The Sharpest Knife

Rama and Lakshmana “O You of great intellect, not even the demigods can fathom the level of Your intelligence. Due to bereavement Your wisdom is currently in a dormant state, and I am here to rouse it.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.19)

Tim “The Toolman” Taylor, the famous character from the American television sitcom Home Improvement, said it best: “We need more power!” This is the rallying cry of men around the world. When we want to get a job done right, we like to attack with strength. This means that if we require the aid of a tool or device, we want something that will pack the heaviest punch, for that will increase the chances of success. If we really want to cut into something, we require the sharpest knife in the drawer. In a similar manner, there is no tighter bond in this world than that which ties us to material life. This knot can only be cut by the sharpest of spiritual guides, the sadhu.

Lawn mower Why is an increase in power or the sharpest knife required? Won’t just an ordinary knife do the job? Sometimes this is certainly true. We don’t always want to take the “extra strength” variety of pain relief medication if our headache is only of the minor variety. But for the big jobs, it is undoubtedly true that extra strength equates to a greater chance of success in the mission. For example, if we are mowing a small lawn, we might be fine with just a manual machine which can be pushed by hand. But if we have to mow acres and acres of property, we require a riding lawnmower, something which can be driven around in a manner similar to a golf cart. If we need to tow heavy loads of cargo, a large truck will be much more effective than a small car.

The famous ruler, Alexander the Great, once had the good fortune of encountering the Gordian Knot. This knot was woven in such a way that it was deemed impossible to untie. The legend had it that whoever would untie the knot would become the master of Asia. Alexander the Great, in the process of trying to loosen the knot, decided instead to swipe at it with his sword. Hence the knot was more destroyed than untied. Nevertheless, we see that for the toughest jobs, we require the sharpest of weapons.

The Gordian Knot In a similar manner, the Vedas tell us that we living entities are tightly bound to this material world. How are we tied down? Our individual identity comes from the atma, or soul. The soul is completely pure and uncontaminated at all times. However, to come to the material world, the soul requires a covering, something which masks its true nature. This covering consists of material qualities which are known as gunas. Another definition for guna is “rope”. It is defined as such because material qualities actually keep us tied to this illusory and temporary world.

What does it mean to be tied to the material world? The soul’s natural habitat is in the spiritual world. Spirit is referred to as purusha, and matter as prakriti. The material world consists of both spirit and matter, but the spiritual world only contains spirit. Our place in the material world can be thought of in terms of outer space. The natural habitat for human beings is land, but if we want to go to space, we have to cover our body with an expensive, technically enhanced spacesuit. This spacesuit is equipped with an oxygen tank which allows us to breathe while in space. As long as we are in this suit and have enough oxygen, we can survive in space, even though it’s not where we naturally belong.

The material body – which is composed of varying combinations of the three gunas of goodness, passion, and ignorance – comprises the “spacesuit”, so to speak, for the living entities. This suit is given to us by God. Material qualities are considered binding because if one chooses to associate with them, they are not allowed to return to the spiritual world. In layman’s terms, this means that as long as we want to stay in the material world, we are allowed to do so.

ALord Krishnas previously mentioned, the natural home for the spirit soul is the spiritual world, where Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, resides. We get information from the Vedas that Krishna’s spiritual realm represents the eternal heaven, a place where we never have to return from. Since Krishna is God, there is no difference between His body and spirit, for they are both completely pure and free of material qualities. Krishna’s associates in the spiritual world also possess bodies similar to His, i.e. they too are free of material qualities. Since the spiritual world is our natural home, it is a place full of bliss and free of anxieties.

“O Arjuna, as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, I know everything that has happened in the past, all that is happening in the present, and all things that are yet to come. I also know all living entities; but Me no one knows.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.26)

If the spiritual world is so great, why would we choose to remain in the material world? This is where the binding aspect of gunas takes hold. The material creation is governed by the forces of maya, which literally means “that which is not”. In simple terms, maya tricks us into thinking that we’ll be happier associating with matter rather than God. This illusory power is very strong, and it explains why it takes many many births before one can even realize the problem. Let’s think about it this way: Only in the human species can we even understand what spirit is and that we are going to die. Fish, lions, tigers, bears, birds, etc., have no clue about these things. Let’s go even one step further: How many people do we know that are actually aware of these laws of nature? How many people even realize that their material lives continue in a repeating cycle until spiritual perfection is achieved?

“After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.19)

Lord Krishna Thus we see that those who seriously ponder spiritual matters are considered highly advanced. Still, even amongst those who are striving for self-realization, hardly one person will actually become successful in their current lifetime. This fact alone should tell us how strong a knot material nature has tied. So how do we break free of this knot? Just as Alexander the Great needed a sharp sword to cut through the Gordian Knot, we living entities require the sharpest of spiritual guides to help us break free of our attachment to matter. This spiritual guide is thus known as a sadhu, or one who cuts.

