“Then, after hearing that the success of the mission lay with Hanuman, and knowing Hanuman very well, Raghava reflected.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 44.8)
Hearing from Sugriva, the great-monkey king, of Hanuman’s virtues, abilities and attributes, Shri Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, pondered the idea of all hope for success resting in the efforts of a singular entity. The task at hand was quite a daunting one: the rescue of a missing princess who was taken by someone who didn’t want to be found. The criminal was both wise and powerful enough to remain hidden from sight, so discovering his hideaway location would not be easy. Moreover, after being discovered, such a miscreant surely would take whatever steps necessary to ensure that his secret location remained concealed from the purview of others. Thus the reconnaissance mission at hand required the most adept of intelligence agents, the most powerful, deliberate, wise and sincere of servants. Prior to making a final judgment, Lord Rama pondered the matter over, taking into account the various attributes possessed by Hanuman, characteristics that were known to Rama through His own dealings with the great Vanara and which had also just been extolled by Sugriva.
Who is Lord Rama? In the Vedic tradition, the Supreme Absolute Truth is described in different ways, but ultimately He is taken to be a person, or purusha. A personality is not limited to possessing a human body, but rather He can assume any type of vigraha, or form. Purusha represents the individual spiritual spark, the basis for identity. Matter, or prakriti, is dull and incapable of movement, change and even the ability to leave byproducts. Purusha is the essence of life, and since all life comes from the Almighty, it would make sense that He too is a purusha. Since His spiritual qualities transcend darkness, or ignorance, He is known as Purushottama. The Supreme Person is full of form, knowledge and bliss, and due to His causeless mercy, He kindly appears on earth in the guise of a living entity from time to time. Sometimes the Lord descends as a fish, a boar, a turtle, and even as a lion-like figure. But since we are in the human species - the most advanced of material bodies due solely to the increased potential for intelligence - we give more attention to the human-like incarnations of the Lord. Rama was one such avatara who appeared on earth many thousands of years ago.
The Supreme Absolute Truth is described as both nirguna and saguna in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India. Nirguna means without gunas, or material qualities. Another translation for guna is “rope”, or that which binds. The living entities in the material world are pure spirit souls at the core, but since they are covered up by material qualities, they are deemed conditioned. The different gunas of goodness, passion and ignorance lead to various changes, both beneficial and harmful and subtle and visible, to the living entity. The Supreme Lord created the material world and its gunas, so He can never become subject to the forces of nature. Therefore He is described as nirguna, or without material qualities. Yet such a description doesn’t mean that He is formless. We know from Vedic information that the Absolute Truth’s hands and legs are far-reaching. His hearing and seeing abilities are also unmatched. God has a form, one that is transcendental; it transcends the modes of material nature.
Since it is impossible for the living entities in the conditioned state to conceive of the true reach and scope of the Lord’s transcendental form, the Supreme Absolute Truth kindly takes various forms in the material world. These forms are referred to as saguna since they are perceived to have qualities. It must be said that the Lord can never associate with matter. For the individual, there is a difference between matter and spirit. Spirit is Brahman, which is full of knowledge, while matter is maya, or that which is not Brahman. But since the Lord is the fountainhead of both Brahman and maya, He can never associate with anything inferior or binding. His incarnations and their deity representations are described as saguna because they appear to possess material qualities to the ordinary living entity. The individual is incapable of properly offering service to the Lord’s original spiritual body. We know from the Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic texts that the Lord’s body is infinitely large. So how can we offer our respects and obeisances to something we can’t even conceive of? Due to the kind mercy of the Supreme Spirit, He appears in His saguna forms to provide a glimpse of what His original form looks like.
The saguna manifestations, such as those of Lord Rama, Lord Krishna and Lord Vishnu that appear in the material world, also serve to remove any doubt about the transcendental form of the Lord. Nirguna, or the unmanifested aspect of the Absolute Truth is a little tricky to understand, and there is every chance of misinterpretation by those who only seek to understand this aspect of the Divine. The saguna forms, however, help to remove all doubt. Goswami Tulsidas, the beloved devotee of Shri Hari, another name for the personality of Godhead, gives a great analogy to help us understand the difference between the two aspects. Tulsidas says that nirguna is akin to the numeral representation of a number, while saguna is the representation of the same number but written out in letters and words. When doing business with banks or other parties, a person will write the amount of the transaction on the check using numerals. However, just to make sure there is no funny business, the person will also write out the same amount in words.
