“Underneath a banyan tree in Panchavati alongside Sita and Lakshmana, Prabhu is looking especially beautiful. This vision gives all auspiciousness, says Tulsidas.” (Dohavali, 3)
pañcabaṭī baṭa biṭapa tara sītā lakhana sameta|
sohata tulasīdāsa prabhu sakala sumaṇgala deta ||
Tulsidas herein continues his meditation that opens his transcendental work of dohas, or couplets, praising the Supreme Lord. All the great devotees, the saintly class of men who remember their beloved object of worship at all times, begin important spiritual activities with a period of meditation, a sort of remembrance and offering of respects to those who are important to them. Through meditation, Tulsidas is hoping that his writing will come out nicely, as without the grace of the Lord no one can compose beautiful poetry that describes the inner meanings of the sacred Vedic texts. Based on the wonderful outcome that would follow, we can understand that Tulsidas’ dhyana was indeed fruitful. The perfection of his writing can be attributed directly to the object of focus, the image that was firmly established in the poet’s mind at the beginning of composition. In this way we see that for meditation to provide tangible results, the concentration must be on something real, an entity that is full of form, names, attributes and pastimes. Since the mind can travel at remarkable speeds, when meditation finds the proper object to focus on, the desired association can be had within a second.
Traveling to distant places requires some advanced means of transportation, such as an automobile or airplane. The mind, however, operates differently. We can think of someone or something situated thousands of miles away and be transported to their company within a second. Let’s say that we visited a natural wonder of the world or a famous landmark in the recent past. Though the firsthand vision is no longer with us, the memory of the incident still is. By focusing the mind on that experience, we can be transported back to the same time and scene. In this way the powers of the mind, which are driven by the individual identifiable aspect in every form of life, the soul, prove to be wondrous and difficult to properly understand.
“A man must elevate himself by his own mind, not degrade himself. The mind is the friend of the conditioned soul, and his enemy as well.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.5)
With power comes great responsibility. If the abilities of the mind are not harnessed and utilized properly, they can lead to delusion, dementia and constant angst. On the other hand, when the mind is properly controlled through divine meditation, the resulting condition is supremely beneficial. After all, if we remain forever in the company of the Eternally Blissful, why should we not always be happy? When our friends and family leave after visiting us, what follows is a period of sadness, a feeling of emptiness within the heart and home. If we could remain forever in the company of the departed, keeping them always by our side, then surely the pain of separation would be alleviated.
For the soul, there is one person whose company is always meant to be kept, irrespective of time, space, circumstance, body type, age, gender, or any other variable factor. Ironically enough, the soul’s complementary life partner actually never leaves its side. In the Bhagavad-gita, the Song of God, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, reveals that as the Supersoul, He resides within the hearts of every living entity. But due to our forgetfulness and our lack of control over the mind, thoughts and consciousness get shifted elsewhere, towards objects of the phenomenal world. Even the powerful force of memory is constantly focused on such temporary things, while the real source of pleasure rests right within us.
Engaging in constitutional activities can help us better understand the central properties of the soul and its spiritual counterpart, the Supersoul. Though this discipline as a whole is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, it can have many different aspects, each of which, when practiced properly, can lead to the same destination of a perfected consciousness. Remembering, or smaranam, also can be practiced as dhyana, or meditation. Meditation is a popular outlet for the frustrated looking for peace of mind and relief from the rigors of life. Yet without an identifiable object of attention, meditation will prove fruitless. Once the period of concentration breaks, the lack of distress will vanquish, leaving the mind an open target for attack from the influences of nature that are sure to resurface.
On the other hand, when meditation is practiced in the mood of bhakti, wherein the proper object of worship is identified and targeted, a purified vision remains burned within the consciousness for an extended period of time. The differences between the two types of meditation are somewhat similar to the differences between cardiovascular exercise and weight training. When one jogs for a few hours, runs in a race, or spends some time on a specific cardiovascular machine, their heart rate is elevated and calories are burned. Though there is physical exertion, the muscles being utilized aren’t necessarily challenged or forced to grow. Therefore the benefit to these activities remains present mostly during the actual time of exercise.
