“O best of men, today, by worshiping You, Rama who is the greatest of all the gods, my religious practices have become fruitful and my ascension to the heavenly realm will surely take place.” (Shabari speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.12)
The Ramayana is one of the most famous literary works in history. More than just a book, it is a wonderful Sanskrit poem which describes the life and pastimes of Lord Shri Rama, a pious prince and celebrated avatara of the Supreme Lord. The Ramayana is so famous that it has sprung many spinoffs and offshoots, other variations of the poem which describe the same events in different levels of detail. Since the Ramayana is so old – old enough that we can’t accurately date its composition – it has been studied for centuries. In modern times, scholars, academics, and inquisitive non-devotees have taken to studying the work. They have compared several popular versions and have concluded that the original Ramayana, penned by Maharishi Valmiki, hardly makes any reference at all to Rama being a divine figure, an incarnation of God. Rather, they believe that Rama only became known as a deity many years later. This erroneous conclusion based off mental speculation is refuted many times in the actual text of the Ramayana, including in the section describing the incident where Lord Rama meets the great female sage Shabari.
In order to put things into proper context, familiarity with the nature of some of the other Ramayanas that have come into existence is required. Probably the most famous alternate version, or supplement to Valmiki’s Ramayana, is the Ramacharitamanasa, a poem written by Goswami Tulsidas during the sixteenth century. This work is often referred to as the Tulsi Ramayana, but it should be noted that Tulsidas never intended for his work to be taken as the original Ramayana. Rather, he named his book the Ramacharitamanasa, which refers to the mind always contemplating the transcendental activities of Lord Rama. Tulsidas’ work is a poem composed in Awadhi, which is a dialect of Hindi. It is funny to see that some scholars have taken up the task to determine whether or not the Ramacharitamanasa is a translation of the original Ramayana. This is humorous because the Ramacharitamanasa was never intended to be a translation, nor has the author claimed that it is one. Rather, it is simply a beautiful poem extolling the virtues of Lord Rama, with a brief summary of His life’s activities included.
What was the need for this great work? After all, the Ramayana is one of the holiest scriptures, complete in and of itself. The completeness is what is important in this regard. The Valmiki Ramayana is very long, consisting of thousands of Sanskrit verses. Included are detailed conversations and blow by blow accounts of the fighting that took place between Lord Rama’s Vanara army and Ravana’s band of Rakshasas. In recent times, several movies have been made of the Ramayana. Obviously the entire work could never be accurately portrayed in a single movie, so each film depicts only a summary of the events. From our personal experience, when we were six years of age, we visited India and through good fortune were exposed to the Ramayana and Lord Rama. When we heard that there were movies made of this Ramayana, we pestered the elders to take us to see one. Our guardians and relatives told us of different Ramayana movies that were in the theaters at the time, but we insisted on seeing whichever one was the longest, which at the time was the Sampoorna Ramayana.
The point of all this is that the Valmiki Ramayana is quite lengthy. Even a movie that claims to be sampurna, or complete, surely isn’t. Taking this into consideration, Tulsidas took to writing his own poem about Lord Rama. It should also be noted that we currently live in the age of Kali. This age is known for rampant quarrel and hypocrisy; hence people generally don’t have an affinity for spiritual life. Therefore presenting the original Ramayana to society at large is a difficult task. Tulsidas, being a surrendered soul and pure devotee of Lord Rama, wanted to spread the glories of the Lord to everyone, making the pastimes and activities of Rama presentable to a larger audience.
One will notice many differences between the Ramacharitamanasa and the original Ramayana. The narration itself is different, with Tulsidas’ version being told from the perspective of a conversation between Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati. This conversation appears in the Brahmanda Purana in a section which is known as the Adhyatma Ramayana, or the spiritual Ramayana. Since this version is from a Purana, its author is Vyasadeva, the great compiler of all the Puranas, Mahabharata, and Vedanta-sutras. The Supreme Lord descends to earth in every creation, but the exact sequence of His activities can vary in each kalpa. The events in the Adhyatma Ramayana are described a little differently, with certain key elements deviating completely from the original. For example, one of the major differences is that the form of Sita, Lord Rama’s wife, that is kidnapped by Ravana is only a material version. The Ramacharitamanasa tells us that the real Sita entered the fire just prior to her kidnap, leaving an illusory form for Ravana to take. Upon Ravana’s death and Sita’s rescue, the original form of Rama’s wife reappeared from the fire.
