Who is qualified for spiritual life? Only brāhmaṇas? Or sannyāsīs, or human beings, scholars, or Indians!? – Whether one is a man or a woman, householder or a renunciant, Indian or an American, aristocratic or underprivileged, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, child or an elder, human being or an animal, everyone is a child of God and is spiritual. Therefore, to love God and serve God is the innate characteristic (dharma) of every living being.
BHAKTI IS NOBODY’S MONOPOLY
Bhakti or devotional service unto God is the art of the heart. It is characterized by one’s deep love for God and selfless service attitude. Bhakti is not the monopoly of any caste, creed, gender, species, nationality, or any other material considerations. Certain facilities like living conditions, family, association, education, upbringing, and so on, could be favourable for bhakti. But not having such external background is not a disqualification to connect with God. Any individual who has a sincere desire to selflessly serve God can do so. Such a devotee gets all support and intelligence from the Lord Himself who is always eager to bestow His mercy.
The universal history presents several examples of devotees from various unimaginable backgrounds, who attained the spiritual world by associating with pure devotees. Garuḍa was an eagle, but he became the great bird carrier of Lord Viṣṇu. Gajendra was an elephant, yet he offered fervent prayers to Lord Hari, who came to rescue him from a crocodile. Dhruva was just a five-year-old child, yet by his determined devotional practices, he attained the darśana of Lord Viṣṇu within six months. Prahlāda was born as a demon, yet for his sake, the Supreme Lord appeared in a unique form of half-man and half-lion as Nṛsiṁha and saved him. Prahlāda’s grandson Bali was the king of demons, yet he received unprecedented mercy from Vāmanadeva, who became his doorkeeper. Other demons who attained the Lord’s abode include Vṛtrāsura, Vṛṣaparvā, Bāṇāsura, and Maya. The fruit vendor who affectionately offered handful of fruits to little Kṛṣṇa and received a basketful of jewels was a simple aborigine woman. The gopīs of Vṛndāvana were simple cowherd girls, yet because of their deep love and service, they are the topmost devotees of Kṛṣṇa. Kubjā was a maidservant of Kaṁsa, but even by a small service, Kṛṣṇa blessed her with a beautiful form and His association.
As Śrīmad Bhāgavatam (2.7.46) teaches us, even sinful people, cave-dwellers, birds and beasts can know the science of God. In the Uddhava-gīta (SB 11.12.3-4), Lord Kṛṣṇa personally says that even those who are entangled in the modes of passion and ignorance can attain the Lord’s supreme abode, by the association of His devotees.
WHO CAN BE A FRIEND OF LORD RĀMA?
Rāmāyaṇa, the story of Lord Śrī Rāmacandra, is filled with examples of great devotees from various backgrounds, who selflessly served Lord Rāma. Even sage Vālmīki who wrote Rāmāyaṇa was formerly a hunter, but he became a transcendental author of the Lord’s pastimes, by the mercy of great devotees. When Lord Rāma went on vanavāsa or exile, a tribal man named Guha treated Him with deep love and helped Him cross a river. Rāma considered Guha His dear friend. When Sītādevī was being kidnapped by cruel Rāvaṇa, a vulture named Jaṭāyu courageously fought with Rāvaṇa and even lost his life in the battle. Later, Rāma performed Jaṭāyu’s funeral rites as a son does for his departed father. When Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa were searching for Sītādevī, an old ascetic lady named Śabari welcomed Rāma with deep affection. To test the quality of berries, she tasted them first and then offered them to Rāma, who ate them happily reciprocating with her intense and innocent love.
Sugrīva was a monkey, but became a dear friend of Rāma and engaged his monkey soldiers in searching Sītadaevī and assisting Rāma in His war with Rāvaṇa. Jāmbavān was a bear, who also served Rāma in various ways. A squirrel assisted Rāma in making the magnificent stone bridge across the ocean of Laṅkā, by gathering small pebbles and sand particles. Vibhīṣaṇa was a demon, and directly the brother of Rāvaṇa, but he was an ardent devotee of Rāma, who accepted him as His friend. Hanumān was a monkey, yet he was the supreme amongst all the servants of Lord Rāma. He found Sītādevī in Laṅkā and immensely served Rāma in the hair raising battle with Rāvaṇa.
In this way, Rāmāyaṇa proves that a monkey, a vulture, a bear, a squirrel, a woman, a demon, a tribal, or anyone can serve the Lord if only they have a pure heart filled with love for Him. In the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam (5.19.7), Sugrīva declares this as follows:
na janma nūnaṁ mahato na saubhagaṁ
na vāṅ na buddhir nākṛtis toṣa-hetuḥ
tair yad visṛṣṭān api no vanaukasaś
cakāra sakhye bata lakṣmaṇāgrajaḥ
“One cannot establish a friendship with the Supreme Lord Rāmacandra based on material qualities such as one’s birth in an aristocratic family, one’s beauty, one’s eloquence, one’s sharp intelligence, or one’s superior race or nation. None of these qualifications is a prerequisite for friendship with Lord Śrī Rāmacandra. Otherwise, how is it possible that although we uncivilized inhabitants of the forest have not taken noble births, although we have no physical beauty and although we cannot speak like gentlemen, Lord Rāmacandra has nevertheless accepted us as friends?”
