“Like the world is an enemy to the fish when it leaves the water, just think, O Tulsi, what your destination will be if you are without Rama.” (Dohavali, 56)
jyoṃ jaga bairī mīna ko āpu sahita binu bāri |
tayo tulasī raghubīra binu gati āpanī bicāri ||
Lakshmana is one of three younger brothers to Shri Rama, the prince of the Raghu dynasty. Lakshmana is known to be the closest with Rama, with the remaining brothers Bharata and Shatrughna forming a bond since childhood. Lakshmana is known as the one who cannot be without Rama. In his youth he would not take his meals unless his elder brother had eaten first. He would not go to sleep unless Rama had fallen asleep already. Hearing of this brotherly affection warms the heart, but there is a greater meaning to be derived. Goswami Tulsidas confirms that meaning in this verse from the Dohavali.
“Like a fish out of water.” We’ve likely heard this expression before. It is quite popular. It is a quick, simple and easy way to describe the difficulty someone faces when in a situation foreign to them. For instance, if a student known for academic excellence in school suddenly gets placed on the football field, they probably won’t know what to do. Lacking knowledge is one thing, but in this situation the student is not suited for what is asked. They are not known to excel in sports; their expertise is in studies. A good way to describe their difficulty is to say that on the football field they are like a fish out of water.
“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)
What is the origin of the expression? Who was the first to utter it? That task is left to historians and researchers, but we know for sure that thousands of years ago the beloved younger brother of Rama invoked it. The expression appears in the Ramayana, which is a Sanskrit work that is thousands of years old. Lakshmana did not use it to describe awkwardness. He did not use it just to say how odd he would feel in a particular situation. The expression was used to convey pure love.
The fish is meant to live in the water. To take it out and put it on land is to remove it from its natural habitat. The fish doesn’t know what to do on land. It can’t fly through the air, either. But delving further, we see that the real issue is survival. The fish cannot live outside the water. It will die rather quickly. In this sense we could say that the relationship to the water is what defines the existence of the fish.
In the same way, pure devotion to God is what defines Lakshmana. When he used the expression, he included Rama’s wife Sita as well. Lakshmana referenced time also. He told Rama that he and Sita could not live without Rama for even a moment. This is the nicest thing anyone could say to another person. If the statement is genuine, then the recipient receives the highest honor by hearing it.
It is not surprising that such an honor coming from such an honorable person was directed at the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is the real lesson to take away from Lakshmana’s behavior. He loves God without motive. He continues to love without interruption. He is known as an incarnation of the original guru, or spiritual master. All bona fide representatives of the Supreme Lord feel exactly the same way; they cannot survive without God’s association for even a moment.
The couplet of Goswami Tulsidas referenced here has Lakshmana for its support. Tulsidas is following authority; he is not concocting a new truth. It is not blind sentiment. Under the pretense of giving himself advice, the poet says that the world is an enemy to the fish. Not that the world is intentionally trying to harm the fish; it’s just that the water is the natural home. The water is safer; it’s where the fish is meant to live.
In a similar manner, the devotee is meant to be with Rama. This association is known as yoga, the real meaning to it. All different styles of yoga are meant to culminate in this association through love. Jnana-yoga, karma-yoga, hatha-yoga, ashtanga-yoga - the true fruit of practicing each is to reach bhakti-yoga, which is devotional service.
Tulsidas wonders what the destination will be if Rama’s association is gone. The fish is in danger outside the water, and it is moments away from peril. The enemy that is the material consciousness attacks for many lifetimes. Time operates on the material nature, and when the jiva is in a conditioned state, they seem to be perpetually stuck in the cycle of birth and death. This is all due to the lost association of God.
But fortunately, the association is ready to be regained at any moment. The Supreme Lord rests within the heart as the Supersoul. He is actually with us all the time, but the key is to be conscious of Him. Consciousness is the factor that determines whether or not there is association. Just like Sita and Lakshmana, Tulsidas cannot survive without Rama. Therefore he follows bhakti to the Supreme Lord for lifetime after lifetime.
Like a fish out of water expression made,
By Lakshmana to Rama highest honor paid.
That can’t survive for even a moment one,
That life without Him having meaning none.
Like world an enemy to the fish being,
Perpetual danger when Rama’s feet not seeing.
Words of Tulsidas not made to stand alone,
Having support of Lakshmana’s strength his own.