“O Rama, You should know that just as fish cannot survive when taken out of water, neither Sita nor I can live without You for even a moment.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 53.31)
How to describe something that is so a part of you that you wouldn’t exist without it? Is there any way to accurately convey your level of attachment to something that you can’t live without? The magnitude of this dilemma increases for the saints who follow bhakti-yoga as a way of life. As Lord Chaitanya says, the living entity is eternally a servant of Krishna, or God. The living entity’s real form is servant, Krishna-dasa. When one rejuvenates their eternal and real form, which previously lay dormant, how can the resulting feeling be properly explained to someone else?
If I say that I am a devotee of such and such personality, others will infer that there is a choice in the matter. Otherwise why even make the statement? If I say that I like pizza, it means that there is the option of not liking pizza. Maybe I like eggrolls, dumplings, burritos, or what not. It is absolutely possible that I won’t like pizza. Therefore when I tell someone that I do like it, they know that I have made the voluntary choice to eat pizza, and from that choice I have decided that I enjoy the taste.
Taste is important in bhakti-yoga as well. Bhakti-yoga is also known as bhakti-rasa, or the taste of devotion. A famous saint authored a book titled Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, which can be translated to mean “the nectar of devotion” or “the ocean made up of the nectar of the taste of devotion to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” There are different tastes in bhakti, but in general any taste that is part of devotion to God gets classified as bhakti-rasa.
Again, if we enjoy a taste, it means that there is some choice made to enjoy it. Yet this is contradictory to what the person immersed in bhakti-rasa actually feels. One may chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare,” a few times and then move on to other things. They experience the taste for a few brief moments, but then try something else.
There is devotion in this chanting because the words in the mantra address God and His energy. Chanting this mantra is better than just repeating the word “God” over and over again. God is more of an abstract term, which means it is more prone to interpretation. In many respects it is an impersonal way of addressing the Lord, wherein one appreciates the grand nature of the Supreme Controller but still doesn’t really know anything about Him.
In his Dohavali, which is a collection of poetic couplets describing the heart of devotional service and how man should conduct himself in life, Goswami Tulsidas addresses the deficiency in only addressing the impersonal aspect of God. The impersonal aspect of the Almighty is compared to the numeral version of a number written on a financial transaction. The personal aspect is compared to the same number in its written out, word form. We write out the number on the second line of the check to make sure there is no funny business. The person receiving the check could easily add a few small marks here and there to change the intended value on the digits in the numeral version. A number one can turn into a seven, a five into eight, and so on. If you write out the same number, the chance of malfeasance is greatly diminished.
When you address God as Krishna, you know that He is a personality who is all-attractive. He has a bluish/blackish bodily complexion. It is compared to the dark raincloud about to pour down water. This is also the bodily complexion of Lord Rama, who is the same Krishna but in a different visible manifestation. Lord Vishnu also has the same bodily complexion. There are many different personal forms of the Almighty, and a wise person does not differentiate between them other than for personal preference in worship. This doesn’t mean that all beings are God or that all divine figures are the same as Krishna. Along with Krishna comes His energy, who is devoted to Him in thought, word and deed. The energy is addressed in the maha-mantra through the word “Hare.”
Famous poets such as Tulsidas are so immersed in bhakti-rasa that they can’t live without it. It is pointless to refer to themselves as a devotee of Rama or Krishna because there is no longer a choice in the matter. It’s like telling someone over and over again that I’m the son of such and such person. There is no way I can ever be the son of anyone else. It is part of my identity within this current lifetime. I can’t choose other parents. I may live with others or I may not speak with my parents, but they are still always my parents.
The parent-child analogy is helpful here, but it is still not perfect in describing bhakti-rasa, as the child is not always obedient to the parents. The child is also expected to one day live without the guidance of the parents, who will ideally pass from this world before the child does. The Vaishnava saints, the devotees of a personal aspect of God, use other analogies to describe their devotion. In the same Dohavali, Tulsidas makes reference to the Chatak bird. This bird only drinks rainwater; nothing else. As a result, its eyes remain fixed on the dark raincloud, the one that is about to pour down rain.
This comparison is so deep that one can spend a whole lifetime studying it and still find new ways to appreciate it. As mentioned before, the dark raincloud has a color that is a direct match for Shri Rama’s complexion. Thus the Chatak, who is in this case Tulsidas, always looks at the cloud, who is Rama. It only accepts whatever the raincloud offers. If nothing comes its way, it won’t eat. If the raincloud sends something to someone else, the bird won’t take it. It only accepts whatever the raincloud offers its way. The Chatak in this sense is a pure devotee; it asks for nothing in return. Whether it rains or not, the bird will always be devoted to the raincloud.
The fish out of water analogy is used quite often today, and it is so old that it can be found in the ancient Vedic text known as the Ramayana. The reference there is made by Lakshmana, Shri Rama’s younger brother. He says that neither Sita nor himself can live without Rama, just like the fish can’t survive when taken out of the water. The fish’s love for the water is so great that it will die soon after it is separated. The love for the water is what defines the fish’s existence. The devotee feels something similar, for without God in their life they can’t survive. Regardless of the situation, they try to chant the holy names as much as possible, as this is like being thrown back into the water for the fish after it has been taken out. The holy name brings God’s direct company, so one who always chants it never has to live without the Lord.
Tulsidas and other famous Vaishnava poets make other similar analogies, like to the kairava flower, which opens up at the sight of the moon. Without the moon, the kairava will not open. It refuses to do anything without its loveable object. Similarly, the devotee cannot do anything except serve God. They will not accept anyone’s mercy unless they feel it is coming from God or that it will help them in serving Him.
Such a high position is actually every person’s constitutional position. In no other relationship can the love be so strong. Love for another person can never define us because we can actually live without the other person. Love for a particular food item also doesn’t apply, as we can survive on pretty much any type of food. When we choose love of God and practice it under the authority of someone who can’t live without Him, that relationship will soon cease to be a choice.
“Does eating this food your religion allow?
Will doing this break your lifelong vow?
If you like pizza you say,
To not like must also be a way.”
Not the same is to the Lord pure devotion.
No desire for gain in highest emotion.
Love for water defines fish’s existence,
Needed for survival, no question of resistance.
Tulsidas and poets of bhakti the same way live,
Defined by love for God, full attention to Him they give.