“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.13)
चातुर्-वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं
तस्य कर्तारम् अपि मां
विद्ध्य् अकर्तारम् अव्ययम्
cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ
tasya kartāram api māṁ
viddhy akartāram avyayam
Friend1: I know the different meanings to the Sanskrit word “guna.”
Friend2: There is more than one definition?
Friend1: Depending on the context, but two of the translations are basically identical. One says “a material quality.” The other is “rope.”
Friend2: Why are they the same?
Friend1: Because a material quality is binding like a rope.
Friend2: Why is that? How is the rope fastened?
Friend1: One side is to the individual. This is pure spirit soul, atma. Since there is the vulnerability to a conditioned state, the qualification is jivatma.
Friend2: As opposed to?
Friend1: Paramatma, but I am getting there. The other end of the rope is tied to the material world, which can also be understood as the cycle of birth and death.
Friend2: So if I have a guna or gunas, it means that I am anchored down to the floor of a surface.
Friend1: Precisely. The gunas come in three flavors: goodness, passion and ignorance. From the gunas you get what are known as varnas, which is something like a color or designation. Based on a person’s material qualities, they are suited for a particular kind of work.
Friend2: Such as warrior, administrator, teacher, laborer, and the like.
Friend1: I understand what gunas mean, so when transitioning to discussing the Supreme Lord, why is it not said that He is guna-less?
Friend2: He has material qualities? That is news to me.
Friend1: No, but the gunas take on a new translation. They mean “glories” or “transcendental attributes” when applied to the Supreme Lord.
Friend2: Yes, and you take issue with that?
Friend1: Because you are making an exception to a rule. You are saying that gunas are bad, that the individual is beyond the material qualities, and at the same time you use gunas to describe the Supreme Lord, who is the source of the spiritual and material energies.
Friend2: There are actually two relevant words here: saguna and nirguna. The understanding is based on your angle of vision. You are correct that Bhagavan does not have material qualities. That is why nirguna is an appropriate description. At the same time, He is saguna since He is not featureless.
Friend1: But are those features material qualities?
Friend2: No. They are distinguishable characteristics. He has hands, but not of the ordinary kind. He has a face, but not resembling one we have ever seen.
Friend1: Then why the saguna aspect at all? If we can’t comprehend those features, why display them?
Friend2: Because they are there. We have different descriptions for the atmospheric conditions that are based on the relative positioning of the sun. We say that the sun has set or that the sun is rising. Yet the sun is always there, no matter our point of view.
Friend1: What we say about the sun does not affect its existence.
Friend2: Exactly, and so whether we say nirguna or saguna with respect to the Supreme Lord, He is always the same. He is both guna-less and with gunas. He is larger than the largest and smaller than the smallest. He creates the system of varna and ashrama that corresponds to gunas and karma, but He is always above such a system. He has no work to do and He is never bound by any external force. He revives a similar potency in those souls dedicated to serving Him in a mood of love.
Rope and to this world bound,
Different meanings to gunas found.
Why description for God to get,
When qualities not on Him set?
Krishna both nirguna and saguna too,
With features but not like me and you.
Giving varnashrama advancement’s tool,
But never to Him applying its rule.