“If the king had first heard of Rama’s wonderful qualities and beauty, he would have called for Sita to marry Him, and nobody would have faulted him for it.” (Janaki Mangala, 69)
prathama sunata jo rāu rāma guna-rūpahiṃ |
boli byāli siya deta doṣa nahiṃ bhūpahiṃ ||
King Janaka was in the public eye. As the leader of a historic country, everyone watched his every move. This is the burden that accompanies leadership. If you’re the leader, everything that you do is scrutinized, and since you have authority, people will complain about you a lot. It’s only natural, for if something goes wrong you will get the blame. If things go well, then that is the norm, or at least the expected condition. Thus there is not as much attention given to the leader in good times, but when there is trouble, when there is doubt as to the proper course of action, all eyes turn to the leader to see if they can redress the situation. A long time ago the king was faced with a very difficult decision, a predicament that seemed to be of his own making.
Was there a foreign attack? Were the citizens suddenly without work? Was there a drought? These issues certainly are important, but for the group of spectators gathered at arguably the most famous event in history, the problem related to the future fortunes of the king’s daughter. Known as Sita, she was the cherished possession of King Janaka. He and his wife Sunayana were childless for a long time until one day when Janaka found a baby girl in the ground while ploughing a field.
The field was to serve as grounds for a sacrifice, which is intended to please the higher authorities. The highest authority is the Supreme Lord, who is known as the lord of all creatures. At the beginning of the creation, He advised man to perform sacrifices so that they would find all good things in life. It is easy to get distracted by temporary pursuits. You let go of an object from your hand and it falls to the ground. You pluck a flower from a plant and now you have control of it. You take a banana from a tree and enjoy the resulting taste. In this way you start to think that you are the ultimate controller of your own fortunes, that you and you alone steer the ship.
“In the beginning of creation, the Lord of all creatures sent forth generations of men and demigods, along with sacrifices for Vishnu, and blessed them by saying, ‘Be thou happy by this yajna [sacrifice] because its performance will bestow upon you all desirable things.’” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.10)
Of course lost in these sequences of action and reaction is the fact that these objects had to come from somewhere. Indeed, the body that we call home had to develop in someone else’s womb. That initial placement and then subsequent development occurred without our sanction. We had no say in where we took birth or even in how we’d be protected in the early years. These and many other facts that prove how little control we have are recognized through discipline in spiritual practice.
Yajna, or sacrifice, is one of the central components of the eternal occupation known as sanatana-dharma because it takes care of many issues simultaneously. You perform a ritual to bring auspiciousness from higher beings. This automatically takes time away from sensual pursuits that further the erroneous thinking that you are the sole cause of your fortunes and the only person worthy of enjoying the most. The sacrifice also allows you to hear the holy names of the higher beings, including the chief, who is called Narayana among many other names. He is also known as Prajapati, or the lord of all created living beings.
Janaka found auspiciousness before the sacrifice ever took place. That young baby girl in the ground was so precious that the king, who was known throughout the world for his dispassion, immediately had parental affection for her as he held her in his arms. The higher authorities, awaiting the sacrifice from Janaka, arrived on the scene to confirm that the discovered baby was indeed his daughter. She was Janaka’s in all righteousness, or dharma, which was something the king lived by.
“Since he was childless, and due to affection for me, he placed me on his lap and said, ‘This is my child.’ Thus he developed feelings of love and affection for me.” (Sita Devi speaking to Anasuya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.30)
Janaka named the girl Sita because she came from the ground, and with his wife he raised her to be just as pious as he was. She was not formally educated in the Vedas, but she knew all about dharma. Thus Sita was ready to be given away in marriage when the time was right. But Janaka couldn’t find a suitable match. The unique circumstances of Sita’s appearance in Janaka’s family precluded the king from giving her away to just anyone. She truly was a fortune wrapped up in a bundle of joy, so only someone deserving of that fortune should be graced with her company.
Janaka made a fateful decision, one that would lead to a story that pure hearted souls never tire of retelling. They already know how the story begins and ends, and yet they won’t miss an opportunity to hear about it again. If no one is around to act as an audience, the mind of the saint will go through the sequence of events again just to derive so much pleasure. And isn’t that what life is about, being happy? Know that from the divine sports documented in the Vedas, the consciousness can reach a blissful condition under any circumstance.
The decision was made that Sita would wed whoever could lift an extremely heavy bow belonging to Lord Shiva. Just to bring that bow to the middle of the arena in Janakpur required hundreds of men. Therefore only a person sent from above, who was chosen by the higher authorities, would be able to lift it.
Hearing of the king’s oath, princes from around the world came to Janaka’s capital city. They were from different kinds of families, but they all seemed up to the challenge. They would be bitterly disappointed, as one by one they approached the bow only to be humbled by it. They couldn’t even move it.
A trio arriving from the forest really caused a stir. They did not come with the usual fanfare of a royal assembly. In fact, they weren’t specifically there to take part in the contest. The group was led by Vishvamitra Muni, an ascetic who called the forest his home. With him were two youths, sons of King Dasharatha. They were beautiful in every way, and despite having delicate features, they were known to be wonderful protectors. Vishvamitra had chosen them to act as escorts in the forest, to give protection against the attacks of the evil night-rangers who feasted on human flesh.
Rama was the elder brother and Lakshmana the younger. Both were unmarried, so it was protocol that Rama would have to get married first. Hence He was eligible to participate in the contest. The residents began to gripe to themselves when they saw Rama. He was so beautiful that they instantly knew that their eyes were tasting the fruit of their existence. With such a wonderful jewel in front of them, focus turned towards protection. How were they going to secure the vision in front of them? How were they going to make sure that Rama never left their sights?
They all wanted Him to marry Sita, but that little thing known as the king’s oath was in the way. With such a strong affection for Rama, some of the residents took to giving the king dirty looks. The contest’s rules now jeopardized the marriage everyone wanted to see. Why had the king done that? And why now was he sticking to his promise? Why not just call the contest off and give Sita to Rama?
In the above referenced verse from the Janaki Mangala we get a different viewpoint from within the crowd. Some of the people were understanding enough to know that the king hadn’t really done anything wrong. If he had seen Rama prior to the contest, if he had noticed the Lord’s wonderful divine qualities, he surely would have given Sita away to Him. And if Janaka had done that, no one would have faulted him at all. In fact, they would have praised him for making such a wise decision.
But you can’t turn back the clock. The contest was already set, and since the king lived by dharma, he wasn’t going to go back on his word. Not to fear, though, as his dedication to dharma is what initially brought the wonderful fortune of Sita Devi into his life, so now that same deference would bring her husband for life, Shri Rama, into the family. Sita is the goddess of fortune, and Rama is the person she serves without fail, the Supreme Lord. Thus the king’s contest served as a way to glorify the lord of creatures, who would step up and effortlessly lift the extremely heavy bow. Sita would place the garland of victory on Rama, and the previously worried spectators would taste even more transcendental bliss.
“Why King Janaka do you blame?
Never to family will he bring shame.
If of Rama’s qualities he knew before,
Sita to Him he’d give for sure.
The promise has already been made,
Best if to vow dedicated he stays.”
Spectators to stay worried not for long,
Soon to be singing glorious union’s song.