Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Good Name

Sita Rama and Lakshmana in the forest“I shall secure permission and follow you; the time has arrived; may the brahmanas be of truthful words.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 27)

How seriously a person values their word is one of the most important ways of judging their character. By stating that one intends to do something and then following through with that intention, one shows others that they are honorable and committed to the truth. Truthfulness leads to great honor in this world and the next. Georg Washington, the first president of the United States, was known primarily for his truthfulness, which aided in his promoting his stature.

On the converse side, one who regularly speaks falsehoods is branded with a bad reputation. Being known as a liar has a very bad stigma associated with it, and for this reason people go to great measures to protect their good name. In the publishing and media arena, there are many rules in place preventing someone from committing libel, and if one does, there are stiff penalties associated with it. If someone prints or says something defamatory or negative about someone else, the victim will often pursue litigation as a means of maintaining their good image. Wanting fame and fortune is a common trait shared by almost all people. Having a good reputation goes hand in hand with fame.

Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, as described by the Vedas, the original scriptures emanating from India. God has many different names, expansions, and forms, but Krishna is the origin of them all. When the Lord descends to the material world, He often comes as an expansion of Himself, and one of these primary expansions was Lord Rama, the most pious prince of Ayodhya. Lord Rama was born as the eldest son of Maharaja Dashrata, who was the king of Ayodhya many thousands of years ago. Dashratha was a very honest and noble king, well respected throughout the world. It is no small feat to have God take birth as your son, so that is indication enough of his virtue. Dashratha had ruled for many years, but was without a son, a fact which aggrieved him. According to the Vedic system, a person takes on three debts upon birth. A debt is owed to the forefathers, the great sages, and to the demigods. The debt owed to the forefathers is paid by procuring a son. It was for this reason that Dashratha desperately wanted a son, and after performing a great sacrifice, his wish was fulfilled.

Rama and His brothers Lord Rama was born simultaneously with His three other younger brothers, Bharata, Lakshmana, and Shatrughna. Rama’s three brothers were also partial expansions of Lord Krishna, so they were equal in power. From His very birth, Rama was Dashratha’s favorite, and the king couldn’t live without Him. As the Lord grew older, he would go on to help Vishvamitra Muni fight off demons in the forest. Subsequently He would be married to Maharaja’s Janaka’s daughter, Sita Devi. Sita was the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, who is Lord Narayana’s wife in the spiritual world. When God comes to earth, He brings along with Him other demigods, including His eternal consort Lakshmi. Sita was meant for marrying Rama from the very beginning and they were bound by the ties of holy matrimony in a very great ceremony in Janaka’s kingdom. The couple then returned to Ayodhya where they lived very happily for twelve years. Dashratha decided one day that he would step aside and install Rama as the new king. This was something he wanted to do all along and when the time finally came, he was very anxious. He went and took counsel of the brahmanas first to make sure that it was a good idea.

According to Vedic culture, society is divided into four groupings based off a person’s qualities and the work they perform. These divisions are: the brahmanas (priests), kshatriyas (warriors/administrators), vaishyas (merchants/businessmen) and shudras (laborers). Governments were run by kshatriyas, but they all had brahmanas serving in their court as the chief counselors. Brahmanas were completely dedicated to God, so their advice and their injunctions were always followed without hesitation. The brahmanas in Dashratha’s kingdom were all very devoted to Lord Rama so they immediately agreed to the idea of His installation.

Everything was set into place, but on the day of the installation, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Dashratha was married to three different wives, as was customary for kshatriya kings. His youngest wife, Kaikeyi, was very much against the installation of Rama because she wanted her son Bharata to be the king. In actuality, she was devoted to Rama, but on the eve of the installation, her servant, a humpbacked woman named Manthara, planted the seeds of jealousy and resentment into Kaikeyi, so much so that she was in a burning rage.

