“With my hands folded, bowing my head I pray to them as I sing about the marriage of Sita and Rama in the way that I understand it.” (Janaki Mangala, Mangalacharana, 2)
hātha jori kari binaya sabahi sira nāvauṃ |
siya raghubīra bibāhu jathāmati gāvauṃ ||
The oldest scriptures in the world are known as the shrutis because they were originally passed down through a tradition of oral reception. Since these scriptures are replete with knowledge necessary for attaining life’s goals, they are known as the Vedas. As the attainment of the ultimate aim in life represents the pinnacle of achievement, other aims are satisfied through these scriptures as well. Therefore the knowledge system that is the Vedas is not limited in scope, not narrow in its objectives or influence. Whoever partakes of the ripened fruit of transcendental wisdom, hearing it submissively, absorbing the information into their consciousness and then acting upon what they have learned, finds the happiness that every living entity is so desperately searching after. The resulting ecstasy creates an invigorated life, where the same information that was heard then gets repeated, but not necessarily verbatim. The devoted soul repeats what they have heard in their own way, how they have understood the concepts. This is done to please both the instructor, the originator of the knowledge, and the person doing the explaining.
Is there anything wrong with just repeating the information that we’ve heard? For instance, if in mathematics we learn that one plus one equals two, shouldn’t we repeat that same formula to those we teach? What need is there to present the information in our own way? With perfect information, simple repetition of the principles is sufficient for passing on the necessary knowledge. Devotion to God, however, is a dynamic activity. The static laws of math and the simple, cutting postulates of philosophy and logic are binding to a spirit soul that is looking for real freedom, one not bound by the inhibiting forces of material nature, which work at every second to check whatever happiness we find.
How does this work exactly? Say that we’re playing sports for a team that just made it to the playoff round. Previously, this team looked like they had no chance of victory, and yet somehow, in the most dramatic fashion, they achieved their stated objective. The elation is checked, however, by the fact that another series of games needs to be played afterwards. Even if the season is over and the championship won, there is still next year, a repeat of the cycle of hope, work, and the potential for bereavement coming from loss.
The same pattern applies to every single fruitive venture. The most blissful elation resulting from the birth of a child is matched by the tremendous sadness that occurs with death. In between there are the many ups and downs, such as the happiness over meeting with friends and family and the sadness over arguments resulting from impious behavior directed our way.
The spirit soul is immune to these changes. The soul is eternally blissful and knowledgeable. These properties are the cause of the very vitality of the living being, his repeated venturing into new areas of happiness. Simple renunciation from material endeavors thus cannot be the true definition of liberation, and neither can the strict adherence to religious principles. In whichever direction we fly, whether it’s the denial of pleasure, the indulgence of sense pleasures, or the adherence to the strictest rules of spiritual life aimed at promising a better end in the afterlife, the soul retains its penchant to act on its desire for unfettered freedom.
The spiritualist accepting the shrutis from a self-realized person, one who previously learned the ancient art of divine love, or bhakti-yoga, safely kept with the Vedas, does not just absorb the information and then sit on it. With theoretical knowledge, or jnana, comes the practical application, or vijnana. The practical application is more important, for in many cases someone who is an expert in the field might not even be able to explain why they are so skilled. A person may possess the knowledge that goes into performing surgical operations, but the person who actually carries out the surgery properly plays a more important role, for he puts the principles into practical use.
The predominant message of the Vedas is that the spirit soul is inherently meant to be tied to the Supreme Soul, who is so respected, glorious and opulent that one name cannot suffice for Him. The term “God” just scratches the surface at addressing Him properly, for it says that He is a Supreme Being. To describe what “supreme” actually means is the business of the Vedas and their authors.
How can the Vedas have authors when the information is purported to have come from the Supreme Being Himself? This is the hidden secret known to those who assimilate the knowledge gathered into their own lives. The Vedas were originally just one Veda, which was implanted into the heart of the first created living entity, Lord Brahma. He then subsequently passed it down to his descendants, of which there are too many to count. The Veda passes on supreme wisdom through hymns and prayers addressing God. The way to glorify someone is to speak about their attributes, using comparisons to known objects to show how the glorified person is superior to them. To follow glorification in this way, the Vedas also document the Personality of Godhead’s features and activities. It is through discussion and meditation on these areas that the living beings derive the most pleasure.
With attention focused on God’s charita, or deeds, one assigns the Lord so many names. The activities of His personality of Lord Rama, an avatara appearing on earth during the Treta Yuga, are likely talked about the most, as they are documented in many Vedic texts, including the Ramayana and Puranas. Vedic literature includes the original Veda and any work expanding on the same truths. Since the Veda is about God, anyone who writes literature describing God and His glories, reaching the same ultimate conclusion of devotion to the Lord being the topmost engagement for man, adds to the massive collection of Vedic literature.
Lord Rama’s activities were first described in the Ramayana, which was composed by Maharishi Valmiki, a contemporary of Rama’s. Just hearing the Ramayana makes one familiar with Rama and His divine qualities, which include His kindness, His mastery over archery, His promise to protect those who humbly approach Him in earnest, His dedication to piety and virtue, His beautiful smile, His love for His closest associates like Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman, and a host of other features. Indeed, God’s good qualities are ananta, or unlimited. We could glorify God from the time we are born through the time we quit our body and we still wouldn’t come close to sufficiently describing Him.
