“After the wife of Gautama Rishi was liberated and sent to the abode of her saintly husband, Vishvamitra continued on towards Janaka’s city, taking Rama with him.” (Janaki Mangala, 40)
gautama nāri udhāri paṭhai pati dhāmahi |
janaka nagara lai gayau mahāmuni rāmahiṃ ||
Goswami Tulsidas herein briefly touches on a famous incident from the life of Lord Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead who roamed the earth in the guise of a warrior prince many thousands of years ago. The Janaki Mangala poem focuses on Rama’s marriage to Sita Devi, the daughter of King Janaka, so many of the events that led up to that occasion are only touched on in one or two verses. The accounts of the incident with Ahalya vary, but the general story is the same. The Ramayana of Valmiki likely provides the most details, and it gives so much insight into the glory of Rama and how Vishvamitra played an integral role in saving others and bringing Sita and Rama together.
From the variation in accounts a misconception arises that the event never really happened. You see, we’re supposed to take Rama’s life and pastimes for their symbolic meaning. Ahalya was a woman who was absolved of her sins by the touch of God, so from the story we are to learn that God is great and that contact with Him leads to our benefit. While this kind of lesson can be taken away from so many past incidents, the story of Ahalya is not fabricated nor is it a mythological tradition. The authors of the Vedic literature sometimes used metaphors and stories with personification, but when they did there was full disclosure. The incidents of the Ramayana are real history, and since the creation goes through cycles of manifestation and annihilation, sometimes the events don’t follow the exact same sequence. Rama, as the Supreme Lord, appears in other universes as well, thus allowing for many more versions of His acts to be distributed between the members of the numerous creations.
The accounts from the original Ramayana say that the incident took place as the trio of Vishvamitra, Rama and Lakshmana entered the outskirts of the city of Mithila. Vishvamitra was a renounced brahmana, which is a sort of priest who lives in austerity. Why would someone want to live in the forest away from everyone else? Why do we need to shut people off to practice religion? The purpose to all the rules and regulations of the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, is to foster God consciousness at the individual level. Once that exists at full maturity, the same benefit can be gifted to others. The brahmanas are the class that has the best opportunity to reach this purified consciousness, so whatever they can do to make the goal a reality is considered worthwhile. Sort of like the message the flight attendant tells you about securing your oxygen mask first before assisting a child, when the brahmanas are true to their vows and always thinking about God, they can do tremendous good for the rest of society.
The brahmanas in the forest at the time were being harassed by night-rangers. By harassed we mean getting attacked during the times of sacrifice and then fearing for their lives. The brahmanas accumulate tremendous spiritual merits through their work, so they can cast curses in response to threats of violence. The problem with this practice is that the spiritual merits diminish with each curse thrown. It’s similar to accepting a diet and exercise routine to become fitter, and then going on an eating binge that erases some of your accumulated fitness gains. The more effort you put into reaching the fit condition, the less likely you will be to overeat and erase some of your progress.
Vishvamitra did the right thing by approaching the King of Ayodhya, Maharaja Dasharatha, for help. While the brahmanas are generally nonviolent and focused on religious duties, the kshatriyas, the warriors/administrators, are charged with protecting the innocent. If violence is required in this endeavor the warriors must not be hesitant to use it. Dasharatha had no problem protecting the brahmanas. He was ready to send the entire royal army into the forest to protect the exalted muni. Ah, but Vishvamitra was doing the work of the sadhus and the celestials, who needed Dasharatha’s eldest son Rama to be at certain places at certain times.
Through asking nicely, Vishvamitra was able to gain Rama’s protection in the forest. If you get Rama, you get Lakshmana too. The Lord’s younger brother will never leave Him alone. While it may seem like Lakshmana is the equivalent of the annoying younger brother, such a glorious personality who is full of fraternal affection and the eagerness to serve and accompany Rama only enhances the Lord’s stature as the best friend of every living entity and the one person whose attributes cannot be properly measured. Thus the trio roamed the forests, with the brothers providing protection from the attacking night-rangers.
