“Those great saints, who are knowers of dharma and greatly fortunate, spoke these words to me: ‘Rama will visit your very pious ashrama. Along with Saumitra [Lakshmana], you should offer Rama the greatest hospitality as your guest. Thus after seeing Him, as a benediction, you will ascend to the eternal realm.’” (Shabari speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.15-16)
This one passage from the famous Ramayana succinctly explains the purpose of life. Due to the individuality of the spirit soul, different priorities and philosophies will develop over the course of a lifetime of a living entity. Acting on these desires and aims, individuals take to different activities. One will either succeed or fail in their endeavors, but since none of the objectives are focused on the imperishable, aims and desires will have to be constantly adjusted. For an objective to be considered supreme, it must provide a result which transcends all other results. In the above referenced passage, we are privy to instructions provided by bona fide spiritual guides which aim to produce the highest benefit of life, that of ascension to the imperishable realm, that abode where having gone once, one never returns.
“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.16)
God, the divine creator, the Lord of lords, can assume many shapes and sizes. Since He is so great, some take God to be a man-made creation. This thought process is understandable since the human mind is incapable of conceiving of a perfect entity, someone who is flawless and never falls down. But by carefully studying the workings of this world, we can reach no other conclusion except that which acknowledges God’s existence. How do we know this? For starters, let’s analyze the terms “flawed” and “temporary”. For the concept of fallibility to exist, there must be something which is infallible. If there wasn’t something infallible already in existence, then the concept of fallibility would have no meaning. The same holds true with permanence and mutability. We can only understand what “permanent” means by studying things which are not permanent.
“Whatever action a great man performs, common men follow. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.21)
Simply based on these facts, we can logically deduce that there must be a single infallible and permanent source for everything that we see in this material world. God is that source, but since the concept of “God” is quite abstract, the authoritative scriptures give us more details about the Supreme. When we say a certain set of scriptures is authoritative, it means that people of authority have declared them to be so. And who are the authority figures? Starting from the time of our birth, the first people we hand control over to is our parents. Next come the spiritual leaders, or gurus. We trust these people because they are in charge of our well-being, and they really have no reason to guide us astray. Should our authority figures happen to be flawed, we can still study the example set by those who are virtuous and well-respected. In any society, there will naturally be a leader or group of people that everyone else follows.
When it comes to understanding God, we must consult spiritual leaders, people who know what they are talking about. The saintly class tells us that God exists and that information about Him can be found in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India. The Vedas are the oldest religious books in existence, for one cannot even accurately date their origin. Vedic wisdom was initially passed down through aural reception. This wisdom states that God has many names, forms, and features, even though He is a singular entity.
This divine leader, the Supreme Lord of creation, kindly appears on earth from time to time to help the fallen souls rekindle their forgotten relationship with Him. One such appearance took place many thousands of years ago during the Treta Yuga when Lord Rama, the handsome and pious prince of Ayodhya, roamed the earth. Lord Rama is one of God’s most famous incarnations as He is worshiped to this day by millions around the world. Rama especially draws the attention of devotees because, as His name so aptly describes, He gives pleasure to all He comes in contact with. Not only does Rama please by His smile and His nature, but also through His glorious activities.
The activities performed by Rama during His time on earth are so famous that they are chronicled in many Vedic texts. Since Rama appears on earth in every millennium, the exact nature of the events pertaining to His life sometimes differs, but the general sequence is usually the same. The most detailed description of His life and pastimes can be found in the Ramayana, which was compiled by Maharishi Valmiki. The above referenced statement from the Ramayana describes an incident where Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana visited the hermitage of the exalted female sage Shabari.
At the time, Rama and Lakshmana were looking for Rama’s wife Sita Devi, who had gone missing. Sita had been kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. Lest we think this was a slight on Rama’s part, Sita’s kidnap was in the cards, part of the great equation that would lead to Ravana’s demise. In fact, defeating Ravana was one of the primary reasons for God’s advent on earth as a pious and powerful warrior. While roaming the forests looking for Sita, Rama was told to visit Shabari, for the female sage was pious and ever dedicated to performing austerities. Upon approaching the ashrama, Rama and Lakshmana were greeted very kindly by Shabari. The gentle lady kindly touched their feet and welcomed them very hospitably. After exchanging pleasantries, Shabari praised Rama as being the foremost of gods and also told Him of what her spiritual guides had previously told her.
