“O best among men, thus I was spoken to at that time by those greatly fortunate sages. O best among men, indeed for Your sake I have collected a variety of forest fruits which were growing on the banks of the Pampa Lake, O tiger among men.” (Shabari speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.17)
For those new to Vedic traditions, one of the first noticeable practices is the reverence shown to the spiritual master, or guru. We may be accustomed to worshiping God in our minds and offering Him our prayers, but followers of the Vedic tradition offer dandavats when approaching exalted personalities. Dandavats refers to falling on the ground like a rod, or danda, and it is the greatest sign of humility. This obeisance is offered not only in the presence of the guru, but also in the temple to the deity and to pictures of the guru. This style of surrender may seem off-putting to some, but it has a unique purpose. The spiritual master is the via-medium, the boatman who can rescue us from the ocean of misery. The guru has seen the light, and he is kind enough to show others what he has learned. His instructions are actually quite simple, but following through on them without reservation is not.
Since we are born ignorant and helpless, we have all followed the instructions of someone at some point in our lives. Parents guide us through the early years, so they usually remain our primary source of knowledge and instruction. The mother-daughter relationship is certainly unique. Fathers love to spend time with their sons and maybe pass along some words of advice, but the mothers take the role of teacher much more seriously when it comes to their daughters. Any good parent wants to one day marry off their daughter to a nice family, finding a husband who matches well with the daughter’s needs and desires. Once the girl leaves the family, she is technically on her own, so it is important that she be imbibed with the fundamentals of life and good values in her youth.
In the Vedic tradition, mothers teach their daughters how to survive in a marriage. Marriage is known as a religious institution, the grihastha ashrama. The husband and wife are to live together for the purpose of cultivating spiritual knowledge. It’s uncommon to find both the husband and wife dedicated to spirituality, so usually the burden falls upon only one of them. In modern times, it is common to see the women take charge of the day-to-day religious duties relating to the family. The wives make sure to perform arati [the offering of a lamp in front of the deity] in the home at least twice a day, offering and distributing prasadam at the same time. The deity shouldn’t be mistaken to be an idol. God is one, so He is the Supreme Lord for every single living entity in this world. Since we don’t have the eyes to see Him in our conditioned state, the Lord is kind enough to take other forms that are more conducive for worship. A person’s identity doesn’t change throughout their lifetime, but we see that we treat them differently depending on their current body. We treat a young child much differently than we treat an elderly person. We like to hold babies, kiss them, and make funny faces at them. We wouldn’t dare repeat the same behavior with the same children when they become adults. Therefore we can conclude that the childhood form of the living entity is the one most conducive for the offering of love.
In a similar manner, God is Absolute, but He takes certain forms that make it easier for the living entities to offer worship. The deity is an incarnation of God known as the archa-vigraha, or worshipable body. Deity worship can involve large statues and elaborate rituals, but it can also be very simple. In a typical Vaishnava family, one will find an altar set up somewhere in the home to allow family members to offer worship.
The women usually take charge of this process inside of family life. But where do they learn the correct procedures and prayers to be used in such worship? Where do they learn how to prepare the proper offerings such as ghee and panchamrita? Where do they learn the sacred formulas to chant? This information is taught to young girls by their mothers. When these girls get married and eventually have their own daughters, they then pass down the same information. In this way, we see that the women of the Vedic tradition have their own parampara, or disciplic succession.
Mothers teaching their daughters is but one example of the guru-disciple relationship. This system only works when there is humble submission. What’s interesting to note is that the instructions given are usually quite simple. A good teacher will stick to a few key points and focus on them. The disciple in this relationship doesn’t have to be a close friend, family member, or one of a higher caste. It can be anyone who is in need of help. The guru is willing to help anyone who is sincerely interested in reforming themselves. An example of this mercy was seen with the great Narada Muni a long long time ago. The Vedas tell us that the bona fide spiritual master is one who is completely devoted to Lord Krishna, or God. This means that they are free from all other defects and desires. Sometimes someone will seriously take up religious life, but since they have accumulated so many attachments from their material life, their devotional life will be mixed. They may enjoy worshiping God, but at the same time, they’ll have other material causes they will spend their time on. The best spiritual master is one who has completely given up all hopes of happiness in material life. Krishna is one who is all-attractive, thus His devotees receive all the happiness they need through associating with Him. Since Krishna provides the highest form of happiness, devotees have no reason to look for happiness anywhere else.
