Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Life of a Text

Hanuman reading“As Sita was not decorated, with difficulty Hanuman could recognize her, like understanding a text which has gotten a different meaning due to a lack of purity.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 15.39)

duhkhena bubudhe sītām hanumān analamkṛtām |
samskāreṇa yathā hīnām vācam artha antaram gatām ||

To safeguard from future cheating, the authors of important texts carefully craft their words. “Leave no room for ambiguity, for though people today might know what you mean, in one hundred year’s time the circumstances will be different. New issues will exist and a different worldview will be applied to the words you create today. Your words won’t be any different, but the meanings might be twisted, bent and shaped to fulfill the desired aim of the reader.” Therefore with important texts there is an accompanying culture, which is a requirement for understanding the original meanings. The text itself doesn’t lose its value, and one who knows how to properly interpret the words can understand this fact.

The importance of culture is especially prominent in the Vedic tradition. The original scriptural works coming from God were not disclosed to just any people. Think of the valuable vase you might have in your home. It’s an antique. You paid a hefty price for it, as it is a rare item not found anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it belonged to a famous dynasty from centuries past or it was made by a famous sculptor. Now it rests in your home, to be gazed upon, to be marveled at by guests and residents alike.

Yet the young child doesn’t know any of this. They don’t know what the word ancient even means. Therefore the vase won’t be that important to them. Trying to explain its importance won’t help either. Instead, you just make the vase off-limits to them. “Don’t touch”, is the primary rule. As long as they stay away, everything will be fine. When they are mature enough to understand what it is, they can appreciate its value and know that it is fragile and not something to be considered a toy.

Similarly, the ancient texts of India which contain profound truths of life such as reincarnation, the imperishability of the soul, the individual’s relationship to the Supreme Lord, the futility of material acquisition, the three modes of material nature, the expiration of both pious credits and sinful demerits, and so on can’t be understood by just any person. One who is swooning in the whirlpool of material suffering that is fed by activities like gambling, intoxication, illicit sex and meat eating doesn’t have the peaceful disposition required to understand complex philosophical points. To them the sacred texts will be mistaken for sectarian restrictions, dogmatic principles that apply only to certain people. When they hear of the events described in these texts, which are historical occurrences that describe the divine nonetheless, they will take the works to be mythology. “Oh okay, people back then didn’t understand how everything worked, so they just guessed on the tough questions. There was a “god” assigned to important positions, like the sun, the moon and the wind, and thus a personality became responsible for various results visible on earth.”

With culture, however, the texts in ancient times could be understood. And that cultural training would begin from childhood for the student. The texts were composed in the Sanskrit language, which is the oldest language and considered the most difficult to understand. To this day students undergo at least fourteen years of training in Sanskrit just to be able to understand it. The script for the language is called Devanagari, which translates to “city of the gods”. In the heavenly realm everyone speaks this language, and so it is not meant for mere mortals.

As is bound to happen, with the passage of time original texts can be misinterpreted, as the culture gradually erodes. The texts can still be consulted because they were previously printed to ease the burden on memory. Originally the works were committed to memory; they didn’t need to be written down. But as the verses themselves describe, with the passage of time man’s deference to dharma, or duty, diminishes. When dharma stands on just one leg instead of four, the majority of the population considers the original spotless verses to be irrelevant, ancient relics more than anything else.

Yet there is a singular foundation that supports the culture necessary to understand the true meanings to these verses. And that foundation is not based on education, ancestry, skin color, or even species. As every living being is a spirit soul at the core, every individual has this foundation within them, but due to the influence of the matter that surrounds them they have difficulty making use of it. We see varieties in behavior only because of the differences in material coverings. A person is considered high class when the matter they assume at the time of birth has the least inhibiting influence on this wonderful foundation. On the other hand, when the matter has the most inhibiting influence, the birth is considered sinful, or non-auspicious.