With weight-training, however, the muscles being worked are strenuously challenged. Indeed, for one who wants to bulk up their physique, the recommended practice is to push the muscles into almost tearing by doing short repetitions of various exercises, with the resistance increased with each successive set of repetitions. Through this style of exercise, the muscles actually continue to develop throughout the day, long after the exercise period is over. Therefore most fitness trainers recommend that weight training play a significant role in an individual’s weight loss or exercise regimen, as the muscles continue to burn fat throughout the day versus remaining stagnant, as is seen with ordinary cardiovascular exercise.
With bhakti, meditation really bears fruit because of the effect had on consciousness. When focused on the most loveable object in the world, the mindset of the worshiper drastically shifts from desiring to lord over nature and enjoy the senses to actually wanting to remain forever a servant of the Supreme Lord. No two people better exemplify the bhakti spirit than Shri Lakshmana and Sita Devi. God, through His kind mercy, kindly appeared on earth in His avatara of Lord Rama many thousands of years ago. While others may scoff at the notion that God can come to earth in a spiritual form that is immune to the effects of nature, the behavior of Shri Rama and His closest associates certainly gives every indication of the divine and His influence. Just by hearing Lakshmana’s authorized words we can understand that Rama is God.
Rama was the eldest son of a royal family ruling over Ayodhya, so the throne was His birthright. Tulsidas, a wonderful poet and devotee, easily could have chosen to meditate on the form of the Lord in a royal garb, where He is fanned by adoring members of His inner circle while seated on the throne. Yet Tulsidas, in the above referenced verse from the Dohavali, remarks that the vision of Rama sitting underneath a banyan tree in the Panchavati forest brings all auspiciousness. Now, when we go with our family to get professional pictures taken, do we go out into the woods and sit underneath a tree wearing nothing but clothes made out of bark, with our hair tied up and placed on top of our head? When we have a big event to go to, like a dance or a formal dinner, can we wear the simplest clothes and still look beautiful?
While God can be viewed and worshiped in a mood of awe and reverence, the divine lovers who are always connected with the Supreme Spirit in the highest rasas, or transcendental mellows, derive the most pleasure by remembering the Lord dressed in simple garb, outfits that allow His natural beauty and grand mercy to shine through. How did Rama end up in the Panchavati forest? Moreover, how did He get two others to follow Him and remain by His side underneath a banyan tree?
Though the Vedas are the ancient scriptures of India containing all truths of life, they are not easily understood by the common man, especially those who are inimical to spirituality. Therefore the long tradition has been that the essential truths of spiritual life have not been openly discussed with just anyone. The brahmanas, the priestly class of men, are the torchbearers of Vedic wisdom, and without their blessings, one cannot even begin to understand the reason for the unending showers of mercy heaped upon the fallen souls by the Supreme Lord or how to receive them.
If one is truly inquisitive, approaching a bona fide guru, a superior spiritual master, is required. Yet on special occasions, for the most fortunate individuals God actually takes the impetus by appearing on earth and roaming around from village to village and town to town, granting everyone His darshana. The vision of God is as good as the knowledge contained within the Vedas. Indeed, if one takes to studying Vedic wisdom without developing an attachment to the personal form of the Lord, there will be no benefit. On the other hand, one who simply sees God walking around in the garb of a hermit pretending to be a human being can find eternal happiness by gaining the true fruit of their birth, eternal succor for the eyes.
Lord Rama was so kind upon the great souls inhabiting the earth during the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, that He purposely altered events in such a way so He could roam around the outskirts of the cities, visiting people who were deemed not civilized to live the city life. These people surely weren’t considered fit to understand Vedic wisdom, but since they were sincere at heart, Rama granted them His divine vision. Seeing the Lord walking by in the garb of an ascetic, they became infused with transcendental loving emotions.
Rama didn’t just assume the garb of an ascetic on a whim. Through a series of interconnected events, Rama was banished from the kingdom of Ayodhya by His father, Maharaja Dasharatha. Not wanting his beloved older brother to suffer, Lakshmana insisted on accompanying Rama. Sita Devi, Rama’s wife, also refused to remain home without her husband for the duration of the exile period, which was fourteen years. Rama tried His best, invoking every mundane rule and regulation pertaining to married life found in the Vedas, to get Sita Devi to stop her devotional service. But as a woman who has no other dharma, Sita is greater than Rama in the sense that there is nothing the Lord can do to stop her undivided worship and love for Him.
