“From their window perch, the wives of the royal court are peeking out. While talking, their shiny teeth look like lightning.” (Janaki Mangala, 72)
lāgi jharokhanha jhānkahiṃ bhūpati bhāmini |
kahata bacana rada lasahiṃ damaka janu dāmini ||
In this scene the handsome youth of a dark complexion has captured the attention of the many people gathered in King Janaka’s court. The boy, who is the eldest son of King Dasharatha and the elder brother of the fair-skinned Lakshmana, hasn’t specifically done anything noteworthy yet. He is not even here for the contest; He was accompanying the exalted sage Vishvamitra in the forest. Yet His subdued nature combined with His amazing beauty has given birth to many a conversation within the audience, which includes the wives of the royal court. They can’t help but peek out to see what is going on.
The topic of their conversation is King Janaka’s daughter’s marriage. This is a svayamvara, or self-choice ceremony. The wife gets to marry a prince from amongst a group. The marriage arrangement was not settled beforehand; so there was a choice to be made. During these times, princesses sometimes would get to pick the husband just based on looks. This is what occurred once with a svayamvara arranged by Shri Hari, God Himself.
Narada Muni, who can be likened to a mendicant space traveller, was once swelling with pride over having conquered lust. To defeat kama, or material desire, is very difficult, but it is possible with focus in bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Narada is so accomplished in the yoga of divine love that he is an authority on its practice; he teaches others how to follow the same line of work. He carries around his vina and always sings the glories of Narayana, which is another name for God.
On this occasion, Narada’s pride was a little much, so to bring him down a peg, Shri Hari used His energy to create a majestic city that was hosting a self-choice ceremony. The bride to be was so beautiful that she caught Narada’s attention. He immediately forgot his previous triumph over kama and decided that he must have her. Despite the temporary fall from grace, Narada was always faithful to his occupational duty, devotional service. Though he knew he shouldn’t desire the hand of this beautiful woman, he prayed to Hari for favor. He asked that the woman pick him from among the princes assembled. Hari, in a clever play on words, agreed to Narada’s request, saying that He would do what was best for the sage.
What was best for Narada was to lose the contest, so when the princess saw him, she saw that his face was like a monkey. Immediately she turned away and chose another prince, who was Hari Himself. Narada later found out about the deception and became very angry. Only many years later would he find out the reason for Hari’s intervention and how it was all done for his own benefit.
In Sita’s svayamvara, the winner would be determined through a test of strength. King Janaka vowed that Sita would wed whoever could first lift Lord Shiva’s bow. This was no ordinary bow; it took many men just to move it to the sacrificial arena. Sort of like pregame talk before the Super Bowl, the people gathered to watch the contest started to size up the many participants. They were interested to see who could lift the bow and who Sita would spend the rest of her life with. She was Janaka’s pride and joy, his most valued possession. He didn’t want to give her away, as he felt like a rich man about to lose his fortune. Nevertheless, his attention to dharma guided him in the proper direction.
The royal wives were watching from above, perched on the balconies with the windows open. They were especially taken by Rama, as they could tell He was something special. Depending on the mental disposition of a woman, she will find particular qualities attractive in a man. As these were pious women devoted to their husbands, they took chivalry, bravery and overall goodness to be very attractive. In Rama they found these qualities to exist at the highest level, so they couldn’t stop talking about Him.
From that talk their mouths were open, and their shiny teeth aligned together to look like streaks of lightning from afar. The lightning is notable because its brightness contrasts with the darkness of the storm cloud. In the same way, this kind of lightning stood out, meaning that people could tell from afar that the women were talking. Based solely on His external features they wanted Rama to win the contest. Rama is God Himself, an incarnation of the Divine as pointed out by the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India.
The attention on Rama also gave birth to some apprehension. What if Rama couldn’t win? What if He couldn’t lift the bow? He had proven His fighting ability previously in the forest, defending Vishvamitra from the attacks of the night-rangers, vile creatures who could change their shapes at will to fatally wound the most innocent members of society, the priests. But fighting was one thing; this contest relied completely on the strength of the arms. How was this beautiful youth going to lift the bow and win Sita’s hand?
The teeth of the women that shone like lightning would remain visible to all when Rama would lift the bow and wed Sita. These gabbing women would have plenty to talk about for the rest of their lives. And so would all the people present on that day, as saints never tire of hearing of the Supreme Lord’s triumphs, especially when they occur in unlikely situations. Goswami Tulsidas immortalized that chatter in his famous poems, and so we are fortunate to be able to go back in time whenever we want, to a moment when the eyes of the world were focused on God in a shining moment of glory.
Svayamvara of beloved Sita about to take place,
Out come many a royal wife of beautiful face.
Talking with each other like clucking hens,
Discussing who with Sita rest of their life to spend.
Mouths wide open shining were their teeth,
Like in dark raincloud bright lightning streak.
To look at youth from Ayodhya sent,
To peek from ledge wives went.
Victory of Shri Rama they saw from there,
His dark complexion to meet with Sita so fair.