Kaikeyi On a previous occasion, Dashratha was involved in a fierce battle against an army of demons. The kshatriyas were all valiant warriors and it was for this reason that they were appointed to run the government. In Vedic times, governments weren’t run by lawyers, as they primarily are now. Only the topmost skilled and ethical kshatriyas were appointed as kings. In this particular battle, Dashratha had gotten into trouble, and Kaikeyi, who happened to be with him at the time, rescued him from the danger. Dashratha was so pleased with his wife, that he granted her any two boons of her choosing. Kaikeyi couldn’t think of anything immediately so she decided to save those boons until the time was right. The time of Rama’s installation seemed perfect for her to request her two boons. She went to Dashratha and requested that Bharata be installed as the new king. Along with that, she wanted Rama to be banished to the forest for fourteen years, to live as a hermit and not have any claim to the kingdom.

Dashratha was sorely aggrieved at this request, and he begged Kaikeyi to reconsider. More than just begging, he was in a full swoon to get her to change her mind, trying everything from placating her with gentle words to rebuking her with the harshest of criticism. She would not budge from her position, and this caused Dashratha tremendous pain. In today’s world, one may look upon a situation with bewilderment. Why wouldn’t Dashratha just decline her requests? That way everyone could be happy.

Things weren’t so simple during those times. Dashratha was a king belonging to a very famous line of rulers, known as the Ikshvakus. By going against his word, he would not only be tarnishing his own reputation, but also the reputation all of the kings prior to him. If a ruler is untruthful, then naturally the citizens will follow, and chaos will ensue. In today’s world it is very common for a politician to lie; in fact, a politician who can lie very well is often given praise and respect. According to Vedic philosophy, a king who goes against his word isn’t worthy of ruling.

Dashratha was so much affected by these requests of Kaikeyi, that he couldn’t even bring himself to telling Rama. The Lord came to visit the king on the day of the installation, and seeing him in a precarious condition, He inquired as to what had happened. On being informed by Kaikeyi, Lord Rama gladly accepted both punishments and he asked His father not to grieve. The Lord was just as dedicated to dharma, or the rules of religion, as His father was. Rama wanted in no way to tarnish His father’s name, so He put up no resistance to the requests.

When Rama went back to His palace to tell Sita the news, she was taken aback. The Lord insisted that she remain in the kingdom for the exile period, but she steadfastly refused. The two exchanged several well-formed, convincing arguments with each other, almost in the style of a debate. As part of her arguments, Sita told the Lord that as a child, brahmanas in Janaka’s court had predicted that she would and should one day live in the forest. Rama was very worried about how a beautiful princess like Sita would be able to survive in the wilderness without any comforts. Sita tried to mollify His concern by referring to the authoritative words of the brahmanas, who are the most respected members of society.

Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana departing for exileAbove all others, the brahmanas are the people most dedicated and renowned for their truthfulness. They act as the teachers of society, and what they say goes. Sita Devi knew this, and she also knew that Lord Rama, being God Himself, was the best friend of the brahmanas. Sita requested the Lord not to make the words of the brahmanas be untrue, and by so doing, she dealt a check-mate move to her husband. Lord Rama was insisting on going to the forest only to maintain the good name of His father. He never wanted Dashratha’s word to prove untruthful in any way, and so Sita countered with a similar argument. She essentially told the Lord, “You better take me to the forest with you, otherwise the earlier predictions made by the brahmanas in my father’s court will prove untrue. You are going to great lengths to protect the word of your father, but you love the brahmanas just as much, if not more. You should go to the same lengths to protect their words.”

Sometimes God goes against His own word. When Lord Krishna personally advented some five thousand years ago, He spent His youth in the town of Vrindavana as a cowherd. The cowherd girls of the town, known as gopis, were completely dedicated and in love with Krishna and they couldn’t stand separation from Him for even a moment. When the Lord became older, He was forced to leave Vrindavana and go to Mathura to kill the demon Kamsa. When He left, the Lord told the distressed gopis that He would be returning very shortly, but He never did.

So these things happen from time to time based on events, but the Lord’s true devotees never go against their word. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna takes great care to make Arjuna, and not Himself, declare to the world that Krishna’s devotees never perish.

“…O son of Kunti, declare it boldly that My devotee never perishes.” (Bg 9.31)

Krishna speaking to Arjuna God’s devotees are pure and truthful, and it is for this reason that He entrusts them with honor and dignity. Krishna is generally neutral towards all living entities, but He takes special care to protect those who always think of Him. The lesson we can learn from Sita Devi is that we should all become devotees, and then God will do anything and everything to secure our fame and fortune in this world and the next, even if we aren’t seeking it.