What’s so wonderful about Krishna’s adherents is that they are not misers. They are liberated souls, but they are not content with just having Krishna for themselves. They know the Truth, so they are not afraid to tell it to others, especially those who are trapped in a miserable condition. Narada Muni is one of the most famous gurus in history. His disciples are the who’s who of transcendentalists. On one occasion, Narada was wandering through a forest when he saw a bunch of animals half-killed. They had been shot by a hunter and were on the verge of death. Narada approached the hunter and asked him why he was engaged in such abominable activity. “Either leave the animals alone or just kill them outright. Why are you letting them suffer?” The hunter replied that he was deriving enjoyment from this half-killing and that this was the way he was taught to hunt from his childhood.
Long story short, Narada advised the hunter to give up killing for a living and instead take to worship of Tulasi Devi, the sacred plant and beloved maidservant of Krishna. The hunter was a little worried though. If he gave up hunting and simply took to worshiping a plant, how would he eat? How would he survive? Narada told the hunter not to worry about it; that he would take care of all the arrangements. How kind is Narada Muni? Since the time of our youth, we are taught all these lessons in life about how to do things the right way and how we should be self-sufficient, but Narada didn’t discuss any of these details. He told the hunter to simply worship Tulasi Devi and not worry about anything else.
The hunter took his advice and, to his surprise, people came to see him, offering large quantities of food as a gift. Narada Muni had told the neighboring residents that a saintly man had come to the forest and was taking up worship of Tulasi Devi. The residents wanted to show respect to such a person, so they brought him more than enough food. And what was the result of this change in lifestyle? The hunter soon became so kindhearted that he would hop around instead of just walking. He didn’t want to hurt a single ant on the ground. This shows the true power of a spiritual master. Following their simple instructions, one can go from being a ruthless hunter to the most harmless person.
“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.26)
Many thousands of years ago, Lord Krishna incarnated on earth as a handsome prince named Rama. During one period in His life, the Lord was roaming the forests with His younger brother Lakshmana. At the time, a great female sage by the name of Shabari was also residing in the forest. As mentioned before, women in the Vedic tradition are usually trained up to be devoted wives, caretakers of the family. Shabari, however, was an ascetic, so she transcended all the rules and regulations of material life. She was dedicated to asceticism, and as a reward, her spiritual guides gave her instructions on how to achieve liberation from the cycle of birth and death. They told her that Lord Rama was coming to visit her soon and that she should welcome Him hospitably and offer Him nice food to eat.
In the above referenced statement, Shabari is explaining what her gurus taught her and how she was following their advice. We should take note of the type of offering she made to Rama, that of fruits and berries of the forest. Living the life of a brahmana, Shabari was non-violent by nature and also renounced, so she had no possessions. In this case, what could she offer God? Based on the results of her action, we can see that her offering to Rama was first class. Lord Rama was greatly pleased with her hospitality, and He granted her liberation from the cycle of birth and death as a reward. Shabari ascended to the imperishable spiritual planets after meeting Rama.
How was Lord Rama satisfied with some wild fruits? After all, Rama and Lakshmana were accustomed to eating meat. God transcends any and all material designations, but when He comes to earth, He plays the part of a person belonging to a specific class of society. Rama and Lakshmana were members of the kshatriya caste, i.e. they were warriors and administrators by trade. In those times, kshatriyas were allowed to kill certain animals as a way of practicing their fighting skills. As a result, they also ate meat from time to time. We shouldn’t mistake this type of meat eating with the modern day practice of slaughterhouses. All the animals killed by Rama and Lakshmana were offered up in a religious sacrifice prior to eating. This means that the souls of the animals were promoted to a higher species in the next life.
Though Rama and Lakshmana ate meat, we see that Shabari’s spiritual guides didn’t advise her to kill any animals. On the contrary, they told her to gather whatever she could and then offer it with love and devotion. This is the most important factor in religious life. God is the most fortunate; He has all the wealth in the world. So what need does He have for our wealth? He’s not looking for quantity, but quality. Offering whatever we have at our disposal with love and devotion is enough to make the Lord happy.
Lord Chaitanya gave all the people of this age the simplest formula for achieving success in spiritual life. He advised everyone to simply chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, as often as possible. Lord Chaitanya was a perfect spiritual master and, being an incarnation of Krishna, He also empowered future generations of disciples to offer spiritual guidance to mankind. Anyone can follow this simple formula of chanting God’s names and eating Krishna prasadam. There is no loss on our part, and as we saw with the examples of the hunter and Shabari, by following the guru’s instructions, all other issues in life are taken care of automatically.