“With my hands folded, bowing my head I pray to them as I sing about the marriage of Sita and Rama as I understand it.” (Janaki Mangala, Mangalacharana, 2)
hātha jori kari binaya sabahi sira nāvauṃ |
siya raghubīra bibāhu jathāmati gāvauṃ ||
For those following Vedic teachings, the importance of the spiritual master cannot be overemphasized. There is no over-glorification of the guru, who gives us the key to the mint that is the endless delight of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. The importance of the spiritual master is stressed repeatedly to break the living being’s tendency towards searching after the Absolute Truth through their own effort, for no human being is capable of experiencing everything or even knowing how to fully process the information that they do accumulate. For the spiritualist who learns how to describe the glories of the Supreme Lord, telling the stories of God’s pastimes and activities in their own way actually enhances the glory of their guru even further. Showing that what his guru had taught him was worthwhile and put to good use, Goswami Tulsidas embarked on singing of the marriage of Sita and Rama.
It should be noted that the story of the marriage of the beloved couple had already been told, several times in fact. First, there was the initial incident itself, which took place in the kingdom of Janakpur many thousands of years ago. We refer to this incident as being in the past, for that is how it is positioned with respect to the timeline of our current birth and the creation of the earth. However, just as the cycle of birth and death continues for the spirit soul, who travels from one body type to another, the creation itself goes through cycles of manifestation and annihilation. Not only this creation, but countless other universes follow the same pattern, which is instigated by the exhaling and inhaling of Maha-Vishnu, the Supreme Lord managing the creation. That same Vishnu ensures that the marriage of Sita and Rama takes place many times in many different creations. The marriage can be referred to as a future event as well, and also one which follows slightly different scripts. Moreover, sometimes the onlookers have their own incidents they remember, certain features they see and choose to focus on.
In this creation, the first accounts of the glorious marriage are given in the Ramayana, which was composed by Maharishi Valmiki in the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation. In addition to touching on the event when telling the story of Rama’s life chronologically, there is another incident, after the fact, in the Ramayana where Sita Devi, Rama’s wife, describes how the marriage took place. During a fourteen year stint in the forest, Sita and Rama visited many hermitages, where great sages had taken up refuge to perform their austerities and live the simple life devoted to God. They wouldn’t have to wait until the afterlife to see God, though. Their penances weren’t just for some future benefit that was unknown. Rather, they would get the fruit of their existence by having God Himself in the form of a warrior prince visit them.
Bringing His wife and younger brother with Him, Rama once came upon the hermitage of Atri Rishi and his wife Anasuya. Even during that time, Sita and Rama’s marriage was quite famous, especially since many suitors had wanted to have Janaka’s daughter’s hand in marriage. Wanting to hear the story from the coveted princess in question, Anasuya asked Sita to explain the events of that day. In this way Sita herself became a kind of spiritual master, one who described the glories of Lord Rama and His closest associates. She was at the wedding, so she could give firsthand accounts.
“I have heard, O Sita, that your hand in marriage was won by the renowned Raghava on the occasion of the self-choice ceremony [svayamvara]. O Maithili, I wish to hear that story in detail. Therefore please narrate to me the entire sequence of events as you experienced them.” (Anasuya speaking to Sita, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.24-25)
The spiritual masters of the Vedic tradition describe the same events and the qualities of the participants in their own way, though they initially received the knowledgebase through a chain of disciplic succession. It is not that the genuine keepers of the faith make up any details or put things into their stories that aren’t true. Rather, they highlight what is important to them, incorporating different aspects of their own experiences to properly describe the glory and beauty of the Supreme Lord and His lila.
When Goswami Tulsidas embarked on writing his short song called the Janaki Mangala, there were many sources of information he could have used as reference tools. Many Puranas describe Rama’s life in varying levels of detail, and there are also the two major Ramayana compositions as well, the original by Valmiki and the version by Vyasadeva called the Adhyatma Ramayana. The latter was the one Tulsidas heard from his guru during his youth, so he was especially fond of it. In this version, Lord Shiva is the narrator, for he got to watch Rama’s activities from above in the heavenly realm. Lord Shiva is a worshipable figure himself, but he takes the most pleasure from chanting the name of Rama and describing His activities to others, including his beloved wife Mother Parvati.
Not surprisingly, when it came time to write the auspicious invocation to his song, Tulsidas referenced both Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati, and also the other worshipable personalities who keep the faith of bhakti alive and help those who are sincere in their attempt to glorify God. The first obeisance went to the guru, who planted the seed of bhakti in the young poet. When Tulsidas first heard the story of Rama from his guru, he was still too young to really understand its import or take lessons from it that would change his behavior. Nevertheless, if that hearing had not taken place, there would have been no impetus to continue ahead in learning about divine love, the topmost engagement for the spirit soul. Without first planting the seed, we cannot get the wonderful tree that produces bountiful fruits. It’s easy to get caught up in the gloriousness of the finished product and thereby forget who planted the initial seed that secured the maturation needed for the final outcome.
The saints never forget, for they are eternally indebted to their spiritual master and the devotees who helped them along the way. Since there were so many reference tools available to him, Tulsidas could have easily just done a “copy and paste” from several different scriptures and converted the words into the colloquial language he used for his songs. Following this tact would not have been harmful at all, for if the source information is perfect, then in whatever medium it is passed on through, the value of the original information will remain intact.
