Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cutting Through Illusion

Shri Lakshmana “Formerly this cave was slightly damaged by the thunderbolt hurled by Indra [which drove away the demon Maya], but Lakshmana, using his very sharp arrows, can cut it apart like a leaf being removed from its stalk.” (Hanuman speaking to Angada, Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 54.14)

svalpam hi kṛtam indreṇa kṣipatā hi aśanim purā |

lakṣmaṇo niśitaiḥ bāṇaiḥ bhindyāt patra puṭam yathā

This comparison made by Shri Hanuman, the faithful and loving servant of Shri Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is completely rooted in the truth, yet is beautiful and humorous at the same time. The humor comes not from the validity of the statement, but rather is found in the lengths that Hanuman goes to to show his deep love and affection for Lord Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana. Indeed, Hanuman will stop at nothing to defend the interests of his beloved objects of worship, showing that he has no other concern than the eternal engagement of divine love. Indra, who is known as the chief of celestials, the most powerful demigod, is often used as a reference point in Vedic literature to compare strength and ability. In this instance, Hanuman is essentially belittling Indra’s fighting potency as a way to properly convey the level of strength possessed by Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana, who is a divine figure and one of the most powerful bow warriors to have ever roamed this earth. Hanuman had no gripe with Indra, nor was he trying to purposely insult the great demigod. Hanuman is so loyal and affectionate towards Rama and His family members that he doesn’t mind criticizing others or putting their strengths into proper context. Hanuman is a supreme authority figure on the Absolute Truth, so he was not afraid to expound on It to Angada during one particularly troubling time.

Hanuman These events took place many thousands of years ago. when there weren’t any formal written books. As such, the details of significant events were related through poetry in the Sanskrit language. Maharishi Valmiki penned the Ramayana, which is a tale of the journeys and triumphs of the Supreme Lord during His travels on earth in a specific time period. The person we all know as God, the Supreme Being who is beyond fallibility, comes to earth from time to time to enact pastimes, punish miscreants, and give future generations of adherents endless waves of pure bliss in the form of stories describing historical events to swim in. Watching movies and televisions shows are quite popular pastimes in the modern age. While these activities focus on fictitious settings and storylines, taking the mind back in time to when the Supreme Lord roamed the earth brings the highest benefit, both spiritually and mentally. The effects of the senses are so strong that we are always looking to escape. Some methods of escape, such as drinking and doing drugs, prove to be harmful in the end. Yet escapism in the form of reading novels and watching movies tends to be less harmful, as there is no chemical reaction. When the desire to mentally leave the mundane platform takes the mind to a transcendental realm, a place where the Supreme Lord resides alongside His closest associates, the resulting bliss is unmatched. Therefore hearing the sacred stories found in the Ramayana is the best way to transcend the effects of the senses which give us so much pain.

The Ramayana is quite lengthy and chronicles many different events. Rama roamed the earth in the guise of a warrior prince, so He naturally had to deal with many opposing elements. The leader of the opposition at the time was a Rakshasa named Ravana. He devised a way to take Sita Devi, Rama’s wife, away from the Lord behind His back. In the subsequent search for Sita, Rama and Lakshmana made their way to the Kishkindha forest, where they ended up forming an alliance with a band of Vanaras, or a monkey/human species. Within each creation the events of the Ramayana take place in the Treta Yuga, which is the second of four delineations of time, or eras. Since the Treta Yuga is a more pure age, there are different types of species that roam the earth during this time. Even the monkeys, who are known as forest dwellers, are advanced in intelligence and ability.

Hanuman with the monkeys Sugriva was the king of the Vanaras in Kishkindha, and he kindly dispatched his massive monkey army around the world to search for Sita. The lead party included Hanuman, Sugriva’s most faithful, pious and powerful servant. In fact, any and all beneficial attributes the mind can conjure up are possessed by Hanuman. He is lacking nothing with respect to stature or content of character. The mission given to the monkeys was quite straightforward: find Sita within a month and return to Kishkindha with news of her whereabouts. After a month had passed, Hanuman’s group was unsuccessful in finding her. They came upon a beautiful cave which then led them to a seashore. The cave was very appealing to the eye since it had every opulence imaginable. The de facto leader of the monkey group, Angada, decided to abandon the search and either starve to death on the seashore or take refuge in the adjacent sanctuary-like cave.

Seeing the sudden change in plans, Hanuman became quite upset. Though he is supremely powerful, courageous and pious, Hanuman has no desire to please any of his own senses. Instead, he is always thinking about Rama’s happiness and the well-being of his friends. Seeing the other monkeys contemplate quitting, Hanuman decided to play a little politics to get his way. Though today most major governments are run through a parliamentary style system where votes determine the course of action, Vedic teachings provide a nice guideline for how to conduct diplomacy. There is even a section which describes how to deal with an enemy, someone who is unwilling to listen to your point of view. There are generally three options available to a king when faced with this situation. The ruler can win the dissenter over with words of flattery or they can also use brute force.

HanumanSeeing that both of these options weren’t feasible, Hanuman took to the third option: division, or bheda. This is a method commonly adopted by weaker parties, those who don’t have the strength to use brute force or the wherewithal to properly flatter the opposition. Hanuman surely could have fought with his fellow monkeys, but since he needed them to help him find Sita, it wasn’t a wise tactic. Therefore he took to fomenting dissent by directly challenging Angada in front of all the monkeys. First Hanuman praised Angada, but then he praised all the other monkeys as well. He told Angada that monkeys are generally fickle-minded, so even if everyone was agreeing to give up the mission right now, their minds might change very quickly, especially when they would start missing their wives and children.

