Friday, May 6, 2011

Slight of Hand

Hanuman “At night, on the sun having set, Maruti [Hanuman] contracted his body. Becoming the size of a cat, he was a wonderful sight to behold.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 2.49)

sūrye cāstaṃ gate rātrau dehaṃ saṃkśipya mārutiḥ |

vṛṣadaṃśakamātraḥ san babhūvādbhutadarśanaḥ

As is so nicely noted in its name, the Ramayana glorifies the jewel of the Raghu dynasty, the handsome and pious prince of Ayodhya, Lord Rama, who is a celebrated avatara, a non-different expansion of the Supreme Lord in the spiritual sky. Any work which glorifies God becomes pleasing to those who have turned their backs on material nature in favor of the sublime engagement of divine love. Therefore, the most exalted servants, those who have no inkling for mundane sense gratification and the misery it brings, take great joy from hearing the accounts of the life and pastimes of Shri Rama found in the Ramayana, a poem penned by Maharishi Valmiki. Since the complete definition of God includes His paraphernalia, energies and associates, the Ramayana does not focus exclusively on Rama. Since the poem was regularly recited in the Lord’s kingdom by His two sons, Lava and Kusha, Rama Himself derives great enjoyment from hearing the accounts found within, especially those describing the wonderful exploits of the greatest servant of all-time, one whose dedication, love and affection for his worshipable object was so great that in many respects he surpassed his master in stature. This heightened status was due to the benevolence of the Supreme Lord, to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. Indeed, that Supreme Benefactor is the source of all good things in this world.

“He who attributes his virtues to You and holds himself responsible for his sinfulness; who fixes all his hopes on You and loves Your devotees - in his heart dwell, You and Sita.” (Maharishi Valmiki speaking to Lord Rama, Ramacharitamanasa, Ayodhya Kand, 130.1-4)

HanumanThe nature of the bhaktas, or devotees, is to attribute all their good qualities to the Lord and lay the blame for all their bad traits at their own feet. One may argue that this mindset is too narrow to be valid, for if God was responsible for the good things in life, surely He is also to blame for any bad situations and maltreatment shown to His fellow sons and daughters. Certainly every outcome can be traced to the cause of all causes, the Supreme Lord, but since the bhakta is a devoted lover, he overlooks any and all perceived flaws in his loveable object. Goswami Tulsidas very nicely points out that the topmost transcendentalist, who is compared to a Chatak bird which does nothing all day but stare at its beloved dark raincloud, is so attached to its object of affection, God, that there is no way to properly measure its love. In ordinary dealings, the limit to our dedication to the object of our affection is measured by our reaction to their maltreatment towards us. Any fall from grace or any lapse in judgment on the part of the worshiped is seen as a character defect, and after enough deficiencies in behavior have been observed, the level of love felt by the corresponding party dwindles. What lover remains dedicated to their object of affection after being wholly rejected time and time again?

Yet the Chatak bird, the pure devotee, through the good times and the bad remains ever committed to its devotion, which itself is the impetus for further dedication. Because of this behavioral characteristic, the devotee remains forever tied to the Supreme Lord, as God stays in their heart at all times. In the Ramacharitamanasa, a devotional poem which synthesizes the events of the Ramayana and presents them in an easier to understand format, the details of a meeting between Maharishi Valmiki and Lord Rama are described. At the time, Rama was travelling through the woods with His wife Sita Devi and younger brother Lakshmana. They were looking for a nice place to set up a cottage, so after humbly approaching Valmiki at his ashrama, Rama asked if he knew of any suitable location. Valmiki cleverly replied by summarizing the qualities of a devotee and stating that Rama and Sita should take up residence in the heart of such an individual. One of the characteristics mentioned by Valmiki is that of holding oneself responsible for all sinful characteristics and attributing any and all beneficial traits to the Supreme Lord. This is a very nice quality, as it is indicative of the devotee’s being on the highest platform of divine love.

