“Being thus informed, the grandson of King Vena immediately began to follow Indra, who was fleeing through the sky in great haste. He was very angry with him, and he chased him just as the king of the vultures chased Ravana.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.19.16)
एवं वैन्य-सुतः प्रोक्तस्
रावणं गृध्र-राड् इव
evaṁ vainya-sutaḥ proktas
rāvaṇaṁ gṛdhra-rāḍ iva
“I am familiar with the Ramayana poem mainly through paintings. I understand that you hold it dear as a sacred text, scripture, but there is also crossover into the realm of culture. Those who are not yet ready to accept the idea of a descending personal God extract symbolic significance or mundane lessons from that great story.
“There is the one image of a bird lying on the ground. It is being held up by Rama, who is also there with Lakshmana. What is the significance? I know it is part of the story somehow, but why would that scene be immortalized in a painting?”
1. Mercy extending beyond the human species
Just as the name Narayana references the truth of God being the source of men, so the word Ramayana is rooted in the main character, Shri Rama. The human tendency is to glorify. Speak well of someone else. Put down others for the purpose of juxtaposition.
“This person isn’t as great in comparison to the one I am praising.”
The perfect object of worship is Bhagavan, and so those engaged in that service often record their realizations. They sometimes witness events directly and then pass on the eyewitness testimony in the form of beautiful poetry. The Sanskrit verses strung together can be sung in different melodies, which facilitates remembrance.
The bird lying on the ground is Jatayu. Rama is the avatara of God appearing in the Treta Yuga, which is the second age of creation when studied in the broader scope. The meeting is significant since it shows that the mercy of the Divine extends beyond the human species.
Though a bird cannot offer worship, though it cannot study Vedic literature, though it is not under the laws of karma, which have accompanying pious and sinful deeds, the connection to Shri Rama is always there.
Here Jatayu has been mortally wounded while in the process of protecting Rama’s wife, Sita Devi. As a reward, Jatayu gets to see God face to face at the time of death. The moment of quitting is inevitable for every person. Rather than focus on the temporary, on what will happen to my estate moving forward, on how my friends and family will carry on, it is better to contemplate the one person who is always beyond birth and death, who can take me back to the original home, the spiritual world.
2. Auspiciousness even in defeat
You rush in to combat a blazing fire. You try to rescue the people inside. You don’t succeed. The immediate negative consequence is the loss of life. The secondary effect is devaluation of your reputation in the field. Though you tried your best, success is what people count on.
With service to the Divine, even failure can be auspicious. Jatayu did not succeed in protecting Sita. The evil Rakshasa named Ravana succeeded in flying his aerial car back to Lanka, taking Rama’s wife with him. Jatayu not only lost the battle, but the wounds suffered in combat were fatal.
Upon further study of the outcome, we see that there was nothing lost. Jatayu gained the vision of Rama’s moonlike face at the time of death. He is still remembered and honored to this day. He is one of the great heroes to appear on this earth, and he is not even of the human species.
3. God will find you
A common question posed to spiritual leaders relates to seeing God. Sometimes it is a challenge.
“Show Him to me. Then I will believe. Prove it; otherwise all you have is faith.”
His Divine Grace Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura responds by turning the tables. Instead of trying so hard to see God, work in such a way that He will see you. Jatayu is the ideal example in this regard. He simply did what was right. The daughter-in-law of his good friend, King Dasharatha, was in trouble. Jatayu tried his best.
The reward was seeing Bhagavan face-to-face. Some may say that this meeting occurred too late, that it would have been better to spend more time in that association, when there was vitality within. Just a moment’s association is enough. Rama is Absolute, and so His presence can carry forward through time. He is even present through sound: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Even if not visibly around,
Presence carried through sound.
Or for a moment only to meet,
Like with Jatayu after defeat.
To depart at that time and place,
Gazing upon moonlike face.
So that mercy to everyone extended,
Even a vulture who dharma defended.
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