Thursday, December 8, 2011

Next in Line

Kings watching bow contest“Some are moving, some are on the way, and some are entering the city. Some are grabbing the bow, offering their respects to it, and then sitting down after having failed to lift it.” (Janaki Mangala, 11)

eka calahiṃ eka bīca eka pura paiṭhahiṃ |
eka dharahiṃ dhanu dhāya nāi sirū baiṭhahīṃ ||

In the Vedic tradition, the image of a throng of people moving systematically, as if on a conveyor belt, in an attempt to offer respects to a particular worshipable item is not out of the ordinary. The predominant message of the spiritual tradition of India is love, the divine variety. As is obvious to the sober person, love does not flow through only one outlet. There is a variety in activity for a reason, as not every person has the same desires or inherent qualities. The spirit soul is provided a playing field that is the body, so there is also variety in the recommended auspicious activities. For instance, chanting the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, is considered the most effective method of the discipline of bhakti-yoga, but this doesn’t mean that one who can’t chant is shut out from spiritual life. Rather, every tool and practice of bhakti is aimed at cementing a consciousness fixed on the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who has a blissful form. The lines of people formed generally relate to worshiping a deity manifestation of God or offering a specific item of worship, but in one case many thousands of years ago, the assembly had the purpose of winning the hand of the goddess of fortune in marriage. Though many suitors came and kept this line moving along, they failed to win the prize of the day. Nevertheless, their participation earned them tremendous spiritual merits.

Why was there a line formed to marry a princess? Was she looking at these men and then deciding who was worthy based on appearance? Isn’t that kind of shallow? The marriage ceremony was a self-choice, or svayamvara. The groom was not decided beforehand, so anyone was open to compete to have Sita Devi, Janaka’s daughter, as a wife. In the time period that the event took place, most marriages were arranged by the parents, as they would match up the qualities of the participants and then from there decide if the marriage was suitable.

King Janaka faced an issue in this area. His daughter came to him as a baby lying within a field. Therefore he couldn’t use the time of her birth or the ancestry of her biological parents to determine her future qualities. Moreover, he didn’t want to give her up. She was his precious daughter, full of every virtue imaginable. In fact, whoever gets Sita as a daughter should be considered the most fortunate human being. Janaka knew this, as the thought of her marriage made him feel like he was losing his fortune. Sita Devi, in describing the circumstances many years later to the female sage Anasuya, herself said that Janaka felt the way that a rich person would feel if they were about to lose their entire fortune.

“After seeing that I had reached an age suitable for giving me away to a proper husband in marriage, my father became overcome with fear and anxiety, like a man who was about to become poor.” (Sita Devi speaking to Anasuya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.34)

Sita DeviThat’s a pretty lofty comparison to make, but Sita was correct. Janaka was a chivalrous king in charge of the welfare of the kingdom of Videha, but despite his duties he was not materially attached. He was famous for having conquered over the senses. Just as we think someone is superior in their willpower when we see that they are able to control their eating habits in the face of the many delights available from restaurants and fast food places, just imagine how much respect you garner if you are controlled in every aspect of your behavior.

Janaka didn’t follow virtue, piety and dispassion to gain any acclaim. Renunciation is a virtue championed by the Vedas, which try to give mankind the tools necessary for becoming God conscious by the time death arrives. Since affixing your thoughts on God at the time of death is a rare feat, just by following the rules and regulations without knowing the meaning behind them can provide much help. For instance, if a person from the laborer class should honestly serve the three higher classes, in the next life they can take birth in circumstances more conducive to yoga.

Janaka was in the royal order, or second highest division. But he was a rajarishi, or saintly king. Though he had material delights available to him, he was a transcendentalist through and through. When he found Sita, however, his renunciation went right out the window. From his behavior that followed, he showed everyone the right way to view attachment and detachment. Caring for family members, having a large heart, and being compassionate are only detrimental when they take you off the righteous path. Though he had full affection for Sita, that did not stop Janaka from carrying out his prescribed duty of getting her married.

Oh, but his piety would be handsomely rewarded. Even when carrying out his duties as a matter of protocol, Janaka kept the higher authority figures in mind. Janaka decided that for Sita’s marriage he would hold a contest to see if anyone could lift Lord Shiva’s bow. Mahadeva is the expansion of the Supreme Lord in charge of the material mode of ignorance. Every type of person is granted a worshipable figure, even if they are unaware of it. Mahadeva is known as Ashutosha, which means that he is easily pleased. He is only interested in worshiping the Supreme Lord in His form of Shri Rama, so anyone who comes to him with requests for material benedictions is quickly granted whatever they want. This way Lord Shiva can go back to concentrating on Shri Rama - uttering His name and thinking about His lotus feet, which are so soft and beautiful.

“Shambhu, or Lord Shiva, is the ideal Vaishnava. He constantly meditates upon Lord Rama and chants Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Lord Shiva has a Vaishnava sampradaya, which is called the Vishnu Svami-sampradaya.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.23.1 Purport)

Lord ShivaLittle did Janaka know that his decision to insert Lord Shiva into the mix would bring him the company of Shri Rama. The news went out across the land about the contest, and since the parties involved were Janaka, his daughter Sita, and Lord Shiva, everyone was excited to come. Even members of other classes and races decided to dress up and attend the event. There was no restriction imposed, as the bow was considered impossible to lift. If anyone should miraculously raise it, then certainly it would be an indication of Providence declaring them worthy of having Sita as a wife.