If we take up an endeavor that we can’t finish, why even start it? Ah, this defect is actually known to be a precious gem by those who incorporate the shrutis into their every activity. Goswami Tulsidas, a celebrated Vaishnava poet, is one such knower. He originally heard the story of Rama’s life from his guru, or spiritual master. At the time he was a young child, so he couldn’t make much of it, but the seed of bhakti was implanted in him nonetheless. When he matured later on in life and became adept at writing poetry, he used his skill to glorify Rama, to describe the Lord’s life and activities in a language suitable to the time, words that would make understanding God easier for the people of his community.
There are many accounts of Rama’s life, with Valmiki’s Ramayana being the most complete one. In addition, Rama appears on earth during each creation, which means that He has appeared many times in the past and will come again many times in the future. The Vedic seers of the past who were so attached to Rama have thus described His life and activities in their own unique ways. Tulsidas chose the version of Rama’s story told by Lord Shiva to his wife Parvati as the foundation for his wonderful Hindi poem titled the Ramacharitamanasa, which means concentrating the mind on the activities of Rama. The Lord’s acts are compared to a holy lake which the mind can swim in and feel the topmost bliss and comfort.
In the Janaki Mangala, Tulsidas sings about the marriage of Sita and Rama, which again is described very nicely in the original Ramayana. Rather than present the same information verbatim, with a word-for-word translation, Tulsidas decides to sing about it as he understands it. This is revealed in the above referenced prayer, which forms the opening invocation of his wonderful, short work. In the verse preceding this one, the poet references the famous personalities responsible for his knowledge. They include his guru, Lord Ganesha and his parents Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati, Shukadeva Goswami, the Vedas, and the gentle saints who have made understanding the highest truths of spirituality easy for the poet.
In this prayer, Tulsidas folds his hands and bows his head at these great personalities, for he is about to embark on the journey of singing about the marriage of Sita and Rama, an event which is indescribable. He is going to sing about the events as he understands them because this will bring great pleasure to both him and the people who will hear his song. This style of information transfer is preferable because it reveals and gives meaning to the dynamic nature of bhakti, how it is not a dry system of spirituality aimed at only providing benefits in the future. If we purchase a savings bond, we don’t gain any benefit until the date of maturity. Religion is typically viewed in a similar way, for the impetus for the initial plunge may have even been a desire to avoid a hellish condition in the afterlife.
Following bhakti-yoga does indeed provide a glorious end, an afterlife full of delights, but since bhakti directly corresponds to the constitutional position of the living entity, its benefits are available immediately. The human being, during any stage of life, enjoys glorifying others. If this weren’t the case, newspapers and internet news sites would be empty every single day. Bhakti allows glorification to be directed at the person most worthy of it. The same material nature that was previously the cause of pain and bondage becomes an inexhaustible source of tools with which to practice divine glorification. The words used in communication become purified when directed at the lotus feet of Sita and Rama. The pages used to print books, poems and songs become valuable when they contain the glories of Sita and Rama. The humble sage, who patiently absorbed the highest truths of life passed down to him by the spiritual master, becomes the ocean of mercy, the friend of the distressed, the savior for those disgusted with the material existence and its perpetually swinging pendulum of acceptance and rejection, when he dedicates his life to describing the glories of Sita and Rama in his own way.
The question may be raised as to whether or not describing the marriage of Sita and Rama in your own way can be harmful. If the information heard was not properly understood, then certainly there is the danger of contaminating others with faulty interpretations. But when there is pure love for God, no attempt made at glorifying the Lord and His associates can ever prove to be detrimental. Through His deputies, Rama controls speech and knowledge, so we are actually helpless in writing anyway. Shri Rama is the protector of the surrendered souls, including those who humbly accept the challenge of writing songs and poetry to describe Him. Though Tulsidas made sure to offer his obeisances to Brihaspati and Mother Sarasvati, the divine figures in charge of speech and learning respectively, the success of his work would come from Rama’s influence, which is profusely distributed through many different channels.
The guru is himself a representative of the Lord, so if he is genuine in his devotion, his understanding will be perfect, and therefore whoever hears from him submissively will receive perfect knowledge as well. The disciple, wanting to keep the flame of bhakti well lit, becomes overwhelmed with the desire to continue to glorify God, to not let a moment go by without concentrating the mind on His lotus feet. By hearing of the wonderful marriage of Sita and Rama, the mind stays connected with God and His glorious devotees like Tulsidas who were kind enough to give us such wonderful Vedic literature, fresh and new and yet true to the ageless tradition that is bhakti.
From the guru sublime wisdom accept,
Sanctity of bhakti principles to protect.
But listener not to just absorb like a sponge,
To describe glories of the Lord can one take the plunge.
Story of Sita and Rama’s marriage already known,
But extra pleasure in telling in way of our own.
To speak about God is the source of supreme pleasure,
The recorded songs and poems of saints life’s treasure.
With folded hands and bowing down does Tulsi sing,
Wedding of Sita and Rama, happiness to heart bring.