The conditions of the exile went beyond just Rama’s leaving the kingdom; He also had to renounce all ties to royal life, which included the elegant wardrobe. Thus the trio roamed the forests looking like hermits, though they were the wealthiest individuals in the world. Sita Devi is an incarnation of the goddess of fortune, Lakshmi. She is the rightful owner of all property in this world, as she manages the finances nicely produced by her dear husband. Lakshmana is forever Rama’s supporter, so when the time came to build a cottage, Rama asked him to find a nice spot and do the needful.
“O Rama, for as long as You shall stand before me, even if it be for one hundred years, I will always remain Your servant. Therefore You should be the one to choose a beautiful and appropriate place for the cottage. After You have selected a spot, please then command me to start building.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 15.7)
Lakshmana’s response to Rama’s request highlights the undying passion for service that exists in the most exalted of divine servants. Lakshmana noted that if he had the pleasure of being in Rama’s company for one hundred years, he would forever remain His servant. This sentiment reveals the infinite nature of bhakti-yoga; there is never any end to divine love. There may be achievements along the way and attainments of goals that lead to enlightenment, but the further one advances in arousing their love, the more firmly committed they become to continuing their devotional practices. Therefore Lord Chaitanya, the sweet preacher incarnation of God who travelled across India by foot some five hundred years ago to spread the wonderful mercy of bhakti, recommends that everyone regularly chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. When this mantra is recited regularly, for at least sixteen rounds daily on a set of japa beads, the intense fire of transcendental love burns constantly, with remembrance of the names, forms, pastimes and qualities of the Lord serving as the fuel.
Tulsidas especially loves the vision of Rama along with Sita and Lakshmana sitting under a banyan tree in Panchavati because it crystallizes all that the living entity needs to know about God and service to Him. More than just an order supplier or a grand enjoyer, the Supreme Lord is the best friend of the living entity, its eternal companion. That closeness can be established in one second through properly directing the mind. Just remembering Rama’s sitting with Sita and Lakshmana is as good as being with Him in person. And there is no higher benefit in life than to have the association of the Supreme Spirit, the person from whom all good things in this world emanate.
Tulsidas says that this particular vision of Rama brings all auspiciousness, sakala sumangala. Though in seemingly humble surroundings shorn of opulence, Rama appears most beautiful, as He is surrounded by two great souls, divine figures who are ever worthy of worship in their own right. Actually, anyone who is with Lakshmana and Sita in a mood of love will always look beautiful, irrespective of what they are wearing. Combine this with the fact that Rama is naturally gorgeous and you get the divine vision that Tulsidas never wants to forget. The saints inspire us through their behavior to achieve new heights of devotional practice and to always remain committed to the proper path. In this respect, not only is the picture of Shri Rama in Panchavati beautiful, but so is the vision of Tulsidas sitting down and meditating on it.
The other secret to the effectiveness of this vision for meditation is that no one else is around. By remembering Rama with just Sita and Lakshmana, the devotee essentially makes God and His inner circle their own. Those who invoke terms such as “My God” and “My religion” are mistaken in the sense that religion, or spirituality, is open to every single form of life, irrespective of outward features and country of origin. Indeed, this fact was proven by Rama Himself, who granted His vision to every type of living being, even monkeys. But in another sense, operating under the personal conception of “My God” is a good practice for increasing spiritual attachment. By making Rama your own, you get a more intimate relationship, one where the loving emotions can flow freely without any side distractions. The temple environment is surely beneficial towards cultivating spiritual understanding, but at the end of the day, it is the mind of the worshiper that must remember the Lord at all times. In this sense, when God and His close family members become our only friends, our primary source of pleasure, and our only sustenance, the lords of our life breath if you will, the devotional attitude has peaked.
Tulsidas makes Sita, Rama and Lakshmana his own by remembering the peaceful and quiet portion of their stay in the Panchavati forest. This vision is open for anyone to paint in their own mind, as the sweet Lord in all His glory and splendor is just waiting for His sincere sons and daughters to come back to Him. He is incapable of cheating anyone, but we have forgotten Him through our desire to associate with matter and search after illusory enjoyments. By keeping the vision of God in His beautiful forms always in front of us, the loneliness caused by the broken association with the Lord will soon vanish.