Monday, February 6, 2012

Dharma-katha

Vishvamitra“Hearing the words of the king, Vishvamitra complimented him in return. The sage then discussed dharma and his reason for coming there.” (Janaki Mangala, 23)

kausika suni nṛpa bacana sarāheu rājahiṃ |
dharmakathā kahi kaheu gayau jehi kājahiṃ ||

While it’s nice to have peers to share your experiences with, it is more beneficial to be in the company of authority figures who are capable of assertively identifying and revealing the real religious principles, remaining unafraid to discuss them with whoever is worthy. Our friendships are formed for our own immediate satisfaction, as it is beneficial to have people around whom we consider to be equals. Just being able to share experiences with others, to let them know what you are feeling and not have them judge you in return, is such a contributing factor towards mental health that people who lack this association often have to resort to approaching trained professionals to hear their problems. Dharma-katha, or discussion on religious topics, is a primary benefit coming from the brahmana community, and in this interaction the relationship is one between teacher and student. Hearing about dharma is so powerful that even a famous king like Dasharatha stood by quietly and listened attentively while such words came from Vishvamitra, an exalted sage who visited his community.

VishvamitraWhat would a king have to gain from listening to a person with a long beard who lived in the woods? Can a homeless person give us advice on how to live our lives, which are dependent on technological advancements and involve the constant pressure of having to meet the monthly bills? What would they know about raising a family, tending to matters at work, or maintaining a sound financial footing? The brahmanas of ancient times weren’t poor without cause. They voluntarily accepted a meager lifestyle so that they would have a wealth of knowledge. From distractions in activity, through the feverish pursuit to best our fellow man in competition, a loss of rational thought results.

The first thing to go is proper identification. The country of origin, religious tradition, bank balance, skin color, gender, and so many other factors get used for identification, when in reality such attributes are transient. The bank balance can change quickly, as can the country of residence. Our physical abilities gradually diminish over time, yet we still remain vibrant living beings. Therefore identification must come from something besides the body or external attributes.

A brahmana earns their distinction by knowing Brahman, which is pure spirit. Strip away external appearances and conditions and you’re left with a vibrant energy, a spark of life if you will. Since that spark pervades nature, it can be thought of as a singular collective energy. The Vedas give a name to that force: Brahman. The living beings are all part of Brahman, which means that their identity comes from pure spirit and not external conditions.

Hearing about Brahman is easy, but actually realizing it is a totally different matter. To maintain the proper identification, to not get sidetracked by illusion, the Vedic literature institutes dharma, which can be thought of as religiosity or religious law codes. Dharma actually means an essential characteristic, so when it is used in place of religiosity, the guiding principles are meant to maintain the essential characteristic of Brahman within the living being.

Dharma is flawless, so even the person not willing to accept any philosophy at all can progress in knowledge through following the guiding principles. Not everyone you meet will be up for philosophical discussion. They will sometimes be guided by emotion, the problem of the day. The worldwide news media exploits this tendency. Television news especially caters to emotion rather than intellect. The latest murders, shootings, rapes and statements from politicians are presented as important events, but if you looked at the entire picture from a mathematical point of view, these incidents are trivial. For instance, yesterday the majority of the world lived peacefully, didn’t die, and didn’t have anything horrible happen to them. Yet if only one tragedy occurred, it becomes the most talked about event due to the influence of news providers and their consumers.

newspaperFollowing dharma maintains sobriety of thought within the living being. Each personality type is provided their own religious principles to follow, with the idea being that eventually, maybe even in a future life, full enlightenment will be reached. The brahmanas are already at this stage, and their occupational duties call for teaching others about virtue and how to follow the proper principles. A wise king like Dasharatha was already a devoted soul, so he didn’t need a lecture on dharma. He was a wealthy king, but this didn’t mean that he somehow took his identity from his wealth or his standing in society. Rather, he viewed everything within the framework of his purpose, what role he had to play in upholding dharma for the good of everyone else.

Vishvamitra, a forest-dwelling brahmana, once visited the good king. Dasharatha received him nicely and offered him kind words of praise. The sage complimented the king in return and then discussed matters of duty, or dharma-katha. He also revealed the purpose of his visit. Brahmanas don’t need much for their maintenance. As their aim is to behave righteously and stay connected with Brahman and its source, the Supreme Lord, they can get by with a small amount of land and basic food. In Vedic rituals held by pious kings, the brahmanas were always gifted things so that they didn’t have to work for a living. Gold, jewelry and cows were regularly donated to the priestly class for their benefit.