Many holy men, especially in India, are known as sadhus, so how do we know who is a bona fide spiritual guide and who isn’t? The answer is that the sadhu must himself be free of attachment to matter. If such a person isn’t attached to nature, then what do they do with their time? What are their activities? The real sadhus are those who are attached to the Supreme Spirit, Lord Krishna. Though Krishna resides in the spiritual world, He gladly expands Himself into various forms that are worshipable for the living entities residing within the material world. For example, since God is absolute, there is no difference between His personal form and His names, activities, and deities. The personal form may only reside in the spiritual world, but the names of God pervade throughout the millions of universes. Thus by regularly reciting the Lord’s names, such as those found in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, we directly associate with the Supreme Spirit. Similarly, by reading about Krishna’s pastimes performed on earth, or those of His various incarnations, we directly associate with the Lord. The archa-vigraha, or the worshipable form of the Lord found in the temple, is also just as good as Krishna. If we view the deity and offer our obeisances to it, we are directly associating with Krishna.

Worship of Radha and Krishna A sadhu can be recognized by his engagement in these aforementioned activities of devotional service. Moreover, the sadhus have no attachment to economic development, mundane religious practice, or sense gratification. The pure sadhu is already liberated, jivan-mukta, so they have no desire for impersonal liberation either. Since they serve Krishna all the time, they naturally help others ascend to the same platform. This is a benevolence the likes of which is not seen anywhere in the world. There are certainly great philanthropists and welfare workers who try to help the downtrodden. Yet this aid is of the material variety and only consists of providing the bare necessities. The sadhu is the most exalted person in the world, and instead of just helping people rise to a comfortable material position, the sadhu aims to turn others into bona fide sadhus themselves. The pure devotee wants nothing more than to see every person in the world surpass even their own level of devotion. They feel this way because they know that if every person becomes a pure devotee, Krishna will be pleased. The sadhu doesn’t mind going to hell or even offending others, as long as Krishna is made happy.

This wonderful benevolence was on full display during one particular occasion involving Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama. Rama is one of Krishna’s primary incarnations who appeared on earth many many thousands of years ago to enact pastimes. His life’s story is recorded in the famous Ramayana compiled by Maharishi Valmiki. One of the major incidents of the Ramayana was the kidnapping of Rama’s wife, Sita Devi, from the forest. Lord Rama assumed the role of a valiant warrior prince, the eldest son of the king of Ayodhya. Sita was His beautiful and chaste wife. The couple was roaming the forests of India for fourteen years along with Rama’s younger brother, Lakshmana, when Sita was one day kidnapped by the demon Ravana. Rama and Lakshmana weren’t around when this transpired, and upon learning of Sita’s disappearance, Rama immediately gave way to grief and lamentation.

Rama and Lakshmana looking for Sita Let us try to put ourselves in Lakshmana’s shoes for a moment. Our elder brother has just discovered that His beautiful wife is missing. She could be dead for all that we know. Rakshasa demons are pretty vile, for they’ll even eat human flesh. It is quite likely that Sita was taken by Ravana, and what happened subsequent to that is anybody’s guess. We love Rama so much that we refused to let Him roam the forests alone, for the Lord was only in the forest due to an exile punishment handed down by His father, King Dasharatha. Placing ourselves in Lakshmana’s position, we’d probably sit quietly and let Rama release His grief. After all, who would want to anger a loved one during a time like this? What could we say anyway? If we did say anything, we’d probably use clichés such as, “Don’t worry, everything is going to be alright. We’ll find Sita. I’m sure she’s safe and sound.”

What avenue did Lakshmana end up choosing? Though he was also a warrior prince, Lakshmana was a pure devotee of God, meaning he was a sadhu. A sadhu is only interested in advancing Krishna’s cause, so he doesn’t care about offending others. Their job is to help others break free of the illusion brought on by maya. Lakshmana decided to impart some sound words of advice to Rama, who was playing the role of a person distraught over misfortune. Lakshmana told his brother that His behavior was not becoming, nor was it in line with the duties of a prince. Lakshmana told Rama that even if Sita were dead, the Lord would have no reason to lament or grieve. Good and bad things happen to everyone, even to the celestials in heaven, the demigods. Moreover, the purpose of life is to remain committed to dharma, or one’s occupational duty. Only by adhering to dharma can a person break free of the bonds of material nature.

Lakshmana In the above referenced statement, we see that Lakshmana, who had just put forth cutting words of logic and reason, was still kind in the end. He reminded Rama that no one was capable of instructing Him. Moreover, Lakshmana was just repeating the same teachings that Rama had taught him on many previous occasions. Thus we see that a real sadhu is one who has taken instruction directly from God, or one of His representatives. We should also take note that Lakshmana didn’t claim to be God or tell Rama to view every person as God. Nor did Lakshmana instruct Rama to take shelter of the power of prayer. Many spiritual leaders advise these sorts of things, and though they may be well intentioned, in the end, such instruction does little to help anyone. Material fortunes come and go, so our business is not to bargain with God in the hopes of receiving gifts. Rather, our duty is to be firmly attached to the Lord and execute our prescribed duties with detachment to the fruits.

So how do Lakshmana’s instructions apply to us? The pure devotees of Krishna advise the people of this age to take to regularly chanting the maha-mantra. Though in the beginning stages it is okay to start off with only chanting this mantra a few rounds per day on a set of japa beads, the ideal practice is to chant Hare Krishna for a minimum of sixteen rounds per day. The sadhu doesn’t care if we like him or if he’s popular. He knows the truth and he’s not afraid to speak it. The bona fide representative of Krishna is one who follows the example of Lakshmana. By humbly submitting ourselves before such a person, we are sure to break free of the shackles that currently inhibit our spiritual growth.

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