Saturday, August 21, 2010

King of the Castle

Lakshmana “We have heard that even the demigods, who are headed by Shakra [Indra], are subject to auspiciousness and inauspiciousness. Therefore, O tiger among men, You should not be perturbed.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.13)

This passage is part of a series of statements made by Lakshmana directed towards His elder brother, Lord Rama. At the time, Rama was bewailing the fact that His wife had just been kidnapped. He was so distraught that He contemplated killing every person in the world as revenge. Being the Almighty Lord, He was certainly more than capable of accomplishing this, but Lakshmana advised Him otherwise. Lakshmana makes reference to the fact that Indra, the king of heaven, must go through ups and downs in his life, so normal human beings shouldn’t overly lament over bad fortune. One should always remain on the virtuous path and persevere through adversity.

Indra The reference to Indra is important because amongst followers of the Vedic tradition, the king of heaven is held in high esteem. In summary, Indra is the god of heaven who uses his thunderbolt as a weapon to fight off demons. The Vedas, which are the oldest scriptures in existence, tell us that there is only one God, but that there are simultaneously thousands of highly elevated living entities known as demigods, who are godlike. Indra is one such godlike personality. He has a long duration of life, tremendous fighting prowess, and is tasked with governing the heavenly kingdom. Thunder, rain, lightning, wind, and other forces of nature are all controlled by various deities, or celestials.

On the surface this may seem like mythology. “These people living in ancient times didn’t have much intelligence, so they couldn’t understand the concept of science. Simply seeing the rain and thunder, they thought there was some higher authority managing those things. We see now that they were wrong, for there is no heavenly kingdom. Above the clouds is simply the outer atmosphere of the earth. Above that is outer space.” This line of thinking is certainly applicable in many situations. After all, if Indra manages rain, thunder, etc, where does he live? We’ve never seen him, so how can we believe that he exists?

Outer space Vedic information states that the demigods mostly reside on the various planets of outer space. These planets, which are part of the material world, are considered to be heavenly, for ordinary human beings can’t live there. We see that it takes great effort simply to get into outer space or to land on the moon. Millions of dollars are spent and high-tech space suits and oxygen tanks are required. All these things are required because those planets don’t have habitats suitable for human beings. If one wants to live on another planet, they need the proper type of bodily makeup.

What does the term “bodily makeup” mean? How can there be any other body type besides that of a human being? The material world is governed by three modes or qualities: goodness, passion, and ignorance. When these qualities are jumbled together into different proportions, the result is a wide variety of species. A species is simply a type of body which possesses certain inherent characteristics. For instance, the aquatics have a body type suitable for living in the water. If they are taken out of water for any extended period of time, they will die. Similarly, we human beings have a body type suited for residing on land. We could never live underwater because we wouldn’t be able to breathe.

In the same way, for one to reside on the different planets in space, they need a suitable body type. This type of body isn’t awarded to just anyone. It is considered a great benediction to be born as a demigod, or any other celestial being. Demigods have a higher level of material enjoyment than human beings do. Due to their heightened powers, they can live for a long time and also perform extraordinary feats.

Indra Lord Indra is one such demigod. The Vedas tell us that just as pious people are rewarded with heavenly bodies, the sinful are punished by being forced to accept bodies composed mostly of ignorance. Yet even though the sinful take on horrific bodily shapes, sometimes they can be very strong in fighting. This is the case with the Rakshasa species. The Vedas have a more generic term for the sinful: asura. The demigods, or saintly people, are known as suras. Since the demons are the opposite of suras, they are known as asuras.

Since the beginning of time, there has been an ongoing war between the suras and the asuras. These battles mostly take place in the heavenly planets. It is Lord Indra’s job to lead the army of the suras in these battles. For this reason, Indra is highly respected. When reading Vedic literature, one will find many references to Indra’s strength and fame. He is often used as a frame of reference when describing a person’s fighting ability or the potency of their weapons.

