“How can that female swan who is accustomed to sporting with the king of swans amidst lotus flowers ever cast her eyes on a water-crow that stays amidst bunches of grass?” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.20)
Expensive chocolates, the finest wines, the most succulent of meats…these things are all considered part of finer living. This lifestyle isn’t enjoyed by most people, so one who can indulge in such enjoyments is considered blessed and part of the upper tier of society. More than just an issue of affordability, indulging in the finer things in life requires sacrifice and commitment. One must really derive great enjoyment from these amenities in order to make the necessary investment of money. As a result of this higher level of enjoyment, one grows accustomed to having only the best things in life. A resulting side effect is that one can never go back to their old way of life. Cheap cars, foods, and drinks become intolerable. Along the same lines, devotees of God experience the highest taste by constantly associating with the Supreme Lord. When asked to indulge in material life, a return to the miserable and temporary existence of the conditioned, devotees utterly reject such a notion, being incapable of adapting to a substandard way of life. An example of this was seen with the wife of Lord Rama, Sita Devi, many thousands of years ago.
Why are there different classes of meat? Why doesn’t everybody just eat the same kinds of food and live in the same types of houses? Things would be a lot easier that way. There would be no fuss or jealousy, and everyone could be more at ease. The problem is that every individual is born with different qualities and desires. The concept of individuality implies that there is a desire to stand out, a need to be different. A person loses their individuality if they act the same way as everybody else, performing the same activities, and enjoying the same pastimes. Not only is there a desire to be different, but this is actually the natural course of things. For example, not every person goes into the same field of work when they turn into adults. Medical schools and business schools certainly recruit their fair share of candidates in the hopes of churning out bright, new doctors and businessmen, but there is no fear from the public that every single person will become a doctor or a business. Carpenters aren’t worried that there won’t be any new carpenters around, and policemen aren’t worried that there won’t be anyone to defend the innocent public in the near future.
“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.13)
These worries relating to the choices of occupation are absent because it is seen that people naturally take to different activities. The Vedas, the scriptures emanating from India, tell us that each individual is the same in quality but that their material bodies are composed of different modes. The individual gets their identity from the soul, or atma, which is the same in quality for every person. This atma is pure and uncontaminated, for it inherits its qualities from God. The Supreme Lord, whose original form is Krishna, can be thought of as a giant fire and the souls of the living entities as minute sparks from that fire. Though these sparks are pure and full of bliss, when they come to the material world they assume a body composed of the modes of nature. These modes are goodness, passion, and ignorance, and they are referred to as gunas in Sanskrit. Guna means a material quality or rope, and it is defined as such because a material quality causes the soul to be bound to the laws of nature. As a spiritual spark, the soul is not bound to anything, completely autonomous in its wanderings. However, in order to appear in the material world, the soul must agree to be bound up by gunas. This binding is voluntary and not instigated by the Supreme Lord.
When the soul gets covered up by gunas, the resulting life form, the living entity, takes to different activities. Since gunas can be mixed up in so many different proportions, there are no two conditioned living entities that are exactly the same. This is good in a sense because individuality is maintained, and thus differences are seen in activities and natures. Since there is no equality in the material sense, we see that some people take to enjoying the finer things in life, while others do not. For example, a rich person may require a private airplane, fully stocked with adult beverages and lavish furniture, while a middle class person may prefer travelling on a commercial airplane or simply driving their cars from place to place. Some people insist on eating high class foods, while others are fine with just simple grains, milk, and fruits. In fact, many yogis in India go their whole lives surviving simply off fruits and milk.
Since the material world is full of dualities, what is palatable for one person may not be so for another. To many, the renounced lifestyle of a yogi seems torturous. These differences in viewpoints speak to the notion of dualities, the fact that everything is relative. People grow accustomed to their way of life, especially if they enjoy fine living, so what they often view as painful really isn’t. For example, in today’s age, most everyone is accustomed to watching television, talking on cellular telephones, and using computers. Just twenty years ago, cell phones were hardly used and computers weren’t even owned by most people. In today’s world, it may seem impossible to get by without the internet, but people lived for so long without it and had no problem. If our cable or satellite television goes out for just a short period of time, we panic or get angry, but in previous times there was no need for such things. This shows that one who enjoys the finer things in life, the “good life”, has no desire to return to what they deem as ordinary or substandard life. Once a person grows accustomed to using their iPods to listen to music, going back to using walkmans and CD players is not an option.
Usually when discussing this phenomenon in terms of its significance in spiritual life, the issue is portrayed in a negative light. One of the central components of spiritual life in the Vedic tradition is tapasya, or penance. The more a person becomes attached to objects of sense gratification, the harder it becomes to perform penance. Penance isn’t simply a tool of punishment, but rather a way to curb the influence of the senses and acquire detachment. This detachment is extremely helpful in fostering one’s attachment to God, which is the ultimate objective for every person in life. Though others may be unaware of this objective, it is undoubtedly the highest engagement for the soul to reconnect with its source, the Supreme Lord. Awareness of this objective can take many many lifetimes to acquire, but that doesn’t diminish the superior nature of the sublime engagement of devotional service to God, or bhakti-yoga.
