“Anyone who loves Sita and Rama more than himself, Tulsi would gladly use the skin from his own body to make their shoes.” (Dohavali, 59)
āpu āpane teṁ adhika jehi priya sītārāma |
tehi ke paga kī pānahī tulasī tanu ko cāma ||
It is said that the neophyte in bhakti-yoga thinks only of their own, small universe. That is to say when they worship, they consider that the only things of importance are themselves and the object of worship. This viewpoint is helpful in the beginning, as since childhood the identification is with the individual and its interests. Known as svartha in Sanskrit, there is an accompanying term called paramartha, which relates to the same interest but arriving in the afterlife. In bhakti-yoga, the focus is on someone else’s pleasure, and the more one matures in serving the more they appreciate the same relationship that others have.
The concept is not so difficult to understand. We can take the example of our parents. We’ve likely known them the longest. If both our parents were there when we exited the womb, then they get the distinction of being the first people we knew in our journey through life. They protected us when we were young. They guided us along the straight and narrow path. They had no fear in saying the one word that every parent must say over and over in order to be effective at what they do: “No.”
In youth the parents are everything to us. It’s natural to love them very much and worry over their future wellbeing. As we get older, however, we start to appreciate what others do for our parents. If aunts, uncles and family friends make our parents happy, we think those people are good. We may not have close relationships with them, but if they are good to our parents, they are good in our estimation as well. It is similar to how a quick way to make friends with someone is to befriend their dog. If their dog gives the approval, then the owner is more likely to think highly of you.
In bhakti-yoga, the concentration is on the personal side of God. The impersonal comes from the personal. The impersonal consists of less-defined or aggregate concepts like the universe, material nature, and an undivided energy that animates everything. The impersonal side helps us to appreciate the personal even more, as from a single individual has come so much variety that is equipped with flawless intelligence seen in such things like the behavior of the species and the predictable functioning of the powerful elements of nature.
The Sanskrit term of “bhakti-yoga” translates to “devotional service.” You do things like worship a materially manifested depiction of the Supreme in order to get closer to Him. God could never be limited to the form of a statue. His height is unimaginable. He has hands and legs, but we don’t know how long they are. He is incorporeal in the sense that no corporeal object could ever satisfy for a suitable form on Him. Yet the physical object worshiped is His mercy upon the fallen; it facilitates love and devotion to Him, which is the aim of life.
If you really love someone, you will want them to be happy. By extension you will have appreciation for those things which make that person happy. Here Goswami Tulsidas exhibits that sentiment to the highest degree. His object of worship is Sita-Rama. They are the female and male aspects to the one God respectively. Sita is the pleasure-giving potency of Rama, who is the original Supreme Lord. Both Sita and Rama appear in other forms that are non-different, like Lakshmi and Vishnu and Radha and Krishna.
From having worshiped them so much and gotten to know them so well, Tulsidas appreciates anyone who loves Sita and Rama. He declares that for a person who loves Sita and Rama more than themselves, he is ready to donate the skin on his body to be used as shoes. Far from thinking he lives in a universe that exclusively features the Supreme Lord and His wife, Tulsidas knows that bhakti-yoga is for everyone. Indeed, he genuinely feels that others can love the beloved couple more than he does.
He understands that selfless devotion is what makes God the happiest. He knows that having Sita by His side is what gives Rama so much pleasure. It is for Rama’s benefit that Sita appears next to Him in the altars found in homes and temples. Anyone who makes Rama happy by keeping Sita next to Him makes Tulsidas happy too. The noted saint is ready to give everything to help such a person continue in their devotion. For this reason he writes such wonderful poetry and enables its distribution through accepting the sannyasa-ashrama. Indeed, all Vaishnavas, devotees of the personal God, behave similarly with respect to their fellow man. They are willing to even give up their lives to see others happy in the bliss of surrender known as sharanagati.
Deity with fixed eyes to see,
Worshiping God, just you and me.
When on this path to advance,
Know that others too should have a chance.
When with full love of Sita and Rama to live,
To them Tulsi skin for shoes ready to give.
Devotion for God and energy this life meant,
To show us Vaishnavas to the world sent.