Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Blessing in Disguise

Ramayana - Building a bridge to Lanka “Eternal time in the form of death having arrived, you, O lowest of the Rakshasas, forcibly took me away from my husband. Now that very same death will kill you, your Rakshasa associates, and all those dwelling in your palaces.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.17)

Having a fear of death is quite natural because death is the time when our current life’s activities come to an end. Since we have attachments to our current way of life, it makes sense that we would fear losing everything. The afterlife also represents the great unknown, so there will be some trepidation as it relates to treading unchartered waters. Most of us don’t know when death will come, for the forces of nature act on their own; we have no control over them. For the fortunate among us, death announces its arrival through signs such as illness and disease. Knowing that death is imminent, the wise take the necessary steps to prepare for their next life.

What if we were told we had two weeks to live, or maybe a month? What would we do? What if we knew the world was going to end very soon? How would we act? These questions have been pondered by man for centuries. Many books have been written on the subject and many movies made as well. The answers given to these questions are often the same. “I will spend as much time with my family as possible. I will quit my job and just have fun all day. I will stop worrying and live a carefree life. I will try to enjoy as much sex as possible.” So we see that the natural instinct is to turn to sense gratification when there is a fear of it being taken away. That is all we know after all; sense gratification is how we have fun right now, so if we knew our life was going to end, it would make sense that we would try to engage in activities that we already enjoy.

Reincarnation The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that this sort of mindset is adopted when one lacks knowledge of the soul and its constitutional position. The soul is eternal, so it never takes birth nor does it ever die. The material body is temporary and subject to birth and death. The spirit soul can be considered the actor or the driving force behind activities. The material body, along with the entire material creation, can be thought of as the playing field where those activities are carried out. God created this material world, so it is due to His sanction that living entities are given the opportunity to act out their desires. On this playing field, we are allowed to do whatever we want. This means that if we want to continue playing on this field, God will not take us away. Since our bodies become old and decrepit, the Lord gives us fresh new bodies to play in. This changing of bodies is known as reincarnation, or the repeated cycle of birth and death.

This all seems well and good, but the Vedas refer to repeated births and deaths as samsara, which means material entanglement. Say that we were trapped in a room with a series of games that we could play. The rules of the room stipulate that we can play these games for as long as we want to, but in order to play, we must remain in the room. If we want to leave the room, we have to stop playing. It makes sense that eventually we’ll want to leave the room, for if we continued to play games without stopping, the fun would quickly wear off. Something that appeared to be enjoyable in the beginning would soon turn into a miserable experience. The material world can be thought of as a big room where we are allowed to play without stopping. If we continue to hanker after sense gratification, we are forced to remain in the room. This is how karma and reincarnation work.

Shrimad Bhagavatam The wise use the knowledge of imminent death to their advantage, taking it as a great opportunity. Instead of engaging in temporary sense gratification, something which we have ample opportunity to perform already, wouldn’t our remaining days be better spent trying to figure out why we take birth and why we die? Instead of racing against time, trying to have as much fun before we die, wouldn’t it be wiser to figure out how to stop death? This was the path taken by the great King Parikshit some five thousand years ago.

“While the King was thus repenting, he received news of his imminent death, which would be due to the bite of a snake-bird, occasioned by the curse spoken by the sage's son. The King accepted this as good news, for it would be the cause of his indifference toward worldly things.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.19.4)

Parikshit was a pious king, born in a very famous family. He was a descendant of the Pandava brothers, close associates of Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. On one particular occasion, Parikshit was cursed by a brahmana boy and was told that he had less than a week to live. Rather than get angry over the situation and lament his ill-fortune, the king used it as an opportunity to break free of his attachments. Instead of trying to gratify his senses by performing activities that he already engaged in, Parikshit decided that he wanted to use his remaining time on earth to hear about Krishna, or God. The famous Bhagavata Purana, or Shrimad Bhagavatam, describes the information that Parikshit heard from Shukadeva Goswami, the son of Vyasadeva. Due to its content, the Bhagavatam is considered the greatest Vedic work, but its glory is enhanced even further since the words contained within were spoken to a dying man. Parikshit wanted to learn about the Absolute Truth before he died, and he was successfully able to do so by hearing from his spiritual master. In this regard, Parikshit set the example for how a dying person should behave. Surrendering unto God is the real business of the human being, whether they are in the prime of their life or on the precipice of death.

