A Transcendentalist’s Checklist Part 2

Rama and Lakshmana with Shabari “Have you observed all the regulative principles and have you achieved happiness of mind? O lady who speaks beautifully, has your service to your guru been fruitful?” (Lord Rama speaking to Shabari, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.9)

The concept of a pocket guide is certainly nice. When discussing topics relevant to a certain discipline, one can find volumes upon volumes of written instruction and detailed guides with rules and regulations. Sometimes, however, we just want a quick summary which highlights the important aspects to a certain philosophy or discipline. These pocket guides are so named because they are small enough to fit inside of a pocket; thus allowing us to carry vital information with us wherever we go. If we keep something in our pocket, we can reference it at any time. This is one of the reasons why cellular phones are so popular. In an instant, we can talk to our friends, check our email, check the weather, take pictures, and even listen to music. If pocket guides can be helpful to us in areas relating to material life, they most certainly can prove to be even more beneficial when they focus on spiritual matters. But where can we find such a guide?

Ten Commandments The Ten Commandments of the Christian Bible seem like the most streamlined guide, a quick-start introduction into religion. While the Ten Commandments give us the basic rule-set of do’s and don’ts, daily life involves activity. At any given time, we must be doing something. Though most of us initially believe that the ultimate achievement in life is to get out of doing work, i.e. acquire enough money so that we can sit and relax, we see that even the well-off are victims of distress. Even if all of our basic necessities are covered and we don’t have to work for a living, we still must perform action. Activity is the essence of life, serving as the key distinction between a living body and a dead one. Since we all must perform activity, the Vedas, which are the original scriptures for all of mankind, advise that we direct our activities towards the proper goal, i.e. that of understanding God.

Learning about God, understanding who He is, what He looks like, and what our relationship to Him is makes up the discipline known as spirituality. Religion is similar except that it often delves into organized establishments and legislative edicts. The Vedas tell us that spirituality is really an occupational duty, something which is eternal and that is never meant to be abandoned. Hence the Vedas refer to spiritual life as sanatana-dharma, or the eternal occupation of the soul. So we have the Ten Commandments and we also have this idea of activity, but where do we go from here? What if we don’t have the time to read every volume of religious scripture that exists? Where can we go to get a pocket guide, a quick-start summary of what steps need to be taken to be successful in spiritual life? Luckily for us, the Supreme Lord has often discussed these issues in the past with His great devotees. Due to the causeless mercy of the great saints who recorded these conversations in written form, we can easily consult these teachings and make our lives perfect as a result.

Lord Rama The Supreme Absolute Truth, the eternally existing Personality of Godhead, appeared on earth in human form many thousands of years ago as the handsome prince of Ayodhya named Rama. As part of His pastimes, Lord Rama travelled through the forests of India, visiting great sages along the way. Lord Rama appeared in the guise of a man, but He was really an incarnation of Lord Narayana, who is the four-handed form of God residing in the spiritual world. The word nara refers to a man or human being, and thus Narayana means the source of all naras, or persons. Since man is made after God, the Lord is the original source. When the Lord descends from the spiritual world, His spiritual form is known as an avatara, or one who descends. An avatara is completely spiritual in nature and not a product of maya. Sometimes the avatara, or deity representation of the same, is referred to as the saguna form, meaning God with attributes. This description is based on the perspective of the conditioned living entity. The Lord appears in the guise of a human being, but He is never tainted by any gunas, or material qualities. It is similar to how we refer to the sun as setting and rising, when in reality it never moves. The sun’s properties never change, and similarly, the Supreme Lord always retains a spiritual body. There is a class of transcendentalists known as Mayavadis, who take everything to be maya, or illusory material nature. Maya means that which is not, hence maya is taken to be an illusory energy which is not God. The word vada means conclusion, thus the Mayavadis are those whose ultimate conclusion is that everything in this world is maya, including the avataras of Vishnu and Their deity representations.

In reality, anything pertaining exclusively to material nature is certainly maya, but there is a higher energy which is ever-existing and unchangeable. This is the spiritual energy, and since it is eternal, it cannot be classified as maya, or false. We living entities are actually part of the spiritual energy, but since we are currently covered by a body made up of maya, we are clouded by illusion. When the Supreme Lord descends to this world, however, His body is not made up of material elements. Since the Lord is the source of everything, there is no difference between His spirit and body. Even His body is spiritual, or ever existing. Since He is superior to us, and since He is also the reservoir of pleasure, it is our duty to worship Him.

Visiting a sage in the forest During Lord Rama’s time, those seeking spiritual enlightenment took refuge in the forests. The wilderness is much more peaceful, and life there is very simple. For a renounced sage, meals are taken care of by eating whatever fruits fall from the trees and whatever roots are on the ground. Bathing and drinking water can be taken from the nearby rivers and lakes, and housing can be found either in a cave or by erecting a small thatched hut. Since life is so simple, there is more time for performing religious rituals, adhering to austerities, and contemplating on the Supreme. When we speak of contemplation, we are not referring to the conjuring up of images by the mind. The Supreme Lord is ever-existing, and though He has multitudes of forms, none of His features or attributes can be concocted by man. Rather, the Supreme Lord has been kind enough to grant the spiritual vision with which to see Him to several exalted devotees of the past. These great saints then recorded what they saw in authorized books such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas. Thus when sages contemplate on the Supreme Lord, they remember an eternally existing form such as Lord Krishna, Narayana, Rama, etc.

