“Vashishta, who is a maharishi and our father’s priest, begot one hundred sons in one day, only to see them slain again in one day.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.9)
Any parent who has ever lost a child will tell you that the resulting pain never goes away. As soon as a child is born to a parent, an immediate loving bond is formed. The birth of a new child is a time of great joy, yet at the same time, the worrying commences immediately. “What if something happens to my child? They are so small and helpless. What if I fail to protect them? I don’t think I’d be able to live if anything happened to them.” The famous sage Vashishta had to suffer through this very nightmare, the loss of his one hundred sons in an instant. From his handling of the situation, we can take away a great lesson on tolerance and perseverance.
Vashishta is one of the most celebrated sages of the Vedic tradition. The Vedas are the ancient scriptures of India, and as such, they gave us a detailed lineage of the first several generations of mankind. Lord Brahma, the self-create, is considered the first living entity, born out of the lotus-like navel of Lord Vishnu. Generally we refer to the Supreme Lord as God, but the Vedas try to be more specific in describing Him. In Vedic terminology, God is known as Bhagavan, Vishnu, or Lord Krishna. These names more accurately describe His names, forms, and attributes. God is also known as the Supreme Godhead; a term which speaks to His infinite nature. God can take unlimited forms, ananta-rupam, with His personal expansions being equal in potency to His original form. According to Vedic information, God’s original form is that of Lord Shri Krishna, and Lord Vishnu is His primary expansion who handles all matters of creation.
Lord Brahma takes birth from Lord Vishnu, and is thus put in charge of populating the innumerable planets in the universe. Many of the first living entities on earth were great sages, with Vashishta being one of them. To handle governance on earth, Lord Brahma created the kshatriya, or warrior, race. There were two famous royal dynasties started at the time of creation: one coming from the sun-god and the other coming from the moon-god. Vashishta was put in charge of the solar dynasty. He was the family priest for several generations of Ikshvaku kings, including Lord Rama, one of Krishna’s most celebrated incarnations to appear on earth.
Like most sages of his time, Vashishta established a hermitage where he would perform all his priestly duties. On one occasion, the son of King Gadhi, Vishvamitra, visited Vashishta. At the time, Vishvamitra was a kshatriya king, very powerful and also quite pious. Vashishta was pleased to welcome the king, and he offered him the topmost hospitality. After being entertained to his satisfaction, Vishvamitra wanted to leave, but Vashishta begged him to stay a little longer. After finally acquiescing, Vishvamitra was treated to the highest class food which was offered by Vashishta’s cow named Shabala. Vashishta loved Shabala, for the cow would supply all his needs. Vishvamitra immediately developed an attachment to the cow and wanted to have it for himself. He offered Vashishta all kinds of gold and other wealth, but Vashishta refused to part with his cow. Shabala supplied all of his needs, especially those relating to the performance of religious sacrifices. This is all that Vashishta really cared about, for as a pious brahmana, he had no need for great wealth. There was nothing that Vishvamitra could offer him that would change his mind.
Vishvamitra wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. He took Shabala by force and began to leave. The cow immediately lamented and wondered why Vashishta wasn’t doing anything to fight back. After being petitioned by the cow, Vashishta replied that he was just a brahmana and didn’t have the strength to fight off a great a king as Vishvamitra. To help her master, Shabala agreed to supply whatever Vashishta needed to fight off the king. Thus a great fight ensued with Vashishta eventually emerging victorious due to Shabala’s help.
Vishvamitra was quite ashamed at this defeat, so he decided to convert to a brahmana. Performing great austerities, Lord Brahma eventually became pleased and acknowledged him as a rajarishi, or a saintly king. This didn’t really satisfy Vishvamitra since he didn’t want to be a king at all anymore. Regardless, he remained firm on the path of asceticism and was eventually recognized as a great sage by others. On one occasion while he was still a kshatriya king, Vishvamitra had a quarrel with Vashishta and mounted an attack as a result. In an instant, all one hundred of Vashishta’s sons were killed. Vashishta was greatly aggrieved by this, as was his wife Arundhati. Nevertheless, he tolerated it, for that is the nature of a brahmana.
