“This bow is as fixed as Parvati’s mind. This bow is from Lord Shiva, who observes the vow to accept only one wife.” (Janaki Mangala, 93)
pārabatī mana sarisa acala dhanu cālaka |
hahiṃ purāri teu eka nāri brata pālaka ||
The celebration of the lifting of the heavy bow in King Janaka’s assembly travels to all spheres, touching especially those who are intimately related to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In the Vedic tradition, there are many gods, but not all of them are equal. There is only one Supreme Lord, and by worshiping Him, all other gods are automatically worshiped. If they should still feel slighted, the protection granted by the original Godhead to the worshiper is perfect; a fact proved during the famous incident of the first Govardhana Puja. The most elevated of the godlike figures are so exalted that the Supreme Lord requests their direct participation in His pastimes. No one is more dear to God than Shiva and Parvati, and so it was not surprising that their names came up quite often in Janakpur during a famous event a long time ago.
With so many gods, how do we know which one is the original? Also, some take the original to be one person, while others take Him to be someone else? How do we reconcile the differences?
The Vedic literature mentions different paths to attaining enlightenment, and with each path there are also different worshipable figures. In order to tell which worshipable figure is supreme, we have to compare the destinations of the paths.
But don’t all paths lead to the same place?
Ideally, they should, but immediately they may not. The person graduating from first grade in elementary school is headed for second grade in the immediate term, while they are looking to eventually reach graduation. The person who has already reached graduation has no need for the second grade and its requisite assignments.
Depending on which mode of material nature you are in, you will follow a certain path towards transcendental enlightenment. The ultimate end goal is pure love for God. This is the only real definition of love, and it is known by terms such as prema, bhakti, and bhava in Sanskrit. What we consider love is more like kama, or material lust. Even when we offer love to parents, siblings, or children, the affection, or sneha, is a derivative of the original prema that we possess.
And prema can only exist for one person: God. God consciousness is the original consciousness. Every other kind of consciousness is a reflection or masking of the original consciousness. The question then remains: who is God? Is He a formless energy known as Brahman? Is He the Supersoul resting within the heart? Is He an angry man who looks to punish the sinners? Is He old?
Only the Vedas provide the most complete information about God. It is impossible to fully enumerate the qualities of the Supreme Lord. This is actually a good thing, as it allows prema to be directed through channels of endless glorification. If the qualities could be fully enumerated, then one person could expound on them and shut everyone else out of the fun. When we see award shows or ceremonies honoring a specific personality, there are multiple people who offer their insight. One person doesn’t suffice for praise, as people have different viewpoints and different stories to share. In the same way, each individual can offer praise to God. If everyone in the world did this without end for the entire duration of their stay on earth, there would still be plenty left to glorify.
In the simplest definition, God is Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The word Bhagavan means one who possesses the opulences of beauty, wealth, strength, fame, wisdom and renunciation to the fullest degree and at the same time. He is the only person who possesses this feature, and so He is the only Bhagavan. Sometimes respectable personalities who are intimately related to Bhagavan in a mood of divine love are also addressed as Bhagavan, but again this is only because of their relation to the original Bhagavan. The word Bhagavan also means the most fortunate, and so that good fortune spreads to the devotees as well.
Lord Shiva is one person who is sometimes addressed as Bhagavan. This is because he is fully devoted to the original Bhagavan. In the Shrimad Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita, two famous Vedic texts which present wisdom so profound that every other philosophy existing past, present and future is explained, it is said that God’s original form is Lord Krishna, who is also known as Shyamasundara, the youth with a blackish complexion and a stunningly beautiful face. A direct expansion of Krishna is Lord Vishnu, who takes charge of creating this and many other universes. Then there are further expansions of Vishnu, to the point that the material world is managed by Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva, and another Lord Vishnu.
All the Vishnu expansions are equivalent to one another; they are like identical candles lit from the original candle that is Krishna. Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva agree with this conclusion, so much so that they are original teachers of the philosophy known as Vaishnavism, or devotion to Vishnu. Along with the Vishnu expansions there are the avataras who descend to earth. Lord Rama, the eldest son of King Dasharatha, is one of the more famous incarnations, and He is the preferred form of Vishnu for Lord Shiva.
Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva are considered demigods, or elevated living entities who work at the direction of the Supreme Lord. There are other demigods as well, and each of them provides specific material benedictions to their worshipers. Just because they fulfill this role doesn’t mean that they are completely immersed in material life themselves.
Worship of Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati is prominent in the Vedic tradition. The story of their marriage is described in many Vedic texts. Parvati is the daughter of the mountain king Himavata. Her name means daughter of the mountain. In her youth Narada Muni, a celebrated spiritual master and devotee of Vishnu, told her father that her destiny was to marry Lord Shiva. In order to effect this, Parvati went into the forest and did tapasya, or austerity, for a very long time. Her resolve was tested many times, including by her parents, who did not want her to marry Shiva. One time Shiva sent his attendants to entice her in the forest. They offered her Lord Vishnu as a husband, but Parvati’s resolve was so strong that she stood by the words of Narada. Not that there was anything wrong with marrying Vishnu, but she was intent on following what her spiritual master had told her.
In the same way Lord Shiva is dedicated to Parvati. In her previous birth she was also Shiva’s wife. Known as Sati, she died after her husband was insulted one time. Shiva only accepts one wife, and combined the two manage the material creation. Parvati is also known as Durga, which as a word means “difficult to overcome.” Her material creation is like a fort with giant walls that are seemingly impossible to scale. Her devotees worship her so that the material creation will not be so painful to them. Durga carries a trident in her hand, which symbolizes the threefold miseries of life: those caused by the body and mind, those caused by the demigods, i.e. nature, and those caused by other living entities.
In King Janaka’s assembly a long time ago, there was a contest to see who would marry the king’s daughter Sita. So many princes from around the world came and tried, but none of them could even move the bow. The bow originally belonged to Lord Shiva, so it was special. Vishvamitra Muni, a noted brahmana of the time, asked the king if Lord Rama, who was there with His younger brother Lakshmana, could try His hand at lifting the bow.
In the above referenced verse from the Janaki Mangala, Janaka is responding to Vishvamitra with skepticism. He compares the bow’s firmness to Parvati’s resolve, and says that the bow is originally from Lord Shiva, who observes the vow to accept only one wife. Janaka is such a pious individual that when he wants to describe something that is immovable he references Shiva and Parvati. Today Janaka is known as one of the authorities on devotional service, which is the discipline that reawakens prema, or pure love for God. Lord Shiva is also an authority on devotional service. We see that Janaka had so much respect for Shiva and Parvati, which means that any genuine Vaishnava will also have respect for the couple who is so dear to Sita and Rama.
Janaka was indeed correct in describing the bow in this way, but what wasn’t immediately known to everyone was that Rama is the very worshipable Lord of Shiva. And Parvati is devoted to Shiva, which means that she is part of a chain that worships Shri Rama. This bow was Shiva’s representative at the ceremony, and since Shiva and Parvati are one, Parvati was there as well. Rama was destined to lift that illustrious bow and win Sita’s hand in marriage. That amazing feat paid honor to Shiva and Parvati as well, showing that through worship of God all other respectable personalities are worshiped simultaneously.
Pain from tapasya didn’t feel,
In vow her resolve like steel.
Only Shiva as husband to accept,
All other offers she would kindly reject.
Vow towards her he also gives,
Together on mountain they live.
In Janaka’s assembly both were there,
In bow that none could lift in the air.
Rama is Shiva’s Lord, to raise bow with ease,
By this act all His votaries to please.