“The men and women of the city are staring at the lamp of Raghu’s family with love, while they give a bad look to the king of Videha.” (Janaki Mangala, 65)
Friend1: If you collectively study Shri Rama’s lila, His pastimes, which incident do you think is the most famous?
Friend2: That’s like asking which of your kids do you love the most.
Friend1: I’m not asking about preference. This is not personal opinion, but rather popularity. Think of it like asking someone who they think is going to win the election versus who they are voting for.
Friend2: Oh, I see. Still a tough question, but I’d have to go with Rama’s breaking of the bow.
Friend1: At Janaka’s contest. To win the hand of Sita Devi in marriage.
Friend2: Yes. It was an amazing accomplishment. It literally could not be matched by anyone, even those who were supposedly feared throughout the world for their strength. Consider this. The king of Lanka at the time had twenty arms. Taking each one of them together still wouldn’t have moved the bow, let alone lift it and apply string to it.
Friend1: And Janaka decided upon the contest because his daughter was special.
Friend2: Yes. He found her in the field one day, while preparing it for a yajna [sacrifice]. He immediately developed affection, and a voice from the sky confirmed that this was his daughter in all dharma [righteousness].
Friend1: Why the contest, though? He wasn’t confident in being able to find a suitable match?
Friend2: Well, the bow was in the family for a long time, passed on through the generations. It originally belonged to Lord Shiva. The story goes that as a child Sita once moved the bow without effort. Amazed by this, Janaka decided that her husband should be a person who could also move the bow.
Friend1: I’ve heard that, too. But I don’t remember seeing it in the Ramayana or Ramacharitamanasa.
Friend2: I think that story is found in another telling of Rama’s life. There are several books out there that go by the Ramayana name in informal conversation.
Friend1: I see. Okay, so let’s discuss the contest itself. Princes from around the world arrived.
Friend2: Yes, and Rama was only there by chance. The Supreme Lord knows how to create the perfect setting. He not only lifted the bow without effort, but there was a lack of investment, as well. It is not like He arrived in Tirahuta specifically for the contest.
Friend1: Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana were like bodyguards to the venerable Vishvamitra Muni.
Friend2: He brought the two brothers there. Rama made the attempt at Vishvamitra’s urging, and this only after everyone else had failed to even move the bow.
Friend1: Okay, so that is where I see a slight problem. It sounds like this contest was first-come, first-serve.
Friend1: Like sudden-death overtime in hockey. First team to score wins. In this case, the first prince to lift the bow gets to marry Sita.
Friend1: For starters, it doesn’t seem like a fair contest. If the first person lifts the bow and wins, no one else even got to try.
Friend2: You could say overtime in the NFL is similar. A team wins the coin toss, marches down the field, and scores a touchdown on their first possession. Game over. The other team never got to touch the ball. In fact, this just happened in the biggest game of the year, the Super Bowl.
Friend1: Okay, I’m glad you mentioned that. Football is a product of the material world, a game invented and managed by flawed people. King Janaka is one of the twelve mahajanas described in the Shrimad Bhagavatam.
Friend2: That means he is a great devotee of God. A devotee doesn’t do everything perfectly or fairly or to everyone’s satisfaction. There is duality in the material world, after all. What is fair to one person is unfair to another. The mahajanas are always in the good graces of the Supreme Lord, which is more important.
Friend1: I came at you with the fairness angle, but there is the risk aspect, as well. What if a bad character stepped up to the bow and lifted it before someone of good character could make an attempt?
Friend2: Listen, you’ll be happy to know that the people of the town had similar concerns while the contest was unfolding. Their primary worry was that Rama would make the attempt and fail, thereby immediately disqualifying Him. Once they saw Rama, they knew that He was perfect for Sita. Some people worried that Janaka had screwed up royally, no pun intended.
Friend1: I’m with them [smiling].
Friend2: Their concern is another kind of interaction available in devotional service. It is one of many tastes in bhakti-rasa. When interacting with God, it is not that you simply admire from afar, too afraid to say or do anything. There can be moments of intense worry, such as when the cowherd women thought that Shri Krishna’s arm would get tired holding up the massive Govardhana Hill for so long. In Janaka’s case there was confidence that destiny would sort everything out. By holding a contest, the proper match for Sita would arrive, which He did.
In youth by her moved,
Something special to her proved.
So father the bow contest to make,
Winner the first into air to take.
Not a risk by that decree,
Such as bad husband to see?
Some in crowd with that worry involved,
By prince from Ayodhya resolved.