“There are many faults associated with ending my life, and if I remain alive I can find all-auspiciousness. Therefore, I will keep my life-breath, for by living success is assured.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 13.47)
vināśe bahavo doṣā jīvan prāpnoti bhadrakam ||
tasmāt prāṇān dhariṣyāmi dhruvo jīvati samgamaḥ |
In distress the bewildered man calls out to death personified, who he knows lives just inside of him, ready to come out at any moment. Addressing “death”, the man wonders if death can hear him calling. “Can you hear me? Won’t you come and take me away? I have suffered enough. I’ve done all I can to try to find success in life, but it’s of no use anymore. I know that you’re lurking around the corner, so just arrive here, right now, and end my suffering.” On the flip side, when times are good, when there is attachment to the life one has grown accustomed to since the time of birth, the plea is to have just a few more years. “Won’t you let me stay? Why do you have to take me away at this very moment?” Enjoyment and renunciation toggle back and forth, but through following a specific course of behavior, the mind can be properly situated and realize the reason for existence.
Why worry about either extreme? If death lives inside of us and is going to arrive, why worry about it? It’s like trying to control the temperature outside and stop the seasons from coming, both of which can never happen. In its struggles through life, the human being constantly accepts and rejects, like a swinging pendulum that operates on a fixed schedule. First there is the acceptance of the body, which takes place within the womb of the mother. Entry into the new, strange world brings the acceptance of parents and familial relationships.
The discovery process follows, wherein objects of the senses are noted and made use of. Yet at a young age, small children start to reject things, as they are given new toys which they don’t play with much. The tendency is for relatives and friends to buy toys for newborns, but the parents aren’t particularly fond of this. Seeing their child every day, they know that the interest in a new toy doesn’t last very long. The child may delight in the gift for one or two days, but after a while their interest will wane, leading them to discard the toy in favor of a new one.
The same acceptance and rejection occurs on a larger scale as the human being matures into adulthood. What throws a wrench into the mix is the knowledge of impending death. At some point in their life, the sober adult human being realizes their mortality. Seeing that their ancestors have passed on, they realize that at some point in the future, maybe even a long time from the present, they will be forced to renounce everything.
The constant struggles through acceptance and rejection, the hard work that goes into maintaining the body, and the pressures to repeatedly follow prescribed duties can become too much to take after a while. Especially when there is failure, the distressed worker may wonder what the purpose is to their existence. “Why do I constantly have to work? I’ve done enough in my life. Can’t I just live in peace? If I’m going to keep failing, I might as well renounce my body and thus remove the source of distress.”
On the flip side you have attachment to enjoyment. Eat, drink and be merry every single day and don’t worry about the future implications. Obviously there are consequences to every action, but not bearing the burden of the potential impact on future conditions can give some peace of mind. Nevertheless, irrespective of one’s viewpoint death arrives eventually. Therefore the need to find the proper engagement should always be the primary aim.
Can we say definitively that one set of activities is superior? Whether one wants to die or remain alive, what is the difference if the outcome will be the same? Existence is there for a reason. There is a purpose to our growth cycles, our repeated struggles through life. One way to realize this fact is to study every single behavior we’ve ever shown and try to decipher the root cause. “Okay, so I did this during my youth. Then later on I did that. Now, as an adult I regularly do this. What was I thinking when I first started out in each of these ventures?”
This sort of scientific analysis can be very tedious, as outside help will also be required. Sometimes we may forget why we took a certain action. Input from our friends and family can help, as they may remember what we told them prior to our involvement in a particular endeavor. Enthusiasm is shared with friends and family, so in this sense it turns out to be beneficial. They may remember certain things that we have totally forgotten about now.
Another route to figuring out information about the root cause is to accept it from authority. This is how we acquire many of the key pieces of information in life already. Indeed, we know that death will occur based on authority. We know from the authority of our sense perceptions and the past recorded sense perceptions passed on to us that everyone who has ever lived eventually died. We don’t know about death ourselves, for we have no memory of ever dying. We take it as a fact based on the words given to us by others and the visible results we see with our eyes. Noting down the outcomes, we see that as human beings, we are similar in makeup to the people who have died. Thus if they had to suffer death, the same fate will surely await us.
