“When the time for the destruction of living entities arrives, people are seen to perform activities that endanger themselves due to the influence of that all-devouring time.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.16)
This is a beautiful cause-and-effect explanation given by Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama. The statement itself is a little complicated to comprehend at first, but if we understand the context, we can see that it is indeed a profound explanation of how time works and how the living entities behave at or around the time of death. This statement served as a slick way of reminding the demon Ravana that his days were numbered.
If we analyze the verse, we see that there are two parts to it. The first part says that there is a set time when the living entities are bound to be destroyed. This is the influence of time, which is considered a divine energy created by God. No one can check the power of time no matter how hard they try. It has long been man’s fantasy to travel either back in time or into the future, but there is actually no possible way to do it. The second part of the statement says that when this all-devouring time, or death, arrives, human beings start behaving in ways that cause danger to themselves. Usually, we understand this concept in the reverse order. It is understood that we first take harmful actions, which then lead to death. Here, Sita Devi is saying that it is actually the opposite, meaning that death arrives first. Death then influences the living entities to act in harmful ways so that it appears that they are killing themselves. The harmful activities are merely instruments of death which the living entity has no control over.
Upon first glance, this logic seems a little strange. If a person jumps off a bridge or overdoses on drugs, are they not the cause of their own death? The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that we certainly do have a tiny amount of independence in how our senses will react with material nature. However, we have no control over the time of our birth or the time of our death. These are both determined by destiny, or the influence of the divine energy known as time.
If we apply these principles to some common situations, we can gain a better understanding of how time works. Drug and alcohol addicts often act in ways that give the impression that they are trying to kill themselves. Many famous rock stars tried their hardest to kick their drug and alcohol addictions, but they were never able to do so. Eventually, they succumbed to death. In reality though, death had already arrived, and their harmful actions were merely the instruments of death.
The influence of all-devouring time, or death, can be seen in people who are terminally ill. Alzheimer’s patients slowly lose their brain power as time goes by. They become so out of it that they soon fail to recognize their own friends and family. This is all due to time’s influence. Death is usually not a welcomed event, so it is not surprising to see sick people act in strange ways when they are just about to die. Death means that the soul is preparing to exit the body, a body which it has become attached to during its lifetime. Extracting the soul from the body can be a very painful experience, and as we all know, when we are in pain, we lose rationality and our grasp of the proper code of conduct.
Sita Devi directed these words to the Rakshasa demon Ravana, so as to inform him that death was on the horizon. Sita Devi was the wife of Lord Rama, an incarnation of God who appeared on earth many thousands of years ago. Lord Rama is one of Krishna’s primary incarnations, the complete list of which is provided in the celebrated Vedic texts such as the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Mahabharata, and Puranas. Rama appeared on earth to give Maharaja Dasharatha of Ayodhya a son, to give protection to His devotees, and to kill Ravana. The demon race known as the Rakshasas was steadily ascending to power in the world at the time. Their leader was the ten-headed Ravana who lived with his fellow Rakshasas on the island kingdom of Lanka.
There is a detailed history of the origin of the Rakshasa race given in the Ramayana, but what is most important to know about them is that they are sinful by nature. They may outwardly appear to be religious since they engage in many sacrifices and austerities, but their motives are all nefarious. They adhere to religion as a tit-for-tat system, where they perform certain activities for the express purpose of receiving some material reward. On the surface this isn’t a bad thing since we all possess material desires to some degree. However, these Rakshasas didn’t just want ordinary material boons; they wanted extraordinary powers so they could rule the world. A hostile takeover of the world requires the terrorizing of the innocent, something which Ravana had no problem doing. He and his associates would regularly harass the harmless sages living in the forests of India at the time.
Lord Rama was a great warrior prince. Being God Himself, He could easily defeat anyone in battle simply by using His bow and arrows. His excellent fighting prowess was on full display during one occasion when He defeated 14,000 members of Ravana’s Rakshasa army in the forest of Janasthana. In retaliation, Ravana devised a plan which allowed him to kidnap Sita while Rama was not by her side. Taking her back to Lanka, Ravana thought he could win Sita over by showing her his grand opulence. He even tried to flatter her by saying that she would become his chief queen. Ravana had hundreds of beautiful wives, so by saying that Sita was superior to them in beauty, Ravana was paying her a high compliment.
Sita was having none of this though. Being a pure devotee of God, her mind never once swayed from the lotus feet of her husband and supreme deity of the world, Shri Rama. Sita was also very intelligent, for that is a byproduct of performing devotional service to God. Mundane scholarship has its limits, but possessing knowledge of God enables one to become the smartest person in the world. Sita informed Ravana that his days were numbered. She knew that Rama would come for her and that when He did, Ravana would be easily defeated. In the above referenced statement, Sita is essentially telling Ravana, “Death surely must be coming for you, for why else would you have done something as stupid as kidnapping me? Due to the influence of impending death, people act in ways that cause harm to themselves. This is why you have kidnapped me, for death is coming to you very soon through the arrows released by my husband.”
Sita’s words would hold true as Rama would eventually come to rescue her. Ravana was soundly defeated in battle, dying as a result of the wounds inflicted by Rama. The lesson here is that once death approaches, we have no control over our actions. Therefore it is important that we take the necessary steps to make our lives perfect right now, while we still have our wits about us. And how do we achieve perfection in life? The Vedas tell us that the meaning of life is to think about Krishna, or God, at the time of death. Those who do so will be liberated from the repeated cycle of birth and death.
This point may seem contradictory to Sita’s statement. If we have no control over our actions at the time of death, how can we guarantee that we’ll think of Krishna? The answer is that it is our consciousness at the time of death which determines our next body. Consciousness is something that is developed over this lifetime and previous ones as well. It is similar to the concept of a person’s life flashing before their very eyes when they have a near-death experience. All the activities of this life are a preparation for the next.
Knowing this, we should act in such a way that our consciousness is fixed on God at all times. This will increase the likelihood that our consciousness will be pure at the time of death. To achieve this aim, we simply need to regularly chant the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Chanting is one of the exercises that makes up bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. All the great devotees of the past, such as Sita Devi, Lakshmana, and Hanuman were expert performers of devotional service. They never feared death, for they knew that their minds were always fixed on God.
Chanting is not the only method of devotional service. We can hear about Krishna, read books about Him, talk about Him with others, worship His deity, etc. There are so many avenues available to us. We don’t know when death will come, but we do know that we have every opportunity to perform devotional service right now. If we achieve perfection in this process, time’s influence over us can be negated.