“I trust that the king’s son is praying for the mercy of the demigods. I trust that He is relying on human effort and the favor of Providence.” (Sita Devi speaking to Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 36.19)
kaccit āśāsti devānām prasādam pārthiva ātmajaḥ |
kaccit puruṣa kāram ca daivam ca pratipadyate ||
It’s been the complaint of rational thinkers for a long time. In the eighteenth century one prominent statesman in America once had a harrowing journey on the seas. After his safe arrival on land, remarking on the good fortune others attributed the success to the Divine. This statesman, however, was more inclined to give credit to the lighthouse, which helped the ship successfully reach land.
The same statesman one time made a sizeable donation to a local area, and the people receiving the gift proposed to build a church. The donor remarked that a library would better suit the people. Not that he was an atheist, but the criticism was against the general practice of simply praying for things instead of actually working.
For the theists, the complaint is that people don’t pray enough. They get success through seemingly their own effort, but they forget the necessary cooperation of the higher nature. Earth, water, fire, air and ether exist in so many different forms and combinations, and no single person can possibly control the variety and magnitude. Therefore, who is actually justified in being overly proud of their accomplishments? There is surely luck involved, with the good fortune here sourced in a higher power.
How should the open-minded proceed? Work without thinking of the Almighty? Put everything into your own hands. Or sit back and pray? Send a prayer to get what you want. As there are so many desires in the course of a lifetime, pray regularly.
The above referenced verse from the Ramayana provides some clarity. Not surprisingly, the issue was also discussed in the famous conversation between Arjuna and Krishna on a chariot parked in the sacred land of Kurukshetra. There Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, said that a person who uses the rewards of the demigods, which are the residents of the heavenly region, and doesn’t give respect back is a thief.
“In charge of the various necessities of life, the demigods, being satisfied by the performance of yajna [sacrifice], supply all necessities to man. But he who enjoys these gifts, without offering them to the demigods in return, is certainly a thief.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.12)
Arjuna also wonders about the necessity of action. He is in doubt over how to proceed. A war is about to take place, but is it really worth it? Arjuna has the spirit of renunciation in him. He is not interested in ruling over a kingdom, especially if it comes at the cost of many lives. Krishna explains the secret to action, that sometimes there is inaction in action and action in inaction.
“You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.47)
Do the work that is prescribed to you. That is one definition of the Sanskrit word karma. It is not just action and reaction. It is the actions that are supposed to take place, that bring a higher benefit as a consequence. Better to work, but doing so with detachment.
Here Sita Devi is remarking on her husband’s situation. Rama is the same Krishna, God appearing on earth in an incarnation form at an earlier time. He is in the role of a king’s son, parthiva atmaja. The prescribed duties, or karma, match Arjuna’s. There is a big asterisk, however. For God there is no karma. There is no future development of a material body because there is nothing material about the transcendental features of the Supreme Lord. The incarnations follow prescribed duties to set a good example. Shri Krishna even remarked about this.
“O son of Pritha, there is no work prescribed for Me within all the three planetary systems. Nor am I in want of anything, nor have I need to obtain anything - and yet I am engaged in work.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.22)
Rama’s situation is that He is trying to find Sita, His wife. That is why Shri Hanuman has reached her. He is Rama’s representative. Through him Sita has learned about her husband, from whom she was taken away against her will, in secret by the evil king of Lanka.
Rama is the object of service of the celestials, who are known as devas. This Sanskrit word just means “god”. There are many of them, as they act as administrators of the vast and complex material creation. Still, Sita trusts that her husband is setting the proper example by seeking their mercy.
She hopes that Rama relies on both human effort and Providence. Don’t simply sit around and wait for things to happen. Sure, ultimately everything happens through the will of the Divine, but this shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not act. But also don’t think that everything will be achieved without favor from above. Rely on both. Perform prescribed duties, be detached from the outcome, and feel at peace.
An easier way is to work directly for the Supreme Lord. This is known as bhakti, and it is above karma. The benefits aren’t tied to the future development of a material body. As an example, Hanuman’s work was in bhakti. It was not karma since the beneficiary was Rama Himself. Even though Hanuman met God face to face, that was no excuse to simply sit down and do nothing. He still worked. His task was the most difficult, but he proceeded forward for the higher interest.
The interest is the same for every conditioned living entity, currently stuck in the cycle of birth and death. Be conscious of God, work on a daily basis in some capacity for His benefit. The work doesn’t have to involve crossing a massive ocean and infiltrating a land ruled by man-eating ogres. The effort can be something as simple as chanting the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
For objective following work’s way,
Or sitting down just simply to pray?
This question man for centuries pondering,
Read Bhagavad-gita for no more wandering.
Prescribed duties with attention do,
Without concern for gain or loss to you.
Respect to the higher authorities giving,
Blessed by God when in bhakti living.