Monday, March 7, 2011

Respect the Game

Hanuman “If I can't find Sita in the three heavens after exerting so much effort, I will bring Ravana, the king of Rakshasas, here bound up.” (Hanuman addressing the Vanaras, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 1.41)

yadi vā tridive sītāṃ na drakśyāmyakṛtaśramaḥ |

baddhvā rākśasarājānamānayiṣyāmi rāvaṇam

By respecting the rules of the game, a player brings honor and prestige upon themselves. The player who always attempts to cheat or follows a strategy that leaves everything to chance isn’t respected as much should he come out successful. The game in its most beautiful form is an equal competition, one where the rules are applied fairly and evenly to all parties involved. By following the model of fair play, the victor can really feel that his win was substantial and something to be proud of. In the absence of deference to the guidelines of the competition, the subsequent external praise extolling the traits and attributes of the player loses some of its meaning. For the respectful player, the bigger the fight, the more substantive adulation he receives. No one worked within the bounds of the duties prescribed to him better than Shri Hanuman, the faithful servant of Lord Rama. Therefore it is not surprising to see that he is adored and loved today just as much as he was in the immediate aftermath to his heroic exhibitions of strength and dedication in divine love.

BilliardsSo what does it mean exactly to respect a game? Can there be a right way to go about winning a competition? Aren’t all games dependent on cheating to some extent or another? The game of billiards, also commonly known as pool, illustrates the differences very nicely. Billiards typically involves knocking balls laying on a felt table into different pockets located at specific corners and sides of the table. The player strikes a white ball known as the cue ball with their cue, or pool stick. The larger, white ball then knocks into other balls, causing collisions which will hopefully guide the target balls to land into specified areas. As is the case with most playing fields, a number of different games can be adopted with the same game pieces on a billiards table. One of the more popular games is eight-ball, where the objective is to knock the number eight ball legally into a pocket before your opponent does. In this game there are fifteen balls on the table, in addition to the cue ball. To start, one of the players is assigned a target ball-type, either solids or stripes. The assignment is usually determined off of the break and the subsequent pocketing of the first ball. Since the first seven balls are mostly colored in, they are referred to as solids, while balls nine through fifteen have the opposite appearance; hence they are known as stripes. The basic rule and objective is to knock in all of your assigned color balls first and then finally the eight ball. The eight ball is neutral and cannot be placed into a pocket before a player has knocked down all of their assigned colored balls; otherwise there will be a foul that causes an immediate loss of the game.

In a more professional setting, an added twist to the game is the calling of shots. In leisure games, usually only the eight ball needs to be called, but in the professional ranks, often times every single shot has to be predicted prior to being struck. What does it mean to call a shot? Say that we are playing eight ball and we are assigned the solid color. Based on the current makeup of the table, we are interested in knocking the number one ball into a specific corner. We could just go ahead and take the shot and see what happens, but in the mood of respecting the rules of the game, a highly skilled player will call their shot prior to hitting it. “I’m going to hit the one ball into the corner pocket.” This declaration is made audible enough so that the opponent can hear it. If the one ball doesn’t go into the identified pocket, the player loses their turn. Other balls may also randomly or unintentionally land into pockets, but since they were not called, the shot is deemed to be an unskilled one and not worthy of any reward.

PoolAt first glance these strict rules seem a little silly. You’re playing a game where random collisions are bound to happen after all, so what is the harm in not calling a shot? For the serious players, calling the shot shows respect for the game and a higher level of sophistication. A player winning the game this way can feel proud of their achievement, knowing that they truly earned the victory and that they didn’t simply get lucky knocking a few balls together. At the beginning of the game, any player can strike one of their assigned balls with tremendous force and just hope for random collisions. Often times with such shots other balls will drop into pockets by accident. A serious player takes no joy in such an occurrence because there is no skill involved. Even in the game of baseball, the highly skilled players tell others what they are going to do beforehand. A confident pitcher will make it known to everyone that he is going to throw a fastball on the next pitch. The legendary Babe Ruth, a confident hitter, once pointed to centerfield as if to signal that he would hit the ball there on the next swing. Surely enough, he hit a home run to that area on the next pitch. Whether his pointing actually signaled a calling of a shot or not is up for debate, but the mindset was still present.

What about in other competitions besides game play, such as warfare and conflict? Can a fight to the death with an enemy be equated to a game? To those who are chivalrous and adherent to the dictates of dharma, even warfare has rules. One can respect the game of mortal conflict by battling enemies in fair fights, where no backhanded means are adopted. Yet the most gallant warriors, such as Shri Hanuman, a notable fighter and eternal adherent to dharma, go one step further by both acknowledging the mission at hand and openly declaring the methods they will employ to achieve victory.