At one point during their travels, the group made its way into Mithila. At this time Rama noticed a beautiful asylum, which appeared to be vacated. Like a kind disciple, Rama nicely put the question before the knowledgeable Vishvamitra to explain what this beautiful place was. Vishvamitra, pleased to hear the inquiry, took the opportunity to narrate the story of Ahalya, the wife of Gautama Muni. A long time back Gautama was engaged in penance and austerity, living with his beautiful wife in this asylum. One day, he happened to leave the hermitage for a little bit. Whenever a brahmana starts to advance in asceticism, the celestials in the heavens can get jealous over their progress. Through austerities and penance one can attain great powers, even surpassing those of the demigods.
To knock Gautama down a peg, the celestials petitioned Indra to descend to earth and enter the hermitage. The lord of celestials took on the guise of Gautama and petitioned the sage’s wife for conjugal relations. The wife hesitatingly agreed, and on the way out Indra ran into Gautama. The sage could tell what had happened, so he immediately cursed Indra to become castrated. Ahalya, for her part, was cursed to remain in that asylum alone, unseen for many, many years. Gautama then retreated to the Himalayas to continue his penance. He told his wife that she would be reunited with him when she would see the eldest son of King Dasharatha and treat Him hospitably.
When Vishvamitra finished his narration, Rama and Lakshmana followed him into the hermitage. There they saw the most beautiful woman, who could not be seen by anyone else up until that time. The brothers went to pay their respects to her feet, and she in response gave water for washing their feet. She treated the brothers hospitably and got their blessings in return. She was then able to reunite with her husband.
In other places in Vedic literature, the story is very similar, except Ahalya is instead cursed to be a stone. She gets her form revived when Rama places His foot upon the stone. After honoring Him, she gets to return to the abode of her husband. In either case, the general outline is the same, for the most beneficial end is to see Rama’s lotus feet. Contact with the Supreme Lord in a mood of devotion fulfills all desires for the pious souls. Ahalya desired to keep her husband happy and to remain in his company, and thanks to Gautama’s curse the wife was able to meet the Supreme Lord.
There is a famous incident relating to Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu which similarly reveals the benefit of contact with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. One of Mahaprabhu’s associates had once offended Him. Because of that transgression, that person was not able to see the Lord anymore. Begging and begging, the person finally was able to get someone else to ask Mahaprabhu when that anger would subside. Lord Chaitanya replied that only after a million births would that person again get to see Him. Instead of being dejected over the long duration, the person was excited at the heart to hear that they would again get to see Lord Chaitanya, even if it should take many years.
In a similar manner, though Ahalya was cursed for a long time, she was guaranteed of seeing the Supreme Personality of Godhead in His most charming form as Lord Rama. Therefore the acts of Indra and the instigation of the celestials, and even the curse offered by Gautama, were all purified through the simple contact with Rama. Just as Rama’s foot liberated Ahalya, the sound vibrations of the Vedic literature describing His forms, names, qualities and pastimes liberate the conditioned soul mired in a cycle of birth and death. Through contact with wonderful works like the Janaki Mangala, Ramayana and Puranas, the ears get the much needed nectar to restart spiritual life. And when those narrations aren’t readily available, just chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, to mentally clasp the beautiful lotus feet of the delight of the Raghu dynasty.
The group stopped when Mithila within reach,
Vishvamitra of Ahalya’s history did speak.
Gautama Muni had the most beautiful wife,
She served him well in his spiritual life.
Lord Indra came and her chastity did break,
Gautama cursed him and wife unseen form to take.
Only when hospitably Rama and Lakshmana received,
Would from the curse beautiful woman be relieved.
Following sage, two brothers in her asylum they went,
Liberated Ahalya, to husband’s side she was sent.