From the statements of Shabari’s spiritual guides, we can understand how to achieve perfection in life. In the first part of their instructions, the sages told Shabari to welcome both Rama and Lakshmana hospitably. Hospitality means kindness. This kindness wasn’t of the ordinary variety either, for it was to be directed at God and His younger brother. Can God have a brother? Surely He can. Vedic information tells us that God, whose original form is that of Lord Krishna, does not reside in the spiritual world alone. We know from our own lives that we have more fun when our friends and family are with us. In a similar manner, Krishna is the greatest enjoyer, so this means that His enjoyment comes through association with the most exalted souls. These pleasure-givers are a representation of one of Krishna’s potencies, namely hladini-shakti. The topmost pleasure-giver to Krishna is Shrimati Radharani, the fountainhead of all goddesses of fortune, or Lakshmis. Sita Devi was in fact an incarnation of Lakshmi, i.e. she was the very same Radha from the spiritual world.
There are different moods, or mellows, through which one can have association with Krishna. Pleasure doesn’t always have to come through conjugal love. Krishna also has other associates who give Him pleasure through friendship, fraternity, and parental affection. In this regard, Baladeva, or Lord Balarama, is Krishna’s expansion who offers fraternal love and affection. Balarama is actually the embodiment of the spiritual master, God’s greatest protector. Just as Rama was an incarnation of Krishna and Sita an incarnation of Radha, Lakshmana was an incarnation of Baladeva.
Shabari was advised to act kindly towards God and His brother. The nature of this kindness is also important to note. Shabari was not advised to simply view Rama and Lakshmana with awe and reverence. She was not told to respect them because of their great fighting ability or the fact that they were of the princely order. Instead, she was advised to treat Rama and Lakshmana on the same level as she would treat her own family members. After all, the greatest form of hospitality is to treat a fellow stranger on the same level as we would treat a member of our own family. If a relative comes to visit us after a long time, we go to great lengths to make sure they are happy staying in our home. We will clean up the house and whip up the best food preparations in anticipation. The aim of hospitality is to make the guest feel as if they are residing within their own home. This is how Shabari tried to treat Rama and Lakshmana.
The second part of the instructions given to Shabari is a complement to the first part. The first part details what actions are to be taken. The second part deals with the results, the reward Shabari would gain from performing the prescribed set of actions. The nature of this reward is interesting to note. The sages told Shabari that by serving Rama and Lakshmana, she would ascend to a spiritual realm which is imperishable. We should note that Shabari was not told that she would merge into any energy, nor was she told that she would assume a body just like Narayana’s. On the contrary, her reward would be ascension to a new home.
For there to be ascension, there has to be movement. But what is actually moving? Is Shabari being carried away to a different location? The ascension in this context refers to the soul. The place we currently inhabit, the material world, is temporary and full of miseries. Not only are our surroundings temporary, but so is the body that we currently occupy. The soul within the body forms the basis of our identity, and thus it is only the soul that remains after our current body is destroyed. It is this soul that moves from one body to the next through the process of transmigration, or what is commonly referred to as reincarnation.
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.13)
This transmigration process happens automatically; we really have no control over it. However, we do have a say in where the soul will end up next. By studying the instructions given to Shabari, we see that there is a place where the soul can go and never have to return from. If we never return from this place, then it surely must not be part of the material world. After all, the material world is temporary and destined for destruction. If we live in an area forever, then it must exist forever. Not only must this realm always remain in existence, but so must the body that we occupy while living in this place. Hence, we can understand that those who ascend to this spiritual realm must also be given a body which is imperishable.
The spiritual world must be imperishable because for something to be perishable there must also be a place which is never subject to creation or destruction. The authorized scriptures such as the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam inform us that this ever-existing realm is known as the spiritual world. This shouldn’t be confused with the concept of heaven. Heaven is a place of elevated sense pleasure, a place which allows for enjoyment on a higher level than we are currently accustomed to. The heavenly planets are also considered to be part of the perishable world; so ascension to this realm cannot be considered the highest achievement in life.
The Vedanta-sutras state that everything in this world emanates from the Absolute Truth, or God. The variegatedness of this world is simply a reflection of those things found in Krishna’s realm. If something is considered a reflection, it means that the real thing must exist somewhere. If the real object didn’t exist, there would be no meaning to the concept of reflection.
The instructions given by the sages to Shabari actually apply to every single person in this world. Though Rama and Lakshmana aren’t roaming the earth today in their original forms, they have kindly incarnated in the form of a transcendental sound vibration. This vibration is known as the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Anyone who treats this mantra with love and respect, who honors this sacred formula by regularly chanting it, will surely receive the same benedictions that were bestowed upon Shabari. This is the magic of devotional service. We should all welcome God into our homes by reciting His name, worshiping His deity, and always remembering His glorious pastimes.
Categories: meeting shabari