“[Seeing the whipping stick in His mother’s hand,] He is crying and rubbing His eyes again and again with His two lotus hands. His eyes are filled with fear, and the necklace of pearls around His neck, which is marked with three lines like a conchshell, is shaking because of His quick breathing due to crying. To this Supreme Lord, Shri Damodara, whose belly is bound not with ropes but with His mother’s pure love, I offer my humble obeisances.” (Shri Damodarashtaka, 2)
rudantaḿ muhur netra-yugmaḿ mṛjantam
sthita-graivaḿ dāmodaraḿ bhakti-baddham
The word “guna” in Sanskrit means rope. It has other meanings as well, which are similar. In the usual context, it means a quality. When referencing the Supreme Personality of Godhead, it refers to His glories, i.e. only His good qualities. There are only good qualities in the Supreme, but for all others there is duality. Hence the qualities assumed by the individual spirit soul can become binding, sort of like a rope. Interestingly, when practicing bhakti-yoga purely, the situation turns around. It is God who gets bound up, and since He is all powerful it means that He does this voluntarily.
How can a quality be binding? Think of accepting the body of an animal. Pick your animal of choice. In whichever one you choose, intelligence is limited. You have the instinct that comes with birth. Very soon after emerging from the mother the calf knows how and where to eat. It does not need to be directed where to go; on its own it finds the udders for getting milk. The same goes for the human being even; no one tells us that we need to crawl or walk. This shows that there is some higher intelligence, which the Bhagavad-gita says comes from God.
sarvasya cāhaṁ hṛdi sanniviṣṭomattaḥ smṛtir jñānam apohanaṁ cavedaiś ca sarvair aham eva vedyovedānta-kṛd veda-vid eva cāham
“I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas am I to be known; indeed I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.15)
In the animal birth, despite the best learned behavior, there is still no ability to talk, solve math equations, or think about the extended future. There is no questioning of why there is an existence and why there has to be birth and death. The qualities are what prevent this. The animating force, the spirit soul, is the same as in the human species. We can take this on faith and also through some observation. The infant human being is not very wise, yet the same individual as an adult can do amazing things. The identity of the person does not change, so it is the qualities that make the difference. In the human species the qualities can develop to the point that the intelligence belonging to the soul gets covered up the least, whereas in the animal species the covering remains composed mostly of ignorance.
The gunas come in three varieties – goodness, passion and ignorance. In goodness, the individual can see the presence of spirit within all creatures. They are sober in thought. They know that there is more to life than just eating, sleeping, mating and defending. From the lowest quality of ignorance in the animals to the highest quality of goodness in the very wise human beings, the rope-effect is there. The gunas bind the individual to the cycle of birth and death.
It is only bhakti which grants release. Bhakti is known as pure goodness, or shudda-sattva. It is above the three gunas of a material existence. It should make sense that bhakti breaks the bounds of the material qualities. This is because the gunas only arrive when there is no bhakti. When you don’t have devotion to God, you get residence in a land of dualities. You can get whatever you want. If you can’t seem to do it through your own effort, you can ask a higher authority, all the way up to Lord Shiva. They are compelled to grant their worshipers whatever they want.
Yet the rewards will remain binding. Great strength, tremendous wealth, excellent beauty, and good scholarship will all vanish eventually. They must, in fact, since only God has these things in the greatest abundance. Only God never loses these things, either. As long as bhakti is lacking, the ropes of the material qualities will continue to bind the otherwise intelligent living entity.
Bhakti is so powerful that not only does it remove the binding effect of the material qualities, it can bind the Supreme Lord Himself. The factual example, which is symbolic at the same time, is the event that gave birth to the name Damodara. The Supreme Lord, who is a person with transcendental qualities, appears on earth every now and then, whenever He so chooses. Vrindavana is His favorite place, and Yashoda’s son is His favorite role to play. There are many reasons for this, with the primary being that the residents of Vrindavana do not want anything from Him. They simply want to love Him, and Yashoda offers that love in the mood of parental affection.
What would a parent be if they never punished their child? God is well-behaved, so when He does something naughty it is with full intelligence. He once broke a pot of yogurt in anger, which made Yashoda chase after Him. The darling Krishna, who had a necklace of pearls around His neck, scampered away in fear. But Yashoda caught Him, and as punishment she decided to bind Him to a mortar. The name Damodara means one who is bound by the belly. This name for God is celebrated in the Damodarashtaka.
That work of eight verses says that Krishna was bound by ropes of bhakti, or devotion. That devotion belonged to His mother, and the incident shows that Krishna is controlled by that devotion. He follows whatever the devotees want, for inherent in their desires is His association. This means that one who always chants the holy names has no reason to fear the binding ropes of the material qualities. Whether in a high position or a very low one, whether completely covered by ignorance or not very much so, through devotion the release from the shackles of birth and death is guaranteed.
To this world sometimes to make His way,
Yashoda’s son His favorite role to play.
As God always in behavior perfectional,
Means His breaking of yogurt pot intentional.
So that after Him Yashoda to chase,
Damodara on purpose to lose the race.
With ropes of devotion then tied,
And some tears of fear He also cried.
Of situation’s reversal to us reminding,
In bhakti gunas no more to be binding.