Lord RamaAnother quality mentioned by Valmiki during that meeting is that of deriving great pleasure from hearing of Rama’s activities. The ears of a devotee are compared to an ocean which is constantly replenished by hearing of the transcendental pastimes of Rama and His closest associates. It is also noted that no matter how many tributaries and rivers come rushing in, this ocean never becomes overfilled, thus indicating the differences between spiritual qualities and material ones. We may enjoy a particular film or television show and watch it over and over again, but after a certain point, a level of satiation will be reached. We can’t read the same books, watch the same movies, and hear the same songs every single day and not get bored. But the ocean-like mind of the pure devotee is so wonderful that it can absorb the same descriptions of the pastimes of the Lord and the same sound vibrations glorifying His transcendental qualities over and over again without ever being fully satisfied.

The hidden secret of divine love known only to the topmost transcendentalists of the bhakti school is worship in separation. Generally, the primary desire is to unite with the object of affection and enjoy the synergy that results. After all, association is the entire nature of the friendly relationship; meet up with your friends and hang out. Yet with the Supreme Lord, if the consciousness is properly situated, being separated from Him in a physical sense is actually more pleasurable than directly being in His company. This is due entirely to God’s absolute nature, as separation is really not any different than personal contact when on the spiritual plane. The Lord, through His pastimes and names, is just as potent far away as He is when standing right before us. Therefore the greatness of works like the Ramayana cannot be properly measured.

Hanuman readingThe qualities of a devotee provided by Valmiki apply to a large cross-section of individuals, especially those residing in the spiritual world. Though there are countless liberated souls engaged in devotional service, no single person better exemplifies the characteristics of a devotee of God than Shri Hanuman, the faithful Vanara warrior and eternally existing worshipable object. Hanuman, though having had Rama’s personal association and benedictions, worships the Lord almost entirely in the mood of separation. The Ramayana exists primarily for his pleasure, as he takes great joy in hearing the same accounts of Rama’s life and teachings every single day. Though Hanuman is supremely powerful, wholly renounced, and fully capable of harnessing any of the perfections related to mystic yoga, his favorite activities are hearing and chanting about the Supreme Lord.

Worship in separation is not a unidirectional force. Just as the devotees love to hear about the activities of their favorite person, the Supreme Lord and His associates take great joy in hearing of the transcendental activities of the devotees. Just as much as Hanuman loves thinking about Rama, the Lord takes great delight in glorifying and hearing of the exploits of Hanuman. One specific incident relating to Hanuman is described as amazing in the Ramayana of Valmiki. This viewpoint was held not only by the celestials in the sky overseeing the events, but also by Rama, who is antaryami, or the all-pervading witness.

What exactly did Hanuman do that was so wonderful? Did he dress himself very nicely? Did he take on a stature that was extremely powerful? Did he perform some amazing feat for his own benefit? Aside from worship in separation, wherein one hears about the Supreme Lord and keeps Him within their heart and mind, another aspect of devotional service involves direct engagement in a task to be performed for God’s benefit. Hanuman, as the best candidate for service in any and all situations, took up the most daunting mission of finding Sita’s whereabouts. During Rama’s trek through the woods, His wife was kidnapped by a Rakshasa demon named Ravana. This unfortunate occurrence presented an opportunity for service to the Vanaras, or human-like monkeys, residing in the forest of Kishkindha. While Sugriva was their king, Hanuman was their most capable warrior.

HanumanHanuman braved his way across the massive ocean for Rama. How did an ordinary monkey travel over such a large body of water? Why was this journey even required? Sita’s captor, Ravana, had set up camp on the island of Lanka. This kingdom was strategically situated so as to make it difficult for others to attack. Indeed, Ravana didn’t think that anyone would be capable of infiltrating his seemingly impregnable fortress of opulence. Even if someone did manage to make it over the ocean, they couldn’t do much by themselves. How could they stand and fight against the massive Rakshasa army, each member of which was well skilled in the art of illusion?

