Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tilting the Scales

Valmiki holding a flower“Listen Rama, I will now tell You where You, Sita and Lakshmana should reside. Those whose ears are like oceans which are constantly replenished by, and never overflow from, streams represented by stories of Your wonderful activities – in their hearts You should make Your charming abode.” (Maharishi Valmiki speaking to Lord Rama, Ramacharitamanasa, Ayodhya Kand, 127.1-2)

“Eat a balanced diet. Don’t watch too much television or you’ll strain your eyes. Don’t eat too many sweets or you’ll suffer indigestion later on. Don’t drink too many adult beverages in one sitting or the onset of intoxication will be so quick that you won’t know what hit you. Don’t exercise too much or you’ll get injured.” On the flip side, there are the recommendations for things which you aren’t doing enough. “You need to get more sleep. You’re not eating enough; have some more food. You’re not taking enough time off from work; being a workaholic is not good for you.” Balance is necessary for vitality and good health in all respects. It is important for both physical wellbeing and success in an endeavor. With one particular discipline, however, no balance is required. No amount of immersion into the divine pastimes and qualities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead can ever be harmful to the soul desperately searching after someone to love without inhibition.

Rama's lotus feetImagine a body of water that is constantly receiving raging waters from every which direction, sort of like a bucket that has a steady flow of water coming in from the top. Then imagine that the target container, the body of water in this case, never overflows despite the amount of water that constantly pours in. This wonderful analogy was used by Maharishi Valmiki to describe the position of the devotees of God, especially those who are attracted to Lord Rama, the Supreme Lord in His avatara as a warrior prince of the Raghu dynasty.

This comparison was made in response to a question put forth directly by Rama. The Supreme Lord is a singular entity, eka, from whom many, aneka, have sprung. Despite the stark difference in reservoirs of transcendental qualities, the Supreme Lord has no penchant for domineering over His many expansions. There is only love in pure goodness found in the person most of the world refers to as God. His compassionate nature brings Him from the hallowed grounds of the spiritual world down to the place that we have called home for many lifetimes.

In the Vedas the living entities are described as sarva-ga, which means that they can have their home anywhere. This is already the case with the human being, as people live in virtually every corner of the globe, habituating to places where it doesn’t seem possible for a human being to survive. The harsh winters and their accompanying sparse daylight hours in places like Alaska and Siberia would make it seem that no human being could live there. On the reverse side, the extreme heat of Africa and the tropical storms that regularly arrive in states like Florida also would deter human beings from congregating there. But we see that these places have residents nonetheless.

The Vedic angle of vision applies the scope of residence to way beyond the human species. The ants live in the ground, the birds in the trees, the fish in the water, and the human beings on land. Therefore the many species, which are different forms of the same living force, can have different homes, but for Goswami Tulsidas and the devotees of the Lord, their only home is in bhakti, or divine love. More specifically, that love is facilitated through the holy name, the transcendental sound vibration that best represents the person with whom they are trying to connect. Try to remember a famous personality and you’ll have trouble doing so without thinking of their activities. Perhaps you will have to connect with their body of work - be it a book, film, television series, famous game or match; otherwise your connection will not last long. The same can be said about connecting with close friends and family.

With the Supreme Lord, however, His complete presence is available through His names, of which there are many. Saints like Tulsidas and Valmiki prefer the name of Rama, while the Vedas consider the holy name of Krishna to be even more powerful, though it addresses the same Rama, the Supreme Lord. Just imagine being in a distressed condition, unsure of the future, afraid of what might happen with a particular circumstance. Then imagine the most pleasant condition, where everything has gone so well that you can’t believe your good fortune. In either of these circumstances, just sit quietly and chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and hear the vibrations you are producing. This simple method, followed under regulative principles, with firm faith, love and devotion, can give one all the happiness they need.

“There are an infinite number of living beings, both moving and nonmoving, who have many different abodes, with some residing on the earth, some in the sky, and some in the water. But O helpless Tulsi, for you Shri Rama’s holy name is your only home.” (Dohavali, 37)

Rama pastimesChanting and hearing the names allows devotees to connect with God through His pastimes, the activities He performed in the past and also those that will take place in the future. Just as the positions of north, south, east and west can be relative to the person’s situation and the objects they are comparing, past, present and future also aren’t absolute. Our present life is actually the afterlife from a previous existence. In addition, by tomorrow, today will become part of the past life. Thus there is constant shifting of time, with only the Supreme Lord able to fully make light of the complexities.

The universe goes through cycles of creation and destruction, and there are many universes as well. What we consider the past activities of Lord Rama and Lord Krishna will actually take place in the future somewhere else. This is confirmed in Vedic literature, including in the wonderful Ramacharitamanasa, Tulsidas’ most famous work. In the section describing the marriage ceremony of Lord Rama and Sita Devi in this work, it is said that the first obeisances were made to Lord Ganesha, who is the son of Mother Parvati and Lord Shiva. The Ramacharitamanasa is different from the Ramayana authored by Maharishi Valmiki, for the latter is the original account of the life and pastimes of Lord Rama as they take place during the Treta Yuga, or second time period of creation.

