“Tormented by the grief of separation from Rama, that lovely-eyed goddess must always come by this way, for she likes living in the forest and is accustomed to moving about in it.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 14.47)
rāma śoka abhisamtaptā sā devī vāma locanā |
vana vāsa ratā nityam eṣyate vana cāriṇī ||
“Where do you go to find women? Not any specific woman, but just a female in general.” This kind of question opens the door to all sorts of stereotypes. The male chauvinist’s response might be the shopping mall, the beauty salon, or the local supermarket. Taking the same question and asking it of males, the typical guesses might be the sports bar, the racetrack, or the exercise facility. We see that in either case the responses relate to some type of material acquisition or enjoyment. What else does man know anyway? What else is one supposed to do with the time they are given away from work and school? For the highest transcendentalists, their time is spent in contemplation on the Supreme Absolute Truth, and thus they don’t require much. Because of their automatic spirit of renunciation, areas devoid of material amenities are where you can likely find them.
The ideal place for an ascetic is the forest. With respect to renunciation, the obvious appeal of the forest is that it is not meant for the human beings. The advanced intelligence of the human species allows for what is known as civilized life, where proper dwelling structures are erected and inhabitants commingle with each other in an organized way. In a civilized society, you don’t just run out and steal other people’s property and you don’t indulge the urges of the senses whenever you feel like it. There is morality and virtue to act as the guardrails necessary for a peaceful coexistence. Those rules can only be followed when there is the ability to understand them and know when and how they should be invoked.
As the wilderness is reserved for the less intelligent animals, what could any human being want from there? Indeed, to take up residence in the forest is considered a type of punishment, a losing option in a bet, as it was for the Pandavas when their eldest brother Yudhishthira lost at a game of dice against his cheating cousins. Lord Rama, the eldest son of King Dasharatha, was exiled to the forest for fourteen years at the instigation of His father’s youngest wife, so obviously the person desiring such things considers them to be a punishment.
The punishment is considered more severe when the parties in question are accustomed to just the opposite kind of life. Imagine living in a beautiful palace where you have servants to attend to your every need. You wear the costliest ornaments and get the most attention in society because of your high standing. If you should grow accustomed to that lifestyle and then all of a sudden be forced to fend for yourself in the wilderness, you likely wouldn’t know what to do. The ascetics, however, have no trouble in the wilderness. Because they voluntarily go there to perform austerities, the forests they call home are known as tapo-vanas.
In ancient times, you could find many enlightened sages in such areas. They didn’t need material amenities because they had the greatest wealth in their devotion to God. Just a simple hut, some berries for food, rags for clothing, and water from the local river would suffice for a peaceful existence. This left ample time for chanting the holy names. Austerity was automatically built into the lifestyle, for how much could you accumulate when the areas around you weren’t abounding in material wealth?
For an enlightened sage to voluntarily choose the wilderness for the purpose of spiritual advancement was understandable, but how could a princess ever want that kind of life? Maybe if a woman was interested in connecting with the Supreme Absolute Truth it could be fathomed, but a princess lives in regal comforts. Her occupational duty when she reaches adulthood is to serve her husband, which involves maintaining a welcoming and peaceful environment at home. How is she going to entertain guests when there is no home? How is she going to serve her husband if he lives on practically nothing?
Yet Sita Devi, the daughter of King Janaka, had a fondness for the wilderness. Of course her mindset was exactly like that of the sages. She is the goddess of fortune, so she is constantly distributing opulence to those who please her. The owner of that opulence is the Supreme Lord, her husband, so she can never run out of gifts to give. Sita herself has no attachment to this opulence, as she considers the shade of her husband’s lotus feet to be more pleasurable than any material advancement, including mystic abilities such as flying through the air.
“Whether it be residence on top of a palace, traveling on airplanes, or flying through the sky (via yogic powers), in all circumstances the shade of the husband's feet is by far superior.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 27.9)
If with faith and renunciation you practice the ancient system of yoga, the original discipline that joins the individual soul with the Supersoul, you can travel through space, essentially having an out of body experience. An advanced mystic can travel to any planet in the material universe whenever they want. To accommodate this travel, they utilize the aerial path, something considered liberating and rewarding. Yet Sita boldly proclaimed to her husband Rama that she would not consider such an ability to be superior to the shade created by His wonderfully beautiful lotus feet.
Janaka’s daughter was always an ascetic in her thinking, and the theoretical became the practical when circumstances called for it. When her husband’s fourteen year exile punishment to the wilderness arrived, she had no trouble accompanying Him. In fact, it was at her insistence that she came along, for Rama wanted her to stay at home in Ayodhya, where she would be in better material conditions. Yet she was always fond of going to the woods, especially to visit sages and distribute gifts to them.
Shri Hanuman was keenly aware of this distinguishing feature of Rama’s wife. He used that knowledge to try to ascertain her location while in the Ashoka grove in Lanka. Sita had been taken there against her will by that land’s evil king, Ravana. Now Hanuman, Rama’s messenger, had infiltrated the area and was eagerly anticipating meeting with Sita to give her the news that Rama was on His way to rescue her.
In the above referenced verse from the Ramayana, Hanuman is perched on a tree and looking down at a specific area inside the garden of Ashoka trees. He refers to Sita as a lovely-eyed goddess who likes living in the forest. She is described as a vana-charini, or one who is accustomed to traversing the woods. This is certainly a strange description for a princess, but it fits in with her renounced attitude. What need does Sita have for royal opulence when her husband is the most beautiful, the most renounced, the strongest, the wisest, the most famous, and the wealthiest living entity in all the creation?
Though at the time she wasn’t moving about, Hanuman rightfully guessed that Sita would be thinking of Rama, being aggrieved over separation from Him. This contemplation is a kind of yoga, and it brings a higher bliss than actually being in the Lord’s company. The separation creates a situation where the glorious attributes of the distant party are contemplated even more, and since in Rama’s case those features are divine, they give so much pleasure to the person thinking about them.
From Sita’s example it should be known that renunciation is automatic for the devotee who cherishes God’s association. She maintained this renounced attitude, this fondness for the woods, even after reuniting with her husband. If Rama was with her then any area could be considered Vaikuntha, or the spiritual realm that is free of anxiety. In a similar manner, if we should be fortunate and wise enough to always chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, this material existence, which is likened to a vast ocean that is difficult to cross over, becomes as small as the hoof-print of a calf. Renunciation from unnecessary material attachment is a trait found in the saints, and through their example they show how that renunciation manifests and why it is significant.
For material opulence Rama’s wife has no taste,
In useless engagements never her time to waste.
Though princess, Sita in the forest you are likely to find,
Giving gifts to the sages, keeping their worship in mind.
As wife of Narayana opulence she has the most,
But due to devotion in renunciation she is also foremost.
To find Sita in Lanka, Hanuman given a tall order,
But of the sincere devotee God is a rewarder.
That Sita accustomed to traversing forest Hanuman knew,
So soon he was to meet her, give her news of Rama too.