“These hands of mine aren't meant to simply enhance my beauty, the bow is not meant simply to be a decoration, the sword is not meant for tying around my waist, and the arrows aren't meant to remain standing immobile. These four things are all meant for killing my enemies.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 23.30)
There is a famous saying which recommends that “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. “ This principle can apply to spiritual activities as well and here Lakshmana is teaching us how to go about doing that. It is very easy to rebuke material objects as being part of maya, or God’s illusory energy, but it takes a little intelligence to see that normal everyday things that appear to be material, can actually be used for religious purposes.
Started by the great saint Shankara, the Mayavada philosophy is quite popular in India as a school of thought relating to religion. The Vedas are the original scriptures of the world emanating out of India. They collectively include many great works such as the Puranas, Mahabharata, and Ramayana. One of the more popular Vedic texts is the Vedanta-sutras, a collection of aphorisms compiled by Vyasadeva, God’s literary incarnation. Shankaracharya purposefully misinterpreted the Vedanta-sutra to be a doctrine espousing the belief that God is impersonal. If we believe that God is one, an entity separate from us, then we view Him as being personal. This feature of God is known as Bhagavan, meaning He has all opulences. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, can also be realized in two other subordinate features of Paramatma (Supersoul), and impersonal Brahman. The Mayavadi philosophers mistakenly believe that Brahman is the only aspect of God. They take the Vedanta-sutra as their ultimate authority, not realizing that the author himself wrote his own commentary on the Vedanta-sutra known as the Shrimad Bhagavatam, wherein he declares God to be personal, with His original form being that of Lord Krishna.
Since Mayavadis take God to be an impersonal energy, they believe that the aim of life is to somehow merge into this energy and become one with Brahman. They declare that the various forms of Godhead, including all the demigods, are all just different manifestations of the impersonal Brahman.
“Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form. They do not know My transcendental nature and My supreme dominion over all that be.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.11)
Along these lines, they take everything in the material world to be maya, or illusory. Since they believe everything to be false, their prescribed method for achieving transcendental realization is the rejection of everything material, i.e. complete renouncement. Everyone must become a sannyasi and study Vedanta philosophy. They think people engaged in bhakti yoga, or devotional service, are wasting their time associating with maya.
The Bhagavata-dharma school thinks differently. Dharma can be defined as religion, but a more precise definition equates dharma with an occupational duty. Religious beliefs may change based on a person’s sentiments, but duty and occupation don’t. In fact, the Vedas never mention anything about religion. Spiritual life is referred to as sanatana-dharma, meaning the eternal occupation of man. Service to God is not something to be practiced only in this material world, but in the spiritual world as well. Bhagavata-dharma means religion in devotion, or just straight devotional service. This is the system of religion instituted by God Himself. There are many types of religious and spiritual disciplines referred to as yoga, but devotional service is the highest discipline because it involves loving God purely, without any personal motives. Followers of this school don’t take everything to be false. Birth, old age, disease and death are real, as are pains and pleasures. Though they are real, they are also temporary. As soon as one takes birth, their death is guaranteed. It may come in one day or in one hundred years, but death will surely come. At that point, the soul remains intact but is given a new body according to one’s karma.
“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, Bg. 2.22)
Devotees understand that everything is temporary, so instead of simple rejection, they make the best use of a bad bargain. Lord Krishna declares that anyone who thinks of Him at the time of death no longer has to suffer through the cycle of birth and death resulting from karma.
“Whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)
Understanding and firmly believing in this fact, devotees try to utilize everything in this world as a means towards achieving that end, i.e. thinking of God at the end of life. If we practice thinking of God right now, then it is more than likely that we will think of Him at the time of death.
Lakshmana was the younger brother of Lord Rama, who was one of Krishna’s primary incarnations appearing on earth during the Treta Yuga. Just prior to His would-be installation as the king of Ayodhya, Rama was ordered to leave the kingdom and not return for fourteen years. This order was given by Rama and Lakshmana’s father, King Dasharatha of Ayodhya. Rama had no problem with the decision, but Lakshmana was quite upset. The above referenced quote was part of a series of statements Lakshmana directed towards Rama in hopes of persuading Him to remain in the kingdom. Lakshmana was willing to even mount a coup, installing Rama on the throne by force. He was the perfect devotee, so such sentiments weren’t surprising. He renounced all other relationships that he had in favor of serving Rama.
Lakshmana declared that his hands weren’t there just for decorating his own body. Both he and Rama were born in a kshatriya dynasty, meaning they were warriors by trade. In those times, the governments were religious monarchies run by pious warriors well acquainted with the principles of dharma. The Vedas actually declare that this system of government is ideal, where trained military men would run the government and take advice from the priestly class of men, the brahmanas. Lakshmana here is stating that his hands don’t exist simply to satisfy his own senses or enhance his beauty, but rather, they are there to serve God. The same went for his bow, arrows, and sword. He was a military man whose duty it was to provide protection to others. He made the best use of his trade by incorporating his fighting skills in his service to God.
Some may be put off by such statements since they seem to be condoning violence. Contrary to many popular theories on non-violence, the Vedas do sanction violence for specific cases.
“According to Vedic injunctions there are six kinds of aggressors: 1) a poison giver, 2) one who sets fire to the house, 3) one who attacks with deadly weapons, 4) one who plunders riches, 5) one who occupies another's land, and 6) one who kidnaps a wife. Such aggressors are at once to be killed, and no sin is incurred by killing such aggressors.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bg. 1.36 Purport)
Lakshmana viewed Dasharatha and his wife Kaikeyi as aggressors since they were perpetrating such an iniquitous act as Rama’s banishment to the forest. Violence committed on proper religious grounds is allowed. The Bhagavad-gita, spoken by Lord Krishna Himself, gives the same conclusion. It is not that one should go around happily attacking others. Since kshatriyas have a religious duty to give protection, they should execute their duty with detachment.
“Do thou fight for the sake of fighting, without considering happiness or distress, loss or gain, victory or defeat—and, by so doing, you shall never incur sin.” (Lord Krishna speaking to Arjuna, Bg. 2.38)
In the end, it turned out that Lakshmana’s intervention wasn’t necessary. Lord Rama had higher purposes to serve by going to the forest and taking His wife, Sita Devi, and Lakshmana with Him. Nevertheless, Lakshmana’s mood of devotion can serve as a great example for us. We can all use whatever we have at our disposal to serve God. We can use our hands to prepare nice foodstuff to be offered to Him, our ears to hear Krishna-katha, our mouth to taste Krishna prasadam, and our legs to travel to Krishna temples. We don’t require large sums of money, just a little sincerity.