Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Bhakti Tradition

[Maharaja Dasharatha]“He had affection for nonviolence, was not vulgar, and was always kind and truly valorous. He was the principal of the Ikshvaku dynasty, and he both possessed fortune and increased it for others.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 31.4)

ahiṃsā ratiḥ akṣudro ghṛṇī satya parākramaḥ |
mukhyaḥ ca ikṣvāku vaṃśasya lakṣmīvāml lakṣmi vardhanaḥ ||

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In the sixteenth century especially, devotional literature based on the worshipable figures of the ancient Sanskrit texts of India really flourished. Known later as “the bhakti movement,” this time featured wonderful poetry and song composed by humble, wise, renounced, and always in bliss saintly personalities. These works had a notable distinction from their predecessors. Gone were the lengthy discussions on what is truth and what is not. No more were material rewards, even for neophytes, considered worthy of mention. Instead, it was straight devotion. Extol the virtues of the Supreme Personality of Godhead in a way that pleases your mind, all the while keeping respect for the timeless truths.

This wasn’t mental speculation, but to the outside observer it could seem like it.

“Bhakti is not so much prominent in the ancient Sanskrit texts. Those are more esoteric. They don’t speak so much of the various personalities being God themselves. Rather, there is emphasis on dharma, or virtue. Therefore the bhakti movement seems to be sentimentally based. It must be a modern concoction.”

While this logic may seem appealing, from studying just one verse from the Ramayana we see the truth. The difference is in style alone, as bhakti is prominent in both eras.

[Valmiki writing Ramayana]The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit work. It is the life and pastimes of Shri Ramachandra, as told by the hermit Valmiki. He was a saintly man who lived in the renounced order, taking up residence in the forest amidst humble surroundings. He had nothing else to worry over day and night except his devotion to God. He penned the Ramayana to please himself and to also give pleasure to all the other devoted saintly men and women of the world.

As Sanskrit is a language very difficult to understand, Valmiki’s Ramayana was not accessible to all, even more so with the passage of time. During the period of the bhakti movement, another saintly man decided to compose his own poem about Rama’s life. This was in no way meant to compete with Valmiki. This work explained the same truths but in the language better known to the author, and in a manner that showed his own understanding of the true nature of the Supreme Lord. The work was so much appreciated that today it is often mistaken for the Ramayana itself. It is read by men and women alike, understood by even the less intelligent. In this way the glories of God were brought to the masses in a time when adherence to religious principles was gradually declining.

[Goswami Tulsidas]From the scholarly point of view, the original Ramayana doesn’t touch on devotion so much. Rama is declared to be God, but it is not emphatically repeated over and over. But in delving into the matter further, we see that the Ramayana is indeed replete with devotion. In this verse Shri Hanuman gives the highest praise for another human being. Here he is describing King Dasharatha, the father of Lord Rama. Hanuman says that Dasharatha had affection for nonviolence. He says that the king was not vulgar, either. That king was always kind and valorous, two qualities which seem to contradict.

The king had wealth of his own and helped others to increase their own wealth. This means that he did not steal from others. He did not plunder the wealth of the earth. Rather he protected property rights and governed with real fairness. These qualities made him the ideal candidate to play the role of father to the Supreme Lord, who is actually aja, or unborn. By praising the father in this way, Hanuman sets the table for speaking of the glories of Shri Rama. These words are directed at Rama’s wife, Sita Devi.

[Shri Hanuman]In other places in the Ramayana, Sita takes to glorifying both Dasharatha and Rama. And then Rama’s younger brother, Lakshmana, makes similar comments. Bharata, another of Rama’s brothers, also gives the highest praise for Rama. The female ascetic Shabari has her life’s mission fulfilled when she makes an offering to Rama that is accepted. Many others are liberated from past curses due to a moment’s contact with Rama.

Indeed, in other ancient Vedic texts like the Bhagavad-gita, the principal characters take to praising God. Arjuna says the nicest things about Lord Krishna, who is the original form of the Supreme Lord, the source of all incarnations. Krishna and Rama are the same. Arjuna’s words are completely accurate, and they are found in a text that is part of a larger work known as the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is not considered a work of bhakti, or devotion, but in fact the devotional spirit is found within that work. And that devotion trumps all other styles of religion. Arjuna is advised to abandon all other kinds of dharma in favor of that devotion.

[Bhagavad-gita, 18.66]“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.66)

And so we see that the bhakti tradition is not a new one. In the Sanskrit works of ancient times the bhakti flowed through the dialogue and actions of the characters. In more recent times, the authors themselves add in their comments of praise. They strip out some of the lesser important details that the busy public in the hectic times of the Kali Yuga doesn’t have the attention span for. They go for the essence right away, for that alone can lift one’s spirits out of misery and into the boundless joy that life is meant to offer.

In Closing:

Not much in ancient books read,

So bhakti a modern invention instead?

 

From Hanuman see that case is not,

In words of praise full devotion he’s got.

 

In dialogue and in actions to act out,

Same in new works, more words without.

 

As time itself the bhakti tradition is old,

Like Hanuman, gift more valuable than gold.

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