“You have promised to give Him three steps of land in charity, but when you give it He will occupy the three worlds. You are a rascal! You do not know what a great mistake you have made. After giving everything to Lord Vishnu, you will have no means of livelihood. How then shall you live?” (Shukracharya speaking to Bali Maharaja, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 8.19.33)Download this episode (right click and save)
Friends and family. They are our support system. The parents are likely the first people we see after emerging from the womb. By extension, they become the people we have known the longest. The respectable personalities are referred to in Sanskrit as guru. Though the word often has the meaning of spiritual guide, it can refer to any person who holds weight with us, whose authority we respect, trust, and rely on.
Devotional service, bhakti-yoga, is dedicated to the supreme authority figure, the original guru. He is the heaviest person and also the most compassionate. In dedicated service to someone, sometimes even loved ones become obstacles. The choice to abandon is difficult, but several devotees from the past fearlessly blazed the path for future generations to follow. These examples were referenced one time by Goswami Tulsidas in correspondence with Mirabai. Both famous poets of the bhakti tradition, Tulsidas used the list as a way to give assurance that the Supreme Lord’s companionship takes precedence over all others.
Physical separation isn’t required for there to be abandonment. In the case of Prahlada, there was nowhere to go. He was merely five years of age. The issue was his devotion to Vishnu, which is one of many names the Vedas provide for the Almighty, who is a person in His original feature. Prahlada’s father was the cause of distress. In the beginning, Hiranyakashipu was affectionate. He wanted Prahlada to follow in his footsteps, to be a great king, feared throughout the world.
When he saw Prahlada’s devotional inclination, the father vehemently protested. He would not have any Vishnu-worship in his kingdom. The father was so incensed that he thought maybe the teachers on the royal staff were responsible. They assured Hiranyakashipu that they had not taught Prahlada about worshiping Vishnu.
“The son of Shukracharya, Hiranyakashipu's spiritual master, said: O enemy of King Indra, O King! Whatever your son Prahlada has said was not taught to him by me or anyone else. His spontaneous devotional service has naturally developed in him. Therefore, please give up your anger and do not unnecessarily accuse us. It is not good to insult a brahmana in this way.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.5.28)
Prahlada had a choice. Listen to his father and abandon Vishnu. Or he could continue in his preferred path and face the consequences. He chose the latter and the consequences would have been fatal in ordinary circumstances. Hiranyakashipu, the supposedly loving father, tried to have Prahlada killed. So many attempts were made, but Vishnu saved the boy.
Long before Benedict Arnold there was Vibhishana. Under the commonly accepted standards of decency and respect, he would qualify as the greatest traitor. Not only did he abandon his side prior to a great conflict, but the leader of that side was his own brother.
The Sanskrit word for younger brother is anuja. This word isn’t used by accident. It has a specific meaning. The younger brother is supposed to follow, anu, the elder. This is common sense, and also included in teachings on general etiquette followed in Vedic culture.
Vibhishana had a reason, though. Like Hiranyakashipu, Ravana was completely against God. He had committed a terrible sin in stealing Sita away. Sita is Rama’s wife, and Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu. Vibhishana tried to talk sense into Ravana, but that didn’t work. Feeling he had no other choice, Vibhishana left Ravana in favor of Rama. The traitor by material estimation did something extremely courageous. He was rewarded for it with eternal devotion to Rama, which matters much more than reputation amongst Rakshasas in Lanka.
3. Bharata, the younger brother of Rama
Bharata took the role of younger brother seriously. He followed Rama. He was completely devoted to Him as well, which means that his allegiance qualifies as bhakti. There was an issue with the mother, though. Thrown into a fit of jealousy one time, Kaikeyi influenced the king to banish Rama from the kingdom for fourteen years. The wilderness is lonely and dangerous. It is not guaranteed that someone will come back alive after going there for so long.
Kaikeyi did this so that her son, Bharata, would ascend the throne. This all happened while Bharata was out of town. When he returned and found out what had happened, he was incensed. Rama’s leaving the kingdom led to the death of Dasharatha, who couldn’t bear the separation from his son. Lakshmana, another younger brother to Rama, left for the forest too. Because of Kaikeyi, Bharata was out two brothers, a father, and a sister-in-law.
It made his decision to abandon the mother that much easier. She lived in the same kingdom, but she was practically dead to him. The mother goes through so much to bring the child into this world. She is to be respected regardless of how she behaves. But since she had wronged Rama, Bharata renounced her. He wouldn’t take the kingdom, either. Rama ruled symbolically through His sandals until He returned from the exile period.
4. Bali Maharaja
A famous king from ancient times, Bali was once visited by a dwarf. This was actually Vishnu in a special incarnation. Known as Vamana, soon a new name would be added: Trivikrama. Vamana begged for the land to cover three steps. Bali Maharaja was ready to agree, but the spiritual teacher had reservations. Shukracharya said that it was a bad idea, since who knows what the king might lose. The teacher accepted through heredity had a feeling that there was more than meets the eye with this beggar.
Bali proceeded anyway. He was fully surrendered to the Supreme Lord. He abandoned his guru in favor of God. The result was that Vamana expanded his size immensely, taking the kingdom and the entire world with his first two steps. The last step was placed on Bali’s head, indicating full surrender on the king’s part.
5. The gopis of Vrindavana
In Vedic culture the prime duty of a grown-up woman is service to her husband. The husband is her deva, or god. Through chastity she maintains virtue in the home, which is ideally augmented by her husband’s own dedication to dharma. Then she shares in whatever spiritual merits he acquires.
The gopis in Vrindavana were fully surrendered to Shri Krishna, who is also non-different from Vishnu. The problem was that many of them were already married while Krishna was living in the same community in Vrindavana. The gopis abandoned their husbands to intimately dance with the all-attractive one in the middle of the night in the forest. The husbands were obstacles to devotion. In essence, the gopis committed one of the greatest sins in order to enjoy with the Supreme Lord. They too were protected, which shows that there is no reason to fear accepting the devotional path.
If even family an obstacle to become,
For devotional path what should be done?
By Tulsidas one time described in letter,
That service to Lord always option better.
Vibhishana traitor renouncing his brother,
Incensed Bharata scorning even his mother.
Bali Maharaja the guru no longer respecting,
Married gopis to forest their husbands neglecting.