Lord Krishna Many thousands of years before King Parikshit, another powerful king had the good fortune of knowing that death was imminent, but he sadly did not take the proper course of action. The Rakshasa king Ravana, the ten-headed demon of Lanka, was made aware of his impending death by Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama. Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, but He appears on earth from time to time in various forms to enact pastimes and to teach others how to make the most of their time on earth. Lord Rama was a pious kshatriya warrior who was dedicated to dharma and the welfare of the saintly class of men. Since He was a defender of the innocent, it was His job to punish the miscreants such as the Rakshasas who were roaming the earth at the time.

Lord Rama had a beautiful wife named Sita who was the daughter of King Janaka of Mithila. Sita was highly sought after as a bride, but only Rama was able to win her hand in marriage by successfully lifting a famous bow of Lord Shiva’s during Sita’s svayamvara, or self-choice ceremony. As part of His pastimes, Rama roamed the forests of India with Sita and His younger brother, Lakshmana. In Lanka, Ravana had many beautiful palaces, all full of beautiful women with whom he regularly cavorted. Yet Ravana’s sexual urges weren’t satisfied, and after hearing of the beauty of Rama’s wife, he was determined on having her for himself. Ravana devised a plan which allowed him to successfully kidnap Sita in Rama and Lakshmana’s absence.

Lord Rama Ravana brought Sita back to his palace and tried to win her over with sweet words. He couldn’t have her by force since he was cursed on a previous occasion. This curse, which was imprecated on Ravana after he had forced himself upon a woman, stated that should he again choose to cavort with a woman against her will, he would immediately be destroyed. Sita had no interest in Ravana. She was an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, so her only business was serving the lotus feet of Shri Rama, an incarnation of God. In this regard, Sita was the perfect devotee.

In the above referenced statement, Sita is letting Ravana know that eternal time, in the form of death, had arrived to kill him. It’s one thing to tell somebody that they are about to die, but getting them to believe it is a different story. To back up her claim, Sita made reference to Ravana’s forceful kidnap of her, the point being that only those who are about to die would act in such a way as to bring about their own death. She is essentially telling Ravana, “Death is coming to get you, for why else would you have done something as stupid as taking me away from Rama? You certainly must have a death wish. This all-devouring death will now come to kill you and all your associates.” Death was coming for Ravana, and the instrument of that death would be Lord Rama and the arrows shot from His illustrious bow.

Sita is letting Ravana know that he shouldn’t waste his time trying to satisfy his sexual desires. There was no point in trying to win her over since she was already committed to another man. Death was coming for him, so his time would be better suited taking to devotional service. Actually many associates advised Ravana to surrender unto Rama and have all his sins forgiven. Sadly, Ravana wouldn’t heed this advice, and his entire kingdom would soon be ruined by Rama and His army. Sita’s words would hold true as Ravana would eventually die at the hands of Rama.

Sita Rama Most of us don’t know when death is coming. Keeping this in mind, we should take to devotional service right away. Devotional service is known as bhakti-yoga, which means linking the soul with the Supreme Soul, or God. Executing devotional service is essentially waving the white flag of surrender, informing God that we no longer wish to associate with material nature. Spirit is always superior to matter, and since God is the origin and controller of spirit, His realm is superior to this material world. Those who go to Krishna’s spiritual planets never take birth again; they transcend samsara.

“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.16)

Executing devotional service is not difficult either. The simplest way is to constantly chant God’s names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. We should simply “chant chant chant” until we “can’t can’t can’t” anymore.