This method of knowledge gathering can also be used to figure out the reason for our existence. Take someone else’s experience, note down their thoughts, and then see if we are similar to them. If we can apply the same principles to our own lives, then we can learn the meaning of life directly from their experiences. This is much easier than trying to study every action that we have ever performed. That being said, where do we go to get this information? How do we decide who is worthy of acting as an authority figure, someone we can learn from?
Let’s take one example and see if it can apply to us. Many thousands of years ago, a royal kingdom was buzzing over a contest about to take place. The ruler of this kingdom had a beautiful daughter whose family ancestry was not known. Technically this girl was the king’s adopted daughter, as he had found her one day while ploughing a field. He could have left the baby girl in the ground or given her to someone else to raise, but immediately upon holding her in his arms, he knew that she was his daughter. Lest we think that this king was attached to family life or to his senses, he was actually famous around the world for being a great transcendentalist, one who had limited the influence of the senses.
What do we mean by the senses and their influence? Just imagine going through every day being perpetually hungry. Imagine always craving sex life, at every second. Imagine being unable to live for even a few hours without getting drunk. Imagine being so mentally distressed that you had to gamble on every game that was being played. These conditions are all the result of the influence of the senses, which, when left uncontrolled, can carry away the good mind of the sober person.
In the Bhagavad-gita, one of the most famous scriptural works in history, it is said that a yogi is one who neither sleeps too much nor too little. He also doesn’t overindulge in eating, nor does he starve himself. In one sense, every person is taught the principles of yoga to some degree or another. Even if they are not taught them, they figure out some of the key principles on their own eventually. For instance, driving drunk is considered very dangerous behavior. The biggest alcoholic knows that it’s not a good idea to drink too heavily if they have to drive. Inebriation is merely an effect imposed by the senses; hence one who avoids getting overly intoxicated is following some sort of regulation.
Similarly, we know that if we don’t sleep enough the night before, we will be tired throughout the day. The same applies for eating too much or too little. If we don’t eat enough, the senses will attack us with hunger throughout the day. If we eat too much, we’ll have indigestion, lethargy, and overall weight gain. The senses are what drive us towards these different behavioral extremes, so by learning to control the senses, we can reach a favorable position.
The king in question was known as Videha, which means one who is outside of their body. Through the practice of yoga, the spirit soul, the essence of identity, becomes aloof to the senses. Instead of following the immediate demands for eating, sleeping, mating and defending, the yogi can control his behavior and remain fixed in calmness, peace, tranquility, and sobriety. The soul is not attached to the senses, so no amount of sense indulgence can bring true happiness. Yoga is practiced to limit the influence of the harmful effects of material existence, i.e. to remove distresses.
Though this king was an expert yogi who didn’t get too happy or too sad, he was warmed to the heart when he picked up this little girl. He immediately harbored affection for her, as he wiped the dust off of her body. Being childless, the king immediately desired to take the girl in as his daughter. As if the higher authorities knew what he was thinking, a voice from the sky appeared on the scene to let the king know that the girl he found was indeed his daughter in all righteousness, or dharma. In that particular time period, which was a long time ago, adherence to the principles of religion, or occupational duty, was the guiding force in life for the pious kings. This particular ruler was often described as dharma-atma, or righteous souled.
“Since he was childless, and due to affection for me, he placed me on his lap and said, ‘This is my child.’ Thus he developed feelings of love and affection for me.” (Sita Devi speaking to Anasuya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.30)
When the girl was brought back to his kingdom, the king and his wife raised her as their own daughter. When the time came for her marriage, however, the king was caught in a bind. On the one hand, as a soul devoted to dharma, the king had to get his daughter married; otherwise he would invite scorn from friends and family. For a king famous throughout the world for his mastery of yoga and adherence to religious principles, scorn based on deviations from righteous behavior is the worst kind of punishment. This ridicule would be rooted in his attachment to his daughter, which would stain his reputation.
On the other hand, the king didn’t know who the girl’s biological parents were. In those times the marriages were all arranged, as dharma called for women to be protected by men. The father would have loved to protect his daughter throughout her life, but there was the age difference. The king would likely pass on before the daughter, so who would take care of her in old age? Therefore marriage was necessary, with the father always looking to find an appropriate match in a groom. The boy’s qualities should be compatible with the girl’s, and he should come from a nice family.
