GUṆAS . Guṇa is a Sanskrit word etymologically suggesting a "strand" or "thread," several of which when intertwined make up a rope. The term is defined and applied in numerous ways, depending on the governing systematic assumptions and/or philosophical contexts. Four of the most common usages are described below.
The guṇa s or "virtues" of an animate or inanimate object can be contrasted with its doṣa s, or "faults." This sense of the word is found in medical parlance but is not confined to that context. It is also found in Mimamsa exegesis of the merits of action, including mental and verbal activities.
Perhaps related to the foregoing, Sāṃkhya metaphysics postulates three guṇa s as the constituents of pṛakrti, or material nature. These three qualities are known as sattva, rajas, and tamas, terms that are somewhat difficult to translate into simple English. Sattva connotes the bright, light, buoyant, wise, good, transparent aspects of nature and all creations. Tamas connotes their opposites, hence what is dark, heavy, dull, bad, opaque. Rajas is viewed in Sāṃkhya as the catalytic or dynamic principle in things that accounts for all spiritual and material change and activity. According to Sāṃkhya, all substance, whether mental or physical, consists of a mixture of these three guṇa s in certain proportions. During pralaya, the period when the material universe is reabsorbed into its unmanifest state, the three guṇa s are in equilibrium. At the time of creation, that is, at the onset of another cycle of manifestation of the universe, an imbalance among the guṇa s occurs, and thus differentiation takes place.
In the Vaiśeṣika system of classification, guṇa is the name of the second of seven categories of being. A guṇa in this system is a particular characteristic of an individual substance, for example, the specific patch of color that is displayed in a certain piece of cloth at a given instant. A guṇa for Vaisesika is a fleeting quality related for only a few moments to its possessor, which must be a substance (dravya ). Particular colors, tastes, sounds, smells, and textures are guṇa s; so too are numbers, contacts and disjunctions, desires and aversions, effort and awareness, as well as karmic and memory traces.
In Jainism, guṇa is one of three inherent qualities of every material thing (pudgala ). Each bit of matter is a dravya possessing certain kinds of features (guṇa s) that are presented in various modes (paryāya s). Thus a guṇa in Jainism is not substantial, as Sāṃkhya guṇa s are, but neither is it adventitious or evanescent, as are Vaisesika guṇa s. A Jain guṇa is a generic feature of the kind of substance comprising an individual object—earthy, hot, and so forth. The quantitative and qualitative variations of these features are their modes.
Sāṃkhya interpretations of guṇa s are reviewed in Gerald James Larson's Classical Sāṃkhya: An Interpretation of Its History and Meaning, 2d ed. (Santa Barbara, Calif., 1979). For the views of the Vaiśeṣikas, see Indian Metaphysics and Epistemology: The Tradition of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣka up to Gaṅgeśa, volume 2 of the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, edited by Karl H. Potter (Princeton, N. J., 1977). Jain views are discussed in Padmanabh S. Jaini's The Jaina Path of Purification (Berkeley, Calif., 1979).
Karl H. Potter (1987)