Shape Shift

Lord Rama battling the demons “We sages are constantly harassed in the forest of Dandaka by the Rakshasa demons who wear different shapes at will. Only You can protect us, Oh Rama.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 10.10-11)

One of the more noteworthy characteristics of the modern day terrorists is the way in which they fight. Resorting to any means necessary to inflict pain and fear, the terrorists adhere not to any standard rules of warfare as adopted by the various international governing bodies.

The second great world war, World War II, saw many countries joining together and fighting for a common cause. Since the war involved so many different cultures and geographical boundaries, there were a set of rules adopted afterwards known as the Geneva Conventions. These conventions, along with the previously adopted Hague conventions, set the guidelines for how war should be fought internationally, how prisoners are to be treated, and how civilians are to be protected. Though consisting of a comprehensive set of rules, one of the primary stipulations of these conventions is that those engaged in fighting must wear identifiable uniforms. This not only helps fighters identify whether a fellow soldier is a friend or foe, but it also protects innocent civilians. Not all wars take place on battlefields anymore, a fact which has made those not engaged in fighting, the civilians, much more prone to attack. Standard rules of warfare exist primarily to protect the innocent.

Lord Krishna speaking to Arjuna The idea of adhering to a set of rules while fighting a war is an outgrowth of the original Vedic system. The Vedas are the first set of scriptures for mankind emanating from India. Aside from knowledge of the soul and its relationship with Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the Vedas also provide detailed information on almost all material subjects, from math and science, to politics and war. In Vedic times, wars were fought by the kshatriyas, the warrior class. In the varnashrama dharma system, there is a specific group of people that is responsible for providing protection to the other members of society.

“Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the qualities of work for the kshatriyas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.43)

This isn’t an artificial designation, because kshatriyas naturally exist in any society. In America, the volunteer members of the armed forces are often lauded and treated with awe and reverence for their sacrifice. This is because most people would not be willing to do what they do, i.e. voluntarily put their lives on the line for the protection of their fellow man. Some people have a hard time grasping the fact that another person would be willing to do this. The Vedas fill us in on this secret by letting us know that the qualities of bravery, strength, and courage automatically exist in certain groups of people. Every living entity is born with a combination of the three qualities of material nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance. The qualities of a person are determined by their past karma, or fruitive activity. Our current life is not the first one we’ve had. Since the soul is eternal, it takes many many births in this world, accumulating karma along the way. Thus the kshatriyas acquire their penchant for protection at the time of birth.

The Vedas tell us that violence is necessary from time to time. Since everyone is born with different qualities, it means that not everyone will be nice and peaceful. Some people just won’t take to logic or reasoning. They turn to aggression to deal with their problems. When encountering an aggressor, violence is justified. There are many times when countries, states, and kings will have disagreements that can’t be solved through diplomacy. These disputes inevitably lead to war. In ancient times, these wars were common, and they were mostly fought under the principles of warfare delineated in the Vedic scriptures. In the famous Bharata War that took place some five thousand years ago, fighting would go on vigorously during the day, but at night, both parties would retreat to their camps. During these breaks, there was peace and both sides treated each other amicably.

Fighting and warfare took place as a sense of duty. For this reason, the general rules of warfare were adhered to. The concept is similar to how fighting goes on today in the sport of hockey. Hockey fights only take place when both players mutually agree to drop the gloves. Even then, there is a certain code of conduct. If one player falls down or gets seriously injured, the fighting stops. After the game, the fighting players generally act amicably towards each other.

In the modern age, advanced weaponry has skewed things a little. Fighting now takes place with bombs dropped from 50,000 feet in the air. War is also continuous now, for they don’t stop during the night hours. The Geneva Conventions and other rules were adopted to meet the demands of the changing times. The problem occurs, however, when people outside of the kshatriya class take to fighting. A kshatriya possesses the quality of passion. Yet when someone in the mode of ignorance takes to fighting, they see no need to adhere to the rules of warfare. The terrorists of today are an example of this. Any activity performed in the absence of knowledge and the absence of fruitive activity is considered in the mode of ignorance. Terrorists kill innocent people, including women and children, by blowing themselves up and others around them. In their minds, this is all done for religious purposes. Thus such activity represents the height of ignorance.