THE MOST TRUSTED SERVANT
Hanumān’s service to Lord Rāmacandra was unparalleled and His deep devotion to Rāma was unexcelled. Hanuman was an incredible combination of efficiency, etiquette, intelligence, and balance. He was well-versed in Vedas. For centuries, Hanumān has been the favourite character in Rāmāyaṇa for all kinds of audience, whether men or women and children or elders.
The most beautiful section of Rāmāyāṇa is Sundarakāṇḍa that describes the valorous deeds of Hanumān in detail. When Rāma and Sītā were in lamentation due to separation from each other, Hanumān brings hope in their lives by giving information to both of them about their beloved. Hanumān’s journey from Rāma to Sītā and from Sītā back to Rāma was an amazing journey from hopelessness to hope. And this is the subject matter of Sundarakāṇḍa, which is sundara or beautiful in all respects. While Rāma was the hero of Rāmāyaṇa, Hanumān was the hero of Sundarakāṇḍa, by the grace of Lord Rāma. After all, the Lord loves to see His devotees being glorified more than Himself.
Sugrīva had sent Hanumān with Jambavān, Nīla, Aṅgada, and other monkeys to search for Mother Sītā in the southern direction. For finding Sītā, Sugrīva considered Hanumān to be the most capable, because Hanumān had super-human strength, and he was courageous, intelligent, and resourceful. Rāma also became convinced that Hanumān would find His beloved wife, and handed His ring to Hanumān, saying, “My name is inscribed on it. When you locate Sītā, give her this ring. She will then become convinced that you are My representative.”
HOPE IN A HOPELESS SITUATION
Hanumān’s party searched for Sīta everywhere until they reached the shore of the ocean, but they couldn’t find her. Disappointed, they all decided to fast until death. Losing hope is the greatest impediment in one’s life. Unfortunate are not those who face difficulties or lack facilities, but those who have lost hope. Bringing hope to the monkeys, a great vulture named Sampātī, who was Jaṭāyu’s brother, spotted them and told them that Sītādevī was in Rāvaṇa’s abode Laṅkā on the other side of the ocean. The monkeys became hopeful and overjoyed by hearing about Mother Sīta.
Another wave of disappointment overwhelmed the monkeys as they saw the expanse of the ocean. No one felt confident to jump across the 100 yojanas wide ocean (one yojana is 8 miles). Seeing the monkeys’ dejection, Aṅgada said that despondency is the root cause of failure, and asked whoever was ready to leap 100 yojanas to rescue Sītā to step forward. Some monkeys said that they could jump 10 yojanas, or 20, 30, 40, and so on. Aṅgada claimed to jump even 100 yojanas but he was doubtful if he could do it a second time to return.
Jāmbavān then said, “Don’t worry. We have Hanumān who is equal to Garuḍa. I consider him alone to be capable of executing our mission.” Jambavān glorified Hanumān in various ways reminding him of his extraordinary strength. Everyone glorifies Hanumān for crossing the ocean of Laṅkā, but it was Jāmbavān who inspired Hanumān to do it. Similarly, a guru is the one who identifies the strength in disciples and inspires and encourages them to engage in the service of the Lord accordingly. Genuine appreciation empowers, encourages, and strengthens a person while fault-finding disempowers, discourages, and weakens one’s determination. Unnecessary fault-finding makes the faults true even if they didn’t exist before.
Being thus encouraged, Hanumān began to expand himself into a gigantic form. To encourage the despondent monkeys, he spoke of his own glories, “I can go around Mount Meru a thousand times without pausing. By splashing the ocean waters I could inundate the entire world. I could circumambulate Garuḍa thousand times as he flies in the sky. I can uproot the entire city of Laṅkā.” All the monkeys were thrilled. Sometimes to give much-needed reassurance to a dejected person, a wise person could boast about one’s powers, but without false pride. That induces hope and confidence in the discouraged hearts.
The same Hanumān, when he met Sītā in Laṅkā, encouraged her differently. Sītā wondered if it would be possible for the monkeys to cross the ocean and reach Laṅkā. To reassure her, Hanumān said, “All the monkeys in Sugrīva’s army are equal or superior to me. Surely they will all easily reach Laṅkā. It is only inferior persons like myself that are sent as messengers. Please give up all your doubts for good.” Hanumān, who boasted of his prowess before crossing the ocean to give hope to the monkeys, downplayed his prowess to give hope to Sītādevī after crossing the ocean. These two cases might seem contradictory, but in both cases, Hanumān’s purpose was to encourage and reassure the despondent devotees of the Lord. This is how a mature devotee induces hope in others.
DON’T BE TEMPTED BY COMFORTS
Hanumān offered obeisances to Vāyu (his father), Sūrya (his teacher), and Indra before jumping. A humble person offers respect to great souls seeking their blessings for the success of one’s mission. Hanumān then drew his breath and suddenly sprang into the air like an arrow shot from the bow of Lord Rāma.
