“[obeisance to]Guru, Ganesha, Shiva, Parvati, Brihaspati, Sarasvati, Shesha, Shukadeva, Vedas, and the sincere and intelligent saints.” (Janaki Mangala, Mangalacharana, 1)
gurū ganapati girijāpati gauri girāpati |
sādara seṣa sukabi śruti santa sarala mati ||
Goswami Tulsidas herein begins his wonderful short work called the Janaki Mangala, a poem which describes the marriage ceremony of Sita and Rama and also provides background information relating to the event. The poem goes back in time and gives accounts of what actually occurred on that wonderful day many thousands of years ago. Sita is the goddess of fortune herself, and Shri Rama is her husband, the Supreme Lord for all of mankind. The story of their marriage is so heartwarming that it is celebrated annually in pilgrimage sites such as Janakpur, where the wedding is reenacted and others attend the ceremony as if they were there on the original day. As the poet enters into the proper frame of mind, conditioning himself to describe with succinct poetry what happened during that time, he makes sure to first invoke the names of those who can help make his efforts fruitful, personalities who have helped him already in the past and who are the well-wishers of the Vaishnavas, or devotees of Vishnu.
Lord Vishnu is the same Rama but in a different form. He is the origin of creation and the maintainer as well. There are many specific Vishnu forms and they all have four arms and are opulently dressed. Vishnu is also known as Narayana, or the source of men. There are many celestial figures in the tradition known as Hinduism, but they all worship Vishnu as their chief. Of this there is no doubt, as even the highest authority figures in the spiritual sky can speak about vishnu-bhakti, or devotion to the Supreme Lord, very well. Some of the leaders like Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva and Lakshmiji are themselves founders of Vaishnava sampradayas, or disciplic successions that preach about vishnu-bhakti to those who are interested in tasting the fruit of their existence.
Lord Vishnu is taken to be the Supreme Lord and personalities like Rama and Krishna His incarnations. In the Gaudiya tradition Krishna is taken as the original and Vishnu as an expansion, but in either case there is no difference. It is not that any Vaishnava tradition ignores Vishnu or His place as the Supreme Lord. Vishnu worship is completely different from any other type of spiritual discipline, as the rewards granted by the object of service are not guaranteed, nor are they always what the worshiper wants.
What kind of worship is this if you don’t even get what you’re asking for? Isn’t that the entire point to approaching a superior person? We approach our bosses to get paid for our work, the government to protect us, the store owner to provide goods and services that we need, and so on. The behavior of Vishnu can be likened to that of a parent. A child may ask for this thing or that, but they are not always guaranteed to get what they want. The parent will use discrimination, judging whether or not the child is worthy of the benediction and whether or not the desired object will be beneficial to them. In this sense the requests denied by the parents can turn out to be as influential and important as those granted.
Vishnu operates in the same way; hence worship of Him is not as prominent in the Vedic tradition. The demigods, those in charge of the material creation, which consists of elements of nature that are not related to the essence of individuality, the spirit soul, must grant their worshipers whatever they want. This ability is checked to the point that the presiding deities can only offer what they are capable of giving. For instance, in the past a few nefarious characters have asked Lord Brahma, the first created living entity who then populated the world with so many creatures, for immortality. The spirit soul is immortal, but its temporary residences are not. Therefore the request for immortality relates to remaining within the same form forever. This request is a little silly considering that our body already changes from infancy to youth and then to adulthood. Why not ask to get something back that we already lost instead of for remaining in the present form of body?
Lord Brahma himself doesn’t eternally reside in his own form, though he stays in it for billions of years. Since he is not immortal in this sense, he cannot grant immortality to anyone else. Despite this limitation, those who propitiate the demigods are granted whatever else they can ask for. Vishnu does not follow suit, however. He is the original soul, the person who expands as the Supersoul and resides within our heart, just waiting for us to turn to Him and look for guidance in our pursuit for happiness. Vishnu has nothing to do with the material energy, though He generates it to please the desire of those who wish for separation from Him in the spiritual sky.
