“Like the demigods obtaining ambrosia, King Dasharatha, after performing great austerities and great deeds, obtained You as a son.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.3)
Obtaining a direct audience with God is the only way to achieve true immortality. Our lives are destined to end at some point, and our future destination remains unknown to us. Great devotees of the past showed us by example how to make the most of our auspicious human life. They performed great austerities and religious functions over many lifetimes to finally achieve direct association with God. The dream of immortality can be realized by following their lead and always performing devotional service.
There are many examples in history of ordinary human beings performing extraordinary religious feats. One such person was Maharaja Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya during the Treta Yuga. Dasharatha was a highly pious individual who was part of the famed Ikshvaku dynasty. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that the first king on earth was Maharaja Ikshvaku. Since he was the first king, he set the standard for good government and chivalry. All his direct descendants were known as the Ikshvakus, and they were all equally as pious. The Shrimad Bhagavatam tells us that the Ikshvaku dynasty finally ended with King Sumitra.
As a pious king, Dasharatha regularly performed elaborate sacrifices. He also lived by austerity, or tapasya. Saintly kings in the Vedic tradition are known as raja-rishis, meaning they are more than just kings. A king refers to a government leader or a ruler of a kingdom or community. The term “king” also connotes an idea of supreme dominion and unfettered sense gratification. “If only I could be king for a day” is how the famous saying goes. This points to how the leader of a country is seen as the most privileged citizen. Leaders call the shots; they make all the decisions. The Vedas tell us that kings have a much higher responsibility than to simply indulge their senses. A king is viewed as God’s representative on earth, so he must be chivalrous and religious at the same time. Though kings weren’t learned Vedic scholars or priests, they were smart enough to know to take advice on all matters from the brahmanas, or the priestly class of men. Therefore a king who abided by the religious codes passed down from generation to generation was considered to be saintly.
Though in the past there were many great kings, Dasharatha is particularly famous because Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, kindly appeared on earth and took birth as His eldest son named Rama. On the surface, this may seem like mythology. “How can God come to earth? This is what every religion tries to do. They take an ordinary human being who displays certain extraordinary traits, and they make him God.” This line of thinking may seem plausible, but the Vedas provide much evidence to back up the claim that Lord Rama was an incarnation of God. Knowing that the less intelligent class of men would be prone to declaring incarnations of God willy-nilly, the Vedas provide a detailed list of all of God’s primary incarnations. Lord Rama is declared an incarnation of God not only in one book, the Ramayana, but in many other books. There are eighteen major Puranas, or books relating to Vedic history, and in many of them, the life and pastimes of Lord Rama are described. Therefore the followers of Lord Rama have much evidence that they can cite to back up the claim that Rama is indeed God.
How did Dasharatha become qualified to have God appear as his son? The first thing he did was perform great austerities. Austerities are known as tapasya, and they are intended to be a sacrifice for God. We all perform some sort of austerity to better our condition, but tapasya is especially geared towards pleasing God. Why would the Lord want us to punish ourselves? It can be thought of as a form of tough love. Tapasya involves severely restricting the influence of the senses. The senses are always telling us to eat more, drink more, sleep more, and have more sex. We all know that too much of any of these activities is bad for us. Tapasya takes this idea of regulation to a new level. By observing fasts on auspicious days, and only eating the remnants of sacrifice, yajna-shishta, tapasvis gain the highest benefit in life.
How can we benefit from fasting? If we starve ourselves for a short period of time because God asks us to, it is more likely that we will think of Him during the fasting period. Not only will we think of Him, but we will be in a weakened condition as well. We will be more likely to develop an attachment to Him since the influence of the senses will be curbed. The Vedas tell us that the primary aim of life is to learn about God, use that knowledge to serve Him, and then eventually develop a loving attachment to Him as a result of performing that service.
Dasharatha performed great austerities not only in his current life, but in a previous one as well. There is a puja, or religious ritual, observed by householders of the Hindu faith known as the Satyanarayana Vrata. It is usually performed once a month during the full moon, and it involves offering some food, reading a few stories, and performing arati, or the offering of lights. The stories read during this puja tell us of the benefits related to performing it. This puja is essentially a karma-kanda activity, meaning it is performed by those desiring material benefits such as good health and a happy family life. At the end of one of the stories, we are told of some famous people who previously observed the vrata and eventually achieved perfection in life. King Dasharatha is one of the people mentioned. The story states that in a previous life Dasharatha regularly performed the Satyanarayana puja and was rewarded by taking birth as a pious king in his next life whose son would be Lord Rama.
