“O Narada, because I have caught hold of the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Hari, with great zeal, whatever I say has never proved to have been false. Nor is the progress of my mind ever deterred. Nor are my senses ever degraded by temporary attachment to matter.” (Lord Brahma, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.6.34)
Acting in a pious manner can go a long way towards earning respect and praise from others. “No good deed goes unpunished” is a famous aphorism, but we see that more times than not, virtuous deeds reward the performer with prestige and honor. In one sense, it’s almost as if each noble act allows a person to accumulate merits that can later be cashed in for favors and other perks. This theory holds true not only in material life, but with respect to God as well.
“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, Bhagavad-gita, 3.21)
Most of us realize that we are flawed and that we are sinners. “To ere is human” is how the saying goes, so we realize that we are prone to committing mistakes. The Vedas tell us that man actually has four defects he inherits at the time of birth: the propensity to cheat, to commit mistakes, to have imperfect senses, and to be easily illusioned. Even the most deluded of people realize that they are not perfect. This realization leads many of us to constantly examine and assess our behavior. We often look to the example set by others to determine how we should act. The virtuous set a good example that we can learn from. As the saying goes, “He who hesitates is lost”, most of us don’t like to be unsure in our actions. We want to adopt a certain path in life and stick to it. It is much easier to follow the path set by the virtuous than it is to create our own path and then doubt the decisions that we make.
The virtuous achieve their standing in society based on the deeds they have performed. Once people recognize a person as honest, pure, truthful, and pious, that person then assumes a respected status. This status allows the virtuous to be taken seriously and it also makes it harder to argue against them. A perfect example of this was seen with Bill Bennett, the former Secretary of Education in the 1980s. Known as a pious individual, Bennett even authored an anthology called The Book of Virtues. Since he had a specific political affiliation, politicians of opposing political parties viewed Bennett as a major threat to them. Anytime Bennett would criticize someone, it would be very hard for anyone to counter his arguments due to his respected status.
When it was later discovered that Bill Bennett had a major addiction to gambling, political opponents breathed a sigh of relief. The benefits of Bennett’s pious deeds immediately became exhausted. He turned out to be flawed after all, and his transgressions cost him his exalted status. This proves that pious activity and virtuous deeds can only take us so far. If we don’t use our accumulated merit for the right purposes, our fame and stature can quickly deteriorate. Another example of this principle in action was seen many thousands of years ago during the Treta Yuga.
For a period of time during that age, the city of Ayodhya was ruled by Maharaja Dasharatha. He was a very pious king belonging to one of the most famous dynasties in history, the Ikshvakus. As was customary during that time, Dasharatha had three wives. His youngest wife, Kaikeyi, was pious and virtuous. Dasharatha was also very attracted to her, so much so that he brought her along one time during a battle with the asuras. During those times, kings belonged to the warrior caste, meaning they were all expert fighters. Similar to how George Washington, a general and war hero himself, served as America’s first President, the great war heroes of the past served as the kings.
As King of Ayodhya, Dasharatha’s duty was to fight against the asuras, or demons. According to the Vedic definition, the king is the representative of God on earth, meaning he is to be chivalrous and committed to dharma. Asuras are atheistic in nature, and they view those adhering to dharma as their enemies. For this reason, there has been an ongoing war between the devotees of God and the asuras since the beginning of time. During one particular battle, Dasharatha was wounded, and Kaikeyi had the good sense to remove him from the battlefield. Since she saved his life, Dasharatha granted her any two boons of her choosing. Being a smart lady, Kaikeyi held onto those boons so she could use them at a more opportune time. The perfect opportunity presented itself on the eve of the coronation of Lord Rama, Dasharatha’s eldest son.
