“Today, being graced with Your presence, I have obtained the results of my penances and austerities. Today, my birth has been made fruitful and my spiritual masters have been well honored.” (Shabari speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.11)
Though many of the activities we perform on a daily basis are simply part of our routine, if we were to delve into the origins of such actions, we would find that they all have one thing in common. No matter the task, large or small, complicated or simple, the impetus for all action is the hope for some type of future enjoyment. This conclusion seems obvious enough, for why would we work hard unless there was some benefit to be derived from such effort? This same concept holds true with spiritual life, and unlike with our ordinary endeavors, when spirituality is practiced perfectly, it can bestow the highest of rewards, as it did to the famous female sage, Shabari, many thousands of years ago.
Let’s first review what kinds of enjoyment we expect to receive from some of our more common activities. In this advanced technological age, one of the more popular forms of entertainment, especially for young men, is the playing of video games. Sports heroes can be seen performing their magic on television. When these athletes are successful, they hoist up the championship trophy and get all the glory. These victories don’t come easy, as there is fierce competition between other professionals in their field. For the average person, winning Wimbledon or holding up the Stanley Cup is a mere pipe dream, something that will never be experienced.
Fear not, however, as there is a way to imitate these activities, a way to give the average person a watered down sense of enjoyment and bliss. Video games allow us to pretend to play some of the most difficult sports right in our very own living rooms. Through the use of televisions and gaming consoles, we can pretend to be Tiger Woods or Wayne Gretzky. Many of these games allow us to simulate an entire season of a particular sport. We can also participate in major tournaments such as the Masters, Wimbledon, the World Cup, etc. Competition is provided by either the computer, which is powered by artificial intelligence, or other human players. We can play with our friends and family at home or with strangers on the internet. The possibilities are endless.
Video games are popular because, as with any other activity, there is a desired end-result, a type of enjoyment that the player inherently expects to derive from the game. For example, if we play a Tiger Woods golf game, we obviously hope to gain proficiency over the controls. Our desire is to compete against other players and win tournaments. In this way, the expectation is to experience the thrill of victory, while hopefully avoiding the agony of defeat.
To those unfamiliar with gaming consoles, playing video games may seem like a waste of time. “Why are they pretending to do something when they can go outside and play the real thing? What are they getting out of playing these games? Do they really feel happy after beating their friend in a silly computer game?” The reality is that video game players most certainly do feel some sort of enjoyment from playing, otherwise why would they even take the time to play? This same concept actually applies to all of our activities. Even the things that we don’t like to do, such as taking out the trash, washing the dishes, doing laundry, etc., are all performed with a desired positive result in mind. By performing our chores, we will hopefully feel happier knowing that our life is in order and that we’re not living like slobs. Going to work on time and keeping up with our studies have similar built-in positive results.
While these facts seem pretty obvious to most of us, they are often overlooked with respect to spiritual life. Religion is seen as the polar opposite of fun. This stigma is the result of the perceived restrictive nature of religion. Spirituality is seen as a discipline full of rules and regulations that must be followed. If one violates these rules, they will have to deal with chastisement from religious leaders and other authority figures. None of us enjoy being yelled at or taken to task for our shortcomings, so why would we even want to associate with religion?
Yet just as with any other activity, transcendentalists take to spirituality with an intended goal in mind. The skeptic may say, “Yes, I know. They want to go to heaven. But heaven can only be achieved after death, meaning that a person must deprive themselves of fun for an entire lifetime. And even then, they aren’t guaranteed of going to heaven.” For the neophyte spiritualist, ascending to heaven after death is surely the desired goal. With this aim in mind, people take to various pious activities such as attending church, performing rituals in the home, and worshiping elevated religious personalities.
While wanting to go to heaven is certainly a nice goal, there is actually a much greater reward available to those who practice spirituality perfectly. The Vedas define religion as dharma, or one’s occupational duty. If we equate dharma with the idea of ascending to heaven, it would mean that it is our duty to act in such a way so as to facilitate our ascension to the heavenly realm after death. Though going to heaven is a great reward, something which gives us enjoyment, how can the achievement of this reward be our dharma? What if we don’t want to go to heaven? What if we’re happy where we are right now?
Though going to heaven is certainly a nice reward, it should not be the main impetus for religious activity. The Vedas refer to religion as our occupational duty because our identity comes from the soul within. What does this mean? Currently we base our identity off of our bodily features. If we are born in America, we naturally identify ourselves as American. If our parents practice the Hindu faith, we will identify ourselves as Hindu, and so forth. These identifications are certainly valid within the scope of discussing nationality or religious affiliation, but our identities carry much greater importance than simply the geographic location of our birth or the religious practices of our ancestors.
“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.20)
Lord Krishna, the originator of Vedic wisdom, the Supreme Divine being, tells us that the soul is eternal. This means we are eternal; we have never taken birth nor have we ever died. The body certainly goes through birth, old age, disease, and death, but the soul does not. As a result, any identification made off bodily traits will be invalid in the grand scheme of things. We may be born as Americans in this life, but since the soul is eternal, it stands to reason that we may take birth in a different land in our next life. Since the soul doesn’t change, neither does our identity. Therefore it is silly to identify ourselves based on the traits of our current body.
