“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)”
Service paid to the spiritual master and worship of the Supreme Personality of Godhead run on parallel lines. By worshiping both parties simultaneously, one achieves the greatest reward of liberation from the repeated suffering brought on by contact with the temporary world. Only in the afterlife, the realm where spirituality reigns supreme, can the agonies brought on by gain, loss, birth, death, happiness, and sadness be permanently eradicated. In order to enter this realm, one must be stripped of all egoism and false pride. One must be a complete adherent to the dictates of the Divine Being, whose instructions are carried out in this world by His purified servants, the spiritual masters who embody virtue, kindness, compassion, and deference to the laws of the Supreme Master. While service to the guru brings pleasure to the Supreme Lord, the reciprocal benedictions bestowed on the sincere servant by God also bring pleasure to the spiritual master. This truth was stressed by the exalted female sage Shabari when she had the wonderful opportunity to meet the Supreme Personality of Godhead face to face.
In the world of sports, politics, literature, or any field which has achievements and accomplishments, there are often discussions pertaining to which person or team is the greatest of all time. The purpose behind such discussions is quite easy to decipher. Fans of sports, politics, and literature have particular favorite personalities, “stars of the game” if you will. In order to praise the stars, fans need a frame of reference, something or someone to compare achievements to. By having this juxtaposition, one is better able to offer a proper compliment to their particular favored party. For example, Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama, once offered a very nice compliment to her husband, Shri Rama, by making a comparison to a notable powerful entity.
“O Raghava, if I am in Your company, even Shakra [Indra], the lord of the demigods, with his great strength would not be able to overpower me.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 29.6)
Lord Rama, an expansion of the original, all-blissful, ever-existing Personality of Godhead, roamed this earth many thousands of years ago in the guise of a pious, kshatriya prince. We can think of a kshatriya as the most honest and capable defender of the innocent. This honesty and dedication to righteousness doesn’t exist only in theory. Rather, there are many occasions when a defender is put to the test. As the saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”, Shri Rama proved His mettle on many occasions, the most notable of which related to His exile from His opulent kingdom of Ayodhya.
When Rama was still a young man, He was on the precipice of coronation; He was to succeed His father on the royal throne. Yet through a series of unfortunate events, the kingdom was snatched away from Him at the last moment. To make matters worse, He was ordered to leave the community and not return for fourteen years, during which time He would have no ties to the regal life. God is atmarama, meaning one who is self-satisfied, so such an order didn’t phase Shri Rama one bit. But He was married at the time, and as is custom in a marriage, the husband often has to deliver unpalatable news to the wife. A married man can’t just stay out late all the time without telling his wife first. A good husband will not leave home without at least telling someone where they are going.
When Rama went to tell Sita the news, she didn’t take to it too well. She wasn’t necessarily worried about her future as queen being in jeopardy. Rather, she was dreading the impending separation from Rama. Instead of agreeing to her husband’s request that she remain in the kingdom, Sita insisted on coming along. Her main argument was that, as Rama’s shadow, it would be impossible for Him to roam the earth without her. In order for a shadow to exist, there must be an original light. In this way, Sita was saying that she couldn’t exist without the beacon of light which was her husband.
In order to convince Rama of her position, Sita pointed to His extraordinary abilities in the area of defense. Rama tried to dissuade Sita from going by reminding her of the dangers of forest life. Sita not only countered this argument by saying that Rama was strong, but she emphatically pointed out that not even Indra, the king of the heavenly planets, could harm her if she was in Rama’s company. Comparisons to Indra are quite commonplace in Vedic literature. He is the strongest of the suras, or the devoted living entities possessing heavenly bodies. Therefore if someone is stronger than Indra, it means that they must be one of the most capable fighters in the universe.
When praising an athlete or famous figure, one will often make comparisons to legends of the past. Every sport or discipline of interest has a specific icon, or standard bearer, for the sport. In ice hockey, the icon is Wayne Gretzky, in basketball Michael Jordan, in computers Bill Gates. If a new player comes along and breaks established records, comparisons will be made to the previous legends. If a player should happen to surpass a former great’s achievements, debates will begin as to which person is the greatest of all time.
What often gets overlooked in this debate is the influence of the legend on the newcomer. Let’s take Wayne Gretzky for example. Prior to Gretzky’s arrival in the National Hockey League, Gordie Howe was considered the greatest player of all time. Gretzky was actually a big fan of Howe growing up, so it would stand to reason that Howe had a significant influence on Gretzky’s career. So when Wayne amassed wonderful point totals and goals, shouldn’t Howe have been given some of the credit? If the predecessors are somewhat responsible for the achievements of the newer generation, doesn’t the “greatest of all time” argument lose its steam? How can someone be the greatest of all time if previous greats were partially responsible for their abilities?