The Tulsidas work is in Hindi, and it doesn’t follow the original Ramayana exactly. The reason for the difference is revealed by the poet himself in the introductory verses of the Ramacharitamanasa . Tulsidas uses a famous conversation between Lord Shiva and his wife as the primary reference tool for his poem. This conversation dealt entirely with Rama’s life and pastimes, and it was later spoken by Lord Shiva to other people as well. This was the version that Tulsidas first heard, being blessed with the words from his guru. Therefore, to show honor and respect to his spiritual master, Tulsidas chose Lord Shiva’s accounts, which are slightly different because of the many times that Rama descends to earth and enacts pastimes, as the basis for his Hindi poem. Lord Shiva’s original telling is found in the Brahmanda Purana and it later became known as the Adhyatma Ramayana.

Lord GaneshaSince Lord Shiva was watching Rama’s activities from his perch in heaven, when Rama got married, Ganesha had yet to be born. Nevertheless, Ganesha was being offered the first prayers, as is the standard custom for any Vedic ritual. This puzzling contradiction is explained by the fact that the creation continually goes through cycles of manifestation and annihilation; thus Ganesha was honored even before he specifically appeared during that time.

When Sita, Rama and Lakshmana [the Lord’s younger brother] were making their fourteen year journey through the forests of India, they met up with Maharishi Valmiki at his ashrama. After offering obeisances, as was social custom, Rama asked the sage if he knew of a good place that the group could set up camp. Valmiki cleverly replied with a description of the qualities of devotees, saying that Rama should live in their hearts. One of the qualities stated was that devotees have ears that are like oceans that regularly receive water in the form of Rama’s activities. Yet they delight so much in Rama’s pastimes that this ocean never fills up, despite the constant inflow of water in the form of Rama-lila.

Valmiki wasn’t exaggerating, as balance is never an issue in bhakti. One of the greatest fears for a parent following Vedic traditions is that their child will decide to renounce the world early after learning Vedanta philosophy. Veda means “knowledge” and anta means “the end” or “conclusion”. Therefore Vedanta represents the summit of knowledge, the conclusion of conclusions. Unfortunately, this fear is mistakenly there even when the children take to bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, which is above Vedanta study. From Valmiki’s description, we can understand that the bhaktas never have a need to give up anything outright, for their primary aim is pleasure. Whatever they can do to find circumstances favorable for hearing about God and singing His glories, that is the path the devotees will accept. Formal renunciation, or the sannyasa order, is not required for one who is only looking for devotion.

The requirement for balance and restriction does not apply to one who is looking for transcendental pleasure. There is no question of trying to balance spiritual life and material life when the aim is to swim in the ocean of nectar that is divine love. Even if there is a perceived need for balance in the beginning, then one should at least introduce some bhakti into their life. In the absence of loving association with God, the spirit soul will find so many other things to love. Yet when on the material playing field devoid of God consciousness, the need for balance immediately arises. Therefore the condition described by Valmiki can never be found with any material endeavor. This is why every non-spiritual guidebook, every recommended system of maintenance not rooted in divine love, calls for balance. Want to find material opulence? You need to have tolerance and avoid attachment to the outcomes of events. Want to practice mystic yoga and bask in the resulting health benefits? You need balance in your eating and sleeping. Want to save up to buy something expensive? You’ll need to moderate your spending habits.

The sad thing is that accompanying the requirement for balance is the cap on enjoyment, the limit on how much the received reward can be utilized. For instance, material opulence can only go so far, as the wealthiest individuals in the world are known for choosing philanthropy and activism after their enjoyment in life has fizzled out. A lean and fit body that is the reward for exercise and eating in moderation must have a purpose to fulfill, otherwise the healthy person will lose interest and fall back to their uncontrolled eating.

Worshiping Sita and RamaWhen following bhakti, the desire for connecting with God only increases. The immediate enjoyment received through chanting and hearing isn’t long-lived, but the benefits most certainly are. After the joy of hearing about Rama and His supreme kindness wears off, the devotee will want to hear about the same topics again. The rivers thus keep flowing into the ocean of the mind, and the level of satisfaction never tops off. The Supreme Lord is the most benevolent benefactor because He makes the gifts we really need readily available. The general rule is that those things which are too expensive are things that we don’t require. As the audible nectar of Rama’s holy names and pastimes gives life to the man drowning in the pool of material existence, it is available to every single person, provided they have the desire to enjoy it. The saints carry this healing remedy, and they try to distribute it to as many people as possible. Those who keep this medicine in good supply with them at all times and apply it every single day never worry about finding too much bhakti, for that is never possible.

In Closing:

Keep running up and down pleasure’s hill,

Eventually enjoyment reaches fill.

Moderation in habits required,

Else in constant suffering one mired.

Either on enjoyment put a cap,

Or accept more to avoid unhealthy trap.

But in bhakti balance is never an issue,

Endless ways of divine love spirit soul due.

Tulsidas, Valmiki and Shiva very well know this,

Thus they pass on Rama-lila’s transcendental bliss.