“Like an arrow Banasura and Ravana came to the bow and then went. Who on this earth is as heroic as them?” (Janaki Mangala, 92)
bānu bānu jimi gayau gavahiṃ dasakandharū |
ko avanī tala ina sama bīra dhurandharū ||
It’s easy to believe something if we’ve seen it happen before. Also, if what is to be seen is a derivative of other things in nature that we have witnessed, then we can also believe it. Doubt settles in when we can’t conceive of something, when something is purported to happen that is beyond our range of perception. Yet just because we are limited in this way doesn’t mean that the thing in question is impossible. This truth especially holds true with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, whose every personal feature is inconceivable. During a famous incident witnessed by King Janaka, the Lord showed that His strength is beyond understanding.
Perhaps you’ve seen the strong man competitions that air late at night on the cable television sports networks. These aren’t your typical games. Rather than compete in a sport with a ball and a time clock, these competitors participate in strange events that uniquely challenge their strength. In one event they may have to lift a very large sack and carry it across a field. In another event they may have to pull an automobile using only their arms. In another event they may have to pick up a large weight and hold it above their head for a certain number of seconds.
If we didn’t see these competitors successfully complete these challenges, we maybe wouldn’t believe that it was possible. What’s more, once we do see their abilities, we use them as a benchmark. If the strongest man in these competitions can pull a large truck for one hundred yards, to say that a single man could pull a truck one thousand yards would seem ridiculous. “No way any human being could do that. The world’s strongest man can only pull the car for one hundred yards, and such a person is a freak of nature. A thousand yards increases the difficulty by a factor of ten, so there’s no way such a thing is possible.”
A long time ago, the strongest man competition related to a bow. During this time, the Treta Yuga, military combat took place using primarily bows and arrows. If the fighters were removed from their chariot, they would fight with clubs and daggers, and in the absence of any physical weapons they would fight by hand. As fighting with bows and arrows was commonplace, it wasn’t all that difficult to lift up a bow and draw its string back with an arrow.
Ah, but this bow in King Janaka’s court was not ordinary. It took hundreds of men just to move into the arena. It originally belonged to Lord Shiva, a principal deity of the Vedic tradition. He is known as the destroyer. With a discharge of a large fiery weapon he destroys the entire creation when the time calls for it. That weapon is akin to the sun becoming ten times hotter. It is no wonder then that his weapon effects the destruction of the creation.
Though Lord Shiva is the destroyer and also a worshipable deity for those in the material mode of ignorance, as a person he is fully devoted to the Supreme Lord, Vishnu. Vishnu is also Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Vishnu is also Rama, an incarnation of the Supreme Lord who roamed the earth during the Treta Yuga. Shiva’s bow was destined to be lifted by Lord Rama. The winner would get the hand of Janaka’s daughter Sita in marriage.
In the above referenced verse from the Janaki Mangala, King Janaka expresses his doubt over Rama’s ability to lift the bow. Vishvamitra Muni led the two brothers, Rama and Lakshmana, bow warriors themselves, to the contest area. After many princes had tried and failed to lift the bow, Vishvamitra asked that Rama be allowed to give it a try.
To Janaka, the ceiling of strength was seen in two powerful fighters of the time: Banasura and Ravana. Interestingly enough, both were devotees of Lord Shiva. Banasura had a thousand arms and Ravana ten heads. They were extremely powerful due to benedictions offered by Shiva. Mahadeva is only interested in devotion to Vishnu, so he quickly gives his devotees whatever they want. This way they will leave him alone. Material benedictions are limited anyway; they are not absolute in their ability to deliver desired outcomes.
Janaka saw that Banasura and Ravana came towards the bow, tried to lift it, and then went away in a flash. Their arrival and subsequent defeat was as swift as the flight of an arrow. To Janaka, there was no one on earth as heroic as those two. Ravana was feared throughout the world, and Banasura had Lord Shiva’s favor. Many years later, Banasura would fight directly with the same Rama during His time on earth as Krishna. In that fight, which is described in the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Lord Shiva would help Banasura, but to no avail. Krishna would counteract both of them, and in the end it was Shiva’s kind plea towards Krishna that saved Banasura’s life. Krishna spared the demon by deciding only to reduce his number of arms from one thousand to four.
“My dear Lord Shiva, I accept your statements, and I also accept your desire for Banasura. I know that this Banasura is the son of Bali Maharaja, and as such I cannot kill him, for that is My promise. I gave a benediction to King Prahlada that the demons who would appear in his family would never be killed by Me. Therefore, without killing this Banasura, I have simply cut off his arms to deprive him of his false prestige.” (Lord Krishna, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 8)
That incident gave further evidence that nothing can happen without the Supreme Lord’s sanction. Even if we see tremendous ability, we should know that it is only a partial indication of the supreme strength that exists in full in God. Material affairs are of no concern to Him, as dualities pervade a life devoid of devotion to God. If there is duality, there is no universally beneficial condition. What we think to be opulence today can turn out to be a curse tomorrow, and vice versa.
On that famed day in Janakpur, Vishvamitra was right in his insistence, and Janaka and the rest of the world would see that for God lifting an extremely heavy bow is a piece of cake. He can lift thousands of bows if He needs to. Since this contest dealt with reuniting with the goddess of fortune, Sita Devi, Rama kindly showed off His supreme strength.
As the sanction of the Supreme Lord is required to receive any benediction, the wise choice would be to follow activities that spark His interest. In devotional service, bhakti-yoga, the Supreme Lord takes a direct interest, and because of this He can make something as simple as the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare,” deliver even the poorest and weakest person in the world. If there is sincerity and full reliance on the Supreme Lord, His strong helping hand will be too much for the material energy to overcome.
Limit of strength in that which we can see,
Stronger than the visibly strong there cannot be.
Banasura thousand arms and Ravana ten heads got,
Came and left bow as failures, like a swift arrow shot.
Host King Janaka saw both of them defeated,
How then strength in Rama could be seated?
God’s sanction required for having true strength,
In bhakti to save the devotee He’ll go to any length.