“One who thinks himself lower than the grass, who is more tolerant than a tree, and who does not expect personal honor yet is always prepared to give all respect to others can very easily always chant the holy name of the Lord." (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 17.26)
People in general don’t like to be told what to do or how to act. It is the nature of the living entity to want to be free and to act as it sees fit. Submitting ourselves to the instructions and counsel of others goes against our nature.
According to the Vedas, the material world is composed of five gross elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether, and three subtle elements: mind, intelligence, and false ego. The third subtle element is referred to as false ego rather than just a normal ego since it is the tendency of living entities to falsely think themselves proprietors of nature and the fruits of their labor. Everyone naturally has an ego, in that they think themselves to be the doers of their activities. In reality, we may cause our bodies to act, but results of such action are not determined by us. When someone gives us instruction or tries to teach us something, it directly attacks our false ego.
We generally think we are smart and know how to do everything. This sentiment exists in all stages of life, for we can all remember times in our youth when we thought our parents were unintelligent or even crazy. They would impose strict rules on us that never made any sense. We thought they were punishing us simply for their own amusement. They would yell at us for watching too much television or for staying out too late. Yet as we grew older, we realized that our parents were correct in their actions, for our behavior as children warranted such disciplinary measures. Even after realizing this however, we still have somewhat of a “know-it-all” attitude that manifests itself as self-esteem or self-confidence. We believe we can handle our own affairs and that we know the proper course of action in life. Because of this, we are stubborn in seeking help from others. The common stereotype for men is that they will not ask for directions when they get lost. Men will drive around for hours before they will finally admit to themselves that they don’t know the way.
“The spirit soul, bewildered by false ego (ahankara-vimudha), under the influence of the three modes of material nature, thinks himself to be the doer of activities, which are in actuality carried out by nature.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.27)
The Vedas recommend that we break out of this sense of false ego and turn it into a real ego. Our real ego is developed when we understand that Lord Krishna, or God, is responsible for all the workings of this creation. Along with His various energies, it is God who directs the events of the material world. We have no control over them. We shouldn’t falsely think ourselves to the proprietors of this world. Self-esteem isn’t a bad thing, but it should come from real knowledge and not that produced by the false ego. Understanding that Krishna is in charge of everything and not us, results in the highest form of self-esteem. In the Bhagavad-gita, this state of enlightenment is known as the brahma-bhutah platform. As the Lord says, one who reaches this stage gives up all his worries.
“One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman. He never laments nor desires to have anything; he is equally disposed to every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.” (Bg. 18.54)
When Lord Krishna advented on earth as Lord Rama many thousands of years ago in Ayodhya, He was ordered to spend fourteen years as an exile in the forest. Though He was the eldest son of the king, Rama was denied the royal throne due to the request of His step-mother, Kaikeyi. Instead of being installed as the new king, Lord Rama was ordered to leave the kingdom. His wife Sita, and younger brother Lakshmana, insisted on accompanying Him. As they were about to embark on their journey, Rama’s mother, Kausalya, reminded Sita to always remain by Rama’s side and to serve Him at all times. Kausalya was a very good mother; good enough to have God take birth as her son. So naturally she was worried about how He would fare in such austere conditions. She was also acting as a good mother-in-law by making sure that Sita was always adhering to her duties. In the Vedic system, once a girl is married, she then belongs to the family of her husband. Sita was much adored by Kausalya, for she treated her as her own daughter. There was never any friction between the two, unlike the stereotypical relationship between a wife and her mother-in-law.
“Hearing her mother-in-law’s words fraught with virtue and interest, Sita facing that lady, said with joined palms: ‘I will do all that the noble one says. I know how I should act by my husband. I have heard all about that (from my parents)’. (Sita Devi speaking to Kausalya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 39)
In response to Kausalya’s instructions, Sita made the above referenced statement. It may appear on the surface that Sita was being contentious in her response, thus making her a victim of the false ego, but that was actually not the case. Sita was the perfect devotee of God, so she already knew the proper code of conduct. In fact, Lord Rama tried very hard to get her to remain in the kingdom and not follow Him. Sita, however, made a passionate plea on her own behalf, citing scripture and other authority to buttress her position. Her statements were so perfect that Lord Rama was forced to allow her to come along. Sita required no instruction from anyone regarding the proper duties of a wife.
Though she kindly agreed to oblige Kausalya’s words, Sita also made it a point to remind everyone that she had already been taught all of this information by her parents when she was growing up. Sita was the daughter of Maharaja Janaka, the king of Mithila. Janaka was a great transcendentalist, very pious and known for being an expert yogi. Due to his great piety, he was rewarded with having the goddess of fortune herself, Sita Devi, appear as his daughter. Sita was his most prized possession, and he went to great lengths to make sure she had a proper upbringing. Like all great kings of that time, Janaka would regularly entertain great ascetics and brahmanas, or priests. Brahmanas are considered the highest class, so it is the duty of the rest of society to show them respect and take instruction from them. The brahmanas who would visit Janaka would always make sure to meet his daughter Sita and study her astrological attributes. It is customary in Vedic culture for parents to invite priests to their homes and ask them to give predictions on the future of their children. Along with fortunetelling, the brahmanas provided spiritual guidance to Sita’s parents, and the parents in turn passed those traditions and teachings down to Sita. In this way, she received a spiritual education equal to or greater than the education received by students attending gurukulas, or schools hosted at the house of a trained spiritual master or guru.
Sita Devi, a perfect devotee, showed respect to those who were worthy of it, namely Rama’s mother. She easily could have thought to herself, “Who is this person trying to lecture me? Doesn’t she know who I am and how great my devotion is?” Instead, she humbly joined her palms together and offered words of reassurance to her mother-in-law. This is proper conduct. However advanced we may become in our devotional service, we should always remember to show humility and respect to other devotees, our parents, and other elderly members of society. Sita loved Rama with all her heart and soul, and for this reason alone, she is worthy of our respect and adoration. It is in our best interests to follow the example she has set for us.