This speaks to the truth that our teachers and role models make us who we are. In the Vedic tradition, the first objects of worship are the parents. They take care of us in the early years of life and give us a basic understanding of right and wrong. In the absence of this care and affection, we easily could be led off the straightened path. In adulthood, the object of worship is the guru, or spiritual master. The parents give us our first birth, but in order to achieve success in a spiritual sense, we need a second birth. The spiritual master gives us this reawakening of divine consciousness through the initiation process. When one is properly educated in a spiritual sense, they no longer see bodily designations; they see only spirit and its relationship to an ever-changing matter.
Not only do students learn about spirituality from their gurus, but they also become familiar with the most sublime engagement of devotional service, or the religion of love. The aim of life is to change one’s consciousness to the point where all thoughts are revolving around love, service, and affection for the Supreme Spirit. This Divine Personality goes by different names according to time and circumstance, but the Vedas inform us that His most complete name and form is Krishna, a word which means all-attractive. Devotional service aims to keep one’s mind always fixed at the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord, who possesses a love-evoking, transcendental form.
A spiritual master is not chosen on a whim, but rather is sought out based on their qualifications. Of all the characteristics of a guru, his most endearing qualification is his ability to liberate his disciples from the repeated cycle of birth and death. If our consciousness is not purified by the time we die, we will be forced to take birth again to a new set of parents and repeat the same knowledge-acquiring process. If we can find a bona fide spiritual master and follow their instructions wholeheartedly, we can avoid this unnecessary rebirth.
Since the guru is a representative of Krishna, he is to be honored in the same way that one would worship the Lord. This means that if we fall flat on the floor and offer our obeisances to the spiritual master, we are essentially offering our prayers to the Supreme Lord. The spiritual master is often compared to a boatman who carries the wayward spirit soul across the ocean of nescience back to the transcendental realm. In this way, we see that service to the guru equates to happiness to the Supreme Lord. Krishna is happy because the guru is bringing back one of His lost souls, an expansion of the Supreme Energetic which is meant to provide enjoyment to the Supreme Enjoyer.
By satisfying the guru with our service, the chain of causation eventually finds its way back to God. When the guru is pleased, the guru’s guru is pleased, the guru’s guru’s guru is satisfied, and so on. What’s often overlooked, however, is the end-result of such service and its effect on the parties involved. We know what the initial act of service to the guru will lead to, but what effect does the result of this action bring? For example, say that we please Krishna by pleasing the guru. If the Lord offers us a nice benediction in return, are we the only ones benefitted? According to the opinion of the most exalted associates of the Lord, those liberated souls who properly served their gurus, the benedictions received from God directly affect the same chain of spiritual masters. This fact was reiterated by the female sage Shabari.
Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana also insisted on accompanying the Lord during His travels through the forest. Agreeing to take Sita and Lakshmana with Him, Rama embarked on His journey. On one unfortunate occasion, Sita would be kidnapped by a Rakshasa demon. In their subsequent search for her whereabouts, Rama and Lakshmana made their way to the hermitage of Shabari. When she saw them approaching, she immediately got up and touched their feet. She had been waiting for Rama ever since her spiritual guides told her that she would be granted liberation upon meeting the Lord. After being welcomed in such a hospitable way, Rama asked Shabari some very nice questions pertaining to her spiritual practices. One of the questions He asked was whether or not her service to her gurus had borne fruit.
In the above referenced statement, Shabari is responding to Rama’s questions. We see that she states that the service she offered to her guravah, her spiritual masters and respectable elders, has most certainly borne fruit. She not only stipulates that the service was successful, but she also provides a reason. Shabari states that by having Rama’s darshana, seeing Him face to face, her gurus have been duly honored. This speaks to the truth that the spiritual master and the Supreme Lord are always linked. You cannot serve one and neglect the other. No one is dearer to Krishna than His sincere servant.
Shabari’s kind words also reinforce the fact that a person’s greatness and accomplishments are a reflection on their teachers. By meeting Rama, which is the highest benediction one can achieve in life, Shabari honored herself and her spiritual masters. After all, it was her gurus who taught her about spiritual life and how to perform tapasya. They taught her how to control her anger and her eating habits. Not only Shabari, but every one of us has to be taught how to live a regulated life. In the absence of this instruction, we would most certainly take to nefarious behavior or those activities which would end up harming us.
This event with Shabari took place many thousands of years ago during the Treta Yuga, but we see that even back then women were eligible for spiritual instruction. Even though it wasn’t common for women to take to an ascetic lifestyle, those who were properly qualified certainly could. The guru’s mercy is open to every single person, so anyone who is sincerely interested in spiritual life should try to humbly soak in the kind instructions of the pure devotee. Though we can never properly repay the debts we owe to the great saints of the past, if the Supreme Lord should happen to be pleased with us, all of our teachers and superiors would be duly honored at the same time, thus completing the circle.
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