“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.5)
This analogy illustrates how the nirguna aspect of the Supreme Absolute Truth can be easily misunderstood. The greatest misinterpretation occurs when the living entity takes himself to be the Absolute Truth. Understanding that God has a formless aspect, the conditioned living entity can make the mistake of thinking that there is no Personality of Godhead and that each individual is God Himself. The saguna forms remove the confusion by exposing all the chicanery and trickery employed by the impersonalist philosophers who take Brahman, or the blissful light emanating from the transcendental body of the Personality of Godhead, to be the ultimate realization while ignoring the words of Bhagavan found in texts like the Bhagavad-gita. The analogy to the monetary transaction is appropriate because with numbers it is very easy to change a numeral or transpose a decimal to get a completely new number. For example, if we write a check for $1,000.00, simply adding a zero in the middle can change the value to $10,000.00. But when the same amount is written in the word form of “one thousand dollars”, it becomes much more difficult to manipulate. The string “ten thousand dollars” looks much different than “one thousand dollars”. Therefore the saguna forms are more important to worship because they give a glimpse of the Supreme Lord’s transcendental forms that exist in the spiritual world. In fact, the saguna forms are non-different from the original; that is the magic of the Supreme Lord. Indeed, those who understand the saguna form automatically realize the true nature of Brahman, just as one who knows the properties of the sun automatically gains a better understanding of the sunshine.
When the Supreme Personality of Godhead appeared on earth as the pious prince named Rama, not only did mankind get to see His saguna form, but they also got to witness His joy-evoking activities. After these transcendental pastimes were enacted, devotees talked about them and wrote down their accounts in books. One of the more famous incidents from Rama’s life involved His friendship with the monkeys residing in Kishkindha. Rama’s beautiful and chaste wife, Sita Devi, had been kidnapped by a demon while she was residing in the forest with Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana. Not knowing where she had gone, Rama made His way to the Kishkindha forest, where He ended up forming an alliance with the king of Vanaras, Sugriva, who agreed to help Rama find Sita.
Since no one had any idea where the princess was, Sugriva decided to divide his massive monkey army up into teams. Each team would scour a different corner of the earth. But in the end, right before the great egress of monkeys, Sugriva took shelter of Hanuman, his chief warrior. He knew that Hanuman would be the one to find Sita, for amongst the monkeys, he had a monopoly on all the characteristics necessary to complete the task. After hearing the virtues of Hanuman, who had actually helped forge the alliance between Sugriva and Rama, the Supreme Lord pondered over the idea. He took stock of Hanuman’s attributes and the words uttered by Sugriva.
Rama didn’t have to think long. He had seen Hanuman’s attributes on display already. The Supreme Lord is antaryami, or the witness of everything, so He already knew what Hanuman was capable of. Hanuman would indeed prove himself to be more than up to the task. He would find Sita’s whereabouts, battle the attacking Rakshasas, set fire to Ravana’s city of Lanka and return the relevant information to Sugriva and Rama. Hanuman’s behavior proves that the representatives of the Lord are placed into just the right situations through Divine arrangement. The ascension of a spiritual master or pure devotee to prominence is no accident. After all, the Supreme Lord knows what He’s doing.
The conditioned living entities mired in a perpetual cycle of reincarnation fueled by material desires need guidance in life. We may have an inclination towards spiritual life, but that tendency gets thwarted if we remain in the association of those who have other interests. An individual’s primary desire in life essentially represents their dharma. Dharma is an occupational duty or an essential characteristic. Whatever condition a person deems as their ultimate favorable one will then determine the nature of their activities. Thus dharma can be relative in the eyes of the conditioned living entity. The Vedas tell us that there is really only one dharma, that of service to the Supreme. Since the living entities are eternally linked to the original Divine Entity, there is a natural inclination towards that service lying deep within the recesses of the heart.
“Whatever action is performed by a great man, common men follow in his footsteps. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.21)
Society tends to work in a pack mentality. What one leader does, others will follow. Going against the grain is not an easy thing, so if we have an inclination towards rekindling our forgotten relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, it may not be so easy to take the necessary steps in the beginning stages. Therefore, we require the association of a saint, someone who is fearless in their execution of devotional service. The ultimate dharma, that occupational duty that ignites the fire for performing unalloyed and uninterrupted loving service to the Supreme, is bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service. The purified saint, the bona fide representative of the Personality of Godhead, takes this dharma to be their way of life. No person can convince them otherwise. Even if the entire world is against the practice of this sublime engagement, the saint will never deviate from their service. Shri Hanuman is one such unabashed lover of Godhead.
The greatest benediction in life is to have the association of one who is dedicated to the Supreme Lord in every thought, word, and deed. If we happen to come across such a blessed soul by meeting them in person or reading their books, we should consider ourselves highly favored by the man upstairs. We should also keep in mind that such a devotee was specifically empowered by the Supreme Lord to execute their service. Hanuman’s acts of bravery exhibited in his loving service of Shri Rama were no accident. Before any definite plans were agreed upon for Sita’s rescue, the Lord carefully pondered over the matter and accurately deciphered that Hanuman would be successful in the most important of missions. For the living entities conditioned in the material world, the most difficult task is that of crossing over the ocean of nescience, going from the material world to the spiritual world. The devotee of the Lord, the fearless servant, is the via-medium, the only person who can help us cross this ocean. By always remaining in their association through following their example and instruction, all our doubts and inhibitions harbored towards the validity of the imperishable engagement of devotional service will be quickly removed, thus allowing for a peaceful return to the imperishable realm of the transcendentally and blissfully situated Supreme Lord.