In the above referenced verse from the Janaki Mangala, Goswami Tulsidas is continuing his description of the scene on the day of the svayamvara. Kings from around the world are flocking to Tirahuta, Janaka’s capital city. Some parties are just starting on their journey, packed together with their royal paraphernalia and entourage. Some are travelling into the city, while others are in between the two parties.

Since there are so many people arriving, the scene looks like the world’s largest conveyor belt. One after another, princes are approaching the bow, paying their respects to it, attempting to lift it, and then sitting down. There is no counting how many princes are arriving, for the line just keeps on moving, similar to the gathering that forms in front of a temple on the day of an abhisheka ceremony.

“Seeing that greatest of bows, which had the weight of a mountain, the kings offered their respects to it but then left on account of being unable to lift it.” (Sita Devi speaking to Anasuya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.43)

Sita Rama deitiesThe deity is the worshipable figure that depicts the spiritual attributes of the Personality of Godhead. We should all worship God; that is not a novel concept. Every major religion espouses this belief. How that worship should take place is where the details are sometimes lacking. If we don’t know what God looks like, how are we to remember Him? If we can’t remember someone, how can we worship them? If we don’t know where they live, what they want out of us, and how they’ll react to our offerings, how is anyone supposed to ever worship them?

The Vedas provide the missing details by describing God as both formless and with form. The formless aspect is only from the perspective of the living entities. In reality, God’s form is all-encompassing, so gigantic that you can’t even understand it. Think of it like having to look at an astronomically large number that doesn’t have any commas in it. With so many digits, trying to decipher the value of that number will be very difficult.

The deity provides clarity of vision to the conditioned eye, which requires so much external support to make perceptions. We are proud of our technological advancement and philosophical mettle, but without the aid of nature’s arrangements like heat and light, none of it would be possible. Similarly, for the conditioned being, making progress through study of just the impersonal aspect of the Supreme Lord is very difficult. Even those who do make progress along this path eventually turn their minds towards the personal aspect.

Janaka was a great example of this. He was known as Videha because of his renunciation and knowledge of impersonal Brahman. Because he was desireless he became the perfect candidate to have Sita Devi as a daughter. Sita is the eternal consort of the Supreme Lord, who was roaming the earth as Rama at the time. The deities of these two figures are still worshiped to this day, showing that God has spiritual attributes that can be remembered and honored. The worshipable body, the archa-vigraha, is the proxy to accept obeisances. Man can’t just take any collection of metal or brass and worship it as God, but through an authorized system, where the figure is crafted as a replica of one of the Supreme Lord’s many spiritual forms, the material elements become a deity that accepts the offerings directly from the worshipers.

Abhisheka of Sita and RamaIn a temple where the deity is worshiped, there are annual occasions where the worshipers can come and pour milk, water, honey and other preparations onto the deity as part of a bathing ceremony. God in His original form may not be there for the occasion, but through His deity He allows everyone to worship Him nonetheless. The bathing is enjoyed by the Supreme Lord and the worshipers; hence there is often a line that forms, with the participants eager to see the Lord up close and give Him a nice bath.

Unbeknownst to the pilgrims visiting Janakpur, they were offering their respects to both Lord Shiva and Sita Devi. Despite their failure to lift the bow, they got to take part in one of the most blessed events ever held on this earth. Eventually prince Rama, Lord Shiva’s beloved and the Supreme Lord of the universe, arrived on the scene and easily lifted and strung the bow. Sita and Rama would come together in Janaka’s kingdom, and the world would be bestowed a story to delight in for countless future generations.

The conveyor belt of princes also enhanced the glory of the victor of the contest. The throng of unsuccessful participants showed just how difficult it was to lift Lord Shiva’s bow and how amazing it was for any person to even come close to moving it. The difficulty of the contest substantiated Janaka’s decision, alleviating his doubts about parting with Sita. Through Rama, Janaka would gain the Supreme Lord as a son-in-law. He would get to gaze upon the embodiment of Brahman, the person behind the impersonal effulgence. The personal form is always superior, because there is no mistaking the Personality of Godhead to be something that He isn’t. Even those who didn’t know that Rama was God gained tremendous spiritual merits just by looking at Him.

The participants’ ignorance of Sita’s identity as the goddess of fortune did not harm them. Instead, their natural and spontaneous love for Sita made them enjoy her wedding ceremony even more. The long line of princes arriving in Janakpur added a wonderful decoration to the beautiful sacrifice, which was as worshipable as the Supreme Lord. Just thinking of Sita and Rama’s marriage is as good as being there, which means that remembering the scene over and over again keeps the beloved couple in the heart.

In Closing:

The svayamvara held by Janaka at the center,

Of attention in Tirahuta, many princes do enter.

While some are arriving, others are in between,

And some are just starting, so glorious the scene.

Line keeps moving like a conveyor belt,

Failing to move bow dejection suitors felt.

Shri Rama, the prince of Raghu’s fame,

Arrived on scene for Sita’s hand to gain.

Lifting Mahadeva’s bow Janaki He deserved,

Sita found perfect match, Janaka’s vow preserved.