As Hanumān soared through the sky the ocean deity desired to assist him and ordered Mount Maināka to rise above the water and provide a resting place to Hanumāṇ. Previously, Indra placed Maināka mountain inside the ocean to obstruct the demons from traveling to the earth from the nether regions. Now with the order of the ocean god, Maināka rose, stood on his own summit, and spoke to Hanumān, “I request you to stop awhile and accept my hospitality.” Completely focussed on his mission with one-pointed attention, Hanumān replied, “Please excuse me. My time is very short. I cannot dare stop to accept your hospitality.” When time is short and the goal is yet to be achieved, one should not accept comforts that dampen one’s determination and enthusiasm. So, Hanumān politely rejected Maināka’s proposal, and respectfully touched him and proceeded in his mission.
DON’T GIVE INTO EGOISTIC COMPETITION
As Hanumān continued on his journey, a huge demoness named Surasā, the mother of the Nāgas, emerged from the ocean blocking his path. She told Hanuman, “I have a benediction from Lord Brahmā that I can eat whatever comes in front of me. O great monkey, now you should enter my gaping mouth.” Hanumān said, “I am on a mission to find Lord Rāma’s kidnapped wife Sītādevī. After finding her and reporting back to Rāma I shall return to you and enter your mouth.” But Surasā demanded that Hanumān enters her mouth at once, and opened her mouth 10 yojanas wide to block his path. Hanumān also expanded his body 10 yojanas wide to challenge her. Surasā then expanded her mouth to 20 yojanas and Hanumān expanded his body to 30 yojanas. In this way, they both continued to expand, and when Surasā expanded her mouth to 100 yojanas, Hanumān at once shrank to the size of a thumb, entered her mouth and quickly came out saying, “Now the condition of your benediction has been fulfilled. Please let me continue my journey.” Surasā was impressed and delighted. Assuming her normal size, she spoke affectionately, “Dear Hanumān, you are very intelligent. The demigods sent me to test you. I bless you, may you be successful in the service to Lord Rāma.”
Sometimes when we clarify our goals to others who try to impede us, they will try to provoke us. But a wise person doesn’t get into any unnecessary argument or competition with such people. One must show timely intelligence and presence of mind. Hanumān cleverly satisfied Surasā without obstructing his mission. Even a hard-hearted person becomes mild and soft when he sees humility in the opponent. It’s not necessary to respond to every challenge or provocation. One need not prove one’s power in front of others in every situation. Sometimes, by not exhibiting one’s strength or skill, one could get better results. While an egoistic person always tries to prove one’s superiority over others, a humble person exhibits one’s powers only when necessary.
As Hanumān sored through the sky on his way, suddenly, he could not move further. He first thought that he was losing his strength. But he later noticed a huge ghastly creature emerging from the sea. She was a Rākṣasi named Siṁhikā who grabbed the shadow of Hanumān. Siṁhikā rushed towards Hanumān with her wide-opened mouth to swallow him. Hanumān expanded his body but realized that her mouth is still wide enough. The sharp-witted Hanumān then reversed his strategy and suddenly shrank himself into a tiny form and entered Siṁhikā’s mouth, tore off her heart to pieces, and came out of her body. He then resumed his expanded size and continued on his journey. As Siṁhikā fell dead into the water, the celestial beings glorified Hanumān for his victory. Siṁhikā represents envy. Envy chokes our progress and makes us lose our strength. One has to destroy this envy just as Hanumān did.
In this way, Hanumān crossed all obstacles and reached the city of Laṅkā. Even after his eventful jump of 100 yojanas, Hanumān didn’t feel slightly tired because his heart was filled with love for Lord Rāma, and his body, mind, and intelligence were focused on his service to Rāma. Bhakti is never tiring. When devotional service is performed with a selfless intention, for the pleasure of the Lord, there is no possibility of boredom or exhaustion, despite many difficulties. Just as Hanumān faced several impediments in his eventful jump in the form of comfort-providing Maināka, determination-testing Surasā and envious Siṁhikā, he could successfully accomplish his mission. Similarly, a sādhaka or a practitioner of bhakti may struggle with various anarthas (unwanted habits and mentalities), still, one is not exhausted in this struggle due to the innate nourishment available in the Lord’s service. Later Hanumān found Sītādevī and consoled her. He burnt the golden city of Laṅkā and came back to Lord Rāma and gave Him the good news of Sītā’s whereabouts. Rāma lovingly embraced Hanumān for his exceptional service.
Obstacles are obstacles only when we see them so, but when we see the merciful nature of the Lord and His greatness, all obstacles seem insignificant. The Lord’s empowerment and blessings can equip even monkeys, bears, vultures, and squirrels to accomplish unimaginable missions. So there is no need to be proud of being a human being with a so-called high birth, but one must learn to take pride in the glory of the Lord whose mercy is beyond all external considerations of caste, creed, gender, species and so on.