For the first ten years of His exile term, Lord Rama, along with His wife Sita Devi and His younger brother Lakshmana, extensively toured the forests of India, visiting the homes of some of the most exalted sages in history. On the surface, it appears that Rama and His family were benefitted by such visits, but in reality, by receiving Rama as a guest in their home, all the past religious deeds performed by the sages finally bore fruit.
Most people believe in God. Whether or not they know how He looks is a different story. Many religious systems describe God as impersonal, being an all pervading energy. Since this material world is a place full of miseries, many frustrated karmis hope to one day see God face to face. In fact, this is the precise goal of many yogis. They spend hours and hours in silent meditation or in deep study of Vedanta. To them, seeing God is considered the ultimate goal of life. Therefore we can conclude that those who do actually meet God face to face must be very pious and fortunate.
The great sages living in the forests of India many thousands of years ago not only met God, but they received Him as a guest in their homes. During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, God advented on earth in the form of a pious prince named Rama. Some people mistakenly believe that it is not possible for God to take birth in this world. “God is the complete energy. This world is a place governed by guna and karma, and it is temporary in nature. God can never associate with such a place.” Logically, this may appear to make sense. However, God is above any logic or stringent rule system. Since He created this world and everything in it, He can most certainly appear here whenever He chooses. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna fills us in on precisely when and why He comes.
“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion-at that time I descend Myself.” (Bg. 4.7)
During Lord Rama’s time, there was a powerful Rakshasa demon by the name of Ravana who had steadily gained in power. He performed great austerities for pleasing the demigods. Though he was a demon by nature, the demigods were forced to overlook this fact. This is the difference between Lord Krishna, God Himself, and His chief deputies, the demigods. We may certainly approach God in hopes of procuring material wealth, fame, or fortune, but He is not required to grant anything to us. Krishna is completely pure, suddha-sattva. This means that He wants us, His children, to also rise above the three modes of material nature, and to act on the platform of pure goodness. Therefore, for His humble devotees, He doesn’t necessarily give them what they want, but rather what they need.
The demigods, on the other hand, are required to bestow boons on anyone who pleases them properly. Ravana propitiated Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva, and they granted him many boons. He was given ten heads and the promise that no demigod, celestial being, or animal could kill him. In his haste, he forgot to ask for immunity from human beings. Since he was so strong, he thought there was no way for an ordinary man to defeat him. The demigods used this loophole to petition Lord Vishnu, Krishna Himself, to come to earth in the guise of a human being. Thus Lord Rama appeared. At the time, Ravana’s band of Rakshasas was wreaking havoc throughout the forests of India. The great sages, the brahmanas, had taken to forest life since it was more conducive to the performance of austerities and sacrifices. Brahmanas perform austerities not simply as a form of self-punishment, but as a way of advancing in spiritual life. The more one is attached to the animal activities of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending, the further away they go from spiritual life. The human being is meant to learn about God and to then use that knowledge to break free of the repetitive cycle of birth and death. Tapasya, or religious austerity, is a great tool in the transcendentalist’s arsenal.
Along with tapasya comes yajna, or sacrifice. The Vedas mention many different kinds of sacrifice, each performed for a specific purpose. The best sacrifice is that done for the pleasure of Lord Vishnu. In a sacrifice, there is typically a fire, with oblations of ghee poured into it while Vedic hymns are recited. Forest life is therefore ideal for performing both tapasya and yajna. The Rakshasas knew this, so they specifically targeted the sages that were residing in the forest. Assuming various shapes at will, the demons would disrupt the sacrifices, kill the sages, and then eat them. Lord Rama appeared for many reasons, the primary of which was to give protection to these great sages.
In order to fulfill His mission, Rama needed an excuse to roam the forests. This was facilitated by His step-mother, Kaikeyi. She asked Rama’s father, Dashratha, to install her son Bharata as the new king and also to banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years. Refusing to remain in the kingdom, Sita Devi and Lakshmana accompanied the Lord during His exile term. The trio essentially took to the vanaprastha mode of life.
“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.13)
The Vedas recommend that a person divide the duration of their life into four spiritually related time periods, or ashramas. They are called ashramas because each stage is meant to provide spiritual advancement, ultimately leading to pure Krishna consciousness. The first stage is called brahmacharya, which is celibate student life. Next comes grihastha, which is married householder life. Vanaprastha then follows. The exact definition of vanaprastha has changed over the years, but it can basically be thought of as pseudo-retirement. Householder life is the only time when one is allowed to perform fruitive work. One needs a roof over their head and food on the table. To provide for the basic needs of their family, a person is allowed to work. Yet this type of activity isn’t supposed to continue forever. Once the children are old enough, a person is advised to stop working and to take to retired family life, vanaprastha.
Since they are in a spiritual institution, vanaprasthis are advised to visit sacred pilgrimage sites known as tirthas. These sites benefit mankind because they all relate to specific past activities of Lord Krishna or His expansions. Since tirthas are holy sites, many saintly people reside there. This represents the real benefit of visiting a tirtha. The Vedas state that one of the highest benedictions in life is to have association with a saint, or a pure devotee of God. This is because a pure devotee is the most munificent social worker. Pure devotees don’t engage in mundane charity work. Rather, they disseminate Krishna prema, love for God, to any and all persons, regardless of caste, color, or creed. For this reason, it is considered most beneficial for a person to approach one of these saints and take instruction from them.
“As Rama lived in the asylums of the ascetics and amused Himself through their good graces, ten years smoothly passed.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 11.26-27)
Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana set a great example for future generations by visiting as many great sages as they could. They didn’t let a great opportunity go to waste. Since Rama was God Himself, it may seem puzzling that He would travel to the hermitages of these great sages. Shouldn’t they have been the ones visiting Him? In reality, the answer is yes, but God actually likes to serve His devotees as well. The sages living in the forest had performed many great austerities in the past. All their hard work paid off since they received the benediction of having Rama personally visit their homes.
Lord Rama also liberated many of these sages by visiting them. When Lord Krishna personally advented on earth some five thousand years ago in Vrindavana, He liberated two brothers who had taken birth in the forms of trees. As part of His childhood pastimes, Krishna once broke a pot of yogurt in anger. Mother Yashoda then chased after Him with a stick, finally catching Him and binding Him to a mortar. After she returned to the kitchen, baby Krishna released Himself by pulling on the mortar. By dragging the mortar, the Lord caused two trees to fall down. When the trees collapsed, the spirits of two men appeared and began to offer prayers to the Lord.
“O Lord, our father known as Kuvera, the demigod, is Your servant. Similarly, the great sage Narada is also Your servitor, and by their grace only we have been able to see You personally. We therefore pray that we may always be engaged in Your transcendental loving service by speaking only about Your glories and hearing about Your transcendental activities.” (Prayers of Nalakuvara and Manigriva, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 10)
The living entities inside the trees were actually brothers in a previous life. On one particular occasion, they insulted the great sage Narada, who in turn cursed them to take birth as trees. He told them that their liberation would come when Lord Krishna Himself would knock them down. Many similar incidents also occurred during Lord Rama’s time in the forest. The Lord personally liberated all the great souls He encountered. Agastya, Valmiki, Bharadvaja, Anasuya, Shavari…all were delighted to see Lord Rama, along with Sita and Lakshmana, face to face.
The lesson here is that God loves His devotees. Though He is neutral towards all living entities, He makes an exception for those who love Him without any motive. We should never think that God forgets us. By visiting the great sages, Lord Rama also showed that one doesn’t have to work very hard to try to see God. Rather, they simply have to act in a way that God will see them. In this age, the best way to get God’s attention is to constantly chant His names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.