Lakshmana reminded his elder brother, Lord Rama, of this incident during a particularly troubling time in the Lord’s life. As part of His pastimes, Rama resided in the forests of India for fourteen years alongside His wife, Sita Devi, and Lakshmana. It may seem strange that a prince would roam the forests for that long, but this was all due to a request made by Rama’s father, King Dasharatha, and Kaikeyi, Rama’s step-mother. The exile didn’t really dispirit Rama, for He had no attachment to anything, including royal life. In addition, Sita and Lakshmana were with Him, so who wouldn’t be happy being in their company all the time?
Yet on one occasion, Sita was kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. This kidnapping took place while Rama and Lakshmana were away from the group’s hermitage. Upon returning, they saw that Sita was gone. Immediately Rama gave way to lamentation and anger. He was ready to kill everyone in the world and destroy the entire planet in retaliation. Lakshmana then offered some sound words of advice to pacify his beloved brother. The above referenced statement was part of Lakshmana’s advice.
The reference to Vashishta is quite noteworthy because the sage was the spiritual master for both Rama and Lakshmana in their youth. Essentially, Lakshmana’s point is that even their great guru had to suffer through hardships. In one sense, losing a child is worse than losing a spouse because the child is viewed as being completely helpless. Lakshmana was saying that if their spiritual master was able to cope with such a horrific incident, that they, being his disciples, should also be as tolerant. The highest honor a disciple can pay to their spiritual master is to follow their instructions and learn from their example. Vashishta is described as a maharishi and family priest in this verse, which reinforces the point that even the most exalted of personalities are forced to suffer through tragedies every now and then.
Lord Rama eventually followed Lakshmana’s advice and composed Himself. The two brothers proved themselves to be first-class disciples by not only listening to the direct instructions given by their guru, but also by learning from the guru’s personal experiences. This is the mercy of the spiritual master. They go through so many trials and tribulations not only for their own benefit, but also to help future generations learn from their experiences. A good spiritual master is one who tries to lead by example. Such a person is known as an acharya.
The lesson here is that we all must be tolerant of the incessantly flowing ups and downs that life throws our way. Lord Rama was God Himself, so He was in no need of anyone’s counsel. Yet just to set a good example and to glorify His great devotees, He pretended to go through so many hardships. Aside from the loss of a child, one would be hard pressed to think of anything worse happening to a person than having their spouse kidnapped and taken into custody by a demon. Sita Devi’s suffering was probably worse than Rama’s, for she had to remain inside a garden where she was harassed by Rakshasis for months. She was even given the ultimatum that if she didn’t agree to become Ravana’s wife after a set time, she would be killed.
The hardships endured by Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana make our day-to-day problems seem miniscule. This is by design, for God is the original spiritual master, the guru for the whole world. He not only teaches through the written words found in the Bhagavad-gita, Ramayana, and Puranas, but also by example. Lord Rama was extremely tolerant, as was Lakshmana. Sita Devi was able to survive the toughest of situations simply by keeping her mind fixed on the lotus feet of her dear husband.
“One who is equal to friends and enemies, who is equiposed in honor and dishonor, heat and cold, happiness and distress, fame and infamy, who is always free from contamination, always silent and satisfied with anything, who doesn't care for any residence, who is fixed in knowledge and engaged in devotional service, is very dear to Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.18-19)
For the living entities suffering through the toils of material life, a great deal can be learned from Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana. Material fortunes will come and go, but we should learn to tolerate them. This life is not meant for material pleasures, but rather for the cultivation of spiritual knowledge. If we are perfectly God conscious at the time of death, we immediately return to the spiritual world where we never have to worry about suffering again. The greatest suffering of all is the repetition of birth and death. Only through commitment to devotional service can we find the cure to this disease. Through tolerance and forbearance, we should keep our minds fixed on the righteous path, as did all the great Vaishnava leaders of the past. Following in their footsteps, we too can successfully put a stop to the spinning wheel of material suffering.