Hanuman with Lakshmana and RamaWhat is dharma? Typically it is taken to be religion, but the root definition describes dharma as an essential characteristic. Since the natural propensity of the spirit soul is to be attached to the Supreme Soul, the meaning of dharma can expand to that of an occupational duty, the set of guidelines and procedures which aims to keep the individual always in the proper and ideal consciousness, one that is completely spiritual. Why is a specific consciousness required for an essential characteristic to be maintained? In the conditioned state, the living entity, the purified soul entrapped in an ever-changing material body, becomes forgetful of its original nature. Not only is knowledge of the relationship to God forgotten, but other impermanent characteristics are assumed and taken to be paramount. Due to these faulty perceptions, different prescribed duties, or dharmas, which bare no relation to the original consciousness are adopted.

“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.22)

To rekindle the dormant love for God within the heart is not an easy task in the least bit. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India which first revealed the dictates of dharma that apply to all living entities, don’t assume that a person can perfect their consciousness in only one lifetime. The soul lives forever, so there is no need to fear death. If there is a wrinkle to this system, it is seen at the time of birth, when knowledge of previous lives is immediately erased. It is not that one’s natural characteristic ever changes, but rather, the level of ignorance that envelops the consciousness within a given life form can go through fluctuations, rising and falling like the tides of the ocean. At the time of birth, the level of ignorance is at its peak, so adherence to certain rules and regulations is required to regain the original state of pure knowledge, an intelligence which is so powerful that it can illuminate all the gates of the body.

Lord KrishnaWhat do these rules consist of and are they the same for everyone? As mentioned before, dharma is the occupational duty derived from the predominant characteristic. But if we divide different activities into their different characteristic requirements, we come up with smaller, more targeted dharmas. The ultimate goal, that of achieving God consciousness, is always the same, but the process to reach that heightened consciousness can vary, with each smaller dharma gradually leading to the final favorable condition. As an example, let’s say that we buy a new appliance or furniture item that requires assembly. Upon opening the package, we will find an instruction manual which details how the particular piece should be assembled. For one who has no knowledge of assembly or what the final product should look like, adherence to the instruction manual is required. Ignoring the guidance given, which is itself a type of dharma, will surely lead to negative reactions. For those who are not on the highest platform of knowledge, going against the dictates of dharma will be considered sin and thus bring about bad fortune. If the furniture piece is assembled incorrectly, it will surely break at some point down the line. Depending on the magnitude of the deviation from the assembly manual, the resulting destruction can be minor or very troublesome.

But for the advanced person adherence to the instruction manual is not required at all. This wise individual has likely assembled many such pieces previously, or they are at least able to see the big picture. To an ordinary person, a bunch of spare parts can look like chaos, but for one with a trained eye, the final piece is visualized through the mess of the individual parts. In this situation ignoring the instruction manual is not considered sin because the ultimate characteristic of knowledge and familiarity with the furniture item has already been established.

“A self-realized man has no purpose to fulfill in the discharge of his prescribed duties, nor has he any reason not to perform such work. Nor has he any need to depend on any other living being.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.18)

Lord KrishnaExpanding the same example to the largest scope, God conscious persons, being aware of their natural characteristic and attachment to the Lord, are not required to follow the dictates of dharma, be they of the small or large scale. Does this mean that adherence to virtue and honor should be abandoned at some point in the progression towards ultimate realization of God? What’s interesting to note is that the more liberated a person becomes, i.e. the more they take to loving God, the more they feel compelled to adhere to rules of dharma. Hanuman is a great example of this.

Many thousands of years ago during the Treta Yuga, the Supreme Absolute Truth, the Supreme Soul who we are inclined to love, manifested on this earth in the guise of a warrior prince named Rama. Rama was God Himself, but even He agreed to voluntarily abide by the dictates of dharma prescribed to His order. As the son of a king, it was Rama’s duty to protect the innocent and maintain the good name of His family, the Ikshvakus. On one occasion, the honesty of His father, Maharaja Dasharatha, was in serious jeopardy of being broken, so the Lord decided to embark on a fourteen year journey through the forest. Rama’s gesture both maintained the good name of His father, who had ordered his son to leave the kingdom, and showed others the magnanimous and renounced nature of the Supreme Lord. While in the forest, Rama’s beautiful wife Sita Devi would be taken from Him in a backhanded plot enacted by a Rakshasa king named Ravana and his henchman Maricha. In His subsequent search for Sita, Rama ended up forming an alliance with a Vanara king named Sugriva.

Lord RamaSugriva’s chief minister was Hanuman, who, though in a monkey form, had the intelligence of the greatest of Vedic scholars. Born of the deity controlling the wind, Hanuman was extremely powerful and capable of assuming any shape at will. Knowledge of these powers didn’t come to him until it was almost too late. Hanuman’s party was dispatched by Sugriva and told to find Sita’s whereabouts. When it looked like they were out of options, Hanuman was informed by another member of his party, Jambavan, that he was extremely powerful and capable of rising to an immense stature.