Vishvamitra didn’t need any of these things from the king, however. He required expert protection, for the terrorist-like night-rangers in the forest were disturbing his adherence to piety. These creatures would appear in the dark with false guises and then attack just at the moment that a fire sacrifice was culminating. In the Vedic tradition a religious sacrifice is known as a yajna, which is another name for God. A sacrifice didn’t have to involve an animal being killed or offered up. A sacrifice generally consisted of a fire, with clarified butter offered as oblations. With a fire sacrifice, the component actions are pure and the presiding deities of creation are pleased. As Lord Krishna points out in the Bhagavad-gita, even though other figures take their portions of the sacrifice, it is the Supreme Lord who is responsible for the rewards distributed by the demigods.

“Endowed with such a faith, he seeks favors of a particular demigod and obtains his desires. But in actuality these benefits are bestowed by Me alone.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.22)

Lord KrishnaKrishna, or God, is the enjoyer of sacrifice. If one isn’t worshiping Him directly, the Lord still must be present for any of the worshiped personalities to receive their share. In this way sacrifice is very important. It is the backbone of a life dedicated to dharma. In the modern age the most effective sacrifice is known as the sankirtana-yajna, where one regularly recites the holy names: “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.

To try to picture what Vishvamitra was going through, imagine sitting in meditation in your room and then getting attacked just as you started to think about God. This was basically what the sages in the forest were facing, as the night-rangers weren’t just attacking but also killing them and then eating their flesh. Dasharatha had jurisdiction over that part of the forest, so Vishvamitra came to request special protection. What the king didn’t know was that the sage had a special protector in mind, He who protects all the fallen souls.

Dasharatha’s eldest son Rama was the same Krishna, the Supreme Lord, in the guise of a human being. Though quite young at the time, Rama was an expert bow warrior. He played the role of a fighter to give pleasure to Dasharatha’s family line, the Ikshvakus, and protect the surrendered souls, the pious brahmanas, living in the forest. Dasharatha would rather die than part with Rama, but since he lived dharma, since he swore to uphold it, since he praised Vishvamitra with the sweetest words, he had no choice but to agree to the request.

From that acquiescence Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana would accompany the good sage into the forest. As a brahmana thoroughly understands Brahman and how to maintain realization of it, Vishvamitra’s dharma-katha continued when he was in the company of the two boys. They would make sure to regularly tend to the sage and perform their morning and evening prayers. In return, the sage would speak to them about dharma, narrating ancient stories of historical incidents relating to God. How amazing is Lord Rama? His pastimes are so wonderful that even He likes to hear about them.

Rama and LakshmanaVishvamitra would also impart on the boys confidential mantras to be used in fighting. Rama is the creator of the universe and Lakshmana His eternal servant, so they don’t require any aid in fighting. Nevertheless, to add to Vishvamitra’s stature, to prove just how important discussing dharma and teaching it to others is, they listened attentively, as if they were ignorant on the matter. Maintaining that veil of ignorance, the boys would enter King Janaka’s kingdom on the day of a grand sacrifice, where Janaka’s daughter would wed whoever could lift the extremely heavy bow given by Lord Shiva. The maintainer of dharma, Dasharatha, listened to the words of the speaker of dharma, Vishvamitra, and thus ensured that the object of dharma, Shri Rama, could lift Shiva’s bow and reunite with His eternal consort, Sita Devi. In this way attention to dharma always pays, as it is beneficial for both those who follow it and those who hear about it.

Vishvamitra didn’t need to provide a reason for his visit to Ayodhya, but he did so to let Dasharatha know that he wasn’t just taking his son away without cause. Moreover, Dasharatha didn’t need to worry about whether or not the request was appropriate, for by hearing about dharma, the king was reminded of his duty to uphold it. The most elevated brahmanas live bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service, so their cogent requests should never be denied, especially by one who is capable of meeting them. The king would benefit from his wise decision by receiving Sita as a daughter-in-law and giving countless future generations the opportunity to bask in the glory of the couple’s marriage story.

In Closing:

About dharma the brahmana speaks,

Others about purpose in life to teach.

These discussions attentively hear,

Cycle of birth and death no longer fear.

Praise and honor Vishvamitra earned,

The kind words of king he did return.

Sacrifices of sages night-rangers did harm,

Thus needed Rama, He of mighty arms.

Because King Dasharatha finally did agree,

Splendid marriage of Sita and Rama world to see.