After performing two great sacrifices in particular, King Dasharatha was finally blessed with a son; four in fact. Rama was the eldest son and the one closest to the king. Getting God as a son is one thing, but how does this relate to achieving perfection in life? Due to the attachment he had for Rama, Dasharatha had the great fortune of thinking of God at the time of death. Through a series of unfortunate events, Lord Rama was banished from the kingdom of Ayodhya and forced to roam the forests of India for fourteen years. Dasharatha couldn’t stand to be separated from Rama, so he died shortly after Rama left for the forest. He died while thinking of his illustrious son. The Vedas tell us that this is the best way to die.
This may seem strange on the surface. Dasharatha died due to being separated from his son, so how could this be viewed as a good thing? The Vedas tell us that our consciousness at the time of death determines the type of body we will receive in the next life. Many of us are under the belief that if we simply act somewhat piously in this life, then we will go to heaven after we die, and that conversely, the sinful will go to hell. This is true to an extent, but Vedic information provides a little more clarity on the issue. The material creation consists of innumerable planets. Life doesn’t just exist on earth. If we act on the level of karma, meaning if we perform fruitive activity aimed at achieving some desired material result, we can certainly ascend to heaven or descend to hell in the afterlife. However, residence in either place is not permanent because both heaven and hell are part of the material creation. Heaven is considered part of the upper planetary system and hell the lower planetary system. This is why most of us point to the sky when referring to heaven and to the ground when referring to hell.
This repeating cycle of birth and death, travelling from one planet to another, is known as reincarnation. The type of body we receive in the next life is determined by our consciousness at the time of death. Our consciousness at the time of death is determined by the activities performed over the course of our many many lifetimes on earth. Dasharatha thought of Rama, or God, at the time of death and was thus rewarded with liberation, or immortality in the spiritual world. This makes complete sense if we think about it. The time of death is a time of great panic. The life air is about to exit the body, so we have very little time to get bogged down by the usual problems of life. In this state of panic, our life essentially flashes before our very eyes. The things that are most important to us in life are the things that we will remember during this time. This consciousness is a harbinger of things to come in the afterlife. If we are fortunate enough to remember God at this time, we will surely be rewarded.
“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, Bhagavad-gita, 8.5)
The God conscious travelling soul is rewarded with a nature similar to that of God. In one sense, we are all already immortal. Our true identity comes from the spirit soul residing within, and this soul is not subject to birth, death, or destruction. When we speak of immortality, we are referring to the type of body the soul is placed into. Currently we are considered mortal because our material body is subject to creation and destruction. Immortality can be achieved when we are put into a body which is eternal and unchanging. This type of body can only be acquired in the spiritual world. Matter is subordinate to spirit, and in a similar manner, this world we live in is subordinate to the spiritual world where Lord Krishna, or God, resides. To live in the material world, which is governed by matter, we require a material body composed of the five gross and three subtle elements. To reside in the spiritual world, we require a spiritual body. This spiritual body is awarded to those who sincerely desire association with God. Since God is completely spirit, His body is eternal and always full of bliss and knowledge. By the same token, those who enjoy His company in the spiritual world have a similar type of body.
The above referenced statement was made by Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama. While residing in the forest, Rama’s wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. Initially, Rama was grief-stricken over the incident, so Lakshmana tried his best to console his elder brother. In this statement, Lakshmana is reminding Rama that Dasharatha worked very hard to get Him as a son, and that He shouldn’t let all that hard work go to waste by giving way to lamentation. Such a wonderful a brother as Lakshmana has never existed on this earth. Though this appears to be part of a pep-talk, Lakshmana is actually cluing us in on Lord Rama’s divinity.
In his statement, Lakshmana makes reference to the fact that Dasharatha’s achieving Rama was like that of the demigods achieving amrita, or ambrosia. Amrita is considered nectar which grants immortality, so those who are pious are always looking for this. The demigods and demons also once famously churned the sea, from which amrita was produced. Lord Rama is most certainly amrita for anyone who associates with Him. Dasharatha achieved immortality in the spiritual world by getting Rama as a son, so Lakshmana wanted to make sure that Rama remained on earth to grant the same type of liberation to other devotees.
The lesson here is that we too can drink the sweet nectar of immortality that comes through association with God. In this age, God incarnates in the form of His holy names, so we simply need to regularly chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, in order to achieve perfection. The key is to adjust things in such a way that we may always think of the Supreme Lord in the same way that Dasharatha did. We don’t need to travel to the corners of the earth to look for immortality, for the secret to an eternal, blissful life can be found on the tip of our tongue. Simply reciting God’s name in a loving way and having an affinity for hearing about Him are enough to grant liberation.