Though these descriptions seem to be part of a mythological tradition, the statements are accepted as is from Maharishi Valmiki, the compiler of the Ramayana. We can’t think of monkeys talking or living entities suddenly expanding in size, but with the numerous varieties in species and marshaling of mystic yoga powers, anything is possible. Indeed, these Vanaras were more forest dwellers than monkeys, but since the age of Treta was one of purity, even the forest creatures were advanced in intelligence and mystic ability.

Hearing Jambavan’s words, Hanuman increased his stature and then climbed atop a mountain. Through intelligence provided by a bird named Sampati, Hanuman and the Vanaras were informed that Sita was being held captive on an island kingdom of Lanka, which was situated across the vast ocean. Only Hanuman was capable of jumping far enough to make it across the water, so in preparing himself for the leap, he assumed a massive size.

In the above referenced quote, Hanuman is getting ready to jump. Yet, before leaving he made sure to state the objectives of his mission. This wasn’t necessary, as the orders had already been given to his party by Sugriva. But Hanuman, maintaining the honor of the game, wanted to call his shot. He told the monkeys that if he couldn’t find Sita in Ravana’s kingdom, he would leap up to the heavenly planets and look for her there. The assumption was that if Sita had been killed, she would have immediately gone to heaven.

Hanuman Hanuman then declared that if he still couldn’t find Sita in heaven, he would bind up Ravana and bring him back with him. This statement speaks to Hanuman’s immense strength. Through boons offered by various celestials, Ravana was a Rakshasa of tremendous power, almost unbeatable in battle. Yet Hanuman, as a faithful servant and divine figure himself, could easily conquer Ravana or anyone else in conflict. What’s interesting to note is that Hanuman didn’t declare that he would kill Ravana. This would actually go against the rules of the game. Surely, Ravana was deserving of the punishment of death, but this had to come from Rama. Sita was Rama’s wife, so if Hanuman were to rescue her and kill Ravana, the honor of Rama and the Ikshvaku dynasty would be tarnished a bit.

Hanuman is a maha-bhagavata, the greatest of devotees. He has no need to adhere to any rules and regulations prescribed in any level of dharma, but he remains pious out of deep love and respect for his beloved Rama. Hanuman’s behavior is exemplary and should be carefully studied and understood. As one who is already God conscious, Hanuman doesn’t need to follow any established procedures to purify his consciousness. He is already at the level of being one with his essential characteristic of loving God. Yet it is precisely this affection that causes him to show even more respect to the laws of warfare in the Vedic tradition, the rules of the game if you will.

Hanuman Those who have reached the pinnacle of spiritual understanding still show deference to the dictates of dharma to set a good example for others and offer their respects to the Supreme Lord, who initially put the rules into place. Dharma is conspicuous by its absence in the present age of Kali. Therefore, the great Vedic seers, those whose torch held in honor of the Supreme Lord never burns out, have simplified the prescribed duties for mankind. Everyone is advised to simply chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, as often as possible. Though chanting, which is a quintessential act belonging to the discipline known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, already has retraction built in, one is advised to also refrain from the four most dangerous sinful activities: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex and intoxication.

The restricted activities are the most dangerous in terms of their ability to keep one from assuming their original consciousness. The rules themselves aren’t God, but they are put into place by Him to allow others to gradually progress to the topmost platform of consciousness. Worshipable figures like Hanuman follow such rules to show others the way. This kindness, sacrifice and generosity on their part can never be repaid, but it can be daily recognized and honored. Hanumanji to this day always reads from the Ramayana and chants the glorious name of Shri Rama. Hanuman always respects whatever game he is asked to play, but above all, he honors and obeys the dictates of the Supreme Lord. We would be greatly fortunate to one day have the same level of dedication and love as that which is safely housed in the heart of Shri Hanuman.

hanuman-poster-DH53_lThe demons may not always respect the rules of the game, but the devotees will. Ravana stole Sita away without even fighting Rama, and on many previous occasions, the demon and his associates killed innocent sages and then ate their flesh. Not interested in forging a purified consciousness, miscreants make up their own dharmas on a whim and then hope for the best. Just as ignoring the instruction manual can prove injurious for those who are not intelligent, transgressing the rules put into place for achieving God consciousness will similarly lead to disastrous results. Ravana’s punishment came in many forms through a methodical drubbing, but it started with Hanuman’s arrival in Lanka, an event which led to the burning of the city and ultimately Rama’s arrival. When the Lord appears on the scene, there is no chance for escape by the offenders. Ravana would be soundly defeated by Rama, and Sita would be rescued. Shri Hanuman’s role in this wonderful drama of reality has never been forgotten, nor should it. He will always be endeared to Shri Rama, Sita and Lakshmana. If somehow we are fortunate enough to get in the good graces of Hanuman, we can expect a similar spiritual benefit, that of eternal association with Bhagavan.