“…but in this world, I will not bring about disgrace on myself.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.22)
One of the nice perks of becoming a pure devotee of God is that you are able to transcend all rules and regulations. Mundane morality is nice, but it only exists for a specific purpose. Simply treading the virtuous path is not enough, for if we fail to develop a loving attachment to God, all our pious activities are essentially a waste of time. The paramahamsas, the truly liberated souls, don’t need to follow any social conventions or prescribed regulations, but they still do so anyway. Even the greatest souls take care to maintain a good reputation for themselves. There are legitimate reasons for this concern.
The set of law codes that mankind is to abide by is known as dharma in the Vedic tradition. Dharma translates to an occupational duty or that which defines the essence of something. The living entity is an individual spirit spark emanating from Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As a part of God, the soul’s inherent duty is to serve Him. Nevertheless, the material world is considered to be an ocean of nescience where we living entities forget about God as soon as we take birth. In the beginning stages of our lives, it’s not very easy to reawaken the dormant loving propensities that we have for the Supreme Lord. For this reason, Krishna passed down a set of ruling principles, rules and regulations to guide mankind’s conduct. This collective set of rules can be thought of as dharma.
Dharma is intended to help us break free of our attachment to matter, and to allow us to instead focus our concern on the spirit that resides within. This spirit is what defines us, and its presence is the basis for our life. It is one thing to learn about the nature of the spirit soul, but it is another to actually realize that we are not our bodies. To help us gain a practical understanding of the difference between matter and spirit, dharma sets forth a set of recommended guidelines that we living entities can follow. Some of these regulations are pretty simple and straightforward. “Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t murder, don’t unnecessarily burden others, etc.” These are common laws that are adopted by most societies. There are other more advanced rules and regulations such as fasting on certain days, not eating meat, and not engaging in sex before marriage.
Virtue exists so that we can one day develop a love for God, who is the original friend. Those who tread the virtuous path naturally acquire auspicious qualities such as peacefulness, honesty, equanimity, and love for all beings. A truly virtuous person does not pick favorites. They don’t like one group of people and hate another, as is common today for many governmental leaders. Most political campaigns are run on the basis of pitting groups against one another: rich versus poor, black versus white, Christian versus Jew, etc. People who think along these lines cannot be considered virtuous due to the fact that every living entity is an equal part of this creation. We are all spirit souls who are under the care of our Supreme Father, Lord Krishna.
The advanced devotees actually go one step beyond virtue. They certainly do acquire all the beneficial traits associated with saintly people, but they take it to another level by dovetailing all of their activities with God’s service. A virtuous person does everything according to the rules of regulations of written guidelines, or scriptures, but a devotee does everything for the benefit of Krishna, who is the author and all rules and regulations. In the Vedic tradition, one of the primary methods of worship is sacrifice. In Sanskrit, the word “yajna” means sacrifice. Yajna also means Vishnu, who is Krishna’s four-handed expansion. This small detail provides great insight into the real meaning behind religion and religious principles. Dharma exists for only one reason: to connect with God.
Devotees dedicate all their activities to Krishna as a form of sacrifice. This behavior is called bhakti, or loving devotion. The great acharya, Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, states that bhakti is simply the purification of karma, or regulative work. By default, we all engage in karma, which is activity on the material platform. We perform some work so that we can be benefitted in some material sense at some point in the future. When we change the nature of our work by dedicating activities for pleasing the supreme person, Krishna, these works can be classified as bhakti. Those who engage in bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, are known as bhaktas.
Since the work performed by bhaktas is completely pure and uncontaminated by any material impurities, the devotees themselves transcend all rules and regulations. This means that the advanced devotees don’t need to abide by mundane morality, for they have already achieved the true purpose of life. Even though this is the case, we often see that devotees take even greater care to abide by the rules and regulations enjoined in the shastras. They have a strong desire to maintain their reputations as virtuous people.
One such example was Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama. During the Treta Yuga, the kind and merciful Supreme Lord descended to earth in the guise of a human being named Rama. Born as the eldest son of King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, Lord Rama was groomed to be the successor to the throne. Since God possesses all opulences and fortunes, when He appears on earth to play a particular role, He is naturally the best person at whatever He does. As Lord Rama, God appeared as kshatriya prince, wholly dedicated to dharma and the welfare of the saintly class. Lord Rama was the king of kings, and the greatest of all fighters who used the bow and arrow.
Being beautiful and all-powerful, the Lord was married to Sita Devi, the daughter of King Janaka of Mithila. We can only imagine how exalted Sita was, for she had the tremendous honor of being Rama’s partner in the performance of His religious duties. Her execution of devotional service was so perfect that Lord Rama, on many occasions, praised her for her dedication. He referred to her as a sadharma-charini since she was dedicated to helping Rama perform His prescribed duties. Sita’s reputation as a chaste and virtuous wife was famous throughout the world.
Unfortunately, on one occasion, Sita was kidnapped by the demon Ravana. These events were all preordained because Lord Rama needed an excuse to take on Ravana in battle. The demon brought Sita back to his kingdom of Lanka and propositioned her. He showed off his wonderful palace, and even bragged of all the beautiful wives that he had. Ravana promised to make Sita his chief queen, and openly declared that he would become her servant. Sita, being a pure devotee, could only think of Rama at all times. She had no desire to even look at Ravana.
In the above referenced statement, Sita is wrapping up her stern rebuke of Ravana. She hurled carefully crafted insults at him to let him know that Rama would surely come to kill him and that she would never waver from the virtuous path. In this final statement, Sita mentions how it is impossible for her to ruin her good name. She knows that she has deeply insulted Ravana, but she wants to state for the record that she is not sorry for saying such things. In order to maintain her reputation, she had to speak the truth to the demon.
Sita had no desire to be famous and well-known throughout the world as a pious wife. Devotees are above any need for that kind of self-aggrandizement. A bhakta is someone who acts only to please God, meaning they don’t even mind going to hell or being ridiculed by every person in the world, provided that the Supreme Lord remains pleased. So why was Sita concerned about her reputation? The answer is that she was more concerned about Rama and her father, King Janaka. Lord Rama was well-respected throughout the world, even by His enemies. If it should turn out that His wife and devotee, Sita, was able to be won over by a demon, it would cause Him tremendous grief and make Him the recipient of scorn from others. The same would hold true for King Janaka, for the daughter’s behavior is a direct reflection of the parentage she received growing up.
In this regard, we see just how great Sita was. She went against her quiet, shy, and peaceful nature in order to maintain the good name of her husband and her father. The lesson here is that no matter how advanced we become in the execution of devotional service, we should always try to remain on the virtuous path. We certainly don’t require a good reputation, but our good behavior will reflect well on the Supreme Lord. If God is great, then surely His devotees must be great as well. If devotees take to sinful life out of carelessness, others will take note and use such transgressions as ammunition to fuel their attacks against Krishna. Since God is so nice to us, we should be equally as nice to Him and try to show others that He has instilled good values in us.