Not being able to do an appropriate comparison of the astrological signs at the time of birth, the king settled upon a compromise. Previously he had been handed down a famous bow that was practically impossible to lift. He decided that he would hold a self-choice ceremony, where his daughter’s hand in marriage would be given to whoever could lift the bow. From her personal qualities, the daughter was worthy of the most chivalrous husband, so what better way to find the worthiest prince than to have them lift the famous bow?
As the news of the contest went out, seemingly all the royal kingdoms from around the world arrived to take their stab at becoming aligned with this famous king and his family. Like an assembly line, one by one valiant princes came and tried their hand at lifting the bow. Yet each of them went away dejected, as they couldn’t even move the bow. Just as one prince left a failure, another would immediately come in to fill his place in the rangabhumi, or arena. Yet he too would fail.
Then a famous sage and two handsome youths arrived on the scene. One boy was dark in complexion and the other was fair. The women of the town had gathered on that day to see the bow-lifting contest, as they too were very attached to the king’s daughter, wanting her to get married to the most suitable husband. Seeing these two youths, the women couldn’t help but be enamored. They remarked to one another, “Seeing these two young men our entire bodies are filled with bliss. Indeed, the fruit of our existence has arrived today upon seeing these two.”
The older youth, who was dark in complexion, would try to lift the bow. The younger brother was not a candidate for marrying the princess, because if the elder one were unsuccessful in lifting the bow, he would never even make an attempt. The younger seemed so devoted to the elder that he would never show up his brother. Thus the townspeople desperately hoped to have the darker one win the contest. He gave them so much delight just by His vision. If He would win the contest, then both brothers would join the family.
These two youths were Rama and Lakshmana, sons of the famous king of Ayodhya, Maharaja Dasharatha. They were travelling through the forests with the venerable Vishvamitra Muni, a sage whose sacrifices were being disturbed by the miscreant element of society. Upon the request of the king holding the ceremony, the trio was invited to come and observe the festivities.
The host king was Maharaja Janaka of Mithila and his daughter in whose honor the ceremony was being held was Sita Devi. Thus the women captivated by the sight of Rama and Lakshmana wanted Sita to be married to Rama. Some even began to worry that their preferred outcome wouldn’t happen. They wanted Rama to marry Sita so badly that they began to privately curse the king for having made his promise. “What if someone else comes and lifts the bow? What if, just like the rest of the princes, Rama can’t move the famous bow?”
From the remarks of the women, we see that they knew that the reason for living, the fruit of their existence, was revealed on that day from the vision of Rama and Lakshmana. They were on to something, as they weren’t exaggerating in their comments. From the ancient texts of India, the Vedas, we learn that Rama and Lakshmana are divine personalities. Lord Rama is an incarnation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, or the person most of us refer to as God. Lakshmana is His dear friend, His eternal associate in the spiritual sky. Thus just by having a strong affection for the vision of Rama and Lakshmana, not holding any envy towards them and basically loving them without motive, the observing women realized the reason for their existence. Because of their pure motives, and also because of Sita’s divine nature, Rama would indeed lift the bow and win the hand of Janaka’s daughter in marriage.
We can take it on the authority of the women in Mithila what our reason for existence is. But the mind tends to doubt, and it also forgets things very quickly. Therefore, for further substantiation, we can look to the above referenced sentiment from Shri Hanuman. After Sita and Rama would be married in a grand ceremony, they would spend much time together, eventually roaming the forests of India. During that time Sita would be taken away from Rama’s side by the king of Lanka named Ravana. The king did this by temporarily luring Rama and Lakshmana away from Sita’s side. In His subsequent search for His wife, Rama formed an alliance with a band of forest dwellers in Kishkindha.