Since the soul is eternal, it must have an ever-existing quality, a set of activities which it is inclined to perform that provides enjoyment. This is where dharma comes into play. Dharma is an occupational duty, and it is sanatana, or eternal. When we practice dharma, we aren’t looking for any type of material enjoyment or the alleviation of some sort of distress. Dharma is an eternal occupation because it is the inherent nature of the soul to derive transcendental pleasure through association with other souls. Currently our soul is covered up by a material dress, so when we interact with other living entities, we are only associating with their material coverings. For the soul to derive pleasure, it must associate with other souls, and more specifically, it must associate with those things which are free from the contaminations of matter.
In the body of every living entity, there reside two souls: the individual [atma] and the Super [Paramatma]. Paramatma represents God’s expansion as an impartial witness who lives inside the heart for our benefit. Dharma is meant for connecting with this Supersoul. Unlike the atma which can transmigrate through various forms of bodies under the dictates of nature, the Supersoul is not subject to the same influences. This should make sense as the Supersoul is a manifestation of God and is thus the creator and controller of nature. The highest spiritual discipline is that which aims to associate with the Supersoul, to please it, and to take direction from it.
As we see with our normal activities, the impetus for action comes from the desire for rewards. In a similar manner, our soul is naturally inclined to performing spiritual activities, for the rewards achieved from spiritual association far surpass those we get from any other activity. Hence we see the real reason for taking to religious life. The Vedas tell us that this discipline of connecting our soul with the Supersoul is known as yoga. There are various kinds of yoga which all serve as stepping stones to achieving the end-goal of pure love for God. This is the real benefit of acting in accordance with dharma. Love for God is known as Krishna-prema, and it is the most pure form of affection that exists. If we adjust our activities in such a way that we achieve Krishna-prema, we’ll know that our spiritual endeavors have borne fruit. This was the case with the great female sage Shabari.
God lives within as the Supersoul, but this soul is simply an expansion that emanates from the original person. Most of us refer to this original person as God, but the Vedas tell us that He has a more descriptive name: Krishna. Krishna means one who is all-attractive, and thus it is an appropriate way to address the Supreme Lord. Krishna has multitudes of forms, all of which serve different purposes. In His expansion as Lord Rama, God came to earth to protect the pious and grant them the wonderful benediction of seeing Him face to face. Many great personalities had the good fortune of meeting Rama, with Shabari being one of them. As part of His pastimes, Lord Rama travelled through the forests of India, living as a recluse, accompanied by His wife Sita Devi and younger brother Lakshmana.
On one unfortunate occasion, Sita was kidnapped by a Rakshasa demon. When Rama and Lakshmana went looking for her, they were told to pass by an area where a female ascetic lived. When we speak of God’s pastimes, we must keep in mind that everything occurs for a reason. Nothing happens by chance. Rama’s meeting with Shabari serves as a great illustration for this point. On a previous occasion, Shabari was granted the benediction that she would achieve liberation from the cycle of birth and death by having darshana, or a vision, of Lord Rama. To make this prophecy hold true, as well as many other curses and predictions, God has to manipulate events in just the right way. Thus by Sita being kidnapped, the Lord was able to travel through the forests with Lakshmana and meet just the right people and grant benedictions to them.
When Rama and Lakshmana arrived at Shabari’s hermitage, she immediately got up and touched their feet. Lord Rama then politely posed several questions to her relating to her ascetic vows. Rama wanted to know if she was progressing in spiritual life and if she was deriving the full benefit of her pious deeds. In the above referenced quote, Shabari is answering Rama’s questions. We see that right off the bat, she lets Rama know that just by seeing Him in person all her pious deeds have borne fruit. This one statement speaks volumes, for it illustrates the essence of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga.
In the beginning stages we may take up devotional service to the Lord for various personal reasons. Maybe we are distressed, we want money, or we’re inquisitive. The wise, however, take to devotional service because they want to know the Absolute Truth. What better way is there to know God than by seeing Him face to face? Shabari knew that since she saw Rama, there was no other conclusion to be reached. Whatever she had done in the past, whatever she had learned from her spiritual guides, must have all been worthwhile and correct, for she was now seeing God in front of her.
We too can be granted the same benediction. We shouldn’t think that this event was an anomaly or something that can’t happen for us. If we’re sincere in our service, and if we kindly follow the instructions of fellow devotees, we will surely one day meet God. The other point to note here is that Shabari mentioned that by meeting Rama, her birth was blessed. According to the material estimation, being born as a vaishya [merchant], shudra [laborer], or woman is considered to be a second-class birth. But we see from Shabari’s example that devotional service is open to every single person, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. Not only is devotional service open to everyone, but so are the resulting rewards, i.e. association with God.
So let us all take up the sublime engagement, devotional service to the Lord. Dharma exists eternally, so God is waiting for us to rekindle our relationship with Him. We don’t need to take to spiritual life out of fear or frustration. Association with God represents the greatest reward in life, thus making devotional service the highest engagement. This fact alone should be enough to get us to turn our eyes towards Krishna. If we even get one look at the face of the Supreme Lord, we’ll never want to turn away.
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