“He had the best of qualities among saintly kings. In austerities he was equal to the great sages. Born in a family of great rulers, he was equal in strength to Indra.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 31.3)
राजर्षीणां गुणश्रेष्ठस्तपसा चर्षिभि स्समः।
चक्रवर्तिकुले जातः पुरन्दरसमो बले।।
rājarṣīṇāṃ guṇaśreṣṭhastapasā carṣibhi ssamaḥ।
cakravartikule jātaḥ purandarasamo bale।।
For those living within Vedic culture or something with a link to the original tradition, there is a general familiarity with the Ramayana. This is the Sanskrit work of epic length composed by Maharishi Valmiki. In more recent times, a version of that work composed in a Hindi dialect has become so revered that it is often also referred to as the Ramayana.
The versions may be slightly different, but the subject matter is the same. These are glorifications of Shri Rama, who is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He is God appearing in the human form. Of course, there is a contradiction to that label. God can never be mortal. He can never be subject to ordinary birth and death. His activities are always divyam, or transcendental.
जन्म कर्म च मे दिव्यम्
एवं यो वेत्ति तत्त्वतः
त्यक्त्वा देहं पुनर् जन्म
नैति माम् एति सो ऽर्जुन
janma karma ca me divyam
evaṁ yo vetti tattvataḥ
tyaktvā dehaṁ punar janma
naiti mām eti so ‘rjuna
“One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.9)
Rama is the Supreme Lord descending from a higher place. That is the reason for the term “avatara.” God does not assume a human form; He merely gives the appearance as such. The activities are then exemplary. The standard is set for other pious men to follow. There is both explicit instruction and guidance through difficulties endured and tough decisions made.
Those closely associated with Rama are like beautiful ornaments to His wonderful life sketch. If Vishnu is going to appear on earth, He will not choose participants at random. For instance, the parents must be of a certain stature. If not in the social sense, but then at least based on qualities they are exceptional.
We see that this is definitely the case with Maharaja Dasharatha. He is the king of Ayodhya at the scene of Rama’s appearance. His qualities are extraordinary, and from Shri Hanuman we get a wonderful summary version through comparisons to well-known points of reference.
1. The best qualities among saintly kings
The Sanskrit word for a saintly king is rajarshi. This is a raja who is also like a rishi. In the sense of external activity, of status in society, of direction of interest, the two are opposite. The king is firmly entrenched in material life. They think along distinct lines, such as friend and enemy, ally and foe, victory and defeat, and so forth.
The rishi is a saintly person, which means they try not to see distinctions. They understand that spirit soul is what defines an individual. The presence of that soul is not limited to the human species. Animals have soul. It would be more accurate to say that animals are spirit soul. The same applies to plant life. From the tiny ant to the revered creator, Lord Brahma, spirit soul is the basis for identity.
A saintly king essentially combines the two outlooks. They pay attention to royal affairs, to what is happening day-to-day, but they maintain a link to spiritual life. Hanuman says that Dasharatha had the best qualities among saintly kings. In other words, the leader of Ayodhya was the best of the best.
2. In austerities equal to sages
The word rishi is used again in this context. In tapasya, Dasharatha was equal to the rishis. We might consider this to be contradictory. How can someone enjoy as a king and be renounced at the same time? How can someone voluntarily impose austerity and penance when they are the leader of an important area?
They don’t have to listen to anyone. They are not compelled one way or another. They make the rules. They administer the law. Is not the king above punishing himself? Why would he put up with less when excess surrounds him?
In this way, we see that tapasya is for a higher purpose. Rishis are known for tapasya because it helps in attaining their goal of self-realization. For a king to be on the same level is remarkable. He deserves just as much respect as the saintly person who is formally detached from the world.
3. Equal in strength to Indra
We have a saintly king who is equal in tapasya to the rishis. That is fine. It makes sense that someone would choose that direction in life, being tied to dharma and everything. But how will people be protected? A rishi is not expected to defend against enemies. They actually have no enemies. The concept of ajata-shatravah applies to them.
Hanuman says that Dasharatha had strength equal to that of Indra. If I were to win the world’s strongest man competition, I might get puffed up. I might decide to assert my dominance over the rest of the world. After all, how will they fight back? What are they going to be able to say? I might take pleasure in watching them squirm.
Dasharatha combined his great strength with his saintly qualities. This rare combination of qualities found in a single person was unique, and so it is no surprise that Shri Rama appeared as that king’s first son. Rama was everything to Dasharatha, so much so that the saintly king kept that son in mind when departing for the next world.
When for next world leaving,
Highest benefit receiving.
Because son kept in mind,
King of best qualities to find.
With tapasya of rishi’s length,
Like king of heaven in strength.
Renounced but attention to duty paid,
In his house that Vishnu stayed.
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