Their lead warrior was Hanuman, who later found himself all alone in Lanka, looking for Sita. Just like the women in Mithila, Hanuman fell in love with Rama and Lakshmana from meeting them the first time. This tells us that Hanuman is no ordinary person, for a spontaneous transcendental attraction towards God is very difficult to acquire upon first glance. The real purpose of yoga is to limit the influence of the senses to the point that the mind can relish the transcendental topics describing the Supreme Lord, His various incarnations, and their activities. God is a singular entity, but according to time and circumstance, He manifests Himself differently. In this particular time, God took the spiritual form of a warrior prince. In the Shrimad Bhagavatam, the crown jewel of Vedic literature, it is said that the incarnations of the Supreme Lord never actually assume or reject forms. They simply appear on the scene when the time is right. The conditioned souls don’t know what formless actually means, thus they describe the incarnations according to their visual appearances.
Though Hanuman had never met Sita, he knew that since she was married to Rama she was someone special. Therefore Hanuman tried his hardest to find her, searching practically every inch of space in Lanka. Yet he was unsuccessful. This is when doubt started to creep into his mind. What if he never found her? How could he live with himself if he returned to Kishkindha and gave everyone the heartbreaking news? In his mind, Hanuman decided that news of his failure would bring the destruction of everyone back home, of all of his friends and family. Hence he settled upon just resigning his body. He was essentially choosing the “death, take me now”, option.
Previously he had been eager to act, as he had leaped across the ocean and bravely entered enemy territory without being noticed. Normally the renunciation attitude comes after the attachment leads to unhappiness. This wasn’t the case with Hanuman, though. He enjoyed working in devotion to please Rama. He contemplated suicide because he felt like a failure in serving Rama. In this way his actions in Lanka were not part of fruitive activity at all. Just as Janaka was a true yogi even when he had an attachment to Sita, Hanuman was always in yoga even while contemplating quitting his body over failing to find Sita.
Just like Janaka, Hanuman’s transcendental affection would lead him in the proper direction. In the above referenced verse from the Ramayana, we see that Hanuman changed course by properly considering the matter over. He tells himself that quitting at this point in time would bring so many negative consequences, while remaining alive would at least keep some hope for seeing a positive future outcome. He’s basically deciding between life and death, the reason for continuing on. If he quit, if he demanded death to come, the chances of Sita being rescued would go away. Moreover, the people back home possibly would never find out what had happened to him. Hanuman was blessed in his youth with the ability to choose the time of his death, so special was his character. Therefore if he wanted to die, he simply had to summon death and he would be taken away.
On the other hand, if he remained alive, there was a chance at success. That victory would bring pleasure to both Sita and Rama, as well as to all the forest dwellers, his extended family, back home in Kishkindha. Thus we see that the purpose to one’s existence is not to satisfy the senses, but rather to feel bliss through service. This happiness is of the transcendental variety; hence it never fizzles out. It is so wonderful that it keeps the soul within the body fully craving transcendental association. The women in Mithila realized the fruit of their existence, and Hanuman showed that that fruit is worth tasting. When he had the vital force still within his body, while he still had the chance to see Rama’s smiling face, Hanuman desired to maintain his life and continue fighting on in devotion.
That same vision of the Supreme Lord in constant happiness can be seen by one who regularly practices bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Devotion can manifest in any type of activity; it can come from seeing the Lord as a youth about to lift a bow and also by looking for His wife in enemy territory. Should these rare opportunities not be available to us, we can always hold on to the holy names, the sound vibration representations of the Supreme Lord. The two best names for God are “Krishna” and “Rama” and they are nicely sequenced together in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. As long as we have the ability to recite this sacred formula, our life is worth living. Death will come regardless, but while we have the chance to stay in our body, we should taste the wonderful fruit of our existence by feeling the bliss that comes from associating with God. This was the path taken by Hanuman, and for his dedication he was rewarded with success. He would go on to find Sita and help Rama in rescuing her. Just being able to hear about Hanuman is reward enough for having taken birth.
If enjoying life ask death to let me stay,
Otherwise welcome it, take me away.
But there is a purpose, reason to exist,
To find bliss pure consciousness must persist.
In Mithila women Rama and brother did see,
Gave so much pleasure, like wish-fulfilling tree.
Hanuman found pleasure in time of trouble,
Contemplated death, but effort instead redoubled.
Take steps now before death does arrive,
Chant holy names, pleasure to derive.
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