In approaching a sage, Lord Rama displayed His characteristically strict adherence to principles of dharma.
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
A small incident during Lord Ramachandra’s stay in the forest vividly illuminates a big truth about God’s loving and loveable nature.
While living in the forest during His exile, Lord Ramachandra comes to the hermitage of the sage Sutikshna. He offers His respects to the sage and is respectfully welcomed. Then Sutikshna takes Rama to meet Agastya, Sutikshna’s guru.
This incident might seem simple – a prince comes to a sage and is taken to that sage’s guru. What makes this incident special, however, is the identity of the prince: He is God descended to earth in human form, playing the role of a prince. Seen in this light, this incident involves a disciple’s taking God to his guru. Thus the incident features the opposite of the normal spiritual trajectory, wherein the guru takes the disciple to God. And this incident is just one instance of the many intriguing inversions of hierarchy in the Ramayana and in the bhakti tradition at large.
When Rama reaches Agastya’s hermitage, He immediately offers His respects to that great sage. Agastya is a celebrated sage who appears frequently in dharmic literature, as does another well-known sage, Narada.
Agastya recognizes Rama’s divinity yet respects the human role Rama is playing. Accordingly, Agastya blesses Rama while knowing that it is he who is being blessed in getting the audience of Rama. He gives spiritual instruction to Rama while knowing that it is he who is being instructed in humility by Rama – he is being used by Rama to instruct humanity about the humility with which seekers should approach seers.
Rama’s respecting Agastya is another instance of hierarchy inversion: a sage who reveres God is revered by God.
The Divine Descent: Parallel Perspectives
When Rama descended to the world in a human form, there ensued a fascinating tension between His divinity and His apparent humanity. If we can appreciate both Rama’s divine identity and His human role, we can relish the epic at multiple levels.
If we see Rama only at the divine level, the epic loses its special sweetness. Rama as the omnipotent supreme can do whatever He wants, whenever He wants, however He wants – He can effortlessly overcome any problems that come His way. Yet the epic’s charm comes primarily from Rama’s dignity amidst adversity. He responds to reversals with composure and character, setting an inspiring example for all of us when we have to face life’s trials.
Yet if we see Rama’s activities only at the human level, the epic loses its special purificatory potency. Rama is the Supreme, as He periodically demonstrates by doing superhuman feats that far exceed those of any ordinary or even extraordinary human being. Because Rama is the all-pure Supreme, hearing about Him purifies us, even if we don’t understand the many nuances of His activities.
If we aspire to be ethically edified, we can see Rama as an ideal human being who humbly sticks to duty amidst adversity. If we aspire to be devotionally purified, we can see Rama as the Lord.
Some of Rama’s actions clearly establish His divinity. Some other actions of Rama’s illustrate how He is the paragon of virtue in human form. And many incidents in the epic are multivalent; they can be seen from different perspectives to mine various nuggets of insight.
One overall insight is that God bends low, playing the role of a humble human being, to rise high in the heads and hearts of those who contemplate and appreciate His activities. And this principle of God’s lowering Himself holds true not just during His descent into this world, but also in His eternal transcendental abode.
The Devotee-God Hierarchy Inversion
Bhakti texts stress that God, in His highest abode, doesn’t reign in majestic isolation above all others, demanding their servile supplication. Instead of delighting in the display of His Godhood, He delights in the reciprocation of love with those who choose to love Him purely.
When relating with His devotees, God takes on various roles just to facilitate multifarious exchanges of love, each with its own flavor. Thus Rama, despite being the father of all living beings, acts as a child of Dasharatha, who takes on the role of His father. Such relationships with the hierarchy inverted highlight one of God’s most endearing characteristics: His bhakta-vatsalya, His love for His devotees. He loves His devotees so much that to have loving exchanges with them He is even ready to subordinate Himself to them.
When God descends to the material world, this inversion of hierarchy is not just continued but also expanded with an extra extension of grace. Even those people who may not be purely devoted can get opportunities to have loving exchanges with Him, thereby gaining glimpses of His world of immortal love. Since a large number of people in this world come in this category, the Lord’s descent exemplifies how He descends low to raise all of us high.
How do the unqualified get opportunities to have loving exchanges with God? By assisting Him in His activities in this world.
When playing a human role, God demonstrates a vital aspect of a successful life: friendship, cooperation, teamwork. When life weighs down heavily on us, as it will sooner or later, we all need someone to lean on, someone to lessen our load, someone to relieve us of our burden. Rama demonstrates this principle by taking help of others in times of need.
And whom does Rama choose as His assistants? Monkeys. By choosing forest-dwelling creatures who are not usually known for their intelligence or diligence, He demonstrates the inclusiveness of His grace: it is broad enough to encompass everyone, even those conventionally considered lowborn.
Of course, some of the leading monkeys in Rama’s team – such as Hanuman and Sugriva – are evolved beings; they descend with Rama from higher levels of reality. But many other monkeys are just fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time and to thereby gain the audience and affection of Rama.
So grateful is Rama for the monkeys’ service to Him that He asks the gods to bless the monkeys. And significantly, Rama’s interaction with the gods illustrates another telling hierarchy invh3
>The Gods-God Hierarchy Inversion
The Ramayana occurs in the backdrop of a complex cosmos with multiple levels of existence. Pertinent to our discussion are three such levels: the terrestrial, the celestial, and the transcendental. The terrestrial level is where we humans exist, with all our tensions and passions and illusions. The celestial level is populated by cosmic administrators far more powerful than us humans. They can be referred to as gods, with a lower-case g and as plural. Among them, Indra is considered the head. At the transcendental level reigns the Supreme Being: God. He manifests in many forms, reciprocates immortal love with His pure devotees, and is celebrated by various names, such as Vishnu, Rama, and Krishna. A fourth level of existence is not directly relevant for this discussion. It is the subterranean, which exists below our terrestrial level and is the abode of demonic beings.