“When Ravana came to kidnap mother Sita and she saw him, she took shelter of the fire-god, Agni. The fire-god covered the body of mother Sita, and in this way she was protected from the hands of Ravana.” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 9.202)
Tulsidas is often criticized for this and other deviations in his work. The harshest critics say that he made his events up, wanting to protect Sita. Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s most recent incarnation to appear on earth, actually corroborated Tulsdias’ version of Sita’s illusory form being kidnapped. Lord Chaitanya, who roamed the earth prior to Tulsidas’ advent, specifically found evidence relating to Sita from the Kurma Purana and showed the original page to a brahmana named Ramadasa Vipra. Ramadasa was a great devotee of Lord Rama and was upset about Sita being kidnapped. Lord Chaitanya, being the original Hari Himself, alleviated the distress of the brahmana by showing him evidence from authorized scripture about the illusory Sita.
The criticisms of Tulsidas are humorous in a sense. Since the saint was so kind and humble, it is understandable that some people would mistake his simple and faithful behavior for lack of intelligence. Yet does anyone seriously believe that Tulsidas didn’t know his version was different from the original Ramayana? The saint was a highly learned scholar who had a firm grasp of all Vedic literature, including the Valmiki Ramayana. According to the statements of various saints, Tulsidas is considered to be an incarnation of Valmiki. The Maharishi was disappointed that his original Ramayana failed to properly extol the virtues of Hanuman, thus he decided to come back and praise Rama’s devotee to the fullest. Tulsidas did just that by writing the famous Hanuman Chalisa, a devotional poem praising Hanuman which is recited by millions of devotees on a daily basis. In fact, Tulsidas took spiritual instruction from Hanuman and can thus be considered his disciple.
Since Tulsidas’ work was so devotional in nature, some scholars declared that Valmiki’s version didn’t really claim that Rama was an incarnation of God. To give evidence to this fact, they decided that the initial book of the Ramayana, the Bala Kanda, only came into existence later on and that it wasn’t part of the original Ramayana. They claimed that the rest of the work never mentions Rama as a divine figure, and that He is depicted to be only a great personality who endured many hardships.
Those making these claims aren’t devotees themselves, so they haven’t taken in Vedic wisdom from any authority. If one reads Valmiki’s Ramayana, there is no doubt that Rama is declared to be God. There are many examples of this, including the time the Lord visited the female sage Shabari. Part of Rama’s pastimes involved Him travelling the forests of India as an exile for fourteen years. Rama was of the princely order, and as the eldest son of the king, He was next in line to ascend the throne. Yet due to unfortunate events, Rama was banished from His kingdom for fourteen years. Not able to bear the separation, Rama’s wife Sita, and younger brother Lakshmana, insisted on accompanying Him.
Sita was kidnapped by Ravana while the group was living in the forest. During their search for her whereabouts, Rama and Lakshmana came upon the hermitage of Shabari. Upon seeing the two brothers, Shabari immediately got up and touched their feet. This alone is an indication of Rama’s divinity. Shabari was a brahmana, or one of the priestly class. Rama and Lakshmana were military men, so they were considered subordinate to Shabari according to social etiquette. Nevertheless, Shabari knew who Rama was and thus treated Him appropriately.
After Rama posed some nice questions to Shabari, the sage responded with some kind words of her own. In the above referenced quote, she refers to Rama as deva vare, which means the chief of the devas, or gods. Deva refers to a demigod, or a celestial being. Similar to the Christian concept of saints, the demigods are the elevated living entities who possess extraordinary power. Those growing up in the Hindu tradition are familiar with the many gods. Outsiders sometimes mistakenly take this to mean that Hindus don’t believe in a single God, but this is not the case. The original form of God is Lord Shri Krishna, whose immediate expansion is Lord Narayana, or Vishnu.
