“When will Rama reach the end of this ocean of grief, likened to a man shipwrecked who is swimming at sea?” (Sita Devi speaking to Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 37.5)
śokasya asya kadā pāram rāghavo adhigamiṣyati |
plavamānaḥ pariśrānto hata nauḥ sāgare yathā ||
It is said that Bhagavan is impossible to define. Indeed, that word is a negation. Think of the things that are possible. With your feature-set in mind, now go one by one and negate them. It is possible to die. It is possible to take birth. It is possible to have a beginning. It is possible to be fallible. It is possible to measure the attributes of an object or living thing.
In each case Bhagavan is the negation. Though He cannot be fully defined, this exercise provides a better way to understand Him. There is a need to understand Him since the human being is looking for perfection. They want a way out of trouble and misery.
The comparison is made to swimming in an ocean. Imagine being stranded, with nowhere to go. There is no rescue in sight. The boat is gone. So is the expert guide. What to do? Where to turn? This is what living in the material world is like. The ocean of birth and death. Happiness and sadness mixed in between. Corresponding pairs of dualities everywhere.
Just when you think everything is going your way, events turn in the other direction. Sometimes there doesn’t have to be a visible outside factor as the cause. For instance, everything is going well. Spouse, family, job – no problems. There is misery, nonetheless, because of the need to maintain. Where to live? How to keep family and friends around, while also seeking the best future life for the children? Stay in the same place or move somewhere else? Whatever decision is made carries some negative consequences, which are unwanted.
In the above referenced verse from the Ramayana, Sita Devi provides another way to define God. The definition is through a question. While mostly rhetorical in nature, the situation is too familiar. She remarks that her husband Rama is in an ocean of grief, shoka, and will have a difficult time reaching the end. To get out of the ocean will not be easy, since He is like a man whose ship has capsized. He has to swim in this vast ocean, and what human being is capable of going it alone, of rescuing themselves when faced with such daunting odds?
The answer is the Supreme Lord. He is capable of reversing any negative situation, no matter how dire it may seem. He creates those situations to begin with. There are many mitigating factors, but since He is extraordinary the deeds are recorded for future generations to consult. That is to say the Ramayana is not only for people living in ancient times. That sacred work has as much relevance today as it did thousands of years ago, when people better understood the Sanskrit language.
The grief is caused by the separation from Sita, who is actually the goddess of fortune appearing on earth in an incarnation form. The sunken boat is from Sita being far away from Rama, on the island of Lanka, held there against her will. She is guarded by powerful, man-eating ogres, led by the leader Ravana. The ocean in terms of grief is vast, and so is the ocean separating in the literal sense, as Lanka is an island.
Yet Shri Hanuman has given the first glimpse into the impossible. He crossed that vast ocean with a single leap, aided by the favorable winds of devotional service. Sita’s grief is also soon to end, as Rama will march to Lanka and return her to safety.
In the same way, the many conditioned souls swimming in the ocean of birth and death get help in the nearly impossible task of finding liberation. Through bhakti followed under the guidance of a spiritual master they see Sita and Rama close by in the heart, and they know that through consciousness of them, in the mood of Shri Hanuman, there is every chance of success. They proceed forward on the vessel that is the holy name: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
On sacred vessel riding,
Holy names providing.
For ocean of rebirth to cross,
Transcending gain and loss.
Following example of Hanuman,
Who fearlessly serving Bhagavan.
In separation Rama suffering grief,
Soon to meet wife, to find relief.