“According to your particularly poor condition, your divine beauty and your clothes showing austerity, surely you must be Rama’s queen.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 33.13)
yathā hi tava vaidainyam rūpam cāpyatimānuṣam ||
tapasā cānvito veṣastvaṃ rāmamahiṣī dhruvam |
It’s a paradox. You work hard. You sacrifice a lot. You could have spent your four years in college partying, skipping class, and having fun with your friends. Instead you spent that time studying. You worked also, so as to avoid a massive debt of student loans after graduation. You didn’t eat too much and you didn’t sleep too much, either. It was like you never had any free time.
Your austerity paid off. You made it. You became successful in your field. You married a really good person, and you now have children together. Here comes the difficulty. Your kids will grow up with a lot more than you had when you were their age. They will not know poverty. You’ve done so well financially, in fact, that if they don’t want to work, they don’t have to. They can live off of the interest from your savings and investments.
You did this work seemingly for them, but then you really don’t want them to be without austerity. You don’t want them to be spoiled. What good is that going to do them? If you indulged every one of your sense urges during youth there is no way you would have turned out successful. There was no one around to bail you out of irresponsibility. You had to live with the consequences of bad decisions. You realize that it was good to have that fear lurking in the background; it motivated you.
The problem presented here is not new. To have opulence and austerity simultaneously is nearly impossible. Now imagine if you are the daughter of a very pious king in an ancient time period. This king had real wealth. He had many cows in his possession. To be able to support a few children and a pet or two is not easy in modern times, and so just imagine if you had thousands of pets in cows to maintain. Each cow requires so much land for eating and moving, so we get an idea of the opulence King Janaka must have had to maintain his kingdom.
His eldest and most beloved daughter grew up in the lap of luxury. Whatever she wanted she could get. She got the best husband in the world, too. Not only was He the most beautiful and chivalrous, but He was the strongest as well. He proved that in a contest of strength, lifting the mighty bow of Shiva that had been passed on from generation to generation in Janaka’s family.
Despite having every amenity available to her, Janaka’s daughter Sita possessed austerity. She could renounce things whenever it was required. If you’re the princess to a wealthy prince, it’s not usually a good idea to show austerity for no reason. Such as if you’re hosting a dinner, it’s better to go all out with fancy plates and sturdy tables than to use paper plates and cheap folding chairs. Certain things are expected out of royalty, and skimping on luxury is not one of them.
At the same time, if Sita had to renounce all of the regal fare, she could. When her husband was unfairly banished from His kingdom for fourteen years, Sita insisted on coming along. She voluntarily gave up everything, in the same way that her husband did. She did not have to think about it.
“Always engaged in serving you, keeping my senses under control and observing the vow of brahmachari, I shall be with you, O great hero, in the forest fragrant with honey.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 27.13)
Giving up fine food and drink is one thing, but the height of austerity is eliminating sex life. This is usually reserved for the renounced yogis and the students aspiring for advancement in the Vedic culture. Sita voluntarily took up this vow when following her husband to the forest. She was ready to live for fourteen years with her husband without engaging in sex life.
Shri Hanuman noticed the signs of austerity in Sita when he first saw her in the Ashoka grove in Lanka. Particularly it was Sita’s dress that gave the indication. She was from royalty and married into it, and she was in an area where all the women were princesses. Yet she looked out of place, sad and distressed. She was in fact undergoing even more austerities, forcibly separated from her husband. She refused to eat and she did not sleep, either.
Indeed, Sita is originally the goddess of fortune. Her husband Rama is the Supreme Lord Narayana. This means that Sita has access to the greatest wealth. For her to be renounced means she has the most to give up. She follows her husband in this regard, as one of His six opulences is full renunciation, vairagya.
From her example we see that any person can live with very little, provided they have love for Rama. A person can have so much and still not be very happy. The poor person is always longing for things, and the wealthy person keeps searching for that one thing that will give them lasting happiness. The person in devotional service can live in either condition, whenever necessary, as they have the real wealth in God’s association, which they maintain by chanting His names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
When in royal opulence to live,
Renouncer the most in sacrifice to give.
Like Sita in royalty being raised,
Then to forest from Ayodhya parting ways.
Though supreme delight to Rama giving,
Under the vow of brahmachari with Him living.
All signs to Rama’s wife this pointed,
To Hanuman, Lord’s messenger appointed.