Once the living entities find themselves in the material realm, however, there is really no such thing as good or bad, beneficial or harmful. One living being may eat stool and roll around in dirt, while another eats filet mignon and sleeps on a mattress that has an electronically set firmness level, but in the end they are both operating under the conception that they are their body, that the body’s enjoyment is what matters most. Vishnu makes no judgments in these areas; therefore He is not approached for benedictions relating to these things. Even if He is, He does not pay the requests any attention, for those who connect with Him can gain a higher taste, one that transcends the bonds of karma and reincarnation.
As bhakti is that discipline that connects with Vishnu, the writing of the Janaki Mangala was a total act of devotion, one meant to keep the mind immersed in vishnu-bhakti. Rama is the same Vishnu, so those who think of Him, look for benedictions in the form of His association, and regularly recite His names are on a path towards liberation. Such humble souls are already liberated in the sense that they are not after creature comforts or temporary happiness. Bhakti continues uninterrupted and unmotivated, so it cannot be checked. Not even death can stop the spirit soul from being devoted to Vishnu.
Tulsidas is so humble, kind, sweet and respectful that even though he is immersed in bhakti and thus not in need of any benediction from anyone besides Vishnu, he still starts off his poem by invoking the names of several exalted personalities. Instead of viewing the demigods as separate entities assigned to please those not interested in bhakti, Tulsidas takes full advantage of their position by asking them to help him in pleasing Rama. This same tact was previously followed by Shri Hanuman, who invoked the names of similar personalities just prior to entering the Ashoka grove where Sita was being held captive in Lanka. The life story of Sita and Rama is found in the Ramayana, an ancient poem written by Maharishi Valmiki, whom Tulsidas is considered an incarnation of. The marriage of Sita and Rama came first, which was then followed by Sita’s rescue from the clutches of a Rakshasa king named Ravana.
Sita also used to pray to heavenly figures to ensure that her husband was always safe. Thus the tradition of proper demigod worship was passed down to Tulsidas and he understood its place. In the above invocation, he first offers obeisance to his guru, or spiritual master. We can only get so far with mental speculation. Even in material education, unless we are instructed by someone else, what can we really learn? Knowledge is acquired much more quickly by just accepting the information passed on to us from authority figures.
In the realm of spirituality, finding a bona fide spiritual master and submissively hearing from him are the only ways to find enlightenment, to learn about bhakti and its superiority over every other kind of religiosity. No matter how great a devotee becomes, how prolific their writing turns out, and how many fruits their devotion yields, the results are still due to the grace of the spiritual master. He is the person who plants the seed of bhakti in the devotee’s heart, and then teaches them how to regularly water it with practices like chanting the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
“In the course of traversing the universal creation of Brahma, some fortunate soul may receive the seed of bhakti-lata, the creeper of devotional service. This is all by the grace of guru and Krishna.” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 19.151)
The debt to the guru can never properly be repaid, for how can we return the favor of finding a discipline that provides unending happiness to someone who already practices the same discipline? The guru can only be pleased by continued dedication in service, to devoting one’s life to glorifying Vishnu. The guru is himself a benediction from the Supreme Lord. Those who are sincerely interested in connecting with the personal form of God are aided in their endeavor by the Supreme Lord. He is the one who sends the guru to those who are deserving of him.
Next, Tulsidas invokes the name of Lord Ganesha. In every important Vedic ritual, Ganesha is honored first. He was bestowed this benediction because of his wonderful standing borne of his pious nature, unmatched character, and devotion to his parents, Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati. Ganesha removes the obstacles from his devotees, regardless of who they are. The removal of obstacles in the path of a person with motives that are not directed in the proper area will not be so beneficial. On the other hand, when the obstacles are removed from the path of those practicing bhakti in sincerity, Ganesha’s benedictions really stand out. Tulsidas never wanted anything for his own benefit from any spiritual personality; he always prayed to be able to continue his devotion to Sita and Rama. In some of his other poems Tulsidas starts by offering obeisance to Lord Ganesha and asking him to remove the obstacles from his path so that Sita and Rama can forever stay in his heart.