In the Treta Yuga, many sages had the extraordinary benediction of getting to meet Rama face to face. One such fortunate soul was the female sage Shabari. Lord Rama and His younger brother, Lakshmana, were roaming the forests at the time looking for Rama’s wife, Sita, who had just been kidnapped. Being advised to visit Shabari’s hermitage, Rama and Lakshmana made their way to her dwelling. When Shabari saw the two brothers approaching, she immediately greeted them by touching their feet and welcoming them. Shabari was no fool after all. She knew who Lord Rama was, for she had been told on a previous occasion that she would be granted liberation from the cycle of birth and death upon meeting the Lord. According to standard etiquette, Shabari was a superior since she was a sage and also much older than Rama and Lakshmana, who were both members of the warrior caste. Yet since she knew of Rama’s divinity, Shabari was the one who offered obeisances.

Rama and Lakshmana with Shabari How did Lord Rama repay her kindness? Normally when we visit a friend or family member, we’ll ask them how things are going and if anything’s new. Rama, however, knew that Shabari was a dedicated sage and that she was very pious. Keeping this in mind, Rama asked her questions pertaining to her religious practices. In the above referenced statement, we see that Rama is asking Shabari if she is able to successfully complete her vows, if she is happy in her service, and if she has gotten the full benefit out of serving her spiritual master. These three questions serve as a great pocket guide for us to hold on to. If we simply ask these questions of ourselves on a daily basis, we are sure to always remain on the virtuous path.

Let’s review the first part of Shri Rama’s initial question. The Lord asked Shabari if she was able to successfully observe her niyamah, or regulative principles.. The importance of this is quite obvious. Finish what you start. Finishing a job to its completion is considered beneficial. We take up a new project precisely so that we can finish it and enjoy the resulting rewards. It is the desire for these rewards that serves as the impetus for our actions. If we don’t finish our tasks, then the rewards don’t come, and our actions end up being a waste of time. Spiritual life is especially difficult due to the effects of material nature. For aspiring devotees, one of the requirements is that they should chant a set number of rounds on their japa beads every day. In this age especially, devotees are asked to chant the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, at least sixteen rounds a day. Agreeing to chant a set number of rounds each day is known as a vow. So if we vow to perform this activity, we should make sure to see it to its conclusion.

Chanting Japa If we vow to abide by a certain regulative principle and then fail to carry out on our promise, what is the result? First off, we will feel like failures. Success undoubtedly brings confidence, and it lets us know that we can handle difficult tasks in the future. Failure takes us in the opposite direction. If we vow to do something and then renege, we don’t gain any confidence. Confidence is required in spiritual life; otherwise success will never come. This is why Lord Rama posed this question to Shabari. The Lord knew that if she wasn’t successfully abiding by her avowed regulative principles, she wasn’t getting the full benefit of spiritual life.

The second part of Rama’s first question pertained to the satisfaction felt by Shabari. Lord Rama wanted to know if she was satisfied by performing her vows; was her mind at ease? This is also another barometer of progress in spiritual life. Lord Rama is always seen smiling, for His face is beautiful and He gives pleasure to everyone He meets. Lord Krishna, the original form of God, is known as Shyamasundra, meaning the beautiful one who has the complexion of a dark raincloud. Associating with Krishna should most definitely bring about bliss and peace of mind. In fact, devotional service is the only way to achieve peace. In this instance, Rama is asking Shabari if her mind was satisfied and at ease, because if a devotee’s mind is not at ease, there must be a problem. The source of the problem can be one’s own mind and body, divine nature, or other living entities. Lord Rama wanted to know if she was in any trouble, because if she was, the Lord would most certainly take care of the problem. One of Krishna’s names is Hari, which means one who removes distress. The Lord is so nice that if He sees His devotees being bothered, He will personally intervene to remedy the situation.

Shrila Prabhupada The last question asked by Rama is probably the most important. The Lord asked Shabari if her service to her spiritual master had borne fruit. This is the key to success in spiritual life. We must find a devotee of Krishna who has seen the Truth, who practices the regulative principles, whose mind is always at ease, and who only has Krishna’s interests at heart. After finding such a person, we must humbly submit ourselves to them and agree to follow their instructions. It is certainly ideal to find a guru and offer them service personally, but real submission comes through carrying out the orders of the spiritual master. There is no difference between a spiritual master and their teachings, or vani. Agreeing to wholeheartedly abide by the guru’s instructions represents real submission.

What are the results of approaching a spiritual master and taking their instructions to heart? The creeper of devotional service gradually turns into a full blown tree, spurring branches of endless love and leaves of ecstatic emotion directed at the Supreme Lord. This is why Lord Rama asked Shabari if her service to her guru had brought about fruits, or saphala. If we submit to a bona fide spiritual master and humbly serve them by following their instructions, we will surely realize these fruits, which are the sweetest tasting rewards one could ask for. If we don’t see the creeper of devotional service developing into something bigger, then it must mean that we have neglected to follow the guru’s instructions or that we have approached the wrong spiritual master.

Shri Rama with Shabari The beauty of this conversation is that Lord Rama didn’t even need to ask these questions. He knew of Shabari’s nature beforehand, but the Lord asked these questions anyway for her benefit. When devotees engage in devotional service, they are very enthusiastic. It is not that they want to show off, but they are very eager to discuss religious topics with others. Moreover, they cherish every opportunity they get to praise their spiritual master. Lord Rama asked these questions because He knew Shabari was eager to answer them.

We can take these questions posed by Rama as our pocket guide for measuring our progress in devotional service. By consulting these questions regularly, not only do we get to measure our progress in spiritual life, but we also get to associate with Lord Rama. Our goal in life should be to fix ourselves up to the point that if God should one day come to us and ask these same questions, we would be able to answer them with the same confidence and enthusiasm as Shabari did.

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