In the above referenced statement, which was part of the bheda tactic, Hanuman is very nicely using a comparison to illustrate Lakshmana’s supreme strength. By invoking Lakshmana’s name, Hanuman is reminding Angada and the rest of the monkeys of what might happen should they fail to carry out Rama’s orders. Lakshmana is extremely kind and compassionate to the pious, for he is a part of Lord Vishnu, a non-different form of the original Godhead. Yet Lakshmana is the greatest defender of Rama, so if he sees someone disrespecting his dear brother, he will not sit idly by.

Lakshmana Hanuman’s reference of Indra and his effect on the cave in question has practical meaning to everyday life. Angada and the other monkeys were essentially lured into a form of procrastination. The demon Maya had created the wonderful panacea of enjoyment, which seemed to be well-protected. The monkeys had a choice: perform their prescribed task or take refuge in maya by giving up. Though this particular incident references the demon named Maya and the cave he created, the word “maya” also means “illusion”. Maya is the governing agent of the world that we live in. It is not that the world around us is false, but rather it is temporary. All objects of the phenomenal world are ultimately destined for destruction. The illusory forces really take hold when one gains an attachment to the temporary world. If we view an object as our life and soul even after knowing that it will be destroyed at some point, then certainly we have fallen victim to illusion. Reality, or not maya, is God. The aim of spiritual life is to break free of the effects of maya and take refuge in God.

The monkeys in this instance became victims of maya’s influence. They had been given a task directly by a representative of God, but through fear of failure, they were contemplating taking refuge in the comforts offered by the illusory surroundings. This is similar to how many of us procrastinate when we have a difficult job to do. Life is full of pressures, especially when we have a major homework assignment to complete or a project to work on for our job. The reason companies have physical office locations is to increase productivity. If we were to work from home all the time, the chances of procrastination would increase. Say, for example, we are working on a project in our bedroom at home. If we hit a bump in the road, a moment of difficulty, it would be very easy to take refuge in the bed. There is no better sleep than that which is evoked through procrastination. Normally when we go to sleep there is a pressure to wake up at a certain time the next morning. The procrastinator’s nap brings solace and comfort, a feeling of security, as there is no set time for waking up. When we are underneath our covers and enjoying the resulting warmth, we feel as if we are safe from all the pressures and stresses of life.

Hanuman worshiping RamaBut in reality, this comfort is simply illusion. We can certainly feel safe underneath our covers, but it would be silly to think that a blanket could protect us from the negative effects that result from not performing our duties. Shri Hanuman is basically making the same point to Angada. The monkeys, provoked by the sentiments of a commander named Tara, thought they would be safe living in the cave full of illusory enjoyments. Indeed, even Indra, the chief celestial, was only able to make a slight dent in the cave with his thunderbolt when he rooted out the demon Maya. The power of thunder and lightning is unimaginable. They say that if man could just figure out how to harness the power of one bolt of lightning, he could have enough power to last a very long time.

Yet as Hanuman accurately points out, Indra’s thunderbolt is not nearly as strong as Lakshmana’s arrows. During the Treta Yuga, warriors fought with bows and arrows. Though this method of fighting seems primitive today, the warriors used to invoke sacred mantras which would greatly augment the power of their arrows. Lakshmana, being a part of Vishnu Himself, had the most powerful arrows in the world. Hanuman says that Lakshmana’s arrows would treat the seemingly heavily fortified cave as a leafstalk. Tearing apart a leaf from its bed is not very difficult at all, even for the weakest person.

When the leaf is removed, it obviously loses its life and ultimately wilts away. In this way, Hanuman is saying that by angering Lakshmana and abandoning the mission, the monkeys would easily be found and killed. Angada’s strongest case for taking refuge in the cave related to the anger that Sugriva would show them for having failed in their mission. But through Hanuman’s cogent words, the monkeys were correctly informed that they would actually be punished more severely for not carrying out Rama’s wishes even after their allotted time had expired.

“The worker who is free from all material attachments and false ego, who is enthusiastic and resolute and who is indifferent to success or failure, is a worker in the mode of goodness.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.26)

Shri Rama Darbar Lakshmana’s strength is very great, as is Hanuman’s love for him. The monkeys would eventually continue their mission after they received some helpful words of advice from the elderly bird Sampati. Hanuman’s crafty attempt at playing mind games kindly reminds us that there is no safety in life. Maya cannot provide us security from the forces of death, which take hold through all-devouring time, kala. Therefore it is better to carry on with our prescribed duties, regardless of the success or failure we meet. We may win or we may lose, but either way, there is no avoiding the realities of life. Maya is certainly a strange bedfellow, someone we definitely don’t want to remain attached to. By regularly remembering Hanuman and his dedication to Rama and Lakshmana, maya’s influence can be reduced and the shelter of the Divine Nature of the Lord can be had. The most potent form of protection available to the sincere souls of today is the transcendental sound vibration of the name of the Supreme Lord, a shelter which can be permanently erected by regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. When it comes to spiritual life, there is no need to procrastinate. Chanting can be practiced at any time and at any place. Remembering God and His dearmost associates is never a waste of time. Morning or night, awake or asleep, if we remember Hanuman, Lakshmana, Rama and Sita, our time will be well spent.