Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Raising the Roof

Sita Devi's lotus feet“Wherever you go there are the ecstatic sounds of singing and drums beating. The excitement for Sita’s marriage is so great that what words are there to explain it?” (Janaki Mangala, 14)

gāna nisāna kolāhala kautuka jaham̐ taham̐ |
sīya-bibāha uchāha jāi kahi kā paham̐ ||

The dancing portion of a marriage reception is pretty much a staple, regardless of the culture of the participants. Festivities aim to create a festive mood, and with a festive mood you get singing and dancing. “Let loose and have fun; lose yourself to the music. Celebrate good times with your friends and family; use the excuse of the marriage to have fun and let your guard down.” One wedding in particular, which took place a long time ago, had such a festive mood that the singing, dancing and drum beating took place well before the actual ceremony. Before even a groom was known, the marriage event for the daughter of King Janaka garnered so much anticipation that no words can properly describe it. The excitement was all around, and the result would validate the feelings.

How could the result top the anticipation? It seems like the excitement was partly due to the fact that the groom wasn’t known beforehand. As a famous svayamvara ceremony, the bride in question got to choose who her husband would be. Of course nowadays that is the standard protocol, but in ancient times only the most beloved princesses would get this opportunity. Yet this svayamvara was even more unique in that the groom was to be decided through a contest that would measure dexterity, strength, and overall ability.

Lord ShivaWhat was the contest? The host of this grand affair, King Janaka, had a long time back received a bow belonging to Lord Shiva. Think of a heavenly figure who grants his devotees pretty much whatever they want relating to material life and you get the surface view of Mahadeva, a most wonderful worshipable personality. Though it only takes a little to please him, there is no end to the opulence that Lord Shiva will provide you.

Yet if you go beyond the surface functions that Mahadeva provides, you’ll see an extremely powerful heavenly figure who lives a renounced life. Though he is married to the beautiful Parvati Devi, the gatekeeper of the material universe, Lord Shiva has complete control over his senses. Though he can give the world to anyone, he himself doesn’t require much. Just a little silence, peace and quiet, and a place to constantly repeat the holy name of Rama are all that Mahadeva needs.

True wealth in life does not relate to collection of material elements, which we never have full claim to anyway. We are born with nothing and we die with nothing. Everything in between is our allotment in life determined by the actions we take up. The consciousness of the individual determines their future destination, and the superconsciousness [that connected to God] travels with the individual from life to life. The latter consciousness is best solidified through recitation of the holy names, such as those found in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.

Just as Lord Shiva attracts the Supreme Lord’s presence through the recitation of the holy name of Rama, Mahadeva’s amazing bow would attract Lord Rama Himself to Janaka’s kingdom. Lord Rama, the worshipable deity of Lord Shiva, was roaming the earth at the time starring in the real-life play known as the Ramayana. Unlike ordinary stories which grow tired and stale after hearing only a few times, dipping into the sweet nectar of the holy lake of Rama’s acts provides boundless joy with each successive visit. It is such a sweet lake that Lord Shiva himself likes to swim in it by discussing Rama’s pastimes with his wife Parvati.

Lord RamaOne of the major acts of that play involved the svayamvara ceremony in Janaka’s kingdom. The pious king decided that his daughter should have only the best husband. The perfect match would come through Lord Shiva’s bow, which would decide who was worthy of marrying Sita. The bow was so heavy that no one could lift it. Janaka decided, therefore, that by holding a contest, either someone would be deemed capable of marrying Sita or Sita would be judged too exalted to have any husband.

Not surprisingly, news of the contest stirred much attention. Not only princes from around the world, but their families as well, all packed into caravans and made the journey to Janaka’s city. There were so many attendees and people trying to lift the bow that from afar the movement of the pilgrims looked like a giant conveyor belt. One by one, the princes tried to lift the bow, only to be defeated, having to sit down and watch other people then give a try.

In the background there was the sound of singing and drums beating. While normally this may seem annoying, for a grand occasion such as this the background noise just added to the festive atmosphere. Singing is a foundational aspect of Vedic culture, for the sound vibrations released in a loving mood in praise of the Supreme Lord and His attributes purify the heart. Try to express your thoughts through conversation and you might feel a little funny discussing such intimate feelings. Try to write them down on paper, and again you’ll feel a little strange being so frank. Then there is the issue of brevity as well, as the more words you need to express a thought, the less potent the message will be.