Of course Hanuman was no ordinary figure. Though Sugriva had many powerful monkeys in his dispatched search parties, only Hanuman was capable of even thinking of getting across the ocean. To accomplish this task, Hanuman first had to assume a massive size. As a master of mystic yoga, such a transformation was not difficult for him. After assuming a gigantic stature, one the size of a mountain, Hanuman assured his friends that he would reach Lanka and find Sita. If she weren’t there, he’d then leap to the heavenly planets and continue searching. If she still wasn’t found, Hanuman would bring the entire kingdom of Lanka back with him to scour out; such was the determination of this great servant.

With the appropriate bodily frame attained, Hanuman took a giant leap off of a mountaintop and flew through the air. Though he met several obstacles along the way, he brushed them aside and reached the shore of Lanka. Just crossing the ocean alone was a difficult task, one duly noted and appreciated by the celestials who had a front-row seat in the sky. Since Hanuman’s mission was reconnaissance, he couldn’t keep his massive stature and enter Lanka. The whole point of the mission was to find Sita and return the information of her whereabouts to Rama. The Lord would then do the needful in respect to fighting Ravana and rescuing His wife.

Hanuman worshiping RamaHanuman could defeat anyone in battle, but his assigned task did not call for direct conflict, especially one instigated by him. The Rakshasas were also well on guard for enemy attack. Though their kingdom was strategically located, it is the nature of the sinful to always be fearful of losing their possessions secured through ill-gotten means. Hanuman finally decided on assuming a diminutive form, one that would allow him to enter Lanka unnoticed. As such, he anxiously awaited the nightfall, and when it finally came, he reduced himself to the size of a cat.

This transformation from a giant figure to a small one having the dimensions of a cat is described in the Ramayana as being an amazing sight. A vision is usually considered amazing and wonderful to behold because it is rare or difficult to duplicate. Various landmarks around the world, such as large towers, unique formations of rocks, waterfalls, etc., are deemed amazing and natural wonders. But Hanuman, as an animate being, was amazing because of his ability to cast aside all ego and desire for fame by assuming a diminutive stature. His massive form was surely a sight to behold, but his assuming a small form for the sake of Rama’s benefit was even more amazing. Not surprisingly, he would go on to successfully infiltrate Lanka, find Sita, allay her fears, and then safely return to Rama and Sugriva.

To this day, Hanuman is worshiped in a variety of forms, some which depict his massive stature that leapt across the ocean and others which show him carrying a giant mountain. Yet when he is pictured with Sita, Rama and Lakshmana, he is seen in a very diminutive form, one which is offering obeisances to the Supreme Lord. Upon first glance, it appears that Rama is imposing His superior stature in this pose, with Hanuman acting as His subject following a reverential attitude. But the truth is that Hanuman’s diminutive stature is completely his own doing; he purposefully makes himself very small in the presence of Rama and His family. Shri Rama tries His best to pick up Hanuman and bring him on an equal level, but Hanuman flat out refuses. As the greatest devotee of God, Hanuman never assumes himself to be equal to the Supreme Lord. Yet due to the perfect attitude he embodies and his undying love and devotion for Rama, he actually surpasses God in many respects.

Rama darbar Goswami Tulsidas notes that the servant who properly serves the master exceeds the master in stature. As proof of this claim, Tulsidas points to how Hanuman leapt over the massive ocean to reach Lanka, while Rama would later walk across a bridge constructed of rocks by the monkeys. The purport is that the servant, through his loving service to the Lord, attains the highest stature due simply to the kind benedictions provided by the Master. As such, it is not surprising to see Hanuman held in such high esteem today. He is the perfect embodiment of love in separation and also humility. He is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done in the transcendental arena. The garb he has to don and the size he has to assume are of no concern to him. Just as there is no proper way to measure the love felt by the Chatak bird towards its beloved raincloud, which is a metaphor for the Supreme Lord whose bodily hue is dark blue, there is no limit to the glories of Shri Hanuman. Just like an ocean that can never overflow with stories about the original Divine Being in the sky, the body of water that represents the glories of Shri Hanuman can never swell over, no matter how often it is replenished with kind words offered in his favor.