“He had the best of qualities among saintly kings. In austerities he was equal to the great sages. Born in a family of great rulers, he was equal in strength to Indra.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 31.3)
rājarṣīṇāṃ guṇaśreṣṭhastapasā carṣibhiḥ samaḥ |
cakra varti kule jātaḥ puram dara samo bale ||
“This human life is meant for austerities.” You will hear a saintly person following the Vedic tradition repeat this instruction almost like a mantra. What does it really mean, though? Are we supposed to suffer? We’re supposed to look forward to bad things happening to us? We’re supposed to punish ourselves in order to find a better destination in the afterlife? As with every other injunction passed on from authorized works and the people who are knowledgeable in that regard, the purpose to austerity is ultimately to find happiness. And that happiness does not have to wait for the afterlife.
Of the followers of religious principles, the sages are known to be the most austere. Even in modern times that feature industrialization, the priestly class is known to be more restricted in their behavior. They live in a certain place and don’t engage in all the behavior typical to a material life. In ancient times, the sages of the Vedic tradition preferred the remote wilderness for habitation. In the same place the animals lived the sages would voluntarily take up residence.
This was the ideal place to practice austerity. How can you eat too much when there is hardly any food around? If you’re living in a forest, you don’t have large tracts of land to cultivate. You don’t have many cows with you, for they will have no place to graze. You barely have a dwelling; a thatched hut may be your lone option. You don’t have many possessions, so survival itself is the focus. With a minimalist lifestyle, you are more austere than those living in the cities and on the farms.
And there is a purpose to this austerity. The simple life clears the mind. You don’t have to worry about why your smartphone suddenly is draining battery like anything. You don’t have to look through which apps are updating in the background. You don’t need to research on the internet that specific problem you’re having where the display is not correct. You don’t have to fear your way of life becoming extinct due to an upgrade to the hardware or software. You don’t have to worry about what the future outcomes will be, since you have no outcomes to fret over. You can simply think about God. You can contemplate His features day and night. This is indeed a wonderful life, and anyone who comes to visit you will see the spiritual effulgence that you naturally radiate.
Keeping all this in mind, Shri Hanuman here tells us that a king a long time back was equal in austerity to the sages. This wasn’t an exaggeration. Hanuman is known to be truthful. Here his words are directed to someone who already knows the king in question. By speaking in this way Hanuman is revealing himself to be truthful. Sita, the person meant to hear these words, already knows that the king, Dasharatha, is equal to the sages in austere practices. The fact is that not many in her surroundings know this. She is in the Ashoka grove in Lanka, held there against her will. The king of that land was not very austere. Sure, when he had to be, when he wanted boons to be used for material sense gratification, he could follow penances. But in general he was all about eating, drinking and being merry as much as possible. His merriment was such a high priority that he had no problem stealing another man’s wife to find it. He had no problem killing innocent creatures to get what he wanted.
Dasharatha was not like this. His austerity meant that he was not driven by lust. When keeping lust in control, one has tremendous powers. They rid themselves of so many problems. Dasharatha lived in an opulent kingdom, and yet wasn’t attached to any of it. To such a man appeared the Supreme Personality of Godhead in a beautiful incarnation form. This meant that Dasharatha didn’t have to wait for the afterlife to get his reward. His austerity equal to the sages, conducted while ruling a kingdom and protecting so many innocent subjects, earned him the highly sought after vision of the Divine. And this vision wasn’t a flash. It didn’t appear for a moment and then vanish, like the comet coursing through the night sky. Dasharatha got to serve; the vision was alive. It was God Himself, and Dasharatha took full advantage of having Him in his life.
Austerity that is in line with authorized spiritual practice is ultimately meant to bring the same reward, i.e. service to God. The abode in heaven is but a temporary reward that has a dazzling appearance for those who are not yet familiar with the science of self-realization known as bhakti-yoga. The cherished forest-dwelling is appealing for as long as devotional service is not fully manifest. Once there is devotion, the type of residence is no longer so important. Whether in a kingdom such as a Ayodhya, a forest such as Dandaka, or an enemy territory such as Lanka, the chance for service never vanishes. The staunch devotee is forever dear to Shri Rama, the beloved husband of Sita, and so they get His association wherever and whenever.
An austere setting to find,
To keep clear the mind.
Without so many a distraction,
Towards Divine hope to develop attraction.
To sages equal was the king,
In austerities not lacking a thing.
From that practice Supreme Lord came,
Not idle, service to Him Dasharatha’s real gain.