Poems are useful in this regard, as one can express their emotions succinctly and in a way that can be remembered easily. Take that same poetry and turn it into a song and you have a wonderful way to share your thoughts with others, including the object of your emotional outpouring. As the spirit soul is meant to be a lover of God, if the living entity can regularly sing the glories of the Supreme Lord, whose spiritual attributes are immeasurable in their greatness, you get an eternal engagement that brings felicity to both the singer and the recipient. Those within audible range are also benefitted, as the songs can stay within the consciousness, sparking attraction to the Supreme Lord.

The drums added a nice rhythm to the songs. In this way not everyone had to be directly involved in the singing. Some people were singing the songs, while others were beating the drums to add to the effect. Then the many others were simply listening, as their excitement knew no bounds. Goswami Tulsidas, in the above referenced verse from his Janaki Mangala, says that the excitement at the event was so great that words really have no use in this context. What can words do to describe a scene that is indescribable?

Nevertheless, the Janaki Mangala is itself a song, meant to purify the heart of the poet and those who listen to it with rapt attention. The words of the song are so powerful that even when translated to another language they still bring the vision of the most wonderful marriage to ever take place on this earth. That excitement would turn into tremendous joy when Shri Rama, as a youth accompanying the sage Vishvamitra, would arrive on the scene. With only the sage and His younger brother Lakshmana there representing Him, Rama would step up and lift Mahadeva’s bow with ease. This pleased the saintly members of the crowd and crushed the pride of those who were inimical to God.

Sita and RamaJanaka’s decision to use Lord Shiva as the deciding factor would bring Shri Rama into his family. In one sense we can consider Lord Shiva the head minister presiding over the marriage, as his bow represented his presence at the ceremony. He brought Sita and Rama together, and for this he is still honored to this day. Just as he takes great delight in talking about Sita and Rama, so others can revel in the anticipation and the glorious outcome of that wonderful day.

The question may be asked that if the excitement on the day of the wedding was so high that words cannot explain, what is the point in even talking about it? This raises the classic issue of neti neti, which means “not this, not that.” In trying to explain Brahman, the all-pervasive energy of the Supreme Lord which can be noticed by the trained eye, Vedic literature states that this Supreme Truth is “not this and not that”. This means that, figuratively speaking, you can go around with something like a price gun or label maker and mark every object you see as “not God.”

This should make sense after all. The sun is all-pervading and unbiased in its diffusion of energy. The sun is a source of life in one sense, as we could not survive without it. Yet even something as grand and powerful as the sun is not the Supreme Absolute Truth. This is because the sun is composed of a material element: fire. Earth, water, fire, air and ether represent material substances which are not permanent in their existence. Anything which has to be created cannot be God, because with creation comes destruction. The Supreme Absolute Truth is beyond duality.

The inability to find God fully within this world does not prevent glorification of Him. Rather, neti neti is really a benefit for those who know the true dharma of the soul, that of lover of God. The ultimate characteristic of something forms its dharma, a feature which cannot be divorced from the object. Whether we are sleeping, dreaming, awake, in a dog’s body or in a human form, our dharma is to love God. The fact that the Supreme Absolute Truth cannot be accurately described enables our dharma to continue to act. From the feature of lover of God comes a natural occupational duty: bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service.

Devotion to God in its purest form operates unconditionally, without interruption and without motivation. What better way to allow love to continue without stoppage than to say that God can never be properly described? Spend the rest of your lifetime trying to enumerate the Supreme Lord’s features - describe how He is both formless and full of form, how He possesses mutually contradictory attributes, how He is unborn and yet can appear from the womb of Mother Kausalya -  and you will never finish.

Sita and RamaNeti neti is an invaluable blessing. The fact that the excitement was indescribable at Sita’s wedding gives us another example of the inexhaustible nature of the Supreme Lord’s glories. To this day we have never seen a wedding like Sita and Rama’s and we never will. Fear not, however, as that sacred event can be attended within the mind by the devotee who is willing to attempt to glorify the divine couple every day for the rest of their time on earth. That devotion tied to the purified consciousness continues well into the next life, making devotional service a discipline so wonderful that words cannot describe it.

In Closing:

Kings and their families have arrived for fun,

So loud is the singing and beating of drums.

Came for hopes that their family may Sita wed,

Witnessed history of Rama’s act instead.

For Sita Lord Shiva’s dearest is only husband,

Thus not surprising that Rama bow contest would win.

With song and dance emotions no longer hide,

So happy was ceremony that words can’t describe.

Neti neti for devotee is greatest blessing,

Allows for constant praise of God continuing.