In the Vedic tradition, the Rakshasas were the equivalent of today’s terrorists. Also living in the mode of ignorance, Rakshasas were demons that lived off meat eating and intoxication. They were staunch atheists, so they viewed the devotees of God as their number one enemy. Ironically enough, the Rakshasas also believed themselves to be very religious. The Vedas are so comprehensive that they include sections targeted for people in each of the three modes of nature. This may seem strange on the surface. Why would God delineate a dharma for those in the mode of ignorance? The reason behind this is that even the unintelligent should be allowed to make spiritual progress. Even if someone takes to Vedic life for an impure motive, the idea is that they will eventually progress to the highest platform, love of God. This progression can occur very quickly or it can take many many lifetimes.

Ravana - leader of the RakshasasIn the case of the Rakshasas, they performed many great sacrifices to propitiate the demigods. Lord Krishna is the original God who expands Himself directly into His forms of Lord Vishnu and His various other incarnations. The demigods are Krishna’s chief deputies that manage the affairs of the material world. Their duty is to grant boons to anyone who pleases them, irrespective of the worshiper’s motives or personal characteristics. During the Treta Yuga, the Rakshasas, headed by Ravana, propitiated many demigods in order to receive great material rewards. They then used these boons to fight against the very same demigods. Along with terrorizing the demigods, the Rakshasas used to regularly disrupt the sacrifices of the sages living in the forests.

The kshatriyas are the second societal division, and the brahmanas are the first. Since they live in the mode of goodness, the brahmanas spend most of their time cultivating spiritual knowledge and worshiping Lord Krishna. In an effort to remove distractions to their service, the great sages would often choose to live in the forests where they could enjoy peace and quiet. The Rakshasas were so vile that they would hunt these sages down in the dead of night. Not only would they disrupt the sacrifices, but they would kill the brahmanas and then eat them.

The brahmanas weren’t completely helpless. Since they are expert at chanting mantras, they could have cast various spells of their own as a means of self-defense. There were two problems with this however. The first was that the Rakshasas wouldn’t always appear in their original form. These demons were so vile that they would change their shapes at will, sometimes appearing even in the guise of a sage. This is further evidence of their ignorance. Only a person without any decency or scruples would resort to such tactics. The other problem was that the sages did not want to lose their religious merit by casting spells on the Rakshasas. Brahmanas have the power to curse anyone but they are hesitant to do so since cursing someone means they lose part of their accumulated religious merits. On a material level, performing great austerities and pious acts enables one to accumulate spiritual merits. These merits then bear fruit in the afterlife with ascension to the various heavenly planets. However, if a brahmana casts a curse on someone, then these merits become exhausted.

Lord Rama Faced with this conundrum, the sages turned to God to help them. These events took place during the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation. At the time, Lord Krishna had descended to earth in human form as Lord Rama, a pious and noble prince. Rama, His younger brother Lakshmana, and His wife Sita Devi were roaming the forests as part an exile punishment handed out by Rama’s father, Maharaja Dashratha, the king of Ayodhya. Seeing the Lord in their midst, the sages took full advantage of the opportunity. In the above referenced statement, Lord Rama is describing to Sita how the sages petitioned Him. In the end, Lord Rama would come through for them by killing many demons, including Ravana.

The lesson to be learned here is that we can always turn to God when we are in trouble. Sometimes we may be in trouble on a material level, so God may or may not help us. But if the issue involves the execution of devotional service, deliverance is guaranteed. That is the covenant of devotional service. If we purely love God and make service to Him the only objective in our life, He will most surely offer us His protection. Nothing makes the Lord happier than to see one of His children executing devotional service. In these instances, He takes it upon Himself to help the devotee, just as He did with the sages of the Dandaka forest.

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