanskrit scholars who would do intense literary research. However, there is no connecting link between them and the experimentalists so that those conceptual ideas can be taken into empirical studies.

To conduct empirical research, the first thing that comes to our mind is the tools that should be used to assess gunas. Toward this, substantial work has been done majorly to develop questionnaires to assess gunas. There are about a dozen questionnaires to assess gunas. These guna questionnaires were mostly developed in 70s and 80s, mainly from India. The Vedic Personality Inventory developed by David Wolf, [20] developed in the western population, is one of the most rigorously validated questionnaires until date, in which the author has used statistical procedure called factor analysis for validation. The most recently developed tool is the Mysore Triguna Scale developed by Shilpa et al. [21] In this work, the authors have attempted to develop scales both based on triguna and on tridosha, an Ayurvedic concept to classify people based on their prakriti.

The recent development in the field of social psychology is the introduction of implicit tools to assess various constructs. Implicit cognition is becoming popular and is widely accepted among researchers. The basic premise is that there are many determinants of our behavior, which we are not quite aware of their influencing mechanism, are predominantly unconscious, but still capable of exerting a strong influence on the behavior of an individual. Implicit tools can be used majorly under two conditions: 1) when there is a chance of self-presentation bias and 2) when the construct itself is difficult to self-report, though the subject wants to honestly report them. [22] The construct guna may have both these features, especially the domain sattva. People may tend to project themselves more sattvic than what they actually think implicitly. Such distinctions can be addressed by use of implicit tools. Moreover, for the want of deeper self-introspection, many times it might be difficult to self-report gunas. Hence, the use of implicit tools for guna research would be the further step in the experimental validation of the construct, triguna.

Then comes the confirmatory studies and replication studies. The hallmark of any science is reproducibility. Hence, evidence, (weaker or stronger) as soon as obtained must be taken to the next step of reproducibility. If more number of independent studies is showing evidence of construct validity and predictive validity, no doubt the concept would be taken to practical field; else it would always remain in the domain of academic research. The most powerful evidences would be gathered if predictive experiments are conducted in which behavior can be predicted on the basis of the concepts of gunas as assessed by the measuring tools.

  Stage Three: Integration with Other Contemporary Theories Top

Once the construct is well-grounded and well-established, its relationship with other relevant constructs must be explored. Like the relationship between gunas, spiritual well-being, mindfulness, etc., These correlational studies would pave the way toward understanding the interrelationship between different constructs. This is a step before simplification and unification of the theory. As mentioned earlier, a theory's success is evaluated more on its utilitarian ground and hierarchical structure inside a theory is more guided by utilitarian basis. For example, anger and anxiety are two different constructs according to the western psychology and indeed they can be shown to be two distinct constructs, may be partially overlapping. Researchers are however, able to distinguish people having these different characteristics and hence this classification has functional utility. On one side, our attempt to find a simpler classification of personality, should not affect our functional classification. We may tend to think of the big five to simple three (gunas); however, we should not overlook the contributions of big five and other such similar theories. Unlike the big five, triguna may fail to emerge as a construct having three independent domains. In fact, the theory itself suggests the possibility of overlap and gradation of gunas based on the three primary gunas. Hence, triguna should be considered with its own distinguished characteristics.

  Summary of Three Stages Top

We summarize by drawing the following guidelines for future work in gunas:

  1. Theoretical framework and ontology validation of gunas must be attempted, including the role of free will
  2. Operational definition must be stated clearly in each study
  3. Valid and reliable tools to assess gunas must be promoted and use of the existing tools must be encouraged further
  4. Implicit tools of assessing gunas must be initiated as it might give new dimensions of guna concepts
  5. More statistically intense procedures must be used such as dimensional reduction and factor analysis
  6. Confirmatory and replication study must be conducted to add stronger evidences
  7. Integration with other contemporary theories
  8. Cross-cultural variations must be studied for guna construct.

Most of these guidelines may appear to be a general outline for any field of research, however even adherence of such general guidelines is found to be poor in the literature. We also suggest a specific guideline, like the use of implicit measures for guna research which might give insight into the unconscious domain.

  Conclusion Top

We conclude that the guidelines drawn in this paper would help researchers to identify what best can be done for guna research. Practical guidelines for research methodology would also help to make empirical studies. We hope this basic framework would be available for further expansion and refinement.

  Acknowledgment Top

We thank Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana Yoga University for supporting this work.

  References Top

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9.Bhal KT, Debnath N. Conceptualizing and measuring gunas: Predictors of workplace ethics of Indian professionals. Int J Cross Cult Manage 2006;6:169-88.  Back to cited text no. 9
10.Sebastian KA, Mathew GV. Three gunas and psi experience: A study of psi experience in relation to inertia, activation and stability. J Indian Psychol 2002;20:44-8.  Back to cited text no. 10
11.Giluk TL. Mindfulness, Big five personality, and affect: A meta-analysis. Pers Individ Dif 2009;47:805-11.  Back to cited text no. 11
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13.Salagame KK. Indian indigenous concepts and perspectives: Developments and future possibilities. In: Misra G, editor. Psychology in India. Theoretical and Methodological Developments. Vol. 4. New Delhi: Pearson; 2011. p. 126-8.  Back to cited text no. 13
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