When Rama plays the role of a human being on earth, He has descended from a level in the cosmic hierarchy above the gods to a level below them, from the transcendental level to the terrestrial level. We humans, amid life’s inevitable challenges, often petition higher beings for help. When we have a holistic spiritual understanding, we worship the Supreme Being, God. When our understanding is more religious than spiritual, we worship various gods. For those of us in the latter category, Rama sets an example about what boons to seek from the gods: boons for others, not for oneself.
After the Ramayana’s climactic war, when Rama has finally felled Ravana, the gods appear in the sky to thank Him. Although He has blessed and protected them by neutralizing Ravana, they go along with His human role. Normally, when the gods appear before humans, they grant boons. Accordingly, they urge Rama to ask for some boon. In response, Rama plays the role of a conscientious human ruler to perfection; He requests the gods to bless His assistants, the monkeys, with abundant provisions wherever they may live. Because He is in exile, He doesn’t have any royal wealth to reward them for their gallant service in His war against Ravana. Still, He is conscious of His obligation to them, and resourcefully uses the gods’ boons to have them rewarded.
The Servitor-Master Hierarchy Inversion
While devotees always know that God is supreme and that they are His humble servants, God by His grace empowers them to do extraordinary things, things that He Himself may not do. When we bow to Him, He raises us far beyond our usual level of consciousness and abilities.
Thus, for example, Hanuman leaps across the ocean to reach Lanka – a stupendous feat that he attributes to Rama’s grace. And yet Rama Himself takes a more normal, human way to cross the ocean: He has a bridge built.
Some people think that devotion means eternally bowing down to a God who delights in our servility. Far from such a stereotype, the bhakti tradition reveals a God who delights in our abilities and adventures. Rama profusely appreciates, privately and publicly, Hanuman’s stupendous feats such as penetrating Lanka single-handedly to find Sita. God’s greatest joy is not in proclaiming His own glories, but in proclaiming the glories of those who proclaim His glories. Such is the wondrous dynamic of the devotee-God relationship.
This inversion of hierarchies involving God and His devotees is dynamic, as is seen in the Mahabharata war, where Krishna becomes Arjuna’s charioteer. Despite taking that humble position, akin to a chauffeur, Krishna remains supremely enlightened. When needed, He speaks the Gita’s enlightening wisdom to free Arjuna from confusion about duty. And though the Gita establishes Krishna as the supreme divinity, it also sets the stage for Arjuna, not Krishna, to be the main warrior in the ensuing Kurukshetra war; Krishna resumes the relatively low-profile role of a charioteer and counselor.
Can we too enter into such loving exchanges with God now when He is no longer manifest in this world? Yes, we can, by assisting in His mission, which continues even without His manifest presence.
During His descent in the world, the activities God performs are many. But all those activities, indeed His descents themselves, are driven by an overarching mission: to raise human consciousness from the material level to the spiritual level. Significantly, this mission doesn’t end when God’s descent to this world ends – it continues forever. And that mission provides opportunities for service to all people at all times. To aid in this mission, we need to take the responsibility to raise our own consciousness and help others raise theirs.
Even though God isn’t visibly manifest at present in the world, He is always present invisibly in our heart. If we compare our body to a chariot, Krishna is present within this body-chariot as the charioteer, guiding our wanderings in material existence (Gita 18.62). We just need to change the chain of command in our relationship with Him: instead of asking Him to execute our plans, we ask Him how we can execute His plan.
By that change, we all can gain the privilege of being parts of a divine plan far bigger than us and our plans. The divine plan acts around us, through us – and for us. When we become committed to doing His will, He empowers us to do that will by channeling our individuality, creativity, and ability. Our entry into His team begins with our determination to serve Him in a mood of surrender.
Inversion Within Devotion: Surrender Brings Adventure
For many people, surrender connotes defeat and domination – for example, when a frustrated military general faced with a far superior opponent raises the white flag of surrender. However, in the devotional context, surrender is entirely different: it is the willing and loving offering of oneself to one’s object of love. And such devotional surrender ushers us to a life of adventure, not indenture.
In the Gita (18.66) Lord Krishna asks Arjuna to surrender, and he agrees (18.73). And yet that surrender inspires Arjuna to raise his bow in readiness to fight the biggest war of his life (18.78). In that war, he repeatedly demonstrates peerless feats of archery expertise. Arjuna bends low in surrender and rises high in adventure.
In our spiritual journey, we need surrender to accept life’s ultimate purpose: elevation of consciousness. But executing this purpose opens the door to adventure. How we use the constellation of abilities, interests, passions, deficiencies, and limitations that we embody to make our contribution is up to us, up to our inspiration, our dedication, our resilience.
Thus devotion simultaneously upholds and upends hierarchies. Devotion upholds hierarchies, for we need to accept the hierarchy of being, wherein God exists at the apex and we exist as His eternal servitors. But devotion upends hierarchies too, for God enables us to do things that He Himself doesn’t do and that we ourselves couldn’t have done, given our limitations. The Ramayana upholds hierarchies in the sense that it is Rama who kills the strongest of all demons, Ravana – and all the monkeys assist Him in subordinate roles. But the Ramayana also upends hierarchies in that Rama empowers Hanuman to do singularly spectacular feats such as leaping across the ocean and carrying a hillock full of medicinal herbs over vast distances.
When we take up the mantle to serve God and receive His empowerment, that devotional reciprocation infuses our life with endless adventure. Indeed, surrender opens for us the door to the world of supreme adventure.