Birth in a monkey’s body is not very helpful spiritually. The monkey’s tendencies are to steal from others, have sexual relations with anyone, and get intoxicated off of honey. With these tendencies, how can there be any room for culture? Where will the sobriety come from that is needed to understand the highest truths of life? Yet the foundation can still rise to prominence despite otherwise inauspicious conditions. The divine figures who love the Supreme Lord so much can carry out their service even while in the body of a monkey.

Shri HanumanThis is the case with Shri Hanuman. He was once sent to Lanka to find the wife of Lord Rama, the prince of Ayodhya. Her name was Sita and she had been taken away from Rama’s side one time by the evil king of Lanka, Ravana. We should note that these events took place in the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation. By our estimation, the Treta Yuga was an ancient time period, but at the time the earth had still been around for thousands of years. Therefore the original Veda was still known, and even back then it was possible for verses from sacred texts to be misinterpreted.

This fact is referenced in the above quoted verse from the Ramayana. Hanuman only knew of Sita through what he had heard. He hadn’t seen her for himself, but that didn’t mean she didn’t exist. Knowledge that is heard can be perfect when the source providing it is flawless. As Rama is an incarnation of God, the information He passes on to others is free of defects. But when Hanuman finally spotted Sita in Lanka, it was difficult to make her out. She was in a distressed condition and worn thin from fasting. She had been crying and sighing very heavily, and her dress was now covered with dirt. She was not wearing the beautiful ornaments which princesses are known to put on.

Yet beyond the external conditions, through the thick cloud of inauspicious smoke that enveloped her, Hanuman could see brilliance. He could see unmatched beauty and a divine presence, though the indication was quite faint. Hence the comparison to a verse that has undergone a change of meaning due to a lack of culture is quite appropriate. The verse itself is fine, as the original writer knew what they were talking about. But the words can be changed to a different meaning when there is a lack of culture. As it applies to this situation, someone else who didn’t have the foundational attribute active within them at the time would not have recognized Sita. They would have considered her to only be a distressed woman surrounded by vile female ogres ordered to harass her.

Remarkably, Shri Rama knew that Hanuman had the necessary purification. It wasn’t expected from a monkey, but Hanuman is no ordinary living entity. His guiding principle is devotion to God, which is the requisite foundation mentioned previously. Through scholarship one can understand Sanskrit, but still the many pearls of wisdom in the Vedas have a thread that keeps them together. That thread is the Supreme Lord, and so one who knows of the thread can understand how the many truths go together. Devotion is what brings knowledge of that connecting thread, and in Hanuman devotion existed at the highest levels. He was thus able to recognize Sita and continue on in his mission, eventually finding success.

“O conquerer of wealth [Arjuna], there is no Truth superior to Me. Everything rests upon Me, as pearls are strung on a thread.”  (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.7)

The saints are so kind that they know the original scriptural verses will be difficult to understand for even the innocent population which is eager to practice devotional service. Thus they translate the sacred works into the language of the time and add their own commentaries to prevent misinterpretation. In addition, they compose songs and poems that help to support the necessary culture. In the present age of Kali the dichotomies between the varying circumstances of birth have been blurred, as any birth today is considered inauspicious. The requirements for transcendental realization have been lessened at the same time, however, and so just through constant association of the holy name, which can come from regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, one can be prepared to understand the highest truths of life. The devoted Hanuman could spot out the peerless Sita, and so the devoted souls of today can understand that Hanuman is a real-life figure who can give blessings to make this human birth fruitful.

In Closing:

In Kali’s age the type of birth is no matter,

With societal and class distinctions don’t bother.


Cultured life relies on a singular foundation,

High knowledge incomplete without divine devotion.


This foundation in Shri Hanuman existed,

Though a monkey in God’s mission he persisted.


Like a text that has undergone a change in meaning,

This divine princess like a distraught woman seeming.


Because of devotion Sita’s presence he could make out,

Use Hanuman’s existence for God’s power never to doubt.