There is really no difference between Krishna and Vishnu other than appearance. Krishna has two hands and Narayana has four. The reason for the two forms is that people have different ways of worshiping God. Lord Vishnu is intended to appeal to those who view God with awe and reverence. Is there any other way to view God? Yes. Lord Krishna, being God’s original all-attractive form, is meant to attract those who view the Lord with pure love and affection, not caring for His great powers. In this way, we see there are subtle differences between the two forms, but for all intents and purposes, Krishna and Vishnu are the same.
“The highly renowned Rama rages into a fury against those who dare brave against Him. He is extremely powerful, for He can completely stop the onset of a pulsing river simply by using His arrows. Shriman Rama can bring down all the stars, planets, and the sky itself by use of His arrows. He is even capable of saving the earth if it should collapse. The illustrious Rama, if He wanted to, could deluge the whole world by breaking apart the shorelines of the seas. With His arrows, He can resist the onset of the oceans and the wind. After withdrawing the whole world into Himself, that highly renowned best of men, by virtue of His powers, is capable of again creating the whole world with all its creatures.” (Akampana speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 31.23-26)
Lord Rama is the chief of the gods because He is an incarnation of Vishnu. Evidence of this is given in the Bala Kanda of the Ramayana, which describes how the demigods approached Lord Vishnu to help them defeat Ravana. The Lord agreed to come to earth as the eldest son of the King of Ayodhya, Maharaja Dasharatha. Evidence of Rama’s divinity is also given elsewhere. Akampana, one of Ravana’s assistants, personally witnessed Rama’s fighting power. The Lord was once attacked by fourteen thousand of Ravana’s associates. Rama showed His tremendous prowess by easily killing all the demons. Akampana managed to escape back to Lanka and relay the information to Ravana. In describing the incident, Akampana declared that Rama was capable of swallowing up the entire world and then recreating it with all its creatures. This is a direct reference to Vishnu’s ability to create. Brahman is God’s feature as the impersonal energy, and it is this energy that the Lord impregnates in order to create life on earth.
“The total material substance, called Brahman, is the source of birth, and it is that Brahman that I impregnate, making possible the births of all living beings, O son of Bharata.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.3)
Shabari confirms the fact that Rama is Vishnu by stating that He is the greatest of the gods. What does it mean to be the chief god? Demigods can only bestow material rewards. At best, their worshipers can ascend to the heavenly planets, where they remain for some time before returning back to earth. Worshipers of Vishnu, however, aren’t looking for any material benefits, and as such, they ascend to the spiritual world after death. The spiritual realm represents an eternal abode, a place where we can check in anytime but never have to leave.
Rama’s divinity is not some concoction. Maharishi Valmiki meditated for thousands of years before he took up devotional service and decided to compose the Ramayana. He wouldn’t waste his time crafting such a wonderful poem if Rama were just an ordinary human being. We should always try to take in Vedic wisdom from the proper sources. Since Krishna is so attractive, everyone is enamored by Him, even the non-devotees. Yet if someone doesn’t have the eyes to see Krishna, they will never be able to properly understand literature which describes Him. Therefore we are advised to learn from devotees. This makes sense because the devotees are Krishna’s greatest fans, and as such, they have an eagerness to hear about God. This eagerness results in a desire to study all the great Vedic texts which describe Krishna. Hence devotees know how to take things in their proper context.
The great saints know that people will try to put forth their faulty interpretations of the famous scriptures, so for the benefit of future generations of sincere souls, summary studies and synthesized poetry are written. By consulting works such as the Ramacharitamanasa, we can understand the essence of Krishna and Rama. If an author understands the proper conclusion about life, that of devotional service to God being the highest occupation, their literature will automatically become first class and beneficial to all of society.
Categories: meeting shabari