In the end of the invocation, which is referenced above, we see that Tulsidas bows down to his guru and the revered personalities of the Vedic tradition, praying that they are pleased with him, as he begins to sing about the marriage of Sita and Rama as he has understood it. This option is more preferable because when the disciple tells a story in his own words, in the way that he has heard the information and processed it, the output can be considered an extension of the original guru’s work. As an example, if I have a company that does building construction and I build many houses and office spaces, I get credit for the work I performed during my time on earth. Once I pass on, however, my work stops. Yet, if I can teach others the art of building and how to go about successfully constructing many such edifices during their lifetimes, whatever they build after my departure from this earth goes to my credit as well. The disciples in this case are essentially extensions of the original teacher.
In bhakti, the influence of the teacher is further expanded when the disciple produces many works. If the work comes out successful, the disciple proves that what his teacher taught him wasn’t just dry words that were meant to be memorized. Bhakti is divine love, which can be outputted in many different ways. There is no one way to love God, though the seed of devotion is first planted through the hearing process and then best cultivated through the chanting of the holy names, such as those found in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Hearing and chanting are the beginning, as through steady connection in consciousness with God, the individual becomes enveloped in transcendental ecstasy which then guides their behavior. Loving God can then flow through different outlets, such as writing, singing, viewing pictures, talking with others, travelling to distant places of spiritual relevance, and instructing others on the baseline principles of a life devoted to transcendentalism following divine love.
By singing about the glories of Sita and Rama, Tulsidas showed that his mind was immersed in bhakti, that he was looking for more ways to glorify the person he learned about from his guru. Information of the divine passed on to the sincere student is meant to affect behavior. If the guru passed on knowledge that was only absorbed and then not acted upon, what would their efforts really do for anyone? I could just sit and listen to any subject matter then and not gain any benefit. I could even sit there and not pay attention at all, and the effect would be the same. The guru is supremely pleased by seeing that the information he has taught has really sunk in to his students, that they have found happiness through directing their behavior towards the divine path instead of the repetitive and miserable material path. If the student wasn’t looking for a change in behavior, he never would have given aural reception to the guru’s teachings. Therefore the change in behavior is almost compulsory, as it indicates that the bhakti spirit has taken over a person residing in a realm where the materialistic spirit is predominant. The guru proves to be an ocean of mercy that constantly replenishes the soul thirsty for the transcendental nectar that is God’s association.
Religion in the vernacular sense can be taken to be a matter of faith, a rubberstamp system where you go through a few perfunctory rituals and regulations to remain in good standing with the powers that be. In more recent times, just inheriting your faith from your parents is good enough. The regulations are taken as secondary in importance, especially since material amenities are procured through personal effort rather than prayer. If I can get comfortably situated without ever attending church or praying to God, what need do I have for religion?
By writing about the subject matter as they have understood it, the bhaktas reveal the dynamic nature of real religion, which is known as sanatana-dharma in the Vedic tradition. These two terms are not sectarian, as they can be scientifically explained. Something based on science is much easier to accept than matters of faith. Sanatana means that which has no beginning and no end. Dharma means an essential characteristic, which can then be awakened and maintained through a specific set of actions. The real meaning of religion is to maintain the soul’s essential characteristic of being a lover of God. Since this feature is awakened and maintained through specific activities, dharma becomes the set of guiding principles aimed at keeping one connected with God; hence the correlation between dharma and religion. As both the soul and its primary characteristic, or dharma, are eternal, real religion continues forever [sanatana].
Sanatana-dharma is nice in theory, but the behavior of the bhaktas who have sincerely heard from their spiritual master and fully absorbed the information lends credence to the concept. Describing God as you have understood Him allows for countless opportunities for the practice of dharma to continue. As love is more than just a profession of faith or allegiance, devotional practices maintain the characteristic of lover of God within the individual. The beautiful song composed by Tulsidas showed that the teaching efforts of his guru were fruitful, and that the divine personalities beseeched were benevolent to the poet. The saints operate to please the Supreme Lord after all, and if God sees that someone is desirous of describing His glories simply based on the motive of remaining connected with Him, how can that person ever fail? Mistakes are only made by those who are conditioned, looking for perfection over the forces of matter. As Shri Rama is above both the material and spiritual energies, He can ensure that His devotees never fail in their devotional efforts. The prolific writing of the praiseworthy saints is but just one example of this truth.
The principles of bhakti on how to live,
Do the merciful gurus to us give.
From that sublime and glorious wisdom,
Comes knowledge of how to reach God’s kingdom.
Those who write from the principles they know,
Cause the guru’s glories and fame to infinitely grow.
An example is Janaki Mangala, which Tulsidas did write,
Brings the marriage of Sita and Rama to anyone’s sight.
Story already told many times before,
In Puranas and Ramayana’s verses galore.
Poet sung the song in his own way,
To show that guru’s words in his mind did stay.
When the Lord of creatures is to the heart pleased,
Success of devotee’s efforts is always guaranteed.
The glories of guru extend through disciple’s words,
Which heal the troubled souls travelling the three worlds.
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