Next, Tulsidas offers obeisance to Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati. Followers of the Vedic tradition sometimes break out into factions, with some worshiping Vishnu and others worshiping Lord Shiva. The elevated Vaishnavas, however, though considered devotees of Vishnu, are all-inclusive. Just because Vishnu is the prime target of attention doesn’t mean that others are ignored. Rather, the Vaishnava loves Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati for who they are and their devotion to Vishnu. Tulsidas is the emblem of devotion to Sita and Rama, but we see that he still has so much love for Lord Shiva and Goddess Durga, the husband and wife pair that takes tremendous delight from hearing about Lord Rama’s activities. Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati help those who are materially motivated, so why wouldn’t they help someone who was going to write a poem that was going to give even them tremendous delight?
Tulsidas next references Brihaspati, the lord of speech, and Sarasvati, the goddess of learning. The human brain may have so many wonderful ideas and sentiments, but when the person wants to express those thoughts something might get lost in the transmission; the communication may fail to accurately represent the true sentiments of the individual. Poetry is especially difficult to compose because it needs to be short, to the point, and yet completely inclusive of the sentiment being released. In this sense we are powerless, as the higher authorities can either make or break our communication efforts. As Tulsidas so nicely notes in the beginning of his Ramacharitamanasa poem, Mother Sarasvati rushes to where any poet is about to start writing, wanting to help them. But when she sees that their writing is not related to devotion, she gets very disappointed, as her benedictions then get wasted on mundane literature. Tulsidas knew that Sarasvati and Brihaspati would automatically help him in glorifying Sita and Rama, but out of kind respect he called out to them anyway.
Tulsidas then references Lord Shesha, Shukadeva Goswami, the Vedas, and the saints of sincerity and good intelligence. What all of these people have in common is that they are tireless glorifiers of the Supreme Lord Vishnu and devotion to Him. Ananta Shesha Naga is the celestial serpent with unlimited hoods. He serves as the resting bed for Lord Vishnu in the spiritual sky. He is the servitor God, the head glorifier. He uses his many hoods to continuously offer praise to his beloved Vishnu. In Rama-lila, Shesha comes to earth as Lakshmana and serves as Rama’s number one protector. How then could he not help Tulsidas write a poem glorifying the beloved couple?
Shukadeva Goswami is Vyasadeva’s son. Vyasa is the compiler of the majority of Vedic literature, which is known as the shrutis, or “that which is heard”. There are the original shrutis and then the people who pass them on, discussing them in public. Shukadeva is best known for his discussion on bhakti and the position of the Supreme Lord that is found in the Bhagavata Purana, or Shrimad Bhagavatam. This work is considered the crown jewel of Vedic literature, for it is not tainted with any materialism whatsoever. The entire work is bhakti, and is thus non-different from Vishnu himself.
The saints who have a good mind and are sincere in their efforts are referenced because they live bhakti. By their very example they teach others what it means to follow the highest form of spirituality there is. Tulsidas hopes that they are pleased with him, for he has learned so much from them. The saints are the ocean of mercy, so if their compassion extends into the devotee’s writing efforts, there is no chance of failure. For the Janaki Mangala, the subject matter itself would prove to be too strong a force for any possible defects to creep in. Aided by the personalities given to Vishnu worship, Tulsidas’ finished product pleases the minds of countless generations of sincere followers looking to delight in the pastimes of Sita and Rama, and especially in their marriage ceremony that took place in Janaka’s kingdom many thousands of years ago.
On singing about marriage to embark,
Of Sita and Rama, sentiments from the heart.
So that story in right way he can tell,
Poet invokes names of devas to help.
Because seed of devotion comes from spiritual master,
At his lotus feet Tulsidas first to offer.
To ensure that obstacles are removed,
Honor Ganesha, path for devoted is smoothed.
Worship Uma with Shankara to her right,
In hearing of Sita and Rama they delight.
Since desire to write song in heart yearning,
Worshiped Sarasvati, goddess of learning.
Also honored Brihaspati, the lord of speech,
And Shesha, Shuka and saints, Vedas they teach.
Devotion to Vishnu knowledge does it feed,
To worship others one does not need.
But Tulsidas offers invocation out of respect,
For humble soul success in devotion we expect.
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