As Lord Krishna declares in the Bhagavad-gita, He personally appears on earth from time to time to annihilate the miscreants and protect the devotees. During the Treta Yuga, one Rakshasa demon in particular was wreaking havoc throughout the world. To alleviate the distressful situation, God came to earth in the guise of a human being. Taking birth as the eldest son of King Dasharatha and Queen Kausalya, God’s incarnation was known by the name of Rama, for He gave pleasure to everyone He met. Dasharatha was more attached to Rama than anyone else, so he decided one day to install Him as the next king. Along with Rama, Dasharatha had three other younger sons who took birth from his two other wives. Lakshmana and Shatrughna were born to Queen Sumitra, and Bharata was born to Queen Kaikeyi.
Just prior to Rama’s coronation, Kaikeyi demanded that Bharata be given the throne instead. She also insisted that Rama be sent to live in the forest for fourteen years, so as to make sure that Bharata’s initial reign as king would go on without any interference. Dasharatha really had no choice in the matter. As committed to dharma as he was, he was forced to accede to Kaikeyi’s requests. During those times, a king’s word was taken very seriously. If a king lied, he immediately became unworthy of his post. This makes sense because people will naturally follow the example of their government leaders. A government’s primary duty is to provide protection and to punish criminals. If the king himself doesn’t tell the truth, how can he punish others who commit the same crime?
“Bringing my father-in-law under control by means of her virtuous deeds, Kaikeyi begged of that truthful, best of monarchs, two boons; namely the exile of my husband into the woods and the installation of Bharata. Kaikeyi said, ‘I shall never eat, drink, or sleep. I will end my life if Rama is installed.’ Kaikeyi speaking thus, that lord of earth, my father-in-law, begged her to accept diverse riches instead, but Kaikeyi did not agree. At the time, my husband, the highly-effulgent Rama, was twenty-five years old, and I was eighteen.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 47.7-10)
After Dasharatha agreed to Kaikeyi’s demands, Rama left for the forest along with His wife, Sita Devi, and younger brother, Lakshmana. In the above referenced quote, Sita is explaining to Ravana how she ended up in the forest. After creating a diversion which sent both Rama and Lakshmana away from their cottage, Ravana, assuming the guise of a brahmana, approached Sita and asked her to identify herself. We see that Kaikeyi indeed performed virtuous deeds in her past, but that she used the merit accumulated from such deeds for nefarious purposes. Rama was loved and adored by all; moreover, He was the rightful heir to the throne. Bharata himself was mortified when he found out what his mother had done. Sita also was completely blameless, but she too was forced to live in the forest as a result of Kaikeyi’s deeds.
“O son of Kunti, all that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities that you may perform, should be done as an offering unto Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.27)
The lesson here is that being virtuous is certainly a good thing, but that ultimately it can’t lead to perfection unless such activity is directed towards Lord Krishna, or God. The results of our good and bad deeds eventually expire, and we are left to start over again. In order to achieve perfection in life, we should aim our good deeds towards God’s service. This type of activity is known as bhakti yoga, or devotional service. Krishna is the ultimate reservoir of pleasure, so not only does pleasing Him cause an accrual of spiritual merits, but it also gives us everlasting happiness.
Lord Hanuman, Lord Rama’s great devotee, is an example of a person who dedicated his pious activities to God and achieved perfection as a result. Right after Sita spoke to Ravana, the demon kidnapped her and took her to his island kingdom of Lanka. Later on, it would be Hanuman who would leap across the ocean all the way to Lanka and find Sita. He then served as one of Rama’s chief warriors in His battle against Ravana, which ultimately led to the demon’s death and the rescue of Sita. Rama was very pleased with Hanuman’s service to him. Unlike Kaikeyi, Hanuman didn’t waste his spiritual merits on temporary material things. He only wanted eternal love and devotion to Rama, and the Lord granted his wish.
Virtue is its own reward. In the spiritual world, pure love is known as prema, which means loving without any expectation of result. This is the real meaning of love and surrender. “God, I do everything for You because I love You. You can offer me nice rewards as a result, but I’m only interested in continuing my service to You, forever.” This is the mood of the pure devotees like Hanuman, Sita, Lakshmana, Radharani, Prahlada, and countless others. The path to perfection has already been laid out for us by the great devotees of the past, so we simply need to follow in their footsteps.