Lakshmana Lakshmana was quite aware of Indra’s fame and power, so he thought it wise to invoke Shakra’s name when discussing the topic of material loss and gain. It must be noted here that Lakshmana was no ordinary person. Though the demigods are quite powerful, they are not God. There is only one Supreme Lord, and in the Vedic tradition He is known as Krishna. Lord Krishna is also often worshiped in His two-handed form of Lord Vishnu, or Narayana. That very same Narayana came to earth in the guise of a human being many thousands of years ago. This avatara was known as Lord Rama, the handsome and pious prince of Ayodhya.

“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion-at that time I descend Myself.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.7)

Why would God come to earth? Why wouldn’t He just stay in heaven? At the time, one particular demon had amassed great wealth and power. This Rakshasa, known by the name of Ravana, was feared throughout the world. Due to the curse of his father Vishrava, Ravana was born with ten heads and was thus known as Dashagriva. It was not until he encountered the great Lord Shiva that Dashagriva acquired the name of Ravana. One time the demon decided to harass Lord Shiva. In response, Shiva crushed his hands using a mountain. Since Dashagriva let out such a terrible scream, Lord Shiva named him Ravana, which means one who terrorizes others.

The demigods, including Indra, could not defeat Ravana. This was due to a boon that Ravana received from Lord Brahma. There was a catch, however. Ravana’s immunity did not extend to human beings. This meant that if there was a man powerful enough to kill Ravana, the demon would not stand a chance. Obviously there was no one capable of such a feat except the Supreme Lord Himself. Thus Vishnu appeared as Rama to carry out the mission of killing Ravana and relieving the suffering of the demigods.

Lord Rama Since He was in the guise of a human being, Rama pretended to lament when His beautiful wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped in the forest. To console his brother, Lakshmana offered some sound words of advice. Just as Narayana had appeared as Rama, Ananta Shesha Naga, the serpent-king and servant of Vishnu, appeared as Lakshmana.

The reference to Indra is also important because Indra is the king of heaven. Lakshmana is essentially saying, “We hear that even the king of heaven has to go through ups and downs. He must suffer losses every now and then. If this sort of thing happens in heaven, it must certainly happen here on earth as well.” Lakshmana’s analogy was appropriate because Rama was considered the king of earth. Rulers back in those times were addressed by terms such as mahipatih and nara-deva, meaning the lord of earth and god in human form. Even though someone is king of a country or state, it doesn’t mean that they are immune to the effects of nature. Good and bad times will come and go, but one must always remain on the virtuous path.

Though we may not be great kings or rulers, the lessons imparted by Lakshmana still apply to us. This is because we are kings on a very small scale in that we are masters of our own body. Our arms, legs, and hands don’t move on their own. They take direction from the brain, which is powered by the heart, which is controlled by the spirit soul residing within. In this localized area, we have complete independence. Being masters of our own domain, it is incumbent upon us to always act properly, through good times and bad.

The virtuous path is known as dharma, or religiosity. Religion is important because it speaks to our soul, a soul that is eternal. The soul was there before we were born and will continue to be there after we die. Therefore it is more important to concern ourselves with the plight of the soul rather than the body. This was the example set by Lord Rama. He was wholly dedicated to dharma. Not only did He appear in a very famous dynasty of pious kings known as the Ikshvakus, but Lord Rama was God Himself; thus He is the very definition of dharma.

Often times we are taught that if we are pious in our current life, we’ll ascend to heaven after death. This is most certainly true, but as we see from the example of Lord Indra and the other demigods, heaven is not free from suffering. This is because the heavenly planets are still part of the material world, so it is under the control of nature. There is, however, a higher heaven, so to speak. This place is known as Vaikuntha, a place free of anxieties and doubts. It is on the Vaikuntha planets that Lord Vishnu resides. There is also a planet known as Krishnaloka where God, in His original form, resides alongside His close confidantes.

Lord Rama The objective of abiding by dharma is to reach God’s spiritual world after our time here is finished. Since we are the kings of our bodies, we have the power to make the dream of reaching spiritual heaven a reality. We control how we act, move, eat, and talk. If we dovetail all of these activities with God’s service, we are guaranteed of reaching that Supreme Abode. Lord Rama would heed Lakshmana’s advice and continue His search for Sita. Eventually He would find her and defeat Ravana in a great battle. Lord Rama did not let temporary setbacks divert Him from the true mission in life. We should follow His example and be perseverant in our execution of devotional service.