The Different Gunas

[Rama lila]“O monkey, please discuss the glories of my dear Rama. O gentle one, like a current against a riverbank you are winning over my heart.” (Sita Devi speaking to Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 34.19)

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guṇān rāmasya kathaya priyasya mama vānara ||
cittam harasi me saumya nadī kūlam yathā rayaḥ |

The Sanskrit word guna has a few meanings. In the most common usage it is “quality.” More specifically, guna refers to a quality in the three modes of nature. There is goodness, passion and ignorance. Sort of like different scales in music, each mode has particular attributes. Behavior falls into the different gunas, as do the bodies themselves.

“Another meaning of guna is rope; it is to be understood that the conditioned soul is tightly tied by the ropes of illusion. A man bound by the hands and feet cannot free himself – he must be helped by a person who is unbound. Because the bound cannot help the bound, the rescuer must be liberated. Therefore, only Lord Krishna, or His bona fide representative the spiritual master, can release the conditioned soul.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 7.14 Purport)

[rope]When discussing the constitutional makeup of the body, guna takes on the additional definition of “rope.” A material quality is binding. It ties the individual to a perpetual cycle of birth and death. Think of it like putting on clothes in the morning, taking them off at night, and then putting on new ones again the next day. The cycle continues, except to the human eye the events appear more important than they really are. The accepting of gunas is called birth and the rejection death.

vāsāṁsi jīrṇāni yathā vihāya

navāni gṛhṇāti naro ‘parāṇi

tathā śarīrāṇi vihāya jīrṇāny

anyāni saṁyāti navāni dehī

“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.22)

Isn’t it strange that death gets compared to taking off clothes? Each person has their own perspective. We think that one hundred years is a long time to live, but certain species live for only one day. They have their own version of youth and old age. The times are relative to the species. In the same way, the relinquishing of a material body is not such a big event when considering the entire timeline of the creation. We have taken birth many times before, and we have died after each one of those births. Death will come at the end of this lifetime as well.

The gunas bind the living entity to this cycle. No matter how good the qualities may be, there is still rebirth. The different bodies have varying proportions of the three modes of nature. For instance, a demigod [celestial] is mostly in the mode of goodness. The animals are mostly in the mode of ignorance. Human beings are a mixture. We know some people who are intelligent. Others we know have a difficult time grasping basic concepts. The difference is in the makeup of the body, the gunas.

In the above referenced verse from the Ramayana, Sita Devi asks Hanuman to narrate the gunas of her husband, Shri Rama. One would assume that Rama must have gunas in goodness. If not, why would someone want to hear about them? When we sit down with our parents and ask about stories from their childhood, we don’t want to hear how bad things were. We don’t want to listen to negative things about the grandparents and uncles and aunts. We’d rather hear uplifting things, spotlighting good qualities.

The difference here is that Rama is the Supreme Lord. He is both nirguna and saguna. He is without material qualities since nothing can ever bind Him. Still, He has a personal form, which displays gunas. That form has identifiable features, and yet those features are of a different nature. When using the word guna with God, the typical translation is “glories.”

[Riverbank erosion]Rama does not have any bad traits. One way to prove that His gunas are different is to see the effect of hearing about them. Sita says that Hanuman is winning over her heart. The word chitta can also refer to the mind. She makes the comparison to the stream eroding the riverbank. The erosion doesn’t take place right away. In due time, the change occurs.

Sita’s initial reaction is skepticism. In Lanka everyone is against her husband. She can trust no one. She was brought there against her will, by a creature who could assume any shape at will, kama-rupa. But her heart is softening through the association of Hanuman, who is Rama’s messenger. More than just delivering important news to Sita, Hanuman is capable of narrating the gunas of God. He is the most qualified to do Rama-katha, or discourses about the Supreme Lord.

[Rama lila]Hearing those glories has the same effect in any age, in any situation, and to any audience. The occupation of the individual does not matter; neither does their gender. The key is to have a soft and open heart. Though Sita had raised the shield of skepticism, she is naturally very kind. The hard-hearted Ravana would not be pleased by hearing Rama’s glories. He is envious of the Supreme Lord, so Rama-katha will only cause him increased anger. Yet the benefit is there nonetheless; even if a person doesn’t realize it. Hanuman narrated the glories of Rama to Sita, and today those same glories win over the hearts of the pious.

In Closing:

Since material nature to him dear,

Not happy of Rama’s glories to hear.

For Ravana enviousness the way,

That there is no God vehemently to say.

Rama-katha beneficial still,

The air with glories of Lord to fill.

Heart of distressed Sita mollified,

By Rama-katha from speaker most qualified.



Categories: hanuman the messenger

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