Though becoming attached to the finer things in life can certainly be a hindrance towards spiritual advancement, the phenomenon actually can teach us a lot about the benefits of performing bhakti-yoga and some of the side-effects that come from associating with God. Sita Devi illustrates this point quite clearly in the above referenced statement. Many thousands of years ago, the Supreme Absolute Truth, the original fire from which all sparks in the universe emanate, God Himself, appeared on earth in the guise of a human being. The activities of this human being have been chronicled in the famous poem composed by Maharishi Valmiki called the Ramayana.
One of the nice things about God appearing on earth is that it lets others see how those who have achieved the ultimate objective in life behave. Since the goal of human life is to associate with God and to always be thinking of Him, it makes sense that God’s associates who are present during His time on earth would be perfect candidates to study. One such associate was Sita Devi, Rama’s beloved wife. She exuded all the qualities of the perfect woman, mother, daughter, and wife. In many respects she was greater than Lord Rama, for she taught others how to practice devotion through her example.
Sita’s execution of bhakti-yoga wasn’t without obstacles. We can look back now and see that everything ended well for her, but her life was full of pain and suffering. In this way, she showed us how to remain firmly committed to the righteous path, regardless of what setbacks we may have to suffer through. Probably the most terrifying period of her life was when she was kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. Rama, His younger brother Lakshmana, and Sita were residing in the forest of Dandaka when one day Ravana came and set up a diversion to lure the two brothers away from Sita. Successfully taking her back to his island kingdom of Lanka, Ravana tried every which way to get Sita to turn her eye towards him. This, of course, was impossible, for Sita never turns her thoughts away from God.
While rebuking Ravana, in order to get her point across about how she would never give in to him, Sita offered up a series of metaphors, each one beautifully illustrating her desire to be with Rama and her utter repulsion towards Ravana. In the above referenced statement, we see that Sita compares Rama to the king of swans, or the greatest swan, and Ravana to an ordinary diver bird, or water fowl. She is saying that as the wife of the king of swans, she has grown accustomed to sporting with her mate amidst bunches of lotus flowers. Flowers are a symbol of the good life, for they have a pleasing fragrance and an outward appearance which is appealing to the eye. In the Vedic tradition, flowers play an integral role in beautification. They are used to make garlands which are offered to the spiritual master and to the deity residing within the temple. The lotus flower is also the symbol of Lord Vishnu, Krishna’s primary expansion residing within the spiritual world. One of Vishnu’s names is Padmanabha because He has a navel which looks like a lotus-flower. Vishnu’s wife, Lakshmi Devi, is known as Padmini because she sits on a lotus flower while residing in the spiritual world with her husband. This is a relevant point because Sita and Rama were technically incarnations of Lakshmi and Vishnu. From her statement, Sita is secretly hinting at her divinity and how she and her husband are always with lotus flowers.
Ravana, on the other hand, is compared to a low-class bird who simply hangs around bunches of reeds and grass. In this way, he is viewed as living a low-class life. Sita is saying that since she has experienced the higher taste of fine living, it would be impossible for her to associate with the low-class life that Ravana was accustomed to. What does this mean for us? Aside from helping us achieve the ultimate objective in life, bhakti-yoga is deemed to be fine living in the grand scheme of things. This may seem strange at first because we usually associate a yogi with someone who has a shaved head, simple clothing, and no possessions. In fact, the most elevated status in spiritual life is sannyasa, which is the renounced order. By fine living, we are referring to spiritual living. Bhakti-yoga is considered the high life because it involves direct association with God.
Though Sita got to travel the world alongside Rama, it doesn’t mean that we are bereft of this association today. In this day and age, we can directly connect with God through the transcendental sound vibration of His names. By regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, we can experience the high life. Fine living wouldn’t be complete without nice food, music, and clothing. These things certainly do exist in the life of a bhakti-yogi, but they are meant for the enjoyment of the Supreme Lord instead of the individual. Devotees offer up the tastiest food to the deity of the Lord, dressing Him in the nicest clothing, all the while playing the sweetest music.
Bhakti-yoga represents the sublime life. If we get accustomed to this transcendental lifestyle, we can one day have the same fortitude and determination that Sita did. She never gave in to Ravana because she didn’t find him or his lifestyle appealing in the least bit. By the same token, if we become attached to the wonderful food known as Krishna prasadam, and the beautiful music known as harinama-sankirtana, we can surely reject all the unnecessary and unwanted things in life.